Valentine Roses

A few rose-related snapshots, leading you down the meandering path I’ve been following this week:

1. My mother and sister grow roses in their gardens, and over the years have picked up quite a bit of knowledge about them. I, on the other hand, love roses without understanding them at all. The wilder and more old-fashioned, the better. (Unless you plan to send me a bouquet of cut roses – then make them yellow tea roses, if possible – a preference I developed in college which I no longer remember the reason for.)

2. One year, a student organization on our campus was selling singing telegrams for Valentine’s Day. For a dollar, one could select from a group of four or five “love” songs, and the students would go to your friend’s room or office and sing it – along with a spoken message from you, the sender. My friend, Al, sent a telegram to my office: he picked “The Rose” for them to sing. He thought it was the cheesiest option and that I would laugh at it. Instead, I cried. In case you missed it, THEY SANG “THE ROSE” to me ON VALENTINE’S DAY. In my office. Duh. Any self-respecting woman of my generation would have done the same.

3. My maternal grandmother’s name was Rose. And while there aren’t many in my generation named after her, the next generation is a garden of Roses: Atalie Rose, Abi Rose, Aubrey Rose, Zoe Rose. All of them named after a grandmother beloved, but unknown, to them.

So, what led to these meandering thoughts about roses and my grandmother, Rose? One of the “joys” of having what appears to be a genetic predisposition to certain cancers, is the extensive family history taken, then distributed among family  members (in our case, mothers, sisters, cousins – women related via the maternal line). I received a copy of this family history in the mail the other day, from my sister Chris. And I’ve been thinking about all these Roses ever since.

My grandmother, Rose Postel, died in 1965, days after the birth of my sister, Gwen. Gwen, our blue-eyed, blonde-haired beauty – the only one in a family sea of brunettes with dark eyes. Family lore is that Grandma always wanted a blonde grandchild, and that this was the final wish granted in her too-short life. I was four when Grandma died, she was 50.

Maybe there are those among you who think fifty years isn’t that short, as lifetimes go. Rose lived to see her children grown, married, starting families of their own. On the other hand, she only met half of her grandchildren, and the oldest was only five when she passed away. I don’t know what my sister remembers, but I only have one memory of Rose that I am sure is authentic (she is stirring up a batch of peanut butter cookies in her kitchen; they’re my favorite). But I do remember my mom, overwhelmed by her life with six kids, living with her widower father, being alternately sad and angry that her mother wasn’t there. I think I would have liked Rose, my dad says she had a keen eye and a sharp wit. Is it strange to say I miss her, when I barely knew her so long ago?

As I’m sure you’ve deduced, the fact that I turned 50 this year myself impacts my own perspective. I think of all the things I still hope to achieve and experience in my life – no longer the youthful yearning to have a meteoric impact on the planet – rather, the desire to live my own life as fully, as deeply, as possible. And I think of  this garden of young roses – Atalie, Abi, Aubrey, Zoe…and their sisters and cousins. And I want to say to them: “Don’t hold back.” “Don’t let anyone (especially yourself) make you be smaller than you are.” Do. Be. Love. Live. So that at any age, you can say, “I’ve really lived my life.”

Because there are no guarantees. 30, 50, 60 – even if we hit the jackpot and live to 100 – we never know how many years we will have. But we do know we have today. Cancer sucks. But the only way to truly beat it – and/or all the other life-sucking things we might encounter –  is to fully inhabit our lives, each day we are graced enough to wake up to them.

The Guest House

A week ago Sunday evening, I drove a college van to the small town of Vinton, Iowa. We were a subdued group on the drive out, befitting the nature of our trip: to attend a visitation for the father of two of our students. At our arrival, there was a line out the door of the church. When we were finally allowed inside by the local fire department, I was stunned to see several hundred people waiting to make their way , single file, past the open casket and through the line of close family accepting condolences. It took our little group two and a half hours to process through. Along the way, we learned a great deal about the man whose death had brought us there. His was a story of love, engagement with the community, commitment to the people and activities of his life. While maintaining strong relationships outside the home, he also  supported and encouraged a truly loving family and helped raise some pretty wonderful human beings. Through the course of that day, literally thousands had come to pay tribute to his life.

