21 July 2015


 Yesterday we went down to the dive centre after breakfast and our gear was already on the dive boat. Delana, our PADI instructor flashed us one of his rare smiles. “You’re divers now—I set up your equipment for you.” Will, in his briefing on the boat, said, “Ok, just head down as soon as you’re in the water—you’re divers now, so we’ll just meet at the bottom and go from there.”  John and Tanya, the lovely couple we’ve been diving with these last few days, smiled on the boat ride back in after the trip to the spectacular giant clams and mushroom shaped corals. “You’re divers now,” they said. “Welcome to the most fun club in the world.”

We’re divers now. People say it as a form of identity—as if it’s who we are, not just a thing we do. Identity sounds fixed in its way, and pieces of it are, of course: things like gender, race, class, religion, national origin and the various forces that shaped you as a kid. But other parts of our identity are as slippery and fast moving as the flashing fish we’ve been watching underwater this week, a rainbow blur and then gone.

Last year at this time we tried diving for the first time, but it didn’t touch my identity which was painted thickly over with the cancer treatment. My nearly bald head made me a curiosity at the resort, rendering the tank strapped to my back nearly irrelevant. This year, my curly hair masked my trip through chemo just 13 months ago, and the tattoo peeking out of my bikini stood out much more than the fading scars from the surgery. It was the wetsuit and tank that marked us in this little tiny resort. “You’re divers, eh?” people would ask us. I guess so, we answered, the diver identity as borrowed as the wetsuits and tank.
There are pieces of our identity people feel happy to talk about, and pieces that seem oddly not in good taste to mention. Funny how last year no one asked, “You’re just out of chemo, eh?” even though the odds of a bald woman being out of chemo (rather than choosing bald as a fashion choice) are probably about the same as the wetsuited woman being a diver (rather than just being extra cold). At our resort this time there was a woman in a rather-familiar looking hat that she kept on at all times; I figured she was just out of chemo. And there was a woman with a heavy scar on her chest where an IV port goes and I figured there was some kind of cancer treatment there, too. But I didn’t ask either of them. Cancer seems somehow a private form of identity, to be discussed in hushed tones.

Dying, too, seems like that. My uncle Tommy has been moved to hospice care at home now, where he has wanted to be, and there are updates from the family each day. Tommy had a great day—an Irish band visited and lots of friends. Or Tommy is really tired today and sleeping a lot. I’ve been sending him cheerful texts with pictures of palm trees and the inane sort of “wish you were here” messages. None of us are mentioning the identity of the dying. How do I talk to him about whether he’s afraid or in pain, whether he’s wishing for the end or wishing for a miracle? Does his identity shift from living and fighting to surrendering and dying? Does the identity of the hospice patient overtake all the others—father, brother, writer, Air Force officer? I have no idea.

But perhaps I am unprepared for even the slight shifts in the current of my life that seem to shape my identity. In January we moved from Paekakriki to Wellington, and I felt my identity shift with even that small trip. “You’re a city mom now,” my kids tell me. I notice that my sense of myself as a writer shifted when the second book was published; one book might be a fluke, but two books makes a line and seems to mark me (to myself at least) as a writer. Naomi is off to university soon, and that, too, seems like a looming shift in identity—I’ll be one of those moms of kids grown and gone, hurtling towards the empty nester identity which is likely to be ours for the rest of our lives.

How much of our identity do we choose, and how much is chosen for us by our circumstances? And even as I type this I see that our choices are all created by our circumstances and we are choosing from a small subset of all possibilities.  It is a privilege to take on the diver identity given how expensive the pursuit is; it is even a privilege to take on the “cancer survivor” identity when in the developing world this cancer would have killed me.  Who do I want to be next? What combination of choice and circumstance will create the palate from which I will paint this next portrait of my shifting identity? How do we make sense of the ways we choose and are chosen, we write and are written by the world?

