I walk toward the ocean
breathing in the briny salt air
The stretch of sand seems much smaller
than what I remember as a child
And yet everything else
feels reassuringly the same
Wispy blades of dune grass sway in the breeze
as clusters of seagulls squawk overhead
White-capped waves join the chorus
crashing gently against the shore
Blue waters rush up onto the sand
and then retreat just as gracefully
The ocean’s susurrations
are a welcome lullaby
Why did it take me so long
Tall, swaying trees
The wistful sound of leaves
Rustling in the wind
Nature’s playful whispering
Soothing, sibilant declarations
Of movement and memory
I happily surrender myself
To the even-flowing passage of time
And the sacred stillness of life.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
~ T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
It was chilly that morning.
You woke up early and
Ambled down the long, carpeted hallway
And into the dusty back bedroom
Where you lay down on the old foam mat
Next to the stacks of books and magazines
While gazing up at the textured swirls
Of the bright white ceiling
You moved ever so slowly
Through your daily exercises
Burst inside your mighty brain
And like a wild river
The blood rushed through you
Your power was swiftly extinguished
Your face swollen and contorted
Your eyes veiled to the wonder and light of life
One arm that had been flailing angrily
Was now limp, next to your bloated side
Who knows exactly when it happened?
Only you, and God.
Perhaps your mind
Had been retracing the details
Of the previous evening
(when, after a lively family dinner,
your granddaughter cajoled you
into watching “Dancing with the Stars”)
Maybe you were imagining the day ahead
No, I think you were privately dreading
The burdensome years yet to come
You resented the blood pressure medication
You ignored the cane
Your expensive hearing aid
Was always left in its case, untouched
To hell with doctors
To hell with growing old
At the hospital, the hours
Felt slow and heavy, as we waited
The hurried steps of doctors and nurses
The beeping of machines, the hum of the lights
Punctured the heavy silence of our fears
I was queasy and lightheaded
Then later that evening, shortly after six
With all of us standing around your bed
We motioned to the doctor
The plug was finally pulled
And in that still, grey corner of the hospital
You slipped away
Even after ten years
It’s impossible to know
Just how to start or to end
This poem of infinite goodbye.
Meditation on Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
I wrote this nearly four years ago, a few weeks before driving my daughter to college. Today she’s no longer a child or even a teen, but a 21-year-old about to enter the real world of adult dreams and responsibilities. I suspect I’ll have some new thoughts to write down as graduation day gets nearer. But for now, here’s a flashback to my final lay sermon, which I delivered in August of 2013.
To borrow a song lyric from Jerry Garcia, “Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.” By “trip,” I’m talking about the odyssey I’ve been on for the past 17 years and eight months –- one that’s about to change its course quite dramatically.
As many of you know, I’m the mother of a high-school graduate who, in just a matter of days, will embark on her own adult journey as a college freshman. She’s not here this morning; I suspect she knew that our current transition would be the jumping-off point for my message to you now. I can just imagine the eye-roll and hear her soft moan. “Oh, Mom…”
Letting my child go off on her own, truly, for the first time, is a huge step for both of us. It’s one of the trickiest things I’ve ever had to do. Nonetheless, it’s in the job description of Parent. For the past four months or so, I’ve made a concerted effort to ease us both into the climactic moment when, having moved her safely into the dorms, I will hug her tight, give her a peck on the cheek (or more, if she’ll let me), and drive away, leaving her to her own devices on a 125-year-old college campus in North Carolina.
About midway through this past year, I stopped giving Hanna a weekend curfew. Instead of a strict deadline for her arrival home after an evening out with friends, I gave her a strongly recommended time, then a suggested time, then a range, and finally, the freedom and responsibility to use her best judgment about when to come home. Eventually, I got to a point where I could fall asleep without having to hear her key unlock the front door. You see, at some point — maybe it was in March — I’d had an epiphany. In less than a year, she’d be away on a campus far from home, with no more rules or requests from Mom to constrain or to protect her. Why not let her practice this burgeoning autonomy close to home, by cutting her some slack and in some instances, giving her just enough rope with which to hang herself? I assure you I did not completely unplug — that’s why I love our family cell-phone plan — nor have I ever really stopped worrying. Even when I’m able to sleep soundly through the night, the first thing I look for when I wake up is her set of keys dangling from the hook by the front door — or a text message letting me know she’d decided to stay at a friend’s house.