On Tuesday of that same week, my sister underwent major surgery. When we spoke late on Monday, she was attempting to get one more workout under her belt before having weeks off her regular routine. What surprised me, throughout the process of determining the nature and extent of the surgical response to her cancer, was that every conversation included her words of gratitude for the blessings bestowed: that the cancer had been caught early; that she had competent and up-to-date doctors and surgeons in her small town; that she had trust in God and the unfailing gentle-kindness and support of her husband. After the surgery – more of the same, in a slightly more tired voice.

Adeline Bell Finnegan was born on Thursday, January 12 at 7:06 pm. She weighed in at 8 lbs 12 oz. and was 21″ long. My great-niece was welcomed into this world with much rejoicing – on the part of her parents (Ben and Elsa); by her aunt and uncle (Tim and Nikki) who arrived for her trip home from the hospital; by her Grandma Chris whose (almost) only verbalized complaint about her cancer recurrence was that she wouldn’t be there in person to welcome Ada. And by the rest of our “clan”, as my sister Annie posted on Facebook.

Sunday through Thursday – five days. But in those five short days, so much to learn, to process, and to celebrate. Three of the major human life events: death, illness, birth in such a short span of time. Those five days touched me profoundly, in ways I don’t have the grace to articulate. Luckily, the great poet Rumi said it for me, centuries ago. He tells us to welcome every experience which comes our way, even “if they’re a crowd of sorrows…treat them honorably”  because each experience brings a gift as well. And so I am practicing being the proprietor of the guest house of my heart – throwing open the doors to all who seek admission, with gratitude and welcome even for the difficult guests.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


Flashback Friday – Nice Ride, Brother!

It was 1970-something. Back row: Dave, Debbie Ross, Stephanie Beller, Marla St. Clair; Front Row: Jeff Hanson, Susannah Ross, me.

The car belonged to my friend and youth-group leader, Dave Finnegan. From the first night we met, at a Tuesday night Inter-Church Youth (ICY) meeting, I thought he was awesome. Gentle of spirit, kind, and incredibly smart. Not a bad volleyball player. Or too shabby with that guitar.

In the ensuing 35 or so years since we met, Dave has been an important influence on my life AND a member of my family – he and my sister Chris were married a couple of years after this photo. They raised two amazing sons, my nephews Ben and Tim, together. And they have weathered more than their share of serious illness – Dave faced several bouts of cancer, culminating in a Stage IV diagnosis and a grueling experimental treatment program at M.D. Anderson in Houston (he has been cancer free since then, approximately twenty years). My sister, Chris, will have surgery on Tuesday for her second round with breast cancer.

What I want to say about Dave in this Flashback is that I couldn’t have chosen anyone better for my sister’s life companion. You know how it is with in-laws: they marry into a family like ours (big, loud, opinionated) and can spend years figuring out how not to be chewed up and spit out. Dave maintains his calm, faithful and principled presence – occasionally making us groan at his terrible puns. In the coming weeks, he will be the gentle rock upon which my sister will lean – and by virtue of his presence where we can’t be, we will all lean on him to an extent (poor guy). After more than three decades, I can  say with complete trust that he’s up to the task. I thank God, and my brother Dave, for that!

Of Photographs, Memories and Hope

As our plane left the ground, I watched our ascent – marveling at the sheer number of blinking lights, like strange red sparks, buzzing around us in the dark sky. I worried for a brief moment that we would collide, but we were well-choreographed by unseen air-traffic controllers. I relaxed. Suddenly, a scene of spectacular beauty appeared, perfectly framed in my window: the lights of Dallas spread out below as far as the eye could see; above them, the blackness of the night sky was pierced only by the blue-white sliver of the crescent moon. I was transfixed.

I thought, fleetingly, of the camera safely packed in the bag wedged under the seat in front of me. But I immediately knew two things. First, I would never be able to get to it in time, and the moment would be lost. Second, even if I did manage it, no photograph could capture what I felt about the expansiveness of the universe as I looked out that little window.

And that moment, dear friends, exactly mirrors my experience as I sit at my computer now to write about the  past year and look forward to the coming one. I cannot begin to capture the wonder, joy and sheer fun of the events comprising 2011, or the quality of hope I am feeling for 2012.

