“You are spending much of your life metabolizing time”

Deepak Chopra



A new year is upon us, and that means an enhanced focus on time. We learn to write the year 2022. We consider the possibility of a fresh start. We set resolutions. We hope to begin anew and for something better.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Ritual is important. Starting fresh sounds great. 

But the reality is that at midnight as we cheer in that new year and a fresh start, we likely brought along checked baggage from 11:59 p.m. on December 31, 2021. We brought along our habit energy.

No better example of dragging along the past exists in literature than the nameless ancient mariner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” first published in 1798. 

When we meet the ancient mariner, he has stumbled upon a group going into a church to witness a wedding. He stops one of the wedding guests to tell him the story of his arctic expedition. 

The “grey-beard loon,” as the unwilling listener calls him, describes his dangerous voyage, for “The ice was here, the ice was there,/The ice was all around” until an albatross appeared, flying alongside the ship and seemingly bringing good luck as “The ice did split with a thunder-fit;/ The helmsman steer’d us through!”

Yet the mariner shoots the albatross with his crossbow for reasons he cannot explain.

At first, it all seems fine with the good weather continuing, but then the breeze stops altogether, for which his fellow sailors blame the mariner so that: “Ah! well a-day! what evil looks/ Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross/About my neck was hung.”

Eventually, the mariner finds himself the lone survivor on the ship.

There’s much more at play in the poem, including an appearance by Death, Life-in-Death, and the sailors becoming a rather benign zombie crew. 

When the mariner is rescued, he immediately meets a hermit. Upon seeing the hermit, the mariner begs, “‘O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!’” Wishing to confess and to be forgiven his sins so that he can begin anew, the mariner tells his story, “And then it left me free.”

But, of course, it didn’t, for the very next stanza has the mariner telling the wedding guest: “Since then, at an uncertain hour,/That agony returns:/And till my ghastly tale is told,/ This heart within me burns.”

And this explains the mariner grabbing the wedding guest and forcing him to miss the ceremony so that the mariner can repeat his taleyet again. 

The albatross fell off of his neck long ago while upon the sea when he blessed the sea snakes, but the mariner carries the story with him endlessly never truly able to make a fresh start because he is carrying his past.

We all have an albatross, maybe two. The point is not to escape the past but to accept it, to forgive ourselves and perhaps others whom we feel have harmed us. 

But we don’t reach the freedom the mariner seeks by repeating the same storyline over and over. 

As we move into the new year and contemplate resolutions, we might resolve to live in the present moment, dropping the albatross, or as Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön puts it “our very important stories.”

We can live mindfully, which means no more albatrossfrom the past or in the future.

Happy new year! 


Photo provided by Ian Schneider on Unsplash



Three Christmases


“’Tis better to have loved and lost,

Than never to have loved at all.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson



Before he became Alfred, Lord Tennyson, poet laureate and best seller making £10,000 a year (almost half a million dollars today), Tennyson was the third of 11 children in a family coping with money problems, disease, severe mental health issues, and alcoholism.

But he had a best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who encouraged him and read his poetry with the kind of critical attention authors crave. Hallam was the kind of friend who inspires and makes a person see his own potential. 

Alas, just as Tennyson had to leave Cambridge University at 24 without his degree due to his father’s death, he also lost his best friend who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in October 1833.

Deeply depressed, Tennyson began writing a series of lyrics to eulogize his friend and to cope with his own despair. He kept at it for 16 years, publishing In Memoriam A.H.H. in 1847. This autobiography of Tennyson’s grief touched nineteenth-century readers deeply, including Queen Victoria upon the loss of her husband, Prince Albert (who popularized the Christmas tree).

Christmas is how Tennyson tracks his grief—and his family’s, for Hallam was engaged to Tennyson’s sister, Emily.

Tennyson describes the intervening few months between Hallam’s death and Christmas as “I slept and woke with pain,/I almost wished no more to wake.” On that first Christmas, the bells ringing “Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace” offers some solace, “For they controll’d me when a boy,/They bring me sorrow touch’d with joy.”

The second Christmas seems more typical with its usual traditions of the yule log, hanging holly on the hearth, and games. Tennyson describes “No single tear, no mark of pain.” This is not the end of grief or sorrow: “But with long use. . .tears are dry.”

The third Christmas is no more festive, really, but things have changed, as they always will.

No more shall wayward grief abuse

The genial hour with mask and mime;

For change of place, like growth of time,

Has broke the bond of dying use.

Grief has stopped being in charge. Tennyson concludes his description of the third Christmas by hearkening back to bells ringing. Now, though, those bells no longer tie Tennyson to the past:

Ring out the old, ring in the new

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

“Him” could be a personification of the year, but the “him” equally applies to Hallam. What Tennyson is letting go is not his love for Hallam but rather his visceral grief for Hallam’s loss. He is finally able to reconcile to himself that Hallam is physically gone but continually present:

Far off thou art, but ever nigh;

I have thee still, and I rejoice;

I prosper, circled with thy voice;

I shall not lose thee tho’ I die.

With the conviction that Hallam has not truly left him, Tennyson can continue to love him and to grieve him but also prosper.

And he can celebrate Christmas with this family, not pretending all is well as they try on that first Christmas, not still in a state of numbness as on the second, but releasing and loving as they do on the third.

This Christmas is my third without my mother, who was my best friend. Like his Victorian readers, I find great comfort in Tennyson’s beautiful and vulnerable chronicle of his grief. 

Christmas created the great commandment to love. That love is never-ending.

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, but let us also remember those who are grieving and remind them of that never-ending love.

Merry Christmas!


Photo provided by Kathryn Duncan



Christmas Bullies


“Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.




I’m realizing that a lot of Christmas classics have bullies. 

There’s the Grinch, of course, who not only steals everything from the Whos but bullies his dog, Max. 

Then there’s Ebenezer Scrooge, whose bullying applies to anyone who comes into contact with him but is laser focused on his clerk, Bob Cratchit.

And we mustn’t forget Scut Farkus, the bully who relentlessly picks on Ralphie in A Christmas Story.

I could offer more examples but will concentrate on the most bullying Christmas classic of all, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Let’s face it: while we might all agree that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, it isn’t without its problems in spite of Linus telling Charlie Brown that “you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.”

In fact, the 1965 animated special likely has had staying power thanks to its highlighting of problems, including depression, which is mentioned multiple times, and our human tendency (not unique to Charlie Brown) to find or create problems.

One of the problems is bullying. 

When Lucy tells the Peanuts Gang that Charlie Brown will be the director for their Christmas play, she is met with dismay and derision. And, when she introduces them to their new director, Snoopy boos. 

In spite of her attempt to help Charlie Brown with his Christmas blues, Lucy leads the pack when it comes to bullying. Her brother, Linus, complains about needing to memorize so many lines in such a short amount of time, saying, “Why should I be put through such agony? Give me one good reason why I should memorize this.” Lucy replies by making a fist, one finger at a time and declaring, “I’ll give you five good reasons.” An intimidated Linus responds with, “Those are good reasons. Christmas is not only getting too commercial. It’s getting too dangerous.”

Most of the bullying, though, is saved for Charlie Brown whose attempts to lead the kids is met with a dismissive lack of cooperation. When he offers to get a Christmas tree, he’s told, “Do something right for a change, Charlie Brown.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Charlie Brown takes with him the other bullied character, Linus, who suggests that they go in the direction of the searchlights.

We all know the story: Charlie Brown picks the one pitiful but real tree on the lot, buying it over Linus’s objections, telling him that “I think it needs me.”

Alas, if Charlie Brown felt unheard before, he meets with even greater insults upon his return, being told, “Boy are you stupid, Charlie Brown,” by Violet, and, “You’ve been dumb before, Charlie Brown, but this time you really did it,” by Lucy before the entire gang laughs at him. 

A despondent Charlie Brown laments, “Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about,” and then he yells, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”


Photo provided by Seoyeon Choi  on Unsplash





“This is Devil’s snare. You have to relax.

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone



I love old movies and always have. Even as a kid, I watched black and white films, including the old Tarzan movies. Tarzan would do his king of the jungle yodel as he faced off against invading explorers or other threats. 

One threat that always gave me the absolute creeps was the quicksand. Quicksand didn’t appear in all of the Tarzan movies, but it was a fairly regular motif. Usually, the bad guy stumbled into quicksand toward the end of the movie. He would slowly sink under as the other characters gave looks indicating that this was both tragedy and justice.

That quicksand really bothered me. It was such a horrible thing to happen, even to an obvious villain. To be pulled under—helpless, unable to breathe, absolutely stuck—seemed a terrible fate.

Fast forward to Dora the Explorer. My daughter loved Dora to the point of obsession as a young girl. She’d been given a Dora bathing suit for her third birthday and would put it on as daily clothing on a regular basis. If offered the chance for an outing to the library, she’d eagerly agree—until told she had to put on actual clothes. We’d stay home. She’d wear her Dora bathing suit.

When the movie version came out in 2019, she was well beyond Dora obsession, but we went for the sake of the good old days.

And there was a quicksand scene. Here I was, an adult with a child old enough for Dora to be nostalgic, still made uncomfortable by quicksand. 

The scene opens with a lot of fart jokes. In my family, we appreciate a good fart joke, really any fart joke, but I recognized quicksand before the characters, and I was on edge.

When the characters realize their dilemma, Dora offers advice: “Rule number one of quicksand is don’t panic. You’ll only get sucked in further.” She tells her friends to lie down, relax, and then backstroke their way out of the quicksand. It works, and they don’t get sucked under.

There’s a similar scene in the first Harry Potter book and movie. 

When Ron, Harry, and Hermione go searching for the sorcerer’s stone, the first obstacle that they meet is Devil’s Snare, which wraps around their limbs and could potentially strangle them. It’s not exactly quicksand, but the premise is the same. Hermione, as usual, saves the day.

In the movie, her advice is to relax completely. Even as the Devil’s Snare threatens, the solution is to let go. It works. Once the kids completely give in, the Devil’s Snare releases them, and they are no longer caught. 

In the book, it’s the same premise, but Hermione remembers that Devil’s Snare dies when exposed to light.

Our emotions work pretty much the same way. In a dharma talk offered at a retreat by Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastics, we learned to sit and allow thoughts to arise without censorship to see which ones caught our attention. As predicted, I discovered that the thoughts that arose and kept my attention were sticky. that is connected to some emotion, the kind of thing that could pull me under just like Devil’s Snare or quicksand. 

Thinking “I need to clean my house” doesn’t catch me. Thinking “my house is so filthy, which means I’m incapable, incompetent, and overwhelmed” does. 

I don’t get caught by my to-do list. I get caught by the emotional resonance of my to-do list, the one telling me that I will never learn to say no, that I always overestimate my abilities to complete tasks, and that I never finish so will fail. 

Sticky thoughts are sticky because of the emotions attached to them.

We don’t need to be without emotion. We can’t be. However, when we are caught in quicksand or Devil’s Snare, we can relax. We can lie back and backstroke our way out or fall right through the tangling vines meant to choke us. We can shed light on those emotions so that they no longer overpower us.

Life contains quicksand and Devil’s Snare. Sometimes, the Devil’s Snare even looks attractive. We can be like Ron who proclaims, “Lucky this plant-thing is here, really.” We often don’t recognize the dangers at first. We feel relieved. We make fart jokes.

When we eventually realize the danger, we can fight it and struggle, but that only increases the danger and sucks us deeper. 

Instead, we relax, even though as Dora’s friend says, “This feels super wrong.” For it is in the relaxing that we let go and come unstuck. 


Photo provided by Jeremy Bezanger  on Unsplash



Gratitude without Magic


“There’s no place like home.

The Wizard of Oz



There are witches, a wizard (sort of), and even flying monkeys but not a single turkey in The Wizard Oz, yet the film’s message seems appropriate for Thanksgiving.

While we generally associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, it didn’t become a national holiday until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the last Thursday of every November should be a day to give thanks. 

This means that, while the initial notion of Thanksgiving began with plenty as a celebration for a successful corn crop, Thanksgiving as a national holiday came about during a time of division, violence, and deprivation.

It’s easy to feel gratitude when things are good. Lincoln understood that it was even more important to find gratitude when things are hard, and the best way to do that is to see all that is already present in our lives for which we can feel grateful.

That’s the lesson that Dorothy learns as she’s plopped down via tornado into the world of munchkins and a talking Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion (oh my). 

When in Kansas, Dorothy feels misunderstood and ignored, which is what prompts her launching into the most famous song of the film: “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” The lyrics indicate her longing to escape:

“Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue

And the dreams that you dare to dream

Really do come true

Someday I’ll wish upon a star

And wake up where the clouds are far behind me

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

Away above the chimney tops

That’s where you’ll find me.”

In the song, this magical place doesn’t really need magic because clearly it’s perfect. Dreams come true. Troubles melt. How easy it would be to feel gratitude in such a place.

But, alas, when Dorothy does land in Oz, it’s atop a wicked witch whose sister vows to make her pay. The good witch is necessary because there are bad witches with soldiers, trees that attack by throwing their own fruit, and all sorts of hazards. It seems that the bad dreams one dares to dream also come true in Oz.

Fortunately for Dorothy, there are those magical ruby slippers slipped on her feet by Glinda the good witch. With a little skip and a big dose of optimism, Dorothy sets off on the yellow brick road to find the wizard who can send her back home. 

He can’t, of course, and doesn’t. Rather, Dorothy must face yet more peril with new friends essential to her success. She despairs as the wizard floats off in his hot-air balloon without her, for now there is no getting back home. Only then does Glinda appear, telling her that she’s always had the power to get home. 

When the Scarecrow angrily asks Glinda why she didn’t tell Dorothy sooner (and maybe spared him having the Wicked Witch of the West set him on fire!), Glinda responds “because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.”

What did Dorothy learn? 

Home always had what she needed and plenty for which to feel grateful. Her aunt and uncle may have been busy and undemonstrative, but they loved her. The farmhands were too busy to hang out on a whim, but they also were protective and caring. Dorothy had been surrounded by love, kindness, and protection—pretty strong magic—all along. 

In other words, “There’s no place like home.” 

Thich Nhat Hanh has said that he wouldn’t want to go to a heaven as conventionally conceived: a place of no suffering. How would one appreciate all of the blessings and good if there were no comparison? We appreciate our health because sometimes we know what it’s like to lose it. We are grateful for plenty (and recognize what plenty is) when we have suffered deprivation.

We need the Wicked Witch of the West as much as we need Glinda.

When we can find our gratitude in the tough times—in the small, overlooked, undramatic, and even mundane things of life—we can be happy. 

In other words, we can have a happy Thanksgiving.


Photo provided by Hulki Okan TabakonUnsplash



Do I Detect a Whiff of Judgement?


“Are you sure?

Thich Nhat Hanh



As part of a series on bibliotherapy, in this fifth essay, I will recommend literature for the problem of being judgmental. Limiting myself to British classics, I’m suggesting Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.

I walk our dog twice a day and usually run five times a week, which means a lot of pedestrian time in my neighborhood. This allows me to enjoy the beautiful oak trees, the gorgeous birds, and being judgmental. 

For, you see, as I traverse my neighborhood on foot, there are cars who roll through stop signs on the incorrect supposition that no one will be out that early in the morning. There are other pedestrians who do not understand that they should walk facing oncoming traffic, which forces me to cross the street. And there are, worst of all, people who do not have their dog on a leash.

It’s not so much that I enjoy judging all of these people, but there’s a kind of self-righteous pleasure to knowing better and feeling how I would never do any of the above. 

Such self-affirming claptrap will rattle around in my head for a short bit until I remind myself that any time I’m feeling self-righteous, it likely means I’m being close-minded and arrogant. 

That’s the problem with being judgmental. We are so sure. And, if we’re that sure, we close down and won’t listen. We get things wrong. We don’t recognize that we might be wrong about the very thing or person we are judging.

That brings me to The Moonstone, the first English detective novel, which was published serially in 1868. 

It’s rather hard to write about detective fiction without giving away the mystery, so please don’t judge me for being vague. 

Collins tells his tale through different characters narrating only what they knew about the mystery of the moonstone. In this way, we can see how the characters’ propensity to judge blinds them to the truth. 

Up first is Gabriel Betteredge, the family steward who is as stodgy an Englishman as they come. His love of the family he serves biases him in their favor throughout, and his English nationalism causes him to attribute any odd behavior of one character, Franklin Blake, to his Continental education. When the  “nice boy” Betteredge had known in youth arrives after a long absence, Betteredge acknowledges that Mr. Franklin, as he calls him, “baffled me altogether” as not meeting his expectations. And Betteredge admits that relevant evidence sounds incorrect because it doesn’t “at all square with my English ideas.” 

This means that Betteredge misunderstands much of what happens around him, becomes judgmental of the wrong people, and fails to uncover the mystery. 

He’s not nearly so bad as Miss Clack, a self-righteous character who sees almost everyone around her as “spiritually impoverished” and who is much more interested in passing out sanctimonious religious pamphlets than in showing compassion or kindness. 

Note that Collins isn’t making fun of a truly spiritual or compassionate Christian but rather a judgmental, unkind character who invests her energy into such charities as “the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion Society,” run by someone Miss Clack sees as a “Christian Hero” who proves otherwise.

In the meantime, the moralistic Miss Clack eavesdrops and positively revels in learning that a relative is dying as it opens “a career of usefulness” for her that consists of finding the correct religious tracts, a task that makes her ask, “How can I describe the joy” she feels—upon learning of this fatal illness.

Given each narrator’s problem with being judgmental, the mystery eludes them. And while one might expect the first English detective novel to resolve it all with the superior mind of the detective, Collins takes another route. Instead, given the organization of the book with its many narrators, Collins points out that the truth rests in multiple perspectives, in bringing together many strands of the same story.

And there’s the problem of being judgmental: it shuts us down, makes us not listen to all of those strands. Being judgmental is concretizing. We plant our feet down firmly and don’t move. We are so very certain.

I still don’t think that people should do rolling stops at stop signs just because it’s 5:30 am. I still believe that it’s safer to face oncoming traffic when walking or running. And I still know that dogs should be on leashes. 

But I can believe all of those things without adding on a layer of self-righteousness that leaves me stuck. After all, the point of all that perambulation is moving forward. 


Photo provided by NeONBRANDonUnsplash



What’s My Deadline?


“Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

Benjamin Franklin



As part of a series on bibliotherapy, in this fourth essay, I will recommend literature for the problem of procrastination. Limiting myself to British classics, I’m suggesting Samuel Johnson’s 1758 essay “On Idleness.”

When teaching, I often talk about how form mirrors theme. For example, in the Robert Browning poem “My Last Duchess,” Browning uses the tight poetic structure of heroic couplets (two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) to emphasize how the poem is about control.

In order to best encapsulate the subject of this week’s bibliotherapy pick for the topic of procrastination, I have purposely postponed sitting to write until I am staring my deadline dead in the eye.

Not really. I just had a busy and somewhat trying week. 

It’s okay, though, as I know all of my students, for example, will understand.

In the old days of actually turning in pieces of paper when an assignment was due on a given date, the students knew to submit that assignment during class. Now, however, most assignments are turned in online, so the constant question is what time? Do I mean class time, which might be in the morning, or the default set by the learning management system, which is 11:59 pm? 

I can get as judgmental as I might like (preview for next week!), but the reality is sometimes I’m counting on those extra hours too, and, as someone who has edited various publications to which other professors have submitted work, well, we professors are humans too. We like to kiss deadlines. Sometimes, we miss them. 

While that epitome of American individualism and can-do attitude Benjamin Franklin may have judged us negatively, an eighteenth-century writer on the other side of the pond, Samuel Johnson, understood those of us who sometimes wait until the last minute.

