Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why The Minimalists Are All So Young

It’s been a little quiet on this blog. Instead of putting together thoughts, words, and the occasional coherent sentence, I’ve been putting together packing boxes. This spring I moved.

Items for Moving SaleThere is nothing special about moving. They say that 25 percent of all adults move every year and that the typical American moves 11.7 times in his or her lifetime. If that is true, I have exceeded my quota, but only by a move or two. For me, there have been two childhood homes, the usual smattering of dorms and graduate school apartments, a live-in arrangement at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the house I bought on my own in my 20s, four parsonages, two family homes and a cabin on a lake, the house on Norway Hill, and now this house I am renting from friends.

An Excellent Moving Day

As moves go, this was not a hard one. The distance was short, the help plentiful. The head of my Church Council turned up at 7:30 am and set up a coffee urn borrowed from the Church Vestry. Several kinds of muffins, still hot and zipped into those warming bags that church ladies alone seem to possess, arrived a few minutes later, as did a crew of 18 and six pickup trucks. Three hours later we are sitting around the dining room table at the new house. Placemats and tablecloths had been miraculously extracted from an unlabeled box and layered up into something festive. More food arrived– homemade baked beans, chili, brownies, and sandwiches from Fiddleheads—sturdy, caloric fare that my helpers had more than earned. By noon, their work was done. Mine was just beginning.

pink and white peoniesMixed Feelings

This was only a semi-voluntary move. Had the financial and physical realities of having multiple myeloma not made themselves so utterly plain, I’m sure I’d still be rattling around in a beloved, but too big house at the top of Norway Hill. The neighbors there, both human and ovine, really are everything you dream about neighbors being. And the peonies. I am very sad to have left behind such peonies.

Searching for the positives, it is nice to get ahead things on the downsizing curve, something I can do for my children. Besides, it seems to be all the rage right now to embrace minimalism and move into smaller spaces. I am a devoted listener of The Minimalist Podcast. I’ve watched the documentary. I took a stab at the “sparking joy” approach (a marginal success–although I do thank you, Marie Kondo, for finally teaching me how to fold my clothes). I’ve tried to take lessons from my urban-based children who have marvelous discipline when it comes to acquisition.

The Minimalists Are All So Young…

But the expert minimalists are all so young. Earnest and well intentioned, but so very, very young. If there is a tribe of late-middle-aged minimalists, I have yet to find it. Perhaps this is because it is not easy to shed items that have taken on the personal patina of decades or when the people who once loved these things and entrusted them to you are gone. Far easier, I think, to part with the consumer goods bought in the heat of your first good paying job. It’s like losing weight. Exponentially harder to do at age 60 than at age 30. But still, we keep trying.

Packing as Life-Inspection

My goal is to shake loose about two thirds of my worldly goods. The first third was easy. The second third is proving more difficult. Or at least slow to slip from my stewardship and care. Slow because of the memories stirred up. As the memoirist and Virginia Woolf scholar, Louise De Salvo explains:

It isn’t the packing that causes me pain: it’s that packing forces me to review my entire life—the celebratory times, the painful times. Packing is a full-scale life inspection…Going through all these items makes me think about all the time that has vanished; it forces to recognize what I often overlook; that time is fleeting and our lives are finite.

On Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Homes, Old Haunts and Finding Home Again, p.65.

Downsizing is hard work. But enlightening as well as lightening. And what I am finding is what I have known all along. There’s a whole lot of grace tucked away in those packing boxes. Some of the people and things represented are long gone, but the ones that are most important remain with me. Blessings always and forever.

Open Your Good Eye

curious girl with green eyesSome years ago, I did a stint as the Shop Manager at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, MA. It was a pretty chaotic time for me personally, as I had been taken by surprise by a guillotine finish to a 23 year marriage. I knew I needed some time away from the quasi-public role of pastoring a church, some time to mourn and heal.

The Healing Touch and Touching to Heal

I was lucky to be able to parlay previous volunteer experience and League of New Hampshire Craftsmen credentials into something new. The Quilt Museum was a good place for me to be. I ordered books and fabrics, discovered Japanese textiles, met some amazing artists and scholars, and generally soothed myself with work that involved touching and arranging beautiful things. I am not a quilter, so the learning curve was steep. That in itself was good medicine. There is nothing like full immersion into something new when life is flying away from its known vortex.

