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

Harry Potter, Little Women, and Lady Bird

What do Harry Potter, Little Women, and Lady Bird have in common? They all have interesting representations of Mom. Well, to be precise, the Demeter Mother archetype.

Yes, this is one of those academic topics. Okay, maybe you just rolled your eyes. But hear me out. Maybe you’ll discover something good to watch tonight.

Mother has everything to do with home. Mother is our first home. (Yes, I’ve written about this before.) But not every mother is a nurturing-baking cookies-always there with a hug kind of mom. In my post titled, “Not Every Mother is a Good Mother,” I examine how mothers who primarily embody the Greek goddess Hera archetype are more focused on their husbands and being wives than they are on their children.

This time I’m exploring the ideal mother. The archetypal Mother. The Greek goddess Demeter, mother of Persephone.

Together, they make a pretty interesting pair. And the film, Lady Bird, is a wonderful illustration of their story. Not the one where Persephone is abducted and raped but the older Pre-Hellenic version where Persephone chooses her destiny and her mother Demeter assists her. Except in Lady Bird, the mother doesn’t assist. Instead, she resists her daughter growing up and is hurt by her daughter’s need for more than her mother.

In the Harry Potter series, there are two spot-on examples of the mother archetype. One is awful (Harry’s aunt, Petunia) and the other is everything we expect a mother to be (Mrs. Weasley).

And then, of course, there’s Marmee in Little Woman and Max’s mom in Where the Wild Things Are. There’s also the 2019 film, Troop Zero, and the 2016 film, Mr. Church with Eddie Murphy. In both of these examples, someone other than the mother is required to step into the Mother role.

And then what happens when Persephone becomes a mom? TV sitcom examples include Lorelai in Gilmore Girls and both Bonnie and Christy in Mom.

If you have seen or read any of these examples, you may be interested in reading my paper titled, Demeter and Persephone: The Mother and Child Archetypes as Expressed Through Myth. Note: it’s a paper, and extracted from my still-to-be-published book so, admittedly, it’s much longer than a blog. But truly, understanding the archetypes present in our mothers when we were young can provide very helpful insights into our adult relationships and our connection to home.

Or maybe you’re just a little bit interested. In which case, you can listen to my interview with Tony Mierzwicki on his podcast Living Hellenismos, presented by Mount Olympus. In this chat, we discuss much of what I just mentioned along with nannies, Italian mothers, and Mama Rosa of Chicago Blues Club fame. Oh, and the importance of leaving home. (come on, doesn’t that tweak your interest just a bit?)

The point is: Ancient myths are still relevant today. These stories and the archetypes in them can validate our own experiences and provide new possibilities for how our personal narratives can evolve and improve.

I hope you’ll take a look or listen.

Thanks for reading! Jan

Tethered Hearts

“My heart is tethered to yours.”

These words were spoken at a wedding I attended last weekend. Spoken during a toast from a brother to the groom. “You are more than a brother and more than a friend,” he said. “I feel as if my heart is tethered to yours.”

What could feel more like home than this?


At the root of the American mythology of independence is the idea of the self-made person, the go-it-alone trailblazer: pioneers and mavericks. Tethered to no one and no thing.

Yet our constitution is based on the idea of civic responsibility. While we untethered ourselves from the mother country, we chose to create a set of laws that tether us, and our actions, to each other. How else could we ensure general welfare and domestic tranquility unless every citizen participates in this responsibility?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The assumption in this preamble is clear. Like it or not, we are tethered to each other.


Depending on the dictionary, tethered means to be connected, fastened, bound, or confined.

“If you love something set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” Cheesy wisdom from the ‘70s. Except that nothing is ever ours. Ownership is an illusion. But connection is not. Connection is real.


Physics tells us we share atoms. In fact, the breath you just took and exhaled will eventually end up, at some moment in time, in my lungs and in the lungs of every other person on earth. Your breath is my breath. My breath is yours.

More than that, quantum physics tells us that nothing is solid. Each of us, and everything around us, is energy. Energy has no boundaries. Boundaries are an illusion.

Buddhism teaches that the Self—as a separate and autonomous being—does not exist. Instead, we are each part of everything else in a world that is interdependent. We co-exist. We are tethered to each other and to all things.

To be tethered comes with responsibility.


When I was younger, in my 20’s and married, I had this very strong, almost visceral sense that I could float away. I needed another person (my spouse) to hold onto my string, like a balloon, to ground me. To tether me to the earth somehow. To keep me from floating up and away. This wasn’t a romantic notion. The possibility felt very dangerous and real.

My father had recently died. So many friends were dying or sick. My immediate family was small and spread across the country. Marriage provided a tethering I needed.


Roots are entangled balloon strings. Roots keep us from blowing away, from being too easily pulled up and destroyed.

