When Your Face Feels Like Home

The 10 Year Challenge Redux*

“I think I’m going through an identity crisis,” my 14-year-old said on the way to church this morning. “I look at my face in a mirror, and I wonder who that person is. I talk, and my voice doesn’t sound like it should belong to my face. I think it’s strange that my friends look at this face and hear this voice and think it’s me. I don’t. I’m trying to find out who is me.”

That kid was me. And that story is how my mother started Chapter 8: A New Beginning—A New You in her book titled, Single Again, This Time With Children.  Even if she hadn’t memorialized my experience in print, I would still remember it. That same feeling came and went for more than half of my life.

In my twenties, when my hair was short and then, even shaved, I would give up jewelry for Lent. For a full six weeks, I would face the world unadorned with no earrings and minimal makeup. It was my attempt to give up vanity. My thinking was simple: this is what I look like. Nothing can change my face. I was learning to feel comfortable in my skin. But it took years. Decades.

Now my hair is slowly turning grey though friends say they can’t see it even when I point it out. My eyelids are drooping and there is some sagging in my neck. But the truth is, I look the same. I look like I’ve always looked.

I’ve heard women joke about Covid 15, meaning the fifteen pounds gained during this pandemic. I’ve gained ten but it feels like twenty. I feel heavy.

Then I look at old photos and laugh. I was so thin!

Now, I’m normal. I’m exactly the weight to be expected for my age.

I haven’t been on Facebook much lately so I was surprised last week when I saw so many of my female friends posting two photos with the hashtag 10 Year Challenge. One photo from today and one from 10 years ago. Funny how I’ve only seen women do this. Is this because women, more typically than men, think about their looks more? Because many of us have felt estranged from our bodies? Because we have manipulated, tugged, plastered, and peeled our faces for decades all in an effort to achieve beauty – beauty as defined by some crazy cultural norms?

Or is it because while men always seem to be accepted as they age, their grey hair deemed distinguished, handsome, even sexy, women are ignored, ostracized, and discriminated against as they show signs of age? And we women internalize this scrutiny. We judge ourselves. I am as guilty of this as everyone else. The judging started when I was maybe twelve or thirteen and by fourteen I was having an identity crisis.

I’ve spent my entire life learning to accept my nose, my mouth, the scar on my bottom lip, the hole in my right eyebrow, my slightly crooked teeth, and my thin, clumpy, short lashes. Seems silly now but honestly, it’s been a struggle. And I know I’m not alone.

So when I looked for photos from ten years ago, I kept looking. For ten years before that and ten years before that. Six decades of photos. I was surprised by what I found. I expected radical changes. But I was wrong.

2021 and 2011

2001 and 1991

1981 and 1971

Turns out, I haven’t changed much at all. What these photos don’t capture are all the crazy looks between every ten years. The haircuts, the perms, the shaved head, the bangs, the highlights, the outfits, the makeup. But they do capture my face. This is who I’ve always been.

I challenge you to do the same. Not as some sort of beauty challenge – a “did you age well” challenge, but more of a “welcome home to your face” challenge. Embrace who you are, who you have always been.

Therein lies the beauty. Therein lies home.


* I thought about using the word redeux, which is a slang twist on redux. The Urban Dictionary cites redeux as another way to say remix and I like the idea of remixing the #10yearchallenge. But redux comes from the Latin word reducere, meaning “to lead back.” The Romans often called the goddess Fortuna, Fortuna Redux, trusting that she would bring those who were far from home back safely. This is how I use the word here. With the hope that we might all come safely home back to ourselves and find home in our own faces.

Epiphany

Announcement: You may now take down your Christmas tree. The twelve days of Christmas are over. The Magi have officially arrived.

Ok, maybe you’ve already taken down your tree. But you may remember from my post on Holiday Traditions that, in my family, we always celebrated Epiphany. (With the camels and Magi making their way slowly across the room to the creche, finally arriving at the manger on January 6th.) If you celebrate Epiphany, then traditionally Christmas decorations stay up through the full twelve days of Christmas.  

I’m curious, if you left yours up, did you do that because of Epiphany or because you like having them up and aren’t ready to take them down? Or for some other reason? I have a friend that is turning her tree into a bird feeder. Such a clever idea! Read how to do this here.

Ah, but Epiphany! A word that almost always requires an exclamation point. An event which arrives early in a month that is still more about reflection than action. Which is to say, you may have a great idea but it still needs time to come to fruition. There is still time needed before it can be put into action; there are still plans to be made and much to be considered.

Remember, the Magi saw the star and it still took them twelve to fifteen months for it to lead them to Jesus. First, there were preparations. It’s not like they just jumped on their camels like cowboys in a western. And there were stops along the way. Remember how they knocked on King Herod’s door and asked for directions to the new king of the Jews? Yeah, definitely a misstep there. And that happens to all of us. Even when following a star, we can make some wrong turns.

Epiphanies are wonderful – and – they still require work.

An epiphany alone won’t get you anywhere. An epiphany is just the beginning. An epiphany is just a romance that requires a huge amount of attentiveness to make the relationship last. Yet, without the epiphany, nothing is new. We are in the same place (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually). Epiphany is the spark that moves us forward. Ephiphany is possibility.

May this day be one of introspection, hope, and even joy for you.

Happy Epiphany!

Forgive the poor formatting of the poem below. WordPress doesn’t hold proper formatting, alas. And yes, there will probably be some words you’ll have to look up. Resulting in yet more epiphanies. 🙂

REGARDING EPIPHANY

The Thesis

Epiphany is

                        the 12 days journey

            the 12 times 12 times 2

Not

                        the sudden manifestation

            the dawning of sight

                        the return of the light

That                

was the easy part.

The Discourse

Epiphany is

                        an episiotomy

            an epistemic episode

                        an epitaph on extinguished epithelium

            an epoch of equivocal equity

                        eradicating Erebus

            erewhile ergastic

                        erotic and erratic and eruptive.

Epiphany is

                        exhilarating

            exasperating

            ex-communicating

                        not explicative.

            It is      exploding

                        exploring

                        expressing and expounding.

            It is      extending

            extemporaneous

            exteroceptive and extreme,

            extrinsic

            extraordinary

            extruding, exuding and exuberant.

The Conclusion

Epiphany is

                        the sight once seen:

                        the memory     the journey      and      the returning;

                        the spiral upward toward

                        the light, spiked with snakes

                        and ladders;

                        the deja’ vu;

                        the resting too;

                        the falling, the crawling, the weeping,

                        the leaping, the seeing, the meaning,  and,

                             the forgetting.

The Love Song

Epiphany!  O, Ephiphany!

            esteemed, ethereal Epiphany!

I am estranged from my ethos

            and esurient.

Espouse yourself to me!

Meet me at the estuary where your Etesian ether

            will etch my everything  entirely –

            ensign me with your essence

That I might wait patiently

            until you come again.

– Jan Kristen Peppler

Originally published in Between Literary Journal, Vol. 18, Beyond (2015)

Home is Inside You

Over the years, when I talk about my work researching the psychology of home, inevitably someone will say, “Home is inside you.” Yes, I smile. This is true.

It took many years for me to experience this truth. One can know something intellectually but that is a far cry from knowing it in one’s soul; it is a huge distance from experiencing it as truth.

I haven’t spoken about this before because, honestly, the sentiment often seems too blithe, too easy, maybe even a bit smug. Often when it is said to me, it’s in the context of after all your research, surely you know that home isn’t a place – home is inside you. Maybe I’m sensitive but the message seems to imply that the answer is obvious and my research isn’t necessary: what I really need to tell people is to find home inside themselves.

Yes, but how?

My friend, Michael Kroth who writes about living profoundly, recently sent me this video of Thich Nhat Hanh speaking on the Buddhist practice of Going Home. It’s lovely. Anytime I listen to Thich Nhat Hanh, I feel calm. He says the practice is easy. Be in the here and now, be present. When you are present in the here and now, you are home. Certainly, it sounds easy. But in practice? No, I don’t think so. Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult.

We live in a culture that is cluttered with expectations, demands, and mirages. First, we must learn to clear away this clutter: to see past our thoughts, our conveniences, our fleeting desires, our norms. This is extraordinarily difficult. The culture’s clutter is enforced in our schools, our jobs, our families, our hobbies, even in our churches. Our country’s economy depends on this clutter. And if we’re not feeding the economy, well then, are we even patriotic?

Clearing away the clutter requires solitude.

