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Kaitli‚Äčn Murphy-Knudsen

Place, Politic, and Spirit in Modern Life


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Blog Update

Posted on January 31, 2014 at 5:14 PM Comments comments (154)
The blog is on hiatus for a while as I work on other projects. Thank you for reading!

Ways to Fall in Love - We Don't Fall in Love With Just Anyone. Why Would it be Different With Pets?

Posted on November 14, 2011 at 5:11 PM Comments comments (283)
Georgie (left) and Timmy (right)Timmy, Georgie and BoysGeorgie in Later Years, Summer 2009

For Timmy, Georgie, Karen, Scott, B & B

I don’t fall in love with other people’s pets easily. I need to see what they’re made of before they’ll be enjoying my undying affection, and I want to feel connected to another soul before it will cuddle on my lap.

If people gravitate toward pets that are similar to themselves, I was surprised to fall hard for two pitbulls who were not even mine. When a close girlfriend got married ten years ago, dogs Timmy and Georgie came with the husband.

I did not like pitbulls. They killed unsuspecting passerby in urban neighborhoods, their innate aggression making mean people gravitate toward them, cultivating the most violent tendencies of owner and pet.

It wasn’t that Timmy and Georgie disavowed these stereotypes exactly. They were not soft, docile creatures but strong, lean masses of muscle with square, forbidding jaws. If you were a squirrel, bird or small dog and wandered onto their property while out scurrying or flying around, it was probably your last day of scurrying. I don’t think my friends’ parakeet, Jade, has lived an anxiety-free life in their home. For years Georgie would look at that little green bird in its cage and see lunch.

I saw the two dogs fight once, and it was ugly. My friend’s husband and his friend had to pull their locked jaws apart and nurse their bloodied faces after a pre-kids, raucous dinner party had riled the dogs up. But my friend tells me this was the only time it happened, and while they could growl or bicker, for the most part they loved one another.

Most of us are not St. Francis, who befriended wolves, birds, fish, and animals of all temperaments. Which animals are easy for you to love?

Georgie was female with a black, shiny coat. Easy to love, she was outwardly affectionate and attentive. She would greet me at the door when I visited, circle me a few times and wag her tail, and repeatedly return to be pet. Timmy, the male with a brindled black-orange coat, was more reserved. He showed his love more discriminately, though when it mattered most.

The first weekend I met them, my friend left to run an errand, and I was alone in the house with the dogs. I was eating breakfast in the kitchen while Timmy and Georgie were unseen somewhere at the other end of the home. A man outside had been renovating the garage for weeks, and the dogs knew him as a regular fixture. They had just met me.

A few minutes after my friend had left, the man came into the kitchen for water, as he’d probably done many times before. But that day I was in the kitchen, and before I knew it, Timmy was sprinting toward us across the vast space between the two wings of the house. He stopped abruptly in front of me, facing the man and growling.

 “Timmy, it’s me!” the man said congenially, offering his hand. But it wasn’t until I gave the ok that Timmy stopped growling and eventually left his spot in front of me, turning his head every few paces to look at us.

I had shown no sign of distress. Timmy’s awareness of and speed in response to the small change in the balance of physical power in the house, astounded me. He was not out of control or taken over by aggression, as he made no move toward the man. I assumed he simply saw it as his job to protect me, either as the more physically vulnerable one in the situation, or as the friend of his owner. Though I felt bad for the guy renovating the garage, I knew this was a dog I could respect.

On my next visit I would be dog sitting. It had been more than a year since the first visit, and I had only met the dogs once. I would be arriving after dark to their empty house out in the country. Would they remember me? If not, I thought, I would be dead and mangled with nobody to hear me scream.

“Don’t worry, they never forget a person’s scent,” my friend said. “They’ll remember you.”

She was right, and after a quick hand-sniff Georgie was wagging her tail effusively and Timmy, well, allowed himself to be pet, did not attack me.

Later in the weekend, Timmy and Georgie sound asleep across the room, I began to tear up at a sad television show that reminded me of a painful situation for a family member. Suddenly, Timmy sat up straight, his ears perked before he turned around and stared at me. He left his warm bed, crossed the room and rested his thick jaw on my thigh. He did not lift his head until I had stopped sniffling a few minutes later, and after watching me a moment longer, he headed back toward his bed next to Georgie, stopping every few steps to face me. I heard him as clearly as if he’d spoken out loud.

“You sure you’re alright? Because if not, I can come back.”

In recent years, I saw him extend this protector role to children. When I visited one summer for a party, I glanced across the room to see him standing in the middle of a crowd of kids, who were running and yelling all around him. A two year-old boy was hugging Timmy by hanging jubilantly around his neck. Timmy stood still amidst the chaos, succumbing while wearing a slightly annoyed but tolerant expression.

