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Mom, You Are Absolutely Fabulous

Dear Brave Ones,

I was visiting Mom in Toronto last week. We decided to celebrate Mother’s Day early. My childhood best friend, Natasha, came with her mom, Judy, and the four of us shared tea and cake and stories. I wrote down some of my favorite memories of Mom and read them aloud to her. I thought she might brush them aside. Instead, what happened surprised me. I read the first sentence, and that sparked a memory, so she told a great story. Then I read the next sentence and she reciprocated with another incredible story. This gave me an idea for a new Mother’s Day challenge/tradition.

Here’s your Mother’s Day challenge: If you’re lucky enough to have a mom who is still alive, write down a funny memory or a few specific gratitudes and send them to her. (Who cares if she receives it after Mother’s Day? Can you be too late to say thank you.) If she’s no longer alive, light a candle and put your words in a card at its base. (Guatemalans tie messages to kite tails and send them to their ancestors on the wind. You could try that!) For bonus points, read your words out loud to her spirit or her person. The power of doing so outweighs the embarrassment. 

I’ve written about Mom before in The Mother I Wanted, the Mother I Got. Here are my 2024 words about Mom:

Mom is as iconic as Cher. Never meek, never a bore, always entertaining. Recently, after a nosebleed sent her to the hospital, she said, “My favorite nurse looks like Keith Richards after a bender.”

Decade after decade, she keeps defying the rules. At 17, she went to university to study science and Kinesiology. At 49, she went back to school to get her masters in Art History. At 65, she moved part-time to just outside Guadalajara, Mexico on her own. 

Mom’s lived many lives and outlived many pairs of travel sandals.

When I was in preschool, we moved to France because she wanted her children to grow up speaking more than one language. Never mind that she was single, recently divorced, and my brothers and I were 4, 6, and 8 years old. She knew only basic French, not enough to enroll us in school or rent a place in a small village in the Alps. But somehow she did. My very first memories are not of where I was born, but of the village of Les Contamines-Montjoie. I remember the smell of the patisserie shop below our apartment and the sound of avalanches across the valley. 

Mom opened my eyes to the world. I learned French fluently, but I also learned that life was meant to be lived fully immersed in adventure, nature, and pains au chocolat.

Later, when I was a teenager, Mom and I moved back to France. We were like the mother-daughter duo of the British sitcom, Absolutely Fabulous. Mom went out dancing, I did homework at the kitchen table. Mom went to a lip sync contest as a Beastie Boy, I went to the used bookstore. Mom went to Italy for the weekend, I stayed home. In preparation for her trip, she put sticky notes all over the apartment with Italian phrases. “What’s this one?” I asked. “Dove posso comprare una minigonna di pelle?” “Oh that’s the only one I really need to learn. It means, “Where can I buy a leather mini skirt?”

Mom taught me to savor life, seek out fun (and leather mini skirts), and refuse to surrender to tame obligations. 

Thanks Mom for being a risk-taker and change-maker. You have given your children and grandchildren so many wonderful lifetimes in one. I’m grateful for every memory, moment, and magnificent laughing fit with you. 

Je t’aime, Maman.



Community Gardens Plot 209

A prose-poem for you on Earth Day…

The morning smells delicious,
of dirt and last night’s rain –
I dream of abundance,
draw a map 
on the back of an envelope:
tomatoes, basil, garlic here,
potatoes, peppers, peas there,
Oh, the food we can grow!

Each spring, I have high hopes
for gardening.
I forget my tendency
to kill plants –
to let them go unprotected 
from deer, rabbits,
and the dry, relentless heat.

I begin with gusto anyway, 
seduced by the way plants are called “starts”
and the idea of beginning new.
This year especially, since we’re off the waitlist,
and promised land in our public garden.
Never mind that Plot 209 is all weeds and rocks.

In the community gardens,
the currency is sharing –
The tool library, the swapping shed, 
the compost commons – 
Can I borrow your tiller?
Here, try my favorite shovel.

I’m amazed by how many people
come to greet us, their new garden neighbors,
offer wheelbarrows and watering cans –
Lindsay gifts us onion bulbs for luck.
Tony and Bobbie, Howard and Scott, Sarah and Ryan
come carrying compost in buckets,
come offering wisdom too: 
Rabbits don’t like blood meal
or marigolds,
Weed cloth is cheap at Costco,
I’ll make you ceramic row markers, 
Did you hear they turn on the water tomorrow?

Everything here 
relies on friendly exchange.
Conversation centers on common ground,
or at least, the ground.
On my right, my 83 year old neighbor identifies perennials.

On my left, a 5 year old boy sings to the plants,
choosing what to save and what to toss –
“I weed you, I keep you, I weed you, I keep you.”

Someone has made a path
out of flat stones, discarded by someone else.
I step from stone to stone,
and consider the power of sharing and seeds
to make the world feel whole again.