In the early twentieth century, new homesteaders in the Great Plains dug up the native prairie grass to plant crops. Rows and rows of seasonal harvests created a short-lived breadbasket, replacing an estimated 35 million acres of native grasses.

In celebration of this perceived bounty, Rogers and Hammerstein wrote the musical Oklahoma!, in which the title song exclaimed,

Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain
And the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain.

But then the rain didn’t come. Drought came instead. Crops failed. Without the roots of native plants to hold the soil together, the soil turned to dust. And the dust took to the sky when the winds came. And the damage, terror, and pain of dust storms rocked the entire country for well over a decade, even when the rain returned.

We know we belong to the land, And the land we belong to is grand!

Have you ever tried pulling up grass? Or transplanting one plant out of a pot with many? Untangling roots is virtually impossible. If you’re not careful, if you damage a root system, you damage future life. We did that in the 1930’s. We’re still doing that today.

Roots are our home. Roots keep us grounded. Roots are a sense of community and belonging. To be tethered is to have roots. To be tethered is to know home.


A few years back, The Untethered Soul was a New York Times bestseller, with a cover featuring a beautiful horse running on a beach. The image evokes the idea of freedom, calm, and even a self-contained wildness. The general focus of the book is the idea that habitual thoughts and emotions hold us captive. If we can untether ourselves from these thoughts and emotions, we will be joyfully liberated from sorrow and discomfort. We will be free.

But sorrow and discomfort are not always pathologies. To be free of all our painful memories and uncomfortable emotions would be much like ripping up the native grasslands of our soul. We would dry out, become hollow, and wind storms of burnt possibilities would stir like tornados in our empty spaces. Because you can’t remove sorrow without also removing joy. As Kahil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, joy and sorrow are inseparable.

In the 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carey and Kate Winslet play a couple in a long-term tumultuous relationship. At a point of exasperation and deep heartbreak, they each undergo a medical procedure to erase the other from their memory. Afterwards, they meet through a chance encounter and fall in love all over again. When they discover their past, they hesitate. Neither has changed – they will certainly experience the same challenges afresh. And then… they realize they are already tethered to each other. To part again would only cause them sorrow. And there is still so much joy to be had.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” – Kahil Gibran, The Prophet


“Do you promise to love, cherish, and respect each other? To care for each other in the joys and sorrows of life, whether in good fortune or in adversity, and to share the responsibility for the growth and enrichment of your life together?”

May we always say I do. In our families, our friendships, our marriage, our communities, and in the world at large, say I do.


To be tethered is to be connected, fastened, bound, or confined.

To be tethered is to be home.

💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞 💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞 💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞

Photos are of Girl with Balloon by the artist Bansky. This artwork first appeared as graffiti in London and later was sold at auction for $1.4 million, after which it immediately began to shred through the frame and then stopped due to a malfunction. The partly shredded work sold last week at a new auction for $25.4 million.

The History of the U.S. and Home

“Wherever we went, the soldiers came to kill us, And it was all our own country. It was ours already when the Wasichus made the treaty with Red Cloud, that said it would be ours is long as grass should grow and water flow. That was only eight winters before, and they were chasing us now because we remembered and they forgot.”
― Black Elk

Here in the U.S., what we call home was stolen from others. Our ancestors were immigrants. The people who lived here – possibly as many as 112 million – welcomed them, taught them skills, and shared their food. Yes, they said, this is home. It can be your home too.

In exchange, they were killed, deceived, rounded up, and moved like cattle.

That’s a grim way to start a post but today is a good time to acknowledge the truth.

Today we celebrate the beginning of the greatest genocide the world has ever known. We elevate a man whose actions were considered ruthless even in his own time and make him the hero of an outdated American mythology where white Europeans are ordained by God to have dominion over the earth and all animals and people living on the earth.

OR

We honor the indigenous people of North America. We remember the women, children, and men—sometimes complete bands—that  were slaughtered, along with the wisdom and potential that went with them. We celebrate the resiliency of those who survived. We recognize the 574 tribes of Native Americans in the United States today.


Oklahoma has the second largest population of American Indians in the country and is home to 39 tribes, only five of which are indigenous to this state. The other thirty-four tribes were forced to leave their native lands and relocate here between 1814 and 1824 under the command of Andrew Jackson.

Jackson, the seventh president of the United States and the face featured on our $20 bill, was pretty darn awful when it came to American Indians. Mostly he is known for the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that forced eastern tribes to move west, resulting in the Trail of Tears. There’s a lot that can be said about Jackson but the truth is that everything he did was sanctioned by the government. Treaties which stripped tribes of their lands. Military assaults that resulted in more than 25 million acres being taken from tribes and transferred to white cotton farmers.

It wasn’t enough to share this home with those who already lived here. We wanted it all to ourselves. We were civilized. We were superior.

In 1823, the Supreme Court declared Indians could live on land within the United States but could not own those lands. In other words, the “right of discovery” by white Europeans and their descendants was superior to the “right of occupancy” of those who already lived there.

