Reaching Totality

If you want to get a sense of the interconnectedness of all being, start with a two-hour flight delay on your way to see a total eclipse of the sun. This will cause you to miss your connection, and then you might meet, as my mom and I did, a string of remarkably kind and helpful people.

My sister, Mom, and I sometime before totality in Payette, Idaho.

The nicest and most interesting ticket agent ever explained that we could not fly anywhere near the eclipse, booked us on the next flight to Reno, and proceeded to tell us all about her niece who works for the Uruguayan national opera and her own passion for photographing whales.

The man behind the hotel desk in Reno in the middle of the night was patient and pleasant, and equally so the next morning when we checked out. The cheerful woman who drove us back to the airport to get our rental car regaled us with stories of the crowds that descend on Reno heading to Burning Man.

And then there were the people of Payette, Idaho, a town I never planned to visit but am grateful to have spent a couple of days in. Not only did the person whose phone number was listed on an online event announcement return my voicemail, she called her connections in town to find out who was offering camping spots.

We ended up with a gorgeous, large, and inexpensive campsite, thanks to the Miracle League of Payette, which offers adaptive baseball for children with disabilities and graciously serves as host when the eclipse comes to town, letting people sleep in the outfield and refilling the toilet paper in the bathrooms that, miraculously, offer running water. To top it all off, at the Dutch Bros. Coffee drive through, they gave us our frozen caffeine-chocolate-sugar sludge for free because we were first timers.

Not all of the kind people were strangers. My sister generously sacrificed spending time in the mountains, which she’d been greatly looking forward to, and met us in Boise. My friend Katie didn’t bat an eye when I told her she’d have three houseguests for a couple of days. She even let us cook her eggs over easy two mornings in a row, though I’m guessing by what was left on her plate that she doesn’t like runny yolks.

Don’t get me wrong, the sun turning black is indescribably cool. I recommend seeing it if you can, but don’t miss all the people along the way who help you get there.


Less Head Time, More Streudel

News flash for the week: my perceptions are not reality. Shocking, I know. Go ahead and sit down—that was probably a hard one to absorb since you thought I had this whole existence thing figured out.

For example, I tell myself a story about a group of people at work. It goes like this: they tolerate me because they have to, but I always get work to them late, I constantly tell them they can’t do things they want to do, and I don’t offer them as much support as they would like. So imagine my surprise when at a meeting last week they told me I was a joy to work with.

I don’t bring this up to brag (OK, maybe just a little) but because based on this headline in The OnionReport: Today The Day They Find Out You’re A Fraud—other people might tell themselves these stories, too. People who are a joy to work with are walking around not knowing it, and these people might be you.

So of course we’re all going to implement a radical perception shift, and these thoughts will disappear by the time you finish reading this blog. If you figure out how to do that, let me know. In my experience, this type of shift doesn’t happen at warp speed, and if it does, there’s a lot of pain involved.

Pain is not up there with cream colored ponies and crisp apple streudels on my list of favorite things, so instead I’m going to practice remembering that the voice in my head lies. And I’m going to get some apple streudel and share it with the people who bring joy into my life and tell them that they do so that they have a little evidence to present to the voices in their heads.

Here’s a poem by C.K. Williams about a moment that broke through the cloud of misperception. One cool, nerdy thing about this poem—it is all one sentence.

The Dance
By C.K. Williams

A middle-aged woman, quite plain, to be polite about it, and
somewhat stout, to be more courteous still,
but when she and the rather good-looking, much younger man
she’s with get up to dance,
her forearm descends with such delicate lightness, such restrained
but confident ardor athwart his shoulder,
drawing him to her with such a firm, compelling warmth, and
moving him with effortless grace
into the union she’s instantly established with the not at all
rhythmically solid music in this second-rate café,

that something in the rest of us, some doubt about ourselves, some
sad conjecture, seems to be allayed,
nothing that we’d ever thought of as a real lack, nothing not to be
admired or be repentant for,
but something to which we’ve never adequately given credence,
which might have consoling implications about how we misbe-
lieve ourselves, and so the world,
that world beyond us which so often disappoints, but which
sometimes shows us, lovely, what we are.

from Repair by C.K. Williams, reprinted in Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor

You Can Do It Random Stranger

I ran a half marathon last Sunday. In 2:05:59, just for the record, which of course is very different from 2:06.