*Special thanks to Teresa Chapman who put us on the waitlist in the first place, the Carbon Crew Project (and its biggest cheerleaders, Tom Virden & Lois Shannon) who motivated us to really do the garden thing this year, and Kurt, who does all the heavy lifting!

Advice from Cranes on Empty Nesting

Hello from Nebraska! For Spring Break, some go to Florida or Mexico, but this year we take our college-age children to North Platte, Nebraska to see the Sandhill Crane migration. Isn’t that every teenager’s Spring Break fantasy? 

I’m just happy to have everyone in the car together. With Hazel graduating from High School in May, and Cole already in college, we will be empty nesters soon. I don’t know yet what that means for me; I feel both sad and excited about this new stage of life. What will my life be like? What will our marriage be like? What if our idea of romance is to fall asleep on the couch after watching TV?

All I know is that I want to savor each moment with our kids, even when all four of us, plus the dog, are packed into a small car. We drive 4.5 hours northeast, dodging tumbleweed and holding our noses past cattle feedlots. 

Our daughter, who wants to study music, sings constantly at home and now here, in the backseat. She doesn’t seem to notice that she is doing it. Usually I’m the one who asks her to keep it down. But not today. Knowing she will be gone next year means that I’m happy to let her sing as often and as loud as she wants.

Our destination is the Ramada Inn in North Platte, just off I-80, next to a gas station, a Burger King, and the largest rail yard in the world with over 10,000 train cars moving through it each day. I’m excited to have everyone under one roof, even if it is the Ramada’s.

We book 3 birding tours with Dusty Trails, which is the owner’s name, not just a description of the landscape. The first tour is at dawn to visit the ceremonial dancing grounds of the Prairie Chicken. We save the cranes for Day 2. Can’t have all the fun at once!

We wake at 4 am to pile into a yellow school bus with other tourists from across the country. It is dark and freezing out. There is also a biting wind that makes the subzero temperatures feel even colder. The bus is driven by Dusty himself. 

Dusty raises horses and cattle, organizes bird tours and, in his free time, takes care of the local cemetery. He grew up south of Sutherland, Nebraska. “Behind that power plant is where we used to play and look for ducks.” His mom delighted in preparing breakfast for his clients, but as she aged, she quit making eggs and now makes origami cranes for each of us. “She hasn’t learned how to make an origami prairie chicken yet,” Dusty apologizes.

Prairie Chickens, also known as Boomers, are seventeen inches long and weigh about 2 pounds. They are chubby birds with short legs and a short tail. Every spring, male Boomers gather at dawn on a lek, a ceremonial dancing ground, which is a little bare knob of grassland. It is absolutely unremarkable except at sunrise come springtime. 

Dusty parks the bus, and turns off the engine. It is pitch black outside. We open the windows, pull our hats on tighter, and bury ourselves in sleeping bags to stay warm. Then we wait. The minute the sun rises, ten male Prairie Chickens gather in the lek for a dance-off. I watch my sleepy teens’ eyes open and their faces break into wide smiles. The male Prairie Chickens compete for the females attention by stamping their feet in a frenzy with their pinnate feathers flipped up to look like horns and their bright orange throat sac making a sound like blowing across a pop bottle. 

Meanwhile, the females walk nonchalantly by the males, looking unimpressed. Ultimately, females choose to mate with the bird that is not the biggest or the brightest, but the best dancer. It’s a page right out of Patrick Swayze’s playbook. Two hours pass while we watch, mesmerized by this funny ritual. But now the birds are lying down, exhausted. It’s time to go. 

On our way back, we notice that someone has placed work boots on the tops of fence posts for miles. Dusty explains, “We do that around here because if you’re ever caught in a snowstorm, the toes point your way home.” 

Our second tour is to see the Sandhill Cranes at dusk on the North Platte river.

Sandhill Cranes winter in Mexico. Then every March, around 500,000 birds land in Nebraska to feed and gain energy for the rest of their journey. When they take off again in April, they fly over 400 miles a day until they reach their breeding grounds in Alaska or Siberia. 

We watch the cranes from a blind. To get a sense of their size, imagine a bird with a 6-foot wingspan, and the fact that juveniles are called colts. But because the birds wait for darkness to return to the river to roost each night, we hear them better than we see them. They sound like hundreds of thousands of frogs singing. When they fly first above us, then next to us, then all around us, it feels like the air itself is making music. 

On our third tour, we wake again at 4 am to look at the cranes at sunrise from a blind. The kids rise out of bed faster than I expect. In the cold, dark air, we wait and listen. Kurt suggests that maybe next year, just the two of us could go to North Dakota to see the Sharp-Tailed grouse mating dances. I’ve never heard anything so romantic.

In a breathtaking moment, the cranes lift off the river and take to the air. It’s a deafening chorus of wingbeats and crane song. 