2011 has been a banner year for me: I turned 50, which feels not at all like my younger self imagined it would (thank you, God!). This was the year I fell in love with cities – Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis. For the first time in my life, I travelled alone and explored with curiosity and excitement but without fear. At home, I renewed my love affair with the eastern Iowa landscape, viewing it with awe from the saddle of my bike (my bottom comfortably cushioned by chamois) both on training rides and RAGBRAI. March and April saw a renaissance of my passion for ideas and translating them to my daily, lived choices – especially as they relate to my vocation. I brushed elbows with activists who are impacting local, national and international communities – and was reminded that to act from my core beliefs is the important part of having core beliefs. I experienced the sheer joy of putting my arms around friends I hadn’t seen in decades. Looking back, I cannot believe the incredible experiences packed into this year!

More importantly, I am astounded by the gifts showered upon me in 2011 – the love of family and friends, the opportunities to learn more about this world we share and about the world inside of me. I learned about the single-minded-ness required to push past physical limits, and (strangely enough) I now understand a fraction of what true athletes experience. I’m learning to keep my heart open in spite of hurts; letting go of shame over what I feel; learning to speak my truth without riding roughshod over others and the truths they hold deeply. I am learning that all kinds of energy can, and likely will, come at me in a given day BUT I can hold my center and respond from my authentic self. Of all the insights from this incredible year, that is the most freeing and empowering one.

Given the fullness of my life, and the giftedness of 2011, it seems almost criminal to hold out my bowl crying, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” And yet, I hold out that bowl with hope, not demand, in my heart. I pray for healing where illness and despair currently reside. I pray for us to be awake in our lives, rather than sleepwalking through them as our modern culture so encourages. I humbly ask for the wisdom to act rightly in my life, and to recognize the incipient gifts in each moment, each challenge, each joy. May 2012 be a year of growth, happiness, and true spirit for each of us.

Happy New Year, friends!

Happy Holidays?!

Tis the week before Christmas, and all through my house,

not a present’s done wrapping, I feel like a louse!

The time is speeding by, it soon will be gone, 

with not much to show for it, at Christmas’ dawn.

When what to my wondering mind should occur?

With a to-do list to guide me, this week I’ll endure!


  • Update flash player on work computer in order to stream Christmas music 24/7
  • See Jen Tally to have my mustache removed  hair done
  • Call family members to wish them a Merry Christmas and assure them “pakages are in the mail”
  • Vacuum dining room multiple times to clean up glitter from holiday crafting “experiment” gone wrong; realize you now have a deep red area rug that permanently sparkles
  • Regale friends and co-workers with humorous – or do I mean scary? – stories of Christmases past (such as the time the house filled with toxic fumes and we began Christmas camped out at Perkins; we actually found the bottom of the “bottomless pot” of coffee)
  • Borrow Xanax Meditate on maintaining inner peace at the airport
  • Compare and contrast at least three film adaptations of the Dickens Christmas classic about Scrooge
  • Regale friends and co-workers with touching – or do I mean scary? – stories of Hanson Family Christmas Rituals (such as my mother’s traditional “Wait, I have to go to the bathroom!” exclamation just as we are about to go downstairs to see if Santa Claus came)
  • Schedule at least two more opportunities to listen to John Denver and The Muppets “A Christmas Together” – don’t forget to say out loud how angry you still are that they left Fozzie Bear’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” off the CD (it was on the original vinyl album circa 1979)
  • Buy another box of 50 Christmas cards because you are certain the first box of 50 won’t be enough cards NOT to send out this year.
  • Try not to shout at other drivers. Santa or his elves may be watching.
  • Remember to say “Thank You!” and “Merry Christmas” to your sales clerks, postal carrier, the housekeeping staff at the office, and God.
Note: My last couple of posts have been very serious, so I wanted to share something a bit more lighthearted as we head into the long Christmas weekend. Despite the list, above, I’m just about ready for the celebration and time with my family. I want to wish each of you a very, very, merry Christmas. May we all remember to cherish the moments of love and laughter that come our way and to take at least some time out of our hectic rush of celebrations to allow gratitude space to flourish in our hearts. Peace to you and yours, and to this wide, beautiful world we call home.

