January 26, 2022

My wounded healer

He was “my beloved friend, the most vulnerable of all people I have ever known and at the same time the most powerful.” — Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey

I’ve been reading Henri Nouwen’s Sabbatical Journey, the published journal of the final year of his life. It’s a powerful read – one that has given me lots of thought-provoking and journal-provoking material.

If you’re not familiar with Nouwen, he was a Dutch Catholic priest and a prolific spiritual writer. In his 64 years, he published 39 books, several of which I have read. Henri, as I call him, has a powerful way of speaking to the deepest parts of my spirit.

After a distinguished career as a widely known theologian and Harvard professor, he spent the last 10 years of his life as pastor at Daybreak in Ontario, Canada. Daybreak is a residential community for people with intellectual disabilities.

A friendship with Adam

While at Daybreak, Henri formed a close bond with a resident named Adam, who could not speak and suffered from epileptic seizures. In 1996, Adam died and Henri writes of his deep grief at the loss of his friend.

Adam, he said, “reached into the depths of my heart and has touched my life beyond words.”

As I read about Adam, I thought of my Uncle Melrose, who had a profound intellectual disability yet was the most influential person I have ever known.

Uncle Melrose and me circa 1985

Remembering my uncle

I don’t know how he did it, but Uncle Melrose, like Adam, reached into the depths of my heart and touched my life beyond words. He was the most vulnerable man I’ve ever known, yet he was the most powerful.

My uncle, who died in 2001, exuded love and peace. He could only say a few words and needed help in almost every aspect of life. When we got together, we often sat in silence and it was like being in the presence of something holy.

Words are hard to find when it comes to describing how I feel about Uncle Melrose. But I made an attempt when I wrote a memoir about him titled My Father’s Eyes.

If I were asked who has been the most influential person in my life, it would be him — a man who lived in complete anonymity, yet who had so much to give.

Writing spark

When it comes to writing on this subject, we can go in a couple of directions.

First, consider in your journal who has been the most influential person in your life. This person may or may not have been a force for good, but he/she had a powerful impact on you. Consider what you learned from this person and the pluses and minuses they invoked.


Think on paper how you can or have related to society’s most vulnerable citizens – the homeless, the mentally ill, the disabled. Have you had any personal experiences in this regard?

“In his brokenness he has shown me my own brokenness, and thus set me on the road to healing and new life.”

Henri Nouwen, speaking of Adam in Sabbatical Journey

What I saw when I went to a pandemic

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
― Socrates

It’s been a year since the coronavirus sent us all into hibernation. I have to say that journaling has helped me through what has definitely been the weirdest year of my life.

In the beginning, I urged my journaling friends to write about the bests and the worsts of being in lockdown. Now, as I look back, I’m thinking about not just the pluses and the minuses, but also what I’ve learned.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, learning has always been of paramount importance to me. That’s why I loved being a journalist – meeting new people and finding out about their lives; exposing myself to the workings of government, business and sports.

Learning is a big deal

My zest for learning has also sparked my interest in travel. There’s so much to see, hear, taste and soak in when I journey to a foreign country or another part of the U.S.

Now, you’d think if I love learning then I would have been an avid student. Sad to say, I wasn’t. I made good grades and took my studies seriously. But it was work to me and my classes often weren’t that interesting.

Now that I’m an adult (and retired), I’m glad I’m free to pursue whatever interests me. 

What I’ve gained

Being in lockdown has afforded me lots of time to write. As a result, I finished my first novel (working title To be a Skylark.) I also learned to write fiction, something I never thought I could do.

I’ve also developed a new pastime – coloring with pencils. I just happened across an adult coloring book at Costco one day and decided to buy it. Since then, I’ve watched many YouTube tutorials on how to use colored pencils and finished many colorful pieces and greeting cards.

I’ve also discovered that staying home is not only good for my writing and artistic endeavors, it’s good for my soul. I’ve had more time to pursue my spiritual life and that has been very enriching.

I wish it hadn’t taken the dark cloud of a pandemic to open up these new worlds for me. But the silver linings are shining pretty brightly nevertheless.

Writing spark

Whatever happens to us in life can be a learning experience. What have you learned in the past year? Perhaps you’ve learned something about yourself or developed a new skill. Maybe you’ve grown on an emotional level. Take a few minutes and write in your journal about one thing you’ve learned since the pandemic hit.