But once the cranes leave the river, the show is over. Everything is quiet. Dusty’s assistant is excited to show us a Great Blue Heron rookery on the way out, but the giant nests are empty. I’m suddenly sad that the cranes and herons are gone, that this trip will be over soon, and that our kids will migrate away from us too soon as well. 

While I know that everything’s meant to move or fly, I’ve been imagining our kids’ absence and struggling a bit. The thing about these birds is their sound, a kind of music. When our daughter leaves, it might feel like someone has turned off the music. I’m not looking forward to that. 

Here in Nebraska, I try to remember that migration is the natural order. The birds, the trains, the children we raise; they are all meant to move on and away. In a gift shop, a sign gives advice from the Sandhill Cranes, “Spread your wings. Have a good sense of direction. Keep your head high. Go the distance.” 

Yet maybe I’ll start placing boots on fence posts, so our kids can look and see how the toes point their way home.




Learning How to Fear

A winter storm came through Colorado last week. Four feet of snow fell in 48 hours in the little town of Nederland, just thirty miles from where I live. Many rushed away from the mountains, trying to get to low ground before they closed roads and lost power. We rushed toward the storm. Kurt and I thought that if we went to the mountains, we could be some of the first people at Eldora Ski Resort, carving fresh tracks in historic levels of powder. 

What happened instead was that we got snowed in. We slept at our friends’ home, but when we woke up to 36” of snow, we were unable to get to the ski resort. We couldn’t even get out of the driveway. The snow overwhelmed the plow trucks, landing one of them in the ditch. They closed the ski resort and most roads remained impassable. So instead of an epic day of skiing, we spent two days helping our friends shovel their driveway, decks, and roof. 

When the snow kept falling, fast and deep, we slowed down and absorbed the silence. I caught myself staring out the window for a long time, in awe of the natural design of a pine tree, how its branches bend without breaking. Then I thought about the bears hibernating in this same silence, how their heartbeats slow from about 50 beats per minute to 12 beats per minute all winter. I curled up under a blanket and imagined slowing down to bear speed. 

Last month, because I wrote a blog about Willie Nelson, a friend told me about a podcast called “One by Willie” in which famous people talk about a single Willie song that impacted them. In one episode, Brené Brown, sociologist and storyteller, spoke about Willie’s version of “Amazing Grace.” The way he sang it made her realize that she had misheard the song her whole life. She thought the lyrics were, “It was grace that taught me how to feel.” But when Willie sang, she heard the true lyrics which are, “It was grace that taught me how to fear.” How could that be? 

After that podcast, I listened to “Amazing Grace” on repeat. I, too, misunderstood the song for years. And now it deeply resonated. I don’t need to be afraid of fear or its cousin, anxiety. 

I’ve been through enough sh** that I know how to fear. 

I can drive toward the storm because I’ve been through storms before, and I know they are not permanent. It’s tough to remember that when I wake in the night in a cold sweat, anxious about my scan results, my family’s health, money woes, or bloodshed and violence in the world. But now Willie and the famous hymn remind me that “Grace taught me how to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”

But what exactly is grace? Kindness, forgiveness, trust, undeserved, unconditional love? All of it, I’m guessing. It is also moving with elegance and fluidity, something fear prevents us from doing. So we have to learn how to fear better. 

The goal is not to banish fear, but to learn how to be afraid, and move through it. 

And we do that by accepting the fear, not denying it, and paying attention to what we can trust. Can we trust that eventually our load will be lifted, the sun will come out again, and life will continue?

Emily and Amelia Nagoski, two brilliant sisters, wrote Burnout  pre-pandemic about unlocking the stress cycle. The brain research they describe is that when we push stress down or away, we never process it properly and we end up storing it in our bodies until we burnout. I believe that something similar happens with fear. 

We have a new goal: to learn how to complete the fear cycle. 

When fear rises, don’t try to make it go away. Instead, ride the emotion, move your body, cry, scream, breathe, and feel all the feels. Then get up and do something creative. Creativity is a powerful antidote to spinning out because of fear. And for reasons I don’t quite understand, it is the final step in completing the fear cycle. 

My go-to creative act is writing, for Kurt it is playing guitar, for Hazel it is singing, dancing, or watercoloring, for Cole it is repairing an old car engine. What is it for you? How can you learn how to fear better

Whatever your routine is to complete the fear cycle, do it. Don’t let it get stuck in your body. Write down those go-to things that help you to complete the fear cycle on a sticky note and put it on the bathroom mirror. Then remember that fear is something we learn how to manage, not something we run and hide from. We can learn how to fear better with practice.  