“Really?” his face asked, “This is what you want from me now?”

Saying Goodbye

Georgie died this past May at 15 years old. Like long-married couples who pass within months of each other, Timmy followed last month at 14 years old. Their family was heartbroken, and I had lost two protectors.

I spent more time with Timmy this summer than usual, as my friends offered their house as a place to recharge while I was staying with my grandmother in her last few months of life.

During this time, says my friend, Timmy would regularly search the car that had taken Georgie away the last time, trying to figure out just where she had gone. In just a few short weeks I would be asking the same questions about my grandmother after she died.

Even in his sleep Timmy was more attuned to shifts of emotion and changes in the power dynamic than many people are while awake. One of the most emotionally intelligent animals I’d ever met, surely he knew we were kindred in our struggles through loss.

He attempted to climb onto the couch where I slept. I had seen him attack squirrels in his dreams before, and I didn’t want to be that squirrel. So while I slept in the nook of the wraparound couch, he slept in the corner it created on the floor. Multiple times throughout the night, I awoke to the smell of bad breath in my face to find his jaw resting on the couch directly in front of my face, his grieving eyes staring straight into mine.

In the months after Georgie’s death, Timmy behaved much more like Georgie had, following me so closely that I tripped over him multiple times per day. When I would leave and nobody else was home, he would try to climb into my car and go with me. When that didn’t work, he would stand directly behind my car so I could not back out, and he would not move unless I got back out again to move him.

Timmy was old, with gray hairs weaving through the colors of his coat. He could not run quickly as he had run across the kitchen to guard me on that morning nearly ten years before.

But he was still the Timmy whose emotional wisdom I’d learned to respect on that day.

In July, a man came to the house to seal the driveway, and Timmy did his usual sniffs of approval, taking my lead that this was just another expected entity doing home improvement rounds for a few days. When I came outside to relay questions to the man about the driveway, Timmy was with me. After the conversation, I couldn’t find him. I called his name repeatedly, walking around the side of the house. I didn’t realize he’d gone back inside and the door had closed behind him. The man heard him first.

“He’s inside,” he said. “He is barking every time you call him.”

Relieved he hadn’t run off, I walked back around the house, only then hearing the alarm in his bark. I opened the door to find him shaking with anxiety. Was I in trouble? Had he mis-sniffed the man who had seemed so friendly moments before? He’d been powerless inside, unable to defend me or the property.

I spoke in soothing tones and rested my hand against the hard knot of his belly, feeling his racing heart pulse against my palm. Even after he’d calmed down, he still wanted to smell and re-approve the man in the driveway, who fortunately seemed unafraid and comfortable around him. Despite his years and loss, Timmy still knew who he was.

But he was spent, and slept in sunshine for the rest of the afternoon. It was the last memory he left me with, as my friends moved at the end of the summer, across the country to a new home in the mountains.

After surveying their next home and spending his last days on a sunny porch in Big Sky, Montana, Timmy died in much the same way Georgie had just a few months earlier: exhausted from a living, love-filled life, leaving me grateful for each dog’s way of giving over ten years of visits, teaching me just one more way to fall in love.

Why is your pet different from every other pet out there? Why did you fall in love?

Hail Mary, Full of Grace (For Margaret, II)

Posted on August 27, 2011 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (196)
Margaret P (d Aug 9, 2011)South Buffalo Pizza & Wings With NanHappy Birthday NanOur first "light" month, with 'homebound' rules lifted from insurance company, and end to regular physical therapy, occupational therapy and social worker visits

Hail Mary Full of Grace
For Margaret, II

The week before last, I held my grandmother’s hand while she died in a quiet room at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, New York. Her son and his wife, my uncle and aunt, stood on her other side.

She had seen her mother, she'd said.

“It’s ok to go with her, Mom,” my uncle said. “You did a good job. We love you. We’ll see you again.”

We repeated how much we loved her. We thanked her for her life and waited with her, repeating our words as the time increased between each of her shallow breaths.

My uncle led us in a litany of Hail Marys, and our words ran together where we whispered the prayer over her spare breaths…“Hail Mary, full of grace/ The Lord is with thee/ Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus/ Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death/ Amen.”

It happened in just the way I think my grandmother, Nanny, would have wanted. She did not appear to be in pain. Her do-not-resuscitate orders were respected, after a few moments of confusion in our hurry to sift through the documents she had prepared in an old metal box she’d kept in her closet.

A change came over the nursing and hospital staff, a reverent slowing down as they realized the moment they were witnessing, unlike the moments before, which had asked only for their efficiency, knowledge about making people well, their hurry.