Johnson isn’t quite as popular now, but he was so well-regarded and prolific during the eighteenth century that the time period in literature is sometimes referred to as the age of Johnson.

In addition to the first English dictionary, fiction, and poetry, Johnson wrote essays for both The Rambler and Idler. Not surprisingly, “On Idleness” is part of Idler.

Johnson notes that there are those who “profess idleness in its full dignity” and “boast that they do nothing, and thank their stars that they have nothing to do.” But their numbers are small, especially in today’s America dominated by the adages of that other eighteenth-century writer Franklin who told us to save our pennies and get to work now. Few feel pride in being lazy.

Rather, the majority of us who are idle do so while being very busy. Give me a deadline for a difficult project, and I assure you that my house is going to be clean. Tell me that I need to index my book, and I guarantee you that all of my students’ assignments are getting graded promptly. Remind me that I must complete important paperwork, and I promise you that my dog will be washed. 

As Johnson writes, “idleness predominates in many lives where it is not suspected.” Rather “idleness is often covered by turbulence and hurry.”

(Please excuse the interruption of this blog post as I go wash dishes.) 

It’s not that I don’t need to clean house, grade assignments, or wash my dirty dog, but sometimes those tasks become excuses to avoid the things that truly need to be done.

That’s what Johnson addresses in his essay, pointing to his “friend,” Mr. Sober whom Johnson’s own friends said was Johnson himself. 

Mr. Sober, like this blog post writer, “does any thing but what he ought to do with eager diligence.” 

Mr. Sober uses conversation throughout the day to distract from any “difficult undertaking,” and when no one is at hand to talk to (thank goodness for texting or we might face the same!), Mr. Sober turns instead to any hobby he can attempt because “the manual arts are undeservedly overlooked.” This means rather than tasks that he truly needs to tackle, Mr. Sober works at “the crafts of the shoemaker, tin man, plumber, and potter,” all of which lead to failure.

Johnson doesn’t really have a solution, but it’s good to know that the man who accomplished so much centuries ago that we call his century the age of Johnson doesn’t judge. 

He closes “On Idleness” by saying that he doesn’t know the effect it will have on Mr. Sober. In a light, gentle tone, he writes, “perhaps he will read it and laugh, and light the fire in his furnace; but my hope is that he will quit his trifles, and betake himself to rational and useful diligence.”


In the meantime, though, I really must finish this essay so that I can arrange my sock drawer.


Photo provided by Aron Visuals  on  Unsplash





“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;

It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock

The meat it feeds on.”

William Shakespeare, Othello



As part of a series on bibliotherapy, in this third essay, I will recommend literature for coping with jealousy. Limiting myself to British classics, I’m suggesting Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Jealousy, from a Buddhist perspective, results from ignorance to the interconnectedness of all. According to Buddhism, we inter-are. There is nothing I can point to as my essential self. Nor can you. Each of us is an amalgamation, and we are all interconnected. 

Jealousy, therefore, is a result of clinging to a self that doesn’t exist; it’s egocentric. If I can recognize that there is no “I”, then I’ve no cause to covet what belongs to others. 

When I cling to a concept of the individual self, I’m likely to “other,” seeing myself as superior to and different from other people, thereby feeling jealous of what they have and wanting it for myself. 

The characters of Wuthering Heights don’t get this.

Jealousy permeates the pages of Wuthering Heights from beginning to end. It’s most obvious with our anti-hero Heathcliff, but even the seemingly quiet and passive Edgar is steeped in jealousy and possessiveness. 

Heathcliff’s entry into the Earnshaw family early in the novel ignites the jealousy that will create problems for everyone—including Heathcliff.

Mr. Earnshaw finds Heathcliff as an orphan in the streets of Liverpool and brings him home to the remote countryside of the Heights. Immediately, there is jealousy as old Mr. Earnshaw shows favoritism to the rescued child whom he names after a dead son. The jealousy is particularly prevalent between Heathcliff and Hindley, Mr. Earnshaw’s biological son. He and Heathcliff continuously vie for Mr. Earnshaw’s attention and the best of his gifts, which sometimes results in violence. Mr. Earnshaw exacerbates the problem, for “he was painfully jealous lest a word should be spoken amiss” about his favorite, Heathcliff.

When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley gets his revenge, relegating Heathcliff to the role of servant, denying him education and opportunity, and leaving his moral guidance up to an uneducated, rigid, and dogmatic servant. From the beginning, Heathcliff is called “it” and “gypsy;” he is dehumanized and othered. Hindley’s jealousy causes him to make this outsider status a reality.

Heathcliff’s one comfort is Catherine, the Earnshaw daughter. The two wander about the countryside with no guidance until they witness a scene of jealousy at the estate of the other prominent family, the Lintons of Thrushcross Grange. There, they peer into the window as the children, Edgar and Isabella, each pull at a puppy, jealously trying to take possession of the animal, who ends up wounded. Catherine also becomes wounded when attacked by a dog on the property. When she stays to recuperate, she receives a psychological wound—becoming a proper lady—which breaks her bond with the wild Heathcliff.

Catherine famously proclaims, “I am Heathcliff” when talking to the family servant, but she also lists the many reasons why it would degrade her to be with him, not knowing that he is listening. Upon hearing this, Heathcliff leaves the Heights to gain the wealth and respectability denied to him by the Earnshaw and Linton families. His jealousy and shame drive him away.

When Heathcliff returns, he’s wealthy with a gentlemanly air (though with that undercurrent of wildness still there). He finds Catherine married to Edgar Linton, and the jealousy results in catastrophe. 

Linton’s jealousy leads to an ugly confrontation with Heathcliff that upsets Catherine so greatly that she becomes ill. She declares, “Well, if I cannot keep Heathcliff for my friend—if Edgar will be mean and jealous, I’ll try to break their hearts by breaking my own.” 

Alas, the family servant, Nelly Dean, also exhibits jealousy, and, rather than smooth hurt feelings and share important information, she spitefully refuses to warn Linton of Catherine’s dangerous health as she stews in resentment and anger of her own.

The hurt feelings, anger, possessiveness, and fear continue throughout, resulting in death, debasement, and destruction.

While material goods are, in fact, limited so that Hindley and Heathcliff might be considered in competition for an estate, in its true form, love is not. Mr. Earnshaw need not have loved one child more than another. Loving one person generates more love so that there is more love to give. Given the nature of true love, there can be no cause for jealousy.

The passions that run so strongly through Wuthering Heights mean that I could not decide if I would offer it as a bibliotherapy choice for anger, jealousy, possessiveness, envy, or selfishness. My wise friend Aly, when I chatted with her about it, pointed out that all of these difficult emotions stem from fear. 

That makes sense. If we can recognize the truth of interbeing, we need not feel fear or that something can be taken from us.

Consider Wuthering Heights a great prescription for a lot of difficult emotions as well as an amazing book everyone should read.


Photo provided by Loren  Cutler on Unsplash



Pinned to a Wall


“Do I dare?

T.S. Elliot



As part of a series on bibliotherapy, in this second essay, I will recommend literature for coping with social anxiety. Limiting myself to British classics, I’m suggesting T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” 

Social anxiety is natural and normal, but it’s also uncomfortable. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, social anxiety is necessary and comes from our ancestors’ need to be accepted within community.

Our ancestors clustered in groups of approximately 150 individuals who cooperated to survive. We weren’t built to make it on our own in the violent world of the Pleistocene era. If a group rejected someone, that was pretty much a death sentence. Social anxiety made our ancestors aware of how others were perceiving them in order to prevent annoying others enough to get ejected from the group’s safety. 

Because adaptations happened long ago and at an unconscious level, our brains sometimes still equate rejection with death.

Modern rejection likely means hurt feelings, not physical wounds, but our brains work against us here too as we process pain—emotional or physical—in the same area. What hurts, hurts.

However, Eliot’s poem does a good job of giving us perspective to see that sometimes we are greatly exaggerating how much attention people are giving us and that our fear of scrutiny leads to small, unhappy lives.

The speaker opens the poem by describing a depressing landscape where “the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table” as a symbol of a numbed existence, not truly living.

As we read the poem, we realize that the speaker is so worried about growing old and how others will perceive him that he’s become obsessed with time.

Eliot uses subtle references to English Renaissance poet Andrew Marvell and the works of classical writer Hesiod to contrast with Prufrock’s worry over the passing of time. Prufrock assures himself that “There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;” in other words, rather than “time for all the works and days of hands” from Hesiod’s classic on useful agriculture, Prufrock will use his time to get ready for socializing that will lead to “time yet for a hundred indecisions,/And for a hundred visions and revisions,/Before the taking of toast and tea.” 

In this poem, our hero, rather than using great creative acts of poetry like Marvell to make connections, asks, “Do I dare?” repeatedly as he worries over descending the stairs “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—/(They will say, ‘How his hair is growing thin.’)” If this weren’t bad enough, he knows that “(They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)”

The imagery only gets more intense as Prufrock considers others’ judgment of him:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

Poor Prufrock envisions himself as an insect on display, pinned to the wall by the stares and gossip of others. Worse, he is not like those beautiful butterflies one might see in an insectarium, long dead and feeling no pain, for he is wriggling, alive and feeling the pain of his pinned position. 

He sees no way out, no hope of being understood. As he contemplates trying to explain himself, he realizes no amount of explaining will work, and it will all end with him replying, “That is not it, at all.”

As the poem nears its end and Prufrock comes closer to the “overwhelming question,” which we expect to be about mortality or human relationships, he finally asks, “Shall I part my hair behind?” 

So while there is this tragic air, this pinning to the wall that he feels so profoundly, we as readers are able to understand that this man who will try to cover his bald spot by a combover is ultimately unable to see reality. For who, I ask you, has ever been fooled by a combover? 

Prufrock knows his worries have led him “to measure out my life with coffee spoons.” His fears make him unable to connect, unwilling to live a full life, so that he is stuck in a mundane day-to-day existence.

Read “Prufrock” and refuse to live life as a formulated phrase pinned to a wall, unable to act for fear of what others think.

There will be time for acts of creativity and to live meaningful lives, if we spend less time worrying about what that looks like to others.


Photo provided by Mario Azzi on Unsplash



I Can’t Decide What to Call This Essay


“To be, or not to be, that is the question.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet




As part of a series on bibliotherapy, I’d like to kick things off with what I’d recommend for the over thinker who struggles with decision making. If we limit ourselves to British classics (as I am), the choice (sorry) is obvious: Hamlet.

As a fellow over thinker, I get how Hamlet feels, and based upon research done by social psychologist Sheena Iyengar, you may too. In her book The Art of Choosing, Iyengar describes her famous jam experiment that she conducted in 2000 with Mark Lepper. The two set up a table with 24 fancy jams in an upscale grocery store and offered $1 off coupons to any customers who wanted to sample. The display was popular, but not many customers used the coupons to purchase jam. Another day, the table held only six jams, and customers were 10 times more likely to use that coupon and treat themselves to some jam. Iyengar and Lepper concluded that when given too many choices, people gave up entirely, deciding on no jam at all.  

Iyengar argues that more than 10 choices is enough to make us anxious.

To make things worse, a recent Washington Post article points to how making decisions has become even more complex and demanding during the pandemic. Automatic decisions that required no thought now take on an extra burden of needing more information at a time when information is changing rapidly. This leads to decision fatigue, which makes us more impulsive and lacking in self-control.  

That brings us to Hamlet, whose famous “To be” lament seems limited to only two, though what a choice to be making. 

However, this famous dramatic monologue, containing what is surely the most quoted Shakespeare line of all, doesn’t even address Hamlet’s actual choice. His contemplation about the purpose of existence arises out of the inability to decide what to do about his uncle having killed his father in order to take the throne, marrying Hamlet’s mom in the process. 

Hamlet learns of Claudius’s betrayal from his father’s ghost who orders Hamlet to avenge his death. That’s the first problem. Is the ghost really his dad? Or is it a demon sent to tempt Hamlet into committing murder in order to send his soul to hell? How can he find the truth?

Does his mom know? And why did she marry Claudius? Does she really love him? Is it lust? Is she trying to protect Hamlet and his succession to the throne? Does she know what Claudius did? 

And what’s going on with Ophelia, the lovely daughter of Claudius’s chief advisor? There was some attraction there, and they exchanged letters, but now she won’t have anything to do with him. 

Hamlet tries putting on a play to trick Claudius into betraying his guilt. When he finds Claudius praying and confessing his sin, he has his answer, but, wait, if he kills Claudius now, then will his uncle go to heaven because he’s properly confessed? That isn’t fair to his dad who’s wandering around as a ghost having not received absolution.

Clearly, Hamlet would not have been a five-act play if Hamlet’s moral dilemma hadn’t been so strong and, more importantly, if Hamlet hadn’t required to know the truth absolutely and to perform his task so exactly. 

During all of this internal conflict for Hamlet brought on by “something rotten in the state of Denmark,” young Prince Fortinbras is rallying his army to recapture the land lost by his father to Denmark. 

When Hamlet hears of Fortinbras leading his army into battle, he has another dramatic monologue:

I do not know

Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’

Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means

to do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me.

Fortinbras’s example as someone ready to avenge his father, risking the lives of thousands, “Even for an eggshell”, serves to shame Hamlet who asks: “How stand I then,/That have a father killed, a mother stained”? Perhaps the answer is decision fatigue.

Because this is a Shakespearean tragedy, the body count is high at the end, with Fortinbras, the active, decisive leader, arriving as the royal court has self-destructed, all of Denmark—literally and figuratively—at his feet. Shakespeare rewards the prince who acts rather than ruminates.

If decision fatigue is setting in, read Hamlet. (I phrased that as a command to save you the choice). There, you will empathize with a prince caught by his inability to decide. We can learn from Prince Hamlet that we have to make decisions even when we can’t know all of the information. Save energy for big decisions, avoid decision fatigue, know that you can’t always know the full truth, and don’t allow your decision making “to lose the name of action.” 


Photo provided by BurstonUnsplash





“A book enters the life of an individual, a deep relation is formed, and the person changes in some significant way as a result of this engagement.

Stephen Bonnycastle



I’m currently teaching a literature class via the lens of bibliotherapy, the practice of “prescribing” books to improve mood and mental health. 

Yesterday, students shared that they wished to read more “classics” and challenged me to give them the top five classics they should read.

My heart sang, and my head nearly burst at the idea.

But, as I shared in an email to them shortly thereafter, of course I want to take on the challenge. 

I’ve decided to do a version of that in this space over the next six weeks with a focus on the top five classics of British literature that I would prescribe as a bibliotherapist.

But first, I’ll share a bit about bibliotherapy.

Ancient Greek libraries carried the inscription “medicine for the soul” above their doors, which is the basic idea.

The term bibliotherapy was coined in 1916 by Samuel Crothers. In the 1920s, hospitals in the United Kingdom had staff librarians charged with offering patients books as healing tools. 

Modern-day bibliotherapy involves the practice of giving clients recommendations for self-help books and/or works of fiction, which is my interest here.

Reading fiction helps because it offers an opportunity for readers to understand that they are not unique in having their particular problem. Readers can also witness problem solving. 

Sure, it’s a fictional character who has the problem and who is doing the solving, but since those characters were conceived by a fellow human, it means another soul has understood. 

More significantly, our brains don’t much care or know that the other one with the problem isn’t real. Put someone in an MRI scanner, give them a great work of literature, and have them read with care; parts of the brain light up that show the brain experiencing the fictional world in the same way it would if these events were actually happening. 

For these reasons (and more), reading literature with care and attention has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression and to increase empathy. 

Reading allows for perspective taking. We all inhabit a perspective, but we tend to forget that. One great example of our failure to recognize perspective taking is attribution bias, where we look at another person’s actions and judge that person, assuming a bad act means a bad actor. If we do the same act ourselves, we understand our motivations and tend to see that act as operating in isolation, giving ourselves the break we don’t give to others.

Since anxiety makes us egocentric, being able to engage in perspective taking and to identify with others helps tremendously—because it turns out, in spite of what those seagulls say in Finding Nemo, all of reality is not ”mine, mine, mine, mine.”

The first topic that I’ll investigate and offer a prescription for will be that of choice because, from my own experience and observation, a lot of us feel pretty overwhelmed by choices nowadays.

To quote a great English Renaissance writer, Sir Philip Sidney, literature has the power “to teach and delight.” My selection on the subject of choice has taught and delighted readers (including me) for centuries. 


Photo provided by Priscilla Du Preez on  Unsplash





“When you wish upon a star

Your dreams come true.”

Jiminy Cricket



I wish on a star most nights as part of the dog’s nightly walk. If there is a star out, then I wish automatically, not much thinking about it.

I say the traditional, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, the only wish I wish tonight.” I make sure to focus on that first star I see because the wish won’t work otherwise. 

Sometimes I start the wish-making so habitually that I get to the part where I’m supposed to insert a wish and don’t know what to say.

Wishing runs rampant in literature. I even Googled “wish literature,” wondering if it’s its own genre. (According to Google, it’s not.) It has old roots, going all the way back to A Thousand and One Nights with the genie, which has been modernized most popularly by Disney in Aladdin.  

Recently, a wishing movie from when I was young popped up on my Netflix homepage: Labyrinth. It stars David Bowie as the singing goblin king who kidnaps Sarah’s little brother when his constant crying leads Sarah to accidentally say exactly the right words to wish the baby away. I remember wishing that I could have a puffy-sleeved blouse like Sarah’s when I first saw the movie.

Wish literature includes wishes and the inevitable problems that come along with the wishes.

Sarah must go in search of her kidnapped baby brother through the labyrinth that leads to the goblin castle, which proves perilous though not too scary given all those Bowie songs and his ridiculous elfin hair. 

Aladdin’s Jafar learns his lesson via wishes when he wishes to be a genie himself, not realizing that means getting shut up in a lantern.

In his 1749 poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” Samuel Johnson warned his readers about wishing. He noted that in wish making, “How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice,” which means inevitable trouble as we wish for the wrong things. He spends the poem debunking our most common wishes. 

When it comes to wealth, Johnson writes, “The dangers gather as the treasures rise.” So next time I’m tempted to wish to win the lottery (a hard wish to fulfill since I don’t play), I’ll remind myself for a lottery winner, “Increase his riches and his peace destroy.”

Knowledge and fame, according to Johnson, won’t do much to improve our lives, for we are still subject to being human. “Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,/Nor think the doom of man reversed for thee.”

As for that doom, Johnson points to another common wish—for a long life—as problematic: 

“Enlarge my life with multitude of days,

In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays;

Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know,

That life protracted is protracted woe.”

A long life sounds great until we think about the practicalities of what that might actually look like.

Johnson, writing from a Christian perspective, leaves his readers with the following lesson:

“Inquirer, cease, petitions yet remain,

Which Heav’n may hear, nor deem religion vain.

Still raise for good the supplicating voice,

But leave to Heav’n the measure and the choice.”

Johnson sees us wishing adults as similar to children, not understanding what’s truly good for us. Sure, I’d wish for brownies everyday, but it’s not rational or good for me. 

From a Buddhist perspective, wishing also comes with problems, for if we are wishing, then we are craving. Rather than being present, we are concentrating on lack by wishing for. . .fill in the blank.

I’ll probably keep wishing on stars because it reminds me of my childhood, but I recognize that, not only is my wish unlikely to come true, it’s telling me something about myself.

That reflected light of the star can lead me to reflect on what I believe I’m missing and how I can be okay with missing it or maybe even realize I already have it. 


Photo provided by Benjamin Voros  on Unsplash



Battling the Self


“Evil thenceforth became my good.”

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein



When I teach the novel Frankenstein, we end up asking deeply philosophic questions: Who is the monster? What does it mean to be human? What does Victor Frankenstein owe his creation?