For the skiers out there who are curious, the sun came out and they opened the ski mountain. But by then, Kurt had caught a ride home. I stayed because the peace of the storm was good for my nervous system. And because our friends were kind enough to let me stay. So when they opened the resort, I was one of the first people on the hill. Only the temperatures had warmed; It was not the light, fluffy powder I expected, but more like heavy cement. 

I looked down from the chairlift to see five people on one of the steepest slopes. No one was moving. They were at a complete standstill, unable to make it through the deep snow. When it was my turn, I hugged the shady edge, pointed my skis downhill, leaned way back, and let them run. “I know how to fear!” I screamed as I sped past the stuck skiers. I laughed at my own ridiculousness and eventually fell into four feet of forgiving snow. Then I hopped on the chair to go back up and do it again.

It reminded me of what I learned by staring at those pine trees. They bend but don’t break, and when the sun comes out, they let go of everything they are carrying. That’s a pretty good way to make it through a storm. 



Dueling Teachers: Willie Nelson & the Dalai Lama

What do Willie Nelson and the Dalai Lama have to do with 2024? February has been one of the toughest months on record, personally. The year of the Dragon came in breathing fire and smoke all over the people I love. I won’t go into detail, but just know that it has something to do with the state of our world, my aging parents (and how much I dislike that inescapable truth), and my daughter being initiated into adulthood abruptly through the tragic loss of a  friend. I just spent a week with Mom and it has me thinking about other octogenarians who help me get through tough times, namely the Dalai Lama and Willie Nelson.

At 88 and 90 years old respectively, they are living legends. The Dalai Lama embodies happiness, despite being exiled from his country for over 70 years. He lost his family, his homeland, and most of his culture, yet he insists that he will live to be 100 because he has so much work to do helping others find joy. Meanwhile, Willie is celebrating the release of his 74th solo studio album. He’s still performing live; he’ll play 18 shows this spring and turn 91 while on the road. He’s survived a collapsed lung, emphysema, and losing almost everyone he’s ever played music with on stage. But this morning I woke up worried. What if we lose him and the Dalai Lama in the same year? How will I go on? 

With Willie, It Was Love at First Listen

Willie’s voice singing “Whiskey River” on my current Sunday morning playlist takes me straight to childhood road trips, first in the family station wagon, then later in the van, with our eight-track cassette player wearing the tape thin on Always on My Mind and Waylon and Willie. Dad would miss highway exits to our destination because we were all too busy singing, “On the Road Again,” or “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” Willie is the reason I wore a bandanna over my hair and ripped blue jeans for too many years. He sings of love and loss, dirt roads and dirt-filled bars. He is the charming rebel who has always remained true to himself. 

Willie brings hippies and rednecks together, as if they all arrived in the back of the same pick-up truck. I remember when Kurt and I saw him live at Merlefest Bluegrass Festival in North Carolina in 2000. We were in a sea of strangers and yet we all put our arms around one another and sang, “Seven Spanish Angels.” I danced my way so close to the stage that I could see how yellow his teeth were, but when Willie looked right at me and blew me a kiss, I knew I was his forever. I knew he loved “Trigger,” his Martin guitar that he’s had for a million years, his tour bus, “The Honeysuckle Rose,” his kids, his four wives, and his horses, and at that moment, I knew he loved me, too.

Now, when I’m struggling with life’s challenges, I turn to poetry. Next, I listen to Willie’s country songs and remember what he teaches me: to hold life lightly, follow my intuition, write down my stories, and face adversity with big-hearted boldness.

Meeting the Dalai Lama

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama is the ultimate spiritual teacher. I have never heard him preach religion, only kindness. He has offered me lessons on how to endure suffering ever since I first encountered him as a dumb college kid. 

During a conference at my school on “Spirit and Nature” in 1990, I was invited to be a tour guide for one of the keynote speakers. I’m embarrassed to say that when I accepted the role, I had no idea what Tibet was, and went looking for someone named “Dolly” to show around the campus. When I found his entourage, the cloud of monks in saffron-and-wine robes parted and a short, older man in glasses stepped forward. He gave me a wide smile that made his cheeks round like apples. I didn’t know who this man was, but when he touched his forehead to mine in greeting, I saw and felt intense white light wrapped all around him, and me.

I discovered that His Holiness laughs continuously, as though he shares an inside joke with life. He is also endlessly curious and has a thing for wristwatches. He asked to see my cheap digital Timex and giggled as he used the stopwatch feature while we ate lunch. I always assumed that spiritual leaders were reserved and serious. But here was the Dalai Lama playing with my watch like a toddler, laughing heartily, and eating like a ravenous retiree at a free all-you-can-eat buffet. I wanted to know more about this “Dolly” person who walked in a forcefield of light. I ended up traveling to Tibet in my twenties to understand where he came from and how I, too, could cultivate happiness. I have looked to him for inspiration ever since. 