Many of us found the enforced solitude of the pandemic to be excruciating and depressing. But without solitude, how can we hear the wisdom of our soul speak? Ah! – that may indeed be the source of discomfort. If we hear our soul speak, then the clutter is no longer as enjoyable as it once was. The clutter itself begins to make us sad. And then we feel responsible to respond. And responding to what the soul needs doesn’t come easily; it often requires sacrifice, sacrifice of the clutter that comforts us temporarily and superficially. Responding to our soul requires change. We humans, no matter what we say, are terrible with change.

Yesterday, my friend Wendy Pabich, a water scientist and yogini, shared an excerpt from Manuscript Found In Accra, written by Paulo Coelho, which speaks about the need for solitude:

Without solitude, Love will not stay long by your side.

Because Love needs to rest as well, so that it can journey through the heavens and reveal itself in other forms. Without solitude, no plant or animal can survive, no soil can remain productive for any length of time, no child can learn about life, no artist can create, no work can grow and be transformed.

Solitude is not the absence of Love, but its complement.
Solitude is not the absence of company, but the moment when our soul is free to speak to us and help us decide what to do with our life.

Therefore, blessed are those who do not fear solitude, who are not afraid of their own company, who are not always desperately looking for something to do, something to amuse themselves with, something to judge.

If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself.
And if you do not know yourself, you will begin to fear the void.

But the void does not exist. A vast world lies hidden in our soul, waiting to be discovered. There it is, with all its strength intact, but it is so new and so powerful that we are afraid to acknowledge its existence. Just as Love is the divine condition, so solitude is the human condition. And for those who understand the miracle of life, those two states peacefully coexist.


If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself. If you are never alone, you cannot find home within yourself.

For many people, home is found in their family or in their spouse. And that’s okay too. There is no one right way to find home.

And – most of us, even the majority of us, will at some time be alone. Our family will be gone. Our lover will be gone. Our parents will be gone. If we have children, they, too, will be gone or far away, as will be our dearest friends. We will feel unmoored, isolated, alone.  Our most constant companion will be only ourselves. Solitude will sit with us, sleep with us, and walk beside us.

If we can make friends with ourselves, be intimate with our aloneness, such solitude is not always difficult. It can, in fact, become a welcome companion.

Looking back, I realize I was alone a lot as a child. My sister is seven years older and my brother is four. The times we played together were really special and I remember them well. And maybe those times were so special, in part, because they were infrequent. More often than not, I played by myself. I have lots of memories of playing alone. I even have memories of playing in my closet, with the door closed, under the hanging clothes, and in the dark.

When I did something whoppingly bad as a kid (like set the basement on fire or steal caramels from the grocery store), my punishment was being grounded to my room. I attended school, of course, and had dinner with my family, but every evening I would be sent to my room alone well before bedtime to be by myself. I think I only did three whoppingly bad things as a child but I remember those groundings to my room as if they were many.

The worst punishment is solitary confinement. It can drive a person mad. This is why it’s used in prisons. Humans need contact. Nelson Mandela endured 27 years in prison, including solitary confinement. This wise and gentle man who led the transformation and reconciliation of his country instead of seeking revenge, even he called solitary confinement “the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there’s only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks.”

Making friends with our aloneness does not have to be this extreme. Like all things new (be it shoes, sports, a skill, or a relationship), moderation helps. Too much too quickly can be overwhelming and discouraging; too much can cause blisters.

The Buddhist author Stephen Batchelor was interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being shortly after his book, The Art of Solitude was published in 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was forcing us all into quarantine. On September 23, 2021, the podcast titled, “Finding Ease in Aloneness” was aired again.

One word they both use quite a bit is “interiority.” I love that word. To be inward. To attend to one’s interior.

When I visualize interiority, I see an anthropomorphized snail buffing the walls of her shell and hanging art, then bumping into it because the surface is curved and she cannot move without her head hitting the sharp corner of a wooden frame. Frustrated, she throws the art away. Then one day, she smudges slime into shapes on the shining gloss and that is pleasing to her. That is even fun. Eventually, she discovers flowers and moss and other natural things around her that make a kind of ink that she can work with. Now she has colors with which to draw and she does, according to her mood. Everyone else sees only the exterior of her home – a shell she picked up somewhere when she outgrew her last. She alone sees the interior. The interior is beautiful because the interior is her and this makes her happy.

I am clearly not an artist but this is the best rendition I can make of my snail vision

How do we find home in ourselves? How do we become comfortable in our interior? There is no one way, no right way, no easy or quick way.

First, we must clear away the clutter, a little bit at a time. Release yourself from one obligation that weighs you down. Remove one distraction that does not serve your soul. Refuse an invitation that doesn’t make you feel truly excited. Stop engaging with the person who makes you sad. Stop smiling because you think you’re supposed to. Stop hoarding. Turn off the TV or the radio when you’re working or cooking. Give your brain space. Allow some thoughts to be left unsaid – let them float away and find a new thought instead. Take a walk without earbuds. Focus on your steps, focus on your surroundings, focus on your breath.

It takes practice. It takes time. It takes reinforcement.

Slowly, it will come. Contentment in the quiet. Peace in the solitude. Home inside yourself.

When A Gift Brings Us Home

This time of year, people give gifts. But the best gifts are those that transcend the holiday.

Many years ago, a guy who was trying to impress me gave me a Dooney & Bourke purse. The first problem is that I had never heard of Dooney & Bourke. Recognizing how unimpressed I was, he said, “That’s a two-to-three-hundred-dollar purse!” My response? “Well, which was it? Two hundred or three?” Cuz in my book, that’s a pretty big spread. I’ve never spent anywhere close to $100 on a purse, and I’m very particular about my purses. Which brings us to the second problem: I know what I like. If there’s not a place to hold my pens and a pocket for my phone, forget it. If it’s too heavy, forget it. Or if it’s too big or too small. In other words, don’t buy me a purse: I’ll pick out my own.

I give very few gifts these days. I use to give lots but for several reasons my enthusiasm has waned. I abhor the idea of giving or receiving a gift just because it’s the holidays or a birthday.

Typically, I don’t shop for gifts. Instead, I’m shopping for something else and a gift jumps out at me. When something reminds me of a person, makes me smile or gets me excited, and I think the recipient will feel the same way, I buy it. Doesn’t matter if I’m in a boutique store or in a thrift store. It’s the connection to the particular person that makes me buy a gift.  Often, I purchase these at odd times throughout the year and then hold onto them simply because there is an expectation of giving gifts for special occasions. So I wait.

Sometimes, it’s not worth the wait. In October, I “discovered” a new bourbon and purchased it for a friend who is a cocktail connoisseur. Turns out the label wasn’t as unique as I thought.  For another friend who calls Nashville hot chicken one of her favorite foods, I found a bottle of Nashville hot chicken spice. Considering the possibility that she may already have it, I decided to gather a whole box of spicy treats, including a dark chocolate bar with chili peppers. I wrapped everything early and waited. Before I could discover that the spice was indeed unique and something she didn’t have, my little dog Mazie unwrapped and ate the chocolate bar, which resulted in an emergency visit to the vet. Yeah, that was definitely not worth the wait.

On rare occasions, a gift is much more than an object, a token, or a gesture. It is an affirmation. When this happens, the gift says,

I see you.

I hear you.

I know you.

I celebrate you.

I’m grateful for all the lovely gestures from family and friends this year. The kindness of purchasing something, wrapping it, and actually mailing it to me is incredibly generous. So I’m hesitant to say what I’m about to say – I do not want to minimize their thoughtfulness or my gratitude.

Just some of the very thoughtful gifts I received this year

But two gifts completely surprised me. More than that, they made me feel seen, heard, known, and celebrated.

The first is a Henckels paring knife. Now maybe that seems strange. But trust me, it’s not at all like the time my aunt sent my mom a spatula for her birthday. (My mother wasn’t a baker and that was the only gift my aunt sent. Truly, it was worse than weird.)

Back in 1988 when I visited Germany for the first time, I was young, in college, working full-time, and living in an apartment above a garage. Cash was tight and the major expenses of that trip were generously paid for by my father. Being frugal with my limited funds, my souvenir purchases were limited. Mozart chocolate, yes, and an obligatory sweatshirt. Other than that, I only purchased things that I considered investments and expected would last a long time: carved wooden movable figurine bottle toppers from Bavaria, wooden ornaments, and four Henckels knives. For over thirty years, I’ve held onto these treasures.

At some point during the pandemic, the paring knife went missing. I searched everywhere to no avail. My paring knife!! All these years and to think I’d lose it inside my own home. Best guess is that I accidently threw it out. Those were fuzzy days. Maybe I swiped the remains of a charcuterie board into the trash and along went the knife. Who knows?

