Category: society

Respect Your Elders

This past week, I heard a talk by Terry Farish, author of the YA novel, The Good Braider. I had read an early draft of the book in my Editing class, and I was eager to hear Terry speak. Her book is a delicate story about a harsh subject—that of Sudanese refugees. In the talk, someone raised the topic of the relationship between parents and children in different cultures and Terry replied by quoting one of the Sudanese she had interviewed for her book:

“In this country [United States], parents respect the children; but in my country, the children respect the parents.”

This observation goes to the heart of what is worth respecting and also to the heart of the two cultures. In a culture of tradition, like that of Sudan, it is the parents who have the knowledge and the children respect them for that. In the United States, the culture is one of rapidly changing technology and the children have the knowledge to use this technology––more than the adults since the children are growing up with it.

But there’s something missing in a culture that respects its children over its adults for their fluency in technology. Since we, in the United States place such value on the new, we have been misled as a culture into thinking that youth is better than age.

While it’s nice to admire our children’s proficiency at mastering technological change, it’s important to remember that it is simply, as my husband Richard Sachs says “the ability to process information that someone else has put out there”.

Deeper than fluency in technology and by and large missing from our culture is the role of the elders (and by elders, I mean adults). The elders’ value lies in their life knowledge. If we take away the bells and whistles of society, we have what we have always had: people looking for a community and people looking to express themselves in a satisfying way. These are the urges that are part of our human legacy and the elders have lived these urges over and over. They know that life is a cycle; that it will be good, it will be bad, it will be interesting, it will be boring. And most importantly, they know that all that is just fine. 

As a dear elderly friend often said to me as I poured out my teenage heart to her: You are so young. That always comforted me. I didn’t have to figure it all out. I was young. I was finding my way. This is what the elders offer. The wisdom of perspective.


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The Role of Grief

Grief is linked, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, to the lung and large intestine organs and, like anger, fear, joy/sadness and worry, it plays a fundamental role in our health.

Our lungs hold and distribute the oxygen that sustains our life, so our inhalation is quite literally the act of taking in life.  When we exhale, we are letting go, in the trust that our next inhalation will come. Without this exhalation––this letting go with trust­­––we can’t take in another breath; we can’t take in more life.

It is the role of grief to facilitate the letting go process. When we grieve, we are letting go of that which no longer serves us. Grieving is the process of sifting through the loss to discover the essence that we wish to carry with us. And then allowing the rest go, so we are able to take in another breath, to continue living.

This week I am grieving the lives lost and maimed at the Boston Marathon bombings (and newly, the MIT officer) and underneath that, I am grieving the awareness that there are people so separated from the basic heart of humanity, that to maim and kill innocent lives is, to them, an acceptable act.

But my grieving has unearthed an essence in the tragedy, to wit: the darkest acts of atrocity are covered by a million lights of kindness. In Boston, people rushed toward the scene of the bombings seconds after they occurred heedless of their own safety, in their impulse to help. Social media spontaneously sprang into action to coordinate emergency information.

Everything is revealed by highlights and shadows.  We are moving forward as a species defined by our immense kindnesses in the wake of our isolated evils.


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For Sale

The focus of my last semester in the MFA program at Simmons College is on preparing us for the ‘real world’ that is, navigating the process of getting published. Which is as it should be, since the Simmons program is highly regarded and has placed many, many graduates in the publishing community as editors, authors, agents, and publicists.

But I find myself, in these classes, getting short tempered and snappy. I would like to have a book contract. (I think.) But if I’m stringently honest, I think what I most want is to be heard.  And that brings up my conflict. I want to be heard, but do I need to be heard? There is a crucial difference here and it is the difference between self-reflection and self-absorption.

Self-reflection is the soft voice of curiosity and wonder––the musings of wanting to understand one’s place in the world. Self-absorption, by contrast, is the loud unceasing voice of need.

When I learn about book trends, and ‘what sells’, I switch from the voice of self-reflection to the voice of self-absorption. I get caught up in the craving—the need––to be heard, and that’s what makes me grumpy.