Rachel and Katie running
Me, my running buddy Katie, and many kind volunteers at the water station

To make this event happen, an amazing number of women and men got up early on a Sunday morning not to run but to volunteer or to stand by the side of the road and cheer for the runners, most of whom they didn’t know. True, most of them came for a friend or family member, but they were generous with their applause and encouragement. I am not sure I could have finished the race without them, and I am sure it would not have been as enjoyable.

Running past them, I wondered why we don’t do this more often, why we don’t support each other so freely most of the time. But maybe people are willing to help and we simply don’t ask.

A half marathon is a societally acknowledged hard thing, which makes it easier to ask for support. Everyone knows you’re going to need it, and we’ve all agreed—for unknown reasons—that running thirteen miles is a worthwhile goal to pursue.

On the other hand, when we go through equally hard things as part of our daily lives, hard in the emotional rather than the physical realm, it’s often difficult to ask for help. Or if someone assigns us a task or a role, it becomes our job, and we may feel that asking for help is the same as failure.

I am not much good at it myself. I fear people will see me as weak or incompetent or needy. The truth is, I am sometimes all of these things. None of us is always strong, good at everything, and always capable of going it alone.

I met Bill Bellows once, who pointed out that none of us has achieved anything in our lives, from a grade in a class to a well-cooked meal to a Nobel Prize, by ourselves. Everything in our lives is a group effort, and if we have the confidence and humility to ask for help, we might find there’s a whole crowd of people cheering us on.

Love One Another

This week I was reminded that life pretty much boils down to one thing: love one another. I didn’t make this up. I heard it at church on Sunday.

The priest didn’t make it up, either. Jesus said it a few times. And he didn’t make it up—he learned it from the Jewish tradition. I don’t know all the world’s wisdom traditions backward and forward, but I’d be surprised if any of them didn’t at least mention this idea.

I don’t always remember to love, though, and even when I do, I don’t always practice it. It’s not a complicated teaching like algebra or a foreign language, which can be hard to learn and easy to forget. Yet I don’t spend the majority of my day thinking, “What would be the most loving thing to do in this situation?”

Or maybe “love one another” is hard to learn and easy to forget. Hard to learn because we’re taught that other things—wealth, success, physical beauty—matter more; easy to forget in the constant barrage of daily messages advertising any number of things that are supposed to make us feel loved, none of which include loving one another.

On top of that, there is this whole problem of being human. For reasons I don’t understand, we have a lot of fear and failings built in. No one had to make up greed and envy either, we do those unprompted.

But we also love unprompted and maybe we just need to practice more. It can be daunting if we start with the equivalent of the quadratic equation or irregular verbs, so we could take some guidance from David Roche, who leads the Church of 80% Sincerity. In the Church of 80% Sincerity, as Anne Lamott puts it, “everyone has come to understand that unconditional love is a reality, but with a shelf life of about eight to ten seconds.”

And miraculously, that is enough. The priest said one other thing: only love will change the world, not policies, not wars, not this cause or that one, only love. Amen.

Be Kind, Be Kind, Be Kind

I voted today. Tomorrow, or tonight if you stay up late enough, almost everyone will have a reason to despair because of the results of a local or national election.

I believe, however, that neither politics nor economics ultimately decides the quality of our lives. I am not saying these systems don’t affect us. A leader’s decision to go to war, for example, changes lives forever. I am saying that there are other, more powerful forces at play.

I base this conclusion on the version of history taught in American primary education, which is mostly if not exclusively politics and economics. If history consisted only of the events in the history books, I’m convinced the human race would have wiped itself out long ago because, according to the official version, very little good ever happens. People and nations in power attempt to retain or expand that power and harm or kill a lot of other people along the way. If nothing stood in opposition to that story, the world would be a much more dismal place than it is.

I think what keeps or doesn’t keep us going is how kind we are to one another. While trying to figure out the motivation of the characters in my novel, I wrote to a few friends and asked them what they wanted out of life and why. My former Chinese religion professor wrote back and said, “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”

At the time I thought, that is not an answer, but now I wonder if it might be the only one worth pursuing.