The point is: I must have shared this with my friend. Perhaps a conversation in passing, I really don’t know, I don’t remember. But he remembered. He heard me. He heard how much those knives mean to me, he heard my story, and he knows me well enough to know how essential a good paring knife is for so much of what I love to eat: most importantly, cheese.

And so this friend, from whom I would never expect a gift, and long after I shared my missing knife woe, gave me a new Henckels 4” paring knife.

Today a package arrived from Philadelphia. Inside were homemade cookies, carefully wrapped in parchment paper and sealed in two storage bags. Now, cookies are absolutely my most favorite treat. But these cookies were even more special than most.

The last time this friend and I spoke, we discussed family holiday traditions. My friend, Claudia, has just published her wonderful piece on Cookies, Chaos, and Home, and I commented that I always loved baking cookies at this time of year and had begun doing so when I was quite young. But my current kitchen didn’t lend itself to baking. There isn’t enough counter space. I really like my little flat but the kitchen – meh. It’s functional, nowhere near optimal. And I’m okay with that, except at this time of year when I might feel more connected to Christmas if I could make cookies.

Then Ed mentioned a cookie made with dates and walnuts and I almost fell off the couch – date pinwheels!! I hadn’t made these cookies for decades, nor had I even seen them. But Ed not only knew of these cookies, he knew how to make them!

And so he did. And then he sent some to me.

As I’ve said, I always love cookies. I was excited when I saw the box. I cut the tape around the edges and made myself an Italian cup of coffee in preparation for this special treat. But when I unwrapped the cookies, I was moved in a way I didn’t expect.

These cookies brought me home. Back to memories long buried. Each bite was more than a delight. Each bite was a homecoming. I could picture myself forty years ago chopping the dates and walnuts by hand. Spreading the mixture over the dough then rolling it into a log. Chilling the log in the fridge, then carefully slicing it to reveal pinwheels. Gently transferring them onto cookie sheets and baking them. Remembering all these steps and knowing Ed went through such effort touches me deeply. These cookies, more than an edible treat, make me feel connected to my grandmother again, and to the young woman I use to be.

These look and taste exactly like the ones I use to make. My Grandma Stolper’s recipe but she rarely made them. Maybe because dates were expensive, maybe because they require some work!

Then in addition, there was a small flat gift. I opened it to reveal a note taped to the back of an unadorned piece of wood. The note said: “Hi Jan, I spotted this and realized that it shares provenance with the logo you use. Cheers!” I turned it over and this is what I saw:

This is my logo. A rainbow. A lodging. Finding Home.

Heard. Seen. Known. Celebrated.

Sometimes a gift does all this. As a giver, you can’t be sure, you never really know in advance as thoughtful as your choosing may be. As a receiver, you’re more than surprised. You’re awed by the depth of feeling. These are the gifts that bring us home.


What gift or gifts have you received –this year or at any time in your life – that made you feel heard, seen, known, and celebrated?

Here Comes the Sun

Today is Winter Solstice. Which, just to be clear, doesn’t always fall on December 21st, but more often than not it does. Today, the Solstice came at 9:58 am CMT.

Solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium, meaning ‘Sun standing still.’ On this day, the sun appears to stand still before reversing its direction making for longer days and shorter nights.

This is my holiday. This is the day I look forward to most during this season. The ritual I follow tonight is the same I have celebrated for almost thirty years.

Tonight I will sit in a dark room and sing the hymn, Thy Strong Word Did Cleave The Darkness.  Then I will light one candle and read stories of the light coming into the world.

First, from Genesis. Then perhaps how Prometheus gave fire to humans or how Raven stole the light. Or the Russian story of Vasilisa who receives the light from Baba Yaga that destroys her evil stepmother and stepsisters.

But always, always, I will read the Japanese story of the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. This story continues to remind me of my worth. Of the importance of each of us to not hide, to not give into sorrow and shut ourselves away. It reminds me of the light that lives within each of us and how necessary it is to let our lights shine in the world.

Then I will listen to music, starting with two songs: Coming Out of the Dark by Gloria Estefan and Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles. And as the songs play, I will wander through my home lighting candles in each room and then pop some champagne.

Whatever you do today or tonight, I wish you a blessed and joyful Solstice. May you –unique and wonderful you – shine for all the world today and in all the days to come.


Amaterasu’s Story       – by Carolyn McVickar Edwards

No one is alive anymore who can remember the time Amaterasu Omikami, the Great Woman Who Possesses Noon, took Herself into the Cave of Heaven and refused to come out.  But to those who know the story, every mirror on Earth is a reminder of that tie and of the glorious moment She stepped again into the open sky, sending Her surge of strength and will again through all Life.

In those beginning times, the spirit of every living thing was called its Kami.  The Kami of the mountain was lavender and long. The Kami of the trees was great and green. Animals had Kami in the shapes of swords and cups. Fish and flowers had Kami. The Kami of the rocks and the rivers were silent and calm. All the strength of these Kami poured forth from the Great Mother Sun, Amaterasu Omikami, and in Her honor was woven the great pattern of the seasons of the planting and the harvesting of rice.

Amaterasu had a brother named Susanowo. Susanowo ruled the ocean, but he was jealous of the greater power of his sister, Amaterasu. Because Amaterasu knew of his ill feeling, She was suspicious when one day her brother sent word that he was coming to visit. Though She had a feast prepared on the day Her brother was to arrive, Amaterasu also armed Herself with a quiver of ten thousand silver arrows and a giant bow of beaten gold. She planted Her feet firmly and awaited Susanowo.

Some of the Queen of Heaven’s tension melted when She saw that Her brother came bearing gifts and speaking of trust and loyalty. Together they ate, and, after the meal had been cleared away, Amaterasu covered Her brother’s hands with Her own. “How glad I am you’ve come in friendship,” said Amaterasu, Her eyes shining. “I was worried you’d come otherwise.”  Susanowo loosed his hands and bowed low to his sister. “Amaterasu Omikami,” he said, “Let us forget the past. I have nothing but respect and admiration for You.”

Late into the night they talked of their love for each other, their plans for the future, and the joy of their relationship. Finally Amaterasu bid Susanowo good night and went to Her cave to sleep.

Her brother, however, did not go to bed.  Instead, he sat alone at the huge table, sipping sake wine and growing increasingly angry as he compared his own power to that of his sister. The wine he was drinking slowly kindled his resolve to show his sister who was really most powerful. In the next few hours, Susanowo tore drunkenly throughout the Plain of Heaven. He piled mounds of dirt in the irrigation canals so no water could flow to the rice paddies. Not satisfied, he stomped on each and every plant until the fields were covered with broken and dying stalks. Then he took up the excrement of animals and humans and smeared it in Amaterasu’s celestial weaving house where the heavenly women wove the sacred tapestries.

In fear and anger, the Gods and Goddesses went to wake Amaterasu.  When the Shining One saw what Her brother had done, a pain stabbed Her heart. Her hands hung limp at Her sides, and Her mind pictured the dinner they had shared and the words of trust and endearment they had exchanged.

“Susanowo!” Amaterasu’s voice filled the Plain of Heaven like light suddenly fills a dark room. Susanowo staggered into his sister’s presence, pulling a piebald colt on a rope behind him. He spat on the floor of the celestial palace. Amaterasu put Her hands behind Her back.  “Susanowo,” She said again, “You wrong me. But I ask only that you sleep.  Leave off, brother. Sleep.”

Susanowo answered by pulling the sword from his belt and whirling to plunge its blade through the heart of the colt behind him. Before the eyes of the entire heavenly court, he heaved the dead colt through the window of the palace and into the celestial weaving house below. There the carcass struck and broke the looms and sacred threads and sent several of the heavenly weavers to the Land of the Dead.

A cry of rage escaped the throat of Amaterasu Omikami. She ran from the palace and back to Her cave. Once inside, She pulled the great door tight behind Her and locked it, shutting away from Heaven Her warmth and light and plunging even the realm of Susanowo into darkness. The Gods and Goddesses of Heave caught Susanowo, punished him, and banished him from Heaven. But without Amaterasu to light the Plain of Heaven, there was only darkness. The Kami of the rice withered. The Kami of birds and animals, mountains and trees turned to gray ghosts. Life without Amaterasu was impossible.