One of the books I re-ordered for the shop a number of times during my tenure was called I Remember Mama, based on a project organized by Karey Bresenhan as a tribute to her mother. Texan Karey Bresenhan is something of a legend in quilting circles and one sharp businesswoman. She’s behind the big Houston quilt show—Mecca for quilt enthusiasts.

The quilts Bresenhan gathered for I Remember Mama were based on quilters’ memories of their mothers. A number of the artists incorporated echoes of their mother’s voices–stitching maternal expressions, turns of phrase, and words of advice into their designs.

Things Our Parents’ Say

When we move away from our parents (or when they die and move away from us), their signature phrases may start to resonate in our minds. We hear and remember (and begin to repeat) those pithy snippets of wisdom.

My siblings and I will still sometimes say in unison “Throw it up against the wall and if it sticks, it sticks.” That was the offhand, but frequently pronounced blessing by which our father encouraged us to give new projects a go. His other stock phrase, and for me, perhaps the defining one, was “Open your good eye.”

Open Your Good Eye

Open your good eye. That was my father’s code for telling us there was something we had missed. Some piece of the puzzle we had failed to see. Something we had been in too much of a hurry to take in. Even when we were on the verge of giving up and quitting, of moving on to something else out of frustration, he would rarely point the thing out to us. He would simply say once again, “Open your good eye,” assuring us that what we needed was already there. We just needed to look harder. We needed to slow down and wait for our eyes to see and our brains to sort out the patterns already laid out in front of us.

Opening Your Good Eye in Order to Survive

Naturalists and adventurers know this. Opening your good eye might just be what saves you. I’ve been doing some reading these past few weeks for an upcoming series of Holy Week talks on the theme of Wilderness and have found much to consider in Belden Lane’s 1998 book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. In this book, Lane probes the historical spiritual traditions fostered in wilderness places in tandem with his mother’s progress through the wildernesses of illness and nursing homes.

He gives the example of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who in December of 1935, crashed his plane in the Libyan Desert, but managed to survive for three days and walk 124 miles without water. How did he do it? By opening his good eye. By being “meticulously observant of his surroundings.” He noticed a rare northeast wind bringing in moisture and was able to collect enough dew on his parachute silk to survive.

What We Need Is Already There

Open your good eye. I’m grateful for that early training, for the way my father drilled that into us and made it our go-to praxis. What we need is usually there, spun into the universe by a thoughtful and generous Creator.

We just have to remember to open our good eye.


Why I Love Valentine’s Day

I love Valentine’s Day. There, I said it. This is not a widely held sentiment among the people in my sociological slice of late middle age.

Valentine's Day Cards

Getting Ready To Send Some Valentines

For friends who are single, divorced or widowed, it can be a lonely day. For the long married, a reminder of just how formulaic and rote their marriages have become.

I listened politely last year as one friend complained about her husband ticking off the boxes on his Valentine’s Day checklist–the same overpriced roses, the same dinner reservation, the same tiny box from which she will extract yet one more pair of earrings—with luck, a variation on the ones he was given her for lo-these-many-years. Of course, that’s exactly the kind of continuity that my unpartnered friends yearn for; but I do get her point. The rituals that made you happy thirty years ago may need updating.

But romance is just a teensy part of Valentine’s Day and it makes me sad to think that our assessment of the day rises and falls on the romance score alone. For me it’s become a day of remembering the unexpected kindnesses that life has delivered.

Case #1–When my sisters and I were little girls, we used to get a manilla envelope sometime early in February from our great aunt Elizabeth. It would be stuffed with doilies and red construction paper and cupid stickers—everything needed to construct gloriously elaborate Valentines.

Joanne and great aunt Elizabeth

My sister Joanne and our great aunt Elizabeth, Christmas 1970

The great aunt who sent these envelopes was not in any way romantic. She was a spinster and a businesswoman She was the only person I knew as a child who read the Wall Street Journal. On account of this, I assumed for many years that the WSJ was a paper for women, maybe an offshoot of the Ladies Home Journal. The eldest of three immigrant girls whose father had been struck and killed by a Boston and Maine train at the age of 35, it had been a coup for Elizabeth to finish high school. She went to work as a secretary at a pipe foundry, and according to family legend, bought out her boss when he panicked at the outset of Great Depression.