I need to note for movie watchers that, in the book, Victor’s creation never gets a name. He is never Frankenstein, which is part of Mary Shelley’s point. He lacks the essentials of identity with no family and no name. 

Victor toils endlessly in solitude for two years to make his creature come to life, noting that he “seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.” He is blinded by his ambition so that he dabbles “among the unhallowed damps of the grave” and tortures “the living animal to animate the lifeless clay.” 

When the creature comes to life, Victor rejects the creature immediately for its grotesque appearance. Having sewn together the body parts of various dead people, Victor suddenly realizes he has made a . . .what? A monster? 

Well, not really. 

When the creature awakens, Victor immediately runs out of the room, disgusted by how he looks and, gosh, takes a nap. Victor’s exhausted, which I get, but it’s pretty amazing to be able to sleep so deeply under the circumstances. 

When Victor awakens, the creature is there holding the curtain of Victor’s bed, his eyes on Victor, who describes the scene: “His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.” The creature extends his hand toward Victor “seemingly to detain” him.

I’ve asked students how to stage this scene if they were to adapt it into a movie. Is the creature malevolent at this moment? Is this a wicked grin? Is the creature really trying to detain Victor because there’s that word “seemingly”? if so, to what end? Is this a horror movie scene with a vicious creature grinning at his prey ready to grab and attack? Or are those inarticulate sounds similar to what a baby makes, and is this a sort of baby reaching out toward a parent? 

According to the creature, it’s the latter as he describes himself after Victor immediately abandoned him. “I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity.”

That changes, though, after the creature is repeatedly rejected because of his appearance. People flee from or attack him upon seeing the creature. His appearance arouses shrieking, fainting, stone throwing, and being shot at after rescuing a drowning child among other things. 

Eventually, after one final heartbreaking rejection, the creature explains “from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species.”

But isn’t he part of the species? The creature is made of human parts, and it’s clear that he is, at heart (even if that heart once belonged to someone else) human.

Studies repeatedly have shown, for example, that prisoners in the most extreme solitary confinement with no human contact develop severe mental health problems. Reading, radio, and television are no substitute for human contact. 

The same is true for the creature, who yearns above all for acceptance of some kind, any kind, hence his request to Victor to make him a companion, someone as horrible to look upon as himself.

But is this what the creature really needs? 

What he needs, truly, is empathy, and it need not come from another science experiment. Like all humans, the creature needs to feel understood, like he is not the only one on the planet to be experiencing what he is feeling.

This is where deep listening comes in. As part of the Eightfold Path, we have Right Speech, which means much more than saying the right thing. We all need to feel heard, even this fictional creature created by Victor Frankenstein created by Mary Shelley.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains that “The roots of a lasting relationship are mindfulness, deep listening and loving speech, and a strong community to support you.”

The creature lacks all of the above and tells Victor, “I am malicious, because I am miserable.”

His misery is curable, and the cure is not another “monster” like himself but empathy. He needs to feel heard, understood, and, yes, seen. We all do. 

Or maybe, as a fun Youtube video shows, he needs a puppy. Same thing.





Photo provided by Laura Chouette on Unsplash



“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is truly optional.”

Sister Dang Nghiem 



The title of my forthcoming book is Jane Austen and the Buddha: Teachers of Enlightenment. Why Jane Austen and the Buddha instead of Austen and mindfulness?

After all, mindfulness is the buzzword today. Think of all of the magazine covers touting mindfulness staring at you in the checkout line of the grocery store.

Mindfulness can be hard to do but is actually simple: be present in the here and now. That here and now could be (as it is for me currently) sitting at my desk, writing on my laptop, and drinking coffee, a neutral feeling verging on pleasant. Or it could be mile 22 of a marathon (which I’ve managed a few times): grueling, painful, and enough to make me question my sanity.

Mindfulness does not equate with bliss. However, science tells us that mindfulness can help us to regulate our emotions, leading to more peace and happiness, something the Buddha discovered thousands of years earlier.

While mindfulness is completely secular, it is a key component to Buddhism, but there’s more to Buddhism than mindfulness, hence Austen and the Buddha.

Mindfulness has become trendy and in danger of being marketed to us by companies as a cure-all in the same way that all of those face creams are supposed to keep me from looking like I’m getting old. Yet mindfulness isn’t an escape from reality in Buddhism nor for Austen. 

Rather, mindfulness trains us to be in that moment of joy, love, fear, or pain. And pain is inevitable in life. 

Buddhist psychology makes clear that we are powerless to escape pain just as an Austen heroine is powerless to propose or to choose a career. We are of the nature to get sick (as the headlines remind us of daily), age, and die.

What we can do is understand the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s first and most central teaching. Suffering is inevitable. We must discover the cause of our suffering. We can end our suffering. We end it via the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

In other words, we inevitably will face pain as human beings, but we need not add to it through all of the stories that we create around that pain. That is suffering.

Austen understood this. Elizabeth Bennet creates her own suffering through holding onto a grudge. Emma Woodhouse’s misreading and desire to be a matchmaker make for much suffering. 

Like the Buddha, Austen saw that suffering was part of everyday experience. Her own lived experience of being a single woman without a lot of money in a patriarchal culture proved that. She didn’t need to write a War and Peace to explore suffering but could depict life in a village to show how we humans contribute to our own misery, making her stories ones we can still relate to centuries later.

She also, as the Buddha did, could see that the suffering of one creates suffering for others so that how we address our suffering has ethical implications. 

Importantly, Austen (like the Buddha) knew that suffering can be transcended as we see in her last complete novel, Persuasion.

Reading Austen, therefore, can lead not only to pleasure but to authentic happiness. Like Buddhism, it is a practice with potentially wonderful results.


Photo provided by  Lesly Juarez on Unsplash



Constant Craving


“Constant craving has always been.

k.d. lang



If only. . .I’ve begun sentences like that my whole life. If only I could get a bike for Christmas. If only I could get into University of Florida. If only I could get a job as a professor. If only fill in the blank, then I could be happy.

Craving can be a constant in life, this certainty that if only I could do that, have that, achieve whatever, I’d finally feel happiness.

Alas, craving is one of the three poisons in Buddhism and guaranteed to make us unhappy.

This is something that the French writer Voltaire understood as far back as the eighteenth century and which he explores in Candide, his satire of the age and of human nature.

This fast-paced book with its lighthearted tone features every misery that can happen in a person’s life with craving as a common foundation for all of this suffering.

In his youth, Candide seems happy and satisfied, desiring nothing more. This lasts one (very short) chapter. 

From then on, Candide experiences tragedy after tragedy always being assured by the philosopher Pangloss that he is experiencing the best of all possible worlds even as Pangloss himself experiences syphilis that disfigures him and near death, belying his favorite maxim.

Perhaps the best example of the danger of craving comes in the section of the book where Candide and his valet, Cacambo, discover Eldorado. Upon arriving, the two men see a group of children playing outside their school using gold, emeralds, and rubies as toys, which they then throw to the ground as if they are worth nothing when recess is over. 

When Candide and Cacambo attempt to pay for a luxurious meal at an inn with the precious stones, they quickly learn that in Eldorado, those stones are not precious at all. The laughing servers reassure them that the government pays for meals at inns that help commerce and then apologize for the poor quality of the extravagant meal.

Amazed, Candide and Cacambo visit with a 172-year-old man who fills them in on Eldorado, explaining that those who live there have sworn never to leave, thereby keeping the outside world ignorant of their presence, for they wish for nothing and desire nothing from the outside world that tends toward violence in its craving.

The old man is rather confused and offended when Candide asks if the country has a religion. He responds that of course they do, though there is no church nor prayers of supplication. Rather “we have nothing to ask him for; he has given us everything we need, and we thank him constantly.”

From the old man’s village, Candide and Cacambo make their way to see the king where they discover “the fountains of clear water, the fountains of rose water, and the fountains of liqueurs from sugar cane, which flowed continuously in public squares that were paved with a kind of precious stone that gave off the scent of cloves and cinnamon.” When Candide asks to see the law courts, he learns there are none, for there are never trials nor any prisons.

If only!

Yet constant craving arises only a month later. Candide misses his supposed true love so wishes to leave, and he is craving status and power. He tells Cacambo, “If we stay here, we’ll just be like everyone else, whereas if we return to our world, even with only twelve sheep loaded with stones from Eldorado, we’ll be richer than all the kings put together.” 

Much against the king’s advice and warning that they can never return, they leave. The book then returns to tragedy after tragedy with no option of wealth, plenty, and total satisfaction available. 

Voltaire does offer a kind of solution to the misery of craving at the end when Candide and company meet another wise old man who advises them that the key to satisfaction is work. Even Pangloss sort of gets it, admitting that “Power and glory. . .are very dangerous.”

When Pangloss starts to expound and become his philosopher self again, Candide replies that “we must cultivate our garden.”

Thich Nhat Hanh notes, “The realm of desire is where we touch the presence of craving, anger, arrogance, and delusion. Beings in this realm suffer a lot because they are always running after things.”

Rather than running after things constantly looking for more, always in search of the if only, Candide rejects craving and finally understands that the work is to cultivate happiness from what we already have. 


Photo provided by Milada VigerovaonUnsplash



Empathy and Ethics (with a Zombie Twist)


“Terror gave birth to terror, hatred begat hate. . .”

John Ajvide Lindqvist



If you’ve ever been around a person yawning and found yourself yawning too, it probably means that you are an empathetic person. Scientific experiments measuring “contagious yawning” cite the connection between seeing a yawn and consequently also yawning as evidence that a person is better able to connect to the feelings of others.

That’s what empathy is: the ability to enter into the feelings of someone else all while understanding that the feelings are not yours. You may have cried when a loved one is crying or laughed without understanding what was funny if you found yourself in a room full of merry people. 

Empathy is an important quality that allows for prosocial behavior and community. After all, it’s hard to hurt someone if you can experience their pain. Sociopaths score very low on any test of empathy.

But it also can be painful, which John Ajvide Lindqvist explores in his unusual zombie book, Handling the Undead

Set in Sweden, the novel’s premise is that those dead less than two months come back to life one night, a phenomenon Lindqvist explores by following three families who have recently experienced the death of a loved one. 

One such family includes a teenager named Flora whose sense of empathy is so strong that she struggles with her own mental health. Flora’s empathy registers as almost psychic. 

Flora tells her grandmother Elvy that the “air sort of stinks around people” because she recognizes their hypocrisy as they say things totally at odds with what they feel. Elvy shares Flora’s ability, which she calls the Sense, and understands Flora’s pain: “she knew people too well. The Sense told her the exact state of mind of the people around her, and she could not accept their lies.” 

Flora  also can read the reliving, as the returned dead are called in the book. When her brother asks Flora if the zombies are dangerous, she responds, “they’re nice. At least, they don’t want to hurt anyone.”

To be cautious, though, the government rounds up the reliving into a central location to study them, which belies Flora’s feeling that they are not dangerous.

The man dubbed director of relocation commits suicide after being around the reliving and leaves a letter behind warning that the reliving are not harmless “vegetables,” as people have been saying, but like jellyfish: “Their behaviour is influenced by their environment. They have a will. The will of the person thinking of them. We should isolate them completely. We should destroy them. Burn them.”

It turns out, then, that while these are not typical zombies, the novel fits the conventions of zombie literature where the people are really the problem.

A nurse working at the hospital where the reliving are originally sent describes how no one can bear being around the reliving for long. “As soon as there is a room full of the dead then it’s like. . .you don’t have the energy. It’s the thoughts, the feelings—you have to sort of make yourself think nice thoughts the whole time, but in the end you can’t keep it up.” 

Because of this, Flora senses the danger when she visits the relocation site set up for families to reunite with their dead loved ones. She finds it “unbearable standing here among all these people,” as she experiences their terror. “Flora tried to shut her brain from the ever-present horror” that is the emotion of the living—not the zombies.

Ultimately, the fear, anger, and violence of the living trigger violence among the reliving who are only reacting. The reliving experience unobstructed empathy. They are not able to differentiate their feelings from the living. Rather they soak them up, feel those feelings strongly, and act on them, causing mayhem. 

Empathy serves as a reminder that we are all interconnected. Lindqvist, of course, is exaggerating this, but given those contagious yawns, we can experience it for ourselves—and do on a daily basis.

Mindfulness means sitting with our feelings. Otherwise, they control us. We don’t have to figure out how to make ourselves “think nice thoughts the whole time,” but we need awareness and to manage our own emotion.

With empathy—whether there are zombies or not—we can understand that our feelings affect those around us at an unconscious level. We are interconnected. We must tend to our own feelings for the betterment of all. Doing so is an ethical act. 


Photo provided by Jacob NorrieonUnsplash



Battling the Self


“We are all subject to decay, old age, and death, to disappointment, loss, and disease. We are all engaged in a futile struggle to maintain ourselves in our own image.

Daniel Goleman



The earliest surviving text in British literature is Beowulf, the story of a great hero who goes on to be a king. 

Beowulf’s heroism can be measured by his physical prowess and sense of honor. When he hears that King Hrothgar’s mead hall—a seat of community—is being attacked by a monster named Grendel, Beowulf sails the “whale-road” to help. Beowulf’s father (now dead) is indebted to Hrothgar, so Beowulf risks the trip to honor his obligation and to bolster his own heroic reputation. 

Beowulf succeeds, killing both Grendel and Grendel’s mom who attacks in revenge.

After many more acts of heroism, Beowulf ascends the throne, ruling for 50 years. The anonymous Beowulf poet doesn’t specify Beowulf’s age when the story opens, but Beowulf clearly is an old man when a dragon attacks his kingdom. Nevertheless, Beowulf the hero steps up again, ready to combat the enemy. 

On the surface, this seems admirable. After all, if our community were being attacked by a fire-breathing dragon, we’d all be pretty relieved to have a king ready to to take on the battle.

Beowulf is confident. The poet writes:

He had no fear for himself

and discounted the worm’s courage and strength,

its prowess in battle. Battles in plenty

he had survived; valiant in all dangers,

he had come through many clashes since his cleansing of Heorot

and his extirpation of the tribe of Grendel,

hated race.


Note that all of Beowulf’s thoughts are of himself.

With this great confidence, Beowulf, who has no heir, asks a chosen group of warriors to accompany him to the dragon fight but tells them to stay outside the barrow while he takes on the dragon single handedly. He announces, “This affair is not for you,/nor is it measured to any man but myself alone/to match strength with this monster being.” And then he goes to fight the dragon solo.

Beowulf repeatedly uses the term “good king,” especially in reference to Hrothgar with his mead hall where his men can rest and commune until the monster Grendel comes along. He is a “ring giver” who shares the spoils of battles. And he is a married man who has more than one male heir to leave in charge of the kingdom. Nor does he battle Grendel but allows the young, strong Beowulf to take on the job.

The character Beowulf, alas, does not meet this definition of good king, for rather than delegating dragon fighting, he perishes in the attempt. He kills the dragon with the help of the one warrior, Wiglaf, who doesn’t flee in fear like the rest of his men, but he leaves his kingdom without a strong leader and vulnerable to attack, something his people know:

A woman of the Geats in grief sang out

the lament for his death. Loudly she sang,

her hair bound up, the burden of her fear

that evil days were destined her

—troops cut down, terror of armies,

bondage, humiliation. 

Beowulf saves the kingdom only to leave it open to attack—mostly so he can die a hero and maybe have his story still told in a blog in 2021. When Beowulf tells his men, “This affair is not for you,” he means that it’s his battle alone. But we can interpret this statement as, “I’m not doing this for you,” or at least not thinking through the consequences for you as I work to achieve personal glory. Wiglaf notes this within the poem: ”Many must often endure distress/for the sake of one; so it is with us.”

The anonymous writer of Beowulf likely was a Catholic monk, so he would have known his seven deadly sins and that pride was the worst of all. Before doing battle with the dragon, Beowulf

spoke a last time

a word of boasting: ‘Battles in plenty

I ventured in youth; and I shall venture this feud

and again achieve glory, the guardian of my people,

old though I am, if this evil destroyer

dares to come out of his earthen hall.’

The heroic Beowulf knows he’s old, but he refuses to accept that he is too old for the job and that it’s time to pass the mantle. He thinks of himself and his glory, not of how his actions affect his people.  

Like Christianity, Buddhism argues that a central source of suffering is clinging to the notion of an essential self because it often leads to a belief in a self being more important than other selves.

Beowulf’s battle with the dragon is sacrifice—but not self-sacrifice for Beowulf’s motivation is self.

Ignorant to suffering and its causes, Beowulf begins his epic heroic journey by saving a community, but he ends his own community by putting self before all else.


Photo provided by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash



Finding Home


“Your true home is in the here and the now.

Thich Nhat Hanh



I’ve written previously about our dog, Omarius, whom we adopted from the Humane Society at age three. We’re his third family. Rescued animals come with unknown histories, of course. Thanks to some medical problems, we do know that at some point Omarius was shot and still has pellets embedded in his chest.

We’re lucky, because in spite of this rough treatment, he is good-natured and completely sweet. He’s integrated very well into our home, which includes two cats. It’s taken some time, training, and love.

But he is hard to take on a walk. He’s always very excited to go, and he can manage seeing people now. He even has a group of friends who will stop to say hi, give him pets, and praise his improved behavior when we chance to see them. He still can’t manage other animals, especially dogs, which I do my best to avoid. Even hearing barking disturbs him. He pulls, spins around, and pants like crazy with anxiety.

In this way, he reminds me of Marlin, the clownfish from Finding Nemo. Like Omarius, Marlin, who is Nemo’s father, has suffered trauma. The movie opens with Marlin and his “wife,” Coral setting up home at the Drop Off. Marlin boasts about the views and space that their hundreds of children will get to enjoy. Alas, like all good real estate, that comes with a cost, in this case, predators. Within the first few minutes, Coral and all but one of the children become fish food. 

Understandably, this makes Marlin a cautious father. On Nemo’s first day of school, which Marlin clearly has deferred and would like to postpone even further, Nemo swims around excitedly trying to rush Marlin.

Marlin, however, reminds Nemo that the ocean is not safe and proceeds to go out and then back into their anemone home three times to check for any danger explaining that four would be better. 

When Marlin learns that the day’s school lesson will take place at the Drop Off, he fearfully races to retrieve his son. In doing so, he speaks repeatedly in front of everyone about Nemo’s poor swimming due to one shorter fin and tells Nemo, “You’ll start school in a year or two.” Upset and embarrassed, Nemo swims straight out toward a boat and gets captured, starting the main action of the film.

You can’t blame Marlin. That’s how trauma works. As Rick Hanson writes in Buddha’s Brain, those who experience trauma can feel completely disassociated from the traumatic event but continuously triggered by events that remind them unconsciously of the moment of trauma.

This is why Marlin needs Dory, a fish with memory problems. Her inability to remember leads to all sorts of comedy and, yes, to peril, but, in fact, Dory has the advantage over Marlin, for in addition to frequently forgetting where they are going or why, she is fearless and open to new experiences. There’s no traumatizing Dory. Without her, Marlin would fail. 

When Marlin and Dory get lost on their quest to find Nemo and Marlin panics, Dory forces him to pause, saying, “Relax. Take a deep breath.” Throughout, she sings or says, “Just keep swimming.” In other words, persevere and don’t let fear and trauma pull you back into the past.

The movie revolves around balance. Nemo, as all young must, figures out how to be confident while not being too risky. Marlin recognizes that a parent’s desire to protect has to be partnered with an ability to allow his child to “Just keep swimming.” Dory’s memory actually improves thanks to being part of an adopted family. When Marlin starts to leave her sure that their quest has failed, Dory tells him to stop, saying that “No one’s ever stuck with me for so long before.” She explains that  being with him has improved her memory because, “I look at you, and I’m home.”