“Some things cannot be taught; they must be experienced. You never learn the most valuable lessons in life until you go through your own journey.”
― Roy T. Bennett

I get by with a little help from my friends

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
― Linda Grayson

A couple of years ago my husband and I were thinking about moving to Georgetown, a lovely community 30 miles north of Austin. We had several reasons for considering a move and when I told my dear friend Karen, she was forceful in her response.

“No,” she said. “You’re not moving. You’ll be too far away from your family and friends. Just stay where you are.”

I admit I hadn’t thought about how such a change would affect my cherished relationships. And I was touched that Karen objected so firmly. She wasn’t being bossy. She was just telling me she placed a high value on our friendship.

My many friends

Yesterday in my journal I wrote about all the wonderful friends I’ve had over the years. There’s my high school friend Joy, who has faithfully kept in touch since we graduated. My college roommates are still treasured friends.

During my career, I had several close buddies – Joanne and Kathy, Mary and Melanie to name a few. Since I moved to Austin 30 plus years ago, I have been blessed to know many women who have supported, loved and helped me in so many ways.

We’ve traveled together, had lots of fun and shared our pain and joy.

I consider my friends part of my extended family and I cherish them all. My life would not have been as interesting or as rich without them.

It’s A Wonderful Life

As I wrote about friends, I thought of the Frank Capra movie It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve seen it dozens of times, but I still cry every time I watch the closing scene.

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is down on his luck and in big trouble. He thinks he’s a loser who hasn’t gotten rich or done anything important. But he’s spent his life helping others and building friendships. And those friends come through for him in the end.

George’s guardian angel Clarence reminds him that “No man is a failure who has friends.”

Wise words, Clarence. Wise words.

Writing spark

Think about the friends you have and the ones you’ve known in the past. How did you meet and form a connection? What experiences brought you into a close relationship? Is there a way you can reach out and tell them how much they mean to you? I invite you to ponder these questions in your journal. I also invite you to share them in this Free to Write community by responding to this email.

A silver lining

“The same wind that blows down your house shakes berries from the bushes.” ― Marci Ridlon

View from our window last week

It’s been a rough week around these parts. In case you haven’t heard or been through it yourself, Texas has just come out of an unprecedented Arctic blast. A week of snow, ice and temperatures below freezing.

Millions lost power including my family members and many friends. Miraculously, we did not. For once I can be grateful that we live down the street from a fire/EMS station. Having a hospital a few blocks away helped keep the lights and furnace on, too.

After a year of being in pandemic mode, we were used to hunkering down. But this event took our hunkering to whole new level. There was so much ice and snow I didn’t dare go outside our condo for several days for fear of slipping and falling.

Unexpected blessing

Unfortunately for my sister and her husband, their power was out for four days. By day three, they had had enough and we all did some hunkering together in our tiny condo. We only have one bed, but they cheerfully slept on couches and were glad to have heat, lights and Internet access.

The best part was that my sister and I got to spend some time together, something we haven’t been able to do for a long time. We were close growing up, but we took very different paths in life.

She married, had a family and was a gifted music teacher in the public schools. I stayed single and pursued a career in journalism and corporate/academic communications.

It’s just the two of us now

We’ve grown closer in the past few years now that our busy careers (and her child rearing) are in the past. We’re also the last of our nuclear family. Dad passed away 24 years ago and Mom and our older brother died in the past six years.

There’s something extra special about knowing someone your entire life. Kathryn and I have a shared history and values our parents bestowed on us. We understand each other with great ease.

Still, we rarely have time to just be together for an extended period. And this weather disaster gave us that opportunity. There was plenty about this winter storm that was rough and ugly. But I found a silver lining and I’m richer because of it.

Writing spark

Today’s missive brings two thoughts to mind. First, what silver lining can you find in this past catastrophic week? Second, is there someone you were once close to that you’d like to reconnect with? What can you do to reach out? Consider these questions in your journal.

“It’s funny how, when things seem the darkest, moments of beauty present themselves in the most unexpected places.”

― Karen Marie Moning

Frustration station

“And I got out of there without punching anyone, kicking anyone, or breaking down in tears. Some days the small victories are all you achieve.”
― Molly Ringle, Relatively Honest

There are two things that frustrate me beyond reason. One is when the TV cable or streaming service goes on the fritz. The other is calling customer service – for any company or agency.  