Her eyes were open and I believe she heard us and knew we were there. Then, after some time—twenty minutes? five? an hour?—she closed her eyes as a more full breath escaped her and she was gone.

A young nurse had begun her shift during my grandmother's last hour, and she had hooked up the IV that my aunt (also a nurse) recognized as treatment for pneumonia. Though the nurse was careful with her language in answering my aunt's questions (we had not yet heard the diagnosis from a doctor), my grandmother (another nurse) knew their code, and her eyes widened at the news I only sort of understood. She was gone within the hour.

Afterward, the nurse returned to check on us, and my aunt noticed her nametag.

“Look,” my aunt said. Her name was Angel.


My grandmother’s death was not a surprise, not the unexpected trauma so many have to face without warning or the chance to say good-bye. In fact, I thought I would feel only happiness for her, knowing she had been ready to go for a while.

But selfishly, I could only miss her when I awoke in her empty apartment the next morning, and in the days that followed I imagine I acted as strangely as everyone else does in the irrational immediate behaviors of grief.

Things I do that make no sense (not a comprehensive list):

*  For days I could not stop touching and kissing the wedding ring my aunt had taken from Nan's finger
   and placed on mine in the moments after she died—as if she were actually inside this object she had 
   worn for more than 70 years.

*  I became unreasonably annoyed with someone who had moved the bag of the clothes she’d been
   wearing that night, from behind my passenger seat to another part of my car. He accepted that I
   was upset but didn’t understand why it mattered where in the car the bag sat. I didn’t  

   “It just does,” was all I could say.

*  The next day, though I knew she was gone, I was simultaneously confused, asking multiple times
    throughout the morning what she’d asked of me so many times in the past few months:

    “Isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing right now?”

I should be recording her vital signs using the machine that walked us through the process every day in a polite, GPS-like voice. On good days, after Machine-Voice Lady thanked my grandmother for submitting to the tests and questions, Nanny would gamely respond, “You’re welcome!”

I should be setting out breakfast and checking her medicines. I should be wrestling with her damned medical leg stockings we loathed for the effort it required to squeeze them on every morning. I should be receiving the kicks in the face she delivered while trying to help, and joking that it wasn't nice to take out latent aggressions on one's granddaughter.

I should be chasing after her in restaurants, calling for her to slow down while she plows through patrons with one arm and attempts to push chairs from her path with her other (The next time you see weakness in a woman behind a walker, think twice. That thing is a weapon).

Our routine had included a litany of questions and answers that continued throughout the day: when the dressing for her leg wound needed to be changed, who was coming the next day, etc. Now, I missed being her rememberer.

Though Nan had been ready to go, she had often wondered and worried about how it would happen, if it would hurt, what would happen next, and how she would get there.

Now, despite my own faith that there is life after this one, I keep wondering just where she is exactly.

If she is no longer rattling her walker around to wake up my uncle, asking us questions, listening to her Josh Groban CDs while watching the walkers go by outside, just what is she up to right now? After the frank discussions we’ve had about death and what happens next, I just want to ask her what she thought of the whole thing.

“It Takes a Village” - Not exclusive to children

It would be too much to write what I've seen of the health care industry in the past few months. My grandmother’s schedule was packed with health care appointments, and at times it seemed she needed a scheduler and receptionist even more than she needed a caregiver.

She saw a primary care doctor, a surgeon for the leg wound connected to her congestive heart failure, an eye doctor, and a podiatrist for her feet while her leg wound was wrapped. At home she had a nurse and wound specialist who visited every week, a home health care aide, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a social worker and more.

With only one exception, a Nurse Ratchett who seemed more concerned about enforcing the insurance company's “homebound” rule than she was about my grandmother, many days I nearly cried with gratitude for the ways the health care team empowered my grandmother, increasing her physical strength, independence and the quality of her life in her last few months.

This does not count all the people I needed as much as she did, to preserve my own emotional health and time—her close friend who came by once a week while I ran errands, a nun from Sisters of Mercy, family members nearby and visiting, and my uncle who arrived every Friday from Cleveland while I either left to recharge, or stayed so we could support each other and laugh together at the crazy, frayed threads that tied our schedules and hearts together through an otherwise discouraging time. 

Many times in the past few months I have been overwhelmed by the gift I have been given in my grandmother, and in the chance to spend these last months with her. But without this system of support, I would likely have fizzled quickly.  I have not yet begun to understand how people do this on their own, and for much longer periods of time.

