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