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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.

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. 



Run Toward the Danger

In ten days, I’m running the COLDER Bolder. Yes! I’m running again! Repeat the Sounding Joy! It’s been six years since I last ran. It feels amazing to run my favorite trails again, with dogs and friends, letting the dog off the leash, and letting my soul off leash, too.

My goal is to complete the 5K “race” on December 10th to raise funds for Chordoma Cancer research, for a BIG, new, important research project. (see below)

The road back to running has been tough and surprising. I learned a lesson that might help you with whatever pain or fears you are carrying right now. It is a lesson that writer Sarah Polley applied to overcome a debilitating concussion and past traumas in order to write her incredible collection of essays, Run Towards the Danger.

I laced up my running shoes as soon as X-rays showed that my neck, with all of its hardware, was stable and solid. I was thrilled to feel the wind in my hair again. I felt elated and vital. 

But the minute I felt nerve pain in my neck and spine, I stopped. I lay in bed, awake at night, my mind lit up like a car dashboard with several “check engine” lights on. I was terrified that the pain I was feeling was not caused by muscle inflammation, but tumor growth. I was convinced that I was experiencing symptoms of tumor activity, not regular exercise ache on muscles that had not been in use in six years.

In the morning, I called my friend Lisa who is a phenomenal Physical Therapist. She examined me and emphasized all the important points about talking to my doctor and getting MRI scans. But she also knew I had clean scans two months before. She looked at me and said, “Your brain hasn’t learned that the threat you experienced six years ago is no longer a significant threat. Your tolerance for pain has dropped considerably. You need to increase your pain tolerance to re-train your brain, so that it doesn’t alarm every time you have minor pain.”

I need to increase my pain tolerance? That floored me. I proudly imagined myself as someone with a high pain tolerance. I didn’t realize that time, age, and a little pandemic can mess with our greatest superpowers. 

My nervous system post-surgeries and post-pandemic is hypervigilant and overprotective. It’s like a helicopter parent who doesn’t know when to back off. It alarms when I do anything scary. Like run. Or socialize in big groups. Or write this blog. It wants to protect me from harm, but it’s narrowing my life.

                             “The fear of pain is likely worse than the pain itself.”–Dr. Adriaan Louw, PT, PhD

The good news is that we can raise our tolerance for discomfort. We need to re-train the brain to alarm only when necessary, giving us more space to move, breathe, write, run, and live!

Of course I know that I have to be careful. I am living with a chronic, terminal condition. But the side effect of being too careful is that I don’t live fully. Instead of backing off my running, I’ve kept going, while also getting scans every three months to make sure there is not a damaging physical threat. The key to success in growing my tolerance for pain is gradual exposure. I run 5k now, not 50k. And I started with 0.5k. 

I also have a mindfulness routine each morning that is more like a coffee chat with my brain. I remind it of my clean scans. And I listen to all its fears, paranoias, and worst case scenarios. I feel each one in my body. Then I gently ask my brain to picture a calm, happy moment. It’s like an 11-minute pep rally for peace to begin my day. 

As snow falls softly outside, I wonder, Are all of our nervous systems hypervigilant now? What do we need to do to be defiant and retrain our brains to stop alarming all the time? 

How can we gradually increase our exposure to what scares us or has hurt us in the past, so that we don’t narrow our lives, but rather imagine that we have “grow(n) thin to a starting point” as Mary Oliver says?

And begin again to be brave. 



P.S) I am running in the COLDER Boulder 5K on December 10th to raise funds for The Chordoma Foundation and a vitally important new research project that could open the door to brand new treatment options for me and others like me! My goal is to raise $2022 in 10 days. Can you pitch in $20 today? Canadians can make a tax-advantaged gift to this project here; U.S. individuals can do so here.

The work will be led by renowned researchers in my hometown of Toronto, Dr. Gelareh Zadeh, a neurosurgeon-scientist who has deep expertise in chordoma and Dr. Thomas Kislinger, a leading expert in cancer proteomics. Their goal is to discover proteins on the surface of chordoma cells that could serve as targets for emerging treatments — like systemic therapies that selectively target tumor cells, and various types of immunotherapy. Once they identify these markers, they can test if drugs developed for breast cancer, for example, could help chordoma patients, too. This would be a HUGE win!!

Thank you for considering pitching in to make this possible. If you have questions about this project or your contribution to it, reach out to Kenny ([email protected]) at the Chordoma Foundation.