Loss > Strength > Jedi Mind-Tricks

As I mentioned in her eulogy, many people often commented on how tiny my grandmother was, and she had a small, high voice to match. But her five-foot tall, less than 90-pound frame was a Jedi mind trick. She was bigger and stronger than most people I know.

She lived through the Great Depression, two world wars and 17 U.S. presidents. She lost a husband to lung cancer nearly 35 years ago after his years working for Bethlehem Steel when the steel industry had thrived in Buffalo. She outlived her four brothers and most of her friends. She knew the pain of miscarriage and diseases that claimed those she loved. She had four children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

She was at my wedding and listened me through my divorce, always pushing me to love again no matter how chicken I was. When people she knew experienced loss, she was adamant that healing and moving on were our responsibilities to ourselves.

“People can’t drown in their sorrows forever,” she would say. “You have to go and do and have, live your life. You have to carry on.”

Now in walks around her neighborhood, crows have been replaced by butterflies, and they are everywhere.

Shopping for nail polish at the supermarket the other day, though I faced hundreds of bottles and shades of color, immediately my eye fell on only one, a shade of purple (Note to those who do not buy nail polish: rarely will you see a plain descriptor like “red” or “purple” on the bottle. I think the last bottle I bought was called “I’m not a Waitress.” It was red.)

I did not browse or pick up different colors to compare, as I usually do. I went straight for the purple bottle to put it in my cart, glancing at the sticker for its name.

“Carry on,” it said.

Ok, Nan. I get it.

Josh Groban and Fried Green Tomatoes

On my way out for dinner the other night, when I asked a friend to pick a place, he unknowingly picked her favorite restaurant. The special was scallops over fried green tomatoes, part of the last meal I had cooked for her, which I'd left uneaten on the table as the EMTs carried her out and she asked through labored breaths if I had remembered to turn the oven off.

She'd never had fried green tomatoes before, and I'd never made them. I'd teased her that night that she had not fooled anyone with her "run for the hospital" trick to avoid trying my experimental dish. Who knew a plate of day-old, soggy green tomatoes could induce tears to throw away.

As I was telling my dinner companion about this, a Josh Groban song came on overhead. Nan had followed Josh Groban like a groupie, loving his music and defending him to my uncle whenever he railed against the singer's shaggy haircut. We had recently reminisced about seeing Groban perform in Cleveland years before with my uncle and his partner.

They work at Starbucks too...

As my grandmother had moved from one way of living to her next, I knew it was also time to end the in-between I had been struggling with in recent months, time to land on one side of the fence in a relationship that was important to me.

We decided to take a previously scheduled vacation as planned, and in a back corner of a rest stop Sbarro on the last leg of our trip, we had the conversation we’d been dreading, deciding to continue our relationship as the best version of us that we knew, the friendship that had begun nearly twenty years before and that neither of us wanted to lose.

After the funeral, my uncle had given him some of my grandmother's petty cash with directions to treat me to a few nice dinners together as a gift from her, and we had not spent it all by the end of our trip. Sad at the possibilities we were losing, but confident we had made the right choice about us, we went to Starbucks for one last treat from Nanny before we returned to the highway.

When the cashier who had taken our order put our coffees and cookie on the table, I said out loud, “Thanks, Nan!”

"Look," whispered the man who had been traveling with me--a good, beautiful and searching man, who had by now book-ended almost two decades of my life, by my side and with my family at both of my grandmothers’ funerals.

He pointed at the nametag of the cashier who had served us.

Her name was Angela, from the Greek Angelos, Messenger of God...Angel. And I knew it would be ok.

Windmills, Truckstops and Transitions - Living in the In-Between (For Margaret, I)

Posted on August 24, 2011 at 12:33 PM Comments comments (467)
Windmills in Western New York, Route 20AWindmills in Western New York, Route 20A, SunsetTruckstop for Ice-Cream

Soon after I drafted this, I made the 911 call that would bring my grandmother, Margaret, to the hospital on the last day of her life. I had been living with her since June, sharing primary caregiving for a brief time with my uncle and nearby family members, while she healed from the severe leg injury resulting from congestive heart failure she’d suffered from for decades.

While my gut had been telling me she would go before enduring another Buffalo winter, to protect her privacy I was reluctant to post what I’d written while she lived. I do hope that now, this post and the next might reach anyone living in the in-between in one way or another, including caregivers or families facing the last stage of life.

A few years ago I stopped enjoying long drives. After nearly falling asleep at the wheel a few too many times after busy weeks, and after seriously considering the ethics of marrying a chiropractor just for the benefits it could mean for my back, I began opting for the train or plane instead.

