A letter to unmet objects

Dear future life companion, aka little object that I have not yet met,

Before you cross the threshold into our often happy home, I want to celebrate that you have met the Hole Family joy/usefulness criteria. You are so welcome here. I will happily trade some of my precious life energy to care for you, to maintain you, to appreciate you, to make sure you return to your own little space, your special spot in our abode, the one where I always know just where to find you.

Thank you for all you will do to brighten our lives, nurture our spirits, lighten our loads.

You know, it isn’t any old thing that makes it across that doorstep. True, lately many leaves, more than you might expect, have found their way in, uninvited. These we put into the compost, returning them to their friends, a mutually agreeable outcome.

Other than the leaves, and the sunglasses given as a prize at the dentist that broke on the way home, or the wind-up car, a backpack stowaway discovered yesterday from some unknown source (list not exhaustive), to cross the threshold items under consideration for adoption are evaluated in light of the brighten, nurture, lighten criteria and as follows: 

One. Do we need it? Will [object] bring joy or likely more aggravation? Do we already have something else that can be used to the same purpose? Do we need a new [object] in a theme/color or can we use a [similar object] we already have? What else could I do with the time that I will not spend looking for just the right [object]? Would it be nicer to take a 30 minute walk and talk to a friend or to store another set of holiday-themed [objects]?

Two. Could I borrow an [object]?

Three. Is there somewhere I can find an [object] in need of a good home? An [object] that already exists? Can I pay someone who is selling their gently-used [object] instead of buying it new?

Four. Is there someone awesome making beautiful [objects] who is trying to make a living through making great [objects] thoughtfully? Can my purchase support more creations by this very cool human being or organization? And if it costs more, did I perhaps save some money by asking question #1 so many times that now I can spend a little bit more to support someone putting beautiful, thoughtful, healthy [objects] into the world? Wouldn’t it feel good to see a beautiful, useful [object] in our home and feel the joy of connection to its maker?

Five. When I am finished needing [object], am I willing to take the time to respectfully transfer it to someone else who can use it or return it to Mother Nature in a way that does not harm humans, wildlife and the water, air, and soil that nourishes and nurtures our lives (all life)? Or do I already have so many [objects] that I’m maintaining that I struggle to recirculate them and/or their materials when I have finished using them?

[This concludes the criteria portion of the letter]

I love you, beautiful object. You keep me warm, you keep me healthy, you teach my children, you give comfort, you remind me of loved ones, of happy times, of connection. I am so happy that you have joined our family. I will treat you respectfully and appreciatively for as long as you stay here with us and I promise, as a respected member of the family, that I will take care to give you an honorable discharge when your time with us is done. You will not fester underneath wasted, rotting food in some huge methane-producing landfill or end up in a turtle’s belly in the sea.

I know you may have questions about some of your roommates and I can only say that many of them were acquired “before” which could refer to 100 years ago, which is cool, and also sometimes difficult. Criteria to address the stagnant pools of life energy collecting all over the place will take a lot more doing. And these criteria will too.

Anyway, glad you are here. I will find a home for you once we store all of the Christmas decorations back in the attic and find new homes for whatever other [objects] appear festively wrapped under the adorned (yet decaying) tree of communal object-exchange.

With love and appreciation,


This piece is part of The Stuffed Project: One woman’s quest to reimagine our relationship to the material world (working title). You can learn more about The Stuffed Project or subscribe to get updates in your inbox.

This little light of mine

This little light of mine

Dear flashing LED light-up bumpy ring,

I’m so sorry. I know it is no excuse, but I’d like to give you a bit of background to explain. Spur of the moment, and uncharacteristically, I decided we should go see the lights at the National Zoo on Tuesday night. Something fun, festive, and free to do as a family. I didn’t remember Memorial Bridge was down to one lane. I didn’t reckon properly on the rush-hour traffic. So we showed up to the zoo after 6:00 pm, with two hungry kids, two hungry parents, not quite enough gloves. 

We walked up the pathway – as members of the zoo we were eligible for free parking, a pass for 10 free rides, and a special gift, while quantities lasted. I had already decided that we would not need the free gift, whatever it might be. We approached the member station. The first thing my girl child did was to complement the zoo lady on her brightly flashing bumpy ring. “I love your ring,” she said. The zoo lady did not seem moved in one way or another, I don’t remember her responding at all. But she did reach over to get our free gift, a zoo tote bag containing our 10-ride pass and four individually wrapped bumpy rings. You were one of them. I told the zoo lady, as rehearsed, no thanks, no free gift needed. “You sure?” she asked, gesturing to the bag’s bottom where I saw the rings, so small, and remembered the girl child’s words, and thought, hey, relax, a couple of little rings will be fun. I took out one for each child. I pressed the buttons to start the batteries and we were off into the light-filled night, fingers blinking in delight.

As the children walked down the path, playing with their rings, I looked at the lights. “Oh, look, icicles,” I said. It was cold. “Oh, look, a seal riding a bicycle, a wolf wearing sunglasses, a polar bear eating a sandwich.” They turned the rings on. They turned the rings off. They turned the rings on. They…. 

And then, little ring, your time was done. Your battery either destroyed or some malfunction. Your seven-to-eight minute life span of functionality over forever. And the boy child was inconsolable. 

“Look – it’s a penguin wearing suspenders and jumping through a hoop of fire!” The ring was broken! 

“Look, glittery sparkles lighting the night” It’s not fair, that boy has a necklace of lights, I wanted the necklace of lights instead, like he has. 

“Smell the funnel cakes, listen to the choir singing” Tears, snot, refusal to walk, sister pretending she will give brother a turn with her ring and then not doing so, second ring confiscated and put into pocket to not cause conflict, tears, snot, cold, requisite family photo.

Waiting in line to spin too quickly in the cold night air next to the girl child, I overheard another boy whose ring had broken. He too was full of sorrow at his lost joy. 

Small squishy green ring of silicone, today I performed an autopsy. Your tiny light source made from rare earth materials, your petite battery to power the tiny light source, your bumpy green shell made from silicone, otherwise known as hydrocarbon-transformed quartz. 

I think about the giant sculptures we saw at the zoo last year. Huge, larger than life, made from garbage that had been removed from coasts of oceans around the world. It was an amazing exhibit, shared with us so we could think about the things we are putting into the sea, that don’t disappear. And here, at Christmas, that same zoo is putting little packs of sea trash into a bag so that kids can have a worse time not paying attention to the experience but, instead, focusing on a new “thing” that they were not in any way expecting to get when they came to the zoo. It would have been cool to walk around and see all of those lights. But you, little ring, became the focus, a source of friction and discontent. And now, you are a piece of garbage, which you were always destined to become. 

Rings like you do give people, many people, great joy — sometimes for several times longer than seven minutes. A brief google search demonstrates the service to humanity that a ring such as yourself, a noble use of Earth’s rare earth materials, can provide:

Michelle says: Adds a lot of fun to any party. We will be using them for a night time beach party this summer. 

Deb, who gave your brethren only three stars, writes: Bought these for a rehearsal dinner. I lit them up ahead of time so they’d look good on display and draw attention. By the time of the event, several rings only had 1 or 2 LEDs flashing. I was disappointed that they didn’t last longer. Would have been good to know life expectancy ahead of time. They were very popular though and people loved seeing the ones that worked and picking one to take home.

From Piggy689: This is really cool it lights up and is really squishy

Will also provided some helpful perspective: These were so fun and really quite bright. For the price they were really great. We’ve used our set on 3 separate occasions and all but one ring has worked each time. The on-off button works pretty well and I love that it is squishy.

Squishy one, you won’t biodegrade. So I can either throw you into the trash or add your light and battery to my growing bag of electronic-related waste to take to the special dump for that kind of thing. Maybe you can be recycled into something that will provide a more lasting light. That is my hope for you. Just imagine, maybe you could be part of a spotlight lighting a little girl for her first violin concert. Or a light at a hospital, where a new mother is having a life-saving surgery, or a studio light where someone is painting a vision of a world where everyone has enough to eat.

I learned my lesson little ring. I promise to find a way to recycle your components because it wasn’t your fault you were made this way. There are bigger plans for your future. I loved those trash sculptures, but I don’t want to see you end up there.

Thank you. Thank you for teaching me an important lesson. I’ve learned it before, but maybe it will stick this time. Focus on the experience. Introducing an object, a new thing, into the equation almost never adds. Almost always subtracts. The kids remember the rings, the tears, not the lights.

So here is to lasting light.

With love and respectfully,


This piece is part of The Stuffed Project: One woman’s quest to reimagine our relationship to the material world (working title). You can learn more about The Stuffed Project or subscribe to get updates in your inbox.