The Gods and Goddesses gathered together to discuss how they might restore the precious Amaterasu Omikami.  How to tempt Her from Her cave? How to let Her know that Susanowo had been sent away? “We must moan and grieve outside Her cave. We must shout to Her of our dead,” said some of the deities. “No,” said others, “We must remind Her of the joy She brings. We must dance for Her.” And so it was that the Dance of the Mirrors was planned. All of the ghostly Kami of the world gathered up what little strength they had left and pieces of shiny mirror. With the help of the Gods and Goddesses, they collected themselves outside the door of Amaterasu’s cave and began to make a joyful noise. Songs and jokes flew, weakly at first, and then, as the Kami began to take strength from each other, more strongly. A dance bloomed, and deep inside the Cave of Heaven Amaterasu heard the voices of Her people.

When Amaterasu cracked open the door of Her cave, a slit of Her brilliant light lit the night. When the Kami felt the surge of Life they had longed for, the dance became jubilant. Amaterasu listened and then poked Her head outside the cave. At that very moment the mirrors of all the Kami reflected back to Amaterasu her own stunning beauty and Amaterasu stepped all the way out of Her cave and into the open sky.

Once again the Kami of the mountain grew lavender and long. The Kami of the trees was once again great and green. Animals again had Kami in the shapes of swords and cups.  The Kami of the fish and flowers and rocks and rivers were alive once more.

On that day the strength of all Kami poured forth from the Great Mother Sun, and in Her honor was woven the great pattern of the seasons of the planting and the harvesting of rice. And so it is to this very day.

Every year I look for new renditions of this wonderful song. Enjoy!

O Holy Night

Maybe it’s cold where you are. Maybe it’s not. But wherever you are on this side of the equator, it’s dark.

The one defining aspect of this season we all experience is the early darkness and long nights.

As much as I like the peacefulness that darkness can bring, I am always tired at this time of year. Of course, circadian and seasonal rhythms. Darkness is a signal to rest, to stop our activities, to slow down, to sleep long. And that is perhaps what I like most about this season. I do so love pajamas and blankets and the comfort of my bed.

If only I didn’t resist. But I’m not alone. I resist because you resist, because our culture resists. Because December comes with parties, baking, and buying of gifts, in addition to our normal responsibilities of jobs and families. When we should be slowing down, we seem to speed up instead.

Yesterday, I was looking for something in my filing cabinets when, in the back of a drawer, a spring green folder stood out among all the beige. It was labeled “Darkness” and clearly not in alphabetical or categorical order. Intrigued and surprised by the symmetry of this discovery, inside I found a TIME Magazine cover story from 2014, profiling Barbara Brown Tayler and her memoir, Learning to Walk in the Dark. One sentence jumped out at me, where Taylor says,

“Turning in to darkness, instead of away from it, is the cure for a lot of what ails me.”

Darkness is a cure. Sometimes the only way we recover from illness is with rest and sleep. By turning in to the darkness behind our lids, by covering our eyes.

Darkness requires letting go: of control, of what we think we know.

Taylor writes,

“I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”

We do need the darkness. Darkness calls us to pay attention in ways we never do in the light.

Darkness is a gift. In darkness, we discover things hidden by the light. We feel. We sense. We intuit. Darkness reveals what light cannot.

It was during the night that Jacob wrestled with an angel. This struggle which was both physical and without the benefit of obvious sight transformed him and he ceased to be who he was: out of the darkness, he became Israel.

Every beginning emerges from the dark. Every cosmology starts this way, as does every heroic achievement.

During this season of long nights, may you experience the gift of darkness. Allow yourself to sit in the stillness and in the unknown. Resist the urge to make lists and goals. Resist drinking or the distraction of your phone. Listen to the silence. O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining. Fall on your knees. Wait and listen. Be patient. Be still.

Sit. Just sit. Eventually, the shift will come. Eventually, you will know what you need to know. Eventually, you will see. The darkness will show you.

O Holy Night, help us to embrace the gifts that you bring.


Sweet Darkness

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
tonight.
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

– “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte, House of Belonging

Cookies, Chaos, and Home – by Claudia Aulum

Today’s post was written by my dear friend, Claudia Aulum, an author, memoirist, and freelance writer who lives in Ketchum, Idaho. Her story of making her grandmother’s cookies every Advent speaks to how holiday traditions are often much more than they seem.


Cookies, Chaos, and Home by Claudia Aulum

The dough usually comes out too wet or too crumbly. Never just right. Then I struggle to roll the imperfect brown mass into a smooth, even layer, 1/8-inch thick. In the past, I tried using fancy cookie cutter shapes like reindeers and angels — but invariably, I’d lose antlers, wings, and heads in the process of getting the cookies onto the baking sheet. To minimize amputations, I just stick to hearts and stars now.

Even so, the ordeal takes hours and always ends with me swearing I’ll never make them again. But I do, every Christmas. Like my mother and grandmother before me. And my great-grandmother, Kleine Oma, from whom the recipe for Braune Pfeffernüsse originated. Every year, I wonder how she pulled it off in her late-1800s kitchen.

A page from Kleine Oma’s handwritten cookbook, which her daughter (my grandmother)
somehow spirited across the border during their escape from East Germany

My versions of her creation are often misshapen or too thick. Sometimes they end up with odd streaks running through them. But this ritual, I’ve realized, is not about the outcome. If they were easy to make, they’d be just another cookie. The act of making them wouldn’t be important. Nor, I believe, would they taste as good. And nothing tastes more like Christmas to me than Braune Pfeffernüsse.

For all the trouble, they’re unassuming cookies, brown and unadorned. But like brown-paper packages, they are irresistible. The recipe seems simple at first glance: only six ingredients combined in a straightforward way. But two of the key ingredients — beet syrup and potash — are hard to find.[1] I usually begin hunting them down online from German grocery suppliers at the beginning of November.

For my grandmother, procuring the ingredients was a bit more complicated. During the war and in the post-war years, when just about everything was scarce in their German town, her preparation would begin months before Christmas. She had to barter for the extra flour, sugar, and butter she’d need. In the early fall, she and the children (my mother, the eldest) would scour the fields after the harvest to gather stray sugar beets left behind by the farmers; then clean, peel, chop, and boil the beets for hours in the giant laundry cauldrons in the basement (around fifteen pounds of beets to produce enough of the of syrup). The final step: straining the juice from the pulp, boiling it down for another day, stirring frequently to make sure the syrup didn’t burn.

Then two days of baking to produce some 400 cookies. I picture my grandmother, calm and steely in the eye of the storm. While the world around them was in chaos, she was determined to give her five children some sense of normalcy at Christmas. Or perhaps she did it to reassure herself that she still had control — in this case, over a small, dearly held tradition. More than 70 million dead in the war, Germany guilty of horrific crimes, and their country in ruins. Borders were redrawn (their town, unfortunately, ended up on the East German/Russian side), and waves of refugees fled westward. Through it all, the woman who would years later play an important role in my upbringing, still managed to make these cookies every Christmas. I’m told she missed only one year: when they were in the refugee camp, after having escaped on foot across the border from East Germany to West in the early ‘50s.

My rendition of Kleine Oma’s recipe. Plain cookies, perfect Meissen porcelain

“Why are you making so many cookies?” my husband asked me a few weeks ago. He had a point — this will be the first time in our 17 years of marriage that none of our children will be home for Christmas.

“Because I have to,” I said without hesitation. Then added by way of justification, “I’m going to send tins to the kids and give the cookies as gifts.” But that was only half true.

Really, I was doing it for me. Because 2021 has nearly brought me to my knees.

It’s not just the pandemic, or that the whole world seems to be on edge. Or the vitriol that has taken over our national dialogue. Or that I wonder whether our country will still be a democracy in a few years; and how many of us, in the not-too-distant future, might become climate refugees or political refugees. The existential dread can feel overwhelming.

This is not to say that the year has been all bad. Most of our loved ones have, so far, emerged largely unscathed from the pandemic. I am moved to tears by the acts of kindness and generosity I witness and read about daily. And there have been personal accomplishments, too — my first book was published a few months ago, a project I was blessed to participate in.

Yet this was also the year I learned by chance that my mother (who has only debts) disinherited me. I wasn’t meant to know until after she died that she had made a new will, according to which I no longer exist. But she is alive and well, now living in the assisted living facility I moved her to this summer after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and could no longer live on her own. A four-month process that required orchestrating a dozen or so medical visits, sorting through and packing up her home (which I couldn’t have done without the help of my friend Jan!), and jumping through all the logistical and bureaucratic hoops triggered by a major life change.

My mother tells me she doesn’t remember why she disowned me.

So I found myself entering this season of cheer feeling bruised, exhausted, and disoriented. More than ever, I needed to lean on a comforting and familiar thread that I could trace beyond my mother.