Seriously.

Oklahoma was supposed to be the answer. Native Americans were moved here to what was called “Indian Territory” because no one thought the U.S. would grow west of the Mississippi. But then gold and oil were discovered and even the rugged rocky land of Oklahoma, originally reserved for Native Americans, became highly favored. So the reservations were largely cut up into allotments that allowed white settlers to stake a claim.

The Land Rush of 1889 resulted in approximately 50,000 people swarming Oklahoma on opening day. And those who crept into the territory early and hid in the night only to stake claim first thing in the morning, essentially stealing a leg up on others, were called Sooners. A designation that was derogatory but eventually became a point of pride.

We are a nation that is proud to have stolen homes. Proud to have broken treaties. Proud to declare ourselves better and more deserving than those who lived here before us. And anyone who comes after us.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. As James Baldwin said,

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”


After over 30 years of planning, funding, and defunding, the First Americans Museum has finally opened in Oklahoma City. This 175,000 square foot building sits on 40 acres of land and recognizes the 39 tribes of this state. The deputy director of the museum, Shoshana Wasserman, said, “It’s almost like this project had to go through the same historical trauma that our tribes did.”

In the early 1900s, countless Native American objects were removed from Oklahoma and placed in museums. Objects sacred to tribes and used for ceremonies were treated as curios. Some even removed from graves. Can you imagine? Really, can you imagine?

Thousands of those objects were brought to Washington DC, where they sat in storage for over a century and were never displayed. Now, more than 100 of these sacred objects have come home to Oklahoma. Currently on display at the First American Museum, they will also be used during special events and celebrations as originally intended when each piece was created so long ago.


It’s not my place to speak about the relationship between Native peoples and home. To even attempt to would be insulting.

All I know is this:

It’s way past time that we, as a country, acknowledge our past. It’s time to correct the lies we’ve been telling for over 400 years.

Before any of us called this place home, these lands were already home to tens of millions of others.

Today we remember. Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

These photos were taken in August, 1998, in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota,
where the Wounded Knee Massacre happened on December 29, 1890. The second and last photos are mine.
The first photo was taken with my camera by the third child.

Disturbing Tranquility

Three weeks ago I woke up to a loud sound, like a car engine revving. No, not that. What then, was that persistent loud noise? OMG… is it… could it be? Really? Yes. It was 6:25 am and someone was using a leaf blower.

I sat up in bed and peered through the blinds but saw nothing. I waited. It didn’t stop. I went to the front door. Nope, not a neighbor. I grabbed my keys and, in only a t-shirt and boy shorts that I had slept in and with no shoes on my feet, I jumped in my car. Down the block and around the corner is a restaurant. Sure enough, there was a landscaping truck. No grass mind you, nothing to mow, but a man standing in the street blowing dirt and leaves away from the curb. At 6:30 in the morning.

I stood in front of him and waved my arms frantically until he finally looked up. Even then, it took a few seconds longer for him to turn off the machine and take a plug out of his left ear. “It’s 6:30 in the morning!” I said. “Are you crazy? This is a residential neighborhood. I live a block over and you woke me up. It’s 6:30 IN THE MORNING! Stop!! You CANNOT do this at 6:30 in the morning!”

He said nothing. Just took a small notebook out of his pocket and wrote something. “Do you need my name?” I asked. “My phone number? I’m happy to talk to your boss if you like.” He just stared at me. I stared back. Then I got in my car and went home.

Two weeks later, last Monday, it happened again, at 7:15 am.


Living in a city can mean frequent, even continuous, bombardment by noise … cars, trains, buses, pedestrians, and even ambulance sirens all tend to blend into the background. But leaf blowers are always jarring. As jarring as jackhammers.

A friend was visiting from Idaho when we heard the blower at 7:15am. Two days later, we were strolling around the gorgeous gardens of the Philbrook Museum’s 25 acres of land, enjoying the flowers, outdoor sculptures, and generally basking in peacefulness when suddenly a loud engine jolted our serenity. There it was again. Neighbors on the other side of the museum gardens were using a leaf blower. Disappointed, we walked back to the museum.

Maybe you’ve heard of forest bathing. A concept coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in the early 1980s, which has become increasingly popular as more and more of us live in urban spaces. The idea is simple: take a break and walk among trees. Bathe in silence. When you spend time in nature, you increase your well-being. Scientific studies have actually proven this.

Cities have parks for exactly this reason. Even hundreds of years ago when towns were being built, people knew that if you lived in a city, you needed parks for leisure: a place to stroll, to relax, to get away from the bustle and noise of urban life.

This is why in the 1880s, Minneapolis planned its city to have a park every six blocks. A whopping 98% of residents live within half a mile of a park. Horace Cleveland, the landscape architect of Minneapolis’ park system told the newly-formed park board:

“Look forward for a century, to the time when the city has a population of a million, and think what will be their wants. They will have wealth enough to purchase all that money can buy, but all their wealth cannot purchase a lost opportunity, or restore natural features of grandeur and beauty, which would then possess priceless value.”

