Over Coffee: The art of reading, writing and caring

As my need for escapism intensifies in an environment of smothering political chaos, stacks of books are piling up around me. To keep from obsessing over the madness emanating from Washington during this past year of demagoguery and discontent, I’m pondering the nature of literature as a deterrent to despondency.

Oooops. Wait. My phone is vibrating across my desk. A news alert. Forget it. Mueller can wait. It’s finally the weekend. Back to literature. Coffee close by.

The value of literary art is aptly rendered in an “Author’s Note” by Marilynne Robinson published Sept. 24 in The New York Times Book Review.  “In almost every major literature there are works that make you love being human, and make you love and revere the humanity of other people,” Robinson writes in the column adapted from an essay entitled “Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.”

Is there actually something that RIGHT NOW could make me love the humanity of you know who? Or, if not that, could I at least despise a few people a little less by, say, late next week?

Of course authors of the books I read deserve credit for their dedication to story and plot and character development, and for respecting and enlivening language while probing and expanding creative expression. But the deepest, most genuine nature of the literary arts requires involvement and even dedication on the other end; pushing a literary work to its highest possible level requires involvement from the reader as artist. This reader is one who knows to listen when there is something to hear, to contemplate when a deeper principle or insight can be unearthed, to imagine, extrapolate and allow the story being told to expand beyond the pages, outside the book’s covers.

Two books published this year – the novel “A House Among the Trees” by Julia Glass and the short story collection “Fresh Complaint” by Jeffrey Eugenides – left me writing down excerpts because I didn’t want to lose the feelings of recognition and resonance gained through the wisdom and insights of the authors. These works allow me, as the reader, to become a discoverer with something to claim as my own after being led through frontiers exposing much to treasure.

Perhaps certain excerpts inspire me because of what my subconscious is probing when I commit to considering deeper meanings underlying the author’s observations or descriptions. With all that’s been on my mind since, oh, I don’t know, about a day after the last U.S. presidential election, it’s apropos for the first excerpt included here to be a deft one from the Eugenides’ short story “Great Experiment,” written in 2008. “One’s country was like one’s self. The more you learned about it, the more there was to be ashamed of,” he writes.

One of the characters in the Glass novel pulls me in with this: “So much in her life is still so unfamiliar that sometimes she mistakes fear or uncertainty for regret. Not that she can pretend she has no regrets.” Another gem: “But that’s the netherland of night distorting what she knows by day, which is that she is back in the middle of life, the roiling, muddled middle, and it’s hers. …”

Yes, indeed. Nice stuff coming off these pages – like the essence of the “roiling, muddled middle” that feels like it’s all mine today.

In one passage, Glass describes a walk across New York’s Central Park: “Neither of them knew the paths, which seemed deliberately confusing, as if designed to foil your sense of direction, not deviously but mercifully, as if the park were urging you, Listen! Life is not a mission. Get lost a little, will you?

Yes, indeed. Get lost in a story, let it challenge you to think and experience, to question and contemplate, even to imagine, dread or desire.

In “Complainers,” the first story in Eugenides’ new collection, I found wisdom and reassurance: “Pay no attention to the terrors that visit you in the night. The psyche is at its lowest ebb then, unable to defend itself. The desolation that envelops you feels like truth, but isn’t. It’s just mental fatigue masquerading as insight.”

Ah yes – desolation born of tainted attempts to mask, manipulate and deny the truth. (Sound familiar?)

Eugenides is masterful in getting to the heart of easily misunderstood or overlooked characters, as he does in interpreting observations of an 88-year-old woman suffering from dementia. “Looking at the snow, blowing around beyond the window glass, Della has the feeling that she’s peering into her own brain. Her thoughts are like that now, constantly circulating, moving from one place to another, just a whole big whiteout inside her head.”

The interpretation by Eugenides of what Della thinks and feels warms with clarity, even though those in her life often are mystified by her behavior. “Going out in the snow, disappearing into it, wouldn’t be anything new to her,” Eugenides writes. “It would be like the outside meeting the inside. The two of them merging. Everything white. Just walk on out. Keep going. Maybe she’d meet someone out there, maybe she wouldn’t. A friend.”

These works by Glass and Eugenides have made me care about their characters, to want to understand them. I also want to know more about these writers and their motivations, and about how they get from the blank page to such meaningful written words.

About the mission facing all writers, Robinson writes: “When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected.”

Literature – complete with artistic mystery and written intrigue – is providing much more than a distraction from the concerns I have about the social disintegration around me that began accelerating a year ago. I’ll keep reading to increase my understanding of people and places, of threats and less sinister developments. And I’ll keep appreciating the work of creative artists who venture into the unknown and help me become a discoverer in my own way.

As Robinson says: “Writing should always be exploratory.”

Same with reading, my escapism of choice.

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Into an empty sky

Sometimes I can’t write if I hear a clock ticking.

Or if the room is too quiet. Or if it seems my surroundings are too still, like every reminder of life has been squeezed out of the room, the atmosphere, the universe. (Confession: When this happens, I am prone to exaggerate, repeat words or ideas, even disregard grammar rules.)