In the past week, I’ve had to do both. And believe me, my journal came to the rescue both times.

When faced with one of these situations, I feel powerless. I’m not a techno-nerd and have no training in how to fix anything wireless or digital. (Neither does my husband.) I also have no patience with waiting on hold for a live person to answer my call.

Bad behavior

My response to these situations has been to lose my temper. I’m often not very patient with customer service representatives. And when the TV malfunctions, my first reaction is to throw it out the window.

But I don’t like myself when I respond in these ways and I’ve been working on not letting my frustrations get the better of me.

On the practical side, I have written down several troubleshooting tricks to try when the streaming service disappears or the cable signal goes out.

Journaling it out

The other day, I had the unhappy task of calling the local newspaper to cancel my subscription. Our delivery person decides on a regular basis to take the day off and even though I’ve complained multiple times, we still get spotty service.

There’s no way to cancel online, so I had to go through their phone tree and wait five minutes for a live person. The woman I got was pretty disinterested in my request to cancel and she put me on hold and never came back.

I called a second time, went through the phone tree and waited again. The next person was equally bored with my request, but she took care of it.

I’ve never done this before, but during the 30 minutes it took to perform this simple task, I wrote in my journal. And I asked for HELP.

It worked

When I journal, I’m usually talking to God. On this occasion I asked for help to stay calm and not lose patience with the person on the other end.

I reminded myself on paper that it wasn’t her fault my delivery guy didn’t do his job. It wasn’t her fault that the newspaper has a byzantine system for canceling subscriptions.

When I hung up, I felt irritated that I had to go to such lengths. But I was calm – not twisted into knots like I usually am after a customer service experience.

A small victory. Thank you, trusty journal.

Writing spark

Set a timer for five minutes and complete the following sentence:

The thing (person) that frustrates me the most is ________________ because _______________________. Here’s what I can do to deal with my frustration__________________________

Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward. — Kurt Vonnegut

What’s the worst that could happen?

“He who is not every day conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

At one point in my life, I realized I lived in total fear. Reading my journals from that long ago time, I was afraid of everything. Failure in my job, people, going broke, that there was something wrong with me, that I’d never find someone to love. I’d lived in that place so long I didn’t realize it. It was just normal for me.

When I came to that realization it was a jolt. I didn’t want to live in fear. I wanted peace and calm, self confidence and optimism.

Fast forward to today and all of us are living in a time of great anxiety. But this time we’re facing life and death stuff – like the pandemic, the economy and the direction of our country.

Listing your fears

It seems like every year someone comes out with a list of the top ten things people fear. Public speaking is often number one and death, snakes, spiders/insects, and heights usually show up, too.

I’m not even going to try getting over my fear of snakes or insects. But I got over my fear of public speaking by joining a Toastmasters group. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

The thing about fears is you have to face them and that’s why it’s a good exercise to list them. If you’ve got a list in front of you, you can start another list – this one about the things you can do about your fears.

An example

So, if I made a list and put my fear of snakes or insects or heights on it, the second list would be something like: I’m staying away from those critters or I’m not getting close to the edge of a cliff.

I might also mention that if I come upon a snake, I’m going to back away slowly. Same thing with a bug.

You deal with fear by getting practical, deciding what actions you can take and the real truth about your situation.

[Note: The painting above is “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.]

Writing spark

Write down 50 things you’re afraid of.  It’s okay to repeat, but write as quickly as you can so as to access your subconscious fears.

Then go through the list and group your fears in categories. Are you most afraid for your health, your financial well-being or something else?

Then make a second list focusing on action and reality. For example:

I’m afraid I’ll go broke.    =>    I have enough money right now and haven’t gone broke yet.

I’m afraid I’ll go broke.    =>    I can cut back on unnecessary spending and get a part-time job.

If I go broke, what will I do? => Ask someone for a loan; cash in my IRA; sell my car.

Notice how you feel about your fears after this exercise.

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”
–Louisa May Alcott

Once upon a time

“I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was.” — Stanley Kunitz, US Poet Laureate 2000

I used to be a speechwriter for academic leaders, corporate chiefs and even the governor of Texas and his wife. They all had important messages to convey and I worked hard to craft interesting, memorable speeches for them.

I rarely got to talk to these busy people, but when I did, I asked them to tell me stories – stories about their childhoods, their professional lives and anything that would amplify their talking points.