Like Braune Pfeffernüsse, the long-standing family tradition of Advent has been a constant in my life, accompanying me in my eight moves since college (two of them transatlantic), three marriages, and several career changes. I was not raised in any religion, but I’m religious about celebrating Advent on the four Sundays before Christmas. For an hour on Sunday evening, we gather in the living room by the fire, family and friends (whoever happens to be around) flopped on the sofa and in chairs, the advent wreath with four red candles before us. We dim the lights and light candles all around.

With each successive Sunday, we light one more candle on the wreath. And while listening to classical holiday music, we nibble on Braune Pfeffernüsse and other German Christmas goodies that go back to my childhood—marzipan from Lübeck, Lebkuchen (spice cakes) from Nürnberg, and Baumkuchen (tree cake). Sometimes we read stories aloud, but mostly we just relax, savoring the hour of peace. Controversy, Covid, and the chaos of the world, all forgotten.

For now, we are together, and we are home. And in this moment, all is well.

Advent evening

[1] Yes, potash (a version of it) is also used for cooking. It’s not just for fertilizer.


Claudia Aulum has lived in many places and traveled extensively. She moved from Switzerland to Ketchum, Idaho, twenty-four years ago. Still, in her heart, Hamburg, Germany, is always home. Claudia is the coauthor of More To Life Than More.  For more information or to contact her directly, visit her on LinkedIn.

© Claudia Aulum 2021

December

I’ve been hoping that you wouldn’t notice my lack of posts recently. I wanted to avoid having to explain. Maybe instead share an informational post about various holidays that happen this time of year. But I’m told you expect more from me. You prefer my posts when I share me and not just knowledge. So, finally, here goes:

It’s December. The holiday season. And I’m not feeling the expected good cheer.

Tis the season of endless holiday greetings. I heard my first Merry Christmas on the first day of this month. Honestly, that bugs me. But instead of my rant about Salvation Army bell ringers, I’ll be real with you:

This time of year is tough for me.

I can’t say why exactly. But I know I’m not alone. There are lots of us who find December to be annoying, depressing, or just generally hard.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) profoundly affects an estimated 10 million Americans. Another 10-20% experience mild episodes.[i] That’s a whole lot of folks feeling less than optimal this month.

SAD always affected me when I lived in Chicago and San Francisco, so I know what that is. I know how that feels. What I’m feeling isn’t that.

Actually, the weather in Tulsa has been gorgeous – in the 70s last week and with consistently sunny blue skies. Of course, this is not normal: climate change is real. Still, I’m grateful. I hate being cold.

So what’s the problem? Honestly, it’s the holidays. It’s December.

Did you know that more people die on December 25th than on any other day of the year[ii] ? The next highest death rates are on December 26th and New Year’s Day.  And 93% of these are heart-related deaths. There’s even a moniker for this phenomenon: “Merry Christmas Coronary.” Interestingly, this spike in deaths occurs in all age groups except one: children. These aren’t homicides or suicides. These are heart-related deaths. The conclusion of one study actually states: “the Christmas/New Year’s holidays are a risk factor for cardiac and noncardiac mortality.”

The holidays are the problem. The holidays are a risk factor for death. Just let that sink in.  Many hearts break at this time of year.

My dear friend, Renae, lost her husband in February. They were married for more than 40 years and his death was sudden and unexpected. Last week we were discussing how annoying the holiday season can be when she said, “It’s the expectation. The expectation of others that you will be happy.” With every holiday greeting, the expectation is there: you must be happy. Happy happy joy joy merry merry be of good cheer.

Post note: This week Renae’s house flooded. I mean flooded.  A pipe burst. Floors have already been pulled up. Christmas plans for her family gathering are canceled. Instead, she’ll be in a hotel or Airbnb until sometime in January.

If you read my posts regularly, you might remember that my father died on Christmas Day. Not heart-related; he died from AIDS. This was thirty-one years ago, still, I never know how that will affect me. Some years I’m fine. But there are many years when sometime around the Solstice grief will show up like an unexpected relative and I can’t ignore it. My plans are upended. Even with lights and decorations and ritual, the presence is there, demanding my attention. Then, all I can do is simply sit with it: be present to its company.

When I owned a home, I had eight tubs of holiday decorations. I would string garlands above every archway, hang ornaments from the ceilings and across the windows on ribbons. I’d battle branches and the cold as I twisted lights on my front-yard trees and risked a wobbly ladder as I twined lights around my house eaves and porch. I’d unpack and display decades of collected holiday trinkets, transforming every room. I also had lots and lots of candles and, of course, a Christmas tree.

And even then, as beautiful as all this was, as happy or as normal as I might feel, grief would often surprise me.

Now I have only one red Rubbermaid tub and this is the first time in three years that I have opened it. I made a night of hanging the ornaments with a good friend, telling stories and drinking cocktails. I thought it would help to have these decorations out and about, but it hasn’t. This month is still tough. Every day I think: only a few more weeks to endure, hang in there, it will be January soon enough.

Sometimes, no amount of holiday lights, carols, and cookies can chase away this mood. It’s not gloom or grief or depression, more like a dullness beneath my skin.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Perhaps you, reading this, appreciate the acknowledgment of what you too have been unable to admit out loud. December is a hard month to get through.

My wish for you this season is as it always is: May it be peaceful and calm. And may the return of the light bring you hope and joy.

Blessings, my friends. May December be all you need it to be. Free of expectations. Heart-healing, reflective, and nurturing.


[i] https://healthresearchfunding.org/seasonal-affective-disorder-statistics/

[ii] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20805014/

Thanksgiving

I don’t understand this holiday. I really don’t. Not as a holiday. As a verb, yes, absolutely yes, but as a holiday, no. So I did some research because, as you know, that’s what I do. And what I learned may surprise you.

But first, I think Thanksgiving has to be one of those traditions that is your tradition in order for you to enjoy it. And it most definitely wasn’t a tradition in my family. I have very few memories of Thanksgiving as a kid. Twice when we drove out to a suburb to eat dinner with my mother’s aunts and uncle. I don’t remember ever having met this distant family before and both times my siblings and I were the only folks younger than our parents. Then there was the one time when my grandfather, who was from northern Italy, made spaghetti. That was weird. There were huge chunks of beef (not crumbled) and vegetables I couldn’t identify. It was definitely not like the spaghetti that I knew and liked! And then was three times after my parents divorced and my mom, who sold school textbooks for Scott Foresman (where, decades earlier, she had edited the Dick, Jane & Sally readers), had to attend the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention and she took me with her: to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. I have great memories of those trips. But of Thanksgiving? Of big dinners of turkey and stuffing, sweet potatoes and pie? No. That didn’t happen in my family.

Well, there was one time: I was 19 and living in San Francisco, my brother in San Jose, and my sister and mom flew out from Chicago. We had stayed up late the night before drinking and playing cards so that morning only my mom and I went to church. Before we left, my mom told my sister to turn the turkey while we were gone. (Why she asked this, we still have no idea, except that I’m not sure she had much experience with cooking turkeys.) Later, during dinner, we couldn’t figure out why there was so little meat. Then we realized my sister had flipped the turkey. Oh yeah, that’s a good memory! (btw, my sister is hosting Thanksgiving for my family (sans me) this year and she’s a good cook. I hope she still finds this memory funny!)

CNN just ran an article on Friendsgiving, theorizing that the roots of this tradition began around 2007 when the economics in our country were changing, combined with fewer folks having kids and those who do are often waiting later to have them. Also, traveling over Thanksgiving has become quite a hassle. But honestly, I think it may have to do with many folks not wanting to want to deal with judgments from their families – either immediate or extended. Judgments about what they do, what they look like, who they love, what they believe, and of course, politics. It’s one thing to navigate these waters with parents but with uncles and aunts and cousins? That can be too much. It’s far more fun to spend a special day with friends who love and accept you just as you are. These are friends that have become family in a new, very essential, and concrete way.

According to a recent study, 38% of Americans will celebrate this year with 10 or more people. And that number would include many Friendsgivings as well. So what are the remaining 62% of Americans doing? Back in the ‘90s, I often went to the movies on Thanksgiving. If you went during the day, it was great. But by evening, a lot of families who were stuffed with too much food and tired of talking to each other would also go and the theatre got crowded.

So really, what’s the point of this holiday?

Let’s be honest, Thanksgiving has become synonymous with gluttonous over-eating and stress. Way too much food. And too much stress. Stress about cooking, about traveling, and even about seeing family.