Sisterhood: Part I

I’ve participated in a few events recently that have got me thinking about the concept of “sisterhood”. The first of these was a gala supporting a local agency that I attended with several of my close women friends. The second was the Especially For You Breast Cancer Walk on Sunday, at which I was one of 16,000 people in a sea of purple celebrating life, hope and healing. The third was the House of Hope annual banquet, an event which every year reveals something new to me about the ways women can support and heal one another. There is so much I want to say on this subject, yet it’s difficult to start anywhere other than with the place my original ideas about sisterhood were formed: within my own family.

I have three biological sisters: Chris, Gwen and Anne. Growing up, we didn’t remember from day to day (or sometimes from minute to minute) that we loved each other, but we did so fiercely. Some people say their sisters are their best friends, but I’ve never understood that – my sisters are my SISTERS. That means something different. It just does. I don’t talk to them every day, I don’t necessarily go to them with my hurts and disappointments, the way I go to my women friends. All the same, my sisters are like my appendages. I could probably survive without one of them, but I wouldn’t want to try. It would require a complete adjustment to the way I do everything in my life. A complete adjustment to my sense of self.

Through high school, my sister Chris and I shared a room. For many years, we shared a double bed. (Which totally sucked for her because I was a bedwetter.) We shared school, clubs, friends, spiritual awakening. We did not share any of these easily. There was jealousy, impatience, anger, frustration. Of all the people in my life, ever, the person who has had the harshest words from me is Chris. Thankfully, not recently. Big sisters: can’t live with them, but eventually you grow up and live separately. And that’s when you discover you need them.

Gwen was born just before my grandmother, Rose, passed away. Grandma always wanted a blond, blue-eyed grandchild and Gwen was both. Gwen was the sun to my gloomy cloud of teenage angst. I was always depressed and maudlin, Gwen never was. Her laughter has always been the most infectious I know. Her kids are funny and both look like her too, though completely different from one another. They are like the flip sides of Gwen’s personality – funny snarky (Hallie) and funny sweet (Atalie). Like all of us, Gwen has faced challenges, and though she sometimes expresses frustration, sadness or even a little depression now and then, her sense of humor and her optimism remain intact.

Annie was my sweet little girl. She was so tender-hearted as a little one, caring for pets and stray animals (and, if no living specimens were available, stuffed animals) that we expected her to become a vet. Surprise!  Anne turned out to be the nomadic adventurer of the family. For many years, now, sightings of Anne have been few and far between. She might be in the South Pacific, or South Africa, or sailing on a tall ship. Or filming a reality show in Los Angeles. Seriously, this woman could do anything she puts her mind to, and has proven that as an artist, pastry chef, ship’s cook, sound technician, letter press operator, television and film cameraperson and producer. She can still be sweet and tender, but is more often acerbic.

My sisters and I could not be more different from each other. The outward trappings of our lives are completely disparate. Our religious and spiritual beliefs and our politics run the gamut (trust me – Anne and Chris are pretty much polar opposites in these). Since my sisters have different last names, a casual acquaintance who happened to meet each of us at different events might never put us together as relatives. However, get us in the same room and it won’t be long before everyone figures it out. The laughter will give it away. Then, if you watched us interact, a certain “Aha!” would come as you realized there are deeper similarities than you first recognized.

My friendships with other women ground my days and allow me to feel connected to people and things outside myself. My sisters, on the other hand, help me to feel connected to myself. Connected through genetics and physical resemblances, through personality traits, relational styles and oddball quirks. The confluence of these traits is so intermingled, there’s not really any separating out the genetic from the “nurtured” qualities. It is just a fact that we share both surface and deep similarities. Sometimes when we talk, we lament our shared struggles (with control issues, with poor self-discipline, with rooting out our inner martyrs). Other times, we just laugh and enjoy the sense of home that is created when we’re together, even if only by telephone.

My sisters are not only smart, they’re thoughtful about themselves and their lives. Reflective. What I’ve learned from them hasn’t been overt. Its more like osmosis – their wisdom and their positive qualities surround me and I absorb them as much as the boundaries of myself will allow them to permeate. Sisters – both the word and the experience mean something qualitatively different from “friends”. Not necessarily better, but more elemental.