I can’t actually ask him, but I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happened with Omarius too. He looks at my daughter and me and knows he’s home. Whatever happened in the past is still there for him, but he knows we’re going to stick with him and that he’s finally home. 

And when you’re home, as Finding Nemo shows, you can safely explore.

The movie ends with Marlin telling Nemo, “Now go have an adventure,” and, more importantly, the very last line of the movie is, “Bye, son.” Having overcome his trauma, Marlin can trust his love and trust his son.

May we all find our safe home with those who love and trust us.  



Photo provided by Kathryn Duncan



The Flowering of Anger


“All the daffodils look lovely today.

The Cranberries



I got very angry the other night.

The only relief for me is movement, so I walked briskly to the park less than a mile from my house and got on the swing set pumping my legs as hard as I could to go as high as I could and move as fast as I could. 

I was listening to an old Cranberries album aware of all of that anger flowing through me, sometimes feeling like it would overwhelm me. Then the song “Daffodil Lament” came on. 

I have decided to leave you forever. 

I have decided to start things from here. 

Thunder and lightning won’t change, 

What I’m feeling and the daffodils look lovely today, 

And the daffodils look lovely today, 

Look lovely today.

I felt the anger flow out, not through me then, and my body relaxed. I smiled. I walked home feeling almost wilted but better. 

There was no you to leave forever, rather phantoms of the past that I felt I could release and start things over from here

I’m not sure why those lyrics worked so completely to make me feel better, but they made me think of William Wordsworth, the English Romantic poet who penned a famous daffodil poem. 

Wordsworth writes about “feeling lonely as a cloud” when he comes upon a “host, of golden daffodils.” He describes them as “Tossing their hands in a sprightly dance.” And he feels this encounter change him in the moment, writing, “A poet could not but be gay,/In such a jocund company.” The thousands of daffodils spread their happiness and cheer to the observer, which Wordsworth recognizes and soaks in: “I gazed—and gazed—but little thought/What wealth the show to me had brought.”

The wealth is that Wordsworth can return to this moment in his mind’s eye. He concludes the poem by sharing that: 

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Those daffodils are a part of him now, and though he can’t always count on being able to see them out in nature and in person, they are with him. Thanks to his poem, they are with us also.

Wordsworth was one of the earliest English Romantic poets toward the end of the eighteenth century. Later Romantic poets called him a sell out when he went on to become poet laureate, and they criticized his attention to nature over politics. Romantic poet Percy Shelley even wrote a personally attacking poem called “To Wordsworth.”

But I think Wordsworth got it right—and later the Cranberries did too who, though they have political songs about Irish oppression, also wrote about daffodils. 

There’s nothing wrong with anger, but if I’m caught by it—and I truly was the other night—I’m no good to anyone. It’s fine that I felt that anger, great that I found a way to release it because, if I didn’t, anger has the potential to harm me physiologically and invites me to be unkind to those stuck being around me. 

For me, that anger was coming from the past, a taste of habit energy from horrible events. As Wordsworth’s poem reminded me via a Cranberries song, I also can call up seeds of wholeness, peace, and happiness after allowing that anger to pass through me. 

These are angry times, and anger is a natural emotion. What will we do with our anger? Nurture it? Act on it? 

I’m going to concentrate on the lovely daffodils.



Photo provided by  Aaron Burden on Unsplash



Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt


“Hey, baby, there ain’t no easy way out.

Tom Petty



I hate confrontation—which I’m working to confront—but denial is much more temporarily comforting.

In this, I’m a bit like the fictional British Prime Minister in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The former Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, informs the Muggle (non-magical) Prime Minister that the magical world is in turmoil due to the return of Lord Voldemort and that this turmoil is spilling over into the Muggle world. The British Prime Minister rejects this explanation of the hurricane, the murders, and all-around terrible news of late. 

The Prime Minister’s responses include “Excuse me!” “You don’t say!” and many sentences beginning with “But.” He prefers denial. 

Even as he is finally convinced, the Prime Minister wishes it all to go away and responds, “But for heaven’s sake—you’re wizards! You can do magic! Surely you can sort out—well—anything!”

The response he receives, however, offers no such comfort, for “The trouble is, the other side can do magic too, Prime Minister.” 

The “other side” for us does not consist of magical wizards and witches but the reality of a life that, according to the First Noble Truth, contains suffering, which there’s no sense in denying since to do so only makes things worse. 

This means rather than hoping to be rescued from our problems or uncomfortable feelings, we figure out a way to sit with them. 

First, though, we have to admit there’s a problem. I’m especially bad about this when it comes to physical ailments. I resemble Monica of Friends when she gets sick. 

The episode opens with Monica having been sent home from work because she is ill. When everyone offers consoling comments, she responds defensively, “I’m not sick! I never get sick!” all delivered in the nasal tones of a congested person. When challenged, Monica yells, “I’ve not been sick in over three years!” followed by a big sneeze. 

In order to prove she is healthy, she attempts to seduce Chandler, removing her robe to reveal a sexy nightgown and proceeding to shiver from fever-induced chills. She tells him that she wants to prove to him that she’s “fine” but then is overcome with sneezing and coughing, which she claims is laughing. The seduction culminates in Monica sneezing directly into Chandler’s face.

In the meantime, Chandler repeatedly urges her to drink fluids, rest, and cover up to take care of the chills.

Monica’s denial means she doesn’t do what’s needed to get better and risks getting others sick also.

I get it. Any time I feel symptoms of a cold (or even the flu once), I declare it’s allergies. It’s as if by refusing to acknowledge I am sick, I can make it go away.

But there’s no easy way out—no magic, no imaginary remedy to illness that involves me simply denying it. 

Rather, I need to admit to and confront the problem, perhaps rest a bit, maybe take an Ibuprofen rather than deny my head is pounding with pain. I need to accept that there’s a problem.

The Dalai Lama urges confrontation over denial when it comes to worry. He teaches that if there is a solution to a problem that we should direct our energy there rather than in worrying. “If there is no way out, no solution, no possibility of resolution, then there is also no point in being worried about it, because you can’t do anything about it anyway. In that case, the sooner you accept this fact, the easier it will be on you. This formula, of course, implies directly confronting the problem.”

Next time I’m confronted with magic or a sneeze, I plan to take his advice and face it head on.


Photo provided by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash



Speaking the Unspeakable


“The greatest gift we can make to others is our true presence.

Thich Nhat Hanh



Both of my parents had dementia. Both are dead.

That’s a conversation stopper.

It’s not that I ever begin conversations by sharing this information, but it sometimes comes up because their dementia is a part of who I am. My parents’ dementia changed me. 

I’m not alone as more than six million Americans have Alzheimer’s, but it still felt like a lonely experience where I struggled to feel heard and understood.

I thought of this recently as I re-read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book with a silly title and a light touch that treats a very serious subject: the Nazi occupation of the Guernsey islands off of England during WWII.

The novel is set after the war, with characters recounting the occupation, and it includes the story of Remy, a French woman who was held in a concentration camp. 

In trying to understand Remy’s trauma, one of the characters reads an article by another concentration camp survivor who struggled with reintegrating into society because no one “wants to know anything about your life in the camps.” Others advise forgetting it ever happened as the best way to move forward.

The article’s fictional writer, Giselle Pelletier, explains “it is not that you want to belabor anyone with details, but it did happen to you.” Pelletier says the only relief she could find was in being with other survivors. “They talk, they rail, they cry, they tell one story after another. . . .The relief is enormous.”

However, Remy does not recover through being with other survivors. Instead, she finds relief on Guernsey through time spent with its quietest inhabitant, Dawsey.

Dawsey has no miraculously comforting words to offer Remy, nor can he share stories of the same experience. Rather, Dawsey is simply there—fully, completely.

Thich Nhat Hahn advises using the Four Mantras as a way of being present for each other. The first is simply, “I am here for you.” Quiet and total presence alone can alleviate suffering. The second is, “I know you are there, and I am very happy.” This brings both people fully into the present moment. The third mantra is, “I know that you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” A suffering person who feels acknowledged can let go of the pretense that all is well, which gives permission to be open and vulnerable. The fourth mantra is used if we are suffering and feel our loved one has caused this suffering. Rather than turn away from that person, we turn to them and say, “I am suffering. Please help.” 

A nun advises Dawsey that Remy “must be around people—cheerful people, if possible,” which leads him to ask, “how am I to serve up good cheer? Joking and such is not natural to me.” 

However, the nun is wrong. Remy does not need to forget. She does not need good cheer. She needs presence, listening, and empathy—all of which Dawsey can offer to her as someone who has lived a life of quiet observation never desiring attention or being led by ego. 

Dawsey is, using Mark Epstein’s definition, a great meditator though he never meditates. Epstein explains, “the name of the Chinese representation of compassion, the Buddhist ‘goddess’ Kuan Yin, literally means ‘observer’ (kuan) of ‘sounds’ (yin). We practice meditation when we listen to the feelings of another: to their pain, their distress, and their suffering.” 

We will never find the “right” words for friends who are suffering due to their own illnesses or illnesses of loved ones because these magical words do not exist. Rather, we can be truly present and listen. 

That is enough.


Photo provided by  Jeremy Wong on Unsplash



I Am No-Self


“I am everything I’ve learned and more.




There’s a rather difficult idea at the center of Buddhism: no-self. It seems so counterintuitive. How can there be no self?

When the explanation is applied to a tree, which Thich Nhat Hanh uses as an analogy, it makes perfect sense. There is no essential tree, no singular thing that we can point to that makes a tree a tree. Rather, a tree is an aggregate of its parts: roots, trunk, limbs, leaves—even sunshine and clouds that go into nurturing it.

And, okay, sure I’m an aggregate of parts too from head to toes. But it doesn’t feel right, this idea of no-self. In fact, some deeply practiced meditators argue that we have to feel no-self, that it can’t be grasped completely intellectually.

We can give it a shot, though, by turning to another reliable fount of wisdom: a Disney movie.

Moana doesn’t seem like an obvious choice with its main character belting out in song and repeatedly saying, “I am Moana.” The movie complicates that notion of I, however, offering insight into no-self.

For we are not only aggregates of the various parts that currently make up our being. We are also an aggregate of our ancestors.

Some of that is pretty straightforward. When Moana’s father continuously stifles her strong intuitive urge to be with the sea, Moana’s mother eventually explains to her that “He was you,” telling Moana that her father when young also felt the call of the ocean but capsized, losing his best friend in the process. Moana’s Gramma also tells her that she’s stubborn like her father.

The film goes deeper than those connections to immediate family that feel obvious to us, which we learn via Moana’s Gramma, the one character in the movie who encourages Moana to figure out “who you are.”

Gramma holds the stories of the islanders’ ancestors, and she recognizes that the problems they are currently experiencing come from this lore and because “we have forgotten who we are.” To remind Moana, Gramma takes her to a secret cavern, telling her she will find the “answer to the question you keep asking yourself: Who are you meant to be?” Gramma understands that Moana is an aggregate of the many ancestors who predated her, not an independent entity unique in her desire to go out to sea but an expression of generations who did exactly that.

Moana learns that she embodies the mission of these ancestors to be wayfinders. She struggles, of course, because that essential self idea is so strongly embedded in us. When she feels lonely and says aloud, “I go alone,” a beautiful stingray made of pure light appears representing her Gramma. And when the spirit of her Gramma appears to her at her most desperate, Gramma assures her that “I can’t leave you. There is nowhere you could go that I won’t be with you.”

Moana indeed proclaims, “I am Moana,” but her Gramma instructs her to phrase it this way: “I am Moana of Motunui.” She is not a lone entity, a mere self, but a part of her island, the island a part of her, a part of her people, and the people a part of her.

Why is this important? When we are focused solely on the self—convinced that we are separate, that there is a definable self—then we are scared, alone, and defensive because we believe we are not a continuation. We must defend this essential self at all costs—all of our opinions, all of our comfortable ways that we’ve invented to keep us “safe,” and all of the “Very Important Stories,” as Pema Chodron calls them, that make up our version of reality.

We cause a lot of suffering.

We can choose instead to see ourselves as belonging, to “tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain,” for then, “We know the way.” 



Photo provided by Braden Jarvis on Unsplash



We Are What We Eat


“Give us this day our daily bread.

Matthew 6:11



Franz Kafka opens his infamous story “The Metamorphosis” matter of factly, telling the reader in a flat tone: “When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.”

Kafka’s 1915 story was written in German, so that quote comes from a translation, which matters greatly for this story. Kafka never specifies what kind of bug Gregor becomes. We get a description of his belly as “rounded, brown, partitioned by archlike ridges” and of his “numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his girth.”

Some translators go with cockroach, but, thematically, I’m with the translators who call Gregor a dung beetle.

Metaphorically, Gregor has been eating a lot of. . .dung before his transformation. He has been working for five years as a traveling salesman in order to pay off his unemployed father’s debts. He is the only one with a job in his family, who clearly takes him for granted.

Like a dung beetle, Gregor has been living off the emotional leftovers of others and making important but overlooked contributions.

Gregor is concerned primarily by his transformation from person to vermin because he will miss work. His concern is not entirely misplaced, for he is defined by his work—work that he hates and where he is not appreciated.

It sounds silly when Gregor worries that his employer will be suspicious if he reports himself too sick to work since he’s never done so. Yet his fear is justified as his manager comes to his very bedroom door to upbraid him for tardiness.

Eventually, Gregor attempts to get out of bed. What follows is a detailed, comical description of a giant bug on its back rocking back and forth trying to get back on its (his?) many feet. As he struggles, Gregor thinks to himself “how simple everything would be if someone came to help him.”

However, Gregor has “formed the cautious habit, an offshoot of his business trips, of locking all his doors at night even at home.” And he’s glad of this because he doesn’t want his family to see him, but it also means no one can help him.

Eventually, Gregor manages to unlock the door, but his father offers violence instead of help, forcing him back into the room.

At first, his sister attempts to help by feeding Gregor. She brings him what she knows Gregor likes: milk and bread. Gregor, though hungry, can’t eat it. Seeing this, Grete brings an array of choices the next day: “old, half-rotten vegetables; bones from their supper, coated with a white gravy that had solidified; a few raisins and almonds; a cheese that two days earlier Gregor would have found inedible; a dry slice of bread, a slice of bread and butter, and a slice of salted bread and butter.” Gregor discovers that he can eat nothing fresh, only disgusting leftovers—only waste.

When Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the Victorians feared that if we could evolve, we might also devolve, regressing and becoming more animalistic. What evolution shows is how adaptable all species are. In this case, Gregor adapted so thoroughly to an environment that expected him to eat dung that he became a dung beetle.

In explaining Buddhist psychology, Thich Nhat Hanh discusses different levels of consciousness, which include our senses, “sometimes referred to as ‘gates.’” Because what we allow to enter our consciousness has the potential to water seeds of anger, compassion, jealousy, love, anxiety, or mindfulness, “it is important to learn how to guard these gates into our consciousness, to choose wisely what we allow to enter and become seeds.”

Gregor dies of literal starvation with a rotten apple that his father threw at him as a weapon embedded in his back.

Gregor dies of symbolic starvation as he hears his family continuously discuss him as a burden with Grete saying aloud that she wishes he would die. In this family, there are no seeds of love as their relationships are defined as business transactions.

Gregor lacks any source of nutriment—physical and spiritual.

Gregor has good intentions in wanting to do his duty and to support his family. In the process, though, he has locked doors rather than guarding gates and, thereby, is dehumanized.







Photo provided by  Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash



Failure Is an Option


“That’s the beauty of complacency. . . .If you don’t try anything new, you won’t fail.

Mr. Hopps, Zootopia



Gene Kranz of NASA famously coined the term, “Failure is not an option,” during the Apollo 13 mission, but, of course, the mission did fail.

Sometimes the stakes are high, so high that we refuse to acknowledge that failure is always an option, for that’s the reality: failure is inevitable.

Since we can’t avoid failure, we have to figure out a way to be comfortable with it. We don’t have to love it, welcome it, or embrace it. But we need to know it’s going to happen and be okay with that.

We need to live our lives like the wise Judy Hopps, star of Disney’s Zootopia.

Judy is a rabbit in a world where predators and prey no longer openly attack each other. Even in this ostensibly kinder, gentler world, no one believes a bunny can be a police officer, which is Judy’s dream, one she clings to from childhood and which she achieves in spite of opposition from all directions.

Her farming parents are “proud and scared” when she passes the academy. The chief of police relegates her to meter maid duties, which thrills her parents though it’s a huge disappointment to Judy. 

Throughout, Judy ardently believes in the slogan of the great city of Zootopia: Anyone can be anything.

As Chief Bogo tells her, though, “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and your insipid dreams magically come true.” Irony aside, he’s right.

Judy fails and makes a lot of mistakes. She places trust where she shouldn’t. She’s manipulated.

Yet Judy perseveres, at first because of her naive belief in a slogan, but later because she’s okay with failing and recognizes everyone has limitations.

Pema Chodron explains why we avoid failure at all costs. “Basically, disappointment, embarrassment, and all these places where we just cannot feel good are a sort of death. We’ve just lost our ground completely; we are unable to hold it together and feel that we’re on top of things. Rather than realizing that it takes death for there to be birth, we just fight against the fear of death.”

When we fail, then, it feels as if a hope, a dream, an idea that people have about us, or a picture that we have of who we are will change so drastically that it feels like a kind of death. This kind of change is scary.

Like failure, though, change is inevitable. In fact, David Barash reminds us that “Permanence is a death sentence.” Nothing in nature stays the same. That applies to all life, all animals, including humans. As Mr. Big from Zootopia states, “My child, we may be evolved, but deep down we are still animals.” As people, we continue to evolve—to change, grow, and fail.

Judy’s takeaway from her experiences is to embrace change, even to encourage it as she persuades her fox buddy to break precedence and become a member of the police force also.

In her speech to new recruits, she tells everyone, “We all have limitations. We all make mistakes, which means, hey glass half-full, we all have a lot in common.”

Or if you prefer wisdom from a Buddhist nun rather than a rabbit, “From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.”

Personally, I like advice from a gazelle, in this case voiced by Shakira in the movie’s theme song:

Birds don’t just fly

They fall down and get up

Nobody learns without getting it wrong


I won’t give up

No, I won’t give in till I reach the end

And then I’ll start again

No, I won’t leave

I want to try everything

I want to try even though I could fail.


Let’s try, fail, get back up, and support each other through the whole process, if not fearlessly, then with the courage of a bunny willing to take on the world.


Photo provided by Tristan Frank on Unsplash



A Dickensian View


“Once people lock onto a vision of reality that appeals to them, they tend to hold their views as being uniquely true.

B. Alan Wallace, Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic



People either love or hate Charles Dickens, with not much in between. Usually it’s an issue of style. I suspect that the very things that make me love Dickens (of course I do!) are the things that the anti-Dickens crowd hates.

Dickens’ style is a product of his times. Victorian writers tended to publish their novels serially. They would sell their novels to magazines with chapters appearing in each issue, so the original audience read Dickens in smaller chunks over a longer period of time than, for example, my super lucky college students who get to read an entire Dickens novel within a few weeks.

Because of this serial publishing, Victorian novels run long. The American novelist and literary critic Henry James (1843-1916) called Victorian novels “large, loose, baggy monsters.” I get his point. I would love to teach Dickens’ Bleak House, a brilliant, moving novel that offers cogent social critique, but that particular monster runs about 800 pages, leading to all sorts of logistical nightmares for a syllabus.

Victorian readers wanted their long novels to have moral messages, so we find lengthy passages in Dickens that offer commentary from a narrator but do not further the plot.

Currently, I’m rereading Barnaby Rudge, and I’m enjoying it very much because I’ve decided to read it like a Victorian, slowly and taking in those long narrative passages. Keep in mind that I am an anxious reader. I tend to read books hurriedly for plot because I’m so worried about the characters who seem alive to me; I need to know what happens next—and quickly. But Dickens slows me down and tells me to look more carefully.