Something Quite Out of Character

Elizabeth was not domestic. She sustained herself on the businessman’s lunches and Delmonico potatoes served at the Kernwood Restaurant in Malden, Massachusetts. When we went to visit her on Christmas Eve, she would bring out a bakery box and casually blow the dust off a china plate before setting out the macaroons.

She wasn’t exactly stern, but she was a serious person, and not the great aunt you expected to go in for the frivolity of Valentine’s Day. I think we loved her packages of fancy bits and pieces because they were so out of character. Children are always on the prowl for adults behaving out of character.

Case #2–I still remember getting a Valentine my freshman year in college from a boy I had known in high school. We didn’t live in the same town or go to the same school, but had met through a statewide student government activity. When it was time to go to college, he stayed in Massachusetts and went to a state school, while I went away at a fancy-pants private college.

But I wasn’t doing any of the great things that Early Decision admission and a named scholarship at an Ivy League school might have portended. September optimism had morphed into February panic. Socially and academically, I was woefully out of my league and in the middle of a hard come-uppance. Even if you are reasonably smart, five years of double sessions at a fair-to-middling public school do not even get you to the edge of the same playing field as graduates of schools that have Academy in their name.

It Was A Long, Cold Winter

And I was cold. So, very, very cold. Most mornings, my hair froze into baby icicles on my way to early morning classes or my work-study job in the library. When my mother and I had gone shopping for college neither of us knew about down-filled jackets and the upscale brands that specialize in cold weather gear. My only defense against the New Hampshire sub-zero was a nylon/polyester parka from Sears Roebuck. It was purple.

I was miserable that winter. By February, I felt like a late winter bank of roadside snow—iced over, coated with emotional grime, just waiting to melt away.

But then I got a Valentine. Out of the blue. Addressed in the cramped hand of someone with messy writing trying to be careful. A happy, silly, unexpected Valentine. Which sort of changed everything.

This story doesn’t end with romance. The sender and I were just friends. We haven’t kept in touch and I am sure he doesn’t even remember sending that card, but it was an unexpected kindness. And maybe a lifeline.

By spring, I found my bearings gain. My grades improved. I figured out what I was doing in that confusing bastion of privilege. I found courses and an area of study that I have stayed immersed in my whole life. I made friends and I made art. I fell in love with the granite of New Hampshire. But I wonder sometimes, would I have stuck it out through that grim winter if I had not received that unexpected Valentine?

The Case for Sending Valentines

Go ahead, send a Valentine. Don’t waste your energy being a Valentine’s Day hater. You can’t control the Valentines you will or will not receive, the roses and chocolates that will or will not arrive. But it is in your power to be a sender. Be the perpetrator of an unexpected kindness. It could make all the difference.

Learning to Live Vicariously

It was not as if I had planned to go and then couldn’t at the last minute. I knew from the outset that I would not be able to attend the Women’s March. There is no delicate way to say this, but even maintenance level chemotherapy banishes you from events where there’s the possibility of being bathroom insecure.

Where I Was While Others Marched

So, I was at home while others were out at the biggest gathering of women in my lifetime. I had made my peace with that. It was a lovely afternoon really. Apple wood on the fire, a momentarily mellow dog, a book I’d been looking forward to cracking open. All very cozy. I checked in and looked at the photos that friends were posting from marches in New York, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, DC, Knoxville, Miami, even little Concord, New Hampshire. It was watching the Superbowl. You have a better view of the game on television than you would at the stadium.

Feeling Left Out

It was all good. Until some of you started posting pictures of yourselves attending the march with your daughters. That’s when I started to feel sidelined. Left out. What I would have given to have been in New York alongside my own daughter!

Women's March NYC

Two of my favorite teachers at the Women’s March in New York City

She is the social activist who inspires me most—not just a tourist marcher, but someone who works on the front line of these issues every day a New York City classroom.