I rarely got much to work with, but when I did, I considered it gold. That’s because stories are powerful. They create pictures in our minds and imprint emotions in our memories. An audience won’t usually remember the facts they hear, but they are likely to remember stories.

When I think about it …

I often tell stories to my husband, sister and friends.

I have a lifetime of snippets and tales to draw from – some joyful and some sad. But they weave the fabric of the tapestry that illustrates my life. They tell me and others who I am and what I value.

People are hungry for stories and always have been. As children, we want our elders to read us books or tell us stories.

I’ve been reading a book called The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes. It’s about a traveling library system set up during the Depression to bring books to folks living in rural America. These books and their narratives changed lives by promoting literacy and easing the dullness of being impoverished.

We tell stories to ourselves…

Our brains must be hard-wired for stories because when we dream, our subconscious creates dramas that give us information about our true nature.

Psychologists tell us that whether we realize it or not, we all have a story about ourselves that we carry in our heads. And that becomes our reality, whether it’s true or not.

For example, I was a fat kid and all my life I’ve told myself I am still that fat kid (even though I’ve been at a normal weight since I was a teenager.)

My point is…

We all have stories to tell. Lots of people think they’ve lived uninteresting lives and have nothing to pass along. But they are mistaken.

All it takes is devoting time to thinking, remembering and writing. Do it for yourself. It will help you gain perspective on what you’ve been through.

And do it for your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and all those important to you. You’ve got wisdom and joy to share. I guarantee it.

Writing spark

Here are some springboards for writing the stories of your life:

The most unforgettable person I’ve known is/was __________________________

The most memorable trip I’ve ever taken was _______________________________

My favorite pet is/was ____________________________________________________

My first memory from my childhood is______________________________________

When I was growing up, my dream was to __________________________________

“Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that to go on living I have to tell stories, that stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.” — Dorothy Allison, American writer

Lessons in gratitude

We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.” ― John F. Kennedy

In keeping with the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve been reading a lot about gratitude – how to express it, what makes it most meaningful and the true meaning of living a grateful life.

Last week, I suggested being listing two or three things/people/experiences that you appreciate and including the reasons you are thankful. In other words, if you’re thankful for your home, what about it makes you happy?

This week, I want to add a few other thoughts on the subject.

Thank you notes

When I was a kid, my mother taught me to send thank you notes for gifts and other favors. It’s good manners, she said.

It’s also a nice way to let friends and family members know you appreciate them and don’t take their generosity for granted.

I’m also reminding myself to express gratitude in everyday situations – to the grocery store clerk who sacks my food, to the neighbor who offers a helping hand, or the driver who lets me into a crowded lane of traffic.

Give thanks for more than things

Being thankful for the people in your life can be more meaningful and have more emotional impact than being grateful for possessions. I’m not discouraging you for appreciating your home or your car or for living in a free country.

I’m just letting you know that when we take time to appreciate friends and family, verbally and in a journal, it enriches our lives all the more.

One more point. I’m told that if you develop a habit of being grateful, of being on the lookout for the gifts of life, it can lead to a greater sense of happiness and well-being.

Take it a step further

Earlier, I mentioned being thankful for a place to live. My home is on my gratitude list often because it offers me safety, comfort, friendly neighbors and a haven for writing.

But so many don’t have all the gifts that come with having a home. Just down my street under an overpass is an encampment of folks who have nothing but a tent as a dwelling.

If I want to act on my gratitude for a home, I can support efforts that seek to provide housing for people living on the streets. My husband and I have worked at a homeless drop-in several times and have given monetary support. I expect our focus on serving the homeless will continue.

Writing spark

Consider with your journal:

  1. Is there someone you need to thank either with a note or an e-card?
  2. Write down the people you are grateful for and why you feel that way about them.
  3. What on your gratitude list motivates you to reach out and have an impact?

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
― Marcus Tullius Cicero

Remembering a Saint on All Saints Day

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
― Thomas Campbell

Today is All Saints Day in many religious traditions, a time to remember those who have crossed over to the next life. It’s a time to reflect on and honor loved ones and friends who are no longer here.

I’ve always liked this particular day, recalling my parents, my brother, my Uncle Melrose and others whom I miss very much. This year, there’s a very special person to add to my All Saints Day remembrance.