A great example is the opening of chapter 29, which begins with one of Dickens’ famous long commentaries, this time about observation. Feeling Dickensian myself, I’m going to quote it in its entirety:

The thoughts of worldly men are for ever regulated by a moral law of gravitation, which, like the physical one, holds them down to earth. The bright glory of day, and the silent wonders of a starlit night, appeal to their minds in vain. There are no signs in the sun, or in the moon, or in the stars, for their reading. They are like some wise men, who, learning to know each planet by its Latin name, have quite forgotten such small heavenly constellations as Charity, Forbearance, Universal Love, and Mercy, although they shine by night and day so brightly that the blind may see them; and who, looking upward at the spangled sky, see nothing there but the reflection of their own great wisdom and book-learning.

Stuck in a mindset of considering only worldly aspirations, we get pulled down by those concerns, making us unable to appreciate the heavens, not only the beauty of the sky but more heavenly goals of concern and kindness for others.

Dickens develops these ideas in the next paragraph by telling the reader how the envious man when looking at the stars only sees the honors received by his neighbor and how, to the money hoarder, the stars appear as glittering coins. “So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.” In other words, trapped by self-centered worldly notions, we fail to see clearly.

When I teach survey classes that can cover hundreds of years, I talk about how we put on glasses and that they determine how we see the world. Thanks to owning nine pairs of glasses (some prescription, some not), I get to demonstrate that notion pretty easily as I switch out sunglasses for reading glasses for computer glasses, etc., all of which change how I see.

For those living all the way back in the medieval period, everything was seen through the lens of the church. When the Renaissance came along, the world looked different through the eyes of humanism. By the time of the Enlightenment, science started to change the prescription for vision. The same phenomenon of human behavior and nature look different to us depending on our explanatory viewpoint.

What Dickens explains in this passage is that we wear not only a cultural set of glasses but personal ones as well. When we become too egocentric, wearing our personal ambitions and fears as lenses, we will be blind to beauty and to others, unable to offer charity, forbearance, love, and mercy.

Without using the word, Dickens is reminding his readers to be mindful and, by extension, to awaken to the world. He understands that mindfulness has an ethical component, benefitting all.

We owe it to ourselves and to others to see clearly, appreciating heavenly beauty.


Photo provided by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Crew of Light



Dracula vs the Crew of Light


“The roots of a lasting relationship are mindfulness, deep listening and loving speech, and a strong community to support you.

Thich Nhat Hanh





The Three Jewels of Buddhism are the dharma, the Buddha, and the sangha. The dharma means the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha means a faith that, like the Buddha, all can achieve enlightenment. The sangha refers to the community of support that is necessary to achieve enlightenment.

We need community, which we can see through the study of vampires, or at least that most well-known of vampires, Dracula. Bram Stoker’s infamous Dracula faces the Crew of Light, determined to bring his evil to light.

Each member of the Crew brings something necessary to defeat the monster, proving the whole is greater than its parts.

English law clerk Jonathan Harker sets off for Transylvania to meet Count Dracula to help him out with some real estate deals. Isolated and trapped with the most threatening of all vampires, Harker nearly perishes as Dracula heads to England for fresh blood. Harker returns home, offering first-hand experience of what it’s like to be Dracula’s victim.

Mina, the lone woman on the Crew and Harker’s wife, contributes intelligence, secretarial skills that allow the Crew to log events and see connections, a sort of maternal love that heartens them all, and a rallying figure as they must attempt to rescue her once she becomes Dracula’s victim. As victim, she continues to contribute thanks to a psychic connection that allows them all to figure out Dracula’s next moves.

Lord Arthur Godalming, though a less developed character, throws his title and money around as the Crew hunts Dracula. His title gives cover for a necessary breaking and entering.

There’s Quincy Morris, who carries big guns because, after all, he’s a Texan, and his fresh perspective as an American.

Jonathan Seward is a medical man running an asylum who uses the new technology of the phonograph to record what is happening.

More importantly, Seward introduces his former teacher Dr. Van Helsing onto the scene. He’s a Dutch doctor who offers another non-English viewpoint, one that moves beyond reason and science to include religion and folklore. He’s the only one who understands what Dracula is and introduces the necessary garlic and crucifixes for protection.

Beyond this knowledge, Van Helsing grasps what a powerful group can bring to bear in times of darkness that require enlightenment. When all are overwhelmed with grief, Van Helsing asks Arthur for his trust, which he grants, and requests that Seward have an open mind and believe. He asks Seward, “Do you not think that there are things that you cannot understand, and yet which are; that some people see things that others cannot?”

What we can see—or not—due to our limited perspective is exactly the point. 

In The World Is Made of Stories, David Loy argues exactly this, writing that a “story is a point of view. There is no perspectiveless perspective. There is no way to escape perspectives except by multiplying them.”

When the characters are alone, they are ignorant and vulnerable in their limited perspectives. When Harker is in Transylvania, he refuses to the adopt the perspective of the locals who attempt to stop him from going to Dracula’s castle. From his singular English rational perspective, he dismisses them as superstitious (though fortunately he takes the crucifix offered to him). As part of the Crew of Light, he sees and believes thanks to multiple perspectives.

Form reinforces this theme as Stoker tells his story through letters, journals, telegraphs, and newspaper accounts. None of these threads holds the whole truth, but synthesizing these perspectives brings everything to light.

Linked together through common interest, a sense of duty, and a willingness to believe, the Crew of Light destroys Dracula, for in leaving Transylvania, it’s Dracula who ends up alone as he faces the Crew of Light, and, therefore, Dracula—the immortal vampire—is the one to perish.

We don’t face monsters like vampires in our daily lives, but there are the monsters of anxiety, anger, and grief (to name a few) that sometimes feel as powerful as Dracula. We need our own Crew of Light for support and perspective, and then we will be victors.


Photo provided by Duy Pham on Unsplash





“Loneliness is the suffering of our time.

Thich Nhat Hanh



British Modernism, which arose at the very beginning of the twentieth century, is marked by pessimism, alienation, and existential loneliness—that feeling that you are completely alone even when surrounded by people because no one can ever truly understand you nor you them. It’s pretty glum.

The Modernists were understandably grim given the time period. They were responding to a crumbling empire and to World War I in their writing. It was a time of great disruption that changed not only society but how people understood the world.

James Joyce’s 1914 Dubliners collection of short stories embodies all of the Modernist themes. The story that best captures the theme of existential loneliness is the last in the collection: “The Dead.”

The protagonist of “The Dead” is Gabriel. The setting appears cheerful—an annual party held by Gabriel’s aunts.

Gabriel, however, is anxious. He is to give a speech to start the dinner, and he is in agony over it, afraid that the guests will not understand his allusions. Gabriel stands outside the main action of the party when he arrives, thinking of his fellow partygoers that, “their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail . . . He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.” From the start, Gabriel feels himself apart from others and physically distances himself while mentally creating a bigger chasm between himself and everyone else.

This continues during the party, most significantly at the meal itself. His speech is met with applause but goes over the heads of his aunts whom he is attempting to honor with his classical references. He then settles in to carve the goose. A shared meal symbolizes community and connection, but Gabriel does not eat with the others. Rather, feeling “quite at ease now for he was an expert carver,” Gabriel offers first and then second helpings to everyone, not serving himself until the other guests insist, at which point he “set to his supper and took no part in the conversation.”

And when the dessert is served, Gabriel eats celery. No offense to celery lovers, but certainly his partaking of a fairly tasteless vegetable rather than a lush dessert with everyone else also separates Gabriel.

When Gabriel and his wife are alone at the end of the evening, his complete detachment reaches a climax. Wanting desperately to be passionate and loving with his wife but feeling unable to express this, he instead becomes jealous as she tells Gabriel about a long-dead boyfriend whom she had known before meeting him.

This is an intimate moment as Gretta is being emotionally vulnerable with her husband. But Gabriel, “trembling with annoyance”, hears her memories as personal rejection instead. He is thrown into an unjustified sense of self doubt: “While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.”

Gabriel never shares with his lifelong companion his nervousness over the speech, his feelings of awkwardness at the party that make him seek isolation, his feelings of passion for her, or his pain when hearing about the long-dead boyfriend of her youth.

Rather than connect and communicate, Gabriel fixates on self-presentation—the man in the mirror—leaving him existentially lonely.

The Dalai Lama has shared that he avoids social anxiety by remembering that each of us is connected, each simply a human wishing for (and deserving) happiness. He does not worry about failing, noting that if we make mistakes but with good intentions, it merely means we were not up to the task.

If loneliness is the suffering of our time, it’s a choice when it comes to the existential version. Be understood by allowing those you love to understand you rather than fixating on the image in the mirror.


Photo provided by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash






“Because our perception is ‘stained’ by our emotions, memories, views, and knowledge, we cannot touch the true nature of what we observe.

Thich Nhat Hanh



Within the tradition of Buddhism are bodhisattvas: those who seek enlightenment for the sake of all. A bodhisattva consciously aspires to awaken bodhicitta, the “mind of love,” ready to accept pleasure or pain with equanimity with the goal of bringing happiness to other beings.

While all of us have the ability to be bodhisattvas, within the Buddhist tradition, particular bodhisattvas are held up as examples. One bodhisattva with whom Westerners may be familiar is Kuan Yin whose name literally translates to observer of  sounds.

To be bodhisattvas, therefore, we must also be observers: of others in order to offer compassion and, as a foundation, to our own feelings and thoughts so that we may observe correctly.

Jane Austen understood this. Throughout all of her fiction, characters wreak havoc through their lack of observation. Elizabeth Bennet fails to see that Darcy is falling in love with her. No one but Fanny Price notices the inappropriate and ultimately dangerous flirting of Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram. And Emma fails to observe, well, pretty much everything.

Within the novel Emma, though, we do find a model observer—who ultimately also demonstrates the difficulty of mindful observation: Mr. Knightley.

While Emma  receives adulation from all around her, Mr. Knightley recognizes that Emma has faults and makes mistakes that, in a sort of anti-bodhisattva fashion, are bound to make others unhappy.

When Mr. Knightley realizes that Emma’s matchmaking scheme for her friend Harriet will ruin Harriet’s chances with a kind, genuine man who wishes to marry her, he scolds Emma soundly, noting the problem of skewed observation. He tells Emma, “your infatuation about that girl blinds you.”

Using his powers of observation, Mr. Knightley warns Emma off of her matchmaking scheme for Harriet with Mr. Elton: “from his general way of talking in unreserved moments, when there are only men present, I am convinced that he does not mean to throw himself away.” Mr. Elton plans to marry well, not to someone of Harriet’s rank. Mr. Knightley knows this through his careful listening.

He also uses his observations to the benefit of others, for Mr. Knightley’s telling Emma about her rude behavior toward someone of lower social status awakens compassion and observation within Emma.

But even Mr. Knightley misses in his observations when led by his feelings. Like all in town, he is duped by the secretly engaged couple, for Knightley is blinded by his own jealousy.

Convinced that Frank Churchill is wooing Emma and that she is willingly accepting his attentions, Mr. Knightley fails to see that Frank is merely using Emma as a shield to hide his true feelings for another young lady. Mr. Knightley also misreads Emma, who plays with the idea of being in love with Frank, but she never has any real affection for him beyond a superficial friendship.

Overwhelmed by his jealousy after Frank is particularly flirtatious with Emma, Mr. Knightley runs off to London, returning home hurriedly in the rain when he learns of Frank’s engagement to another. Expecting to find a disconsolate Emma, he goes to comfort her.

Our narrator tells us, “He had found her agitated and low.—Frank Churchill was a villain.—He heard her declare that she had never loved him [Frank]. Frank Churchill’s character was not desperate.—She was his own Emma, by hand and word, when they returned into the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill then, he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow.”

Even one of Austen’s most observant characters loses those powers of observation when caught by his own story.

As Austen wrote in her novel Persuasion, “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!” In this case, how quickly we see things when that is what we expect to see.

Instead, like Austen, let us observe with clarity and, like Kuan Yin, with compassion.


Photo provided by Kathryn Duncan





“If you get satisfaction, you don’t want any more, right?

Robert Wright



The Buddha was not speaking English in the talk he gave laying out the Four Noble Truths. This means we are relying on translations to get at the truth of the First Noble Truth, usually translated as life contains suffering.

Buddhist scriptures are written in either Sanskrit or Pali. In Sanskrit, the word most often translated as suffering is spelled Duhkha and in Pali Dukkha.

However, in his online course, “Buddhism and Modern Psychology,” Robert Wright explains that we might find a different translation makes more sense, pointing to the song “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones as best expressing what the Buddha may have been getting at.

It’s not that we are constantly suffering (thank goodness) but that there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction that hums underneath all that we do. Even as we enjoy what we love most, there’s the knowledge that the pleasure we are experiencing is temporary. We always want more.

Basically, we are all versions of the Alexander Hamilton created by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

Key characters in the play attempt to teach the “young, scrappy, and hungry” Hamilton to be satisfied.

When he returns against his will from the battlefield to his pregnant wife Eliza, she talks to him about appreciating what they have, about seeing they have “enough.” She tells him they are lucky “to be alive right now.” She wants him to know, “So long as you come home at the end of the day, that would be enough.”

But, of course, Hamilton is not satisfied.

Later, President George Washington will take a shot at teaching Hamilton about being satisfied with enough when he asks Hamilton to write his farewell address. As Hamilton urges Washington to stay in office, Washington responds, “I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree a moment alone in the shade at home in this nation we’ve made.”

Washington acknowledges that he’s done his job, and now he must “teach them how to say goodbye” passing the baton onto the next president. He is satisfied that he has done enough and has earned a rest.

Hamilton, though, seems temperamentally prone to dissatisfaction with his constant chatter, reading, writing, and plotting. Miranda doesn’t leave us guessing at this, devoting more than one song to the theme.

Upon meeting his future sister-in-law, Hamilton says to her:

“You strike me as a woman who has never been satisfied.”

. . .

“You’re like me. I’m never satisfied.”

. . .

“I have never been satisfied.” 

It’s not straightforward. Hamilton should not be satisfied with the childhood he experienced nor the oppression by the British nor the enslavement of fellow humans. He is right to vow, “I am not throwing away my shot.” As he and his young fellow revolutionaries proclaim, “When you’re living on your knees, rise up.” Do not be satisfied.

But Hamilton’s egocentric concentration on his own satisfaction—his determination to leave a legacy—means he will never be satisfied and, therefore, will not get past the First Noble Truth, which leads to heartbreak, betrayal, anger, ignominy, and death.

Hamilton and his friends sing before the Revolution, “Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away.” Alas, our physical freedom can be taken away. But the Second, Third, and Fourth Noble Truths teach us that we can be freed from suffering or, if you prefer, dissatisfaction.

We can act against injustice yet be satisfied within, bringing to the battle our own inner sense of peace and the understanding that we are enough.



Photo provided by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash



Greedy Brains


“We are constantly murmuring, muttering, scheming, or wondering to ourselves under our breath: comforting ourselves, in a perverse fashion, with our own silent voices.

Mark Epstein, Thoughts without a Thinker



I love advice columns, always have. When I was a kid, I read Dear Abby and her sister Ann Landers, and I still read Miss Manners.

My current favorite is Carolyn Hax. Hax is great because she responds not only to a letter writer’s question with specific advice but explains her rationale, demonstrating great insight into human nature.

Recently, Hax replied to a reader that “Brains are greedy; they want to be fed constantly with things to work on, things to look forward to, opportunities to feel useful and productive. Otherwise they get anxious and replay negative moments or amplify fears or seek relief in familiar habits.”

Buddhists call it the monkey mind. It’s that internal voice chattering (nonstop for some of us) that constantly wants to pull our attention toward. . .something—anything.

I can’t help but feel that if Jane Austen were alive today, she and Hax would be good friends. Both can manage some entertaining snark, and both understand about monkey minds, just as the Buddha had long before either of these astute women lived.

I can picture Hax advising Mary Musgrove, a character in Austen’s last published work, Persuasion. Mary is the youngest of three sisters and the only one married when the novel opens. Though she has married well with plenty to be grateful for, she spends much of her time dissatisfied.

Based upon Mary’s interaction with the middle sister of the family, Anne, her letter to Carolyn would complain of being ill used and unwell. Thanks to Mary’s underfed greedy brain, “any indisposition sunk her completely; she had no resources for solitude.”

This proves true immediately. Upon arriving for her visit, Anne finds Mary prone on her couch complaining of not seeing a living soul the entire morning (her husband, children, servants, and father-in-law do not count apparently) though everyone knows she’s not well. Mary informs Anne that “I am so ill I can hardly speak” and then recites nonstop complaints, especially when Anne doesn’t ask her about the party Mary attended the night before. Her indisposition seems a thing of the moment, one that appeared as soon as she had no distractions.

Anne provides the necessary distraction. Anne’s “perseverance of patience, and a forced cheerfulness” soon “produced nearly a cure.” Mary is able to “sit upright on the sofa” due to “forgetting to think” of how horribly ill she is, and then crosses the room to arrange flowers. Shortly after, the sisters go on a walk.

Austen makes clear that Mary is not bad natured. Mary simply has a greedy brain that she does not feed, so she more often than not imagines herself uncomfortable and sick. She always needs more and better.

We see this in a later scene as well when a large party goes on a long walk. As they take a break, “Mary finding a comfortable seat for herself, on the step of a stile, was very well satisfied so long as the others all stood about her;” when some of the party wander off, “Mary was happy no longer; she quarreled with her own seat,—was sure that Louisa had got a much better somewhere,—and nothing could prevent her from going to look for a better also.”

Mary’s letter to Carolyn Hax would explain how no one pays her enough attention and that she has to settle for less than everyone else—less than she deserves.

I picture Carolyn showing less patience for Mary’s whining than Anne does throughout the book. Instead, she would advise her to feed that greedy brain with useful and productive activity and to stop focusing so much on herself. She would tell Mary to pick up a book, perhaps something by that wise and deliciously funny Jane Austen.

In fact, Carolyn likely would tell Mary to be more like her sister. For though Anne genuinely is overlooked and has legitimate complaints, she never lacks a sense of purpose so is consistently happier than her needy sister in spite of Mary’s better life circumstances.

Anne feeds her brain with empathy, compassion, and kindness, so her happiness is reliable because it comes from within.

Carolyn Hax would approve.



Photo provided by Paolo Chiabrando on Unsplash





“Many of us live like dead people because we live without awareness. We carry our dead bodies with us and circulate throughout the world.”

Thich Nhat Hanh



I tell the students who take my monster class that we learn a lot about our culture’s fears based upon the monster of the day.

Currently, that monster is the zombie. Scholars have argued that the zombie represents anxiety about consumerism or about terrorism. I’ve argued in an essay that they symbolize our fear of dementia, given that more than six million Americans have Alzheimer’s.

No matter what they symbolize, zombies are ubiquitous, from the mashup fiction of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to the TV show The Walking Dead, which finished its tenth season recently.

Zombie fiction tends to be bleak, with zombies often coming along as part of an overall apocalypse. In Max Brooks’ World War Z, a reporter records the aftermath of a global pandemic that resulted in zombie hoards attacking world wide, nearly wiping out all of humankind. In Brooks’ book, humans triumph though the cost in life and lifestyle is astronomical. That is as cheerful as zombie literature tends to get. 

Zombies usually resemble shuffling rotten carcasses, unable to communicate and driven only by the urge to eat living flesh. They are not really sentient beings.

But they certainly bring out feelings in human survivors. As a dear friend put it, zombies are land sharks. Sure, zombies are a major scary threat, but the real problem is the human survivors.