But last weekend I found my love for long drives again. After a draining week I traveled long country roads lined with windmills, sunsets and Poconos, lightning under low clouds, thunderstorms that passed overhead while the sun still shined, and wide winds that brought cool harbingers of fall after a heat spell that had finally buckled against the night sky.

Somewhere in between where I had left and where I was going, I gratefully breathed the air of being nowhere.

I have been living out of suitcases this summer after moving in with my grandmother, “Nanny” as we call her. Our family has been discussing next steps with her as she slowly comes to the frightening and frustrating realization that she can no longer care for herself safely in her own home.

This week I received the news that the more pronounced lapses in memory we’d been seeing in her recently were likely signs of Alzheimer’s, and I did not take it well.

Overwhelmed by images of the job this devastating disease had done on my other grandmother before she died of pneumonia years ago, the memories flooded out my eyes at the gym one morning to sympathetic stares from trainers at the sight of my puffy cry-face.

She says she is ready. I pray for a merciful exit before her memory becomes worse. She sees her mother during her naps, and after waking one morning this week, said she “wants to go home.”

“But you are home,” my uncle said. My aunt tells me that her mother, who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s, says the same thing, and they are looking for their next home.

Usually my grandmother wakes up early, but earlier this week, she slept in and was still tired when she woke up. She did not appear sick or in pain, and did not want a doctor. I canceled with her visitors for the day while she slept and I worked on a freelance assignment from the other room, checking on her every hour or so.

Usually the phone rang off the hook, but that day it was silent, and the quiet in the house was different from other days. I worked for a few more hours and took a walk.

The silence outside, barring the winds that swept dark Buffalo clouds over her neighborhood, mirrored the quiet inside. Passing a cemetery, I thought about how often she had been sleeping. I thought about her memory, and her frustrations with living in this in-between place where she was neither fully here nor there.

I asked the air what was next. Was her time coming soon?

A crow flew from its perch on a gravestone and swept low across my path, its inky-black feathers catching the light in an oily shine.

Really, signs from the universe? Did you have to be that blunt? Was this the cliché of all foreshadowing clichés, or some subtle archetype I could respect? I read more later, and learned crows were not just harbingers of death but symbols of spiritual power and impending change. They symbolized the Great Spirit in some Native American traditions.

Or, I guess it could have just been a crow. But my head doesn’t usually work that way, and I think God/ the universe/ Spirit…knows it.

By the end of the week Nan was back to waking up at six, still taking long naps but chatting with neighbors and friends again, and going out for dinner now that her insurance company’s “homebound” rules have been lifted.

What are the in-betweens in your life? Are they stagnant places of indecision, places to push yourself out of?

Or are they places to accept, finding ways to endure and live them as you prepare for what’s next?

Phrases like “Live in the present moment” or “It is all about the journey” may be good and true, but they are not quite what I want to say about the places of in-between that all of us visit at some point or another.

My grandmother doesn’t like the in-between. She wants to live—and knows she is not able to do much of that here, anymore. I don’t blame her for wanting to get to where she can really live again.

I don’t like my in-between very much either, but my reasons aren’t as brave as hers. The long drive this weekend called to mind my most significant in-between at the moment, a relationship that indecision was making stagnant, and a conversation that I knew had to come soon.

I had been on the fence for a while. On some days, I believed I should marry this dynamic, kind and thoughtful man. On others I suspected something was just not feeling as it was supposed to feel, something difficult to name that was not quite right.

On the return trip to Buffalo when the weekend was over, the wind blew my car into the next lane as I crossed a bridge over a fast-moving river. I lowered the windows and mist poured in, carrying the pungent scent of trees I remembered from somewhere young, yet couldn’t name.

The windmills were going to be beautiful, I anticipated, when I passed them near sundown later. Through a mountain pass, a quick tempo delivered the sad tones of bluegrass on the radio. I stopped and lingered for ice-cream at a Pennsylvania truck stop, stretching out the in-between, almost ready for the week ahead.

A Piece of Vacation for Your Day - San Francisco, Redwoods, and Winds that Rally Silence

Posted on June 24, 2011 at 6:06 PM Comments comments (10868)
Sailboat in SF Bay : Sailboat in San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz BackgroundSailboat and Golden Gate : Sailing in San Francisco Bay, Golden GateMuir Woods : Redwood in Muir Woods Nutella Crepe at The Crepe House, Polk Street, San Francisco : Nutella Crepe at The Crepe House, Polk Street, San FranciscoRedwoods in Muir Woods : Redwood in Muir Woods
Inside a Redwood in Muir Woods : Redwood in Muir WoodsSan Francisco Bay : San Francisco BayGhirardelli Square from SF Bay : Ghirardelli Square from San Francisco Bay

The world was going to end and Americans were not taking their vacations. So said the headlines when I visited San Francisco for a conference last month. The sky was clear and blue. The wind blew white noise into the edges of Oakland, softening the city into a memory I would need later.