Enjoying tranquility in nature is priceless. Wealth has brought us leaf blowers. A machine to do what a simple broom can do and without all the noise.


I’ve lived in cities with great parks. Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Balboa Park in San Diego, and Lincoln Park in Chicago along with the lakefront and plenty of forest preserves on the city’s west side. Amazingly, Golden Gate Park has been closed to cars on Sundays for over fifty years. I love that. And I really loved that when I lived there.

Here in Tulsa, my two favorite parks are Woodward Park with its various gardens, and the new, award-winning Gathering Place. Typically, my little dog Mazie and I visit Woodward on Sunday mornings before the crowds arrive and the Gathering Place on Wednesdays, the only day that dogs are allowed.

So it happened that one Wednesday last spring, we were strolling through the kid’s playground area and, as we passed the zipline, I smelled gas. And, along with the delighted squeals of children playing, I heard music. Not live music but jazz, coming from where I couldn’t be sure.

This new, amazing park, was using a gasoline-powered generator to pipe music into the children’s play area. In addition to the health hazards and environmental damage, my mind screamed with the following thoughts:

  1. WHY?? First and foremost, WHY?? What is the purpose, the goal, the outcome expectation of having music in the children’s area? While I give them credit for playing jazz (certainly one of my favorite genres), again, WHY any music AT ALL??
  2. This is a park, for heaven’s sake. This isn’t a coffee house. Parks are designed to be tranquil and soothing for adults, while interesting and fun for kids. Music piped in through speakers is conducive to a theme park such as Disneyland maybe, but not a city park. And I suspect the designers of the Gathering Place believed this as well, which is why there are no electrical outlets for musical equipment in that area.
  3. A gasoline-powered generator? Really? In the children’s area? Who decided this was okay??

So I wrote an email to the powers that be and… the generator was moved. Though, I was told anonymously, there is always the possibility it will be used elsewhere. And sure enough, two weeks ago I found it along a walking path and above a children’s playground.

Every home with a lawn is a miniature park. Green trees and grass are the standard measure of tranquility for our homes. Our own plot of land, which requires far too much in precious water resources and constant care. Wealth moved us away from push mowers to gasoline-powered lawnmowers that are loud. But for many of us, the sound of lawnmowers seems synonymous with Saturdays.

And now we have even louder machines to blow around grass clippings. Blow them where? Into the street.

Tab Addams recently wrote a very thorough article on the My Pro Yard website in which they state, “most commonly-bought leaf blowing machines … can result in ear injury within 2 to 5 minutes of operating the unit. Moreover, the sound can travel for [approximately half a mile] with a metric of at least 55 decibels.” (bold emphasis is my own)

Yet there are actually people who find the sound of leaf blowers relaxing. Over 1,000 people have liked a YouTube video, 3 hours of Leaf Blower Sounds, which was produced from a subscriber’s request.


I associate home with quiet, which is common for many white Anglo-Saxon protestants of my age. No loud noises or raised voices. Music playing softly on the radio. (Unless, of course, you’re dancing or getting pumped up to clean!)

Then I married an Italian. Family gatherings were always loud and chaotic. My mother-in-law once responded to my distress by saying, “You know what your problem is? Your house was too quiet when you were young. Me, I would vacuum when my babies were sleeping!” A roar of affirmations rose from her kids and the memory still makes me chuckle.

For some, home doesn’t feel like home if there isn’t a cacophony of sounds. Adults talking over children squealing. Multiple conversations happening simultaneously. The news or a sports game on the TV in the background, often not even watched. Others keep on talk radio. If you grew up in the city, the sound of traffic, of cars honking, trucks passing, delivery vans beeping, and buses steaming as they stop and start are all ambient noise that is familiar and even comforting.

My house in Picabo, Idaho was far away from all of that. A niece from Chicago came to stay with me once and couldn’t sleep – it was too quiet. She’d lie awake all night and then sleep during the day.

Too much silence, if you’re not accustomed to it, can be unsettling.

Still, we need a certain amount of tranquility. Spending time in nature has been proven to reduce stress and benefit both our mental and physical health. Nature helps us relax.


One autumn many years ago, I went camping with a small circle of friends. It was a quick trip so Peggy suggested a place about an hour away from the city. All afternoon we marveled at how lovely the spot was and how convenient, saying we’d certainly have to come back again.

That evening, settled around the campfire, Peggy said, “Isn’t it amazing that we are so close to the highway and we can’t hear a thing?” For a moment we were quiet. We listened. And then, we heard the traffic. We could really hear the highway! We all burst out laughing. Well, of course! We were in a suburb of Chicago, not actually in the country.