Today the wind picked up in paradise and the dive tanks that got strapped on the dive boat weren’t for us. Alex at the dive centre told us how lucky we had been with the still seas and perfect weather, and we saw once again that we hadn’t even noticed the way circumstance had written our opportunities for us as we descended dive after dive into calm, clear waters. We had credited Chris, our instructor in Wellington, and Delana, our instructor in Fiji, for our own easy competence rather than the fluke of tides and winds that made our certification journey easier last week than it would be this week. And of course Chris and Delana have their fingerprints on our ease and competence. And Michael and I matter too in this picture. That’s always the way, I guess, with the slippery fishes of our identities.  It is the speakable and unspeakable parts of our public and private lives as well as the swirl of the atmosphere around us that gives us colour and shape.
As I teach leaders about complexity, I am continually reminded of it in my own life: the way chance and choice weave a tapestry none of us could have predicted ahead of time. The unexpected conversation over lunch. The gig I took at the last minute. The lump my fingers brushed over in the shower one morning.  The vague wish that got amplified into a diving certification class that took me to Fiji one still July day, winding my way through coral canyons 18 metres under the Pacific ocean. I have no idea where the winds and tides will take me next, which combination of events I choose and circumstances that choose me will thread into the tapestry of next. But a new set of possibilities was created with this trip and with the new colour—diver—that weaves into my future.

12 July 2015


--> Michael and I are packing for our trip to Fiji (which still sounds exotic though it is the closest tropical island to NZ), nestling snorkels and fins next to shorts and tank tops as the July winter wind lashes sleet against the windows with stark staccato strikes. The last time we packed these things, it was my first trip out of chemo, the promised trip that got me through the long days and nights of cancer treatment. Now, a year later, I take an in breath and look out over my life again, above and under water.

We have been working on getting our PADI certification so that we can scuba dive, and Chris, our lovely instructor, keeps having to remind me to push my hair out of the mask; the last time I wore my mask, I didn’t have any hair to push away.  The PADI certification has been harder than we imagined it might be, and in many ways more wonderful. Chris at Dive Wellington greeted us on a cold Saturday morning—a motley circle of participants who were all looking to breathe deep underwater for one reason or another. There was the fellow who wanted to spear fish and collect kai (food in Maori), the lovely young couple who were wanting to swim in schools of fish on their next holiday, the two US Marines who do such things because they are there to be done.  Chris told us again and again that most of the trick to scuba diving was stress management and watching the breath, and during his patient teaching of the theory portion and in the pool afterwards, he showed us what he meant.

By Sunday afternoon there were nearly 20 of us in our wetsuits and scuba gear sitting at the bottom of the four metre pool in Kilbirnie.  We were clumped in little groups around our instructors, watching them signal to us, perform an underwater task with grace and ease, and then point to us to mimic it, anxiously and awkwardly. I was a raw beginner, misunderstanding some of the directions (and inhaling rather more pool water than I’d have liked as a consequence), awkwardly listing to one side with uneven weight belts, popping up too quickly or sinking like a stone as I tried and failed to make small adjustments to my buoyancy.  Chris watched the way I was likely to simply try a thing without centering and breathing into it first—getting ahead of myself in the desire to move through and on to the next task. (This is not a new pattern.) As he hovered in the water, telling me to breathe and watch and settle, I wondered where he had been all my life.

I wondered, too, about how useful this exercise would have been during chemo. The raw focus on the breath, on the present moment. It is always right now under water (how could that be not true on the land?). Never have I had a meditation so anchored in the breath as this is—every inhalation and exhalation is audible, marked, miraculous. Yet isn’t that always true? Aren’t all of our breaths a kind of miracle?

I shouldn’t be new to this idea, and yet it seems close in several ways this week. While I’ve been struggling to breathe underwater, I have loved ones struggling to breathe above it.  My great uncle Bill Gunther—my grandmother’s baby brother—is in the hospital with pneumonia. Although he has seemed old to me my entire life, it is hard to imagine him without a twinkling smile and a welcoming hug.  When I close my eyes, I can hear his gravelly voice in my ear: “I love you, girl.”   

And on the other side of the family and a generation younger, my uncle Tommy Fitzgerald—my mother’s little brother—has been admitted to hospice. Although he’s probably 20 years older than me, I remember Tommy as a new Air Force officer, as a young father holding his tiny baby. When Tommy was diagnosed with stage four cancer in late 2013, the doctors said he had only a handful of months to live. He and I were on the cancer train together in 2014, but as we know, the cancer train has many many different tracks, and his track looked heartbreakingly short while mine had (has) every indication of long. Chemo—a last ditch effort—worked wondrously for him. Tommy recovered enough to visit his daughter in China, enough to come to Aidan’s coming of age ceremony, enough to finally see his ancestral Ireland this year. In January Tommy and Aidan and I hung out with my mother and my aunt Betsy, and we talked about life and love and death and grace, and I learned more from him about the present moment than I had ever imagined there was to learn.  Every breath is a miracle.