In August, my college roommate visited for a couple of hours as she was passing through town. One of her sisters passed away recently and we sat  in the warm sun, crying together as we talked of it. My sorrow for her loss was informed by my knowledge that I could not fathom the depth of her grief nor would I, if it were me, bear it well. It was tinged with an inner sense of relief that I haven’t needed to find out how to do it.  Relief, followed by a gratitude so immense that it defies description. If I ever question whether I am beloved of God, I don’t have far to look to confirm that I am. I have three wonderful, complex, lovely sisters who have enriched my life and helped to make me the woman I am.

The Return of Flashback Friday


Flashback Friday returns as the result of reader requests. Generally, the photos shared are from the deep past, though occasionally one from the more recent past (such as today’s) will creep into the mix. I thought this photo was fitting for the return of F.F. since we are clearly toasting an occasion.

The moment was Saturday brunch in April 2011, at a great restaurant in Chicago (name escapes me now – Uncommon Ground?) with wonderful food and – here’s the important part – a wide selection of caffeinated beverages. Around the table: Wendy Jo (friend of the family), my niece Zoe, sister Annie, brother Matt and his wife Maria. My fully-leaded beverage was in a huge bowl-style cup, like Anne’s, which is why I couldn’t lift it and snap the picture at the same time.

I belong to a family of caffeine addicts. My brother Jeff and his wife Marsha own a coffeeshop. My dad makes the morning pot of coffee the night before, just to shave a few minutes from the lag time between waking and pouring hot coffee down his throat. We are forever on the look-out for cups just the right size – big enough not to be refilled every 30 seconds, small enough that the coffee stays hot while you drink it.

It is possible I never married because I never found a man who would do what my father did every morning for my mother: get up, make the coffee, and carry a steaming hot cup to me before I got out of bed.

50 about 50: Friends

On Sunday, I returned home from a 60 mile bike ride, tired, but pleased with the beginning of my birthday week. Wedged between the screen and wood doors at the side of my house, was what could only be a present! I could not imagine who had left it. It was a lovely surprise when I discovered it came from friends I would never have guessed. The card brought tears to my eyes which spilled over when I unwrapped the present – a lovely, decorative plate with these words:

“We all let people into our lives, but you will find that really good friends let you into your own.”

These words are among the most true I’ve heard. My life, and the people who have helped me to live in it, are proof. So today’s final 50 About 50 list of ten: the friends who have brought me joy, helped to mold me as a person, shown me through their examples what it means to be generous and kind.

1. First Friends

My parents, Jack and Shirley, believe in being parents, not friends, to their children. Among the milk, manners, and morals they fed me as a child were nuggets that continue to inform my daily choices. They will always be my parents, but they are, finally, also the friends in whom I see myself.

2. Siblings who are Friends

Growing up, my five siblings were my best friends and my arch enemies. No one comes out of a large family unscathed! We fought. We hid things from each other in an attempt to have some measure of privacy in a household of eight people and assorted strange pets. We relied on each other through multiple moves to new neighborhoods and towns. And over the years, these people became my hoarcruxes (to borrow from Harry Potter). Pieces of me reside within them, and would be lost without them.

3. Friends who are siblings

While I would never trade my family of origin for another, I have been blessed to be adopted into a couple of special families. First came deep friendships that have the feel of sibling relationships, then their generous families took me in as well (and I’m not just talking about a Scheckel Brothers group hug, though that was pretty great, too!). These friends make sure that I have family to spend holidays with, to celebrate life’s joys and mourn life’s losses with, to feel connected with as a singleton in a family-oriented city. The Smiths/Kohls and the Dennis’ – they are my family as surely as the Hansons/Finnegans/Browns.

4. Teacher Friends

Some people are put in our lives to teach us how to be human, how to be good, how to push ourselves forward in compassion and truth. In my life, a few of these friends have actually been teachers, while a score of others have, in fact, been students! Some friends have simply demonstrated ways of thinking and being that I strive to emulate. Its been said, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The teachers almost invariably show up before this student is ready – hopefully, I am learning to be open and fertile ground. I know I have already learned from these teachers to be a better me.