But at least, thank goodness, nothing but the wind was blowing around leaves.


Thoughts to muse on:

Where do YOU find tranquility in nature? Is it your backyard, a favorite park, along the beach, or in a forest preserve? While fishing? Hiking? Walking your dog?

Can you feel the difference in yourself after spending time in the tranquil outdoors?

What sounds do you find most jarring – what noises destroy your serenity?

Potato Soup

I was chomping on carrots the other day – and not the baby carrots neatly trimmed to uniform size and packaged in plastic – but long irregular carrots that are slim on one end and grow to an inch thickness at the top where the greens have been sliced off. Normally I shred these for salad and give the slim ends to my pup, but in an effort to curb my appetite for cookies, I grabbed a few of these to chomp on instead.

Halfway through the second one, I realized my mouth was tired. Chewing was hard work. It wasn’t my teeth that hurt – my teeth are fine. But my jaw was exhausted.

A memory filled me with shame and remorse. If only I had understood the fatigue of chewing thirty years ago.

In 1990, my father was 56 years old – only about a year older than I am now – and I had returned to Chicago to take care of him during the last months of his life.

Every morning I prepared my father breakfast, something soft and light. Mostly he enjoyed grapefruit, sliced, with each segment carefully cut from the membrane, topped with just a bit of honey. Other times, he ate yogurt or a soft-boiled egg. Together we would drink gunpowder tea and discuss the activities for the day. What calls needed to be made, appointments to be had, errands to run, people to visit, and more. Then I would make lunch. Often in the afternoons, we took a nap. Finally, I would prepare dinner and when my stepmom returned from the office, we would eat together and share the events or our days. Then I was free to enjoy the evening on my own.

This worked well. I’ve always enjoyed cooking. Nothing fancy really, with the exception of Coq Au Vin, which honestly is pretty easy. It was my father who had taught me years earlier how to dress up Campbell’s Cream of Celery soup with canned tuna fish. Though I had certainly progressed beyond that, I still cooked fairly simple meals.

This day, I decided to make potato cheddar soup. I LOVED this recipe. Potatoes, cheese, onion, and milk – no bacon. I don’t remember exactly and sadly I no longer have the recipe. But it was easy and filled with flavor. Hugely satisfying comfort food. Cooked correctly, the potatoes were soft enough to melt in your mouth.

I was excited to share this with my father. The weather was turning cooler and soup felt warm and nurturing. My father had once regularly enjoyed seven course meals paired with wines at every course. He would return home five pounds heavier and the next morning after visiting the bathroom, be back at his normal weight. But now food was about comfort and sustenance, that’s all.

I prepared the soup with anticipation. It had been a while since I had made it and, perhaps, I was looking forward to it more than he was. Finally on the stove simmering, I left to run an errand.

When I returned and checked on the soup, I let out a shriek. “What the hell happened to the potatoes?” I screamed. In my absence, my father had pureed it. Using one of those long-nosed hand blenders, he had buzzed away until it was a cream. I was bereft. I was angry. “You destroyed it,” I wailed.

This man used to cook the most mouth-watering Beef Bourguignon. Anytime there was a turkey, he turned the carcass into a magnificent soup filled with fresh vegetables. Sure, he also ate Campbell’s, but never without adding to it and making it better. Same with macaroni and cheese. Poor food dressed up. My father knew how to cook.

So he pureed my potato soup. He knew what he was doing. He knew creamed soup would be yummy and it would also be easier for him to eat.

I understand that now. Chewing can be exhausting.

If anyone has a really great potato cheese soup recipe they can share, I’d appreciate that.

In the meantime, I’ll stick to cookies.


Photo is not mine. I pulled it from Pillsbury.com

When Place is a Verb

I don’t listen to music much on the radio anymore. Firstly, I hate commercials. They’re annoying as heck. Secondly, so much of the music today sounds the same. And that’s annoying too.

When I do want to listen to music, I pop in a CD. Yup, I still have those. Just wait – they’ll make a comeback. LPs did and they’re a whole heck of a lot larger. My car still has a CD player and I have one in my apartment as well. Course, I downsized and got rid of a bunch a few years back when I moved. Downloaded them onto my Mac, and along with years of buying music from iTunes, I accumulated a library of nearly 6,000 songs. (How can that be? But the collection does span widely across genres.) And those playlists that we now all make? I burn them to CDs.

Anyway, I did happen to flip on the radio the other day and I heard a song that struck me: Country Again by Thomas Rhett.

He talks about fishing and hunting and cracking open beers. Sitting by a fire under the moonlight. Driving a Silverado truck and wearing cowboy boots. All of this is country to him. He says he loves him some California but it sure ain’t Tennessee. All of which has me thinking…

Nashville is a pretty big city. But ok, I get what he means.

Certainly these things are a contrast to modern living, as he eludes to in the song: too much time on the phone, too many things on your plate, running around and not being present to nature and friends.

