“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
–J. R. R. Tolkien, from The Return of the King
Part of me has already said good-bye to my dear friend, Patrick, in the two years since his diagnosis of brain cancer.
Part of me never will.
Paddy died yesterday morning in peace and surrounded by love, especially his mother, his wife, and their 3-year-old daughter. His passing brings grief to all of us who were blessed to call him friend. But I want to talk about how he lived, not that he died, because it is his living that changed me and impacted so many.
I met Paddy in college. A month before he had his first seizure that indicated the presence of glioblastoma multiforme, I wrote to him:
“I was searching through some really old e-mails yesterday and discovered a bunch that we had sent to each other in 2003-ish. An online spirit support group. They made me smile and miss your voice (in writing or otherwise). It has been a long time since we have talked! Marriage, children, careers, establishing new homes in new places: these things take our time, and rightly so. Still, just wanted to say that no matter how much time passes between our connections, you will always be one of my very kindred spirits.”
Paddy’s spirit left this earth far, far too soon. The best I can say I have already written, in a letter for his daughter; our college friends combined our letters and photos into a book for her, that she may someday know her dad.
When I think of your dad, I hear his laugh. If he finds something funny, his infectious “heh-HAH!” bubbles up from his deep well of humor, and he rocks back and forth, slowly clapping his hands as the guffaws roll.
When I think of your dad, I see his blue eyes, crinkled at the edges over his ear-to-ear smile or focused intently and earnestly on whomever is speaking. His eyes indicate his desire for understanding, his immense compassion, and his ability to be fully present.
When I think of your dad, I think of this quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
“The creeks…are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation…The mountains…are a passive mystery, the oldest of all…Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”
When I think of your dad, I remember how he taught me to climb trees. I grew up as a city kid whose parents thought that trees around our house were dangerous, that woods were only a gathering place for illicit parties and a receptacle for broken bottles. At Middlebury, and later at Queechee and Plymouth and Great Barrington, I followed his lead, clumsily straining my arms to pull myself up onto branches the way he did so effortlessly. Once there, I understood why he loved this new perspective, being cradled in the arms of a tree after using muscle and grit and strategy to gain altitude, and looking out at the world through the leaves.
When I think of your dad, I remember how he played: tennis, soccer, skiing, biking, frisbee, hiking, running, swimming. I’m sure you know how he loved the outdoors–even at our New Year’s gathering in Great Barrington, before dinner we spent an hour or more on the basketball court near his house, slipping on the ice and playing basketball in the dark and frigid air. One of my favorite memories of senior spring at Middlebury is our hike up Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks. I was a pretty novice hiker, nervous about the slippery trail downhill, and he guided me all the way down, encouraging and offering a hand. Earlier that spring, he and Maya brought me swimming in the Middlebury River; I watched them splash in, buoyant and energized by the icy water. I leaped in, nearly had a heart attack at the shock of cold, and got out in minutes. He seemed so at home in the water: cold or warm, creek or ocean.
When I think of your dad, I remember our thoughtful conversations about spirituality, love, ambition. He introduced me to the writings of Terry Tempest Williams, Henri Nouwen, Wendell Berry. In 2003, he started a Spirit Circle with me, Jen Crystal, Elise, and later Maya: an e-mailed discussion of our lives, our struggles, our successes, our questions. How to change the world without ruining ourselves. How to make a difference–a real, systemic difference as well as personal difference. We talked about self-improvement. About how run-down we felt as young adults, eager to do good: save the environment, help children, advocate for the voiceless and powerless. How we weren’t sure we could sustain the level of energy we thought that goal required. I am happy to share any of his e-mails with you.
When I think of your dad, I feel his generous spirit, exemplified in his strong-armed bear hugs. He and his family opened their homes to all of us: we were not only welcome; we were family. He danced with me on my wedding day and became friends with my husband Alan. When I went through an emotional crisis, your dad sent me messages of hope and support and love. I hope we have been able to lift him up throughout his life in the same way he has lifted us.