Standing here before you this morning, I can tell you that this “long, strange trip” has given birth to a kaleidoscope of emotions: joy, sadness, pride, nostalgia, denial, grief, hope, faith. And gratitude.
Like the African proverb says, it does take a village. And as members of this congregation -– this church family — you have been part of the village that raised my daughter. I am grateful.
From the time Hanna was very little and attending Sunday School taught by so many terrific adults, I liked to remind her that there was a love even greater and stronger than my own maternal love for her — God’s love. That the phrase “child of God” is not simply a figure of speech. “See what love the Creator has given us, that we should be called the children of God — and we are.”
Even without the prospect of a family member leaving home, the final weeks of summer have always made me wistful. By mid-August, the days have grown a little shorter, the air has become a little cooler, and the pace has quickened, just a bit, in anticipation of the new year. I work at a school, so September, not January, marks the start of a new year.
Every August I’m also reminded of the summers of my own youth, spent on the coast of Maine in a close-knit community called Ocean Park.The family ritual went like this: In June, just after school let out, my dad would drive my mom, siblings and me to his parents’ cottage. Within a few days, Dad would head back to Buffalo to teach summer courses at Niagara University. The rest of us spent a long and leisurely vacation. I can vividly recall playing in the cold Atlantic with my mom, collecting seashells with my brother, biking to Camp Ellis with my sister, reading the Anne of Green Gables books with my grandmother, and eating the juicy, well-done hamburgers my grandfather would cook for us on the outdoor grill.
Dad would rejoin us in late August, and spend a few days in Ocean Park before we all headed home to Buffalo just before Labor Day. Unlike our morning treks to the beach with Gramps, my father’s pilgrimages to the ocean occurred in the late afternoon or even at dusk. One reason for this was very practical — he had inherited his mother’s fair skin and easily burned under the hot sun. But I also think the dreamer (and the world-weary cynic) in him preferred the sunset over the midday sun. Dad favored a rather secluded part of the beach that had many sandbars and very few tourists, which he nicknamed, appropriately enough, The Quiet Waters. I suspect it was one of his favorite places to reflect and to feel a deep connection with the Almighty at a time when he was growing in his adult faith.
Today’s reading, often attributed to Solomon, was written by a teacher living in Jerusalem several hundred years before Christ’s birth. It’s one of my favorite passages from the Old Testament because it deals quite pointedly, and poignantly, with the human condition – expressing the gamut of raw and conflicting emotions tucked deeply and neatly inside calming, rhythmic verse.
For everything there is a season…
Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that the author’s “description of the human situation is truer than any poetry glorifying man and his destiny. His honesty opens our eyes…”
Indeed, many folks might be put off by Ecclesiastes’ fatalistic outlook. Some may rightfully question its usefulness within the larger context of choosing hope over despair.
Is it possible to have an appreciation for the nihilism of Ecclesiastes, while still believing in a higher purpose and meaning, as demanded by a Christian life?
I say yes.
For me, the poem from Ecclesiastes reaffirms the mystery of God amid the beautiful, banal, tragic, harsh, and sometimes baffling realities of our daily existence. To me, it’s not bleak. It’s life-affirming. The candid affirmations of random circumstance and human limitation create a space in my head and more importantly, my heart, for a deeper, more powerful message: one that speaks of grace and salvation.
Here’s Tillich again: “Only if we accept an honest view of the human situation, of man’s old reality, can we understand the message that in Christ a new reality has appeared.”
Ecclesiastes inspired folksinger Pete Seeger to write a song in the late 1950s, which became a hit for the pop-rock group, the Byrds, in 1965, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Have I got the tune stuck in your head yet? The mid-sixties was a time when, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, so much was changing in our society. As laws supporting racism were being challenged here at home, our involvement in a war on the other side of the world was escalating.
“A time to love, and a time to hate. A time for war, and a time for peace. I swear it’s not too late.” Seeger’s song was popular in the last century, but the words remain relevant. Like the original verses, they are timeless. Think about the political tensions throughout our country, and the continuing bloodshed in Egypt.