Announcing: The Stuffed Project

Announcing: The Stuffed Project

Dear sofa,

I want you to know that I love you. We dreamed of having you for a long time, but it was so hard to let go of your predecessor (who will receive her own letter in time, but since that is a break-up letter, it is more emotionally complex). I love that your springs are intact. That my feet don’t leave the ground as my tired derrière slides towards the pit at the back of your cushions. You have no pit. May I long protect your integrity as a couch.

Sofa, I love that you are big enough for three people, four good friends, or up to six children to sit comfortably upon. It is nice to imagine inviting a friend over for a cup of tea. I know I’ve been promising something like this for a long time, and someday it will be more than just a dream.

I apologize and recognize that you were not sold as a trampoline. I am working on it and he will get older. We, you and I, will be happy that he is older. And also sad. I think we will both miss the jumping.

Thank you, dear sofa, for sheltering my body, covered, and uncovered, and covered, and uncovered with that sleeping bag when I could do nothing but roll into your embrace and hope my children didn’t pull the knives out of the knife drawer while my husband was away and I had that undetermined dread virus last winter. I will never forget those 24 hours my dear friend.

I am so glad, so thankful, that your cover is washable. I promise that someday I will remove the old chocolate from your corner, the orange marker, deposited to your main cushion the very day of your arrival/assembly. Today will not be the day. But it will, eventually, come.

I remember when we met you, just three separate cardboard boxes too heavy for me to lift but that somehow fit into the back of our SportWagen. And now here you are, a part of the family.

Sofa, I know that you were once a towering tree, cleaning the air, feeling the breeze. That your cover is made from plants that felt the sun and drank the rain. That your joints came from within mountains, your stuffing from aged dinosaur bones. I honor your provenance and will do my best to treat you with the respect due to your sacred heritage.

May I take one moment, each time I rest upon your Flodafors beige threads, to cherish the comfort that you provide to me and to my loved ones.

I know the jumping is ill-advised. And you need a bath.

With love and gratitude,




A(nother) new project!

Stuffed: One woman’s odyssey to reimagine our relationship to the material world

This project (and eventual book) might be for you if:

You see heartbreaking videos about palm oil and chimps, read about ice sheets crumbling and the link to your daily commute, or some girl at Starbucks gives you the evil eye for using a disposable straw. Maybe you should have remembered to bring your cup but you live in suburbia juggling children, work, parents, community, broken appliances, holiday prep. So you buy things on Amazon and feel guilty/remorseful afterwards when the local toy shop goes out of business.

Unless you stop living, you use stuff. But you are surrounded by messages that the stuff you use is damaging someone or something else. You feel bad for wanting things, for buying things, and for feeling bad about the things that you’ve wanted and bought. And it is piled up around you, you spend so much time sorting it, moving it, organizing it, donating it, replacing it, repairing it, arranging it, selecting it, wanting it, not wanting it.

You know you can “vote with your checkbook” for the kind of world you want. But it feels like each choice takes so much effort, so much research. So you vote with your checkbook at The Container Store.

Your child asks you what a Pez dispenser is and you tell him it is just a piece of plastic that will turn into trash, and some sugar pellets. You overhear yourself and know you are no fun. But you’re also right.

Your parents are/soon will be downsizing or no longer able to maintain a lifetime of material accumulation. And they are even more attached to things than you are as evidenced by the hurt look on the maternal face when the offer of a silver-plated candy dish, a wedding gift unused since the 60s, is politely declined. And how many conversations will you have about that broken candelabra? I know it was your mother’s. I know. Something will need to be done with their stuff, and the thought of all of the decisions – and emotions – is difficult.

Holidays come that are focused on buying stuff, giving stuff. Most of the people you know have more than enough. And you know that lots of other people don’t. But, in the name of love, you buy your parcels and wrap them. It feels fun, sometimes, (stressful and expensive, often) but you also wonder. What is the lesson to the little ones from all of this getting and giving? Giving is a fundamental joy of being human – can we do it differently (but, not just substituting with homemade certificates for quality time)?

You have read or heard about numerous clutter-clearing strategies and tried to KonMari your home but the birthday party favors never stop coming. You are also somewhat uncomfortable with the ethos of just getting rid of what you don’t want to purchase different stuff, recognizing that every object equals nature transformed, life energy spent. You aren’t going to give up your trash can, but could there be a benefit, some joy dividend you might gain, from creating less trash?

You want a balanced, joyful relationship with material things, not the possibility of a nervous breakdown every time you walk into the basement.

And it’s not just your home and storage spaces that are overflowing. Your schedule, mind, and list of shoulds is rammed full too. You may vacillate between super healthy/restrictive eating and binging on cheese and crackers or Quadratini Dark Chocolate bite-size wafer cookies.

And yet, in the light of all of this over-fullness, there is a feeling that something is missing.

Maybe you need to redecorate.

Maybe you need to minimize.

Maybe you need to spark joy.


Hi, I’m Jennifer, and I’m on an adventure to reinvent my relationship to Stuff.

Along the way I aim to develop:

  • a joyful appreciation of the material world as reflected in my daily life
  • clear criteria for decision-making, to dispel exhaustion in the face of hundreds of daily decisions about the stuff I/we are managing
  • A framework for discussion so that visits to my/our parents are no longer overshadowed by the looming question of what is going to happen with all of the stuff
  • A way to consider obligations, including the obligation of organizing, acquiring, disposing of all the stuff, that restores time and energy for living

Do I have any guiding principles in this work?

Yes, thanks for asking. I am looking for joy and light. I will not focus on the harm done through acquiring and using stuff, but will look to describe a relationship with the material world that is connected and life-affirming.

Topics to explore include:

  • Linking stuff back to its source – the connection between things and the earth
  • Kids and stuff (sub-section: birthday party favors)
  • Sharing/repurposing/reusing stuff (who is doing it, how)
  • Good stuff – beautiful, useful things made respectfully that comply with [principles/criteria TBD]
  • Giving stuff (history of gifting, its cultural purpose)
  • Eating stuff
  • The climate-stuff link: loving the atmosphere through your healthy relationship to stuff
  • Are millennials doing stuff differently?
  • Other cultures and stuff
  • Queen Elizabeth I and the nobility: stuff as status
  • The growth economy – do we need to buy more stuff to make more jobs?
  • The paradox: what many need more of is less

Hasn’t a lot already been written about stuff?

There is great work out there on these different topics. I want to explore what’s been done, what is helpful, how it works in real life, in my real life. My current plan is to read a lot, to do experiments with popular stuff-management approaches, to write a mix of personal essays, notes on history and culture, and a bunch of letters to my stuff, and hopefully write a few songs on the nature of glow sticks and Chuck E. Cheese.  I want to shine a light on good alternatives and help you to see more beauty and feel more connection to the world through stuff, but less of it.


I am really excited about this project and I think it is going to be a lot of fun. I also think – I hope – that it can be healing, because the guilty feeling, and occasional paralysis, that accompanies your choices is weighing you down to the ground. Because you don’t want to spend all of your time organizing, curating, making decisions about all of the STUFF that surrounds you, but the indecision, lack of clarity, and conflicted values that all the stuff represents is draining your life energy.

So I’m going to chat with you about it, to help you laugh about it and think about it in new ways. I’m not going to get too heavy, focusing on harm and doom. You can trust me, because I understand a lot about harm and doom, I promise to be a thoughtful and thorough advisor. But I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of what is hurting the world and how. I’m going to talk about how we can protect and restore and nourish and love through more connection, not more information. I will be an understanding friend, not a purveyor of judgement, I will talk in real language about real life and not an idealized, spiritual nirvana.

So that’s the plan. I figured December is the most Stuffed month of the year, a perfect time to announce my intentions.

Sign up for updates to learn more about this project (and my others) and to learn with me as I go.

Announcing: The 100 Rejections Project

Announcing: The 100 Rejections Project

The plan: I am setting out to collect 100 rejections.

Timeline: We have to be flexible in life but I’m thinking four years which equals about two submissions per month.

Parameters: I have to submit the best work that I can*, the objective is to have my work accepted. By celebrating each rejection, it makes it easier to try, it adds a fun element to the trying, there is victory in defeat, which isn’t even really defeat but a stepping stone to the next thing, a way of learning, and so much better than just sitting here wishing.

* With respect to the best work I can, I can’t just sit on something for three years because maybe I can make it better someday. I have to finish a piece to the best of my ability and send it off. Not all of the perfectionism(ing).