When I think of your dad, I think about the work he has done: for Senator Houghton, for Orion, for the Aspen Institute. He has used his God-given gifts well: his gifts of thoughtful criticism, intellect, compassion, creativity.
Your dad lived the spirit of radical amazement: that constant state of wonder and gratitude that all of us aspire to.
Paddy was a fundamental part of my journey into becoming myself: that passage from teenager to adulthood defined by our passions, our failings, our experiences, risks, and loves. He taught me by being himself: asking thoughtful questions, living joyfully and in thanksgiving. It seems trite to say that all who knew him loved him, but I think that is the case for Paddy. His spirit of light shone through and illuminated the best in each of us.
I visited him and his family in Colorado last summer and processed a small part of his journey of illness with them. His wife, C., did what for me is unimaginable: helped her husband and best friend cope with dying while caring for their young daughter. C. poured out her grace, love, and strength to sustain her family through this most challenging time. Hers is a beautiful, courageous spirit, and I honor her here as I honor him.
C. helped him walk that part of his journey so that he could truly live every day of his life. He died with dignity, grace, faith, and above all, love.
This is what he wrote in an e-mail on Dec. 12, 2008:
“I wanted you to know that my beloved uncle…died last Thursday, and it has put everything else on hold. I flew home Tuesday, for the funeral Wednesday. It’s so extraordinarily sad. And yet, as always – the love rises up, covers the grief, rises above it – abounding, overflowing, covering us in light.”
Some recent winners in the cooking department:
Sweet Potato Chickpea Buddha Bowl (perfect for kids: tons of toppings to choose from, and they can eat every item “plain” while you toss it all together with the yummy tahini sauce)
Roast Pork with Apple and Mustard Glaze (takes about 2 hours but is sooooo delicious, especially with the crispy top)
Roast Pork with Braised Leeks (also takes about 2 hours–no crispy top but plenty of buttery braised leeks to provide sauce)
Vegan Polenta (I ignored the tomato-based toppings and just made the polenta)
Coconut-Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies (gluten-free and OMG delicious!)
Vegan Pumpkin Cheesecake (relatively easy and not as pumpkin-y as I’d like, but if you ever have vegan guests, you could wow them with this. I used a silicone muffin pan without liners and they popped right out once frozen. Also: much, much better topped with chocolate chips.)
Finally: A recipe based on soup from one of my favorite cafes, Chaco Canyon. Their Egyptian Red Lentil Soup was so amazing, hearty, and perfect for winter that I tried making it at home, and even if it’s not an exact replica, it’s pretty darn good.
Egyptian Red Lentil Soup
adapted from Chaco Canyon Cafe
- oil for pot
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 4 stalks celery, chopped
- ~1 cup carrots, chopped
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- pinch nutmeg
- pinch turmeric
- 2 cups red lentils
- 6 cups chicken or veggie broth
- 1 Tbsp. or so lemon juice
- salt to taste
- Saute onions, celery, carrots, and garlic in oil till mostly soft.
- Add spices and stir for 1 minute.
- Add lentils and broth. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 min.
- Stir in lemon juice and salt.
There’s so much going on these days. Here’s a snippet:
- My favorite time of day is a bit after 7 am (on days I’m not working): “Mommy? Mama, can I snuggle with you?” Yes. Yes, you can, kiddo. These drowsy half-light cuddly moments go straight into my heart to be held as I hold you against my chest.
- Two weeks ago: “Mommy, I peed in the tub.” Last night: “Mommy, I pooped in the tub.” Two different kids, same cause: laughing too hard with a sibling. At least it wasn’t intentional. Not like our cat, who apparently deliberately peed on our bathmat and then any subsequent towel on the bathroom floor until we went textile-free.
- One of my students had a small typo in a recent essay. This student laughed for five minutes after getting it back, and let me take a picture of it. (P.S. The intended word was “shift.”)
- The other best part of my day is when I come home from work and the living room explodes with voices and small bodies hurtling toward me to wrap themselves around my knees.
- Things have been crazy and busy but…feeling manageable-ish. If that’s not a word, it should be.