For the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of helping Mark Aquino and Debbie Katz with Westminster’s confirmation class. We lead the kids in two culminating exercises a few weeks before they are to be confirmed during worship. Each confirmand is asked to produce an individual faith statement. The entire class, working with the three of us, also creates a corporate faith statement. Depending on the individuals, not to mention group dynamics, one exercise can be harder than the other.
For their individual faith statement, most of the confirmands follow a familiar approach: they write a couple of sentences or a few paragraphs, and they often write several drafts. I remember the experience of three students from my very first year as a co-teacher.
The first one, a boy, didn’t want to write his faith statement. Instead, he chose to create a PowerPoint filled with photos of a camping trip with his dad. The slideshow he put together using his own images of the sky, the mountains, the trees, the water, and rocks became a visual prayer of praise to God the Creator. Another confirmand wasn’t so sure she could commit anything to paper. She needed some answers before she could begin to write. So we sat together one afternoon, poring over the passage from Acts about the Holy Spirit coming down at Pentecost. This girl, both blessed and burdened by her keen intellect, wanted definitions and concrete examples, not a description of the supernatural. Her faith statement ended up acknowledging the role of healthy doubt as part of an evolving, authentic faith. The third student was a girl whose mother had died of cancer just a few months before confirmation. The eighth grader was heartbroken — and furious with God. Several passionate questions were scattered throughout the final version of her faith statement.
Even though it’s usually offered as comfort, I don’t subscribe to the blithely dismissive saying that “everything happens for a reason.” Everything? As a child, I spent too much time in the hospital surrounded by vivid examples of the pervasive unfairness of life. I don’t believe in a cynical or sadistic God that metes out suffering to keep us in line or teach us a lesson. I also don’t believe in a Santa Claus God or a genie God that will grant us our every wish.
We can’t control events or predict the future, despite our most fervent prayers. But that we pray, how we speak to God and what we do still matter. Our motives and actions in accordance with God’s purpose for our lives together still matter.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.”
If I passed out some paper and pens right now, what would your faith statement be? How has it changed since you were confirmed? How will it change as you keep on living?
For me, at this moment in time — as a mother who is both excited and anxious to send her child out into a human world that doesn’t always make sense — I can share this: God is Love, the teachings of Jesus the Christ affirm this Love, and I believe in Love. In joy and in sorrow and even in death, Love endures. By the grace of God.
Updated June 9, 2018, following news of the death by suicide of Anthony Bourdain
If you’ve stumbled upon this note, then it’s because the algorithms or some other mysterious force in the universe brought you here. The topic isn’t going to be neat or comfortable. In fact, things might get quite jagged and painful. But if you can get through this, then I can, too. (Or should that be: If I can get through it, then so can you…?)
I have manic depression. Now many would use today’s parlance and say bipolar disorder. I prefer the phrasing in my first sentence, and let me explain why. I didn’t begin this paragraph by writing I am bipolar or even I am manic depressive. When self-disclosing about my chronic illness, my use of the verb have followed by an open noun compound is deliberate, and carefully constructed. That’s because my mental disease shouldn’t be boiled down to an all-encompassing label; it is indeed a preexisting medical condition, but not the totality of my identity. In this way, my manic depression is not dissimilar to your diabetes, your high blood pressure, your high cholesterol, and so on. And for me, the term bipolar conjures up images of an alien with two poles jutting out from her head. It also implies that mania and depression somehow cannot overlap. (I can assure you that during those times when I was traveling at the speed of light in my most manic stage, I was still deeply depressed. To understand this point better, check out Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’s excellent memoir.)
Two decades ago, as a newly divorced individual, I was at a different point in my life. I had lost virtually everything, so I thought I had nothing more to lose. During the culminating job interview with a potential employer, I ended our congenial exchange with a question: “Oh, one more thing. I have manic depression. Would that be a problem?” Without missing a beat, he replied, “As long as you take your medication, it should be no problem.” I was hired, I did great work, and I learned a lot.