If you are not taking your vacations, that’s your business. Someone needs to keep the chiropractors, cardiologists and other healers of stress-related illness afloat through the recession. Maybe you can’t afford it right now, or maybe you are just stubborn, have a mean boss or believe the office walls will crumble if you are not there to hold them up.

A host of other challenges may stand between you and the winds of San Francisco, greens of Tuscany, beaches of Cape Cod, camping trails through forests waiting for your feet…whatever the place is that brings you back to yourself after months of forgetting needs of mind, body and spirit in a chugging-along life.

If you are not on vacation today, or can’t go this summer, have you tried bringing vacation to you?

What is it about a change in place that sands down our edges and pulls glow to the surface, replaces jittery thoughts with deep breaths and reminds us of sky-big possibilities for our lives?

For my trip to San Francisco, I had planned to book-end full, fluorescent-lit conference days with sights of the city in the evenings. That was before I arrived and realized that my bucket-listed California redwoods were less than an hour away.

So I built vacation time into each day, cutting my time in a plastic seat to the bare bones of need-to-know, catching only the need-to-know from quick Twitter-fingered conference goers at night.

I think it was the first time I vacationed alone, and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken. If you have never vacationed solo, add it to your bucket list!

My prescription for a perfect San Francisco solo vacation (may be traveled on your own or vicariously from your chair):

•    Walk from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf and back. Get deliciously lost in Chinatown each  

•    Eat sushi at hole-in-the-wall restaurants like Akiko’s in Union Square, or Nara Sushi on Polk Street,
      where straightforward décor belies colorful bites and slowed me down to gratitude.

•    Do the dorky tourist things. Ride the Cable Car down the hill as if you are ten. Hang on with one
      arm while leaning far into the speeding-by, wind-kicking up world of small store-fronts on a sunny
      day. Sing the Rice-a-Roni song.

•    Walk through Nob Hill to Lombard Street and walk the steep inclines of Russian Hill (they
      disempower excess calories from the Nutella crêpes and ice-cream at The Crêpe House nearby).
      After a few hills you will understand why San Francisco has one of the lowest obesity rates in the
      country and longest life expectancies in the world. Here you can treat yourself to the spaghetti and
      meatballs bolognese at Puccini & Pinetti at the end of the day and still come home light and
      One caveat: as a pedestrian you are also more likely to get hit by a car than in any other city, a       
      statistic I almost contributed to before I dismissed the blackberry to the bottom of my purse. So
      avoid checking Twitter while crossing the street.   

•    When you pass the fishing boats along the wharf, jump in when a captain offers a group tour of the
      bay. Choose a spot in the sun, perching yourself above the spray that will kick the bay onto the deck
      when you turn toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Jump in also to the short-term friendships with
      other tourists who have sent their own to do lists on vacation somewhere else. Notice each other,
      seeing eyes and lives you would pass by at home. 

•   Visit the California Redwoods in Muir Woods. Sit, look up, and breathe.

      I left half of my last day for the redwoods in Muir Woods, followed by a walk through Sausalito, a
      hillside town sloping down to a rocky coast just across the San Francisco Bay from the city’s

      This is going to sound lame coming from a writer, but I cannot write you there. You have to see the
      Coastal Sequoia Redwoods for yourself.

      At Muir Woods, walk any part of the 6 miles of trails, taking as many photos as you can, 
      straining your neck every which way you need to in order to these 1,000 year-old trees home with
      you. Then sit on the wood railing over the creek that passes through these impossible trees, the
      tallest in the world yet with roots so unusually shallow it is difficult to know where their strength
      comes from.

      Try to capture in your lens their quiet stretch upward, and their brave leaning over water. You will  
      not capture the smell. It is a meditation all by itself, and I wish I could remember it now.

•   Walk through the Never Never-land of Sausalito.

     Sausalito is an easy stop on the way back to San Francisco from Muir Woods. But once I left, I  could 
      not be sure that I had not made it up.

      It may be a pretend place or somewhere you go when you die. My cell phone stopped working as 
      soon as I arrived. Walking along the harbor the masts and halyards of sailboats lean toward each
      other, frozen in tableaus that are silent but for the wind and small clanging of rigs against masts.    

      Walking down Bridgeway, the main street full of art galleries, shops and restaurants, people’s voices
      sink below the wind. It is not wind that blinds you with knotted hair whipping your face or makes
      you too cold to finish your milkshake from Lappert’s Ice-Cream, but the kind that tightens your skin
      just enough to wake up the vacation glow, makes you forget make-up ever existed, and forms 
      hollows of space around you, giving you solitude.