Her name is Nancy Lamb, and I know for a fact that she got her angel wings long before she died in August. She helped me through some of the toughest times of my life when I was taking care of my aging mother.

A life well-lived

A gerontologist, Nancy was an expert on issues of aging and death and she advocated for caregivers and those facing end of life issues.

She was also a therapist who helped caregivers cope with the stress and difficulties of looking after aging loved ones. Since we were friends (we met at church), she listened to my woes and refused to take payment.

We would meet for coffee and I would confide in her the pain I felt watching my strong as steel mother slip away. I told her about how agonizing it was to finally have to move Mom to a nursing home, something I never wanted to happen.

A wise counselor

She helped me figure out ways to navigate the health care system and work with those who were involved in Mom’s end of life care.

Through it all, she gave practical advice and listened with compassion and understanding.

I didn’t know much about Nancy and her life until I read her obituary. But I wasn’t surprised at all her accomplishments. She was the first volunteer at Hospice Austin and she helped found two other nonprofits that support seniors.

She was a giver

Giving was at the core of Nancy Lamb; that’s just what she did. I could write at length about all she gave to the community, to schools, her church and many other organizations.

The last time I saw her she was in an assisted living facility, facing her own end of life journey. I will always regret that I was unable to see her during her final months because of the pandemic.

But I am grateful that I knew her and could call her my friend. Today, I sing her praises and remember the grand lady she was and still is, even though she has slipped the surly bonds of earth.

Writing spark

Who have you known and lost and wish to remember on this All Saints Day? A family member, a friend, a teacher or mentor? Recall the gifts they gave you and memorialize them in your journal.

“There is no death, daughter. People die only when we forget them,’ my mother explained shortly before she left me. ‘If you can remember me, I will be with you always.”
― Isabel Allende, Eva Luna

My “wrong turn” turned out to be right

“You wouldn’t believe the power that a little kindness can have on people.” — Mary Jo Copeland, director Sharing & Caring Hands food kitchen, Minneapolis

From my coloring pad

The other day I was on my way to a department store when I took a “wrong turn” and ended up at an intersection I had planned to avoid – mainly because I hate waiting for traffic lights.

There was a man carrying a sign that said “Homeless veteran, Will work.” I thought about ignoring him but the light was slow to change. A few days before, my husband had put some small bills in the car’s console just for moments like this.

So, I rolled down my window and the man approached me. “God bless you,” he said before I could give him the money or say a word. It was a chilly morning and he had on a light coat. I asked if he was warm enough – I’m not sure why. I didn’t have anything but a few dollars to give him.

He was a handsome fellow and he had a kind look on his face. We talked for a few seconds and then the light changed. I had to move on, so we said goodbye.

For some reason that encounter touched me and has stayed with me, in part because homeless people are everywhere these days. They’re camped under the overpasses near our house – their tents and shopping carts and belongings scattered around.

Before the pandemic, my husband and I volunteered at a drop-in center for people experiencing homelessness. I worked in the kitchen preparing food and Tom, a licensed clinical social worker, spent time talking to our guests. We both felt like we were making a tiny but meaningful contribution to the folks who visited the drop-in.

But since March, we have been hunkered down because of underlying conditions that make us vulnerable to the coronavirus. Still, as the pandemic takes its toll and more people lose their jobs and end up on the street, I see the problem of homelessness getting bigger.

It bothers me a lot and I feel powerless to do anything about it – at least right now. Yet I am reminded of a verse from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” I didn’t save that homeless veteran’s life, but maybe I helped salvage a few moments of it.

I can still do small things like talk to homeless people on street corners and donate online to causes that benefit folks without shelter. I look forward to the day when I can roll up my sleeves and get back to that drop-in center kitchen. For now, my tiny gestures will have to do.

PS: That “wrong turn” I took – it turned out to be the shortest and most direct route to my destination.Writing

Writing spark

There was an article in the newspaper recently by a woman who wrote that she feared the Serenity Prayer (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”) might give us permission to become complacent – especially during the pandemic. She has a point.

She offered up what she calls the Courage Prayer. “God grant me the courage to change the things I can no longer accept.”

What small gesture of kindness can you offer to a friend, neighbor or stranger? How can you be of service to others when you are overwhelmed with staying safe and dealing with the pandemic’s impact? Write down in your journal one thing you can do to help others in greater need. I’ll say it again. If you write it down, you’re more likely to follow through with action.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
― Plato