Misidentifying Birds; Finding Peace and Possibility

When I feel heartbroken or stressed, I head outside. My friend Teresa and I arrive at Wonderland Lake (a man-made pond), with a plan to go birding. My mind is in a fog. Lately, all I can think about are mass shootings and wildfires burning.

Neither of us are birders, but we like the idea of being able to recognize bird songs and match them to the singers. The catch is that we are also dog owners. And because we can’t miss a chance to walk the dogs, we are now birding with energetic pups on a leash.

My hands are full; I have a pair of binoculars in one hand, my coffee cup and the dog leash in the other, poop bags and my phone in a back pocket. Just as I’m feeling certain that this is not how the pros do it, I look over and see that Teresa is also carrying hand weights. “I figure we can lift weights while we wait for the birds,” she says. “Oh, right,” I laugh. “We can call ourselves the BBC: the Birding and Beasting (our bodies) Club.” 

There is no time for weight training as we are too busy controlling our dogs. There are cottontail rabbits everywhere and the dogs want to set chase. “MORE bunnies!” I hear Teresa say to her dog. “What is that command?” I ask. “I made it up,” she says. “I want Bandit to know that we can keep walking because there will be more bunnies up ahead. It’s like “leave it’ with an incentive.” “MORE bunnies!” She says again, now carrying her dog away from the place where a cottontail is hiding. Meanwhile, my dog Leo is chasing Canada geese into the water in a loud, frenzied burst of flapping wings, honking, and splashing water. It is not the peaceful morning I had envisioned. 

Once I get Leo settled, Teresa gestures for me to come close. “What’s that?” she asks.

“A red-winged blackbird?” I suggest.

“No. There. In the water. It’s swimming.”

“A fish?”

“No, it’s bigger. It must be a mammal.”

“Aren’t we supposed to be birding?”

“See it? See it now?”

I put my coffee down, step on the dog leash, and bring the binos up to my face.

“Where are you looking?”

“There! It’s HUGE. It’s like a beaver or a shark or something.”

“Maybe it’s a muskrat,” I offer.

“But it’s got an enormous fin!” she gasps.

“It’s a carp,” says a voice.

I turn to see who is speaking. A boy, about 9 years old, casts a fishing line into the water. He says again, “It’s a carp. They’re everywhere,” in the same way he might have said, “Will you please shut up.”

“Thank you!” We say sheepishly, and skulk past him, embarrassed. We can’t believe our own ridiculousness. Then we burst into laughter. And it feels so good to laugh.

Eventually, we find a grove of willow trees, full of birds. We are mesmerized by the abundance of high-pitched whistles, low-pitch whistles, chatter and squeals coming from above us. I lift my binoculars to notice a bright orange bird, slim bodied with a longish tail, hanging upside down from a branch. But it’s tough to see it clearly. Bird names that we know in the far-recesses of our brains stumble out of our mouths.

“It’s a Western Tanager or an Oriole!” Teresa says in an excited voice.

“Or a Goldfinch or a Grosbeak!” I loud-whisper back.

It takes all of my focus to listen and watch carefully. It has black wings with white bars and a narrow beak. I am thrilled to see its beak open and close. It’s making a chuckling, whistling sound. I know this bird. Common in Colorado. Teresa and I all but shout at the same time, “It’s Bullock’s Oriole!”

I feel awake and alert in a way that I haven’t felt in months. My synapses are firing. I am alive and connected to my surroundings. This simple act of paying attention has lifted my brain fog and my mood. And the more I pay attention, the more birds I see. There are over a dozen flame-orange orioles, darting in and out of the fresh, green willow leaves. I walk my dog here all the time. How have I not noticed these birds before?

Once back home, my husband, the naturalist, asks, “How was it?”

“Well, we learned the difference between a carp and a muskrat,” I say.

“I thought you went birding.”

“Oh, we did,” I say. 

And then I tell him about our morning. And I can hear how lifted and light my voice is, how transformed I am from my short time in Nature, paying attention. I feel less passive, more active, ready to transform pain into possibility. 



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Dear Cole; a letter to my son on graduation

Dear Cole,

I’m writing you from our front porch, on the eve of your high school graduation. 

Life is not easy. You know that. You have lived that. It’s not about building a life that is easy–without pain or confusion–it’s about living life fully, completely, and compassionately. I know you can do that because you already have.

You have backbone in you now that will never leave you. You just have to talk to your courage, ask it for a clue as to what the next best step might be.

Talk to me, too, wherever I may be. As Anne Sexton, the poet, said to her daughter, “Talk to your heart. I am in it.”

I’ve lived a good life, a life full of adventure, and love. You can, too. Go for it! Risk discomfort for meaningful experience.