The Dalai Lama teaches me to be curious, laugh easily and often, to be a force for unity, and to look at suffering from every possible angle until I find a hidden treasure in it. Most of all, he reminds me that the antidote to pain is serving others. He says, “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions… I am going to benefit others as much as I can. Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.”

This is, of course, not just about Willie and the Dalai Lama. It is also about my mom and dad and how they are still teaching me to find something to laugh about, learn about, and look forward to every single day. “Keep going,” each of my octogenarian guides seem to be telling me. You’re not alone. Every home holds someone who has struggled, or who is struggling now.  There is wisdom to be born in us through suffering that couldn’t happen in any other way. Just keep going.



photo credit: “Dalai lama” Webted, cc. 2.0.

Everyone Has a Story

They are all better writers, with better stories to tell. 

As a college admissions and essay coach, I hear how loud the inner critic can be when it comes to writing about ourselves. My students believe the negative inner voice that tells them that their stories and storytelling skills aren’t good enough. There’s also a misconception that the college essay needs to be about overcoming adversity. It doesn’t.

Adult writers believe a similar myth; only significant, earth-shattering stories deserve to be told. It’s another way that Fear, disguised as logical, smart Perfectionism, gets in the way. Luckily, many of us have been dealt a pretty good hand in life. So we may not have a giant challenge to describe. Thank goodness, I say. 

I believe that everyone has a story to tell. 

Yet most of us don’t believe our stories are worth telling. 

Once I had a student we’ll call Toby. He told me for two days straight that there was nothing interesting or special about him. So I asked him about how he spent his summers. Well, I used to harvest dates on my grandfather’s farm. My ears perked up. But that was before I had my identity crisis and broke up with the Church. I smiled. Nothing interesting to say at all. 

It turns out this boy was named after one of the founding members of the Mormon Church, but because of his sexuality, he felt abandoned by the very church that gave him a sense of belonging as a young boy. His college essay is about his relationship to his grandfather, to the farm, and to himself. “While we may disagree on religion, what my grandfather and I have in common is a dedication to kindness, hard work, and a love for nature. The date farm is a working ecosystem. Every plant, animal, and person contributes to the system. I believe, like the date farm, every person on the planet has a purpose and a place.”

His case is dramatic – an extreme version of believing he had nothing to say, only to uncover a powerful story. But it happens to me in my work every single day.

Recently, a student insisted that she had no good ideas for a topic. I asked her how her work at the pizza shop was going. She said, “I had my pay deducted for putting too much cheese on a customer’s pizza.” My ears perked up. Her essay ended up being about having an abundance vs scarcity mindset. “The idea that there is a lack of cheese, a lack of love, or a lack of colleges is absurd. I choose to have an abundance mindset, believing that there is enough to go around.”

We tell stories because we are human. But we are also made more human because we tell stories. Amanda Gorman

Stories and storytelling are essential parts of being human. No other species has this ability. We need to tell stories to reunite with who we are. Personally, I write to connect to myself and to others; it is an exercise in empathy.

One of the best ways to begin is with a ten-minute free write.

We need a little pressure, (that’s the timed part), we need to know it’s going to end soon (that’s the short part), and we don’t need to worry about spelling or grammar or finding the perfect sentence to begin (that’s the free part).  

I say to my students, No one is going to read this. Keep your writing loose and easy. When you get stuck, don’t stop. Write the words “I don’t know” or “idk” or “I can’t remember” until something pops into your mind.

Set your timer for 10 min. Start with the prompt, I remember

What are we remembering?

For today, tell me about a time when you were doing a task or working a job where you were in over your head. Or tell me about learning to drive or serving tables or being in charge of other people’s children.

Get inside the moment(s) as you remember. What do you see, feel, hear, smell, taste?

Don’t think. Write. Memory runs through our heart and along our veins. The best way to access it is to bypass the logical parts of our brain and just start scribbling. Try the 10-minute free write.

Take risks and choose brave over perfect as you go. You are a beautiful, storytelling human. 



From Impossible to Possible

Five minutes after choosing Possibility as my word for January 2024, I had the most negative temper tantrum because everything felt impossible. The feeling began when I woke up and it was -9F (-22C), the dog refused to go out, Kurt was sick, my nerve pain had returned in my leg, and there was no milk in the house. I wrote 2025 in my journal, as if some part of me knew it was best to just skip 2024. 

Then I remembered that I had signed up for a pottery class way back in 2023 when life was easy, and it started today. A small group of female friends and I were going to create a muse out of clay in three days under the brilliant guidance of Caroline Douglas. But today, the idea felt frivolous, indulgent, even crazy to spend three mornings doing Arts and Crafts while I was convinced we were going broke, I needed to get back to work after the holidays, and someone had to get groceries. But I went to the pottery class anyway, hoping for a little grace. 