      The art galleries are filled with pieces that twist you up inside, just enough to make you love the
      artist who created them. The vases and urns of one mountain-artist holds color and shine and stones
      and sky in twenty different ways, so surprising and beautiful that looking at them almost hurts. You
      may have to plunk down a few paychecks to buy one, but that was the only part of my visit that
      suggested Sausalito could be in the real world after all.

      Continue down Bridgeway to where the street curves along the rocks. Let the wind hollow out
      everything from whatever life you sort of remember stressing you out a few days ago. Watch the
      gusts make sailboats cut the sky, and their sails lean over the surf as the redwoods did over the
      creek bends in Muir Woods. 

Who needs a piece of vacation in every day?

If you will not be on vacation this summer, I hope you are able to carve a piece of vacation into each day. It may be only an hour, before your kids wake up, on your lunch break, wherever you can find that shows you the space around you, and your place in it, with new eyes.

Again, whether you do or not is your business. But I think we all need this. A few weeks after returning from San Francisco, I was reminded why I do.

When a relative’s health emergency suddenly needed immediate and sustained attention a few weeks ago, carving solitude into the day became a challenge that will likely be around for a while. At first glance and maybe more on this at another time, right now my life bears little resemblance to a vacation.

But when I remember San Francisco, I am struck by a powerful similarity between a vacation and a crisis.

Each stuns you into the present moment, and in ways you do not expect. Each forces you to stare only at what matters while what doesn’t flies away, lighter than dust.

In this way, whether they deliver beauty or sadness, both are gifts.

The Dalai Lama Reveals the Secret to Enlightenment: Laugh at Your Own Jokes?

Posted on May 17, 2011 at 10:10 PM Comments comments (492)
Peace Mural @NewarkPeace : Panelists onstage at the Newark Peace Education Conference, May 2011His Holiness the Dalai Lama : His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Moderator Robert Thurman, Nobel Laureate Jody Williams, Newark's Earl "The Street Doctor" @NewarkPeace, May 2011His Holiness the Dalai Lama : His Holiness the Dalai Lama @Newark Peace, May 2011His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Moderator Robert Thurman : His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Moderator Robert Thurman, @NewarkPeace May 2011

Expectations were high. This was the Dalai Lama after all. Was it too much to expect the most profound insights we'd ever heard, solutions to the problems of the world at large and our smaller worlds within it?

This past weekend the Tibet House, the Drew Katz Foundation, Columbia professor and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman and Newark Mayor Cory Booker hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Newark Peace Education Summit in New Jersey. With the heightened security, bows of deference and the craning of thousands of ears toward his every word, it was hard for me to imagine what it would be like to face such out-sized expectations when traveling--feeling their weight in the very air between you and everyone you meet, people who want something important from you that they cannot quite name but expect nonetheless.

Despite this, His Holiness did not disappoint. He may even have revealed the secret to enlightenment itself. But not as you might think.

He did not say anything surprising or new, and aside from some close listening to account for a slight language barrier, no mental gymnastics were needed to follow his points.

He spoke of bringing secular moral ethics back into an educational system that has veered too far in the direction of teaching knowledge alone. He urged for the cultivation of an inner peace that outer peace depends upon, stipulating that inner peace alone is not sufficient in changing the trajectory of world events.

He pushed the audience to exert compassionate action on our communities and to intervene to correct suffering and injustice.

He described the need to differentiate between the actor and action when we are wronged, seeking justice for actions that harm while directing compassion at the actor, who deserves our respect as a fellow human being.

A lot of people say these things. Why is it so different, especially for a Western audience, coming from the Dalai Lama?

Priests and preachers give the same advice on Sundays to snores from their congregations. The people who do hear it have a hard time living it at the first sign of annoyance or the sight of someone we don’t like very much.

Yet even among attendees who do not subscribe to Buddhism or believe the Dalai Lama is a centuries-old, reincarnated-many-times holy man, many said he was the one whose impact was the most significant.

Why did the Dalai Lama take the cake, and why can't anyone quite explain the reasons? In the West, does it all boil down to the wattage of his star power?

I am no Buddhist scholar, and my knowledge of Buddhism amounts to one reading of Siddhartha in a college World Religions class, and a few readings meant for popular consumption from the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.

But as a qualified non-scholar, I don’t think this was about star power. Correct as His Holiness may be on every argument for compassion, I think he tricked us. His words may be true and real and honest, but they were the side show.

I will tell you what I saw, and you tell me what the real show was.