Do you remember how scary it was to disassemble your car and how fulfilling it was to put it back together, figuring it out as you went along? It’s not a bad analogy for how to make it through tough times. 

Or do you remember the story about the time I was learning to surf and was embarrassed by how terrible I was? And how I didn’t want to tell anyone I was surfing until I got really good? And how, at a party with interesting, cool people, I went to shake a fascinating woman’s hand and just as I did, sea water streamed out my nose? I apologized and tried to explain that I had just been surfing, but not very well, and that I was sorry, and excuse me while I went to get a tissue. Do you know what the fascinating woman replied? 

“When I see the surfers as I drive home from work at sunset, I think, what a beautiful painting! But you–you are not looking at the painting, you are in the painting. Don’t ever apologize for being in the painting!”

Aim for a life where you are in the painting–out in the world, trying things, throwing your whole, messy self into it, instead of waiting for mastery to begin. 

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer and his son. Maybe you know it. 

One day the farmer’s horse ran away.

“What bad luck!” His neighbors said.

“We’ll see,” replied the farmer.

The next day, the horse returned with three wild horses.

“How wonderful!” said the neighbors.

“We’ll see,” said the farmer.

Then the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. 

“How terrible!” said the neighbors as they brought food and flowers.

“We’ll see,” said the farmer. 

The next week, military officials came to the village to draft young men to the army. They saw that the son’s leg was broken, and passed him by. When his neighbors came around once again to say “What good luck!”

“We’ll see,” the farmer said.

Only time can tell the whole story. We never know whether something is good or bad luck when we are in a situation.

Trust that every time you’ve been challenged, you’ve learned something. When you broke your foot, you learned to beat Papa at chess. When I was diagnosed, you learned how to be a good friend to Joako. When Covid cancelled in-person classes, you learned to replace the clutch in your car. It doesn’t help to divide life into good and bad events, because we can’t see the future. 

Experience life as it is and don’t fight the moments. Being an adult doesn’t just happen because you turn 18 or graduate. Adulthood is a process of becoming. You have to earn it by facing difficult times with openness and curiosity, not just fear.

At dinner table arguments with your sister, I see how often you are right. I also see how important it is for you to be right. Remember, don’t take yourself, or the world, too seriously. Go lightly. Practice being kind rather than right. It feels good to “win” an argument, but it feels better to boost others up and see them discover what is right for them. 

Recently you spoke about your need to let go of trying to know everything. You said that you feel more comfortable in uncertainty now. The way you put it was, “it’s okay to wonder.” I love that. It reminds me of something the brilliant Toni Morrison said, “Meet the unfamiliar with unflinching friendliness.”

You are perfect now, you were perfect when you were born. It is okay to wonder. You don’t need to know everything, or to be right all the time, to earn love.

Papa and I love you unconditionally, Cole. Go into the world knowing that, and watch the way the world responds with love.

xox mama
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Poetry for Peace (of Mind)

Are you up for a 21-Day Poetry for Peace (of Mind) Challenge? It’s one way to celebrate April as Poetry Month!

When I was in the hospital and could not speak, I recited poetry to myself. After a 36-hour surgery to remove a tumor on my brainstem, I couldn’t read or write. I couldn’t even watch TV because it was too much stimulus. The only thing I could do was recite lines of poetry. The words calmed me down. My racing heart slowed. My anxious thoughts faded away. There is brain science behind this. There is also the practical truth that reciting lines focused my mind just enough to quiet my fears and soothe my pain.

Nelson Mandela, when he was in prison, recited the poem “Invictus” to remind him of his inner strength. It begins, “Out of the night that covers me/Black as the Pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/ for my unconquerable soul…” 

In the hospital, I counted on Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” for solace. Berry published the poem in 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War, and after the assassinations of JFK and Dr. King. Berry finds peace in nature and creatures that remind him of our place in the world. His lines “And I feel, above me, the day blind stars waiting with their light” gave me hope that something bright was coming.

I also leaned on Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” for comfort when I was feeling useless, because it begins, “You do not have to be good.” Indigenous poet Joy Harjo’s poem “Remember” worked like a spell to put me to sleep. The repeated invitation to feel how we belong to the universe grounded me on the earth and soothed my safety instinct. “Remember the sun…Remember the moon…Remember your birth…” By the fifth or sixth “remember” I was nodding off.

Moments will come up in your life when you feel utterly alone. Poetry is a way to not feel alone. It was a way for me to connect to the world beyond my hospital bed. It was a way for Nelson Mandela to connect deeply to his inner strength. Right now, poetry gives us a way to connect to one another.