But I couldn’t march with Abby and there will be other experiences in the future where I will likely be sidelined again. Which got me to thinking about living vicariously—not just on this occasion, but living vicariously through the experiences of others in general.


The Relatively New Privilege of Being There

I remind myself that for such huge numbers of women to be able to pick up and transport themselves to DC or Boston or New York is a relatively new phenomenon, and one born of a certain level of affluence. It is a marvelous thing that many of us now inhabit a world where we can do, or at least contemplate doing, all sorts of things that would have been impossible for our mothers and grandmothers. We can travel and have this experience or that one. The world is wide. It may not fully be our oyster yet, but we’re beginning to collect our share of its pearls.

With that newfound agency enabling us to be there in person, living vicariously through the experiences of others is in danger of becoming a lost art. Why watch when you can play?

Two Reasons Why Living Vicariously Isn’t All Bad

And yet there is something to be gained, I think, on those occasions when we must depend on others to be our eyes and ears. I’m still working on my manifesto about vicarious living, but here are a couple of thoughts.

#1—Living vicariously opens up conversation. Over time, it may even raise our general level of discourse.

When you can’t go yourself, you become hungry, greedy even, to learn everything you can about the experience you’ve missed. You learn to ask better questions. You sharpen that skill of being able to draw others out.

You also give others the opportunity to become better narrators. To shape and refine their own lived experience by putting it in story form. In the words of Joan Didion:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.

If people tell their stories in order to live, then being a receiver of stories is a life-giving act.

#2—Living vicariously helps us to see things from a different point of view. When we go in as our own agents, we tend to see the things we are already programmed or inclined to see. We tend to use the same filters over and over again, without even realizing that they are in place.

It’s good to shake that up. I find that the older I get, the more deeply entrenched I am with my own little tribe of categories. Perhaps we homogenize with age.

When I have to take things in through the eyes of others, I am forced to see them through the categories they use, through their presets. Maybe theirs are just as baked-in as my own, but they are inevitably different. Ergo broadening.

 Learning to Bend

Sure, I still would rather be able to go out and do everything I want to do on my own. But even life’s imitations are proving to be good teachers. Some etymologists think the word vicarious may be related to the Old Norse word vikja which means to bend and to viker, the Swedish word for willow twig. I certainly haven’t achieved willow status, but I am learning to bend. And to live well, even when it has to be vicariously.

Going Solo

It’s Dana-Farber Time…

Every three months, I spend a day in my alternative universe.

Stained Glass Window at Dana-Farber Chapel

Chapel Window at Dana-Farber

I make the trek to Boston for tests, consultations and treatment at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

Sometimes my sister Joanne or my friend Linda accompany me to these appointments. Through different paths, they have both become cancer whiz kids and at these appointments, they pick up on details I would miss. Not to mention the balm of good company they offer and the way they treat me to perks like chauffeur service and good hotel rooms.

But I didn’t tell either of them about this week’s appointment. I’m not sure why, but they tell you to follow your intuition in riding out this disease, and I just had this strong, unshakeable gut feeling that I needed to keep this appointment on my own. I needed to fly solo.

Maybe it was work related. With an annual meeting coming up, this is crunch time for some projects at work and I felt I needed to spend every minute between blood draws and appointments clicking away on my laptop.

But that may not be the real reason. I think there was a little reverse magical thinking going on. If I rally the troops and arm myself with my full support system, then maybe the universe will decide to give me bad news. Or if I bring out the A team, maybe it’s a sign that I am expecting something dire.

A Reason to Fret?

I was a little nervous about this appointment. Back in November, my local oncologist in New Hampshire called me at home one evening (never a good sign when an oncologist calls you after supper), to say that one of the numbers on my Kappa Lambda Light Chain was elevated. I never joined a sorority, but now my life runs pretty much off of Kappas and Lambdas. They help track a spike in the bad proteins that would signal that my multiple myeloma was kicking up its heels again. But when I confirmed that I had an appointment already on the books down at Dana- Farber in January, my local doctor decided to let things go until then. He told me not to worry and to have a good Christmas.

And I did. Prayer helps. And in my trade, the run up to Christmas is so utterly distracting, that there wasn’t time to worry. And after Christmas, there are those delicious days of hanging out with your adult children who now live in other states. I didn’t open the on-line patient portal and look at my numbers once.