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Elizabeth Bennet is a trained zombie hunter who can kill as well as dance properly at a ball. However, the undercurrent of anger Elizabeth demonstrates in Austen’s original verges on degenerating into zombie-like behavior of her own in the mashup version where Elizabeth kills a ninja, pulls his heart from his chest, and takes a bite out of it.

Past the first few seasons, the main action of The Walking Dead has circled more around surviving groups warring than around the zombies themselves with scenes of torture and killing among the humans taking center stage.

World War Z also includes accounts of atrocious human behavior from the marketing of a false vaccine that makes a man a fortune to cannibalism in order to survive the harsh winter for those who fled to Canada where the zombies temporarily froze.

Zombies bring out the worst in everyone.

Thich Nhat Hanh does not use the word zombie in his book No Death, No Fear, but he does argue that many of us resemble the walking dead as we wander through each day mindlessly.

How often are our minds and bodies united? Too often, our head is in the past replaying all that has gone wrong unless our head is in the future projecting all that will go wrong.

Alas, like zombies, we have the potential to hurt those around us when living half dead. As Thich Nhat Hanh notes, “you cannot know how many people your words, actions and thoughts have touched.” In our own zombie-like state, we too can inflict harm producing factions and anger. The careless action or comment may resonate with someone in a life-altering way that we can’t imagine—because we’re too busy imagining the past or future to notice the present.

Fortunately, unlike those rotting corpses, we have a choice to be fully alive. We can be reborn in each and every moment into mindfulness. Yes, we can master our brains instead of eating others’ brains. How?

We choose to be in the present. We come back to life in this moment, recognizing that doing so is our chance at happiness and that, because we are interconnected, our choice of awareness benefits all.

Rather than being zombies, we can be reborn and fully alive, open to the conditions for happiness that already exist in our lives. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “we can become alive again. We will be like dead people reborn.”


Photo provided byYohann LIBOT on Unsplash



Hell on Hold


“Whether the ground beneath our feet is heaven or hell depends entirely on our way of seeing and walking.

Thich Nhat Hanh



I’m not good at “life stuff.” I’ve been doing a lot of life stuff lately.

When T.S. Eliot wrote ironically in his poem “The Wasteland” that April is the cruelest month, he was correct for college professors. As someone who teaches literature and writing, I rarely can take a day off during a semester, for there is always something to read or grade; by the end of the semester, it’s like living on a treadmill.

Once the semester ends, I have to pay more attention to life. The house is inevitably filthy. There are overdue doctors’ visits, car maintenance, home repairs, and endless calls to various organizations that inevitably will put me on hold and not let me talk to a person as I suffer through bad music.

We all have experienced this. It’s simply that much of this comes in a big clump for me, and I hate every bit of it.

I felt this particularly strongly last week when I discovered almost two years after my mother’s death that a company I knew nothing about was still debiting a small amount from the one account of Mom’s that I still had open. With all of the difficulties of closing her estate, I missed this. I had only the company’s name—no account number, no paperwork—nothing. I googled, picked one of a dozen numbers listed, and called. The two women who helped me were very kind, and we resolved the problem in about an hour, but this was a particularly difficult “life stuff” moment that left me drained and, I confess, crying as I sent off a copy of Mom’s death certificate.

I felt a bit like Buffy the vampire slayer after she returns from her second death (yes, second). In a musical episode called “Once More with Feeling,” Buffy roams the cemetery on slayer duty singing about how difficult “life stuff” has become for her:

“I’ve been going through the motions

walking through the part.

Nothing seems to penetrate my heart.

. . .

I just want to be


She has no zest for living. Her usual fun quips are gone. Life is a routine with no joy.

The singing is a result of a demon who has everyone bursting into song and telling the truth about the things that they’ve been holding back. In facing down that demon, Buffy finally confesses how disconsolate she feels, and, because it’s a demon causing all of this, she’s in danger as she sings about needing “something to sing about.”

Fortunately, she is saved by her frenemy Spike, himself a vampire, who advises her in song:

“Life’s not a song.

Life isn’t bliss.

Life is just this.

It’s living.

You’ll get along.

That pain that you feel you only can heal

by living.

You have to go on living.”

Immediately, Buffy’s sister, Dawn, chimes in, repeating the words that Buffy said to her just before that second death: “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.” When Buffy originally said this to Dawn, she finished the thought with, “Be brave. Live.”

I don’t suppose that we generally think that being on hold a long time, dealing with the maze that is insurance companies, or trying to find a doctor taking new patients requires a lot of courage. It’s certainly not the courage required to slay vampires.

But, for someone like me who hates the “life stuff,” it’s exactly fortitude that I need since, alas, too many of those calls feel emotionally fraught.

The closing group number has everyone singing:

“Where do we go from here?

Why is the path unclear?

When we know home is near?

. . .

When does the end appear?

When do the trumpets cheer?”

As Spike noted, there is no end to “life stuff” nor any trumpets. There is simply living. For me, the next move is more phone calls that I don’t want to make, more appointments to be made, more tussling with the labyrinth that is our insurance system.

What I learned from last week’s difficult call, though, is that the true suffering comes from my own mindset. So I will call. I will drink a good cup of coffee while I wait on hold. I’ll reconcile myself to the fact that “life is just this” sometimes.

And I will ignore the bad hold music knowing that eventually life will also give me something to sing about.



Photo provided by Kathryn Duncan



Coach’s Curiosity


“Curiouser and curiouser

Lewis Carol, Alice in Wonderland



Sometimes, curiosity gets a bad rap, as in curiosity killed the cat, but curiosity is a wonderful and powerful tool to achieve equanimity.

Curiosity can take us toward this sense of mental calmness and composure because we can use it for self knowledge, which, in turn, leads to less anxiety overall.

The titular character of Ted Lasso models this. Ted is an American coaching a Division II college football team in Kansas. He knows nothing about English football (aka soccer). This doesn’t stop him from accepting an offer to coach a Premier League football team in London. In the pilot episode, we see Ted being tutored by his assistant coach on the game’s jargon as the two fly to England.

Of course, comedy ensues, and Ted is faced with a lot of justifiable skepticism with one character noting that he’s not only never coached soccer, but his coaching experience of American football was of amateurs who were not playing at the top level of the sport.

Ted remains undeterred, facing down his critics with good will and often with humor. We see him experience some difficult emotions in the show, but none come from the constant criticism that he experiences daily. As the entire stadium yells “wanker” at him during the game, he stands on the sideline unperturbed.

We learn why when someone has yet again insulted Ted and assumes he will fail. Ted explains, “guys have underestimated me my entire life. And, for years, I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day, I was driving my little boy to school, and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman, and it was painted on the wall there. It said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that. So I get back in my car, and I’m driving to work, and all of the sudden it hits me. All them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them were curious. They thought they had everything already figured out. So they judged everything, and they judged everyone.”

Though the attribution to Whitman is a disputed one, the adage holds true for Ted and for all of us. Ted’s epiphany allows him to see that there is nothing wrong with him. Those judgmental fellows are defensive and don’t know what to do with a guy like Ted who lives his life in a constant state of curiosity, always ready to learn—as we see from his willingness to take good advice no matter the source, whether it’s his trusted assistant coach or the employee responsible for cleaning up the locker room.

Science supports the power of curiosity as well. Psychologist Paul Ekman, known for his research on the universality of facial expressions, notes that people who score well on recognizing subtle emotions tend to be more open to fresh experiences and more curious about life overall. They typically are more conscientious, dependable, and efficient.

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron argues for bringing this same curiosity to our interior life. She cites neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s book My Stroke of Insight to advise sitting with whatever emotions arise, no matter how uncomfortable, for an automatic response such as anger will only last 90 seconds, unless we feed it, suppress it, or run away from it. Rather, we can sit with that emotion, bringing an open mind and heart by being curious about it, not caught by it, letting it flow right through. Chodron writes, “We have to know ourselves fully and completely, avoiding nothing, never averting our gaze. We have to be curious about this thing called My Life, curious about this person called Me.”

When we are comfortable sitting with our own difficult feelings, we can feel less anxious. When we recognize that we’re being underestimated because others are judgmental and lack curiosity, we can lose social anxiety.

Each day, we can become “curiouser and curiouser” about life and, thereby, lead a better one.  



Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash



Marmee and Her Little Women


“Each of us is hungry for understanding.

Thich Nhat Hanh



If you were a bookish girl growing up, you likely read Little Women, the Louisa May Alcott novel published in 1868 chronicling the story of the four March sisters.

In birth order, there is Meg who is, in some ways, the stereotypical oldest sister serving as a second mother while chafing under the genteel poverty produced by the Civil War. Next is Jo, the free spirit of the family who resolves to be a writer and refuses to live quietly under the restrictions required of women. Amy is the artist, who is a bit vain and self-centered at the start but matures admirably. And lastly there is musical, sweet but, alas, sickly Beth, a model of patience.

I loved Little Women and had a beautiful collector’s Amy doll. She sported a yellow dress and blonde curls. While I loved her, especially because my mother’s name was Amy, I was not an Amy.

I was a Jo. For a period of years starting around age seven, I wore only pants (except for church), played with the boys at recess, got mistaken for a boy more than once, and hoped to be a writer.

I remember watching one of the many movie adaptations with friends and afterwards driving home with each of us saying which March sister we were. As it turns out, there were four of us in the car, and each of us claimed a different March girl.

We can’t be alone in this practice. Google which March sister are you, and you get many hits ranging from PBS to BuzzFeed.

The March sisters’ distinctive, aspirational personalities are thanks to Marmee, as the March sisters call their mother.

Marmee is a model of parenting. With her husband away in the war, Marmee runs the household with quiet leadership while living her values. When, for example, the family is about celebrate a somewhat meager Christmas, Marmee explains to her daughters that while they are doing with much less than in better times, they still enjoy plenty compared to many others. The March family then shares their Christmas feast with a much more impoverished family in the true spirit of giving.

Marmee also creates an atmosphere that allows each of these girls to be her own person in a culture that was more interested in creating perfect wives and mothers than in producing individuals who cultivated their talents. The March house has amateur theatrics with Jo writing scripts and her sisters acting. Such entertainment is innocuous fun, of course, but it didn’t necessarily line up with conventional ladylike behavior. Marmee wanted creativity and genuine charitable virtue, not perfect ladies.

In one of the novel’s most famous scenes, Jo cuts her long hair to finance Marmee’s trip to see their wounded father. Hair signified a woman’s femininity and even her sexuality. Rather than worry over Jo’s appearance and her unladylike choice, Marmee takes the strand Jo saved for her, saying only, “Thank you, deary” and blesses all of her daughters as they sleep that night.

Perhaps the most telling moment is when Marmee speaks to Jo about an argument with Amy. Marmee confesses her own struggles with anger, showing no qualms at being open, human, and vulnerable with her daughter. She tells Jo, “you may say anything to your mother, for it is my greatest happiness and pride to feel that my girls confide in me, and know how much I love them.”

Marmee offers unconditional love and open communication with her girls. She acknowledges their personal flaws and struggles and loves her girls for those flaws and struggles, not in spite of them, hence each being her own distinctive woman.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains, “If you look deeply into the person you love, you’ll be able to understand her suffering, her difficulties, and also her deepest aspirations. And out of that understanding, real love will be possible. When someone is able to understand us, we feel very happy. If we can offer our understanding to someone, that is true love.”

Marmee’s true love allows her daughters to be vain, angry, and ridiculous—in other words, genuine and able to develop into women who are creative, mature, kind, compassionate, and unconventional if they like.

Moms can do that. My mom did. I’m a Jo thanks to Mom choosing to be a Marmee, allowing me to be whom I wanted to be, not society’s version of me or a projection of what she thought a daughter should be. I still carry that beautiful gift within me. 



Photo by Kathryn Duncan



You’ve Got A Friend in Me


“In all kinds of weather, we’ll all stick together.

University of Florida, “We Are the Boys”



My friend Mike and I recently ran a virtual 5k together—together being a relative term since he lives in Nebraska and I live in Florida. He had perfect running weather in the 40s. Though it was early morning, I endured temperatures in the mid 70s with high humidity.

The virtual race was a contest for miles between University of Florida Gator fans and University of Georgia Bulldog fans—two longtime rivals, especially for me having grown up a diehard Gator in Jacksonville, which is where the two football teams play each other every year. (The Gators won.)

Mike grew up in Iowa, and he likes football, but he’s pretty neutral on the Gators.

However, he has seen them play because, though we met in 2015 in Missouri at a mutual friend’s house, we both were present at the 1983 Gator Bowl, which featured Iowa against the Gators, frankly a rather boring 14-6 Gator victory that no one much remembers.

What I do remember is that it was so cold that when I walked back to the parking lot postgame my feet at first had no feeling and then hurt like crazy. And this is not merely the Floridian complaining. The temperature was 35 when the game started, and the wind chill made it feel like 18. More importantly, the Iowan remembers how cold it was too.

When Mike and I met, we somehow realized we’d both been at the game.

Me? I started talking fate. We were destined to meet and become friends, but we’d missed our chance in 1983. Mike? That was silly, but he was glad to be friends now.

In fact, though Mike and I share important things in common and even superficial things such as enjoying running, we differ quite a bit.

We both like movies and have missed them during the pandemic. I, however, tend toward lighter fare. Disney, anyone? Mike sees every serious film out there and all Oscar nominees.

I love Harry Potter. He’s never read or watched it.

Mike loves music and has seen 289 bands perform live. He’s written a book on the subject of heavy metal, which I can’t listen to because it makes me anxious.

Even with running, Mike prefers 5ks, and he uses a stopwatch to time himself because he doesn’t own a smart phone. I prefer longer distances and need my Apple watch to confirm any activity actually occurred.

Yet we are great friends because we appreciate the differences. In spite of my Harry Potter references in our email exchanges, I’ve never tried to change Mike’s mind about reading the books (though, yes, I still think everyone should). Mike occasionally will send me YouTube videos of some of his favorite heavy metal bands performing. I click on them and watch briefly, but he knows I’ll never be a metal head.

We are (and Mike probably won’t get the Disney reference) like Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King, not caring that we are different species and making no attempt to change each other. Instead, we recognize the importance of acceptance in friendship.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains that “True love always brings joy to ourselves and to the one we love. If our love does not bring joy to both of us, it is not true love.”

Too often, our relationships lose this joy out of the desire to make our loved one into the image we have rather than loving the person for who that person is in that moment. We cling to the past, refusing to allow someone to change. We get to know the person better and are disappointed to learn that he is not the image we created at the start of the relationship.

True friendship based on love, however, brings joy and comfort and weathers all storms.

As Timon and Pumbaa remind us, Hakuna Matata! It means “no worries for the rest of your days,” and that “problem free philosophy” has its roots in true friendship.

That’s the kind of friendship that Mike and I have created so that my Iowan friend now living in Nebraska and I will wear our matching Gator shirts while sporting our race medals. Unfortunately for me, the weather is all wrong since the shirt is long sleeves, but I can wait until cool weather comes back in six months with the confidence that my friendship with Mike will still be strong.

For, as we Gators sing at the end of the third quarter, “In all kinds of weather, we’ll all stick together.”

Photo by Amy Duncan



With Power Comes Responsibility


“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1: 28-29



The genius of Margaret Atwood is her ability to look around and see all of the seeds of dystopia. Her novel Oryx and Crake does this so well that, when I first read it, I couldn’t read another book for two weeks. It left me devastated.

The book opens with deliberate disorientation. I remember having to read the first chapter twice, sure that I had missed something. As a reader, I had not, but there was much missing from that chapter, specifically my understanding of how society and nature function together.

The novel opens with the character Snowman waking before dawn to “a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender.” The unexpected “deadly” creates tension and confusion as do “the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble” that produce a grinding sound in the ocean resembling “holiday traffic.” Looking at a now-dead wristwatch, Snowman panics over the end of time as defined by civilization and then wrangles with bug bites, a spider in his hat, the concrete mesh over his food that keeps out rats, and ants now crawling over his last mango and up his arms. “Surprising what a sharp sting they can give, especially the yellow ones.”

This is, as Tennyson described it in the nineteenth century, “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”

However, it’s clear that the nature so threatening to Snowman is a result of human degradation with his casual references to “things from before” that include “ChickieNobs Bucket O’Nubbins,” “pigoons,” and “wolvogs,” (all genetic mutations) and his references to real animals, such as a walrus, that he only knows about through pictures.

We learn pretty quickly that something has wiped out most, if not all, of the rest of humanity and civilization, leaving Snowman to deal with intense sunlight during the day and to sleep in a tree at night to avoid pigoon and wolvog attacks.

Snowman’s world forgot its responsibility and connection to nature.

That connection is not a fiction but scientific fact.

In his book Buddhist Biology, David Barash reminds readers that we humans share 99 percent of our genes with other humans, 98 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, and 92 percent with mammals overall.

Albert Einstein recognized our connection also: “A human being is part of a whole called by us the ‘Universe’—a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thought, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

And if that seems too abstract, consider, as Barash notes, that we have ten times as many foreign cells in our bodies as we do those with our genetic signature. Approximately 100 trillion cells, most of which exist in our intestines, are microbes from different genomes.

That’s about as interconnected as you can get.

Atwood’s novel revolves around a reset created by a global pandemic, one much more deadly than COVID-19. Perhaps the second Earth Day celebration during our own global pandemic can serve as a reminder of our own responsibility to care for all of the earth from the insects to our fellow humans. Maybe we can get a reset too without the dire consequences presented by Atwood.

As Mark Epstein states in Thoughts without a Thinker, when we recognize impermanence and interdependence, we achieve nirvana.

Do we wish for the world of Snowman or a return to a more Edenic state? If we choose the latter, we also choose the responsibility of getting there.



Photo by Kathryn Duncan



Grief and Connection


“Our souls, therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinness beat.”

John Donne, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”



The third anniversary of my dad’s death passed this week, making me think of one of my favorite poems, one that I shared with my stepmother shortly after he died.

John Donne wrote “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” in 1611 to his wife Ann as he set off on a trip to France and Germany, leaving her behind in England. Given it was the early seventeenth century, this would mean a pretty long absence without much communication and all of that via letters. It’s hard for us to imagine the sense of not knowing that Ann must have faced. Was her husband safe and healthy? Would he really be coming home to her? Beyond the desire of wanting our loved ones near, Ann faced justifiable anxiety.

Valediction means the act of bidding farewell, and the subtitle is John telling his wife not to grieve his absence.

We call Donne a metaphysical poet thanks to the unexpected metaphors he uses. In “A Valediction,” Donne uses earthquakes, the movement of the planets, gold, and a mathematical compass in describing his and Ann’s love.


The first metaphor that Donne uses is death:

As virtuous men pass mildly away,

And whisper to their souls, to go,

Whilst some of their sad friends do say,

The breath goes now, and some say, no:


So let us melt, and make no noise,

No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,


These lines give me comfort as, like Ann, I am the person left behind. I am the sad witnessing friend who feels deeply that my virtuous dad passed mildly away, able to leave his human form once he had spoken to every single one of his grandchildren, for it was as Grandad that my father was most happy.

And though my ninth-grade geometry teacher turned me off math forever, the image of the compass works beautifully. Donne notes that one foot of a compass stays anchored in the center as the other moves; the connection is never broken.


Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show

To move, but doth, if th’ other do.


And though it in the center sit,

Yet when the other far doth roam,

It leans, and hearkens after it,


This connection is what makes the circle. Circles are thought to be the perfect shape, with no beginning and no end.

Donne tells Ann that common lovers “cannot admit/Absence, because it doth remove” sensual contact, but John and Ann recognize that their love occurs on a higher plane, not dependent upon their senses.

Three years later, I mourn my father’s absence and wish for the fun we had. He introduced me to fine dining, travel, and a love of words that likely put me on the path to teach and write.