This is also the year I turn 50. I am so utterly astonished and happy to be here. More, I’m so glad you are here with me. Poetry can connect us.

When you share lines of your favorite poems with me, I feel you very near to me. I picture us on the same couch, having a cup of tea and stretching a cozy blanket to cover all of our feet. Or maybe we are in a grassy meadow, under those “day blind stars” with our journals open. We are paying attention, being students of the hum of bees and the shape of clouds.

I hope you’ll join me for a special 21-Day Poetry Challenge from April 5-26, 2021 during Poetry Month. You pick a poem. Or I give you one. You have 21 days to learn it by heart. I offer support and resources on 4 live calls on Monday nights. You gain freedom from mind tailspins during troubling times!



The Most Radical Response to Despair

What is the most radical response to despair?

Last night, I didn’t sleep much. I was cycling through feelings of sadness and anger at the stupidity of another mass shooting, this time in my hometown of Boulder, CO. Ten people died, including a police officer. As I write this, I still don’t know the victims’ names. What if we lost a teacher or a friend who was just trying to buy her groceries? (Take Action Here)

Luckily, we are not at home. On spring vacation, we’re staying at a YMCA in the mountains, here to x-country ski and rest. We are safe, but rest is hard to come by. Hazel, in tears, keeps asking, “Why would someone do that?” and “How can we play when others are hurting?”

I stumbled through an answer when we went for a walk, “We may never know why. And it’s okay to feel deep sadness for the victims’ families and to play in the sunshine, at the same time. Play just might bring balance back to this world.”

We discovered a small chapel on the property. We walked in and knelt awkwardly before an empty altar, beneath a simple, stained-glass window. I remembered that in a few days, it would be the anniversary of my friend Lisa’s death. 

Hazel and I cobbled together a prayer for all the families of the victims, for Lisa, for the living who are sad and scared. It all felt too much. My friend Katherine texted me this poem,  

“I am in need of music that would flow

Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips

Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,

With melody, deep, clear, and liquid slow…-Elizabeth Bishop, “Sonnet” (1928)

Then, outside, Hazel spotted a fox running toward us. The fox was so light on the fresh snow, it looked as if it were floating. When the fox saw our little dog, it stopped. It sat down. It looked like it was trying to decide if we were bad or good. 

“Yes, we’re capable of the most awful atrocities…

we (also) have a fantastic capacity for goodness.”–Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Before the fox could decide, a car drove by. It turned and floated away, its thick red tail waving like a flag. 

We went looking for solace and found it in wildness. 

I also found it in the back of the car: Easter candy and plastic eggs that I bought last week.

While my family slept last night, I hid plastic eggs filled with candy everywhere in our motel room. On lamp-tops, under folded towels, in the mini fridge, between the covers of a book, in boots and socks, and tucked gently into pockets. 

Cole woke up when he rolled over and broke a plastic egg in his bed. 

Half-asleep, he asked, “What’s going on?”

“Easter came two weeks early. At least the egg hunt part,” I said.


“Because we need to be on the hunt for goodness today.” 

The kids, now giant teenagers, crawled all over the room, and all over us, looking for eggs. They let out satisfied sighs when they found them. The best music was hearing them laugh.  

Sometimes, I get too caught up in the statistics and the dark truths of living and dying. But today I am a little jacked up on too little sleep and too much candy. I feel more determined than ever to celebrate what we have and to be on the hunt for goodness.

Our kids need our help to see the good in the world. Too many of them are struggling to see it. 

That doesn’t mean we have to turn our backs on the atrocities. It means we double down on action. We discipline ourselves to uncover the beauty and the compassion around us. We make it visible. We say it aloud: “See the way young people were helping older people get to safety in the grocery store? People who did not know each other at all?”  

“Listen. Did you hear that our neighbors are sitting with victims, holding space for them to grieve? And Colorado moms are taking action to end gun violence forever?”

“Look! Over here, see the fox and the snow falling on the steady pines?”

We have to work to find the beauty. To make beauty, too. It might be the most radical response to despair.

How am I right now? Awake, safe, sad, angry, and grateful. The kids are wired on sugar. In a minute we’ll head out into the woods on a hunt for goodness. We’ll look for moose sign, fox tracks, and acrobatic starlings, while holding you all in our hearts. 

Once restored, we’ll go back to Boulder and take the baton from our exhausted neighbors. We’ll show up, pitch in, and do our best to make sure lives were not lost for nothing. #BoulderStrong



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