•    When the moderator welcomed the Dalai Lama to an afternoon panel discussion, he asked, “His  
      Holiness, do you have a few comments to start us off? The topic is peace in the family.”

     “I have no experience with that. No.”

     The audience laughed, and one woman near me didn't stop until long after the moment passed.

•    When pressed on a question about arguments in the home, the Dalai Lama told a story
      about two boys he saw fighting. He pantomimed with his hands, wrangling his fingers
      together while scrunching his face into a knot. He broke his hands apart when the altercation  
      ended and swiped his palms together.

     “Too hard to say... no conflict! But I say, maybe argue as little boys do… When they are done, they
     are done. Same.”

     The audience waited for more.

     “Aside from that, I don’t know.”

•    He giggled at his jokes. Many times when he told a funny story or joke that had not quite come
      across clearly to the audience in English, he would laugh so hard at his punchline that soon our own
      laughter was bouncing off of his, which made him laugh even harder.

•    After a long anecdote or explanation, often the audience would continue to wait, hanging on the  
      hope for more words, the rest of his answer.

     “That’s all,” he would say abruptly, putting up his hands and smiling. “I’m done!”

•    He acted out his stories to make his points.

     “Ok, let’s say I am suspicious,” he said, then pointed directly at a member of the panel who had
     disagreed with him earlier.

     “Of HER.” He smiled at his joke. “Let’s say…NO trust.” He tried to assume a posture and face of
     suspicion and aggression, but the look was so false that it elicited chuckles from those around me.
     Someone who has no ill will inside to draw from is a terrible method actor.

What I saw was that laughter came easily. The Dalai Lama laughed a whole-person laugh, often at his own comments or expense while slapping his leg and looking to the person next to him, as if checking to be sure they were sharing his same pure joy.

With a sense of comedic timing that seems to receive far less examination than his political and holy roles, he weaved our attention through suffering and laughter simultaneously. He did so without diminishing or turning an eye from blunt realities for a second, and without goading us into the guilt or despair that can paralyze well-meaning people into the cynicism of thinking our efforts can’t change anything.

So what was it? Another Buddhist monk answers with stories.

Buddhist monk and the Dalai Lama’s mentee Tenzin Priyadarshi attempted to describe this quality in a workshop in responding to a high school teacher’s request for advice. She was struggling to stop her students from using hateful language, and she felt conflicted about her angry reactions to colleagues who advised that she let it roll off her back.

He reminded us that the Buddha was a warrior who had defeated anger in himself, the same anger people recognize as critical judgment today when we attempt to change someone's opinion with an argument we are attached to. He differentiated between speaking her truth and trying to convince, suggesting that it is too much of an expectation to think that someone will change because of what we say.  But once you have accepted the role of the warrior and eliminated your anger, sometimes it just happens.

To illustrate, he told the story about a group of rabbis who had frequently urged the Dalai Lama to engage in arguments about their philosophical and religious differences. They persistently pressed him for his point of view until His Holiness relented.

“Ok,” His Holiness finally said. “You know how they say the Jews are the chosen people?”

“Yes?” they asked expectantly.

“That is outdated.”

The tension was broken.

If the Dalai Lama has lived lifetimes as a spiritual leader to cultivate the inner and outer paths to non-violence, it is no wonder the rest of us are still stuck being aggravated by stupid things. His ability to accept us all while simultaneously spurring us on to better actions surely took a warrior to win.

But as a result, out of an audience of a few thousand, I was left with the distinct impression that he had seen me, and I was just fine with him—despite my very non-peace-like aggravation with a few audience members when they hassled Jody Williams, the Nobel laureate who had led the international effort to ban land mines, because she had failed to notice or speak out against the summit’s (biodegradable, locally made) water bottles, which would take too long to biodegrade.

So that’s all, as His Holiness would say? Maybe the bumper sticker is right and the hokey pokey really IS what it's all about?

Except that loving people and staying close to laughter in the face of suffering are a little harder than that. Pablo Picasso may have come closer when he said that "it takes a long time to grow young."

As for my own long time, I am still sifting through the bold ideas and words, the stunning courage and struggles and triumphs of the summit’s speakers. They are all over the place in my head, not quite behaving, slamming into each other and introducing themselves to my own experiences. I need a few days to get them in line.

What do you think?

If you attended the conference, what was it about the Dalai Lama this weekend that impacted you?

If you did not attend, have you ever met such a person? Someone who, not because of the "side show" of their words alone, but something else, because who they are redirected you a little bit, away from angst and toward peaceful action in your own life?

Feel free to share your comments below. If you are a private person, respond via email using the form on the right. Thanks for reading!