Types of submissions: I have written pieces in mind. But I will be flexible. Anything that I am willing to put myself out there for and risk being rejected can count as a rejection. So, once my book is ready, if I go to a local bookstore and ask them if I can do a reading and they say no, that’s one rejection. So it is feasible that I could get to 100 a lot faster than four years.

When will I start? Well, truth be told I’ve already started. I submitted my first piece, a poem, to The New Yorker in October. I sent it off and felt very excited, immediately, about getting my very first rejection, and it being from The New Yorker. I am looking forward to printing that email and putting it into the empty spot on my wall where right now there are no rejections because I have never submitted my writing to anyone for publication. Not true. I had a poem published in junior high. I also had a few poems published in high school. The junior high poem, about cats, was cute. The high school poems were embarrassing, not because they were bad (they were) but because they were thoughtless, insensitive, just flexing my clever muscles and nothing else. I have had other writing published, but always because I was employed by a company to write something for their in-house publication.

How will I track it? You know that I already have a spreadsheet.

What will change between now and the one hundredth rejection? I don’t know. I’m excited to see.

Can I submit the same rejected piece to a new place? Huh, I hadn’t thought of that one. Seems like I could get to 100 pretty quickly in that case. I was thinking I’d have to write at least 100 different things but of course that isn’t true. If I wrote just one mediocre thing and submitted it to 100 places that would do the trick. Well, let’s stick with 100. It’s a nice-sounding number. If I get to 100 and haven’t learned something interesting then we can make it the 1,000 rejections project, or some other number like Charles Dickens’ birthday or something. Okay, I just googled E.B. White’s birthday, July 11. So if 100 turns out to be a cinch then maybe we’ll go for 711. But perhaps we should just get started?

Most publications don’t accept submissions that have been previously posted (even to little-known blogs) so I cannot share my submissions here. But any published work I will certainly celebrate (possibly even more than I celebrate each accumulated rejection) and will of course share with my devoted readers as soon as they are available to share.

I think that covers it.



Four years

It’s been four years, and a few days, since my soon-to-be published book, unimagined at the time, began. Five months since I lost my 50,000 words, folded up my checklists, became a routine coffee drinker, and started taking a closer look at what I’ve made, what I’ve promised (to you and to me), what I’ve learned, and what is next.

When I started to blog in November 2014 it was the only feasible creative outlet that I could imagine. It was something I did on the side, in tiny pockets of time that felt borrowed from other responsibilities, slightly embarrassed, apologetically—an experiment. Starting the novel, and devoting significantly more time to writing, though still very much on the side of the other responsibilities, still a guilty pleasure, was another experiment. Can I do it? What will it be like? But after all the experiments, failed, embarrassing, or otherwise, documented in these pages, I find that I can no longer imagine a life where I do not write.

So many of the pieces I have written have changed me, the way I see life and myself. I can recognize, now, what is my voice and what is not my voice, when I am saying the things I have heard and when I am saying something I feel to be true. I have felt a connection to something outside of my own mind that if I open to it will move through my hand onto a page. It frequently does not feel comfortable, but sometimes it can feel like witnessing a miracle. 

It has been interesting to watch the process where my mind recognizes something new: I don’t need an empty notebook. I’m not an empty notebook. Integrating a new understanding into how I live my life, watching how that changes interactions, or my feelings about myself…Well, I can’t say for everybody but for me it takes a while and I’m learning to be kind to myself: Remember? You’re a dog-eared notebook. It’s cool.

The would-be break-in piece, written in October 2016 but never published on the blog, marked a big shift for me, in life and in writing. I can see that now, but I didn’t know it then. I think the ideas in Lemon vs. Knope were also very important: stop focusing on your foibles and flaws as the most interesting things about you, embrace your inner Knope—it is okay to express love, enthusiasm, and not just for things that don’t really matter, like hot dogs. 

Writing the Happy Atmosphere Challenge was also important (if overwhelming), and that experiment will certainly inform my future work. I learned that motivating to do less bad feels very different from motivating to do more good. I am loathe to make any promises here, having seen so many in these pages that are still not fulfilled, but I think it is safe to say that you will be reading more about Do More Good in the near future (or at least safe to say I will be writing about it). Writing Happy Atmosphere also started me down the path of learning something else I want to think/write/share more about soon. The Challenge is filled with SO MANY THINGS to think about, to measure yourself against, to monitor. Maybe it feels good to have a large menu of possibilities. Or maybe it is better to say, hey, change these three things, they make the biggest difference, and then live your life where you are, be flexible, relax. I haven’t written this one yet, but I look forward to learning this lesson.

The piece called Piggly Wiggly, and more pieces where I consider race and my southern heritage, were things that I wrote about but never published to the blog. The Piggly Wiggly piece was a draft in August 2017, right after the violence in Charlottesville, and a reasonable amount of the thinking, and the conclusion, were done more recently. I don’t feel qualified to write about this. I don’t feel free to write about this. I feel scared to write about this. But the conclusion of that piece changed me. I thought I had loved people, but after revisiting, editing, and considering this piece, I don’t know that “love” is the right word. I had loved in a child-like way. But now I am an adult. I think love is more active, more interested.

Feminism, Me Too. I have written a lot about this and unlike Piggly Wiggly not a single one of these pieces has made it into this book (well, maybe that one bit about the patriarchy). There is so much to be said, and so much feeling and anger circling this topic. I haven’t wanted to get involved in the middle of that. But I do have a perspective, and writing, even what I have not shared, has helped me. I’d like to share. I think I will.

Basic Training. I don’t know if I would have managed to write the things I did, to grow in the way that I did, without Basic Training. When I am hardly drinking alcohol, eating very little refined sugar, not on Facebook/playing iPad games that surge my neurochemicals, I’m energized, mostly positive in outlook, patient, and many other things that I like to be. Add meditation and eating veggies with some regularity and I’m positively pleasant to be around. But there is a fear that goes along with all of this normalcy. What if I can’t keep it up? What if I get back in the bad place? So my flexibility dries up. I am steady, but possibly less joyful. Basic Training was a huge benefit because I got to see the balance that could come from some different, regular habits and I could assess which ones were most helpful. I needed that. But I don’t have to LIVE there. I want to learn to walk the line of moderation. Enjoying things, but not overmuch, eating cheese and knowing that it will be okay, skipping a week of meditating and then starting again, living in the flow of life. But I think it’s important for me to have some basic guidelines and principles and to know that, if I want to do the work that matters to me in the world, if I want to be awake to life as it is today, if I want to have experiences with my kids where I share my spark with them, I need to mostly moderate. Checklists can work for me. Checklists with love and flexibility.

Bono. I think this is the best piece I’ve written to date. I don’t know how other writers work, but what I like about the act of writing, and about my writing in particular, is that I’m not out to teach you something, I don’t have an ending that I’m trying to convey, I’m not trying to convince or persuade. I’m trying to understand something myself and sharing my questions and the answers that I find, that are in process. The exercise of writing this piece was truly transformational for me, for my understanding of myself and of life.

Eating and other problems. I know this one is heavy, and incomplete. But I’ve included it in the book because, again, the process of putting this down on paper totally shifted my perspective. For twenty years, instead of singing a lovesong to my home, instead of embracing, and celebrating, and shining a light on beauty and connection, I have fretted about tablecloths. I have seen life as damage. Hard to write, hard to read, possibly confusing out of context here. When I read these words back to myself, it kind of knocked me over, imagining myself as my own child, learning about how people live on the earth, our relationship to it. I guess I will spend a lifetime figuring this out, but it has stayed with me every day since writing it. I want to sing a lovesong to the world, I want to know what I mean by that. This feels like it has become a basis for what comes next.

And what about Jenny? I thought Jenny Goodguts was separate from me. An ideal—a superhero—that I aspired to be closer to, more like. Someone who always knew the healthy choice, someone who held me accountable to being my best self. I felt that I could never quite meet her expectations, and I felt a growing frustration with her inflexibility, with her constant judgment of my behavior. I felt she was watching me, saying: you’ll never reach your potential if you keep not following my advice, if you keep falling short, if you keep slipping. But Jenny Goodguts never said those things.

I thought that Jenny Goodguts was the me I could become if I could get my act together, fix all my habits, make a plan. I was wrong though. I tried to send Jenny away, but I don’t want her to go away. Because she’s me—I’m her, of course. The person who knew to tape the quarter up on the kitchen wall, to make a game, that was me. Was the same me that sometimes raises my voice and feels bad, or who is sitting here in a magenta hoody sweatshirt having eaten no breakfast, face unwashed, typing these words to you. I don’t need to be more like a superhero, I just need to be quiet, and still, and listen to the voice inside, to love her, to give her some space, to do my best. I still love Jenny Goodguts, who was never a superhero, who never expected me to be either, who just wanted me to be myself. I’m not sending her away, but I’m taking off the mask and the cape that I thought she needed to wear, handing them back to Control-o, the dark vixen of constriction who keeps us small by making us feel like not good enough. Together, Jenny and I, who is just me and my soul, can notice, maybe even laugh, when Control-o is up to her usual tricks.