But come January, the “what ifs” came calling. Or at least whispering. I did start to fret. It wasn’t over the top anxiety, but definitely a trip to worry camp.

One antidote to worry (and one that has become my personal protocol for managing these “big appointments”) is to make them fun. Don’t go to Boston for a doctor’s appointment. Go to Boston to play, and oh, by the way, pop in at 450 Brookline Avenue.

How to Distract Yourself in Boston

Because snow and ice were predicted on the morning I had to travel, I went down to Boston a day early. I indulged in a little childhood nostalgia of the Make Way for Ducklings variety, taking in the Robert McCloskey exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Vegetables for sale at Eatily in Bosto

Vegetables at Eatily

I checked out Boston’s new Eatily venue, and after a plate of fresh pasta and a cone of pistachio gelato, I wandered through the market and loaded up my phone with pictures of vegetables. Cauliflower that looks like it came from another world. At bedtime, I reveled in the luxury of a Boston hotel room all to myself. Yes, the room was a tiny one in a former YWCA, but the toiletries furnished came in pretty tubes and there was a Flour Bakery across the street. Bliss.

Still, I couldn’t figure out why my gut had told me to make this trip solo. All these pleasures only would have been multiplied in good company.

In the morning, it became clear. Sometimes you need to do things alone, because going solo opens you up to new experiences. You wind up meeting new people and really talking to them—people you might have missed or only smiled at had you been deep in conversation with members of your own entourage.

In this alternate universe of Cancerland, it is good to meet new people. For me it’s been the silver lining of sickness.

 Just How Many Interesting People Can You Meet in One Day?

I ended up talking to a Ukrainian Catholic priest (who also happens to be an MD) and learned a new word from him–epigenetics. Conversation about how meditation and contemplative prayer really can affect the way your genes perform. I met a woman who runs a support group for sarcoma patients and learned that sunflowers are special to those with that disease. (Note to self and my gardening buddies: let’s plant even more sunflowers on the triangle this year). I also connected with a hospital chaplain who got me signed up for an Interfaith retreat for women on the Cape Cod the weekend after Easter. And did I mention that the retreat is free, zero cost to Dana-Farber patients? The world is so generous.

If all those connections weren’t bounty enough, there was a serendipitous conversation with a woman in the cafeteria who asked if she could move to my table when it was revealed that an acquaintance at hers had a cold…Seriously people, do not mingle among the immune-suppressed when you have the sniffles.

We made a quick connection, having discovered that we both have multiple myeloma, and we swapped stories of how we came to have Dr. Anderson as our oncologist–a piece of mad, good fortune that we both unabashedly credit with having saved our lives. I wish there had been more time to ask her about the food magazine she edits, but I had to dash off to my next appointment and she was due for an infusion. However, we, exchanged emails and I hope it is a connection we will foster.

So what did I learn this visit? Happily, that command central at Dana-Farber thinks my Kappas and Lamdas are just fine. For now, I need not worry. Relief and once again, the deepest gratitude.

But I also learned that whether it’s a voluntary solo excursion or one you have no choice but to make on your own, it’s good to be open to the things that may unfold because you are on your own.

A Wise Woman From Maine Sums It Up

I couldn’t say it any better than Katharine Butler Hathaway:

A person needs at intervals to separate himself from family and companions and go to new places. He must go without his familiars in order to be open to influences, to change.

I am, at the moment, a teeny bit obsessed with Katharine Butler Hathaway and am trying to track down the exact citation for that quote. Born into a wealthy family in 1890, she suffered from spinal tuberculosis and spent most of her childhood and adolescence strapped to a board. The board didn’t work and she emerged from treatment at age 15 tiny in stature and with a severely hunched back.

But Katharine was one of those indomitable spirits. She went to Radcliffe, bought herself an improbably large house in Maine, and wrote an account of her travails and triumphs called The Little Locksmith. She died in 1942, and her memoir would have been one of those “lost books” had not one of the feminist presses republished in the 1970s. I’m glad someone did because she’s truly a gem and her words about disability, independence, and houses continue to inspire.

