Stunned into understanding

It happens this way …

EducatedI just finished reading Educated: a memoir by Tara Westover and I can’t remember the last time a book has so unnerved me. It is a well-written, provocative, and disturbing story that helped me understand why certain groups of women in this country believe what they believe: that “boys will be boys,” men rule the world, and that they have little worth other than being servants of the family.

Since the publisher brilliantly summarized the book, I’ll borrow its words:

Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag.” In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent. As a way out, Tara began to educate herself, learning enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University. Her quest for knowledge would transform her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Tara Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.

What is not mentioned here is how Tara’s parents, chained by their internalized beliefs about the world, cast her an evil person for leaving a family that has spiritually, emotionally, and physically abused her. Even though she will excel at Cambridge and eventually earn a Ph.D., she still longs for connection to this dysfunctional clan and doubts every outsider who attempts to affirm the intelligent woman she is becoming. Even when her parents “rewrite” her history – challenging her memories of abuse by substituting their more benign ones – she still searches for “a way home.”

What shocked me awake was the power of brainwashing. When parents, churches, schools, governments collude to define who a child is and where his or her place in the world is, how does one break free?

I’ve spent decades washing my brain of those beliefs that programmed me since childhood: beliefs about what is right and wrong, about what it means to be a woman and a compassionate human being, about what the Divine is and how It manifests in the world and in each of us.

This is a work-in-progress because my internalizing has been strong. Yet, I want to believe because I believe, not because I’ve been told what I should believe. While both may lead to the same conclusions, the latter is the realm of childhood, the former the empowerment of  adulthood.

Even when Tara crosses oceans and achieves academic acclaim, she still perceives herself as the evil daughter of righteous Idaho survivalists. How strong the chains that bind her, how miraculous – even though it takes years – that she finally breaks out of them. Her story makes me feel compassion for women in this country who don’t even know – or can admit – they are chained. It challenges me to continue to discover and break free of my own.

You can go home again, but …

It happens this way …

A few weeks ago I flew to NJ to visit relatives and friends. I hadn’t been back in three years and it was time.

My 94-year-old mother lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Ewing. One of my two brothers and his family are five miles away in Titusville.

Mom and Me

My mom and I at Seaside Park on a picture-perfect September afternoon

The big epiphany of this trip? Memory is a trickster. Siblings who had the same parents and went to the same schools have very different interpretations of the same events. I call these my “brown outs.” At least I remember what happened, but my brothers would disagree about how or why they occurred.

And then there are “black outs”:  the holes into which memories have completely disappeared.

For example, when I was an English teacher at Mount St. Mary’s Academy in the early 70s, I accompanied a group of students on a fine arts trip to Italy. We were one of three groups on this adventure – a detail I totally forgot. In fact, I forgot most of the trip! What I remember:

Visiting Assisi and Cimabue’s crumbling murals of St. Francis.

Crying when I saw St. Clare’s golden locks enclosed in a glass case. (I don’t remember why!)

Being lifted off my feet by a group of sturdy Germans as we crushed our way through the Sistine Chapel – which was much too small for my taste!

Being diverted to Montreal on our flight home because JFK was fogged in. God bless the Canadians who shuttled us to various hotels in the middle of the night.

The rest of the ten days is a blank. Good thing a sister/friend who was my traveling companion has such a great memory. When I saw her on this NJ trip, she shared dozens of events that eluded me. I was happy to hear we climbed to the top of St. Peter’s dome – that was a feat I’d want to claim! – and that we ate meat on Good Friday because our more rule-rigid companions grabbed up all the fish – what enlightened flexibility!

Memory is a trickster for sure. I’m still trying to sort out what-I-did-when-with-whom at various moments in my life. I’ve taught in four schools, lived in three states, and presented management programs to more than a quarter of a million people before retiring in 2008. Good thing I have astute friends and acquaintances who can bear witness to the good stuff and have the grace to keep me blacked out about the less-than-good!





A hug anyone?

It happens this way …

One of my fondest high school memories took place at a basketball game. Our girls’ team at St. Mary’s in Perth Amboy, N.J. had a perfect record my senior year: 10 losses. I was sitting dejectedly on the bench during another blow-out when Sister Dismas, our faculty advisor, came over and put her hand on my back. She didn’t say a word; she just transferred a caring message through her touch that I still remember decades later.

Cap Carolyn

How about those 1963 uniforms!

When I saw her ten years ago and shared that memory, she smiled and said she learned that from her father. He would ask her, “Are you touching your students? They need your touch.”

Oh, for those days when an innocent touch could speak volumes about caring and support! (I’m not going to address all the scandals in the Church and all the abuse that goes on everyday, everywhere. You and I know all about that – and how sad for all of the children who could be comforted by a healing touch.)

Two weeks ago I had coffee with a new friend, a woman from Brazil who is studying to become a therapist specializing in suicide prevention. She told me suicide is an epidemic among young people in the US.

We sat in a Peets’ coffee shop and shared our lives. Every once and a while, she’d reach over the small table to touch my hand. I’m sure her gestures were unconscious, but I was very aware of them. Some were exclamation points, some were ellipses, some were periods in our conversation. Each one was a touch of empathy and intimacy.