There have only been two times when I felt so alone, so hopeless amidst the confusion of the world and my place in it, I thought seriously about taking my own life. In the first instance, I was in my early twenties and trying to recover from a romantic breakup. Once it was clear that I had swallowed some pills, I had to be taken to the emergency room. Fortunately, the dose I ingested did not make a permanent impact. The second instance occurred when I was in my early thirties and living abroad with the man who was then my husband. As a new mother still suffering the effects of culture shock, I was exhausted in every possible way. One afternoon, when my husband was away at work and I found myself in the throes of postpartum free fall, I stood on the balcony of our fifth-floor apartment and pondered the distance between the railing and the ground below. I am thankful that at the pivotal moment, one sound pierced through my despair. It was the cry of our four-month-old daughter, who had just woken up from a nap and was hungry. I quite literally talked myself off the ledge so I could go inside, pick her up from her crib, hold her, and feed her. (The repetition of so many object pronouns in that previous sense is intentional, for it was my daughter’s reliance on me that somehow kickstarted my will to survive and gradually, to live.)
Today, I take 450 milligrams of extended-release lithium once a day, usually in the evening with my slew of vitamins. On rare occasion, in order to stave off one too many sleepless nights, I dip into my emergency supply of sleep medication prescribed by my doctor. I can happily say that more than twenty years after my official diagnosis, I now resort to this sort of “reset” button an average of two nights out of 365. A few years ago, my psychiatrist at the time announced his retirement from private practice. He had helped me navigate the first decade after my divorce, which was not coincidentally the most difficult period of raising my daughter. (Her father and I agreed that sole custody would be the most loving arrangement, given our circumstances at the time.) I brought Dr. W a mug and a card, on which I wrote these words: Thank you for the gift of mental health. He blushed, and with a broad smile, said I was one of his most successful patients.
But the hard-won fight for balance is never static. Indeed, my commitment to staying relentlessly focused on self-care is ingrained in my approach to life each day. It has to be. Family and close friends quickly become concerned when I am unusually exuberant, overly snappish, or inexplicably listless. Fortunately, these extremes don’t rule my life anymore.
In his brilliant TED Talk, writer Andrew Solomon explains that the opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality. I can’t think of a better description.
The disease no longer terrifies me, but I do have to keep even fictitious demons at bay. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, adequate rest, time for reading and reflection, and lots of music and artistic expression sustain and modulate my creative energies. I no longer drink alcohol the way I did in college, where I once was so depressed, I retreated to my bottom bunk for three straight days. Life is good, as they say. And yet I sometimes let the past nag at me: the pre-diagnosis years and memories of being an unruly daughter, a confusing girlfriend, and later, an unhappy wife who sometimes felt caged. I still care for my ex-husband, but despite his loving and valiant attempts, during our marriage he fell woefully short of understanding what the disease was and wasn’t—and who I needed to be.
The stigma associated with mental illness can crush one’s spirit. Equally harmful, I believe, is the temptation to glamorize it. For even the most famous patients, the struggle is real. In my case, I’m no longer as brash as I was during that 1999 job interview. I am careful about which friends I confide in about my health. And of course, I sometimes worry about my employer or coworkers. Will they feel uncomfortable around me? Will they see the work that I do in a different, potentially negative, light? And what about the neighbors?
Recently, an article in my local newspaper, which you can read here, made me pause and reflect on how much I might lose if I remain silent. Or more to the point, how much others stand to gain if I speak up.
Lay sermon delivered on June 27, 2010, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, NY
“’I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” ~ Exodus 3:6
“You will know them by their fruits.” ~ Matthew 7:16
When I learned that I would be giving the sermon today, I was excited. And then within a few days, I had a vivid dream. I was up here in this very pulpit, all ready to go. After looking out at the congregation, I looked down, only to discover that the papers I was holding were not a sermon, but a handful of cartoons from The New Yorker magazine.
Now, maybe my dream was telling me that I tend to take things too seriously and I need to lighten up. I’ve certainly heard this advice from many friends, not to mention my own daughter.
But in all honesty, I believe my dream was a clear reflection of a deeper hesitation, an ambivalence, about being here today. Yes, I was excited and honored. And I remain humbled and sincerely grateful to Reverend Yorty and the Worship Music & Arts Committee for inviting me to preach a second time. But with equal intensity, I’ve been reluctant about embracing this moment. I’m not sure why exactly. It hasn’t just been a sense of feeling ill-prepared to deliver a sermon, but a sense of feeling unworthy to deliver one. Especially on a day as important as this, when we gather not only to worship, but also to commission our Maine travelers.