- We started kindergarten open houses this week. A few months ago, I was feeling anxious and overwhelmed; now I just feel excited. Any of our options (all in our city’s public school system) will be great. This hearkens back to one of the best pieces of advice I ever got: when I was about to graduate from college and had a one-way ticket to California with many applications in but no interviews lined up, I worried and worried about what would happen and was I crazy? and what if-what if-what if? My friend and sort-of mentor Paul (who also later officiated at our wedding!) said, “Who says you have to stay forever? If it’s not working out, you can change it. Come home.” It was radically soothing to me, who somehow thought that if I failed somehow, that I was doomed to a life of failure. He helped me see that a choice–even a turning-point choice like graduating and moving across the country–did not have to be the last choice. I see kindergarten the same way: if the school we choose isn’t working, we can change it next year.
- We had a spontaneous play date with some of the kids’ preschool classmates, and it was so fun watching them play with friends other than each other.
- I love this quote from Hot Cakes in Ballard (and I love that a cafe dedicated to molten chocolate cakes exists at all, much less ten minutes from me).
- I cleaned out the van tonight. Just picking up trash and recycling, not even vacuuming. Here are some of the items I found (after this, I didn’t even open the trunk):
- parking stickers
- Callie’s vet paperwork. From April 2015.
- an almond
- special sticks
- more Cheerios
- a hair clip
- special rocks
- popcorn bits
- more Cheerios
- approximately 1 box worth of used tissues
- granola bar wrappers
- One of our children has been a particular pill, especially when tired (and therefore at bedtime). I have been working really, REALLY hard at not blowing up at this kid. Because most of this kid’s antics come from where? Oh, you know–me, when I was a kid. Karma, man.
- Some great stuff I’ve been viewing / listening to: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (holy smokes, that was powerful–and sad to think that not much has really changed in the intervening 50+ years since its publication); the Okee Dokee Brothers’ albums (my favorite is Can You Canoe?); Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin; Taylor Mali’s spoken-word poetry, my friend Jen’s blog about living with chronic Lyme.
And finally: today while I drove home, hail pelted my windshield while sunny blue skies beckoned to the south, and on Tuesday, this appeared as I drove out of the parking lot (I pulled over to take the picture; don’t worry Dad). For all my friends and family members who need a rainbow, I send this to you:
I visited you two days before Christmas Eve, when the rest of those who celebrate Advent were waiting for a child to arrive.
Advent is all about waiting, but not the kind of agitated anticipation that precedes Santa’s arrival. It’s the kind of waiting that is a watchful, prayerful expectation.
In this way, our family was waiting and watching too. Witnessing your decline.
In your hospital bed in the nursing home, I watched you sleep. You looked so much like your older sister Marcie. The cannula fed you oxygen, helping you breathe slowly but regularly.
I held your warm, thin hand, so strong from years of cooking and gardening and hard work. I didn’t want to wake you, but I shouldn’t have worried. You didn’t wake up the whole time I was there.
My uncle B and aunt C joined me after their work days. B came every day to sit and hold your hand for an hour or two.
I thought of my dad sitting with his mother, my Nana, every Sunday for over twelve years as Alzheimer’s has taken over her brain. Of my husband who will care for his mother. Of my brother who will care for our mom. Of my son who someday, I hope, will do the same for me.
I hugged my uncle and told him he deserved a medal.
He shrugged. “It’s what families do.”
I shook my head. “Not every family.”
“It’s what our family does.”
Grandma, I did not understand until I was an adult and had more intimate knowledge of other families that our family is not the norm. I took for granted that you and Grandpa raised four deeply loyal children who married and raised eight deeply loyal grandchildren. I did not know what an incredible gift this is.
Our family had clambakes in the driveway at your house. Kids ran in the yard while adults chatted in folding lawn chairs. My cousins and I rode on the glider swing, played with antique dolls in equally antique baby carriages, ate Saltines stored in the side cabinet of the gas oven. We put real butter on our snowflake rolls and corn on the cob.