As a management trainer traveling the country for 19 years, I would ask approachable audience members if they wanted to share a hug. I’m a Baby Boomer, I’d say, and we Boomers hug. Never once did someone refuse.

For those who know me, hugs are a natural part of our greeting. For those who don’t, if we ever meet I’ll ask your permission and we’ll share a few seconds of human contact that will be safe and comforting. Perhaps we’ll grieve together for all the children who no longer trust an adult to put her hand on their backs and offer consolation. One healing gesture could make any losing season more bearable.

Strategic borrowing

It happens this way …

When a writer can’t generate her own words, her best strategy is to borrow from others. Here are some fun quotations that tickle me. I hope they do the same for you.

“The story so far: In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

– Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe


“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”

– Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson


“To lose one parent may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

– Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest


Reality continues to ruin my life.”

– Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes Collection


“Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind.”

– Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man


“The capacity for friendship is God’s way of apologizing for our families.”

– Jay McInerney, The Last of the Savages


“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest


“If this typewriter can’t do it, then f*** it, it can’t be done.”

– Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker


“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”

– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar


“If you think anyone is sane, you just don’t know enough about them.”

– Christopher Moore, Practical Demonkeeping

And two from the ubiquitous Anonymous:



Your favorites? Share!

The hardest battle, Part II

It happens this way …

Many moons ago I read an article by a psychologist who claimed that little girls begin to lose their True Selves about the age of 7. She didn’t mention when this happens for boys and, given the acceleration of all kinds of media, I bet this loss starts for everyone much earlier than the proverbial “age of reason.”

In any event, she said the messages girls receive from schools, parents, churches, and society-at-large, move them toward adopting identities that are not authentically theirs.

Her suggestion? Find a photograph of yourself before the age of seven and take a close look. If you’re lucky, you may be able to spot the True Self you were born to be.

I followed her advice and found this photo taken in 1948 on the front porch of myScan 5 grandmother’s house in Carteret, N.J. What a revelation! Where had this feisty girl with the straight-on gaze gone? I hadn’t seen her in decades. Of course, a poem arrived to capture the photo and my response to it.

It’s your turn. Find your photo and see what it says about the person you arrived on the planet to be!

Portrait of a Cowboy as a Young Girl

 Mugging for the camera

in brand new cowboy boots,

she still insists she’s Roy not Dale,

riding down the Happy Trail with Trigger

and the Sons of Pioneers.


She smoothes her bronco-busting chaps,

pulls tight her white-fringed gloves,

adjusts a broad brim hat that tilts

above her bangs straight-cut

and ties beneath a stubborn chin.


The lens clicks up the front porch steps,

corrals her closed-mouth smile,

her arms akimbo, stance girl-proud.

It’s 1948. She’s three,

decked out in faux rawhide.


This day, You Are My Sunshine plays

inside her head, the words exact,

a bit off-key. You make me happy …

those straight-on eyes convey … please

don’t take my sunshine away.


I don’t recall who shot this frame,

or how it felt to roam the Jersey shore

as the King of Cowboys, Son of Pioneers.

I don’t recall the guns, the fringe,

the voice that sang when skies are gray.


I can’t recall when I was more

of me than on that sunless winter day.

The hardest battle

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.                                                                           – ee cummings

Last month, the editor of my next poetry collection sent me her first edits. Most were spot on; a few I pushed against. One stopped me in my tracks.

About half-way through the manuscript, I read:

Something I notice throughout this collection is ego – it’s not a bad thing, but I am not used to seeing a speaker so happy with themselves, proud and aware of it. 

After a few deep breaths, I realized what a compliment this is. Of course I’m happy with myself! In some poems where the speaker is obviously me – and there are many voices throughout the book –  I journey from a scared, stuttering kid filled with blue collar shame to a confident woman who says she doubts nothing and everything. If happily asserting who I am and what I believe is ego, so be it.

My response was simply: Why wouldn’t I want to write about the importance of becoming the person we were born to be?

I haven’t heard back yet. In the meantime, I find inspiration in the wise words of those who know that importance.

No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life.      – Nietzsche

People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing.   – Laura Riding

The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true … to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.  – Seamus Heaney                                                                                

Here’s to each of us for who are happy with the True Selves we’ve become. May we continue to be proud and aware!


Notes from an August Gardener

In the depths of winter, I finally learned that

within me there lay an invincible summer.

– Albert Camus


Saturday morning

and not one bird makes a sound.

They’re watching me

cut each gladiola down,

keeping silent in respect

for my grief over orange,

purple, white, and mottled pink.

Until next year, I relegate

each stalk to recycling.


I’m enamored with intensities

that startle and invigorate

before they slip away:

day lilies, four o’clocks,

Rose-of-Sharon trees,

lovers on rebound,

lightning strikes of poetry.


Still, around the yard –

patient and long-lived –

hostas, daisies, and geraniums

ride the summer out.

They’ll hang on until

first frost – if affection’s paid.


Just as the lid drops on

what has been, empathetic birds

turn their muteness off.

They remind me

when summer is invincible,

there’s no mystery in falling,

falling in love again.


(Previously published in The Poeming Pigeon: Poems from the Garden, May 2017)