But having lived in a rural town for fourteen years and knowing a fair share of country folk, I’d say most of them are guilty of modern living too.

And I wouldn’t say fishing and hunting and fires and beers are the only ways to “be country.” Lord knows there are enough city folks who have rifles and drink beer.

I bought my first pair of Nocona cowboy boots in 1985 when I was living in San Francisco. Bought my second pair in 1990 when I was living in Chicago. I wore the heck out of those boots and many more since. But even when I lived in rural Idaho, the boots didn’t make me country.

I have a friend who was born and raised in Alaska. Got his M.B.A. at Harvard. He still hunts and fishes but he drinks more fine wine than beer. As far as I know, he’s never owned a truck. Behind one of his homes (not the one in the city), runs a creek and next to it is a regularly used bonfire ring. Is he country?

It’s interesting to refer to one’s self as a place.

Place is not a verb. And I get that in this song it’s an adjective. Still, would you ever say, It’s good to be city? It’s good to be New York? No. Maybe part of my problem with the lyrics, as catchy as they may be, is the grammar. You know those commercials I referred to earlier? Yeah, same thing. Even the electronic signs on the highway now tell me to “Drive Safe” instead of Drive Safely.

Pet peeves and grammar aside…

I’m pretty sure what Thomas Rhett is talking about is roots. Getting back to our primary nature. The person we really are, the things we love to do, the way we prefer to show up in the world.

For various reasons, we have a tendency to “try on” personalities. Sometimes to fit in, other times to find our true selves. As kids, maybe it was punk or goth or brainiac or slacker. As adults, maybe we traded in our sneakers for leather loafers. Our shorts for skirts and our t-shirts for ties.

There was a brief time when I wore gym shoes a lot. Ankle Reeboks, to be exact. Remember those – the ones that had two velcro straps at the ankle and came in red and black as well as white? Yeah, I had pair in each color. Good Lord, I shake my head to think of it. Truth is, I hate wearing athletic shoes. I have never been a jock, even if I have shoulders that make me look like a swimmer. And while yoga has been a staple of my life for decades, I don’t like wearing yoga clothes either. The casual messy look or “I just came from the gym” isn’t me.

Shortly after I moved back to Chicago from San Francisco, I was wearing loose black pants cuffed around the ankle, a black t-shirt, and black gladiator sandals in a suburban Chicago bar when a woman said to me, “You’re not from around here, are you?” I laughed. I grew up in Chicago. And honestly, I don’t think anyone in San Francisco would think I was from there either.

Three years ago when I started working in Oklahoma – first as a college administrator and then as a museum fundraiser – I was so grateful to wear suits again. I love suits, with nice shoes to match. I love blazers. I like clothing that says now I’m working.

This probably goes back to my childhood. Our roots always go back to childhood, yes?

We had a dress code in school: no jeans in grades up to 8th and if you had beltloops in your pants, you had to wear a belt. Even in high school, no shirts with any writing. Every  Sunday, even during hot and humid Michigan summers out in the country or during blizzards of snow and cold in the city, we dressed up for church. For Wednesday night services too. I didn’t wear pants to church until I was maybe fifteen. And now, while church is no longer my thing, when I do go, I still dress out of respect.

Crowds and traffic and noise, freeways, fast food, and shopping malls are abhorrent to me. I prefer dark silent nights punctuated by an occasional owl hooting or a coyote howling. I love the sound of car wheels on gravel. I’m most at home in a landscape filled with trees and rivers and streams, with wide-open fields, tractors, and barns. There’s no smell sweeter than fresh-cut hay. I like the sound of screen doors banging. My favorite clothes (when not working) are blue jeans and boots. Does that make me country?

What does it mean to be a place?

My current collection of boots, with the first pair I bought in 1985 on the far right. The photo above is the black Noconas I bought in Chicago and resoled four times over 16 years before having to admit they were shot.


What do you think? Can you relate to this Thomas Rhett song?

Are you country? Are you some other place?

The Children are Watching

I’ve been working for the United States Census Bureau this summer, interviewing home occupants for the American Housing Survey.

Occasionally, I get a person who is rude and shuts the door on me. One guy threatened to call the police, which actually is funny because I’m not soliciting – I’m with the government – and the police would tell him as much. Another said he was calling his lawyer but then ended up making me coffee. I seem to have success with folks who previously said no to another field rep. Maybe because I’m nice. Because I’m genuinely grateful for their participation. Because I really do believe that every person makes a difference. Bottom line, I enjoy this job.

Last week I was in Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City. While this is not where I’d want to live (for a variety of reasons), my encounters have been mostly good. I’ve seen the occasional Trump flag and many “Stand Up for America” lawn signs, which I suspect means something different to those homeowners than it does to me. I’ve also seen a number of “In this house we believe… black lives matter, science is real, love is love, etc.” lawn signs. These always make me happy. Then, yesterday morning I saw this:

I took this photo from a distance, deliberately obscuring it a bit to soften the blow. And then I watched a man drive up, park in the carport, and walk into the house with a young boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old. The man was probably in his 30’s.

