On Love

In the spiritual tradition in which I live and have my being, we say things like, “The choice is always between love and fear.” It’s a true summation, but it is also both clear and obscure, at the same time. That is, it’s the simultaneous horns of a dilemma that you face repeatedly if you are a person who shows up for her life.

Part of the problem lies in the meanings of the words ‘love’ and ‘fear.’ Fear is that tense, unsettled feeling that makes us want to fly off in the opposite direction as fast as possible. Or to fight and annihilate the other, or to freeze. But sometimes fear saves our life. It’s useful, necessary. The trick is to figure out when it’s appropriate and when it’s a regurgitation of a past memory, response, or feeling with only slender connections to the present moment NOW.
Which brings up the question of love. In our culture we see love as that sweeping hormonal experience of desire that unites two people in bliss, or as the sweet, fierce protective instinct a parent has for her or his children. Both are kinds of love, because love is that oceanic, ecstatic state of communion that encompasses all things. That’s the Kabbalistic version, as embodied by the sephirot Chesed, the kindness that goes beyond boundaries, the proactive expression of expansiveness that is a prime mover because it has no cause. 
This definition feels intellectual and nebulous. Here in this material world, love needs be so much more concrete. At least in my opinion; I am a practical person. I find the Christian scriptures helpful in understanding love: “Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13)
This is a tall order, rather like the command given by Tom Hanks at the end of Saving Private Ryan: “Earn this.” It’s an impossible task and yet the necessary one, simultaneously. Here again we have both/and showing up, rather than either/or. 
In my day to day life, love looks more like the Corinthian prescription than the Kabbalistic one, though I intend for Chesed to inform my actions at all times. I strive to be kind, humble, and truthful. Patience is not my strong point, but it is certainly my growing point. Most of all, for me, love looks like neither Testament, but like service. It is the small acts I perform as a matter of commitment, day in, day out, regardless of how I feel or what I really would rather be doing. Mostly what I would rather be doing is sipping wine in a cafe in Paris, or ambling through the Pinacoteca Vaticano while looking forward to a long, slow meal in Trastevere.
Instead, here in my little Manhattan kitchen, I cook broccoli and cauliflower for my children because cruciferous vegetables prevent cancer. I stock the refrigerator with non-rbgh milk and yogurt, and I look for snacks without obesity-causing, disease-predisposing high-fructose corn syrup. This is love. Pedestrian, certainly. Love, yes. And I will add that my children poke fun of me continuously for insisting on nutrition. I hope that the years of pushing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will slowly accrete into good health for my children. But I’m not winning any accolades now, while they’d much rather be eating fritos and candy bars.
Along with the physical care-taking goes emotional care-taking. Sometimes that looks like me saying, “Great job! I’m so pleased that you worked hard and brought up that science grade!” Sometimes, because I am my children’s parent and not simply their good buddy, it consists of me saying, “A D in science is not acceptable. No TV or computer time until you do the work it takes to improve that grade.” 
Children’s emotional needs change with time. Parents engage in a dance between toughness and allowing. My 17 year old daughter leaves for college in August; she is in the process of separating. This process requires her to beat up on me emotionally. I’m the punching bag. It doesn’t feel good but I guess it develops within her some necessary emotional muscle with which to stand on her own in the impending months. 
Yesterday she was wait-listed at one of the colleges which she really liked. She was hurt and upset. Her immediate reaction was to blame me. I guess she experienced that painful fear that she wouldn’t have the life she longed for. So she yelled and screamed at me that nothing I had ever taught her was correct, and she had no faith in me, and nothing I said had any validity.
But I know I told her to keep her grades up at their customary stellar heights last semester, the first semester of her senior year, and she didn’t. She had a good excuse: she went on a mission with a charitable organization to a developing nation, and missing two weeks out of her senior year coursework left her struggling with an already enormous and ambitious work load for the rest of the term. Her experience with the charity was amazing, and what she saw in an impoverished city shocked her and woke her up in a way that staying home and getting all A’s wouldn’t have. But she paid a price for that awakening.