In the studio, I thought I would feel grounded, doing something with my hands. Instead I felt anxious, incompetent, and full of comparative, sulky energy. Even when Caroline set us up with beautiful molds for our muse’s face and showed us how to assemble the body, I still felt stuck. 

My classmates were quietly creating masterpieces: a goddess with long flowing hair, a golden-crowned muse with protective evil eyes, a stunning woman with two faces and two moods, and Venus riding upright in a beautiful boat. While they gushed, “This is the most fun I’ve had in so long,” I worked my clay slab with the skill of a kindergartener and a lot less enthusiasm. 

I had imagined that I would make a Gaia goddess, a sculpture I could put in the garden and bring offerings to in gratitude for Nature. Yet the clay was hardening, drying-up, and cracking because I remained stuck and indecisive, overwhelmed by the grandeur of my vision in relation to my diminutive skill.

Then I added a single leaf to my goddess’s waistline, and I felt better. I used Indian wooden blocks for the leaf pattern, and pressed lace and river stones into her skirt. I attached more leaves to make a belt. I liked what I was creating. But then one leaf fell off, then another. 

I thought, I should start over. I didn’t say it out loud, but right on cue, I overheard Caroline say to someone else in the class, “Don’t ever start over, clay is forgiving. You can always repair what you’ve done. Repair. Repair.” 

Repair: from late Latin repatriare: ‘return to one’s country.’  To put together what is torn. It turns out that to fix what is broken I needed to return to myself (or drive to Canada ;). The problem was not my lack of skill, it was that I was trying too hard to be like the others. I looked at the face of my muse and she seemed to whisper back, “You can’t get this wrong.”

On Day 2, I added elements that were deeply personal, like a backbone, as a kind of prayer and homage to my spine. We each have 33 vertebrae, creating the strongest bone in our body. My spinal column has just 26 vertebrae, with 6 fused and one removed, yet it is perfect. It is flexible and resilient. The source of my inner and outer strength. As I shaped her spine, I felt calm.

On Day 3, there were two problems. After days of freezing temperatures, the studio heat wasn’t working. It was so cold that Caroline suggested we cancel the class. Now, things had shifted enough inside me that nothing could keep me from the workshop. So we refused to cancel. Instead, everyone showed up and we worked in our parkas and hats, dancing to keep our toes warm. The second problem was that my muse’s leaves kept falling off. 

Caroline walked over to where I was holding the torn and broken leaves and said, “Wet the slab, add more clay, crosshatch, and connect again.”

Connect again. Repair. 

With Caroline’s experience and encouragement from the amazing women in the studio, I felt my way into my word for 2024, Possibility. Maybe I am healthy. Maybe Kurt will feel better soon. Maybe Hazel is picking up milk from the store right now. My sculpture is beautiful, maybe I am too. Maybe it will all work out. Just because I don’t know how, doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible. 



  • My Neurosurgeon called with good news! My scans look good – the nerve pain is likely caused by post-surgical scar tissue and inflammation on my spine. It may stick around for a long time, but I can manage it with meds and strength training. Yay!!
  • It’s now 48 degrees F (9 Celsius) and sunny outside!


2023 A Year of Contrasts

Saturday morning, I wore black to speak at an 18-year-old’s funeral. In the evening, I put on a pink jumpsuit to attend a birthday party. This day of opposites captures what 2023 has felt like: a year of contrasts.

In the words of my former boss and mentor, Rick Ridgeway, “There is no life without death. Spend a lot of time in Nature and you carry that truth deep in your bones.”

At the service, I read Finn’s own words from his college essay about trusting in the unknown. Seeing his friends with their arms around one another at the memorial, sobbing and laughing, broke my heart and mended it at the same time. They spoke so eloquently around three main themes: the positive ways that Finn influenced them in life, their curiosity about what happens after death, and the many ways that they will carry their friend with them, always. “I owe my greatness to Finn,” said Jack. Then Finn’s mom, Erica, spoke about his “Flow.” Finn loved his thick, luscious hair. When chemo took it all away, he rocked his bald head. He didn’t cover it up. Erica said, “That’s when I realized that Finn’s flow wasn’t his hair. It was him.” 

In the car on the way home, the radio announced that scientists discovered a second cosmic ray, as powerful as the OMG particle. Its energy is so great, and its source so mysterious, its existence is breaking physics. This made me think of Finn, of course, but also of my “certainty” that 2024 is going to be terrible. If there are still mysteries out there that challenge everything we understand to be true about physics, then maybe I don’t know everything 😉

Later that night, twenty of us sat around one family table while our friend Rodrigo, the birthday boy, served a delicious Italian feast that he had prepared for us. The guests, mostly Argentinians, broke into song every few minutes. I needed this celebration of life, and so I sang along in broken Spanish and Italian. It was a reminder, the way birdsong is a reminder, that we must keep singing even when the world feels tilted toward loss. 

Goodbye to a friend in the morning, Hello to another in the evening. 