For some reason, I continue breathing. Here at the keyboard, I am stilled but alive, yearning for expression, but paralyzed.

I have a pulse. I have neural recognition and mobility. I think I have function and purpose, but I cannot prove it. I know I am breathing because I am not in physical distress.

I need, I don’t know – SOMETHING – to trigger synaptic activity, to translate SOMETHING, ANYTHING to the page. A sound, a rhythm, a reminder that time is passing and I am on Earth to record something, register a feeling, highlight an idea, or something, somewhere, even if only through a fictional character, a made-up scene, a story that doesn’t exist – and won’t exist – until I give it contours, until I infuse this manufactured reality with meaning, construct a plot, add depth, or dream to rise beyond razored edges with poignant conflict.

What is this beast that confounds me? (Truly an agile, almost Shakespearean transition.)

This beast, this monster – it’s something so big it loses size, like being overwhelmed, or buried, or ignored, by silence. (This is not a contradiction, but rather irony suffused with dissonance.) Ticking, ticking. Relentless. And then, this beast – also mundane, at times solicitous in its own domain. I search for the forgotten, perhaps abandoned and sometimes pulsating life form within Poe’s heart, another creature that never dies.

My intellect tells me nothing holds me down, but I can’t move. I honestly CANNOT MOVE. (OKAY, I GOT TO THE CAPS LOCK KEY. BUT TRUST ME, I CANNOT MOVE IN A MEANINGFUL WAY. AT LEAST NOT, RIGHT, NOW.)

IF ONLY I COULD HEAR THE TICKING OF A CLOCK, COULD KNOW LIFE GOES ON, COULD BELIEVE THOUGHTS AND COLORS, TEXTURES AND MEMORIES – THESE ALL GIVE MEANING TO MY EXISTENCE BECAUSE I WILL COMMUNICATE ALL THAT I SEE, HEAR, FEEL. I PROMISE!

But here, nothing.

ONE DEEP BREATH. 

EXHALE.  

ANOTHER.

Exhale.  

I’m moving again, perhaps more confident, more assured of why I am here, at the keyboard, in this time, this place.

I am the writer, the one who describes, relates, understands, conveys. I inform, interpret, analyze. I share. And then —

Illusions take shape. (Is that even possible?)

With fingers poised above home row, reality tugs at my brain. I fight the urge to push back. It’s the invisible demon again. (At least I think this devil is invisible; I can’t see it, but I know it’s there.) Right there, yet again, perched on my shoulder. Then the jumping, up and down, a sour voice hissing in my ear: You can’t write! You can’t write.

Next, more menacing: You can’t write. Not now, not ever. Never! Never! Never!

(The devil gets italics AND boldface. You caught that, right?)

Another day: I sit down to write and stop before I even get going, before I’ve found a reason to smile because I like that word there, or this idea nudged alongside a deft description here, or that unplanned cadence or measured tone, perhaps even alliteration that works but seems more like a lucky find than a developed result. Before I get to any of that, I stop, move away, decide something has to be done before I can get going, before I get to be the musician playing keyboards, underscoring today’s existence with a steady beat, adding melody to musing.

Do I hear a clock ticking?

Today is one of THOSE days, when sound – any sound – is an unleashed fury, the wind doesn’t soothe but singes, more like a dreaded goodbye from a close friend than a harbinger of welcome change or harbor of comfort. Then, like so many times, silence becomes the treasure in today’s realm, even though the clock, just, keeps, ticking. …

… on and on and on …

This is what it’s like when I can’t write: The clock keeps ticking, or it doesn’t. Or the devil convinces me I should be doing something else because there are so many other things that need to be done and, well, you know, THE CLOCK IS TICKING!

Or it’s not.

If a door is shut, then it needs to be opened. Same with windows. And the inverse is true as well: If a door or window is open, it needs to be closed. Maybe I should start a load of laundry before I write; maybe then I will think I’m being productive and more likely to ignore distractions because I am convinced that I’ve earned the right to sit down and write.

So how does the next scene go?

I’m headed upstairs, walking through the kitchen when I see the green light glowing on the dishwasher. The solitary green light means only one thing: the cycle has finished. I’ll just take a minute, empty the dishwasher, get a bottle of cold water from the fridge, and then I won’t have any reason to stop writing once I get going.

I put the last glass in the cupboard, close the silverware drawer with my hip. Then, I see it: One of the bulbs in the fixture over the fireplace is out. Where did I put the spares? I know I bought extras the last time I went to the store, or someone did. I know we have more bulbs, and it’s a lot easier to read with all bulbs in place. …

… and on and on and on …

There are so many reasons not to write. So many battles to fight to get to the keyboard, so many challenges to overcome to start writing, and so many hassles that bedevil my best creative efforts, however they present themselves.

Now the blank black sky of my cherished pre-dawn hours is blueing. A creeping exhaustion pervades. I lift my fingers off of the keyboard, anchor my elbows on the blond wood of my desk, rest head in hands.