I suppose the purpose of the day seems obvious: it is a time to give thanks. But do folks really not do that regularly? Instead, I think it’s just a tradition for many. And traditions are hard to give up. Even if we don’t understand why we do them.

Home for the Holidays is my favorite film for this time of year. (Yes, I know, I’m always referencing some film!) Honestly, I think the reviews for this are mediocre because it’s so realistic. It’s not the kind of warm and fuzzy movie we like, but it really does capture the reality of many family gatherings. And the love and tolerance of each other shines through in some truly honest and touching ways.

So the father (played by Charles Dunning) begins the before dinner prayer and starts to ramble:

“Thanksgiving really means something to us though G-d dammit we couldn’t tell you what it is. And thousand-year-old trees are falling over dead and they shouldn’t”

I love those two sentences. Especially as they appear back-to-back. This film is from 1995. Already many of us had forgotten the meaning of the day. And, yes, some of us were thinking about the environment even then. This Thursday—and every day—may we remember to be thankful for trees.

So let’s consider the whole idea of giving thanks. Do our prayers include thanks for those that are supplying our food? Thank God for our farmers! Farming is damn hard work. But did you know that 52% of all farmworkers are migrant, unauthorized workers with no legal status in the U.S.?[i] Without them, Illinois couldn’t harvest 420 million pounds of pumpkins. Washington couldn’t harvest 5.4 billion pounds of apples. And then there’s the corn from Nebraska, the green beans and cranberries from Wisconsin, the sweet potatoes from North Carolina, and the famous Idaho potatoes.[ii]

I’m not being sacrilegious with this meme and I don’t want to get political, only maybe it’s time we stop criminalizing the folks who help put food on our tables.

And what is this “tradition” of shopping? No sooner are our meals finished, and before we’ve even dug into the leftovers, we’re out the door shopping for great deals. As if everything we are grateful for isn’t enough. Does it bother anyone else (as much as it does me) that the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday? That we, as a society, have allowed that moniker to stick? And even more, that we’ve allowed it to encroach on our day of giving thanks – with sales beginning on Thursday evening. That’s okay? Really? 

Perhaps my biggest struggle with Thanksgiving is that it is not a religious holiday, nor does it mark a specific day or event. Oh wait, it does mark a significant event, at least originally. Just not the one we were taught as children.

So if you’re still reading this, here’s the history:

There’s some debate about the first Thanksgiving. Did it occur the year pilgrims arrived or a year or two later, after they had planted their first seeds in foreign soil and were delighted to have procured a crop that might sustain them through the winter? According to the journal of the first governor of Plymouth, Massachusetts, it was in 1621. But it’s not likely that Indians were present.

The woman who wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is largely responsible for Thanksgiving becoming a national holiday. She campaigned five presidents for 36 years and it was Abraham Lincoln who finally agreed. The year was 1863 and our country was in the middle of a terrible civil war. We were fighting amongst ourselves, not just with politics and words, but with cannons and guns. It’s really no surprise that Lincoln hoped this holiday could help bring the country together.

In his Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863, Lincoln begins:

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added…”

He invites all Americans “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise” and hopes that God might “heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it … to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”[iii]

In fact, it seems the second Thanksgiving wasn’t until after the Pequot massacres[iv] of 1637. This was when the Puritans—our  God-loving and God-fearing ancestors from Europe—burned alive and shot almost 500 Pequot men, women, and children, hoping to wipe out the entire tribe. Then Governor Bradford (whose journal tells of the first Thanksgiving) decreed,

“For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a governor is in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.” [v]

How quickly Thanksgiving went from gratitude for having our most basic needs met – of food and good health – to a celebration of slaughtering our perceived enemies.

It seems to me that Lincoln’s prayer is as relevant today as it was one hundred and fifty-eight years ago.

This Thursday, whether you celebrate with friends, family, or simply alone, may you be grateful for everything. Not only your job, your bounty, your health, and your family, but also every other person who contributes to your abundance: farmers, migrant workers, doctors, employers, and yes, even our government. Remember the long history of our country and give thanks that we are – despite our struggles – still united. May we, as Lincoln implored, heal the wounds of our nation and restore it to peace, harmony, and union. May we each do our part – one meal, one conversation, one person at a time.

Happy Thanksgiving

Some thoughts about the history and current state of this holiday. What are YOU giving thanks for this year?

Pecan pie is a favorite of mine this time of year! What about you? What favorite foods are you eating?


[i] https://copdei.extension.org/migrant-farm-workers-our-nations-invisible-population/

[ii][ii] https://farmflavor.com/lifestyle/food-for-thought/where-does-your-thanksgiving-dinner-come-from/

[iii] If you do an internet search for “President Lincoln and Thanksgiving,” you’ll find a pdf link for the transcript of this proclamation at obamawhitehouse.archives.gov

[iv] https://www.historynet.com/the-pequot-massacres.htm

[v] https://www.rd.com/article/history-of-thanksgiving/

Before We Celebrate Another Holiday

“This country has not seen and probably will never know the true level of sacrifice of our veterans. As a civilian I owe an unpayable debt to all our military.”  – Thomas M Smith (Author of Elements of Ecology)

For two weeks now, I’ve been trying to write a post for Veterans Day and I keep coming up short. What I want is to convey something that honors the experience of those who have served. But honestly, I don’t know how to do that. And as a civilian, I’m not sure I can.

Here’s what I do know:

Vets are heroes. Maybe not always the kind of heroes we celebrate for “vanquishing a common foe”—but every vet goes through an experience the rest of us can only imagine. We like to compare situations to being in the military but truly nothing is like the experience than the experience itself. Every single person who has gone off to bootcamp, shaved their head, cut their hair, endured yelling at them every.single.day for at least eight weeks, pushed their body way beyond limits they ever imagined, subdued their singular thinking, and allowed themselves to become part of something bigger: a unit, a squadron, a troop, even an anonymous troop of one—this is a hero. At the very least, this is the beginning of one.

Then there are the years of service. Far away from family and friends, eating, sleeping, socializing, and serving with others you may not even like, others you cannot choose, others whose lives you must defend and hope to God will have your back too – that is an experience completely unlike any other. Only those who have served can understand it.

All cultures since the beginning of time have relied on initiation rituals primarily to mark the transition from child to adult. A true initiation requires three things: a departure from what is safe and familiar, overcoming tests and trials of physical and mental feats, and returning home changed.  

These are the same basic components of a hero journey, as identified by Joseph Campbell. And this is the same experience of anyone who has served in the armed forces. Bootcamp is an initiation and the beginning. The years of service and the return home to civilian life is a hero journey. Integrating back into society, among those who have not served and cannot even imagine what you’ve been through, can sometimes be a hero journey unto itself.


For the last twenty-five years, the number of active military personnel has remained pretty consistently around 1.4 million. As of 2018, there were 18 million veterans, equal to approximately 7% of the adult US population.[i]

Between 40,000 and 60,000 vets are homeless on any given night – sleeping on the streets and in shelters. These vets account for 11% of all homeless adults in the U.S. and are younger than the general homeless population. 51% of homeless vets have disabilities and 50% have serious mental illness, much of which stems from their service. In part due to increasing housing costs and lack of affordable housing across the nation, an estimated 1.4 million veterans are at risk of being homeless. [ii]

One-quarter of all veterans have a service-connected disability. Of post-9/11 and Gulf War veterans, however, one-third have a service-connected disability and 16% have a disability rating of 70% or greater (more than any other group of vets).[iii]

In any given year, up to 20% of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[iv]

Vets Returning Home, a nonprofit in Michigan that receives no government funding, recognizes 4,000 vets in crisis living in Michigan, with 45% of them suffering PTSD. As a volunteer-operated facility, they serve 250 vets a year. Veterans Coming Home Center in Springfield, Missouri, serves between 150 and 250 people a day, providing shelter, meals, showers, lockers, computers, a library, and more. All over our country, there are nonprofits serving our veterans but most lump them in with civilians who may have similar needs but not similar experiences.


Have you ever seen the film The Best Years of Our Lives that follows the lives of three vets returning home from WWII? In 1946 it won 7 Academy Awards, including best picture. I’ve seen this film about four times since I was a kid. To this day, I still don’t understand the title.

What makes this film so extraordinary is that it does not glorify war or service. It doesn’t romanticize the reality of returning home.