Today, the Winter Solstice marks the shortest day of the year. Every day from now on, there is more light. I like thinking about that; it reminds me to lean toward the light. 

There are really only three four ways I know to do this: 1. Spend time in Nature 2. Make someone else’s day better 3. Write or make art 4. Develop a “Delight” radar. 

To live a life of meaning and impact, we have to be able to do two contrasting things at once: Fully face the darkness and have unflinching trust in the unknown. Or, as On Being host Krista Tippett says, “Train your gaze to see what’s terrible, but also to see what’s wonderful and beautiful.” I’ll keep trying if you will. 



Going on a Bear Hunt to Confront Life’s Obstacles

There’s a children’s book that sums up my experience with confronting life’s obstacles pretty nicely. Remember Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury? A young family sets out on an adventure to find a big bear, only to encounter obstacle after obstacle in their path.

We’re going on a Bear Hunt!

We’re gonna catch a big one!

When life throws one of its many big, scary curveballs at us, we humans tend to want to make it go away. We set off for a cure for the cancer or the broken heart–We’re gonna catch that Big Bear. But our enthusiasm takes us only as far as the first hindrance. In the children’s story, there is one block after another. There’s tall grass, wide rivers, deep mud, swirling snowstorms and gloomy caves. At one point, the family faces a dark forest.

Oh no! A forest!

A big, dark forest.

We can’t go over it.

We can’t go under it.

In April, I learned that another tumor at the base of my spine was growing. The change felt overwhelming and frightening. I did not want to have surgery on my spine, again. It wasn’t that I didn’t want it removed. I did. I couldn’t continue to ignore the intensifying pain that ran like electric eels through my left hip and down my leg. It was that I knew the surgery would be complex, if even possible, and I wanted a shortcut. I wanted to avoid the possibility that I could permanently lose the ability to use my left leg as they chipped stubborn tumor cells off delicate nerve endings. But I also knew I wanted to be back in my body, living fully.

Oh no!

We have to go through it!

If the tumor was removed, and I was alive, was it worth it? Of course. But it was still painful to consider “trading body parts for time,” as writer Laurel Braitman puts it poignantly. The challenge was where the tumor in my lumbar spine was hiding; it hugged tightly to nerve roots that dictate function and strength in my left hip, leg, and toes. A support group I attended on Zoom suggested that my husband deliver my lunch upstairs each day, so I never had to go downstairs again. I walked up and down my stairs that night like an incantation. There was no shortcut. In the picture book, the children make it through the forest this way:

Stumble trip!

Stumble trip!

Stumble trip!

The other challenge was that the area had already been radiated. Getting access to the tumor meant removing bone that tends to crack and crumble after maximum dose radiation. To take out the tumor, I would sacrifice stability. To regain stability, I’d likely need serious reconstruction, limiting mobility significantly. This felt like making it through the forest only to be staring at a wide river. 

Oh no! A river!

A deep, cold river

We can’t go over it.

We can’t go under it.

The tumor was not responsive to chemo. I had already received the maximum allowable radiation in that area. No clinical trials were currently an option. But if I did nothing, the tumor would likely grow and sever my nerves on its own. 

Oh no!

We have to go through it!

Back to doing research and making calls. Now, I know I am ridiculously fortunate. I’m white, privileged, with excellent health insurance that recognizes that rare diseases require outside-home-state care. The disparity in outcomes between white and black, low and high-income cancer patients is stupefying. It all begins with access. I’m tearfully reminded of this during every frustrating call to insurance companies. Imagine if English were my second language? Or if I didn’t have eight hours to dial and re-dial until I get through to people who can help? We can do so much better. Then someone does. Karina, an insurance associate, approves the scans I need to get the surgery.

Splash splosh!

Splash splosh!

Splash splosh!

Like the children in the story who come across the river, and step across it on mostly-hidden stones, I leaped from one submerged stone to the next. This, it turns out is how we face cancer or any big challenge; it’s not the Big Bear Hunt cure. It’s the “Splash Splosh Stone” approach, focused on progress.

There wasn’t anyone in Colorado with experience with Chordoma. Then Dr. Al-Mefty, my former superstar surgeon, told us he “only” specializes on skulls. Splash. Luckily, he recommended Dr. Gokaslan. Splosh. Dr. Gokaslan would see me. Stone. He set a date for June 14.

Oh no! We have to go through it!

I really, really wanted to back out of this surgery. I wanted to find a shortcut with less suffering. You know, one where I would get to keep mobility and strength, have some summer, and stay tumor-free.

The shift happened for me when I recognized that the obstacles in my path are not in the way of me living, they are living. 

They are where I find deep connection, kind humanity, creativity, humor and community. They are where I get to practice being the human I want to become. They are the path. I haven’t failed and my body isn’t failing me, it’s just time to level up and face the next adventure.