Your love for each of us was fierce and as unyielding as your legendary stubbornness (a trait that continues in my daughter with your name). You hugged us tightly, kissed us hard and left lipstick on our cheeks. When we became adults, you prayed novenas for us. You sent me prayer cards and statues of saints when I was having a hard time. You made sure that we never forgot that we were beloved, not for our accomplishments or talents, but for who we were: yours.
On Christmas Eve near midnight, as fireworks crackled near my parents’ house and kids all over listened intently for reindeer hooves, you went home.
I am not sad exactly–mostly grateful that I had the opportunity to witness a small part of your dying, to say part of the rosary (out-of-practice as I am) and to tell you that it was okay, that you could let go. Grateful to be present as your spirit gathered itself to return to the Spirit.
Later this week we will gather together again, just as we do every Christmas Eve and for college sporting events and graduations. We will say goodbye, but you are not fully gone. You are part of us, as we were part of you, and we carry you with us.
This is what our family does.
Thank you for that.
This blog has come to be a way for me to process Big Things on my heart. Which is not bad, but is not necessarily what I intended it for. So here are some unadulterated good moments, most of the courtesy of my nearly four-and-a-half-year-olds.
- Tonight Audrey wrapped an arm around my neck as I knelt by her bed and said, “I wish you could stay here with me forever.”
- The other night when Theresa woke up to use the potty, she said as I carried her back to bed, “I love you love you love you.”
- This morning during snuggle time (i.e. awake kids but not-so-awake parents), I told Jamie I was close to falling off the bed. He grabbed my hand and held onto it. When Audrey asked him to play a game, he said, “No, I have to get Mom.”
- A couple of weeks ago: a beautiful sunny, long-shadowed, late afternoon. A small hill at the park. Audrey and Jamie starting at the top and racing down as I held my arms open for them to launch into. Love and trust in motion.
- The things they say to be silly:
- “und-bareless” (going commando); “pants-bareless” (unds but no pants); “und-pant-bareless” (you figure it out)
- Banana and Bampy! (or, Dad, they started a new one: Fumpy)
- “festible” and “tobbler”
- “zoofing” (sliding down a bannister)
- Recent good events:
- Visit from Nana and Grampy
- Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium with Adam and Andrea
- Ellie’s second birthday party (with the very thoughtful vegan cupcake provided for me)
- Theresa-mommy day at the Seattle Aquarium
- Thank-you e-mail from a former student
I am also grateful for: poetry, working with my students on their college application essays, finding time to bond with friends, making two different kinds of stuffing for Thanksgiving, goat cheese, train sets, yoga, cocktails, fleece pants, polar bears, Saturday night dancing to The Swing Years and Beyond.
Halloween night: the neighbor opened the door, holding a bowl of candy. Instead of “Trick or treat!”, Audrey said, “I like chocolate.” After receiving her treat and heading back toward the sidewalk, she cried, “Next house!”
Audrey: When you die, do you go to heaven?
Me: Yes. Why do you ask?
A: I want to go there.
Me: You will, but not for a long time.
A: You don’t walk; you float there.
Me: You think so?
A: Yeah, because there’s no gravity up there.
Theresa, whisking something we’re baking: I’m an expert. I’m such a good whisker.
Me: I like it that you like cooking with me.
T: I like it that you help.
Theresa, pretending to be a turtle: My shell popped!
Me: Oh no!
T: I fixed it! With magic. And super glue!
Jamie, as it gets dark: The owls will come out now. Because they’re nocturnal. Like my godfather. [My brother works the night shift.]
Jamie: Will I get married when I’m bigger?
Me: Maybe. Some people do, and some people don’t.
J: Will I get a cupcake after I get married?
Me: Yes. [Pause] Do you know why people get married?
Me: Because they love each other.
J: I love Audrey, so when we get bigger, we can get married to each other.
[Also, Audrey wants to marry Cleo, and Theresa wants to marry Grandma Beth.]