There was no point in explaining that she’d brought this on herself. That she’d made choices and was living with the consequences. She wasn’t strong enough to face the truth, in that moment. I hope she will be someday, because from what I’ve seen, the capacity for self-responsibility is the big dividing line between people who grow up and people who don’t, between good people and less good people. Yes, I make those distinctions: I am not a moral relativist. Some people are just not that great as human beings, despite all the juvenile “everyone’s okay” rhetoric that saturates our culture.
But in that moment with my daughter, who is brilliant, talented and hard-working, despite an uncharacteristic glitch last semester, and who deserves to go to any school she chooses, I didn’t bring up moral relativism. I just told her that I loved her, I wanted the best for her, and I had faith in her. She yelled some more. I just nodded. That, too, was love.
Much in this philosophy of love as commitment and service is not gratifying. It’s not glamorous and does not reflect an exalted self back to me. Much of the time it feels like a daily grind. Where is the exaltation, the ecstasy? I wonder that frequently.
A few hours later, my daughter called and apologized. That was love on her part, and I was proud of her that she could let go of her fear and come back into communion with me. “Most of all, mom, I don’t want you to be more upset than me over the college process,” she said. I told her I would try not to be. She still felt her fear. She also felt her connection with me, at the same time. I ache for her that she must face the waitlist. I ache for her that she will face rejection, cruelty, betrayal, and anguish all through her life. Life doesn’t turn out, for any of us, exactly as we want it to.
But I see in my beautiful daughter the woman who will choose love over fear, even while feeling them both at the same time. I see a young woman who takes two weeks out of her senior year to serve people she has never met: her form of Chesed-inspired love in action. The college she chooses will be lucky to have her. She’s showing up for her life, in all its contradictory, simultaneous pain-and-bliss glory.

The Germ Theory of Children & MI5

My oldest daughter, 17, was violently sick the other day, starting at 7 am. By 4:15 she was vomiting up Gatorade. She’s a bright kid and took the initiative to phone her pediatrician, who said, “Get to an ER so they can put in an IV and hydrate you.”

So she called me. I was picking up the little one from her nursery school but quickly rearranged my day to take her to the ER. It’s the kind of juggling act moms do all the time: recalibrating  plans, finding a sitter on short notice, arriving to handle a difficult situation within fifteen minutes of hearing about it. I’ve become a woman who is no longer convinced that women’s liberation was a victory. The burden of child-rearing, physical and mental and logistical, still falls primarily on women, from what I can see. But now we’re expected to be brain surgeons or trial attorneys while we nurture and raise healthy children who have high self-esteem and good values. From my perspective, what women’s lib succeeded in was 1, making sure that women never sleep; 2, making sure women always feel guilty–because we feel guilty when we’re at work that we’re not with our babies, and we feel guilty when we’re mothering our children that we’re not at our jobs earning lots of money; and 3, adding the extra pressure of achieving in the world outside the home while the demands of home and child-rearing are as intense as they always have been.
And I do know that men take on this role sometimes. My little one has a friend whose dad is the mom, and I applaud him for it. Perhaps it should always have been about choice, not about making more burdens. There’s a reason for a division of labor within a family.
Back to the germ theory of children. The staff at the hospital took one look at my daughter’s drawn face and they got her into a room with an IV in her arm. The fear was appendicitis. But the pain she felt never localized into one place, that lower right quadrant of the abdomen. After five hours,  three bags of saline solution and two different anti-nausea meds, the first of which made her flip out, requiring benedryl to counteract, she was discharged. “Probably a virus,” they said, “drink liquids.”
And a virus it must have been, because twelve hours later I was ill. And it wasn’t the first time. I was a little surprised fifteen years ago, when my oldest daughter first went to nursery school, that suddenly I was struggling with a cold every few weeks. By sixth grade, when my daughter had strep throat twice month and gave it to me every time, I was just thrilled when the doctor yanked her tonsils. Children are Typhoid Mary’s, every one of them. And now I just automatically include immune system boosting supplements into my diet. And whether or not the FDA sued airborne: that stuff works good! Figures the FDA would want to harass the maker. The FDA just wants us to buy medicines that only work for 60% of the people and have dreadful side-effects, so we have to buy more medicines. After all, the FDA protects big pharma, NOT the American people.
Speaking of Americans, why is so much of our television so bad? I’ve become a BBCA addict. MI5 is back, and better than ever! I am just in awe of the understated writing that is still suspenseful. Moments where what is left unsaid brims with excitement….