Oh-oh! A CAVE!

A narrow, gloomy cave.

We can’t go over it.

We can’t go under it.

Oh, no!

As I waited for the anesthesia to work before surgery, I imagined the similarities between synapses of a nerve, the roots of a tree, and a river delta.








From above, they look the same. Deep, structural resilience. Maybe everything will be better than expected.


When I woke up post-surgery, I immediately tried to move all my toes. They wiggled easily, equally, and did a little dance. The doctors and I became teary. My nerves somehow weathered the six-hour surgical beating and bounced right back. (My friend Jill points out, “A surgical beating has nothing on kids and what they do to our nerves–so of course they’re tough!”) Ha! Again, what does it take to trust that we have deep, structural resilience? wiggling toes

The children’s story ends in bold lettering: WE’RE NOT GOING ON A BEAR HUNT AGAIN!

We know the truth. We’re getting older, and life keeps throwing us scary curveballs. We’ll have to get out from under the covers, go back through the cave, the snowstorm, the forest, the mud, the river and the tall grass. But we do it because this crazy, beautiful life is worth it. And we do it together to steer for the best possible outcome and the most life along the way.  

The adventure draws us back in. It’s no wonder that when the book is over and all is calm, the tiny child you are reading to looks at you with big eyes, pats your hand, and says, “Again!”



walking post surgery

4 Steps to Coping with Uncertainty

This blog is about coping with uncertainty. Recently, someone asked, “How do you do it? You’re so good at facing the unknown.” And I laughed because I don’t feel good at it. I much prefer to hold the steering wheel and the GPS. But I am getting better at handling uncertainty. Here’s how:

#1. I get angry. When I stare into the dark of what may happen with this surgery or what may happen to my children in the future, it’s so overwhelming that I lash out at the person standing closest to me. I slam doors. I yell at those who leave towels on the floor and I argue with Kurt over who broke the lawn mower. I pack a bag to run away from home, because no one is being attentive enough to my needs. I get all the way to the car, with the key in the ignition, before realizing, “Oh, wait. I’ve done this before. When I am in fear of the boogeyman, death, or uncertainty, I look for the nearest exit out of my pain.” Now I know that I have to get mad because that emotion is more available to me than sadness. And I need to feel to process.

When I am getting angry over the littlest thing, it means I am processing uncertainty. In fact it means I am making great progress. As Francis Weller says, “No one wants to hang out in pain. But it is inevitable. So how do we use it as material?”

#2 I make something. When I am creative, I can’t be worried. There’s brain science to back me up on this. “Crafting is a natural antidepressant. It regulates big emotions and elicits flow.” All I know is that when I draw or paint or build something, fear fades. Curiosity takes over. Creative thoughts replace anxious ones. What do I want to make? How big? What materials? This time, I drew a giant bird’s nest on a piece of white cloth; the start of a painting for the front wall of the house. This is not art with a capital A. This is copying an illustration I found online. Then it’s scribbles and sketches, Tempera paint and utility brushes. Why? I wanted to make something that said, “Spring is here! Rebirth and recovery happens.” Then my five year old neighbor asked, “Will baby birds come out of the eggs?” So, early one morning, I painted cracks in the eggs. And in a week, who knows, maybe a few bright beaks will appear.

#3 I seek to serve. It’s tough to look outside of ourselves when we are in the middle of a pity party, but I swear it’s the doorway to freedom. Instead of focusing on what is being taken away from me, I focus on what I can give. I give thanks for irises and peonies, for rhubarb and morels, for parents in good health. I give my neighbor a ride to yoga, my friend a vase of lilacs, my dog an unleashed run. I give money to the organizations who are positive forces for change. I write down three specific moments that I am grateful for each night. I seek to serve. This season, the way I am serving is self-serving. Since everyone deserves the tools to write a great college essay, I’m finally creating an affordable video course for all. Stay tuned!

#4 I surround myself in Nature. I drop everything and follow a river upstream or lie down under the stars. I feel a part of something larger, a community of beauty and abundance, and it makes me feel larger, too. When I feel the immensity of the planet, I feel that we are capable of immense things. It reminds me that all this beauty happens without me doing a thing. Maybe the universe is benign. Maybe all will be well. I don’t have to force positivity, and be convinced that everything will definitely work out perfectly. I only have to believe that it is possible for all to be well.

There’s a #5, too…about surrender and trust…but that’s for another blog. 😉

So. When I don’t know what is going to happen and I feel out of control, I get angry, I make something, I seek to serve, and I surround myself in Nature. In that order. It’s not pretty. There’s a lot of resistance. But the only way out is through. It’s not about being bad or good at facing uncertainty, it’s about knowing what works for you to get through, rather than exit, the pain. Remember that together, we can get through anything.



Carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and be stretched large by them –Francis Weller