5. Friends and Colleagues

I came to my current university for a two-year grant-funded position. In 1994. What kept me here, when a decision-point came in 1996, was the strength of relationships with colleagues who share my vocation and my values. My sense of humor, and my vision for what we hope to accomplish. At each decision-point along the way, my colleagues and the genuine sense of respect and love between us is what has kept me rooted to this spot.

6. Children Friends

“Are you my aunt?” You might be surprised how often I’ve been asked this question by small children to whom I am, in fact, unrelated. I LOVE this question! I would have liked to have children of my own, but since I did not, I feel truly blessed to have been so connected to children, be they my actual nephews and nieces or the other wonderful children who aslo bring joy and laughter to my life.

7. Fleeting Friends

We have all had the experience of friends who are part of our lives for varying periods of time, then slip away. The fact that they are not actively part of our days forever does not mean they have not been important, or have not been loved. In fact, it is to some of these individuals that I owe great debts of gratitude for the gifts they’ve brought to me, the lessons I’ve learned from them. I will always think fondly of them, always be glad for good things to enter their lives, as they entered mine.

8. Beloved Friends

I do not fall in love easily or often. This is, therefore, a very small (though important) category. I know people who have begun their relationships with significant others as dating relationships. Not me. Significant feelings have only ever been the outgrowth of what have been significant friendships first. Amazingly, each of these individuals can currently be called, “Friend”, and each may actually read this post. You know who you are. All I can say is this: you have taken up residence in my heart, and there you will always have a home.

9. Friends who “let you into your own life”

Unlike the previous category, this group is big, and has grown exponentially the past couple of years. Lots of self-help and personal growth books will tell you to surround yourself with people who bring forth your best, people who challenge you to be more than you currently are. I can’t say I followed this advice, because I can’t say that the fact I’m surrounded by incredible people was something I did. Instead, each of these precious friends arrived in my life as a gift. They have surrounded me with love, support, generosity and trust. They have tested me, challenged me, called me on my crap. They have knocked at my door when I was hiding out, they have braved snarky comments when they got too close to some truth I was denying. Most importantly, they have loved me. At my best AND at my worst.

10. The friend who is my self

Strange to be so far into one’s life before deciding to befriend, rather than sabotage, oneself. Now that I’m here, its pretty clear that this is how it is supposed to work.

You may wonder why I didn’t mention very many names as I described my list of friends. Most practically, I was afraid of leaving people out. More importantly, most of the people in my life who would make this list cross over from one type of friend to another as circumstances and need require – the categories are not mutually exclusive. The name calling (name dropping? naming?) would have gotten repetitive. Rest assured, though: from my friend Carol, who has been loyal and steadfast since fifth grade, to little Femto Finnegan, who has yet to be born, the names and faces of many loved ones have been before me as I type this entry. Standing on the 50 year line, looking back at the past, forward at the future, I see one thread inextricably connecting the two – the thread of relationship. Friends, you are with me now, and will be as we move forward on this crazy trip of life. For that, I am humbly grateful.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing…
e e cummings

50 about 50: Books

“This is the way
you have spoken to me, the way – startled –
I find I have heard you. When I need
it, a book or a slip of paper
appears in my hand…
…Your spirits relax, —
now she is looking, you say to each
other, now she begins to see.                                                             
 –Denise Levertov

Reading has been one of the great pleasures of my life – also, one of the most important means for personal growth. The simple truth is, I am who I am today partly because of the books I’ve read. In how they’ve touched me at the right moment, how I’ve been open to them when I needed to learn something, books have enriched my life immeasurably.

I have read widely and constantly. In second grade, I got in trouble for reading (a novel) in class. In junior high, my mother nearly flat-lined when she discovered me reading Jacqueline Susann’s  Once Is Not Enough. In high school, I read every Barbara Cartland regency romance I could find, as well as all of Thomas Hardy. When people comment about the strange, esoteric bits of trivia in my brain, I often secretly laugh – because I know what low-brow piece of literature I gleaned that tidbit from!