The three vets in the film are a twenty-something-year-old pilot, a very young sailor, and a middle-aged infantryman. The sailor lost both hands in a freak accident and now has mechanical hooks that assist him in doing most things — but putting on his clothes and opening doors are two essential things he can’t do for himself. The infantryman who reached the rank of sergeant has been married for 20 years and was a banker before the war. When he returns, his kids are grown up.  Just before reaching home, he says, “The thing that scares me most is that everybody is gonna try to rehabilitate me.” And the pilot married a woman who really only liked him in his uniform. When he can’t get a decent job after his return, he goes back to his old job working as a soda jerk at the drug store, and his wife cheats on him.

Ok, sure, the film romanticizes their situations a bit. The sailor’s childhood sweetheart accepts him as he is, the sergeant’s former boss takes him back and his kids are well-adjusted, and the pilot eventually finds a girl who loves him even as a blue-collar guy. But in 1946, Americans were still united in believing war was just and necessary. Veterans were heroes. To show even a sliver of their reality trying to acclimate back into civilian life was groundbreaking.

Thirty years later the film Coming Home also won several academy awards, including best picture. This gaze is unflinching as it follows the lives of two Vietnam Vets: one who lost use of his legs and the other, a marine captain, who is so traumatized by his experience that he eventually takes his life. This story is stark and powerful. And this story is the true experience of so many vets.

One scene that strikes me is when the marine, newly home, confronts the paraplegic vet who has slept with his wife. The marine says, “I don’t belong here. … I know what happened. I just got to figure out for myself what happened and how I’m going to deal with it.” On the surface, he’s talking about his marriage. But quickly we realize he’s talking about the war – and the reality of coming home after war.


Earlier this year, the VA announced it is granting $400 million to help homeless vets and their families find rapid re-housing and prevent many from becoming homeless in the future.[v]

Just to be clear – cuz honestly, I had to do the math on this several times – that equals $22.22 per veteran. Okay, so let’s say only 1,460,000 veterans need this help – only those that are currently homeless or at risk of being homeless. That is still only about $274 per vet. Not funds that go directly to them but to services that will help them with housing. Which means our government is budgeting maybe fifteen hours of someone’s paid time to help a vet?  Someone who put their life on the line to protect the rest of us safe in our homes and now doesn’t have a home of their own – that sacrifice is apparently worth just $274 of government assistance.

In the Build Back Better Act that was just passed by the House of Representatives on Friday, the VA is allocated $5 billion dollars, a 72% reduction from the $18 billion originally proposed by the White House. Out of this, $2.3 billion is to update current facilities; $1.8 billion is to lease more medical buildings, and only $268 million is to hire more medical staff. And by more medical staff, I mean 500 residents. Residents are essentially doctors-in-training with terms of two to three years. And that’s 500 new resident positions over the next 7 years. Why residents? Because VA doctors earn substantially less than other physicians, which makes it harder to keep physicians, but there are always plenty of residents that need the experience and will work for less.

Let’s do the math again: The new infrastructure bill that our elected officials have been haggling over for months—and which still needs to be approved in the Senate—will allocate less than $15 per veteran for medical staff. Meanwhile, $4.1 billion –equaling 82% of allocated funds—will go to buildings. BUILDINGS NOT PEOPLE.

Meanwhile, upgrading the VA’s medical records system is a $16 billion project that is filled with problems and generally not going well. And perhaps you remember that the VA has been plagued with problems for many years. Horror stories of long wait times (months and years for vets to receive services) and being denied treatment and benefits were headlines just a few years ago. Now, after six years on the Government Accountability High-Risk List, the VA has still not fixed its problems or even made significant progress.


One day a year we honor our living vets and most of us don’t even think about it. Some working folks get the day off but most don’t. The vast majority of Americans don’t even know why we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11.[vi] Instead, the day we honor the deceased ones is far more popular, and not just, I think, because it allows us a long weekend.

We like our heroes to be dead. Dead heroes are much better stories. The sacrifice is clean and noble – the stuff legends and myths are made of. But the hero that continues to face trials and strife? The hero with a life-long disability? The hero that struggles daily to acclimate into civilian life, to pay their bills, or is homeless?  None of that is romantic. All of that is uncomfortable. All of it forces us to look at ourselves, our nation, our policies, our prejudices. We prefer stories over reality.

We, as a country, need to do a LOT better at honoring our living vets. We need to stop our obsession with comic-book heroes and move past the momentary feel-good stories of one-time acts of courage that populate our news and social media. Real heroes are living amongst us every single day. When they entered military service, they prioritized our needs above their own for years. It’s high time we prioritize theirs.

My friend, Paul Schmidt, who served 7 years in the Army Reserves

Please, this Thanksgiving, call your senators and ask them to approve the Build Back Better Act. It’s too late to get more money for our veterans but let’s at least stop the political grandstanding that minimizes their needs.

My great uncle, Harry Peppler, served as an Army Corporal during WWII. Above is the Thanksgiving menu from just before Pearl Harbor.


[i] https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2020/demo/acs-43.html

[ii] https://policyadvice.net/insurance/insights/homeless-veterans-statistics/

[iii] https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2020/demo/acs-43.html

[iv] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sleepless-in-america-ptsd-sleep_n_6671198

[v] https://policyadvice.net/insurance/insights/homeless-veterans-statistics/

[vi] November 11, 1918 is the day a formal peace agreement was signed, ending WWI. WWI was supposed to be the war that ended all wars. What we now call Veterans Day was formerly known as Armistice Day.

When Faith Brings Us Home

I don’t remember thinking about death as a kid. Not really. Not until I read The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis when I was in high school. That book rocked my world. Here was a hell not of eternal fire but a dreary grey town where souls are forever stuck in the misery of their own choosing. Heaven, on the other hand, is waiting for us, if only we can put aside our human egos and earthly desires. If we can simply let go of what we think we know. Clear our minds, clear our hearts, and journey with angels into the shining mountains, the place of limitless love.


My mother told me once that her father saw angels in the corner of his hospital room shortly before he died. And my godmother often told me how angels had visited her, first when her niece died in her arms as an infant and later after her husband died suddenly in middle age of a heart attack.

I was counting on a similar experience when my parents died. But if there were angels, I didn’t see them and I didn’t feel them either.

But it seemed like my parents both spoke to angels in the days before their death. They each had a conversation with a presence that they alone could see. My father’s was unsettling. He was agitated. My mother, however, seemed comforted. Even amazed. She kept saying, “I did not know that!” When both my sister and I interrupted by touching her arms and telling her we were there, she turned her head, looked at us and said, “I know that!” and then went back to her celestial conversation. It was a spectacular thing to watch. Later she said that her beloved dog Betsy, who had died three years earlier, was sitting by her on her bed. Maybe dogs are angels.


The very last words my mother spoke were these:

“I’m dying. It’s okay, I’ve seen that it is all okay.” 

Then she turned her head, looked me directly in the eyes, smiled, and said clearly, definitively, “It’s all okay.” And with that, she began her transition. For six days she straddled the worlds, never speaking again as she moved towards the light, making her way back home.


A few years back when I was working at Bacone College, a Baptist school for primarily Native Americans, I met a Christian ministry student in her mid-20’s who told me she believed in bringing back the dead. She had seen it done, she said. Through fervent prayer and laying on of hands, she aspired to one day having the ability to “save” a life.

This confounded me. Did she believe in eternal life? Yes. Did she believe in an omnipotent, all-knowing, and loving God? Yes. Wasn’t the dying person being called home to God? Yes, but… Why would she second-guess God? Why would she keep one of God’s children from going home? Isn’t heaven a far greater reward than more time on earth?

She told me I didn’t understand. I suspected her ego was greater than her faith, but I didn’t say that directly. Perhaps she was right – I didn’t understand.


Neal Donald Walsh mentions in his books, Conversations with God, (though I can’t remember which volume), the idea that we all come from God. We are part of God, one-with-God, before we enter this human incarnation. We are each within the Divine light. This was my second big Aha! moment. Again, like The Great Divorce, a heaven far different from what I was taught as a child.

It is only our humanness that separates us from God. When we die, when we shed this mortal skin, we return to our original pure state: we are joined again with god-stuff, with light, with that which has no beginning and no end.

Of course, it’s possible that Walsh, like Lewis, read Dante’s Divine Comedy from the early 14th Century. In Paradiso, Dante’s guide, Beatrice, becomes more luminescent and resplendent as she and Dante come closer to God. As all the blessed souls who have reached the top of the mountain gaze upon God’s radiance, they become one with the mystical white rose which is the home of all saved souls.

Dante’s journey began in the depths of the dark and ends in the light of heaven. His sight, “becoming pure, was able to penetrate the ray of Light more deeply—that Light, sublime, which in Itself is true” (XXXII, 52-54).