* * *
Our kids’ preschool celebrated the feast of St. Martin of Tours with a lantern walk and release of sky lanterns into the twilight. In reflecting on recent acts of terrorism and responses of fear and rejection, I send my love and kindness into the twilight too. This answer comes back to me again and again:
Always More Love.
I haven’t written anything in weeks. There are so many things to say.
I want to talk about gun control. And gendered marketing and labeling. I want to talk about how sweet and funny all my kids are–my own children and my students. I want to talk about aging. And grief.
Instead, I’m coming back to kindness as a starting point for all these other things.
I’ve been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, Carla Naumburg’s Parenting in the Present Moment (which is fantastic and brilliant and, total disclaimer, written by my college friend), and Anthony DeMello’s Sadhana: A Way to God, and all of the mindfulness, meditative exercises return to the concept of lovingkindness.
On the other hand, here’s a quote that came across my Facebook page recently:
I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.
And I believe that. We can’t all wait around for everyone to finally agree on what justice for everyone looks like. Some people will never agree. Sometimes we need action. We need anger. We need energy to change a flawed system.
How do lovingkindness and action for justice work together?
I don’t know. So right now, I focus on these moments of kindness.
* * *
Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is to hold our tongues. I want to be right. I have something to prove. But instead, I’m going to keep those unnecessary comments in–which for me, takes a LOT of energy. But I’ve noticed that it’s worth it to withhold that kind of fuel for emotional fires.
* * *
In June, AAA called me because a man at the park I had been to with the kids called them, saying he had found my “AAA card and some other things.” When I realized my wallet had fallen out of my pocket there, I wondered how much of it I would get back, two and a half hours after leaving the playground.
All of it.
Huge props to Seamus and his dad for figuring out how to contact me, and waiting by the bench where I left it until I got there to claim it. They wouldn’t take anything more than a profuse “thank you.”
* * *
One Sunday this summer, Audrey and Jamie and I walked to church, leaving Alan with a very croupy Theresa. On the way, a neighbor we don’t know was having a garage sale.
With a nutcracker on the table blocking the sidewalk.
Audrey’s eyes went saucer. I asked the man how much.
“Ehhhh…two dollars,” he said.
I had 78 cents in my wallet.
“You going to church?” I nodded. “Just get me two bucks sometime.”
We rode bikes to a neighborhood playground today and dropped off a thank-you note with $2 enclosed in their mailbox.
* * *
Then I lost my parking ticket somewhere on the floor of our very messy car. I tried to show the attendant my receipt showing that I had returned an item at the store 30 minutes prior, hoping that would do something.
“Honey.” The attendant was firm but kind. “That don’t matter. Let me tell you something. If you lose your ticket, you’re supposed to pay the maximum fee. I’ll let you go this once, but hang on to that ticket next time, okay?”
In the midst of thanking her, she waved me through: “Just pay it forward.”
* * *
This note was scribbled in the margin of one of my student’s papers today: “I know you’re super busy but I was thinking we could make cookies for Jane’s [not her real name] family.” Jane’s mom is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Cookies don’t cure cancer. But they will show Jane and her family how much her friends are holding them in their hearts.
* * *
Dozens of people showed up to my cousin Kathy’s “comeback party” after she finished chemo and got the news she had fought for: cancer-free. We laughed and ate too many s’mores and listened to an amazing high school Celtic trio The Onlies and celebrated being part of Team Kathy.
* * *
I used to wonder why nuns or monks spent their lives in monasteries, some in silence, all in constant prayer. What good is that? Isn’t it better to be of use?
Now I think I understand. Prayer, compassion, witness–putting love into the world however and whenever we can–matters. It might not do great things. But these “small things with great love” (Mother Teresa) bring hope, light, gratitude–in other words, meaning–to our lives.
Next week I start teaching. My AP English Lit and Composition syllabus has been approved by the College Board. I got my College-in-the-High-School orientation and am now an adjunct faculty member at Edmonds CC. I applied for my professional certificate from Washington State.
Thus, I need good food. Food that will make me feel good, full, healthy. Food that will help heal my shoulder and wrist pain. Food that does not take forever (i.e. 30 minutes or more) to prepare on a weeknight.