It would be impossible to make a list either of my favorite books or of all the authors whose ideas or themes have instructed me. Instead, today’s list is of books which have become integrated into my own psyche in some important way. I’ve cheated (a little) because there are more than ten books in this list. I could easily have expanded the list far beyond these ten items – it makes me sad, for example, that there are no John Irvings, no poetry, none of my beloved “books that became movies starring Shirley Temple” on the list. Someday perhaps I’ll write a definitive list of the best books I’ve read. Today is not that day! (PS – the list is in chronological order)

1. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney

I believe I’ve shared this before, but The Five Little Peppers taught me what reading is for. I learned to read with phonics and the Dick and Jane readers. “Run, Dick, Run.”, does not inspire one to develop a life-long love of reading. Story can, though. And this was the first true, long, emotionally satisfying story I ever read. The rest is, as they say, history!

2. Trixie Belden Series by  Julie Campbell Tatham et. al. /Madeline L’Engle’s Books

Trixie Belden and Vicky Austen showed me two young women struggling with a variety of difficult issues: annoying brothers, shady characters with nefarious intent, mysteries and logic puzzles, the death of loved ones, crushes on boys. I loved that both girls worked hard and thought hard about what it meant to be her best self. I never minded that Trixie used exclamations such as, “Gleeps!” She and her friends the Bob-Whites of the Glen, as well as L’Engle’s characters, helped me maintain a moral grounding at times when it could easily have crumbled away.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

For many years, this was the only novel I read more than once. And by more than once, I mean 20+ times. Admittedly, on one level it could be read as a longer romance novel, and that is probably why I read it the first few times. Gradually, though, I began to appreciate its finer qualities. It has been many years now that I have considered it one of the finest novels ever written. If you have read it without laughing out loud, you have missed just how clever Jane Austen is as an observer and commenter on personalities and social mores. She is witty and on point, without straying into mean and snarky (most of the time) – definitely qualities I aspire to in myself.

4. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein

A word that is currently so overused as to make it practically meaningless – EPIC – is the best word to describe both these books and their impact on the trajectory of my reading life. For one, I have remained a true fan of the fantasy genre. In addition:  history, linguistics, folklore, metaphor – my appreciation for each has grown significantly as a result of these books. More importantly, the idea that even the humblest of hobbits has a role to play in the great and dramatic events of the world, has informed my worldview and cemented my temperament as idealist.

5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The structure of this novel hooked me: the Joads’ story interspersed with chapters describing the injustices (such as produce being allowed to rot rather than feed people) occurring in that turbulent time. My parents were politically involved and aware in the 60’s and 70’s, and while I soaked up that ambience during my childhood, until I read The Grapes of Wrath, I hadn’t understood how powerfully the written word could move me in service to a just cause.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Viktor Frankl

The first time I read this memoir, I was young and more inspired by the fact of his survival in the death camps than I was by how Frankl survived. As I have matured, I have worked hard to remember the truth quoted above. Unhappy at work? Bored with your life? Feel like someone is oppressing you? Use your freedom to choose – beginning with how you respond to the person(s) or events involved. I gravitate toward people in my life who intuitively understand and model how to do this.

7. Earthrise: A Personal Responsibility by David Thatcher

I was spending a leisurely morning in the 1990s browsing at my favorite shops on the pedestrian mall in Iowa City. At The Vortex, I lingered in the books section, flipping through whatever caught my eye. Underneath a pile of New Age magazines, I spied a thin, quite worn-looking little book. It appeared to have been read by many, though this was not a used book store. It was so strange, nestled among the many shiny new items – and we all know I cannot resist something strange or unusual. So I sat down to read it on the padded little bench in the store. And literally felt my mind and my worldview expanding as I read. I’ve never met anyone else who has read this book. For a long time, I almost believed only my copy existed, I almost believed it was magically produced just for me to find at that exact moment in my life when I would be most open to it. Basic premise: the human capacity for affecting our world is exponentially greater at the individual level than any of us typically realize, and it is time for us to take responsibility for what we create.

8. Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris/Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

I read these two novels back-to-back. They were both beautiful and powerful stories, widely different from one another in subject and tone. What struck me, though, was a similar central concept: that perception is reality. In Yellow Raft, the story is told through the perspectives of several generations of women in the same family. Each perceives the events through her own lens, and each responds accordingly. The reader develops a very full picture of what happened, while each character must make choices based on her own, limited, knowledge. In Animal Dreams, a woman returns to her childhood community, having left in late adolescence feeling outcast and incapable of being accepted by those around her. Returning, she discovers that children don’t see or understand very much – in part, because their parents and the other adults around them provide shelter from the more difficult to comprehend things in life. The view she constructed of her family, community, and self was based on this incomplete understanding – and incredibly flawed. Together, these two novels have helped me develop a more sanguine approach to familial relationships – yes, we shared experiences, but there are sound reasons for our differing responses and/or feelings about them. What an eye-opening thought – someone else’s perception of reality, while different than mine, can be equally valid.