I also know that my father is still with me.

Thich Nhat Hanh describes mourning his mother deeply for a year and then dreaming of her. In the dream, the two had a conversation, with his mom looking young and happy. He awoke at 2 a.m. realizing that his connection to his mother had not changed. “The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.”

Thanks to interconnectedness, we never truly lose someone. I will never again kidnap my dad for a birthday trip to Disney as my stepmom and I once memorably did, but when I see the mariachi band at Epcot, he’s there. Every time I see a cardinal, I say, “Hi, Diddy,” because he loved birds so much.

He is alive in me, so I can miss him and simultaneously feel joy at his continued presence.  



Photo by Kathryn Duncan



The Force of Attachment


“The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.

Yoda, Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith



I confess that Easter made me realize I have more in common with Anakin Skywalker than with Mary, mother of Jesus.

In Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, Anakin tells Yoda that he’s had visions of someone he loves suffering and dying. It’s clear that Anakin himself is suffering and wants a get-out-of-jail-free card from Yoda. He’s looking for an out, a way to avoid this vision.

Instead, Yoda gives him wisdom reflective of what the Buddha shared thousands of years ago. Anakin is suffering from attachment, and that “Attachment leads to jealousy,” as Yoda says. He can’t prevent the death of those he holds dear. Yoda reminds him that “Death is a natural part of life” and that he should “Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force.” Anakin asks Yoda what he must do, the subtext being how can I change the future as he has already told Yoda that he has no intention of letting this envisioned future occur. Yoda replies, “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know where this leads because Anakin was never very good at taking advice.

Even as I watch these movies and feel impatient with Anakin, I get it, which was brought home to me as I studied the Bible before Easter.

As part of my morning practice, I read Jan Richardson’s Sacred Journeys: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayers, which includes poems, excerpts, and reflection practices that center on women in the Bible, connecting them to historical and contemporary women.

Of course, the readings before Easter centered on the women in Jesus’s life, which got me thinking about how God would’ve known better than to tag me as Jesus’s mother.

There’s a lot of commentary on how young Mary was when the angel appeared to her about becoming a mother and how dangerous it was for her to be unmarried and pregnant. Her response in accepting this difficult task is held up rightly for admiration.

But I keep thinking of the unwritten parts of her relationship with Jesus where he told her all of the many dangerous things that he was going to do. I’ve put myself in Mary’s place in my imagination. I picture Jesus coming to me as his mother and telling me that he is going to wander in the desert for 40 days, gather up disciples, hang out with the “wrong” sort of people, publicly question religious dogma, and make enough people angry and jealous that it’s going to get him killed.

I can see myself in his face begging, guilt tripping, yelling, threatening, crying, and saying, “Oh no you don’t!”

Then, when he inevitably didn’t listen, I’d have thrown myself on the cross screaming, “Crucify me instead!”

God wouldn’t have chosen me as Jesus’s mom because I’d have been so attached to my son that I’d have interfered in every way possible and hindered the creation of Christianity.

That means I’m like Anakin, suffering from attachment, but the good news is that I’m not Darth Vader because I’m willing to listen to advice.

Thich Naht Hanh defines true love as having “upeksha, which means equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go.”

I am, as Yoda advises Anakin, training in letting go of everything I fear to lose. Life has given me opportunities to practice as I’ve weathered losing some of what I’ve held precious.

I will never be Mary or even Yoda for that matter, but the Force has been with me, and it’s okay.

May the Force be with you also.




Photo by Cade Roberts on Unsplash



The Pleasure of Pain


“The palette of pain is infinitely variable.

Alex Hutchinson, Endure



I got my second vaccination for COVID-19 recently, for which I am extremely grateful as someone who has been in a classroom since August.

I tend to be optimistic when it comes to my health, so I more or less assumed that I’d have little reaction. I cleaned my house before the vaccination so that I could take it a little easier the next day if necessary, and I figured instead of my usual morning run, I’d do an eight-ten mile bike ride before heading to outdoor church services the next morning.

Perhaps a better word than optimistic to describe me is delusional.

When I awoke around 4 a.m. the next day feeling woozy, I thought, hmm, I might have to skip the bike ride. I was annoyed.

When I awoke again around 5 a.m. shivering mightily, I thought uh oh.

Essentially, I felt like I had the flu, and I was flat on my back the entirety of the day. Two days out, I could sort of function. Six days later and my stomach is still upset, but I finally got in a morning run for the first time since the vaccine.

I can’t say I enjoyed all the pain, but it didn’t distress me.

Alex Hutchinson’s book on endurance athletes holds some explanation. In Endure, Hutchinson explores the mind-body connection that allows top athletes to perform at high effort levels while navigating extreme pain.

Hutchinson notes that pain is subjective, not only different for different people but changing for each athlete depending on the context. This is because “‘Pain is more than one thing,’ says Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, the head of the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University. It’s a sensation, like vision or touch; it’s an emotion, like anger or sadness; and it’s also a ‘drive state’ that compels action, like hunger.”

Pain, then, has a purpose, telling us to slow down or tend to the source of pain.

For athletes, pain can teach them how to pace themselves. For that reason, top athletes don’t shut out pain when training but place their attention on their pain in order to thoroughly understand their bodies. Hutchinson gives as an example triathlete Jesse Thomas, who trains in pain via deep-tissue massages. Thomas describes, “When I’m hurting like crazy. . .instead of blocking out the pain, I try to accept it, feel it as much as possible.”

The average person on a daily basis doesn’t do this, and the automatic response of rubbing a bumped shin means it doesn’t come naturally. Hutchinson explains that rubbing the bruised spot is a distraction. When we rub the same spot that we hit, we compete with the pain for the neural pathway that reports back to the brain. “The more you rub, the less bandwidth is left for pain signals.” We intuitively distract the brain so that we can feel less pain.

Such distraction is why my favorite races are at Disney World where there is a princess, pirate, cartoon character, or music every few miles that makes me forget the pain in my legs.

Alas, there were no distractions as I alternately sweated and shivered while feeling achy and nauseous post vaccination.

Yet, because pain is so wrapped up with emotion, I could manage the pain of my symptoms knowing it was for the good.

Like a Disney princess, I was building a castle with a moat guarded by an entire army of antibody knights. The pain meant protection, maybe a return to something like normal in the not-so-distant future, and my contribution toward that possibility as we attempt to reach herd immunity via vaccination.

Bring on the pain of a Disney marathon as soon as it’s safe.


Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy on  Unsplash



Gratitude for Troublemakers


“Those events and people in our lives who trigger our unresolved issues could be regarded as good news.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart



We are Disney nerds in our family with my only child especially obsessed with Stitch of Lilo and Stitch fame. We have shirts, stickers, knick knacks, and stuffed animal Stitches—as in I think all of the stuffed animals that exist of Stitch, even a pirate one we’ve only ever seen on a Disney cruise.

Our little family shares some things in common with the little family of the movie, especially since we adopted our dog in February of 2020.

We joke now that when we rescued our dog from the Humane Society, we should have named him Stitch. He was three, and we were his third family. I suppose that should have been a tipoff to go explore other kennels, but we knew he was ours.

Our troublemaker required a lot of patience in the beginning. He wasn’t quite to Stitch levels whom Lilo tells, “You know, you wreck everything you touch.” But he ran out the door and dug under the fence escaping more than once, twice at night, once when I had on no shoes and ran after him anyway. And while he’s no alien, making him unable to match Stitch’s power to wreck, he is incredibly fast so was hard to find and harder to corral as he plunged into the river near the spot where the 10-foot alligator hangs out.

In the movie, Stitch both wrecks everything around him, including the little family under investigation by a social worker, and rescues that little family.

When we meet Lilo and her sister Nani, who is now her guardian after their parents’ death, we see a lonely girl who is a human version of Stitch, a misfit troublemaker rejected by girls her age and creating problems in spite of good intentions.

Nani, her young adult sister, is clearly struggling with the responsibility thrust upon her. In an early scene, after a confrontation with the social worker and an attempt to get Lilo to understand the dire situation, Nani finds herself on the floor hands thrown over her eyes in frustration telling Lilo, “You’re such a pain!”

That scene gets acted out again between Lilo and Stitch when he exhibits his destructive tendencies, but having been a troublemaker herself. Lilo has more patience and insight than Nani. She tells Stitch about her parents dying in a car accident and that she dreams about them. She asks what losses he has suffered, telling him that she hears him crying in his sleep and that “I know that’s why you wreck things and push me.”

Nani reacts out of fear, knowing that if Lilo can’t behave well enough so that Nani can work to support them that the social worker will take Lilo.

Lilo responds with empathy and compassion, offering to Stitch: “Our family’s little now, and we don’t have many toys, but if you want you can be part of it. You could be our baby, and we’d raise you to be good. O’hana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind.”

Stitch is exactly the trigger Pema Chodron speaks of, a new member of the family who brings to the surface every unresolved issue this little family experiences. Thanks to Stitch, though, the little family becomes stronger. The troublemaker brings union.

It can be very difficult to follow the advice offered by Pema Chodron to feel grateful for troublemakers. It’s at least easier when they are cute aliens or a sweet dog who has been worth all of the effort to get him past previous abuse that makes him a bit troublesome.

If we can manage it, though, if we can feel gratitude for troublemakers, imagine how much less power they would have over us as we see trouble as an opportunity rather than something to trigger fear as it did for Nani. We could, instead, like Lilo, feel compassion and empathy, and we could have the opportunity to grow and learn, becoming happier thanks to the trouble.



Photo by Kathryn Duncan



The Danger of Despair


“A destructive emotion—which is also referred to as an ‘obscuring’ or ‘afflictive’ mental factor—is something that prevents the mind from ascertaining reality as it is.

Daniel Goleman, Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama



Hopelessness feels awful, but it’s not necessarily bad as a temporary feeling. Sometimes recognizing the hopelessness of a situation or a relationship awakens us to the need for change. Feeling hopeless in an abusive relationship or hostile work environment? Good! It’s a sign to go, and that’s healthy.

But despair is different. Despair implies that we ourselves are the hopeless ones, that there’s something wrong with us, not the situation that we’re in.

Literature understands this distinction.

We can go back to the English Renaissance to read Sir Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene for an example. Our hero, the Redcrosse Knight, faces multiple tribulations that include dragon fighting, being deceived by the aptly named Duessa, and meeting his worst trial in the figure of Despair.

Having already proven himself worthy, the Redcrosse Knight encounters another knight named Trevisan fleeing for his life. Trevisan witnessed the death of his friend Terwin who killed himself after listening to the words of an old man named Despair. Incredulous, the Redcrosse Knight and his companions, the lady Una and Arthur (of later King Arthur fame), go back with a reluctant Trevisan to the cave of Despair.

The Redcrosse Knight boldly approaches Despair who proceeds to dismantle his faith by recounting to the Redcrosse Knight all of his sins and shortcomings. The Redcrosse Knight trembles at the “ugly view of his deformed crimes.” Seeing his advantage, Despair with “hellish anguish did his soule assaile,” bringing the Redcrosse Knight “swords, ropes, poison, fire,/And all that might him to perdition draw” in order to persuade him, like Terwin, to kill himself.

Fortunately, Una intervenes, saving the Redcrosse Knight from himself.

I could offer a survey of literature from the sixteenth century to now with similar themes of despair, but I’ll shoot ahead to the most recent season of the Netflix series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

The opening episode of the show’s last season is entitled “The Eldritch Dark,” and, as in The Faerie Queene, the darkness induces despair in order to defeat.

Sabrina is attempting to stop the symbolic darkness with a spell and starts to succeed when a voice tells her, “You’re all alone down here. You’re alone in the world. You have no one. You will always be alone. . .You will die alone. No one loves you. No one could love you.” Sabrina starts to cry, and the small light that had begun to illuminate the area goes out as the reverberating voice pronounces that she is “Alone, unloved, forgotten.”

Fortunately, like the Redcrosse Knight, Sabrina is not alone or unloved, and another character reminds her of that, rescuing her much as Una rescues the Redcrosse Knight.

Hopelessness might awaken us to reality, allowing us to see the light, but despair always obscures it dangerously casting us into darkness.

Despair, therefore, is a destructive emotion, and we must never listen to it. Our life circumstances will never be perfect. There are likely going to be moments where we feel without hope. But that does not mean there is something wrong with us. The voice, whether disguised as an old man or hidden in the dark, is wrong.

We are loved, together, and not forgotten.




Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash



The Suffering of Me, Myself, and I


“But Faustus’ offence can ne’er be pardoned. The serpent that tempted Eve may be saved, but not Faustus.

Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus



I learned recently from reading Peaceful Heart: The Buddhist Practice of Patience by Dzigar Kongtrul that there are 72 ways to feel disturbed and out of balance.

Kongtrul bases his book upon eighth-century sage Shantideva’s work The Way of the Bodhisattva, specifically the section on anger and anger’s cure: patience. I figured I could use more patience. 

Appendix B lists all 72 of the ways that we can feel disturbed. I decided that I would do some self reflection and write about one per day in my journal so that I could better understand the source of what I allow to bother me. I got to number 20 and realized that the answer was pretty much always the same though the specifics differed: me, myself, and I.

The source of suffering is egocentrism. I want to be happy and safe, so anything that feels like a threat to my well-being makes me miserable. I want prosperity. Anything that feels like a threat to my security makes me worry. I want to feel affirmed and even hear praise. Anyone that says terrible things about me or is critical feels like a threat and causes me social anxiety. I want a good reputation. You get the point. And note I said feels like. What I perceive as a threat may not be a threat at all.

Essentially, all of the 72 stem from these essential four desires occurring in the past, present, and future, and then apply outward to those I love. I want my child to be happy and safe and so on.

Until this exercise, I never knew I shared something in common Dr. Faustus, the main character of Christopher Marlowe’s English Renaissance play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.

The play opens with the brilliant and arrogant Faustus rejecting various pursuits because they are beneath him. For example, he decides he won’t be a medical doctor because he can’t bring people back from the dead. So what’s the point? Instead, he decides to pursue dark magic and makes a deal with the devil.

It’s probably just as well that Faustus decides not to be a lawyer because he wouldn’t have been a very good one given the deal that he makes. He sells his eternal soul for 24 years on earth of being able to have magical powers.

Faustus begins by exploring the universe and then squanders his power and his days through practical jokes and impressing powerful rulers.

As time approaches for his deal’s deadline, several characters appear to Faustus telling him to repent. They remind Faustus that there is time, that he can avoid eternal damnation if he turns to God for help and breaks his deal with the devil. The Second Scholar proclaims, “look up to heaven, and remember mercy is infinite.”

Faustus, as egocentric and arrogant as ever, proclaims himself more sinful than the serpent who caused the fall of all humankind in the Bible. Maybe that serpent could be forgiven but not Faustus. He tells his fellow scholars, “nothing can rescue me.”

What could rescue Faustus is Faustus. But he opts for hell.

To be honest, when I’ve taught the play, we all sort of roll our eyes at Faustus who refers to himself in the third person and, guided by his pride, makes the wrong choices throughout the play. He makes his own suffering.

While I’m not egocentric to the same degree as Faustus, I acknowledge that I create my own suffering too when I make myself the center of my own “Very Important Story”, to borrow from Pema Chodron.

The cure is to behave like the Old Man in the play instead. He chooses to help Faustus in an attempt to save his soul though he doesn’t know Faustus and has nothing at stake personally. Purely from compassion, the Old Man pleas with Faustus, telling him, “Yet, yet, thou hast an amiable soul.” Mepthostophilis threatens the Old Man with bodily harm but acknowledges “His faith is great: I cannot touch his soul.”

In fact, the prime fear preventing Faustus from recanting is the threat from Mepthostophilis to tear his flesh from his bones.

But the Old Man recognizes that such pain is temporal and temporary. Thanks to this, the Old Man’s suffering is limited, and, ultimately, of no consequence because of his refusal to be egocentric.

Like the Old Man, I too can refuse to compound my suffering and no longer cling to me, myself, and I. Instead, I can look for opportunities to share compassion and kindness—a true source of happiness. 


Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash



Who Are You?


“One of the greatest gifts we can offer people is to embody nonattachment and nonfear.

Thich Nhat Hanh



Recently, I accidentally on purpose gave some of my students an existential crisis. We opened the class with a discussion board post. The instructions read, “I’ve never met you. Who are you?”

This caused real angst. Students begged for more instruction, laughed in a nervous way, shook their heads, and put their hands over their eyes.

I always joke with my students that if they don’t feel confused or frustrated at least once in my class, they should ask for a tuition refund because that would mean they didn’t learn anything. I knew that at least this group wouldn’t be asking for a refund.

After posting, we looked over the responses for patterns, which existed across every post. Students answered with ages, year in school, majors, likes, family information, and activities they generally do. That’s how we define ourselves.

I started class this way because we were reading Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind. I don’t want to describe the plot because the pleasure of this book is suspense.

In an interview about the book, Alam proclaimed that we define ourselves by the things we surround ourselves with, so the novel is peppered with such details as a long grocery list of the main characters’ supplies for their vacation rental house.

Alam also identifies everyone’s career, making clear that no one understands the career of the others, nor do they care.

We meet Clay and Amanda first. They’ve been together nearly 20 years. Amanda, attached to her phone because she wishes to feel needed, checks for messages from work as they drive off to their beautiful vacation rental. Clay asks if everything is okay back at “the office” as a “synecdoche for her profession, which he largely—but not entirely—understood.”

More opportunities to explore careers come with the introduction of another couple, G.H. and Ruth.

Clay is a professor of English and media studies. When Ruth hears this, she replies, “I’m not sure what that means.” The narrator tells the reader that “Amanda was never entirely clear on it either.”

Ruth, who has been married to G.H. for most of her life, tells Amanda that her husband is in private equity. “Ruth had explained this before many times. It still meant very little to her.” When she finishes her explanation of what his job entails, the narrator adds, “This was her way of explaining it to people who were as confused as she was.” Ruth doesn’t feel badly about this, thinking to herself, “So what? G.H. Didn’t understand the particulars of what she had done” before she retired.

Even when Amanda asks, “You’ve got a daughter?” G.H. automatically responds with her profession as a Montessori teacher, which Ruth quickly corrects, explaining that their daughter “runs the school.”

Later, when Amanda and G.H. are each talking about their jobs, neither listens so that “Amanda was lost. They were talking around each other, not to each other.”

Alam is brilliantly pointing out that we cling to professional identities as genuine markers of who we are—and to our detriment. Fixed identities serve only to separate the characters in the novel, leaving them talking at each other, with no one truly understanding or feeling understood.

And, as the title may give away, when the context of career or the things with which we surround ourselves shifts dramatically, where does that leave us?

The act of of defining ourselves—certainly in this way—is one we do automatically, and that leads us to living automatically, fulfilling roles rather than being present. It also can lead to fear when those roles no longer make sense in a given context or are stripped from us.

I see this with students getting ready to graduate who feel more anxiety than happiness, not knowing who they will be when they graduate.

Perhaps, if you’re a parent, you’ve felt this as you watch your children become more independent so that Mommy becomes Mom becomes Mom with a big eye roll until the Mom we hear is over the phone from a “child” who no longer lives with us.

Maybe some of us have experienced this disruption in roles through unemployment caused by the pandemic.

Life is always going to change, so we can’t control that part. Rather, we might move away from defining ourselves through what we do or own since those are things that can and will be lost.

So who are you?

Know that however you answer, inevitably that answer is going to change. If we can avoid attachment to the answer, we can live without fear—a gift to ourselves and to those we love.



Photo by Karl Magnuson on Unsplash



Crime and Punishment as Gift


“A book enters the life of an individual, a deep relation is formed, and the person changes in some significant way as a result of this engagement.