In short, I had a GREAT DAY yesterday at Dana-Farber. Oh, the places you’ll go (to quote another of my favorite writers)…with or without your familiars.

Marking Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in a White Church

We will do our best on Sunday. My tiny, choirless, 99% white congregation in New Hampshire will give James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing and the African-American spiritual Every Time I Feel the Spirit our all.

SueTodd's illustration of "Lift Every Voice and Sing"

© Sue Todd Illustration

But, truth be told, we will be sorely out of our element. Later in the day, I will watch videos of services conducted by friends who serve larger churches in urban settings–churches with black choirs or at least multi-racial ones–and yes, I will be just the teeniest bit jealous of the singing.

We have neither the gift for belting our spirituals nor, as a whole, the intense, activist spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. There are some, I am sure, who would rather that our service this weekend make only the lightest of references to King’s legacy, or better yet, none at all. In the “ruralish” congregation I serve, our members cast votes for both Republicans and Democrats in November and we are still working out how to be together in the new political order. By “being together,” I mean more than just sitting coolly and/or civilly in the same sanctuary, but being our authentic selves and wrestling with the real questions of faith.

One of the ways we can be together is in prayer. Our politics may be divided and we may never learn to clap on beat, but on the plus side, one of the things our little congregation is rather good at is prayer.

Which should not be underestimated.

While much attention has been paid to Dr. King’s preaching, his prayer life has sometimes seemed less important to scholars of the Civil Rights Movement. However, a little book I read this week, Lewis V. Baldwin’s Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Fortress Press, 2010) seeks to fill in some of the gaps.

Drawing on Baldwin’s book, there are three lessons we can all take from the prayer life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

#1–Prayer needs to be focused on others. Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed in a prophetic voice, and even as early as his student days, modeled his prayer life on the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. But his prayers always started with the desire to understand and empathize with others. Baldwin writes of King’s belief that “prayer and the practice of praying should always begin with an awareness of and emphasis on the presence and needs of others” (98).

Prayer, of course, can express our personal longings, but we misuse it when we restrict it to ourselves and our own needs. King warned against approaching God as our “cosmic bellhop” or “universal errand boy.” (35).

#2– Prayer is not a substitute for human effort. Or to put it in King’s own words, “for work and intelligence.” As he encouraged others to take up the mantle of activism and to work for human rights, King came back to this theme again and again. Do not ask God to do what you are capable of doing yourself. “I take prayer too seriously,” he said on more than one occasion, “to use it as an excuse for avoiding work and responsibility.”

And finally, #3–Do not underestimate the importance of silence as a renewing force. Wyatt Tee Walker, King’s former Chief of Staff, describes the leader’s self-imposed “Days of Silence.” He would check himself into a hotel room where he “abstained from the distractions of daily life, including the telephone, television, and radio. The day was spent in prayer and meditation and in developing a rigorous discipline of think-time…” (vii).

As a pastor, King, no doubt influenced by his mentor Howard Thurman, urged his parishioners to steep themselves in the quiet nature of prayer. We are familiar with the ecstatic, rhetorical, and even theatric expressions of prayer in the Black Church, but there is also a more contemplative strand to this tradition—a thread expressed in spirituals like “Steal Away to Jesus” or “Hush, Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name.

For King, times of quiet prayer were sustaining. The “vision in the kitchen” is a well-established trope in the King biography. One night in January 1956, in the middle of the Montgomery bus boycotts, King fielded a midnight call from a racist who threatened to kill him and blow up his home. Deeply disturbed by this and worried for his family, King turned to prayer. Or more specifically, prayer and a cup of coffee. There in the kitchen, he was comforted by an inner voice encouraging him to continue his work and assuring him that “Lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”

Praying for Others. Working Hard and Taking Responsibility. Listening for God in the Silence. Those are some of the things we’ll be doing in rural New Hampshire to honor Dr. King this weekend.

P.S. The linocut of Lift Every Voice and Sing is used with the kind permission of Canadian artist Sue Todd and first appeared in Cricket magazine in 2015. You can see more of Sue’s work at If you click on the Portfolio tab, you will find that she has a whole page dedicated to “Religion and Spirituality.”