Four years ago, on the day I blogged about my pants and began the journey that would lead to this book, I had a skill—I could organize words into a logical, frequently pleasing or amusing, arrangment. I could take the words and the thoughts around me and I could reflect them back. I could translate the things I heard people saying into a comfortable language for my handful of readers. But something was knocking. I knew I was missing something. Oh, I thought, maybe I need to organize x or y, maybe I need to change p or q, maybe if I can fix myself somehow, if I can fix something about the world, crumbling around me, then the knocking will stop, I will find some peace.

When I started writing what would become this book, I had vocabulary, and structure, rhythm and a backpack of life experience. But I had not learned how to listen. How to pay attention. How to be open, to be brave enough, to say something new, something that I hadn’t heard before.

Learning to look and to listen will change you. Except you don’t need to be changed. It will open you to what is true and real and beautiful. It will connect you to the light inside yourself and the light inside of others. Four years, and all of these words later, I will say: It is worth the time.

the beginning

Note: I have been advised that this might make more sense to readers with a tiny bit of background. First, hopefully it will be obvious but this is fiction. My real sister was not actually punished by Hera, as far as we know. It may help readers to be reminded of the Greek myth of Echo, the mountain nymph who had her voice taken away by Hera, as a punishment for her long-winded stories (and, more specifically, for not exposing the whereabouts of Zeus), and afterwards could only repeat what she heard others say. Echo fell in love with Narcissus, who fell in love with his reflection in a pond and then turned into a flower, and afterwards Echo faded to nothing but a sound. So, without further ado…


My sister was a shadow. Her skin no longer felt the brush of wind. She had become the breeze.

I never met her. But my first stories held her transgression. Conveyed her punishment. Her suffering.

Zeus, King of the Gods, sought my cousins. He loved their strong, laughing bodies. Their husky, smooth songs. Their sharp, glittering eyes. He followed them, hungry, into the mountains, into the rivers, blue-green, teeming with life. His sister-wife, Hera, came looking for him – Hera, older than Zeus, tricked into being Queen of the Gods. Trapped into a life she had not asked for, Hera asked my sister for an answer my sister had been forbidden to give.

Where is Zeus? she asked.

I was told that Hera was jealous, vengeful and my sister verbose. Both of these – crimes. My sister, with her long, rambling stories and beautiful voice, keeping secrets from the Queen of the Gods. Hera, in her rage with her brother-husband, the one who had hung her from the stars, stole my sister’s voice. Cursed my sister so that she could no longer share her own words but only repeat those of another. My sister who fell in love with a flower, her beautiful body withered, her bones become rock.

I listened carefully to my mother, to my cousins. I was a quick study. I had my sister’s way with words, her lovely voice. And I knew these things were a danger to me. I knew to speak these words, to use this voice, could lead to losing everything: My very body, the feeling of waves washing over me, the taste of a ripe peach. I learned to give Hera what she demanded: A dutiful echo.

But I was plagued by dreams. I woke up, sweating, in the night. Hera beside me, I cowered. I have done what you wish. I have said nothing but what I have heard from others. Please, spare me. Too afraid to look in her eyes, I looked away. From the Queen of the Gods I heard the sound of ancient tears. I turned and saw deep grooves, canyons, where sorrow had carved a centuries-long path.

With a weary tenderness she spoke. I am blamed, but he had already robbed her when he forbade her to speak the truth. I only made obvious what was already so.
I don’t want to become a shadow.
An echo is already a shadow.
But I can feel the wind. I can taste a peach.
Can you?
I’m afraid, I said. I don’t want to lose everything. They said I would lose everything.
And Artemis the hunter and Athena the wise warrior were there. Aphrodite. We are with you. I slept fitfully.

Sunlight. I am breathing, alone in my room. I whisper the truth. I am awake. It is morning. Nothing happens. Birdsong.

I pull back the covers, my feet touch the ground. I look in the mirror, speaking slowly. I am strong. Dust dances in a beam of light. Nothing happens.

I walk outside, the symphony of limbs, light and dark, warm, cool. She was forbidden to speak the truth. I speak this to the trees, to the sky. I say it clearly. Repeat it. Nothing happens. The branches do not seem to mind.

My legs start to move, before I know where I am going. I am walking, running. My lungs are filling with air, reaching for more air, not enough air. I am afraid I will run out of air before I get where I am going. But there is Theia, the shining light, mother of the sun, the moon, the dawn — my lungs are renewed. And the Muses, dancing with Apollo — more breath. And then I see Alice Walker up ahead with a bag of air. And E.B. White? There is so much air, I am full, to the brim, of all the air I need and I’m running, flying until I reach the cave.

I stand outside, looking into its depths. I gather my strength and with all of the breath left to me I call, sending my words as far into the recesses as they will go: He is here. I hear my sister’s voice calling back: He is here – here – ere. I feel the sun on my arms, a swirl of wind. Birdsong. And my sister, blinking, steps out of the cave.

My sister became a shadow. But I am not. I have hands and a tongue and a still-beating heart. I am afraid. I am alive.

the end

I feel like I’m letting you down. Like you’ve read this far, waiting to see how it turns out, what words of wisdom, big statements about LIFE, I might be able to elucidate in exchange for the time you’ve invested. But I have been thinking and writing and writing and thinking and talking and reading and re-reading and wanting to make proclamations and they are just not there.

Something has changed. It feels like a good change. But I can’t exactly tell you what it is. As far as I can make out, there isn’t a replicable secret formula. And anyway, if you took the same path as me, or changed the same things as I did, it wouldn’t turn out the same way for you. Even if I did the exact same things over again, but started today, it would turn out differently. That’s the magic and mystery of being alive I guess.

I’m drinking coffee again. For breakfast and again at noon. Four ounces of coffee, with about an ounce of heavy cream and three ounces of foamed milk. I whisper, wickedly and with longing, to the coffee grinder each night before bed See you in the morning my friend. I look forward to noon when the volume of coffee decreases and the volume of cream makes the difference to fill the cup. For the past few weeks coffee has been the majority of my breakfast. Then I’ll have the second cup at noon. Then I will grab a snack-sized bag of Trader Joe’s Kettle Cooked Potato Chips (sea salt) and eat them in the car on my way to pick up the kids at 2:30 or so. The bag is always empty too soon and then I am hungry and grumpy when the kids get in the car, exhausted from a day at camp and grumpy about their own things. We muddle through the afternoon. If Dave is in town we eat something healthy for dinner. If he is not we have fried chicken or pizza or some combination of wheat and dairy, heavy on the dairy. As I write this I am eating a pack of Lance Toast Chee Sandwich Crackers (peanut butter flavor).

I have not meditated since May 15. I specifically remember thinking about meditating, probably on May 16, and deciding that I did not have a lot of available time and that I wanted to get some writing done so I chose to write instead of meditate and here it is two months later.

I have been on my computer after 9 pm almost every night this week, almost every night since I lost my 50,000 words. Usually until about 11 pm, then I sleep (not especially deeply) and then I wake up, tired, my skin a bit less dewy than usual, maybe a random break-out on my neck or some extra lines particularly around my top lip that I think are due to dehydration more than anything else.

I have not danced (except for drunkenly once at 4 am to four songs, including Toto’s “Africa” twice, during my 20-year college reunion), I have not attended an exercise class, I have not spent ten minutes playing an instrument, I have not taken my supplements, I have not eaten any cultured food, I have not been out of bed by 6:30 once. I have been working in my garden at least, to water the grass since we have had no rain for three weeks, so there’s that.

And I played the iPad game last week. Only very briefly. I also ate about half a bag of cheese curls past 7 pm.

Jenny Goodguts went on sabbatical and – poof! – everything she taught me seems to have disappeared.

This is not a momentary blip as I mourn my lost words. The change started before then. Here’s what happened: the one-year anniversary of the launch of the Adventures with Jenny Goodguts blog was fast approaching and I was writing a post to celebrate the year, to reflect, as I am wont to do.

I sat down one morning to finish the one-year piece — it was nearly done but something didn’t feel quite right. I opened a new, blank document and this swarm of words that had been bumping around in my brain for a few weeks flowed, erupted, out onto the page. I looked at what I had written, about my time in India, in Africa, my struggle to live life in America after that, and saw that I had written something true: My words, the ones I keep to myself, the ones I don’t share at the block party or the playground, the things I really feel.