My own faith journey has been a bumpy road, at best. It has taken me a long time to learn how to bow my head, for one thing, and I don’t just mean physically. When I was 10 years old, I wrote a letter to God and left it under my pillow at bedtime. The next morning, when I found it was still there, I was miffed. “See! He doesn’t exist.” God had failed my clever test. As a teenager, I was the least enthusiastic family member when Sunday morning rolled around. I still recall, with excruciating detail, the weekly battles with my mother over going to church. She wasn’t shy about yanking the covers as I lay in bed, and you can bet I wasn’t shy about raising my voice in bitter protest.
In the heat of our emotional exchanges, she would confidently say: “I don’t care what you say you don’t believe. God will never let you go.” It annoyed me to no end, to be going up against this woman who seemed so resolute. Yet deep down, I think I knew all along I was somehow never going to win the larger argument. It just took me 25 years to concede.
At the same time, this business of faith can get more complicated, not less, the more we talk about it. The more we try to pin it down, wrap it up neatly, the more elusive it can be. And maybe that’s just as it should be. God, after all, is not some genie we can capture in a bottle, and then let out when we want our next wish granted. God doesn’t belong to us; we belong to God. And God is far bigger than our human brains can imagine.
Moreover, faith is not just about figuring out what we believe, and how to proclaim it within the safe confines of a church. That’s only one part. Faith is also about living in the real world, being in tune with what feels right, and doing what we believe – even when our choice is unpopular. I also believe that faith is about carrying on with the task of listening, being kind and making the world a better place, even when we’re not quite sure if we believe anything at all.
In today’s Old Testament reading, Moses is confronted by the curious sight of a burning bush. God could have used something much more dramatic to get his attention – another flood, perhaps – but he uses an ordinary bush, which just happens to be burning from the inside. If Moses had been a less observant man, he might not have noticed the flame and passed right by. But he does notice, and he stops. God calls Moses by name, and Moses shows appropriate reverence and takes off his sandals. When God identifies Himself to the Israelite, what does Moses do? He covers his face. And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
The tension continues, as God explains to Moses what He wants him to do – and Moses responds by insisting he is not up to the task. God chooses a man who is not ready to be a disciple, let alone the leader of the people of Israel. A man who has plenty of excuses. A man who is initially a very reluctant disciple.
Aren’t we all like that at times? Scared, reluctant children of God, eager to offer up an excuse when He calls us.
Reinhold Niebuhr, a preeminent theologian of the 20th century, is perhaps best-known for writing the Prayer of Serenity. I first discovered him my freshman year in college through a course on religion and ethics. His book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, was one of many assigned texts. Away from home for the first time in my life, I was questioning many things about my life, including my religious upbringing here at Westminster. But even with all the doubt I felt inside, Niebuhr made sense. To me, he was one of those rare religious people who could cultivate a thoughtful faith by keeping an open mind.
I recently stumbled upon a 1958 TV interview featuring Niebuhr. Believe it or not, a link to it came across my Twitter feed, a most unlikely source if you ask me. The interviewer is a young Mike Wallace of “Sixty Minutes” fame. During a 30-minute exchange, the two men talk about Catholicism, Protestantism, anti-Semitism, nuclear war, communism – this was during the height of the Cold War, after all – and the separation of church and state.
Toward the end, Wallace asks Niebuhr to explain his opinion on atheism. “What is your personal attitude toward atheists?” he says. Without missing a beat, the theologian invokes Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew – familiar words like Judge not lest ye be judged… By their fruits ye shall know them.
Niebuhr tells Wallace that in the grand scheme of things, it makes little difference to him if a person considers himself a believer or a nonbeliever. Niebuhr says, “I wouldn’t judge a man by the presuppositions of his life, but only by the fruits of his life.” In other words, our actions can speak louder than not only our words, but even our deepest thoughts.
Young people, tomorrow you, along with your adult advisors, will embark on another Maine mission trip. You will continue a Westminster tradition that began more than 30 years ago. I’ve heard stories from my daughter, who went last year for the first time, about being tossed into the lake, walking along the beach, eating lobster, and checking out the store in Freeport on the way home. I’ve also heard about the many projects that are as exhilarating as they are exhausting: chopping wood, hammering, scraping, painting, installing windows, replacing doors, fixing a ramp so a place is accessible to those in wheelchairs. That’s good, clean, honest work in the truest sense of the word, and it’s ample reason to feel tired – and proud.
Yet even as you pack up all your clothes, sleeping bags and bug spray, and look forward to a time of fellowship and fun, I suspect you’ll feel a few butterflies.