Here we go.
Carrot Soup with Crisped Chickpeas and Lemon Tahini Drizzle (Wowza. From my idol of food blogging, Smitten Kitchen: I skipped the pita wedges and parsley garnish.
Caramelized Onions in the Crock-Pot (In the name of all that is holy, how have I not done this before? And, full disclosure: I wore Alan’s swim goggles while chopping all those onions.)
Roasted Chicken Breasts with Carrots and Onions (the chicken and veggies can dry out, so be willing to add stock or olive oil if you’re using a deeper pan, but otherwise, easy and delicious).
Shepherd’s Pie with sweet potato topping (subbed oregano for rosemary)
Crock-Pot Short Ribs Braised in Balsamic (short ribs? crock-pot? yes please)
Crispy Baked Tofu, to top Bun Bo
Vegan, Gluten-Free Buckwheat Pancakes (no really, these are good)
Roasted Root Vegetable Stew
adapted from Cooking Light
- 2 cups (1-inch) sliced peeled carrots
- 2 cups (1-inch) cubed peeled beets
- 1 cup (1-inch) cubed peeled turnips
- 1 cup (1-inch) sliced peeled parsnips
- 8 oz peeled shallot (about 12), cut roughly into 1-inch chunks
- 8 large garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 2 Tbsp. flour (I have used all-purpose, or whole wheat, or buckwheat)
- 2 tsp. minced fresh ginger
- 2 tsp. chopped fresh sage
- 3-5 cups vegetable stock (depending on if you puree, and how thick you like your puree)
- 3/4 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper
- 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, optional
- Preheat oven to 450 F.
- Combine first 7 ingredients on a baking sheet or in a large roasting pan, whichever fits. Bake at 450 for 30 minutes or until the biggest pieces are easily pierced with a fork.
- Place veggies in a large stock pot over medium heat with flour, ginger, and sage. Stir together and cook for 3 minutes. Add stock and bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes. Stir in salt and pepper.
- Optional: puree in a food processor or using an immersion blender. This turns the soup bright (beet!) red, and is pretty thick if only using 3 cups of stock; add more till the texture suits your needs.
This summer. Whew.
- I have spent time talking with a dear friend and his wife about his terminal illness.
- I have spent time keeping company with my cousin [technically first-cousin-once-removed] as she receives her chemo infusion.
- We have spent time saying goodbye to some special people who are leaving here for other good things in California, Calgary, and Knoxville, Tennessee.
- We have spent a LOT of time helping my mother-in-law pack and move here from another state, then unpack and adjust and figure out her new normal. Nearly every night after dinner is Help Strategy. It’s like a board game. But with real people with unpredictable and real problems, and not actually any fun.
Still, now that it is mid-August (where the heck did most of the summer go???), we have much to be grateful for.
- So many family visitors, including my whole family staying at our house for an amazing and memorable week. Special shout-out to Kirsten as she starts her year teaching in Japan!
- I got to meet and share stories with seven amazing twin mamas, plus my extra bonus of rocking, soothing, feeding, and diapering very small babies (and getting spit up on, drooled on, and pooped on). Man, I love babies, and man, are they hard.
- There have been days which feel normal and therefore blissful. A run that didn’t result in any of my body parts hurting. Watching them at swim class. Actually folding and putting away laundry. Time to make dinner. Time to make phone calls and respond to e-mails. An afternoon of two kids playing happily outside and one kid playing happily inside for almost two hours. Pinwheels. Bike riding. A pleasant dinner without utensils being thrown or bubbles being blown in milk or food spilling due to excessive silliness.
- Neighbors who make our lives so much better–like K, who set up a kiddie pool in her backyard even though her grandkids have long outgrown it, so my kids could splash and play and eat popcorn and I could have time in the house to myself. Our block party is one of the highlights of my summer.
Here are more good things, from June till now:
First Family Camping Trip! (At Larrabee State Park in Bellingham, overlooking Samish Bay)