Much of life is beyond our control, even in a country where we get to choose our leaders and in certain cases our laws. Sometimes being kind is all we can do for another person and all we can do for ourselves.

I think we often see kindness as a small gesture and forget what a tremendous difference it can make. It can change the course of history.

Celebrate Your Life

Birthdays can be a time for reflection, but this year I’m opting for celebration. Some cool things that happened on or near my birthday:
•    My van erupted into spontaneous song on hearing news of the occasion.
•    A friend sent me a picture of her smiling, swinging baby with good wishes.
•    Three friends from two very different times in my life met each other in Johannesburg, South Africa.
•    My team won the over-30s division of the local soccer tournament.
•    I discovered someone in my new office has the same birthday I do. As a result, we got both a birthday breakfast and a birthday lunch. I think that’s what they mean when they say nirvana.
•    A friend baked me some healthy yet surprisingly tasty cookies, which is particularly impressive because I am generally opposed to combining the concepts health and dessert.
•    My mom took me out to dinner, and we had completely unhealthy chocolate torte with hazelnut mousse. Yum.
•    Another friend sent me this blog post by someone who spent her birthday doing random acts of kindness.
•    A number of people wrote cheerful texts.
•    My dad called.
•    The answer to one of life’s great mysteries—who buys Christmas ornaments in July?—was answered when my mom and sister bought me some I’d been eyeing in San Diego.

According to this list, what’s going to make the next year enjoyable is chocolate cake. That and the people who surround, nurture, and support me, who make me laugh and do me perhaps the greatest favor any of us can do for each other—keep me in mind, whether they are near or far.

And all of this for someone who only remembers others’ birthdays about fifty percent of the time. Thanks, everyone.

Share the Wow

I have a lot of older friends, and I have serious retirement envy. Having recently attended yet another retirement party, I have one more reason to look forward to that occasion—people say a lot of nice things about you.

As the speeches were starting, the person whose party it was said, “I hate these things. They’re like funerals except you’re here.” Just as extended families sometimes never gather except for weddings and funerals, we humans tend to save all the good things we have to say about each other for leave-takings or eulogies. Why do we wait until the end of things to tell others what we appreciate about them? Why not do it along the way?

It’s hard, I think. It took me a long time to learn even to compliment a new dress or pair of earrings, much less tell someone I admired the way she ran a meeting or wrote a sentence. It feels unprotected, not knowing how the person will receive or react to the compliment. It is a little bit like saying, “I love you” without being certain of the reply.

Giving someone else credit is a deeply humble act. We take ourselves out of the picture for a moment; we abdicate control of the situation; we do not know whether the gift will be accepted. If we can get over that momentary panic of self-disappearance, though, it feels good to voice the wows we often think to ourselves but sometimes don’t say.

With practice, it might get easier. We might discover that, strange as it may sound, others are delighted to hear what they’re good at. They may not know what to say in return; they may shrug it off or try to deny it because they are as out of practice at accepting praise as we are at giving it. But I can think of many less-pleasant things to spend time practicing.

Learning from Your Students

Any day with homemade cookies is a good day. Last week a troop of freshmen appeared in our office bearing plates laden with chocolate chocolate chip cookies. Clearly, these freshmen have good taste.

chocolate chocolate chip cookiesWe didn’t know what to make of them at first. I work in an administrative office at a university, and we generally only see students when they are lost or in serious trouble. These young men and women had baked cookies for everyone in the building, all four floors, to show their appreciation “for everything you do for us.” I’m sure most of them have no idea what we do.

Many of us, myself included, tend to dismiss the contribution of those whose jobs we don’t understand. These students took the opposite approach, assuming we were doing something worthwhile on their behalf, a generosity that meets or exceeds that of baking dozens of cookies for people you don’t know.

I think the world would benefit from more random acts of appreciation. They should probably be done regularly, like flossing. They could be simple, like thanking the person who checks my groceries with more than a mumble instead of interacting solely with the credit card machine.