The world is becoming increasingly noisy, and the ante is being raised. The quiet voice is being replaced by the voice that shocks because that is the one that is heard. Many, if not most of the young adult novels I read for my classes were violent and/or dystopian. As I read, I wondered: are these books reflections of a jaded teen audience, genuinely speaking to their concerns, or are they exploiting the teen marketplace? Because remember, by far and away, authors of YA novels are not teens. They are adults.

I wanted to learn to write to express a creativity in me that tells me it’s time. But after a long day of hearing what sells––of being reminded of the endless American obsession with money––I am weary.

A different reminder (one that is especially poignant in this age of status updates): there’s more to life than selling yourself.


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The Role of Anger

I’ve been thinking about the emotion of anger lately because of the ongoing debate around gun control.  Hearing the trumpeting of the Second Amendment as a justification for the slaughter of children makes me angry. And so I want to go deeper and figure out why.

A few years ago, I took a course taught by a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine that discussed the connection of emotions to health. I learned that traditional Chinese medicine identifies five emotions as integral parts of the human–Anger, Grief, Joy/Sadness, Fear and Worry–and that each of these emotions is linked to a specific organ in our body. In TCM therefore, feeling an emotion is not an unattached event, but is instead a clue–a signpost pointing us in a direction toward greater clarity and self-understanding.

The emotion anger links to the liver and its role in our lives is to set boundaries. We feel angry when a boundary within us is being violated–something we believe in is being challenged. Seen in this light then, no one makes you angry; you make yourself angry.  You have created the emotion. And that is where the empowerment lies.

When I feel angry, I try my best to rout out and examine the belief that the anger is asking me to look at. In this way, I can hope to act with clarity, rather than react. This is important, because anger is a rather pensive emotion. It is not meant to be belligerent.

In the case of gun control, the boundary within me that is being violated is the idea I have that we are all one, and that what we do to each other, we do to ourselves. Therefore in my belief system, if we think we are justified in murdering one another for ‘personal freedom’ we are not only committing violence on a physical level, we are ripping ourselves from a fundamental truth.

Now that I have ferreted out this belief, I can ask myself: do I really believe this idea the anger has pushed me to see? And in this case, yes, I do. From the moment years ago, when a damaged Vietnam vet shoved a pistol against my sixteen year old head threatening me, to the slaughter of six year olds last December by a deranged teenager, I see no value in guns. They tear rather than mend.

My anger has revealed a belief, challenged me to examine it, and asked me to affirm or reject it. In this way, our emotions are guides for our self-growth. The more we understand the role of emotions in our lives the more we can change what doesn’t enrich us. Working from inward to outward is using our emotions in the way they are meant to be used.


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The Unexamined Life

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” So begins M.T. Anderson’s FEED, a sci/fi story set in a future where almost everyone has an implanted device in their brains that feeds them all the information we currently get from our iphone/ facebook/ ipad/ computer/ tablet devices.

Including, of course, the advertisements. While this may seem to be a form of freedom—no need to carry those pesky devices around—it is actually a form of enslavement. For who owns us, when we don’t own our thoughts.

In our current world, I am reminded of our devotion to and reliance upon our devices when I am in public places, where a get together looks more like people sitting at a table, staring intently at their palms. Is this a good life, I wonder? For sure it is an easier and more convenient life. But is life supposed to be easy, or convenient? Aren’t we supposed to struggle just a little bit? This life of being fed constant information feels like eating dessert all day. The sweetness is addictive and pretty soon all other food loses its appeal.

With no other taste to break up the endless sweetness, don’t we lose our power of discernment? Our ability to judge well what lies between the gaps in the information we are fed?  Recently, I was at one of those trendy coffee/tea places—the ones with the one-syllable name, like ‘Gulp’­­––and my friend ordered iced tea. “We don’t have that,” said the hipster server. “But,” said my friend, “you have tea, and you have ice…?” The server shook his head. Iced tea was not on the menu. And he couldn’t fill in the gaps between the information to make it so.