I felt like laugh-crying, and then I started thinking about the Greek story of Echo, who could only repeat the words of others (more on that to come), and I was nervous to share, as always, but I did share, as I do frequently, but not always, and I felt… I felt powerful. I felt that I had said something that was important for me and that I had said it in a way that was authentic, that got at the heart of something that hadn’t been clear in my own mind, hadn’t been acknowledged, until I read my own words.

I still wanted to do the anniversary piece, mostly to say thanks to my readers, because I don’t think I would have grown in the same way without your encouragement. But, as I was writing what was meant to be a thank-you letter, I realized that Jenny Goodguts needed to go. It wasn’t really a planned thing. It sort of wrote itself.

After writing those two pieces, I knew something had changed for me. I felt I had come to a new jumping-off place. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was that I was jumping, but I felt energized, strong, focused, ready (mostly, or significantly more than I had felt before — who ever really feels ready?).

And then I lost my words. Fifty thousand words of my 80,000-word novel – poof! I have consulted with former and current CIA and NSA staffers and unfortunately there is nothing more to be done.

While waiting to see if the novel was recoverable, I decided to more seriously consider compiling my past four years of blogging into a book, adding a few bits that were not published on the blog for one reason or another. I’ve re-read all of my written thoughts from the day I wrote about my pants before deciding to start the Jenaissance blog in November 2014, to when I left my job and stumbled through building a life structure as someone whose structure had been defined by externals for almost forty years and suddenly is not. Reviewing and remembering has been a frequently enjoyable and seriously sobering journey. Oh, there I am confused about life again. And there I am making another checklist! Oh, look, there I am promising to deliver something else that I never finished. And of course now there is the novel, the one project I felt I was undertaking with a reasonable amount of focus and discipline, and two-thirds is now bytes in the wind.

This walk down memory lane, in combination with recent adjustments to my daily habits, has led to some further introspection about sending Jenny away. What could I have been thinking?

Early on in the life of the Jenaissance blog I wrote down a quote from Walden: “Most men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” I think when I started to blog I thought: My song, still undetermined in nature, is unsung because I’ve been doing something wrong. There are examples, success stories, there are tricks and tips and systems and habits and routines and practices and, if I can figure out the right combination, if I can identify my own little light, work out the most unique, the very specialist contribution I can make – the gift to the world that only I can give – if I can hold myself accountable and keep my eyes on the prize, I will not go to the grave with the song still inside me.

If I can learn to meditate, eat only foods plucked directly from the bosom of the green earth, if I learn patience, develop a healthy daily routine, if I get enough sleep, if people like me, if I have a healthy local network of friends, if I am a supportive wife, if my children play well with others, if I don’t offend anyone but am still honest, if I curate all of my possessions so that each item I encounter fills me with a gratitude and joy in being alive, if I seek out a supportive network of peers who uplift me daily, if I can identify a stepwise path from point a to point z, where each step is individually fulfilling and, taken together, they lead me to my life’s opus, a perfect match of my skills and passion, I will have earned the privilege of not going to the grave with the song still inside me.

So I set out to build my extraordinary life. I read books and blogs, I thought about mentors, I evaluated relationships, I analyzed myself, I cleared clutter, I bought magnets.

But of course life is not a road trip where you have a clear and correct map to your chosen destination, hand-select appropriate fellow travelers, purchase the perfect gear, exactly what you need and nothing else.

It’s a random tour bus, rammed full of people, that you are dropped into in the dead of night, heading somewhere but a lot of the signs are written in a language that you can’t understand. You hope there’s a benevolent driver, or at least a thoughtful algorithm — rather than a madman behind the wheel. Everyone has different interpretations of what is happening and what should be done. Some people are dropped in the bus with a bulging wallet, and some people are dropped in the bus addicted to crack. You don’t get to choose which you’ll be. You were assigned a seat next to someone, you didn’t choose that either but you’re stuck together, though later, you do get to change seats and pick a new partner. But you don’t know what’s coming next and you’ve never sat beside them during a hailstorm, so you just pray you made a reasonable choice. On sunny days, when you can open the windows, the breeze feels great. On rainy days the toilet reeks and you wish you were sitting closer to the front. You aren’t all heading to the same place and you don’t all see things the same way. But there’s just one bus.

You are unique. But your uniqueness isn’t something inside you that is precious and hidden. Your uniqueness is how you treat others on the bus, and whether you share the song or keep it to yourself.

I have been hung up in wondering for a lifetime now, what is “my” song? How can I sing it? But there is no “my” song. I don’t have a song without the rest of the world. The song is being part of the world-song, seeing the world, the imperfect, beautiful world and sharing what you can do, what is possible for you – today – not in your mind’s eye when you finally have the skills or the network or the whatever. You see the world that is, know you are part of the flow of life, of life and a world that is not in your control, you look for where you can shine a light, today, and you shine it. As brightly as you can.

You can’t sing the song by humming silently in your own head day after day. Making sure you have mastered every note combination so that, no matter what happens, you’ll be ready. You can’t wait until you are so well prepared that there’s guaranteed success. A guarantee that you won’t feel embarrassed. A guarantee that you won’t feel scared. The tour bus doesn’t offer guarantees. Not for anyone. And it is never predictable. No matter how thick the walls of your bubble, you’re on the bus with everyone else and it can bump over a pothole at any point. No checklist, no routine can prevent that.

You don’t need to change your life, fix your life, evaluate your life in order to sing the song. You don’t need a perfect set of habits or a bulletproof routine. I love my checklists, and I’m sure when it feels like life allows it, I will get back to many of my habits. But I’ve been writing for nine hours each day for two weeks straight on coffee and potato chips. I don’t have to wait until everything feels right, and ready, and safe.

What I have to do is to acknowledge the uncertainty, the fear (I don’t know where this bus is going) — to feel the love — and then to sing. Out loud.

To close your eyes, to feel your heart beating, to breathe in and to sing — out loud — and listen to hear the world sing back.

365 days

Adventures with Jenny Goodguts is my fourth blog. My first, Cheapa$$ Jen, begun in 2001, now exists as a few printed sheets in a file in my basement. My second foray, 75 Small Steps for Change, circa 2008, now mysteriously lives on Causes.com — I stopped writing after only 20 small steps, not able to keep up the pace of the one post a day that I had planned. My third attempt, Jenaissance, begun in November 2014, lasted for 2.5 years with periods of intense activity and months of silence. The Jenaissance blog had no organizing principle, other than the survival of my soul — it was a matter of writing something somewhere for someone. Jenaissance still lives on the Internet, but no new posts have been added since the beginning of Jenny G. And here we are, one year into blog number four.

It is strange to think that it has only been a year. 365 days. I think back over the year, what has happened, what has been accomplished, what is different. We have a new sofa. I meditate now, sometimes. I’ve written just about 80,000 words of what was originally planned as an 80,000-word novel. And I think, sometimes, that I’ve learned how to hear my own voice.

Please remember, when we first met Jenny Goodguts, I (Jennifer, an aspiring super-ish hero) had been struggling for some months with a debilitating addiction to farm-building games on the iPad. I had been told that my guts were hosting no flora save for a vast colony of E. coli. My body was in pain from the repetitive strain of the iPad. Donald Trump had recently concluded his first hundred days as President of our once illustrious nation. I was watching too much news. I was scared, I felt lost, and I was way down depressed.

For the sake of clarification, as this has never been made clear, Jenny Goodguts is not the authoress of this blog. I, Jennifer, am the author. Jenny Goodguts is the super hero — the alter ego who lives in my imagination. She’s the one who knows what to do, who is full of plans and ideas for how I should act — for good. If I’m not taking my vitamins, she helps me make a checklist. If meditation would be good for me, she helps me make a checklist (It turns out Jenny is a big fan of the checklist.) Jenny is that voice in my head that whispers that there’s always something I can do to make things better. Who reminds me that I have the strength to do what needs to be done. Who helps me make a plan when the chips are down.

Jenny is the one who told me to tape the lucky quarter from the Trader Joe’s parking lot onto my kitchen wall and reminded me that I would lose 25 days of good luck if I played that damn game one single time. And she was right. I stopped playing the game. I ate some sauerkraut. And life changed.

I once wrote that Jenny Goodguts saved my life. Saved was/is too strong a word. I wrote that to get your attention I guess. Now I feel like it sounds a bit overly dramatic. I would have gone on living, and things would have happened, good and bad. But starting this blog I feel has changed the trajectory of my life. Why do I say that? What do I mean?

What started out as an idea of sharing games, quests, adventures has, yet again, turned into an outlet for me to say whatever I want about whatever I want to whoever is reading. Except.