My Three Words for 2017

Scrabble BoardIt seems to be “a thing”—at least among some of my friends who are “creative-types.” Following the lead of Chris Brogan and others, they are choosing theme words for the year ahead instead of making New Year’s resolutions. Since I play a lot of Scrabble, make my living spitting out words, and have never had much luck with resolutions, this theme word approach caught my attention.

But picking words to guide your choices for a whole year is rather daunting. I’ve been auditioning a number of words for the past few weeks and finally have honed in on my choices. Here they are (at least until I change them):


I do already write—a 2000 word sermon every week and who knows how many more words in the form of emails. This year I want to push myself to write in other formats—more letters, more journaling, more blog posts. Things get clearer to me when I scribble and type.


As in “It’s a wrap.” In the year ahead, I want to make a concerted effort to finish the things I start. If you peel that back, what it really means is that I want to be a little more circumspect about what I do start. Everyone loves beginnings. A new batch of art supplies, a new trail to explore, a new book to read, a new project—the joys of embarking. And post-illness, when you are so very appreciative of new beginnings, it’s easy to embrace the world that has been returned to you a little too exuberantly and to start too many things. This year I want to focus not so much on starting new projects, but finishing ones are already underway.

The theme word gurus also mention that you should choose words that tap into more than one dimension of your life. The word “wrap” as a choice for 2017 should work well on one or two other fronts in my life. But more on those later.


I always used to think of myself of someone who would live into her nineties. After all, my great aunt Charlotte lived to be 101—even with diabetes and a penchant for chocolate donuts. Multiple myeloma has changed my outlook. The most optimistic of my oncologists projects “a normal lifespan,” but his is still very much a minority opinion. Mostly, I avoid reading the life expectancy tables associated with my disease, because although they are changing, they are still grim. At least if you are used to thinking about life in the luxurious terms of rolling decades.

I am training myself to think in shorter blocks. Or to repeat the Schopenhauer quote several seemed to resonate with in my last post: Each day is a little life. There is so much loving and living to be crammed into a single day. I don’t mean blowing up the to do list and stuffing days with hundreds of thing to get done or experiences, but rather savoring, really relishing, the days as they unfold. Letting each one be the perfect jewel that it already is.

And if all else fails, relish as one of my words for 2017 can be 100% literal. All I have to do is pop open a jar of the delicious homemade relishes I received this Christmas. Thanks to friends who can, my pantry shelves are filled with treats like cranberry-ginger marmalade, yellow tomato jam, paradise jelly, bread and butter pickles, and blueberry jam. Even if I fall down on the writing and the wrapping, relish is fail-safe!

Write, Wrap, and Relish. I think it’s going to be a good year.

P.S. I’d love to hear what your words for 2017 are.



The Odd Couple: Hallmark and Schopenhauer

card with Schopenhauer quote

I am in the process of downsizing. As I have told just about anyone who will listen (my attempt to build in accountability), I am in the process of divesting myself of much of the paper I have collected over the past five decades.

My personal goal is that when I leave this planet, I will not leave behind more than my body weight in paper. Of course, this measure does give me plenty of leeway and keeps the purge from being too traumatic.

Still, it is difficult. Especially when you work in a paper-driven profession and come from a family of savers. This personal trot through the boxes in my attic has revealed that even in high school, I was already packing away the paper.

I recently came across a cache of graduation cards from back in the day when greeting cards cost 25 cents. One of these cards, Hallmark circa 1975, bears a quote from Arthur Schopenhauer. Generally speaking, I do not associate the Hallmark brand with complicated 19th century German philosophers.

Snoopy maybe, but not Schopenhauer.

Although I am not a Schopenhauer fan (I know it’s not how you are supposed to read philosophy, but I can’t get past the things he has to say about women), I’m willing to suspend my general opinion for the benefit of the message I received all those years ago:  Each day is a little life.

I’ve lost touch with the classmate who sent me the card, but thank you, Allison Nichols, for that six word summation of what it has taken me another four decades and a serious illness to understand.

Each day IS a little life. Complete in itself. To be savored and treated as the sacred thing it is.

I wish you 365 of the best lives ever in 2017. Happy New Year!