Under the pool water I breathe in, bubble bubble out. I check my gauges. I hold my buddy’s hand. I look up at the slowly kicking feet of old women doing their daily exercise, the strong arms of middle aged men arcing through the water, the flailing legs of children racing for a ball.  Chris shows us how to breathe from my buddy’s tank, how to drop my weights and race to the surface in case of an emergency (humming all the while), what it feels like to try to breathe when my tank is empty.  There are no fish in the pool, just other strange beings in scuba gear down below, and the occasional glimpses of swimmers far at the top. We all breathe in, we all bubble out; each breath is a miracle.

I have been out of chemo for a year and three weeks now. My hair is a curly mop top, deeply in need of a cut. I have danced at Naomi’s school ball, celebrated Aidan’s 14th birthday, and mourned my cousin James who would have turned 25. I have held my new book in my hands and watched sea turtles sleep on coral ledges 12 meters under water.  I have fallen back into a world where I am overscheduled, where I travel too much and work too hard (I am writing this on Aidan’s birthday, on a plane to Melbourne). I am learning and I am also not learning these lessons.

The things Chris teaches us about scuba are the same things I am also trying to learn about life. Breathe slowly and deeply. Never, ever hold your breath. Don’t go up or down too fast. Stay close to your buddy. Be aware in the present—of how deep you are and how much you have consumed. Every breath is a miracle.

I am a slow learner—above and below the water. Michael and I meditate on land in the morning, hold hands far under water in the afternoon. We laugh with Aidan at his birthday dinner until our stomachs hurt and tears pour down our faces. We walk from our new city house to paths through magical woods with vistas out to sea. While we make breakfast, we talk to Naomi to hear about her latest college visit on the other side of the world. In this last year I have learned how short life can be, how precious it is, how few guarantees we’ll ever get. In this last week, I learned that again and again. I reminds me of a Richard Wilbur poem I have always loved. It is always a matter of life and death, as I sometimes forget. This week I have learned what I have learned before, only harder.

The Writer
Richard Wilbur
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy.
I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark
And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from a chair-back, 
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder. 

11 May 2015

Breaking open

I have had cause lately to think about grief, and about rebirth. My 24 year old cousin was killed in an accident in November, and when I was in the US in April I went to the ceremony interring him in Arlington National Cemetery (he was a soldier, a first lieutenant, an apache helicopter pilot, and one hell of a fantastic kid). As we walked behind the horse drawn casket and to the graveside, I thought about the rituals we have for working through our grief in all different kinds of ways.

The US Army really understands how to mark this kind of grief. The ritual of it was magnificent in its way, cathartic and powerful. Twenty one gun salute, marching band, taps at the graveside set to the percussion of our tears. James’s funeral in November was another kind of catharsis—more personal, more raw, and perhaps the most perfect funeral I have ever seen (can one say that a funeral for a young man not yet in the prime of his life is perfect? I now think I can: James’s death was horrific, but his funeral was perfect). James’s presence was palpable there in the stories from his friends, his three grieving (but so articulate) siblings, his aunt and uncle. The church was alive with the sobbing of the hundreds of people who were there, but it sparked with our laughter too as we remembered his quirky half smile and outrageous hijinks.

These two ceremonies for James have bookended my wondering about grief and ritual in a more daily way. The image of my aunt and uncle holding hands as they walked behind the casket at Arlington will stay with me always. United by their grief as well as torn apart by it, I watched their love for one another deepen as they moved through the tragedy each parent fears the most. There is some way the enormous loss of my cousin has shone a light for me on what it means to grieve in large and small ways, and what it means to mark it well—and how grieving changes us in some way and brings us together.

And here is what we know about heartbreak: it hurts like hell. It sends us into a dark so black we almost forget what light looks like. We curl up, wounded and howling (or, perhaps worse, wounded and silent). And we know that the pain changes over time, but those changes themselves are variable. Heartbreak can tear us apart and make us smaller. We all have images of those who were ruined by their grief, whose lives fall, Miss Havisham-like, into a cobweb-draped stasis. Or it can bring us together and make us bigger than we were before, more able to connect and feel more deeply, more compassionate to others in their grief, more alive and more able to love.