Except with this blog I figured out how to send each post as an email, automatically. There’s no choice, no planning involved. I write. I hit publish. My words magically appear in inboxes around the world.

And people subscribed. Not a lot of people. Some people I thought would subscribe, just to be nice, did not. And other people, who I would not have expected to subscribe, did. You did.

And not only did you subscribe, but you read and you kept reading and you said things like: that post really spoke to me or that post helped me or even have you thought about stand-up comedy?. One note, seven words, from one person on one day. It makes a difference.

There have been artists throughout history who have been so certain, so clear in their vision, that against all odds, against all criticism, they have gone on to make their thing and we celebrate them today. I’m not that type though. I am brave. I have done things, and tried things, that some others would not have done or tried. But I needed you. To read, to react, to nudge, to support, to appreciate, to notice. And your eight words here, your comment there, were enough. I felt brave enough to try new things. I felt safe enough to be real, to not hide behind cutesy attitudes and tired figures of speech.

And here I am on the other side. With this year behind me and however many more to come. My voice feels clearer to me and more authentic and I look back on the words I’ve written here — to you — and I feel like I’ve made something that I want to make. I’ve said something that I want to say. I’ve found something that I wanted to find.


I think it is correct to say that when I started this blog I imagined that I had it in me to write. I thought, I have had some interesting experiences, or more that I have had an unusual constellation of experiences. And I also thought that I had the ability to share the perspective derived from those experiences through writing. And that doing so would bring me some pleasure.

If I’m being totally, completely honest, I also thought that the world was/is full of huge daunting problems and that maybe I could do something, some small thing, to change minds, or to propose solutions, or to make personal change fun. I think I thought I was going to make games and challenges that in their way, small or large, would help people “do the right thing”. Help us all be a little more super.

Did I want my writing to save the world? I think I could only give myself permission to write if there was some small chance that it might. I felt that my obligation was to exchange my life energy to help stop the damage, or to compensate for my share of damage, my accumulated share going back generations, that was the only arithmetic that seemed defensible. If I get to be alive, here, in these circumstances, there is a debt to be paid.  I think that was the deep down truth.

After 365 days, I have a different view.

After 365 days, today, I will sit down with my friend, Jenny Goodguts, who set me on a path that changed my life. And I will tell her this:

My dear, beloved, Jenny Goodguts, thank you for always being there, for your dedication, your persistence, your frightening ability to organize, your compulsive lists. Thank you for not giving up and for helping me when I needed you. That idea, about taping the lucky quarter to the kitchen wall, was invaluable to me and it turned out to be the oar I needed to get back to shore.

But Jenny, I’m not so sure anymore about this theme song business, all this aspiring, or the obligation of my one life to make everything right.

You, Jenny, have so many ideas about how to fix things, ideas about what is right or wrong, good or bad. Ideas about how the world could be different. But an alternative world, just like you Jenny Goodguts, is not real. And I am determined – determined – to love this real world. And its real people, every single one a wabi-sabi bowl, broken, chipped, glued together. Every single one.

Do you know what I’d like to do Jenny? I’d like to be awake in this real world, be myself, and I’d like to tell some stories. I think we could all use some new stories and I think I have some inside me. But, to do that, it turns out I don’t need to be a superhero. And it turns out I don’t think what people need is fixing. My own Jenny, I love you, but I’m not on the path to super-ish anymore.

And Jenny, who is not real of course, will scrunch up her face and look at me oddly. She’ll blink a few times and kind of curve her eyebrows like she’s really disappointed in me. I’ll look down because I’m a little embarrassed, but I won’t change my mind. After a minute, she’ll say back to me:

Jennifer (she won’t say darling Jennifer, because she’s a superhero), you are real. And, try as I might, you still have not developed the rigid discipline, the focus at all costs, the regular exercise habit needed to save the world. I know sometimes you feel confused. Sometimes you feel — inadequate.

She’ll pause for a minute, considering something, then continue: You know, I have a lot of systems. A lot of information. You have a lot of empathy, compassion. Maybe it’s not inadequacy, maybe its love that allows you to show people what’s behind the curtain, just in case it helps. Just in case that’s what they needed.

She’ll pause again, and she’ll say, a bit more quietly this time: Maybe what people need most isn’t another list. I guess… (and then she’ll start to slightly nod her head, up and down) you should keep being… real. (Now she looks me straight in the eye) And try not to be scared. To be honest, I’m a little tired myself always devising these checklists and spreadsheets. If you’re sure about this stories thing, maybe it is time that I put away my mask and my cape and learn to live with some clutter and eat chocolate soufflé and sit outside, just my own two arms, my own two legs, my face, sit them outside feeling the wind and not try to fix anything for a little while. Just be.

Maybe, Jennifer, eventually, we can both learn to sing that lovesong to the world.


There is still work to be done. There are good guys to help, banks to stop banking with, parabens to outwit. I’ve been around for what is scootching closer and closer to half a century and I am darned sure that even if Jenny takes a break she isn’t going to let me forget about all of this. I can’t unlearn and I don’t guess I would want to.

But on the one year anniversary of the launch of this blog I am announcing, I am proclaiming, that while Jenny Goodguts might have had some great checklists to share, while she could put together a kick-ass resource list, while she really knew how to organize activities, she’s on a sabbatical of undetermined length.

I don’t feel like being super, I feel like being real. And I feel brave enough to be real thanks to you.

Eating and other problems

When I was 22, I lived for a short time with a family of four above a butcher shop in the middle of Delhi. I remember that you couldn’t see the stars there, the sky was too thick with exhaust. Just after arriving on the plane, and before meeting this family, I had used a pair of scissors in a hostel bathroom to cut off all of my hair. Most people shave their head with an electric razor, giving it a somewhat even appearance, assuming one has a somewhat evenly shaped head. But I didn’t have access to such a device. I had, the month before, cut my hair boy-short, but now it needed to come off, all off, urgently I guess.

I wonder what that family thought about an American girl with the privilege of traveling across the world who had apparently had her hair forcibly removed, gashes of scalp showing here and there. They certainly were not particularly warm towards me.

The butcher shops in Delhi did not have a refrigerated meat counter with carefully arranged steaks and chops, pink, just-ground chuck, little packets of breasts and wings wrapped tightly in plastic. They had animal carcasses, skinned and hanging from hooks, in the air, bloody, right there in the street as you walked by. No window, separating meat from passer-by. I remember the overly rich smell, and the strong scent of iron. I remember the flies. I would walk past the shops on my way to hail a rickshaw to take me to class where a holy man dressed in all orange taught me that every grain of rice is sacred. That he is always careful never to step on an ant. This was not a hallucination. Though, all these years later, it seems like it could be.

In my class, we visited a village. I use the word village so that you will understand it was an organization of people in a centralized place. The children had those puffy bellies that you used to see on commercials asking you for just the price of a cup of coffee a day. I remember someone pulled down a child’s lower eyelid so we could see evidence of some parasite or disease, like the kid was a mannequin. These people had been living somewhere else but that place had been flooded to make a hydropower dam to generate electricity, so they had been sent here instead but apparently here was worse than there. That was the story anyway. I didn’t ask if they would have had parasites and swollen bellies had they stayed where they were. I just took away the intended lesson: The path of progress is deadly and its victims are innocent babes. Or maybe: hydropower electricity is used by bad guys to make money and here we see the victims of their greed.

A few years later, I went to Africa for the first time. My assignment was to coordinate a group of scientists to survey a few of the remaining forest patches left in the southeastern corner of Guinea, a tiny country on the coast of West Africa. A mining company was very interested in the iron ore found in the Simandou range of mountains and we were to document any particularly interesting or important ecological information to make sure they didn’t do too much damage, kill chimps or wipe out the whole population of a group of toads that live nowhere else on earth.

Driving across Guinea for two days—there had been a recent coup in the Ivory Coast so we could not approach from that direction as intended—there didn’t seem to be very much ‘pristine’ nature left. We arrived at the Pic de Fon, the peak of the mountain we were to survey, in the dark, in the rain, in four Guinean 4x4s laden with our equipment and we tried to drive up steep mining tracks, red with iron dust. That same iron I had smelled in Delhi, veins of it running thick and deep under my feet.

That was my first month in a tent in West Africa. I held an olive sunbird in my hand, hiked 17 kilometers to see chimpanzee nests and find evidence (some cracked nuts) of their feeding. I learned how to look for tree frogs and shrews, I pet bats, looked for pygmy hippos, unwittingly stepped in piles of driver ants, bathed in a river, woke up each morning to birdsong, fell asleep each night to frogsong and sometimes to the sound of rain on a tent.