We Are All Makers

I come from a family of “makers”—printers, knitters, woodworkers, calligraphers, photographers—some amateurs, some who have found ways to turn their pursuits into professions. But what many of us have twisted into our DNA is an inclination “to think with our hands. “ We communicate with the things we make and share.

DIY KitsWhich may be why we have always been big on DIY kits. For decades, they have been the go-to presents for the children in our lives. Over the years my sister (whose background is in the sciences) must have bought and bestowed half a dozen Smithsonian Crystal Growing Kits. My favorite gifts to give were always fiber related—knitting spools, weaving looms, felting kits. A few weeks ago I made stop at nearby Harrisville Designs and it was all I could do to restrain myself from buying a potholder loom and a bag of loops for my niece Mia. She is, of course, remarkably precocious, but at 6 months old, this is a gift that will have to wait.

In a sermon a few weeks ago, I talked about the ultimate DIY kit. The text was the story of the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, when he delivers the message that she will bear a son. Bucking long-held expectations about Israel’s Messiah, Gabriel makes the surprising announcement that help will arrive as a baby. A baby whom Mary will need to carry, nurture, feed and protect for a good number of years before he is ready to start teaching and healing. Jesus comes to us as a DIY kit. The materials God provides are the finest and the instructions foolproof, but Mary must partner with God and do some of the work herself.

vintage Christmas bookAnd so must we. Faith and the actions born of faith require some assembly. We are all meant to be building a better world. Some will do it with words, some with song, some with neighborliness, some with political activism. Some will perform the task quietly, in out-of-the way places amongst the forgotten. Others will build boldly, carrying out the work in the public sphere. But the Gospel is always in the process of being made and remade—it is the ultimate DIY project. Our calling is to be “makers” one and all—makers of a planet ruled by peace and goodwill.

Merry Christmas, fellow makers!

When Christmas Feels Tender and Raw

Model of Hancock Congregational ChurchI treasure this photo. It’s a model of our Meetinghouse made last year by Bob and Carrie Anderson. Bob is a tool and die maker and you can see that precision in his handiwork. I love its delicate coating of glitter. Not today’s garish, neon-colored glitter that screams for attention in so many Christmas decorations, but the gentler sparkle of yesterday. It’s the kind of glitter that dusted the German Advent calendars of my childhood. Of course, that was back when Advent Calendar doors hid Bible verses instead of chocolate and gin. Sadly, the gin option is for real. For $130, there’s a company that will ship you a “Ginvent Calendar” loaded up with 24 drams of gin.

But I digress. I also treasure this photo because Carrie is no longer with us. She lost a spirited fight with cancer last January. It’s always sobering for me to sit down in December and begin compiling my year-end report, a feature of which is a list of the people I have baptized, married and buried. This year is like others. I have buried people I knew and loved and prayed with, but also people I never met.

Whether I knew them or not, what every name on that somber list has in common is that the death it represents leaves a shadow across Christmas for loved ones left behind. At the very least, it makes for a tender Christmas, but more often a raw one.

Over the years, I have scoured scores of how-to articles about coping with grief around the holidays. I tend to agree with Jan Richardson that their focus on ”strategic approaches” and “grief management” may not always suffice. As Richardson writes, “Grief is a wild creature. Grief will resist every attempt to tame it, control it, or to keep it tidy and well-behaved.”

She knows whereof she speaks. Jan Richardson, a talented painter and writer, lost her husband unexpectedly at the beginning of Advent three years ago. One of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve ever read on the subject of grief at Christmas is This Luminous Darkness, a post that she shared on her blog last December. It’s worth a look even if you are not struck down by sadness yourself this Christmas; worth a share if you know someone who is.

Sometimes we just have to let our grief be and stop trying to stomp it out. It may not be possible to eradicate it—at least not this year. We have to trust that someday our emotions will not feel as fragile as tinsel. And that the merry of Christmas will return. When it does, we may even find that the grief has somehow enriched us—giving us a sense of ourselves as stronger than we thought, reminding us of the preciousness of life, prompting us to go after experiences we used to relegate to our “someday” lists.

But grief will not be rushed. I pray that if this is a season of sad and silent nights for you, that you may find in them yet a little of the promised calm and bright, and some of the peace that passes all understanding.