Mysterious family inequities

I am on a spiritual quest. I am trying to understand the nature of life, to achieve communion with the divine, to better myself at every turn. I don’t always succeed in being the best person I can be, though I try. I am as prone to err and fail as anyone. But I have this goal. And along the way, I wrestle with the questions that come up, as an engaged and present human being, in daily life.

There are the small heart-aches we who are alive on the earth face every day: loss of loved ones, divorce, loss of an income, illness, malaise. There are the larger, transpersonal heart-aches: war, famine,  plague, cataclysm. I talk about this a lot in radio interviews, when hosts ask me why I wrote a novel where the worst happens to the main character over and over again. I always respond, how do we affirm a good God in the face of all these heart-aches?
And then there is man’s inhumanity to man. Again, there are the individual and transpersonal cruelties. Today I am saddened over the individual ones, the intimate hurts people inflict on each other. In my own family, my sister betrayed me, maneuvering to get my father to cut me out of his will, and my mother collaborated with her. It wasn’t a lot of money because my father was not a wealthy man. Still, I was his daughter. This kind of behavior is not something you ever forget, though I have moved on. That was many years ago. Currently, there’s a problem with my husband’s parents, who largely treat our young daughter as if she doesn’t exist.
It’s mystifying. My husband has two wonderful daughters, one by his previous marriage, who is almost 18, and ours together, a funny, charming, bright little sweetie who is three and full of wonder and mischief. She is just as much their grand-daughter as their older one is, but they consistently demonstrate reluctance to see her. My husband’s mother once told me that she had a ‘privileged’ relationship with my husband’s older daughter. But she tried with that relationship. She put time and effort and care into being with my step-daughter. Lots of time, in fact. By contrast, she makes no effort at all with our little one. Rather, she uses every excuse to avoid her.
My husband’s parents are intelligent people. Both have PhD’s. One would think they would understand the impact that their behavior has: on their son, who is hurt; on their older grand-daughter, who loves her little sister and is acutely conscious of the inequities in the two relationships, and uncomfortable because of them; on an innocent little girl, who wants to love and be loved.
Man’s inhumanity to man. It’s inexcusable, and happens every day.

Promotion & Radio interviews

Last night I was interviewed on the “New Perspectives” radio program, an internet program found at www.rocklandworldradio.com/program/new_perspectives/

Host Rory Pinto interviewed me.
I’ve been heavily promoting my novel IMMORTAL and enjoying the process. Watching my husband sculptor Sabin Howard hustle to raise money for our family, I realized long ago that I wasn’t just in the business of writing books, I was also in the business of selling them. Talking on the radio is one of the ways I’ve been getting the word out about my novel.
By and large, it’s been a pleasure. Blogtalk radio attracts interesting characters, and I’ve enjoyed everyone I’ve spoken to: Pete Klein, Barbara Alexander, Sydney Molare, the sprightly ladies of HealthyWealthyWow, Steve Bonenberger. Yesterday I spoke with a young woman who interviewed me for WVBR 93.5 Ithaca, Maria, and she was bright and charming. 
But Rory’s an old friend who went through the Barbara Brennan School of Healing with me, so our chat had a special flavor. The BBSH is kind of like…4 years of spiritual boot camp, getting your psychological ass kicked so you tear down self-sabotaging old patterns while simultaneously interfacing in meditation and healing work with angels, who want to guide and uplift humanity. It’s a journey and a crucible, a mystery school with a left-brain twist for the modern age. It’s not easy and it’s not a perfect institution but the BBSH is wondrous, and it is life-changing.  
So Rory shares a language and set of experiences with me. We’re like two old soldiers who survived a campaign together, the Battle of Transformation. And he’s a skilled interviewer, a master at leading conversation into avenues of soulfulness and inquiry. He brought up issues of love and loss, the nature of choice in human life, victory and spirit, communion with the divine. These are the reasons I write.
South Bend, & Thank You to my readers

South Bend, & Thank You to my readers

Friday night I gave a reading at the Barnes & Noble in South Bend, Indiana. Technically it was in Mishawaka, which I understand is a village within South Bend.