For a week you’ll be in a rural place that has no Wi-Fi and poor, if any, cell-phone connection. And there’s no Starbucks! The only creature comforts of home you will have will be each other. I think that’s pretty cool.
In preparing my sermon, I asked your advisors about some of the anxieties they might be feeling, based on past Maine trips. Debbie Katz responded: “I’m always aware of the responsibility of taking care of someone else’s child. I’ve learned more about ticks than I want to. Sharing the same living space with a group of senior highs and college kids is a challenge. Sleeping in a church and sharing kitchen and bathroom space and waiting to use one of the three showers in the public school requires an adjustment as we become a community.”
One of my Facebook friends, Marta Rummenie King, went on 16 Maine mission trips, and she says each time, she still felt nervous about getting lost during the drive there and back.
I also asked what your advisors most appreciate. Becca Ballard responded: “I have been impressed overall by the way the kids work, and work together. When given the opportunity, they rise to the occasion. This is the body of Christ and this is the body of Christ in action.”
The body of Christ in action. By their fruits you shall know them.
When you were confirmed, you each had to write a faith statement. Do you remember? I hope you also remember your teachers telling you that confirmation was not an end to something, but the first step in the lifelong journey of your adult faith. To that end, I think the most meaningful “faith statement” you can ever write contains no words at all. Rather, your statement of faith is reflected in the actions of your everyday life. This includes how you will serve the people of East Sumner, Maine, and how you will take care of each other in the week ahead.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you’
Jesus replies, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
Have fun and work hard. Take care of each other. We can’t wait to hear all about this part of your journey when you return. And thank you for representing Westminster.
In December of 1969, I was one of the first pediatric patients in the area to undergo successful open-heart surgery. Born with a congenital defect, I’d undergone closed-heart surgery when I was two months old. My doctor was a dashing Asiatic Indian man who seemed more king than physician. His dark skin, wavy hair, and stylish goatee sparked fantasies of white stallions and exotic lands. His warm eyes conveyed a gentle strength that dazzled and reassured me.
I don’t remember all the details—I was six years old, after all—but I do keep mental video clips of my hospital experience. Like wearing a pretty nightgown someone had given me, and seeing my mother asleep in the cot next to my bed the night before surgery. Or waking up in intensive care, only to witness my hero tending to my wounds. After glimpsing the blood, I saw Dr. Subramanian smile at me and then I quickly fell back asleep. During my time in the ICU, my mother kept a constant vigil. She sat next to my bed, usually holding my hand and singing Japanese lullabies.
What I don’t remember is ever feeling afraid. From my vantage point, the world was filled with people who loved me beyond words and who would do anything to keep me safe. And though I couldn’t articulate it, their love defined my existence—and enabled me to touch God in ways I still can’t explain.
I was lucky enough to be discharged from the hospital a few days ahead of schedule, and just in time for Christmas Eve. When I entered Children’s Hospital before my operation, winter had not truly arrived. But by the time my parents were escorting me through the doors and out into the cold, I could smell and feel the crisp, clean snow.
Aside from my early release from the hospital, there are only two Christmas presents I remember. One was a baby doll my grandparents had given me. Sally had blonde hair and plastic limbs; her torso, made of tan fabric, had stuffing inside. One of the first things I did was take a fat magic marker and draw an incision down the middle of her chest. I used pieces of yarn to create an IV and EKG. I had a grand time playing with Sally in the corner of the living room. Little did my grandparents know that through this doll, they had given me the gift of feeling in control.
Then there was the turtle from my 10-year-old brother. As he showed it to me, George proudly explained the animal’s eating habits and pointed to its slow, but steady, movements. I tried my best not to let on that the brown creature was perhaps the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. Today, I finally realize the turtle’s significance: like me, my brother needed the gift of control that Christmas.
In fact, we humans are in a lifelong struggle between control and surrender. When we’re feeling the most fortunate, we tend to give ourselves all of the credit. And when we’re feeling beaten, it’s easy to blame our sorrow on others—including the Creator.
Not surprisingly, I still look forward to the first snowfall of every winter. Offering a visceral connection to my childhood, fresh snow becomes a supreme gift of memory, surrender, and gratitude. I feel alive when I feel the gentle, quiet snowflakes of Christmas, brushing against my cheeks.
