Safe in the arms of Koko.


Robin Williams left too soon. When you hang yourself with a belt in your bedroom, there’s not much doubt that you intended to end your life. That is sad beyond words. But words are all I have, so here goes.

Sadder still is the story and photo posted by the St. Paul Pioneer Press a few weeks ago when Williams visited the Dairy Queen in Lindstrom, Minnesota while he was in treatment at Hazelden. He looks gaunt, even ill, but poses dutifully with a DQ employee, his eyes avoiding the camera. I have some familiarity with this Dairy Queen from the time a few years ago when my former husband spent 28 days at Hazelden. Pete didn’t enter Hazelden willingly, and hoped that the family would keep his secret. It was a disorienting four weeks for our kids and me, but of course, much more so for him, another step in recognizing what the disease had done to him and to our family. He did the work as best he could, and boarded the van a couple of times each week for the DQ outing. You take what breaks you’re offered, I imagine. He wouldn’t have welcomed being recognized by anyone he knew.

And yet Robin Williams put his private self on very public display, surely knowing he’d be recognized. Perhaps he felt he had no choice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between curing and healing. There’s no cure for addiction or mental illness. Nor for most cancers, or heart disease, or diabetes, or a host of other medical conditions. No cure for the human condition at all. But we can learn to manage our conditions. We can help each other heal. And we can be — should be — very sad when beloved people leave in spite of that.

My friend Ed Hessler sent me a link yesterday to a piece on about Robin Williams’ encounter with Koko, the gorilla who has learned American Sign Language. Ed has taught me a great deal about science, and poetry — about life — in the years I’ve known him. With this link, he reminded me of our deepest connections to every being, every thing, in the “entangled bank” of our world.

“We shared some interspecies laughter,” says Williams in the video. At the end, Williams and Koko embrace, at first tentatively, and then Williams smiles and relaxes into the embrace, eyes closed. Whatever greeted him on the other side of yesterday morning, I hope he was embraced with that joy. And I hope he joyfully returned the embrace.

Join us at The Blessing House on Saturday, January 11.


Stephanie Friant has invited me to teach a writing workshop at the Blessing House in Victoria, Minnesota this coming Saturday, from 9 am to Noon. We’ll be talking about writing your own life story, or family stories, and we’ll do some fast and fun writing exercises together so everyone has a head start. The Blessing House is a peaceful and contemplative place to enjoy a winter day — and Saturday may even be sort of warm.

I met Stephanie last summer, and quickly discovered that we share an interest in spiritual writing, and in spirituality as a journey. She’s a thoughtful and humble writer – visit her blog when you’re looking for food for thought, and she’ll point you in all sorts of interesting directions.

I’m a guest at Sisters Under the Trees.

Stephanie Friant of Sisters Under the Trees asked me to write a post this week about why stories matter.  Although I have serious doubts about religion, I’ve come to admire Stephanie’s approach to spiritual writing — she’s all about the journey, as am I.

I’m looking forward to talking next week with the MotherCare group that Stephanie has organized at Mt.Calvary in Excelsior — where my four (all grown up) kids went to preschool. What fun to visit with a new generation of moms. NotebookPencilI think I was invited to share something about teaching, but I expect I’ll learn quite a bit myself…


Oradour again.

Ghosts of War - Oosterbeek Airborne museum; The eternal curator

I’ve written about Oradour-sur-Glane, the small town in France burned by the Nazis in 1944, and my 2010 visit there with my French friend, Nathalie.

Oradour is in the news this week as German President Joachim Gauck joined M. Hollande and an 88-year-old survivor of the massacre. President Gauck said he accepted the invitation with “gratitude and humility” but hoped to remind his French hosts that “the Germany that I have the honour of representing is a different Germany from the one that haunts their memories”.

To say that the atmosphere at Oradour is haunted is to understate by a million-fold what happened there on June 10, 1944, and before that, and since then. The air itself holds atoms of the lives lived in the village, of the attackers, of those who survived, of those who posted plaques, of those who visit. Layers and layers, decades of haunting. It’s hard to imagine that it will ever not be haunted.

We need that though, don’t we? Places that demand we remember, that we remind each other of what happened, and why. Given the length of human history, and the history of humans, there are many more of these places than we acknowledge.

Jo Teeuwisse’s Ghosts of History project places WWII photos inside modern photos of the same locales. In some photos, people from the 1940s look at people from 2012.

Except, of course, they don’t really see each other. View Ms. Teeuwisse’s entire collection here.



Ordinary grace.

My book club read Ordinary Grace this month, by Minnesota’s own William Kent Krueger. The author voices the opening pages in this trailer, quoting Aeschylus: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain – which cannot forget – falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

It’s a beautiful book, beautifully written, its characters demonstrating grace through their actions page by page. Sometimes, through their choices not to act. We spent some time talking about the difference between “ordinary” grace and “awful” grace — the kind of grace that is bestowed upon us versus the grace we earn through endurance, by living a life grounded in the realities of  relationship and circumstance.