The Mishawaka B & N is huge. In Manhattan, four to six apartments could fit inside it. It has a big friendly cafe and spacious friendly feeling; the parking lot was jammed and no corner of the store was empty. When I commented on the flow of people, lovely Jennifer, the events manager, told me that the B&N was a hang-out within the community.
At my stage of the publishing game, a first time novelist, mostly unknown, readings are really parties for my family and friends. I have family in that area and an uncle and some cousins and their families showed up. My mother’s best friend since 2nd grade came with her daughters and their families. It was touching to see her; her health has been poor and she has suffered, but she was determined to see her best friend’s daughter read. They rolled her in in a wheel chair and she sat there beaming at me from under the beret that covered her head, where her hair had fallen out from chemo. I hugged her several times and thanked her with love, but I didn’t quite know how to express my gratitude at the courage and determination it took for her to show up and support me this way.
In addition to family and friends, there were a few readers there. One was a lovely woman who had emailed me a few weeks ago, saying she had much enjoyed IMMORTAL and was happy I was coming to South Bend. I was delighted to see her in person. It wasn’t easy for her with two small children to get away for an evening. I was flattered and awed that she had made the effort to hear me read. And there were two teachers there from a teacher’s reading book club which had studied IMMORTAL. They were smart, charming, and interesting, and I came away with the impression that their students were lucky to have them. Teaching is one of the most under-appreciated professions. It’s back- and heart-breakingly difficult, requires constant energy,  imagination, and creativity, and doesn’t earn what it deserves. Yet here were these two women of sparkling intelligence, pursuing arts & letters outside working hours. You have to respect the interest and commitment. I hope they enjoyed the reading.
And so I would like to thank them all. My family and friends who come to my readings: I’m grateful! And to readers who have never met me and don’t have a blood obligation: thank you! I appreciate your interest. It matters more than you know.
The Launch, and Portrait of the Husband as an Artist

The Launch, and Portrait of the Husband as an Artist

book launch

No creative work is born into the world without a team of midwives, doctors, and assorted helpers. Even when one person carries out the labor of love, the final product–if it’s any good–is the result of a collaborative process.
My novel IMMORTAL is no exception. I was pregnant when I started out, so I can give some credit to my now 3 year old daughter, who was kicking so hard I couldn’t sleep at 4:00 am. I wrote two chapters during the wakeful pre-dawn dusk which I gave to my oldest daughter. She raved about them. A few days later she came home from school and said, “I can’t stop thinking about your story. Write the rest, mom. I have to know what happens to Luca!” And that was the pivotal moment, when I knew I had something worth persevering with.
My editor at Bantam read the novel with exquisite attention and intelligence many times. She asked for five revisions, and her perceptions and insights were wonderful each time. I chafed at the slowness of the process, but I’m glad I did the revisions, and really glad she paid such careful attention, because this book is infinitely better than it would have been otherwise.
Various friends read drafts, lent research materials, and offered encouragement. My middle daughter, step-daughter, and mother were always ready to listen and offer loving support.
But no one has been more instrumental to IMMORTAL than my husband Sabin Howard. He read every word of every draft. And from the moment I met him, he has embodied ruthless, relentless artistic integrity. Whatever needs be done in the service of the art: that’s what a true artist does. For him, as a sculptor, if that means using a power saw to chop off an arm, then reweld the armature, then redo six months of work because the gesture and pose of his piece aren’t right–that’s what he’ll do. He doesn’t care how badly it makes him feel. He’s true to the sculpture.
With that kind of uncompromising integrity being modeled for me, I had a lot to live up to. I’ve been occasionally intimidated, but mostly inspired. And very grateful. To my family and friends, to my editor, and most of all, to Sabin.
Tuesday night we held a joint book launch/sculpture show at the Salmagundi Club, an old arts club in the village that is simultaneously vibrant and venerable. First we had a dinner, and I got to thank a lot of people in my life who have supported me along the way. I got to say “Thank you!” and “I love you!”, not to everyone who deserves it, but to many wonderful folks. How many opportunities in life do you get to do that? To speak your gratitude in public?
Then came the reading. I was surrounded by 9 of Sabin’s classical figures, and practically embraced by his gorgeous Aphrodite. The parlor was jammed with 75 to 80 people, and we ran out of books, which were being sold to benefit the Library Fund at the Salmagundi Club. People listened intently and asked terrific questions. It was an amazing experience.