But perhaps this is the way it needs to be. We are seven billion now. A hundred years ago, we were one billion. Now must come the time of cooperation and communication if we are to continue living on a viable planet. It doesn’t sound like a bad thing. It’s just that I have this nagging thought; something remembered from high school science. Isn’t an ant colony all about cooperation and communication? And I wonder, are we raising a generation of ants who are happy just to be ants?


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Road Trip

I am somewhere in western central Pennsylvania. As I look out the window of the Econoline van in which I am a passenger, I see miles of forest and white snowy ground. The forest looks youngish—50 or so years old. And I wonder if all of this part of Pennsylvania was deforested before. It is a grim landscape, empty of human habitation except for deer blinds dotting the pencil forest. I can’t decide if the grimness is the lack of human touch or the ghost of too much human touch. Too much mining and logging: too much poverty, both natural and human.

The deer blinds speak of, not sport, but necessity. The need to eat during the long winter months. The grinding hardship of not enough.

The possibility inherent the Northeast, where I live, is scrapped here by the absolute necessity of simply existing. The luxury of liberality has not yet made its appearance. This is a land of iron and coal, of solid and heavy values. This is the sea anchor to the East coast’s flights of fancy. The flights of fancy which in turn, lift up the heavy practicality of the Midwest.

And so I realize that we all contribute. We need each other.


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At a whiskey drinking little get-together last month with a new French friend, Richie, Michel and I got onto the subject of being rescued, as in, “Mayday” which comes from the French, “m’aider”­­­­­­––help me. We had been talking about sailing and ocean storms and the type of person who likes to go to sea and risk their life. Richie likes to watch storms at sea on the TV; Michel and I are both sailors with blue water experience, so we like to experience storms at sea in person. But perhaps ‘like’ is not the appropriate word here since there’s not much to ‘like’ about being soaking wet, cut and bruised, sleep-deprived, nauseous, and fearful of dying at any moment. Maybe ‘appreciative’ is a better word.

 In our coddled twenty first century Western world of home and hearth, we experience adrenaline surges as spectators. We root for our favorite sports teams; anxiously watching them live on TV. We watch reality shows that pit people with dangerous situations, just like the ancient Romans did at the coliseum. Participating in virtual, rather than actual adventure takes away the contrast. Taking away the contrast takes away the appreciation.  And life should be appreciated. As the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was fond of saying: “Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. Because your life is going very, very quickly.”

The acronym SOS, I learned from Michel, stands for “Save Our Souls”.  This tugs at my heartstrings, as it seems so touchingly archaic. It speaks of a time when people held the soul, that anchor of life, as something rare, unique, and precious–something with weight and worth. I can’t really think of anyone thinking up the words “save our souls” in this day and age.

SOS today would more likely stand for “Save Our Stuff”.

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If You’re Worried About Paper Books Going the Way of the Dodo


People want what they can’t have. I can’t speak for cave person days, but I can speak for early US history days. I used to live in a house that was built in the early seventeen hundreds, which for the United States, is early indeed. It was built fifty years before the United States was the United States.

In the Great Room of my former house, the original walls were finished with twenty inch wide panels of chestnut board, feather edged so they fit together hiding the seam, and planed smooth by hand. Today we would drool at such boards, and they would be worth a great deal of money in their patinated chestnut state.  However, in the seventeen hundreds, chestnut trees grew large and freely. Their lumber was the workhorse of the building trade.  Paneling a room in chestnut boards wasn’t a statement of status.

But painting them was.  In early eighteenth century colonial America, paint–since it was not necessary for survival–was an indulgence. A painted wall was a statement of  well-to-do-ness.  And so the feather-edged chestnut walls in my eighteenth century house were painted a popular color called Prussian Blue. To my modern eyes, the painted walls were a god-awful color—a faded electric blue that in no way reminded me of the softened past. Hard to fathom that in the time, this color was the height of fashion. But it was. And in great part because it wasn’t easy to come by.

So paper books are not in danger of becoming extinct. Just as soon as having a printed paper book becomes hard to come by, having one will be desirable. Desire creates markets. Markets need products.

Tastes change, but the human quirk of wanting what is scarce will never change.


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