What makes the difference between these two outcomes of the same event? And what about the other, more common heartbreaks we feel: the loss of a job, of a lover, of an image of ourselves we realize will never emerge?  I have been working this week with a group of leaders in a changing market, trying to help their colleagues mourn the passing of an era when business was easy and plentiful and come into a time when business is hard and confusing. I have been watching the grief of those who lost everything in Nepal, the body bags of Ebola victims in Liberia.  The world is made of hardship of such variation that it’s hard to even know how to deal with it. The scale of heartbreak is hardly relevant to the heartbroken; thinking of someone else’s greater misfortune has never actually cheered me up; it has just made me sadder for all of us (and perhaps a little guilty about feeling so sad for something so trivial as my own personal sadness).

But perhaps what I learned from my trip to cancerland, from the grief of the cancer of others, from the heartbreak of my aunt and uncle and cousins and the ordinary grief of our everyday lives is this: heartbreak peels us open. It shatters the normalcy of our former lives, of our former relationships. It reveals our innermost secrets to ourselves. And beyond the searing pain is a new possibility for how we could love, work, laugh again. Rilke says "It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living.  Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing."

In the US, cracks in art works are mended as carefully as possible; we want the broken thing to appear to never have been injured. In Japan, when a crack appears, sometimes the owner fills it with gold; it’s called “wabi-sabi”—the embracing of the flawed or imperfect. Here the broken thing sparkles though its imperfections, because of its imperfections.

It is months—perhaps years—too soon to know whether James’s death will bring beautiful things in the world. And of course none of those things will be as wonderful as his capacity to weave a story I would totally believe until his sly grin gave it away. None of those things will make up for the loss of the children and grandchildren he might have had; none of them will save his comrades in the US Army on their next tour of duty. But James’s friends and comrades and family will live in new ways because he’s gone. We are all changed now.

This week marked the death of the other cousin I’ve lost far too young. Mary Ellen’s death more than 20 years ago changed the course of my life—helping me understand that life is short and uncertain, and that love is the only thing that really matters. It was because Mary Ellen died that we moved to Augusta, and it might well be because Mary Ellen died that we moved to New Zealand. The cracks are horrific, and they are coated with gold.

This week I honour Mary Ellen. I honour James. I honour the pain of my clients in their changing worlds, the pain of those who live with grief that never shows up on the news. I believe that it is heartbreak as much as joy (more than joy?) that connects us, ultimately. We could descend into cobwebby darkness; we could caulk over the cracks so no one notices them. But each of these is a loss of the utility of our grief. It is our scar tissue, far more than our perfection, that allows us to see and love one another. Let us hear “our astonished emotions living” and let us hear the astonished emotions of those around us. Let us paint the heartbreak and craft a golden net that holds us all together as members of the heartbroken human race.

In Blackwater Woods
Mary Oliver
Look, the trees

are turning

their own bodies

into pillars

of light,

are giving off the rich

fragrance of cinnamon

and fulfillment,

the long tapers

of cattails

are bursting and floating away over

the blue shoulders

of the ponds,

and every pond,

no matter what its

name is, is

nameless now.

Every year


I have ever learned

in my lifetime

leads back to this: the fires

and the black river of loss

whose other side

is salvation,

whose meaning

none of us will ever know.

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it


to let it go.

27 April 2015


We have had friends stay with us this weekend, with their two little children--4 1/2 years and 10 months. How glorious to have the house filled with little voices, and how grateful I am for the voices of my own children as we laugh and talk at dinner time. So tonight a poem to mark all that there is to feel grateful for, when the earth doesn't move, and the bombs don't explode, and there is peace and the scent of crepes and the laughing of children of all ages.

by Anna Kamienska

A tempest threw a rainbow in my face
so that I wanted to fall under the rain
to kiss the hands of an old woman to whom I gave my seat
to thank everyone for the fact that they exist 
and at times even feel like smiling
I was greateful to young leaves that they were willing
to open up to the sun
to babies that they still
felt like coming into this world 
to the old that they heroically
endure until the end
I was full of thanks
like a Sunday alms-box
I would have embraced death
if she'd stopped nearby

Gratitude is a scattered 
homeless love

11 April 2015

As if it were...


We are on the big college tour right now, which has a funny rhythm of me at the front of the room teaching at a couple of universities and Naomi and me at the back of the touring pack at a bunch of other ones. It’s a little bit of identity whiplash to go from guest lecturer to anxious mother, but that’s what this week looks like.