This language, this anger, this hate. This is what that young boy is exposed to daily. Admittedly, I’ve been known to drop the F-bomb, though always for emphasis, for color, and always as an adjective. And when around children, I curb my tongue. Most responsible adults do. But to use this as a verb! That’s another thing entirely. As a verb, it is violent.

What makes a person hang a flag like this? Pro-Trump flags are one thing, but this – this is something altogether different.

This flag hurts. This flag is intended to hurt. This flag is violent.

We are already so divided. How do we come together, how do we even have a conversation when one side speaks in such language? How do we talk to someone carrying a gun in a crowd or ripping a face mask off a teacher? How are we to react to someone who screams about their rights while ignoring the rights of others?

I keep thinking about the 2001 documentary Promises  that looked at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes and lives of children – Israeli, Palestinian, and Jewish. Seven children filmed over four years who decide to meet and try to understand the other’s experience. It’s a powerful film, won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar.

Did these children affect a change in the conflict? Perhaps not. But certainly, a change happened within each of them. They are part of a generation that is changing the world. The generation that doesn’t care about gender constraints or who one loves or marries. The generation that does care about the environment and social justice.

But the little boy that I saw walk under that awful flag and into the house with the man who probably hung it… is he part of that generation? Or is he a new generation, one that will swing us backward, away from liberation, justice, and freedom? Away from love, respect, and kindness. Maybe. Maybe not.

Soon after seeing that disturbing flag, I turned a corner and saw this.

Clearly a response to the Covid19 pandemic, reminding me of the many Andra’ Tutto Bene (everything will be alright) signs throughout Italy during the Covid lockdown last spring.

Hope & Love. #AloneTogether.  If only this hashtag had caught on in the States as much as Andre Tutto Bene had in Italy.

Children are watching. They are always watching. They are sponges. They take in everything. They mimic adults – their parents first, yes, but also others.

May we each be careful with our words. Thoughtful in the things we write and in the things we say. Conscious of our actions. May we be patient, gentle, and kind, while firm in our boundaries. Love is strength. Love trumps hate. We must live in love.  As the garage door says, Hope & Love. Always have hope. Believe in love.

Because . . .

the children are watching all of us. Even when we are divided, we are still a large village raising our young.

Contemplating Suicide

On most days, Mazie and I walk along the Tulsa fairgrounds – on the sidewalk outside the western gate. At a certain point, there is a shallow ravine, a drainage ditch overflowing with tall grass. And every time we walk along this, I think of her. Lily.

I met her dad on Easter morning. He had just driven in from Colorado, pulling a trailer. Said his wife and daughter were only a short distance behind. They were renting the house across from my neighbor, John, while they looked for land to buy. A place to create a new home.

He asked me about the neighborhood. Said his wife and daughter liked to walk every day. We chatted a while and he was animated. A few hours later, I came back with freshly baked brownies. For him and his family. After that, I never saw him again. I never met Lily.

Ten weeks later, John texted me the news.

Turns out, John never saw much of this new neighbor either. They have a nice front porch with a table and chairs but never use it. The wife ventured over a few times to comment on John’s garden. His lilies were especially beautiful this year. So white. “My daughter’s name,” she said.

Lily was young and recently divorced. A few times, John said, she strummed her guitar on the porch, sitting in the chairs where her parents never sat. And sometimes he saw Lily and her mother walking. But that was it.

Then came the night with the police and the TV crew. The shoes sitting under a tree and a trail of money leading down to the ravine. No note, but she clearly wanted to be found.

My heart breaks for her parents. To lose a daughter like that. In a new place, isolated and alone.

I can’t imagine their grief.  But I can almost – just almost – imagine Lily’s.


What makes a person take their own life? And please, don’t tell me mental illness cuz honestly, I think that’s bullshit. That answer is too neat, too tidy, devoid of complexity. Depression, yes. A pain inside the chest, a darkness that never lifts, a problem that doesn’t go away, the insurmountable effort of facing another day, yes. All these things, yes. Depression is debilitating. But when we reduce all suicide to mental illness, we are lying. Every death has a story. Too often, we don’t know the story. In truth, we never know all of it.

I don’t know why the mother of my eighth-grade classmate took her life that summer. Or why Pam took hers, just weeks after having dinner in our home. A friend later did her biorhythms chart and apparently that fateful day they had been low. Did that make a difference?

Jack had AIDS. He was in great shape, buff and still healthy, but, he said, he couldn’t bear the thought of becoming weak or dying slowly. He sent a letter to his friends explaining everything and included a photo of him smiling. Then he laid down in bed and made sure that was it. For months he had planned and none of us knew.