Originally written in 2005. Pioneering surgeon Dr. Sambamurthy Subramanian died in 2015 at the age of 81.
A loose collection of sundry ideas
Poems yet to be written
Stories still to be told
Ideas not yet imagined
Oh, that I could reach inside and
Grab a handful of brilliance
Toss it upward and outward
Letting everything scatter
And then neatly fall into place.
Whether you revere or revile her, Hillary Rodham Clinton is a force of nature in America’s intense political climate. The first First Lady to hold a post-graduate degree, she was also the first president’s wife to assume a high-profile role in shaping national policy through an ambitious—and some would say overzealous—healthcare initiative. More than a decade later, as New York’s junior senator, she’s not only one of the most influential politicians in the Northeast, but widely regarded as the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. It’s no surprise, then (though she’s technically not a Western New Yorker) that Clinton makes Spree’s list of powerful women.
I still remember when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton made his 1992 appearance on Sixty Minutes. Not yet sure about the silver-haired Southerner, I remember being intrigued by the woman with the Junior League hairdo and enormous blue eyes sitting next to him. Unlike a lot of politicians’ wives, she spoke bluntly, looking directly at the interviewer. There was nothing coy about her—which was refreshing. I could even forgive her clumsy comment about Tammy Wynette’s song; it seemed pretty clear that like her husband, this woman was destined for a long engagement with the American electorate.
She was born Hillary Diane Rodham on October 26, 1947. The daughter of a conservative businessman and a traditional homemaker, she grew up in a Chicago suburb and attended public school. Clinton first became politically active at age sixteen, when she supported presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater. A star student at Wellesley, she presided over its chapter of the College Republicans. By 1968, she had moved toward the liberal end of the political spectrum, and on May 31, 1969, became the first student ever to deliver the school’s commencement address. With the Vietnam War protests as her historical backdrop, it was a speech that proved to be as prescient as it was controversial.
The first time I saw Clinton live, albeit from a great distance, was during her initial bid for the senate. Introduced at a rally by comedian/activist Bill Cosby, she was, at first, barely audible over the loud cheers. Within minutes, her exhortations equaled, both in volume and passion, the cheers of her young supporters. It was as surreal as any rock concert. The year was 2000—I had no idea that my next, brief encounter with the Yale Law School graduate would be up close and personal.
Just this past summer, Senator Clinton kicked off Biotech Partnership Day at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Through some delicate negotiations, thanks in large part to a friend with political connections, I had gained prior knowledge of Clinton’s July 31 visit. During the weeks leading up to that day, I prepared a set of interview questions—in between reading Living History, her 2003 memoir; It Takes a Village, her 1996 bestseller; and anything else I could get my hands on.
When the day for the interview opportunity finally came, I was surprisingly calm. Spree photographer Jim Bush and I drove to the Center of Excellence for Bioinformatics. Within a few minutes, we were greeted by Press Secretary Jennifer Hanley. The Secret Service agents were milling about, as were Clinton’s stalwart staffers, all dressed in smart navy blue pantsuits. In my white jeans and tank top, I felt a little underdressed. But at least I was keeping cool on what promised to be a sweltering day.
Clinton addressed the invitation-only crowd at the conference, cosponsored by Pfizer and New Jobs for New York, Inc. During her opening remarks, she promoted a plan to preserve Western New York’s “intellectual capital” while creating manufacturing jobs in the biotech industry. Immediately after her talk, reporters were directed to a small room, where Clinton took to the podium. After introducing Mayor Brown and others, she fielded questions on everything from biotechnology to Hezbollah.
The next stop was the Robinson Farms in Lockport, where Clinton unveiled her policy on upstate New York’s rural economy. Standing in front of a John Deere tractor in an enormous barn packed with local residents and the media, she still looked remarkably fresh in her beige pantsuit. (The rest of us were drenched.) As she talked about bringing broadband technology to the countryside and the importance of being competitive with countries like China, a nine-year-old boy named Todd worked his way through the crowd and began handing out cherries.
After her speech, the press, local residents, and anyone else who had survived the heat surrounded the charismatic woman. All were eager for a handshake or a photo op. Young Todd suddenly reappeared and burst into a solo rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Mrs. Clinton led the rousing ovation. Glancing at my watch, I started to have my doubts about getting in any of my own questions.