Today, a mother of two, I live in a suburb outside of Washington, DC, pretty close to the Pentagon. My street is full of lawyers, Hill-workers, secret service agents, and folks who are in/closely related to the US military. And us, some tree-hugging hippies with a dirty compost pile in the front yard. People are nice enough to us though I’m never sure what they really think about my random vegetable garden in the one sunny-enough spot right next to the street, my let-it-live approach to clover and dandelions.

Tuesday morning is trash day in my neighborhood. Everyone has one large bin for trash and one large bin for recycling. I drive down the street in the morning before the trucks arrive to cart it all “away” and it seems that every trash can at every house is overflowing. This is one street. I don’t dare do the math.

I came back from India with a lot of information. A lot of pictures in my head and a lot of words, explanations. I knew that families were being displaced, towns being flooded, I knew that children were filtering green-revolution chemicals out of their drinking water using their t-shirts, I knew that invisible gases were changing the climate, I knew that Coca-Cola was everywhere.

To provide one example of the messages I internalized via my global education, let’s consider food: To make the food, you start with some cleared land (so first you have deforestation or maybe just land degradation). This land is intensely irrigated (taking water from someone) and heavily fertilized (contributing to climate change and requiring mining for petrochemicals). Next the requisite herbicides/insecticides are applied (poisoning the water supply, killing pollinators, decreasing biodiversity). In the case of plants (or animal feed), multinational corporations sell seeds that can only be grown with patented chemicals to a poor farmer who has no choice but to buy the seeds and chemicals, his family gets poisoned by the chemicals and still has to borrow money the next year to buy more seeds and chemicals (incidentally, if you meet this farmer he is a very nice guy and his kids have beautiful hearts that burst right out through their eyes, they just have to drink chemical backwash is all). Once he sells his meager crop for nothing to a crop distributor, they store it (invisible gases into the air, refrigerant chemicals, pesticides killing more pollinators and infusing food supply), package it (solid waste) and ship it (more invisible gases into the air). It then goes to trucks or trains (more invisible gases), gets sent to a factory to be turned into something (water pollution, invisible gases) that no longer looks like a plant or animal (poor health outcomes, obesity), packaged further (plastics, solid waste), shipped again to a store (more gases, asphalt damage, car accidents), stored there (energy from cooling, energy from lighting, energy from people driving to store, deforestation for making bags, energy for shopkeepers to drive to store, petrochemicals for cashier’s lipstick), some proportion of that goes straight to landfill because of sell-by dates (methane, waste of life energy) and some goes to someone’s house to be refused by her five-year-old because he had cupcakes six times at school that week (future me editorializing).

I think the lesson was supposed to be that I needed to plant an apple tree and barter with my neighbor who had chickens.

Coming back from this experience, this “education,” my most immediate problem was what to eat. With every bite, I was hurting something. Every spoonful a ladle of misery. Animals were suffering in appalling conditions, people were losing homes, the shroud around the planet was thickening, the rivers were silting, the fish were growing extra eyeballs. All because I wanted some breakfast.

I just wanted some breakfast.

I remember a trip with my mom and my younger sister. We were taking her to summer camp. I think she needed some batteries so we stopped at a Walmart on the way. I remember studying the carts there. I had been taught that Walmart was destroying the earth, killing communities. But in the store I saw people with lives and wishes, just people, buying the things they felt they needed. And I looked in the carts. Diet Coke by the cartload. In my memory, the bulk of what was in those carts was soft drinks. I walked back to the car, stony faced, silent. Crying turned laughing turned sobbing—I could not reconcile what I had seen, what I had felt—over there— with what I was seeing and feeling now.

I imagined an international tribunal, some kind of court of inalienable human rights, weighing the right of a child to not grow up in a dried out riverbed filled with literal trash versus my right to have six diet Cokes a day. I know it is a totally ridiculous thought experiment. Candy apples to rotten, worm-infested oranges shipped from Mars. Not real. But these were the kinds of calculations my mind was making. Every day. About every thing.

And then I went to Africa where I met a mountain covered with tree frogs and sunbirds. Again, I returned home to the land of warm showers and dishwashers and cheese anytime you want it. Water from a tap. A land where my car, my pots, the train, my office, my spoon were made from iron cut out of mountains just like the one I loved.

When I see a Halloween-themed tablecloth, I feel sadness. I feel that something sacred has been rended from deep in the earth and transformed into a macabre festival of disconnected, unintended, destruction. You’re just trying to make something nice and festive, I understand.

If a lion does not eat, he will die. If a lion does eat, something else will die. To remain alive, you have to fill your body with energy from the sun, and you can’t photosynthesize. You have to protect yourself from the elements, and you can only grow so much hair in so many places. And you have to be able to breathe.

I don’t know if I can ever make peace with that Halloween tablecloth. I live here—but I don’t exactly know how to be alive here. I feel so many feelings, a lot of guilt, a lot of anger, a lot of fear. And when I watch the news, or read emails from well-meaning organizations, or look in my mailbox, I find plenty of information, words, images to feed all of these feelings.

I had to leave home to be shown the damage that my life was causing to other lives. To take on the burden of knowing. The internet was brand new, my camera had film, you couldn’t make a video with your phone (plus your phone was attached to the wall of your house in America). But my children, my little ones, five and seven, have not had to leave home to learn these lessons. These lessons are around them every day. In books they read, at school, from my lips. My seven-year-old, who had a lesson in climate change at school last month, asked me why people are hurting the earth, why people do bad things to damage, to injure, Mother Nature.

It is important to have information. It is important to understand unintended consequences and how things are connected. But, at 22, I did not make this world. For 20 years, instead of singing a lovesong to my home, instead of embracing, and celebrating, and shining a light on beauty and connection, I have fretted about tablecloths. I have seen life as damage.

There are problems to solve, shifts to be made. But I know this from experience—you don’t teach a child by calling her bad. You teach a child by wrapping her in your arms. You tell her that people love the Earth and people work hard to take care of it. That people are a force for good. That her life is not a burden, but a gift. That there are things we have not understood but that we are learning all the time, and once we learn then we can figure out how to take better care of our home and of each other.

You hold her close, you feel her warmth, her questioning, her aliveness, her care. You close your eyes. You hope, you pray, that what you are telling her is the truth.

When Bono saved Easter

When Bono saved Easter

I’m cold. Our house is under-insulated and old and it gets damp and I’m frugal/conscious of invisible gases in the sky. I sit with my hoodie hood up or a winter hat on and April starts on Sunday. I look out the window and the world is brown. There are a few blossoms hanging around but with the grey sky, the bare trees, and the mud, the blossoms look like lipstick on a corpse.

A devoted reader who, for the sake of anonymity, I will hereafter refer to as “Granny Goodguts” remarked that it has been a while since my last post. That my readers, given the arrival of spring (somehow this was especially relevant), might appreciate some further thoughts. Granny Goodguts suggested the topic of rebirth: An Easter reflection.

Usually (you may be shocked to learn), I quickly dash off whatever I’m thinking about and publish the post before I lose my nerve. But this request, this assignment, has required a bit more thought, more emotional labor. I have a lot of words, but no clear way to arrange them in my mind. I have cultural norms and childhood teachings all jumbled together and I guess I haven’t been able to hear, or to listen, clearly.

Enter Bono.

After some pondering, and writing words that sounded ok in combination but that didn’t sit right in my guts, my epiphany came only moments after the children requested music during our morning commute. My phone randomly selected U2’s California, Ghostbusters (I ain’t afraid of no ghosts), Second Hand News, King of Pain, Endless Love, and Renegades on the way to school and back. Waiting at the exceptionally long red light, Maggie requested that no one sing so she could listen.

So there we were sitting quietly at the exceptionally long red light and Bono sang:

At the dawn you thought would never come
But it did
Like it always does
All I know
And all I need to know
Is there is no, yeah there is no end to love

That was the moment when it all felt clear to me. I knew what I would come home and write. I might have even gotten a little bit teary, or even just a bit out of my body, unreal for a moment.

But to explain all that, I have to go back, way back, to January 1, 2018.


I am awake, eyes closed in a California king-size bed with one of those super comfortable memory foam mattresses at my friends’ house. I can hear my children running up and down stairs, playing ninja or something else that is satisfyingly gender-inspecific. My husband is up and probably about to enjoy his first cup of coffee in the New Year. We have stayed up late eating fondue with our friends, an annual tradition. We have had more wine than I am used to (these days). We have watched our yearly fill of Ylvis and searched for something else on YouTube that would make us laugh as much but come up empty-handed again and still Ylvis has made nothing new.