One blogger has taken it a step further in her Year of Kindness campaign. She does things like buy a complete stranger a cup of coffee because he looks sad or give away dozens of roses to whoever will take them. I’m probably not that advanced yet, but I could start by recognizing those people who help me regularly rather than taking them for granted.

When the cookie bearers stepped off the elevator, the atmosphere on our floor suddenly became Disney-worthy — sun shining, birds singing. I found myself asking everyone, “Did the students come to your office?” That kind of good cheer is worth spreading.

Happy to Inherit

Newsflash: your parents were once children. Some of you may have figured this out before I did, but the corollary may surprise you: your aunts and uncles were, too.

Last weekend my dad, a couple of his siblings, their respective spouses, and I gathered for an incomplete but very enjoyable family reunion. It has only recently occurred to me that these people—spouses excepted—have spent all or most of their lives together. They know each other in a variety of contexts: childhood, adolescence, newlyweds. They know the stupid choices, the heartbreaks, the brilliant successes, the unexpected joys.

They hold all these versions of each other within their memories and yet miraculously manage not to hold each other to those versions. Forgiving and forgetting even the small things can be difficult—the broken toy, the gloves thrown in the snowbank (sorry, little sister)—and history between siblings is not always comprised of only small things. This willingness to let go is a big chunk of what it means to be an adult, and it is rare.

I appreciate this group’s ability to laugh—kindly—at the way we are utterly and predictably ourselves. My uncle will always pause mid-conversation to find the source of the unusual airplane motor the rest of us don’t even notice. My dad will always search out mayonnaise packets, oblivious to my other uncle’s impatience to get where we’re going. But by and large, everyone chooses to be entertained rather than annoyed by each other’s idiosyncrasies.

After my grandmother died, the entire family gathered at a beach house with an astonishing collection of food and drink. Toward the end of the week, my dad and his brother and sisters sequestered themselves in one of the bedrooms for a few hours. When they emerged, all my grandma’s assets had been bloodlessly divided up, the only item of contention a CD/tape player that may have been worth $100 at the time. They flipped a coin. No hard feelings. No lawyers. Everyone not only still talking to each other but also still enjoying each other.

And that, perhaps, is the older generation of Henrys greatest legacy to my generation: the lived conviction that enjoying each other is more valuable than whatever else might happen.

Creating Possibilities

I don’t often celebrate my birthday by discussing the demise of the world, but that’s where the conversation turned during one of my many birthday meals (remember that bit about eating). Most of the table agreed that, given the current political and economic situation, the future looks bleak. Those factors alone, however, do not determine our fate.

A quick scan of K-12 history books, which record largely political and economic affairs, might lead one to wonder how the human race has survived this long. I think we’re still around because the way we treat each other on the small, daily scale makes as much of a difference as those forces we generally consider global. (One political scientist’s research on disaster survival supports this idea.)

Of course politics profoundly shape people’s lives. I just finished reading Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, his autobiography of growing up in Alexandra, South Africa, under apartheid. Arguing that sharing a meal together would undo what he and others suffered under those laws is ludicrous, but by the same token, no political or economic shift allowed him to survive. His mother’s dedication to his education and an American tennis player’s friendship and follow-through brought him to the U.S. well before the end of apartheid.

How does the removal of one young man from an oppressive regime contribute to the end of that regime? I don’t know, but perhaps one person spared from the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual starvation imposed by that system is one more person imagining something better. Perhaps that person tips a balance we can’t measure.

When Mathabane left South Africa, he could picture a world without apartheid, but he probably couldn’t describe how that change would happen. In the middle of the Cold War, who would have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall? Transformation happens regardless of our ability or inability to foresee its exact nature.

None of the people at lunch that day live as if they believe their choices and kindness don’t matter. One offers gracious and impeccable hospitality; one supports and enjoys an unusually close-knit family; one radiates enthusiasm and joy wherever she goes; they all provide compassionate leadership at work. They don’t believe these actions will save the world, but maybe their caring, and that of others like them, is as powerful as a failing economy and a divisive political situation.

I believe the communities we create on a daily basis and the generosity and good humor we offer one another create possibilities. William Stafford captures this idea in his poem “Yes,” a more eloquent closing than I could hope to write.


It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out — no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.