9. Desert Pilgrim by Mary Swander

I shared the story of the powerful retreat experience that helped change the course of my life previously in this blog, here. This book was the basis for the retreat, written by the author who served as our retreat leader. One of the many things I loved about Desert Pilgrim, was the strange synchronicity between Swander’s life and mine – the people, communities, places we both know and love. Other than the retreat, our paths had never crossed. But our lives share some quirky people and experiences. As a result of the book, the retreat, and a few other connections in my life, I have adopted San Rafael as my patron saint (along with St. Cecilia, whose name I took at confirmation). While I won’t attempt to articulate what this has meant to me (because it would make this post unbelievably long), suffice it to say that I take hope and comfort from this.

10. Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer

This book was rain on my parched soul, and came to me at a moment of great need. If you are ever at a crisis point regarding your vocation or life purpose, this book is a wonderful companion – especially (though not only) if you have been working in higher education.

Well. It turns out that I am incapable of “short and pithy” when sharing books I love. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and learning about some of the books that have shaped me. I am particularly interested in hearing about those that have touched you – please share!


Any minute now, my sister will be arriving to spend the night. Any minute. I’ve been telling myself this for an hour or so now. Still, no Annie.

Why is it that the things we so eagerly anticipate are the things that seem to take the longest to arrive?

This feeling is so common to the human experience, that we have aphorisms and proverbs that speak to it. The idiom in English is: a watched pot never boils. Before telephones were mobile, and came with us everywhere, my mother used to tell me not to just sit there waiting for the phone to ring – that the surest way for the call to come through was to get busy doing something productive. I can remember many times throughout my life when the anticipation seemed endless, almost unbearable. Who could stand to wait for Christmas, or summer vacation, or your birthday?

Funny how often this kind of eager anticipation is followed by an emotional letdown. Graduated from college? Hooray…now what? Christmas is finally here? Yippee…I didn’t get what I wanted. The New Year’s Eve party, trip to Vegas, prom…not really as much fun as the emotional hype leading up to them.

And yet.

Here’s something I’ve noticed recently. The ratio of events I’m eagerly anticipating to events that meet or surpass my expectations is getting better. Compared with my expectations, the following events surpassed anything I anticipated: my reunions with various old friends this past year = more meaningful and loving; The Oprah Tribute Show = better and more emotionally touching; time with my sister Anne = more fun and relaxed than a quick visit should be. And each hard fought pound dropped = more internal satisfaction than I ever expected to feel this far into my weight loss odyssey. (It took Odyssius ten years to make his way home from Troy, so I think odyssey is an appropriate word choice here!)

What I find myself wondering is whether I have learned to manage the anticipation, and keep it to a reasonable level OR if, instead, I have matured into a better understanding of the right life experiences to anticipate? Recently, I asked a friend if he felt let down after a series of big events in his life concluded. His response, “No letdown.  I don’t get letdowns too easy.  I’m very content…” struck me as a little too sanguine at the time. But the more I think about it, the more I come to believe he’s onto something. For me, it is less about being content than it is about living fully in the moment that comes – whatever it holds, no matter the advance hype. The good or great times can be fully enjoyed for what they are. And the other moments, even the difficult ones, can then be taken in stride without losing equilibrium. Being content isn’t about experiencing flat emotions (as my younger self suspected) – it is more about aligning oneself with the big picture of one’s life, instead of the momentary frame.

In her song, “Anticipation”, made famous by its use in the Heinz Ketchup commercials, Carly Simon writes about anticipation getting in the way of living her life right now – she’s late to meet her lover because she’s thinking about what might be. By the end of the song, she arrives at this conclusion: “So I’ll try and see into your eyes right now/And stay right here ’cause these are the good old days.” We could all choose worse credos to live by.