I lie in the bed. I hear the sounds. The heater has been on all night so the room is overwarm and the air is dry. I stretch and feel the coolness of the sheets. I wonder if I will have a headache later. I am definitely thirsty. I consider that maybe this is not the best way to begin, this slight dullness, the heaviness from overindulging in bread and cheese, maybe it is not auspicious. But my optimism, or maybe just a survival instinct, kicks in and 2018 again feels precious, like a crisp, empty notebook in September. I think to myself: In 2018, I am kind to others and to myself. In 2018 I tell the truth, or rather, I don’t tell untruths. In 2018, so far, I am patient, I don’t shout or scowl to get my way. I don’t say things I don’t mean. I keep my commitments.

If I’m being honest, that is more of an idealized script. That is what I might think if I hadn’t over-cheesed and drunk wine without counting the number of glasses. What I actually think is more like: It’s a new year and so far you haven’t made any mistakes. You haven’t lost your temper. You haven’t been unsupportive or said anything rude. You haven’t said things you don’t mean. And so far you haven’t gone a single day without washing your face (or insert habit that I’ve struggled with for previous 40 years and still haven’t managed to instill). Then I think something along the lines of: Let’s just try to keep this streak for as long as we can. And I go on to have a few really good days. This little talk I give myself works, if only for a short while.

When asked about rebirth, this scene was what first came to mind. New beginnings. Starting fresh. A second (or fortieth) chance.

January’s possibility infuses me with a pleasant energy, like a small cup of good coffee without sugar, a healthy buzz. I can grow. I can choose. I can set some intentions and make plans. I love to get out empty sheets of paper and write down some things to accomplish (in 2018 I will finish drafting a novel), some practices to make habitual (in 2018 I will meditate 5 days each week), some themes for the year (in 2018 I will “ship my art” or “live like a pro”). I have a whole year ahead of me. A whole unknown year to be lived, a blank notebook to be filled with bold strokes and delight.

February is a bit more ho-hum. Still cold. Someone is probably sick. But the hopefulness, the momentum of January remain. Eleven more months to make this a great year.

Then March hits. Still cold. Someone is probably sick. The end of the school year looms. It is time to plan for summer. Summer? How could it already be time to plan for summer? Once summer comes the year is half gone. How could the year already be half gone? I’m still not living like a pro. I’ve missed a lot of days of meditation. The novel? It’s going to take a bit longer than expected. Probably not THIS year anyway.

Now we get back to where we started. It is the end of March. My hoodie hood covers my ears but my feet and hands are still cold. I have made my plans. I have worked and I have tried. This year will come to an end, like all of the years before, and some things will change and some things won’t change and I might never write that novel.

I look out the window at the grey sludge. Life is hard. Bad things happen. Scary, sad things. What can I do? I don’t feel like I can work any harder. I don’t think I can change any faster. I want to do my best but I’m tired. I want the world to be different, kinder, safer. And I’m still cold, my shins, inside my bones (maybe if you could finally stick to that exercise goal, warm you from the inside out i gently chide myself…)


The easter parade begins, very subdued. Tiny snowdrops are first to emerge from drifts of collected leaf debris, little white faces peeking over the decay of last summer’s growth. Then the crocuses, purple, gold, white. Thin green spikes barely supporting a few slovenly arranged petals that last only days. The trees are bare, their branches like arthritic hands reaching for the light. The daffodils open, cheerful yellow in the midst of the still, brown deserts. Weeping willow, apple blossoms, cherry blossoms emerge, and those dark red blooms, unexpected, appear on the maples. Then one day you walk outside and it isn’t dead, cold winter anymore. The birds are the first to tell you, but you can also feel it in the wind, a damp coolness that whispers to your skin. Your body, which you had been sheltering from the cold for five long months, feels something different. A yearning to stay out, to be gently caressed by this misty breeze for a few minutes more.

There may be nothing (excepting my children, my spouse, my parents, my siblings, my good friends, chocolate souffle, tree frogs, my piano, and my magenta sweatshirt) that I love in this world more than perennials. They are like magic. The ground is flat dirt. Cold. Hard. And underneath there is this surprise waiting. There is no hint except sometimes some dried old stubs left from last year. I start watching at the beginning of March. My eyes hungry, methodically scanning for even one small green tip. And one day, something is there. A tiny green shoot. A small red bump. A hint of life. And as it slowly emerges, day by day, I worry that it will get too cold again and it will die, but it doesn’t. It is prepared for the cold. It has a little jacket or it waits just long enough, till just the right moment on just the right day. And it turns into a whole plant. Maybe a coneflower, maybe a black-eyed susan, maybe a poppy (I always hope its a poppy), or milkweed or sneezeweed or salvia or foxgloves or bee balm. The point is, they are all there, waiting under the flat, brown mud. All that cold winter they were under there and one day you look and you see them popping up that first tiny shoot, that first small green leaf pushing through the remnants of last year.

That tiny shoot of green, that hopeful sprout — It’s the same plant. It isn’t a new plant. It isn’t re-born, it was alive — living — all the time. Sometimes it was drinking water, sometimes it was drenched in sun, sometimes it was sweetly singing to the honeybees and the butterflies, sometimes it was blown by a harsh wind, sometimes a kid picked all of its flowers or stepped on it, sometimes it was spreading roots under ground, sometimes it was protecting itself under a blanket of mud. And here it is, the same plant, in a new season.


We humans, mortals, we plan, we work, we strive. We tell ourselves that we are not enough – that we need to be reborn, start again. We hack ourselves to be more productive, more intentional, more beautiful, more (fill in the blank).

Night comes. Darkness. We can’t see clearly. Not because we didn’t work hard enough, not because we are flawed.

Because the sun has moved.

And we can’t bring it back.

Easter is named for Ēostre or Ostara, a Germanic goddess of dawn, the dawn which arrives at the end of each night. Always. No matter how poorly you slept, if you stayed awake all night, crazed, disconnected thoughts holding you hostage, forbidding rest and peace, eventually, the color of the sky will start to shift. The sun returns bringing light, warmth, life.

The concept of a new year, a new you, a do over is so seductive. I can be better. I can do better. I need to be different from yesterday’s me. But what we need, what I need, is not rebirth, but endurance. Acceptance. Faith. Humility.

Faith that even when I can’t see it, life is welling up underground, fed by what it was before, fed by all the life that was before, the leaves of last year, the same water that has trickled through every pore of this earth for billions of years.

Acceptance of what has been. Of what is. That the power to bring back the sun is not mine. Nor is the responsibility.

And Love.

My second moment of insight during this morning’s commute came towards the end of Endless Love (ironic?) when Lionel and Diana are keying up for the power punch and he sings (and I with him, while simultaneously wondering what it is that makes this particular part of the song so irresistible, so potent):

MY LOVE (my love, my love) MY ENDLESS LOVE

Acceptance, surrender, not being able to bring back the sun on command. These are difficult things. So what do we do? We know the dawn will come, we know life is beautiful. We know we are a part of the whole. But there’s still the waiting, the uncertainty, the dark, the cold. We have to do something, we can’t just sit there and wait for the world to sort out all of the problems on its own, humming fancy mantras. Jesus taught two basic rules for living: Love God. Love your neighbor. Not wipe your own slate clean. Not secure for yourself a fancy reward at the end. Not check all the boxes or make your-self into something you think others will admire.

All i know and all i need to know is there is no, yeah there is no end to love.

Maybe the power to endure comes from the endlessness of love.

And maybe that Endless Love is found in connection. Merging with another. Recognizing one’s relationship to the whole. Not smoldering, not wanting, but a bond strong enough to enable releasing, giving away.

We are alive and we are reaching for light, just like everything else that lives, and the path is not clear. The cells in me right now, made of sun, water, and stardust, different to the cells from last year but part of the same organization, would like to write a novel. Want to practice patience. Feel good when I meditate. So that is how I will organize my time in this season. Not because what I am needs to change. But because when the dawn came today, I woke up, alive, myself.

My dear Granny Goodguts, you have asked me about rebirth. Your question raises so many others and, even with Bono’s assistance, I still can’t quite work it all out. But to honor the importance of your question and in summary:

Spring, Ēostre, Easter, Ostara reminds me that the dawn always comes no matter how long and dark the night. That I don’t bring the dawn of my own accord, through my hard work. Instead, I acknowledge the night, I surrender to what is, I accept what has been. I share my light with others when I can, I appreciate the light that others shine for me. I wait. And when the dawn, Ēostre, comes I see the signs of life that were there underground all the time. I don’t need to start from scratch. I don’t need an empty notebook. I’m not an empty notebook. I’m an annotated, dog-eared notebook, loved, one tiny, rich volume in an unfathomable library.