Stephen Bonnycastle



For Christmas, knowing I am a huge Harry Potter nerd, my daughter gave me a Slytherin-themed journal that encourages me to cultivate my Slytherin qualities of ambition, cunning, and leadership on a daily basis.

In addition, every week, there is a little writing (and sometimes drawing) exercise. Recently, the writing prompt was to compose a letter of thanks to a teacher or mentor who had cultivated my Slytherin qualities.

I surprised myself with my choice. I’ve had many amazing teachers and mentors thanks to my great good fortune in pursuing higher education. But I found myself writing to Mrs. Schmidt, my high school English teacher. Without consciously thinking through it, part of me realized that the journey to becoming an English professor who loves to write was owing to Mrs. Schmidt.

I’ve lost touch with her, and my assumption is that she is no longer here on earth with us as she was nearing retirement age all those years ago. She was not everyone’s favorite teacher. She was not warm and fuzzy, and she was demanding, but, even as I found her a little intimidating, I loved her.

Mrs. Schmidt was my teacher for more than one year, but what I wrote about was my senior year of AP English. I wish I still had the reading list because I don’t remember a lot of the titles anymore. I know that the reading list was challenging and included Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a Russian novel first published in 1866.

The novel is difficult with its unfamiliar Russian names, its themes, and its writing style. It’s the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, who plots to murder a greedy pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, demonstrating an arrogance about his right to choose who lives or dies. He ends up killing her sister, Lizaveta, also when she returns unexpectedly and catches him in the act.

There is much, much more—a lot more death, misery, suffering, and Russian names.

I’m pretty sure that as a seventeen-year-old high school student I didn’t understand most of the novel. That may be true of most of what we read my senior year.

What I do remember is that I grappled with it, as I did with all of the literature we studied.

We didn’t have the Internet. Yep, I’m that old. If we wanted to avoid the assigned reading and instead rely upon plot summaries, that required work in and of itself. Unlike students today who can quickly find all the information on the book and even papers written by others, my generation had the option of purchasing Cliff Notes. That meant getting in a car, going to the bookstore, and ponying up the cash. My family was on a tight budget, so that wasn’t an option, even if I wanted it.

Instead, I read, did my best to understand, and worked closely with the not warm and fuzzy but demanding Mrs. Schmidt to get as good a handle on that nineteenth-century novel as I could.

Thank goodness she was demanding. What she was demanding was that I tap into my own potential and do my best.

I do not remember all of those Russian names, and, yes, I used Google to refresh my memory to write this. And that’s okay.

I got what I needed from Crime and Punishment and Mrs. Schmidt. I learned about arrogance, poverty, desperation, guilt, suffering, and love. I felt a connection to nineteenth-century literary characters who seemed like real people. I increased my empathy. I recognized the value of trying and of perseverance. I became more comfortable with confusion and frustration.

I became a better person.

Literature can do that. Mrs. Schmidt helped.


Photo by Kathryn Duncan





“… the sins of fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation.

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto



Recently, I looked in the mirror and saw my mother’s face. It was my face, of course, but for a moment it felt as I were once again looking at my mom because I appeared so much like her.

This isn’t shocking. A lot of people would tease us for our resemblance. Mom would introduce me as her daughter, and generally we were met with laughter and a comment about that not needing any explanation given that it was so obvious.

Even for those of us who may not physically resemble our parents, there is that connection. I once had someone say to me that my daughter didn’t look like me but that he could tell we were mother and daughter, that there was an ineffable similarity.

Such connection can have its drawbacks, though, according to the first-ever Gothic novel.

Published in 1764 by Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto declares in its preface the moral of the story: the sins of fathers are passed on through the generations.

We get to see the effects of this immediately. The novel’s opening scene is a giant helmet falling from the sky and crushing Prince Manfred’s 15-year-old son on his wedding day. We learn later that this is the result of a curse. There are ghosts, a sword so large it takes 100 men to carry it, and plenty of intrigue, including unfair imprisonment, stabbings, and death.

All of this is caused by Manfred’s long-dead grandfather having stolen the principality that Manfred so desperately wishes to hold.

But he can’t do it because, yep, the rightful heir shows up looking exactly like his ancestor. Manfred might lie and scheme to retain power, but he’s destined to fail because this handsome newcomer obviously should rule Otranto. The proof is in his face. Manfred must abdicate, and his children must suffer for the crimes of an ancestor.

While Wapole’s novel is bit silly with its use of the supernatural, the lesson that Walpole explicitly offers in his preface has some validity.

Science supports that we carry our ancestors within us.

Through measuring levels of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), a marker of physical and mental health, scientists have found a mother’s history of stress and trauma affects the amount of RSA she will pass on to her infant. This study goes beyond the inevitable connection a woman shares with her child while pregnant. It finds that a woman who suffered childhood abuse can pass on biological markers of that trauma to her infant as part of giving birth.

The study of epigenetics affirms that trauma can be passed from one generation to the next. DNA expression changes thanks to traumatic experiences such as being held a prisoner of war or in rats via shock therapy. These changes are then transmitted to the next generation though that generation did not experience the trauma personally.

This is not meant to scare all of us parents or to blame us for all of our kids’ woes.

Instead, it’s meant to encourage us to attend to our own psychological and physical needs, recognizing that we must be healthy and happy for the benefit of our children.

Remember when we actually used to go on airplanes? And remember those instructions to help your child with their oxygen mask before putting on your own?

Self care is an oxygen mask. The message we receive all too often is that taking time for ourselves is selfishly taking time away from our kids, but it is, in fact, the best protection we can offer the next generation.

So many parents are stretched to their absolute limits during this pandemic, with studies showing mothers even more so.

Some day your child will look in the mirror and see your face. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the face looking back could exude peace and love? Giving yourself those qualities means you have the opportunity to pass them on to the next generation.

Rather than a curse that carries on for three to four generations, we have the opportunity to offer a blessing.

It certainly feels like a blessing to see my mom in me. 



Photo by Kathryn Duncan



Love as Commandment


“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Matthew 24:49



We don’t have to be Christians to see that Jesus’s fundamental commandment to love one another is, as he says, the foundation for all other commandments.

We might also agree that it’s a shame that we have to be commanded to love, but even 2,000 years ago, Jesus could see that we weren’t so good at it, and the last 2,000 years since haven’t proven him wrong.

We aren’t very good at loving, and Valentine’s Day often offers proof of that.

In an early episode of The Gilmore Girls, a teenage Rory and her best friend are talking about Rory’s choice of present for her first ever boyfriend, Dean. Rory is a genius book nerd and has bought her boyfriend Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

If you’re not familiar with it, the story chronicles Gregor waking up one morning to find that he has changed into a huge bug. Some translations identify him as a roach, though I’m more inclined to agree with the translators who go with dung beetle—yes, the bug who eats poop.

Lane is horrified and explains to Rory that gifts carry meaning and we need to adopt the recipient’s perspective. She’s not wrong. Showing that we understand and see the one we love is a gift in and of itself, and we can buy or make something that demonstrates that.

However, her advice moves on to telling Rory that she needs to find out what Dean has gotten for her and “gauge your gift accordingly.” When Rory objects that this takes “the fun out of it,” Lane replies, “Gift giving is serious business.”

In other words, be careful what you offer as a present to your love interest because you are sending all kinds of messages. It’s a test, and you might fail.

I’m pretty sure that’s not the love Jesus was exhorting.

Even worse is the possessive approach to love to which we tend. It’s such a common tendency that we have all sorts of cliched adages about it.

In his memoir Born a Crime, The Daily Show host Trevor Noah describes being jealous over his dog Fufi liking another boy. The adult Trevor in recounting this story concludes with, “You do not own the thing that you love. I was lucky to learn that lesson at such a young age.”

Indeed—and literature is filled with examples where the lesson is not learned.

Robert Browning shocked his Victorian readers with such an instance in his poem “My Last Duchess.” The poem is a dramatic monologue where the Duke speaks to a silent listener who is the representative of the family for the next Duchess, that is the woman the Duke is about to marry.

The Duke pauses in front of the portrait hidden behind a curtain only he is allowed to move and tells the envoy what was wrong with his previous wife: “She had/A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad, /Too easily impressed;” the things that made the Duchess glad were the sunset, a bough of cherries, and the white mule she rode around the terrace. The problem is that her gratitude is the same for “My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody’s gift.” The problem is the Duke’s ego.

Refusing to “stoop” and let his Duchess know “Just this/Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,/or exceed the mark” the Duke instead “gave commands.” Given that she was his last Duchess and he is preparing for his next, we assume those commands are for her death.

Lane is warning Rory that she’s about to fail a test. Fufi the dog failed the test, but a young Trevor Noah was able to recognize that he did not own her in that way. The Duchess, alas, failed with dire consequences.

Love is not a test, and we shouldn’t set it up to be one.

The problem starts at home. If we love ourselves properly, we won’t need to look outward for affirmation. As Jesus said, love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Give yourself the Valentine’s Day gift of self love so that you can love others more fully.


Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash



All is Well


“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Julian of Norwich



In the medieval era while England was still Catholic and long before the Age of Reason, mysticism held great respect.

During this time lived a woman called Julian of Norwich who became an anchoress. She was not officially tied to the church, but she shut herself off from the world by quite literally becoming attached to the church in a small enclosed space.

Anchoresses (or anchorites for men) would live in a room connected to the church—and never leave it—in order to devote themselves fully to spiritually and God. While not nuns, they eschewed the secular life.

Julian’s access to the world was a window. As an anchoress, she inhabited a liminal space. She was neither here nor there, neither a nun nor a wife and mother (the roles available to medieval women out in the world). That window is symbolic, a way to view the world without being of it.

Julian was cared for by the church and visited by those on pilgrimage.

In the medieval era, one could perform penance for one’s sins by traveling on pilgrimage. While we value travel (and perhaps yearn for it so much it pains us currently), pilgrimage was not fun. There were no hotels and no safe roads, so pilgrims faced harsh conditions. If one were a great enough sinner, perhaps that person would would be ordered by a confessor to spend part of the pilgrimage on his knees rather than feet that are made for walking or to wear a hair shirt. Imagine wearing a wool sweater in Florida underneath one’s regular shirt, hence mortification of the flesh as the hair shirt scratched and chafed.

Pilgrimages were conducted to holy sites and people, and Julian was considered pilgrimage worthy. Pilgrims would come to her window in order to speak to her.

During a serious illness, she had visions of Christ, and she authored A Book of Showings chronicling these visions that she found as reassuring proof of God’s presence and love.

She is best known for the prayer, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”          

She coined the prayer during a difficult time in England’s history that included, you guessed it, the plague.

I’ve been thinking of Julian’s prayer and taking comfort in it.

However, from a mindfulness perspective and with fears of appearing arrogant, I’d like to offer an edit.

All is well, and all is well, and all manner of things are well.

We spend so much time on revisionist history and on projecting ahead to things eventually being well.

In the chaos and pain and suffering of now, what is well?

Julian in her personal suffering—a great and painful illness—found a connection with God the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and Mother.

These are hard times, and hopes of vaccinations allowing us to return to travel or maybe even pilgrimages may sustain us. There is nothing wrong with that.

But maybe there is something right here and now that is good and worth valuing if we look at it rather than projecting ahead to what shall be well down the road. It doesn’t have to be big or obvious.

Julian found salvation and closeness to God through her near-death experience. Perhaps each of us can find grace somewhere.

For me, it was standing at the end of a boating dock early in the morning, the moon above the trees on an island in the river with dozens upon dozens of birds perching in branches. When I said aloud, “I trust,” those birds left their branches swooping through the early morning light, reminding me that all is already well should I choose to see it that way.




Photo Courtesy of  Irena on Unsplash



Quesadillas, Muffins, and Decisions


“Just decide to be more decisive.

Chidi Anagonye, The Good Place


I was once on a committee charged with infusing our university’s curriculum with critical thinking as it pertains to decision making.

At one of the meetings, the committee chair asked what we had for dinner the night before. I responded quesadillas. She asked why quesadillas. I then explained that the quesadilla recipe called for avocado, jalapeño, and green onions, so I had to have the quesadillas on that particular night because those ingredients were fresh and I knew that rotting food in landfills was bad for the environment. I created a menu for the entire week from a recipe list, built a grocery list from there, and chose the particular meal for each night to avoid waste.

Everyone looked at me kind of funny.

And, with my overthinking, I ruined the point of the exercise, which was to demonstrate that not all decisions include critical thinking. Some people apparently just decided what they were in the mood for and ate it.

I am what psychologists call a maximizer as opposed to a satisfizer.

As the name implies, a maximizer attempts to get the maximum benefit out of every decision.

A satisfizer is more easily satisfied and makes decisions without the or or or or or or that echoes through my head.

In other words, I am Chidi Anagoyne from the TV show The Good Place. Chidi agonizes over every decision as if it were life or death and makes his life hell in the process.

At one point, Chidi finally evolves some and is able to order a blueberry muffin with confidence. It’s a moment of great success. His friend Henry comments, “You chose that muffin in less than a minute. That beats your old record by 59 minutes.”  Chidi feels genuine happiness, exclaiming, “Oh, wow, I’ve never been happy!”

Alas, the happiness is temporary. Having urged Henry to be decisive also, Chidi feels completely responsible when Henry’s decision to get into shape lands him in the hospital with a comical series of injuries. On top of that, Chidi brings Henry a muffin basket only to learn from the nurse that migrant workers who pick blueberries are mistreated.

When next we see Chidi, he is once again at the coffee cart unable to decide on a muffin, finally telling the proprietor, “I’ve made my decision. I want to start crying.”

Chidi and I aren’t wrong. We should make decisions that are of benefit to the planet and those who occupy it.

However, the chair of that committee was right too. Some choices you should just make without the or or or or or agony.

Maximizers are double bound by anxiety because this desire to maximize comes from our anxious desire to control, and since we can’t control everything—not all avocados or blueberries—we’re setting ourselves up for failure and probably crying.

The Dalai Lama’s recommendation for dealing with anxiety is to ask ourselves if there is something we can do to fix this problem. If there is, we do it, which means there is no reason to feel anxiety. If there isn’t, then there’s no point in getting anxious because we have no control over what will happen, and our anxiety won’t help.

Like Chidi, I’m working on being more of a satisfizer and recognizing that not every decision is life or death but that I can make my life pretty miserable if I act as if it is.

While it might be worth a moment’s pause when picking out the morning muffin, remember that coffee is easy. Always get the large. Coffee should be maximized.


Photo Courtesy of Song Yu on Unsplash



Fearless vs. Brave


“When you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.

Neil Gaiman, Coraline




When Neil Gaiman’s five-year-old daughter asked him for a children’s horror book, he was happy to oblige. When he went to the local bookstore to buy her one, he discovered clerks shocked at his request rather than a section of the store devoted to children’s horror. So he decided to write Coraline.

Coraline Jones is a fearless only child who likes to explore. When told about a dangerous well, her response is to go looking for it, justifying herself by saying she needs to know where it is in order to avoid it.

When too much rainy weather keeps her inside leading to boredom, she enters another world through a mysterious door to discover a parallel universe with the Other Mother. The Other Mother appears like her own mother with the “interesting” (one of Coraline’s favorite words) difference of having buttons for eyes. She gives Coraline everything she wants, including delicious food and all the attention she feels she’s lacked at home.

Coraline can stay in this pampering parallel world as long as she’s willing to sew buttons on her own eyes. She takes a hard pass and goes home.

Arriving home, though, Coraline finds her parents gone, and she realizes they have been parent-napped by the Other Mother. She knows she’ll have to return to rescue them and explains to her cat pal the definition of bravery: doing something that makes you afraid.

Previously, she had been fearless because she was immature and unaware, lacking empathy due to being a child. Now she is scared and gets to be brave and willing to think of others.

There’s a similar story in Buddhism. A warrior asks the Buddha what to do about always losing his nerve. The Buddha explains that the warrior must face fear, so before his next battle, the warrior bows to Fear and asks permission to battle Fear. A surprised Fear feels respected so that when the warrior asks how to defeat Fear, Fear responds, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. That completely unnerves you, and you do whatever I say. But if you don’t do what I tell you, then I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can respect me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, then I am powerless before you.”

This requires mindfulness. We must first be aware of fear as the feeling we have. We then must listen and look carefully without being caught. We listen, respect, and be convinced, but if we refuse to act, then fear doesn’t win.

And this requires the art of the pause. Fear makes us so uncomfortable that we want the feeling to end quickly. Rather, if we pause, even for a moment, we can choose to be brave.

I love that Coraline rescues her parents while wearing her pajamas. Fear may make us uncomfortable, but Coraline, with the innocence of a child, goes into battle comfy.

Comfy and brave, Coraline defeats the Other Mother and gains a new maturity that allows her to appreciate her everyday formerly boring life.

There will always be things in life to fear, but we also have an endless supply of bravery, and we can mindfully look Fear right in the eye while wearing a cozy pair of bunny slippers. `




Photo Courtesy of  Clever Sparkle on  Unsplash



An Ordinary Day


“About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window

or just walking dully along;”

W.H. Auden, Musée des Beaux Arts



Early twentieth-century British poet W.H. Auden used poetry to explain that suffering is prosaic—victories also.

I remember feeling such a let-down when I passed my doctoral exams. I studied for nine months and gave birth to a two-hour oral exam to find the experience anti-climactic. I was unable to sleep that night thinking of my responses, of how I wished I had answered differently, and of all of the things that I knew but didn’t get to discuss.

Even so, I’d passed, so where was my ticker tape parade? After all, I went to school in a city known for parades. Instead, I faced the next hurdle: a dissertation.

We get married and think of it as one of the most important days of our life, but the world moves on not much knowing or caring. It’s also like this when we give birth. These things are significant and matter, of course, but largely go unnoticed by the world at large without any sort of pause, let alone a parade.

When I got the diagnosis that my mother had dementia, it was much the same. I lived too far away to be at the meeting for neurological test results so was phoning into the appointment. Mom was so proud of my Ph.D. that she told the Mayo Clinic neurologist about to deliver the diagnosis that I was Dr. Kathryn Duncan. He assumed that I was a medical doctor and very bluntly delivered the news about Mom’s health and his recommendation that she immediately start Alzheimer’s medication.

It was simply another day at work for him.

For me, it was a day I’ll always remember that changed my life.

It was the same when Mom died. She was in an assisted-living facility for those with dementia. She’d had a stroke and was under hospice care. The hospice nurse, Carol, had reported Mom’s death, and we were waiting for someone to arrive from the funeral home.

Carol had left the room, so I was alone with Mom when lunch was ready for the residents. I sat in the room with Mom—not a body but Mom—as the staff ushered everyone past Mom’s door to have lunch. The sound of normal, everyday chatter filtered by while I experienced one of the most profound moments of my life. A few feet away from me was an ordinary day, but mine had changed profoundly.

It’s always like that, really. As I write this, almost two million people have died from covid-19 worldwide. I don’t know any of them personally, but I do know more than one person who has lost a loved one to covid-19.

It’s incredible that even as we live through a global pandemic that life simply marches on. We still must eat our lunches as did the residents at Mom’s care facility. We keep moving along.

Maybe what we can do is not walk “dully along.” We can remind ourselves that the First Noble Truth is life contains suffering, which inevitably means that we are suffering, someone we love is suffering, many people whom we will never meet are suffering, and, yes, even those we might dislike are suffering.

Suffering connects us.

If we are the doctor delivering the bad news, we can recognize that the other doctor, Ph.D. in literature or medical doctor, is hearing news about her dearly loved mother and best friend.

We can operate from compassion and like the “Old Masters” never be wrong, understanding that an ordinary day in an ordinary life might be a very memorable and potentially painful one for the person standing right next to us.


Photo Courtesy of Vasily Koloda on Unsplash