Yesterday, after lunch in the Swarthmore dining hall, I opened a fortune cookie and was advised: Live each day as if it was your last. Letting slide the bad verb tense, I have been puzzling over the ways my cancer experience leans me in this direction and also pulls me away.

The clearest example was my friend Nicki who was diagnosed with cancer in November 2013 and whose memorial service was one year ago today. I watched first as she was thinking she didn’t have as much time as she thought, so she cut back on work and threw herself into her PhD dissertation. Then she realized she had less than a year and she put aside her PhD dissertation and began filing memory boxes for her kids—letters to open on their graduation and wedding days, letters to their children she would never see. And then, when it was clear she had only weeks left, putting aside even that level of planning for the future and instead just sitting and having cups of tea with friends and family members, taking pleasure in doing the cryptic crossword puzzles or being read to by people who loved her.

So I get what it looks like to live each day as if it were your last. It means loving the sun on your face. It means hearing the voice of the people you love as a caress. It means a full kind of presence in your right now—the only time we have for sure.

And I’m also on this college tour with Naomi. If we were really living each day as though it were actually our last, we’d be surrounded by family enjoying the moment instead of wandering in the rain through liberal arts colleges she might attend in 18 months.  I wouldn’t be saving for retirement. I might stop exercising (ok, to be honest I for sure would stop exercising).

I wrote about this question more than a year ago: How do you make sense of the envelope of your life when some of the odds change, but you still can’t possibly know what might be next? I am in remission now and I hope to stay in remission forever. My doctor says the odds of my slipping out of remission are the highest in the next three to five years, but I have a friend whose sister slipped out of remission 30 years later. We are seriously in the space of the not knowable.

And yet, I keep picking away at the future as if I can use this new unknowable set in more helpful ways. When I was thinking about my tattoo, I told Melissa it would be worth going through the pain of getting it if I were going to live more than 5 years, but if I were only going to live 2 more years, it wouldn’t be worth it. She would have raised one eyebrow at me (if only she knew how) in her disapproval of that —and surely that’s an absurd way to be doing the calculations of my life. And yet mindlessly I find myself holding these different envelopes and wondering: Would I begin my next book earlier or later depending on the envelope of my life? Would I travel so much if I thought I had only five more years? (Or would I travel more?) If I knew I had 40 more years, how would I think differently about saving for retirement? A friend with stage 3 breast cancer tells me that she just zones out when people talk about a plan for the distant future; she spent the money they were saving for a beach house (someday) on a trip overseas with her family (now); one she can be sure she’ll enjoy, the other she not sure she wants to wait for.
This calculus is in some ways helpful and in other ways crazymaking. Some of the answer is just letting myself live in the knowledge that I can’t know: My choices today might turn out to be bad ones if an unexpected future arises, but I will have to judge these choices with the ruler I had in the moment I made them. We know from Dan Gilbert’s work that we are constitutionally bad at making decisions that are good for our future selves, so there’s no reason to believe I’d be better at that under these circumstances than under others.

Perhaps this first year in remission reminds me that I’m in a dance always between the past, the future, and the present, and that it’s a dance I want to continue to be mindful about. I want to hold on to those parts of my past that bring me delight to remember—or bring me learning to enrich who I am and how I think. I want to hold on to those parts of the future that bring me hope in a dark time, or that call me to be just a little bigger than I can imagine today. And while I don’t know what it means in practice to “live every day as if it was my last,” I do know how to savour a cup of Burdicks hot chocolate, to be enraptured by the buds on the UVA campus, to feel grateful for the dinner with Bob, to relish the time in the hotel room with Naomi sleeping quietly in the next bed. I don’t know how many days I’ll get; neither do you. Some of those days will be filled with the petals of cherry blossoms, and some will have fog is so thick I can’t see the taillights of the car in front of me. But even foggy days are part of the magic of my life, the magic that all of us are alive today, the magic that this day is not our last day, that we get the hope for a sunnier tomorrow.

 Here's the spectacular poem of the day:


Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world's most sensitive cargo
but he's not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy's dream
deep inside him.

We're not going to be able
to live in this world
if we're not willing to do what he's doing
with one another.

04 April 2015

The Peace of Wild Things

Today Michael and I had a long walk up to the windmill near our house through a magical forest.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

03 April 2015


For those who are feeling heartbroken...


On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

john o'donohue