Avi wrote a ten-page letter after it was revealed he had done something bad. Children were involved. Maybe charges would be pressed. He didn’t wait to find out. He took the tram up to the Sandia Mountains and as the sun was setting, one shot echoed. He was a warm, deep, and philosophical soul. Was he always tortured and we didn’t know? He was only twenty-seven years old.

Pam, Jack, Avi – these weren’t mental illness. And their deaths weren’t a response to bullying.


Is suicide the opposite of home or an attempt to try and find it? Feeling so far away from comfort, from peace, from a sense of safety, the endless aching, the despair. Perhaps convinced you are a burden, a mistake, and don’t deserve to be loved, to belong, to feel safe. At least in the moment knowing you are so far from it.


The truth is, there have been times when I was ready to die. To cease being alive. I don’t mean to alarm you. But maybe you’ve felt this way too?

The first time, I was grieving the death of my father. My chest felt blown apart, like swiss cheese or the way spoiled milk curdles in coffee. How easy it would be, I thought, to let the car drift, to hit the concrete median on the highway. I didn’t want to kill myself, only … I didn’t want to go on living.

Two other times, I was deep in depression. Most recently, last winter. Existential angst. Triggered, perhaps, by friends dying. Perhaps emotional fatigue. Every day took so much effort. Every day required a long nap. There’s a point when pain is numbing and in the numbness is an ache. Friends said, yes, yes, we are all hurting, and I couldn’t disagree. Pandemic and politics, we are all so exhausted. So of course, I couldn’t tell you this. I wasn’t looking for pity, or affirmations, or love. What I wanted was to close my eyes, to feel nothing, to forget.

The other time, the depression came on quickly – the swift and unforeseen swing from manic activity, years of working in HIV. I was inconsolable. I would let only my sister near me. The cliff, I said, I’m hanging by my nails from a cliff and the soil is crumbling. Clods of dirt are falling around me. It would be so easy to just let go.

And before all of this, when I was a teenager, I had a religious conviction that told me this life meant nothing. It was only the stepping stone to bliss. I wasn’t depressed, I was ready for the hereafter.

In all these times, I never considered taking my life. A desire for relief, to cease living, is not the same as contemplating suicide. I have often thought if I had a terminal illness, I wouldn’t fight it. What would you call that? Acupuncturists have told me repeatedly that I have low kidney chi, the life force energy. I was born with only a little, which, they say, explains my persistent childhood illness and my miscarriages. I don’t have enough blood. I have so very little energy. But you’d never suspect that if you knew me.

When my mom refused kidney dialysis because she also had pancreatic cancer, the hospital chaplain told me that was suicide. I told him he was wrong. Her decision was courageous. Her decision was faith. “I had a long conversation with my Lord,” she said. She was ready to go home.

I’m not sure what I’m saying.  I’m just wondering …

What does it mean to cause one’s own death?

Eating meat causes heart disease, but many of us still eat it. Over-eating and lack of exercise. Fast food and alcohol. Come on, the list goes on and on: the things we know we shouldn’t do and the things we do anyway. The things we should do and avoid.

What about not wearing a mask during a pandemic? Not getting the vaccine?

Is the right to die a civil liberty?

You can drink yourself to death but don’t drive when you’re drinking. Killing yourself shouldn’t cause another person harm. Same with smoking. You can do it at home but not in public places.

Where do we draw the line? What constitutes suicide?

Our actions have caused wildfires and flooding. We’ve changed the weather and we’re dying from the heat. Our copious consumption has depleted forests and oceans and polluted our air everywhere. The artic ice sheets are melting. Our passiveness allows corporations to poison our children. No clean drinking water in Detroit? That’s old news. Another oil spill? Old news too. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a report that is damming and well, again, we do nothing.  

Every day we are killing ourselves. We are complicit in the killing of others. The pain is overwhelming.

And then we see Afghans clamoring to leave their country in order to not die in their homes. Haitians carrying on after a catastrophic earthquake followed by Hurricane Grace. Who named that storm anyway? Was it meant to be ironic?

Then I consider the hero’s journey, which requires a transformation, a death of one life for another. At the beginning of each journey, our loved ones plea, “don’t go!” fearing for our lives. We leave anyway knowing we are already dying. We can stay and die slowly or leave. Death happens either way. Living – really living – is a perpetual act of suicide.

Every day we are dying. We must die to one life in order to live more fully in another.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”  – Seneca the Younger

Living and dying are one and the same. The yin and the yang. “To make an end is to make a beginning.”  How can we say that one person is living and another is dying?  That one is courageous and the other is not? Who are we to determine this? Who among us is living so fully and not complicit in death that they can throw the first stone? Do we package suicide as a sin, or as a result of bullying or mental illness so we don’t have to see ourselves in it?

Living and dying, it seems to me, both take courage.

Either way, courage brings us home.


What do you think?

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