Just as I felt hope slipping away, I found myself six inches from the former First Lady and being formally introduced by Press Secretary Hanley. Flipping the record button on my tiny machine, I commented on the Magical Mystery Tour-like morning and asked Clinton how she could talk so easily on complex matters. She flashed her trademark smile. “It takes time to study up on everything, and my good staff keeps me informed about things that are going on. It’s part of my job.”
A car waiting to go to the airport had already pulled up outside the barn. I asked Clinton about her role during the 1970 student protests at Yale University. “Although your heart was with the so-called radicals, you maintained your father’s pragmatism. You were singled out as the voice of reason…”
Before I could continue, she interjected calmly, “Well, we’re goin’ through it again, aren’t we? The challenge is to try to figure out how to bring people together to seek some common ground because we have so many big problems. And that’s kind of how I see my role: to try to keep being a bridge. It’s not easy, because lots of times people want you on one side or the other.” By then, she’d already handed me back my copy of It Takes a Village, specially autographed for my daughter.
My own makeup having melted away hours ago, it seemed only natural to look her in the eye and chuckle, “How can you not sweat on a day like today?!” She simply smiled.
And then she was off—the lady from Park Ridge who married the man from Hope. Will she become the first woman leader of the Free World someday?
Only time will tell.
Originally published in the September/October 2006 issue of Buffalo Spree as part of a series on powerful Western New York women.
Staring at the piles of garden tools, old paint cans, and dust-covered appliances that haven’t been used in decades, my mother and I are a bit daunted. The basement, the realtor tells us, is a good place to begin. But how do you begin to sort through forty-five years of living in a house that was the home for three children and became the emotional center of a marriage that endured for more than half a century?
Two winters ago, my mom ventured outside to retrieve a bag of rock salt from her car. She slipped on the icy sidewalk and hit the back of her head. Having managed to lift herself up, she walked gingerly back inside and called me at work. I rushed to her house, where I found her in the kitchen, nursing a huge lump with a hastily made ice pack. We couldn’t detect any blood, but we knew a trip to the ER was a sensible idea. Mom ended up having to spend the night in the hospital; they administered a CT scan to confirm the absence of internal bleeding and hooked her up to some sort of monitor. Throughout all of this, my thoughts intermittently shifted to another day from seven years earlier. It was in April of 2007 when my father, then 75, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. From the minute he was found lying on the floor at home to the moment Mom, my siblings, and I gathered around his bed in the ICU to say goodbye, I felt the inexorable pull of life’s harsh transitions.
The aftermath of Dad’s death left us all a little numb, and more than a bit disjointed and lost. We each were adrift on the sea of grief in our own private vessel; the pain might have been broadly shared, but the process of experiencing it was different for each of us. I still can’t begin to imagine the depths of sorrow Mom endured those first few years. I only wish I could have been better equipped to help her through them.
I think back to the happiest days of my youth—and even the saddest—and realize how fortunate I was to be grounded in the love of family. We weren’t wealthy compared to other families in our neighborhood, but I never wanted for anything. And although it’s hard to confront the mortality of those we love, I realize now that the inevitability of aging and dying is exactly what makes loving and living so real—and eternal. Even if we become parents ourselves, I don’t think we fully grow up until we witness the frailty, or experience the loss, of our own parents.
This April will mark nine years since Dad died. A lot has changed—once-tiny grandchildren are now in high school or college—and more changes are afoot. The details of the next chapter in Mom’s life may still be unknown, but the urgency with which we prepare for it is real.
And so back to the cellar and all those piles of memories we go—it’s the only way to work up to the main floors and the even dustier attic, where more surprises await. Although the task is monumental and the sorting through of things bittersweet, I quietly embrace this gift. Spending time with a woman who, at 84, is still remarkably spirited, becomes a chance to get to know my mother even better. To hear more family stories—ones I hadn’t heard before—and to create new memories.
I believe it was psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck who wrote that those who obsess about the past fear the future, and those who fixate on the future have unresolved issues with their past. The key is to find the balance and truly live in, and for, the moment. I think love is a powerful force with which to meet the present, indulge in memories that can transport us, albeit fleetingly, back to the past, and most importantly, stay hopeful and focused for the future.
Originally published in the February 2016 issue of Forever Young magazine.