He continues:

Eternal Light, You only dwell within Yourself, and only You know You: Self-knowing, Self-known, You love and smile upon Yourself! (XXXII, 124-126)

If we are of God, we dwell within God. As Kahil Gibran says in The Prophet, we are in the heart of God. When we die, we return to this Eternal Light. This is heaven. But not quite the same heaven as angels conversing on park benches.


For both my parents, death was a laborious affair. My father willed himself to transition quickly. Two days after coming home from the hospital, his death rattle began. It would later subside and be another twelve days before breath left his body. Meanwhile, I read Teilhard de Chardin’s small book On Suffering to him. While I no longer have the book, I remember how deeply the words resonated: my father nodding his head and softly moaning his acceptance of their truth. God was breaking down his body, painfully parting the fibers of his being in order to penetrate his very core, stripping him down to his weakest newborn self, so that he could go to God not as a man but as an infant ready to be born.

My father wanted to die on Easter. He wanted his funeral to be a celebration of the resurrection, filled with Allelujahs!  In the end, fully conscious of each day on the calendar, he shimmied out of his mortal body on Christmas morning.

Oh Jesus Christ, thy manger is my paradise.

Midway through my mother’s week of transitioning, she had an afternoon of clutching the sheets at the sides of her thighs with both hands and lifting her head and shoulders. The same contractions a woman does when giving birth. My mother was in labor. In her dying, she was laboring to birth herself anew.

Three days before she died, I wrote:  Snakes shed their skin. Deer, moose and elk shed their antlers. Dogs and horses shed their coats. Eventually, we shed our bodies.


In the 2009 film, The Invention of Lying, everyone tells the truth. There is no religion, no myth, no stories, no beliefs, no lies. In this context, death is universally understood as an eternity of nothingness — until the main character does something that has never been done before: he says something that he doesn’t know to be true. When his mother is moments away from dying and scared, he tells her that in death we go to our favorite place in the whole world and everyone you’ve ever loved and has loved you will be there. And you’ll be young again. There’s no pain. There’s love and happiness and everyone gets a mansion and it lasts for eternity.

In the presence of the terrifying unknown, these words are comforting. These words become truth. As a primary character says, “This is the most important thing mankind has ever heard. It’s going to change the world forever.”


In 2001, eight and a half years before my mother died, she wrote me:

All my questions, all my doubts, all my searching, all my theological reading—they’ve all brought new, sometimes entirely different, answers to my questions. The faith I have now is different from that of my childhood and early adulthood. 

But one belief, at least, remains.  When I leave this life, I will go to eternal life with God.  I will be with those I loved who have preceded me.  I am as sure of this as my mother is, now in her 97th year.  I pray I will see angels at the foot of my bed and hear them singing, as my father did.  I pray I will have time to remember or to literally say goodbye to you children and tell you how much you blessed my life and how much I love you.  I know someday you shall join me.

But if death comes fast—in one sharp moment of pain—and I have time only for one brief prayer, it will be “Take me, Jesus.” 


I could speak at length about what other faiths believe about an afterlife, about what happens when we die. But that’s not really the point.

The point is what we believe.

When my father was dying, this poem by Jean Formo comforted me:

Will we be reunited with our loved ones who died before us? Will we recognize them from the forms they embodied in this life? Will we talk to our mothers and fathers, siblings and friends as we once did?

I no longer believe this. Not the way I once did.  Still, I am comforted by my faith. Born of the same faith of my mother and my father, my godmother and my grandparents.

Death, I believe, brings us home.

The design, artwork, and calligraphy of my father’s funeral bulletin and his memorial concert were done by my stepmother, Judy Beisser

For All the Saints: Celebrating Life

My father arrives first.  Then my mother. And my godmother. Then Roger, Avi, Alan, and Jim. The grandparents come in pairs, my aunts and uncle too. Bit by bit, staggered through the night, they arrive.

Tonight is Samhain, All Hallows Eve. When, it is said, the veil between the worlds is thinnest.

The altar is set. Candles are ready to be lit. Glasses ready to be filled. Photographs of smiling faces stare back at me. Yellow mums, Alstroemeria, and traditional marigolds help light the way. When night comes, I’ll lower a match to wicks, get cozy, and wait. One by one they will come.

The ofrenda is a Mexican tradition and an important part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration. I’m not Mexican. I’m not even Hispanic. But I have celebrated All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls Day ever since I was a child. In some ways, it’s really all the same thing except with a lot more color.

It was 1993, I think, when I first learned of  Dia de los Muertos. By then, my father, my paternal grandparents, and friends Roger, Rollis, and Michael had transitioned from this plane to the next. More would go soon enough. I knew nothing about ofrendas then so my first was without color and a bit somber.

I grew up singing “For All The Saints Who from Their Labors Rest” the first Sunday of every November for All Saints Day. It is, by far, my most favorite hymn. Tonight I will sing every verse.  And I will, as always, tear up with the words.

Ah, but Days of the Dead. Even with the tears, these days are somehow joyous. One holiday during which to remember all my loved ones: a celebration, a party, a large family gathering. Wonderful memories. Flowing wine. Special treats. Good stories.

Sometimes I am the only one on this side. The only one waiting for the others to arrive. Other times, friends or lovers have joined me, extending the altar to include their family as well. When there are others, we share stories between us. When I am alone, I share stories with the souls. I speak to them directly. I wait for their response. I introduce them to each other. I thank them each for coming.


This year I will light candles for four more friends, four more who will come for the first time: Jada, Gloria, Chuck, and Dave.

I’ll pour a glass of port for my father. For my mother, I’ll have a Manhattan and chocolate. For Grama Baird and Teresa, orange pekoe tea in a china cup. For Ralph & Lenna and all the others, there will be lots of yellow and lights.

Every year it changes. The photos and flowers and display, the special treats for those who will visit me. An ofrenda is traditionally for only one person. Mine are always for many. Great parties are those when you know some of the guests but not others. When folks who appear to have nothing in common end up connecting over shared laughter. My family has always been great at throwing big parties. This evening is no different.


Most people are afraid of death. I’m not. I was present when both of my parents died. I’ve sat next to and held the hands of many close to death, breaths away from their last. When my time comes, I’m pretty sure I’ll surrender. I just hope there’s little to no pain.

I think, perhaps, the real fear for many folks is the possibility of being forgotten. The very real likelihood of there being one day when no one who remembers you. And if no one remembers, did you ever exist? If no one remembers, what was the point?

This is why we create monuments, yes? In bronze, if you’re famous, and in granite otherwise. We place markers in cemeteries so people can find us.

I love cemeteries.


Dia de los Muertos reminds us that death is inevitable. And this, along with our fear of death is, perhaps, why Halloween has become so popular among adults, along with scary movies. Skeletons, graves, and zombies become something to laugh at. Death parodied. But truly, death is sacred. Calaveras – decorative skulls, some made from sugar – remind us that even death is beautiful and life is sweet. Savor it.

Death be not proud, though some have called you Mighty and dreadful, for you are not so. For those you think you overthrow Do not die, poor death, nor can you kill me.  (John Donne, Holy Sonnet X)

The real beauty of Dia de los Muertos is that people are remembered. Family comes together. Ancestors are honored. During this holiday each year, it is more evident than ever that nothing can break the bonds of love – not even death. To love is to remember. To be remembered is to live. To be loved is to be home.


Long before we lowered flags at half-mast to honor the dead, there was the tolling of church bells. First to announce an impending death, then to announce the death itself.

John Donne, the cleric, scholar, and poet of the late 16th Century, wrote:

Perhaps he for whom the bell tolls may be so ill that he doesn’t know it tolls for him. Perhaps I think that I am recovered to such good health that I do not know the bell is being tolled for me by all those around me who see my illness more clearly than I. . . . No man is an island, entire unto itself. Every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the mainland. If a clod is washed away by the sea, Europe is diminished, just as if the sea had washed away a mountain or one of your friend’s grand houses. Any person’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in humankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you. 

(Devotion XVII)

Honestly, there’s not a space large enough for a full ofrenda – one that honors all those close to me who have shed their mortal skins. And when I think of Donne’s words, there could never be a space large enough.

Whether or not you make an ofrenda sometime over these next two days, may you raise a glass of wine or sip a cup of tea and remember. Remember each loved one who is just beyond the veil and always in your heart. Remember your teachers, your parents, your friends. Remember those you never met but admired from afar. Remember those you never knew but whose lives, too, mattered.

Life is sweet. Death is inevitable. The bell tolls for thee.

Remember. Then celebrate.

Some ofrendas from years past

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