No conclusions drawn; I’m still thinking. The hallmark of a really good book.

Cheerleading, and Jesus, and Paul.

It’s been three months since Dick’s mom came to live with us, and the enormity of the responsibility has sunk in. Jeri’s wonderful hospice team is arranging a volunteer for an afternoon or two per week, and we’re hiring help for several days each week. Dick’s brother and sister and their spouses aren’t in a position to be of very much help (I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to call them my in-laws, because we aren’t actually Married in the Eyes of the Law. Or the Church.) I met the extended family only once in the year before Dick and I committed to sharing a home, and caring for their dying mother probably isn’t the ideal way for all of us to get to know each other.

Dick’s sister-in-law told him recently that she prays for us every day, asks Jesus to strengthen and encourage us. So we have that going for us. It’s good to have cheerleaders, I guess. But I haven’t seen Jesus hanging around when it’s time to fix meals, or help Jeri with her personal needs, or attend to her laundry and medications and questions. Dick and I are the only ones here, doing what needs to be done. In return, we get the gift of connection, available to any of us when we stick around for the tough stuff. If Jesus wants to cheer us on in that, good on Him.

So. Thinking of the relative merits of cheerleading made me remember my son Paul’s high school football days. Playing college football is a tradition in his dad’s family – the meme is that males who turn out to be somebody all suffered/enjoyed the rigors of college football. I know this wasn’t the primary reason that Paul went out for football as a high school freshman, but it was there in the background.

Football in Minnetonka is a cherished institution, with all of the benefits and perils of any other institution. Friday nights, everyone in town comes to cheer the home team. The stadium is full of middle schoolers roaming “the Hill” above the end zone, classes congregating in their sections (all standing on seats and risers, thereby doubling capacity), the marching band and their shining instruments and uniforms. Families come early for burgers. I served lots of those burgers and I loved every minute of it — seeing my kids and their friends, other parents, teachers, school board members. The coaching staff made a point to stop by to thank volunteers for the support.

Minnetonka has good cheerleading squads, athletes in their own right. Their work on the sidelines makes us all feel like we’re on the same page, at least for four quarters. But it was Paul and his teammates who did all the work, every day for four years. Practice at 6 AM, and again at 4 PM in the heat of August. On the fields for weeks that went from a humid 98F to below-zero snowstorms. Grueling weight training every week, all year, every year. Competing with players younger and older for coveted starting spots, and rarely getting them.

Paul and his friends are better human beings not because they had the privilege of wearing blue on that field, or the hoped-for glory of a few minutes of playing time while we all cheered from the overflowing stands. It was the work that did it — doing the work in the cold and the dark, the mud and sweat and blood and heat. Paul and his teammates made that choice. So do I.

The cheering, nice as it is, is beside the point.

What Heaven Might Look Like.

We’ve been talking about heaven at our house lately, ever since Dick’s mom and her hospice services joined our household. Jeri’s plan, once she’s past the pearly gates, is to sign up to be guardian angel to her great-granddaughter, Kendra. Kendra could use the help. She’s a bright and charming and energetic 7 year-old who likes Farkle, and fingernail polish and her yellow-Labrador puppy. But her home life is more chaotic than a great-grandmother, or anyone, would wish.

I think that’s a pretty good project, signing on to be someone’s guardian angel, and who am I to say her application won’t be approved? In fact, who am I to say I know what heaven is, or is not? Jeri clearly has trouble believing that heaven, and the way there, is accurately described by her Catholic faith. I have trouble believing God Himself, or whatever name an ultimate divinity goes by, is accurately described by the Protestant tradition I grew up with. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the conversation at the pearly gates goes something like this:

Newly Deceased: Well. Here I am, at Heaven’s gate.

Gate Keeper: Oh, geez, have you got this wrong. There is no heaven here. Your time on Earth? That was heaven.

ND: (looking around the misty clouds) Ummm… angels?

GK: There are no angels here. The people you mistreated on Earth? Those were the angels.

In The Lovely Bones, author Alice Sebold works with the idea that we each have a personal heaven. Heaven is whatever we want it to be, whatever most suits and comforts us. Of course, there’d be inherent conflict when one person’s idea of heaven contradicts another’s. Come to think of it, that’s the central conflict of being human isn’t it? The road to unhappiness is paved with trying to please everyone. And it’s the central conflict of all humanity — your tribe can’t have what it wants if it wipes out what my tribe wants.

So I think heaven, if it exists outside our time on Earth, must be sort of a Venn diagram of overlapping realities, pleasing to everyone in the overlap. And no one pays attention to the places that don’t overlap; they simply cease to exist.

I grew up believing I’d go to hell for thinking and talking about God, religion, heaven and hell the way I do now. But who am I to tell a dying woman that what she wants to imagine is wrong? I’m going to tell Jeri that heaven is anything she damn well wants it to be.