Desperation, hints of fear, and then, at last, hope rises. Perhaps the biggest challenge is embracing solitude in quiet hours. Chasing affirmation, I close my eyes. I begin typing: 

         The writer writes

         to stake a claim

         in the empty sky.

 

Work. Cause. Hope. Dream.

In the summer of 1980 I was an idealistic journalist, a bit of a firebrand, a rebel pondering causes big and small.

I was writing and dreaming, excited about my future and pretty sure I could handle whatever the world threw at me. I was a student at the University of Nebraska majoring in journalism and political science.

There were a lot of us around back then, brash and bold, inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, ready to take on corrupt officials, fight injustice, unmask fraud and malfeasance — all that and more. We were taught an enduring democracy required an informed citizenry. In the wake of Watergate,  journalistic idealism flourished. We believed in the power of the press and the vital role the Fourth Estate plays in our society. We had witnessed it.

With the Trump presidency’s alarming Watergate-style tendencies emerging daily alongside a dangerous display of White House dysfunction, the importance of independent media outlets to keep officials in check has never been more acute. Sometimes that includes information leaks from insiders who take risks because dishonest, misleading, unethical and criminal behavior by elected officials must be exposed.

When it comes to holding our leadership accountable, it is not enough to trust what we are told. We must verify. Always.

While working a second summer at The Lincoln Star during my college years, I found myself one afternoon with little to do. My editor was reading a story I had just filed and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to see it again until it was in print. At the next desk, the Star’s political reporter — Don Walton — was talking about the upcoming political conventions with the Star’s editorial writer, Bob Schrepf.

“You should go,” one of them said to me. At first I dismissed the idea. Then I started to scheme. If I could raise the money, I thought, maybe I could do it. I wrote to the DNC and the RNC for credentials. I got them.

Back then, the Star’s computer system had to be taken down each afternoon for 20 to 40 minutes. One day I used that time to dash over to the Journalism School, a five-minute walk from the newsroom. I told the receptionist I was looking for money to cover the conventions. Soon I was seated across from former J-School Dean Neale Copple. He summoned his assistant, Emily Trickey, telling her to “bring the book.”

Copple explained my mission to Ms. Trickey and asked if there was any money for the upcoming year still available. She leafed through “the book,” puzzling over notations. Her fingers riffled pages forward and back, then forward again, and back. She bit her lower lip and mumbled words I couldn’t decipher. I watched, quite bemused. I really hadn’t expected to get anywhere with my request. But there were Copple and the keeper of “the book” exchanging ideas on how to make the reporting trips possible. I left with a promise of money. I think they pledged something like $1,500 for my recently conjured educational cause. Part of the deal was that I would return any leftover funds. With conviction, I nodded. Yes, of course, I would return any unused money. Honest. I promise. Then I got busy spending it.

What an adventure. I reported on the Republicans from Detroit and the Democrats from New York. I learned important lessons, like where the lobbyist reception areas were for journalists. I ate and drank for free. I could count on the railroad lobby for cold beer and decent sandwiches. I ate my first crab cake at a Maryland Democratic Party bash. I liked it — a lot. I soaked up much more than the freebies, listening to sardonic scribes and inquiring analysts muse on each day’s events. The leading newspapers gave out free copies of their papers at the conventions. I pored over them, scrutinizing coverage approaches and writing styles. My biggest takeaway: I can do this.

Midway through the Democratic Party’s coronation, I ran into President Carter’s press spokesman at 3 a.m. outside the convention center. I introduced myself, my mind scrambling for a question to ask, any question. I came up with a question all right. It just wasn’t a coherent one.

When the spokesman spoke, I scribbled and nodded. It was not a career-making quote scrawled in my notebook, but it reflects a stage of my journalistic development that still amuses me: “Do you expect me to answer a bullshit question like that at 3 a.m.?” Jody Powell said. He was friendly and sincere. He shook my hand. We both smiled. I cannot remember if that quote made it into the full-page feature story of my experiences at the conventions that the Daily Nebraskan ran on Election Day in 1980. But I had gotten a quote from Powell. And I had gotten put in my place. Big time. But there was no acrimony. No insults. Fair is fair.

Never again did I ask a presidential spokesperson about maneuvering on platform planks and whether that could be taken as waffling from party leaders. (I learned to convey my own observations in print rather than naively thinking a party insider would detail ongoing finagling.) Another lesson learned. I’d like to think I sharpened my game after that. I mean, fair is indeed fair – always.

I’m at a very different stage of my life as I watch today’s front-line reporters demonized when they reject lies and aim to reveal deeper truths. I’m seeing so many similarities between what’s happening here and what occurred in authoritarian or violence-plagued nations where I reported on political tensions and upheaval as a foreign correspondent writing for newspapers, magazines and The Associated Press. Reporting took me from my family’s farm in Nebraska around the world, to countries including China, Mongolia, Cambodia, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Rwanda. It was all about getting answers to questions to not just learn, but to become wiser and help readers do the same.

I left daily news reporting long ago. My writing felt sterile and disconnected from me, especially when I witnessed human rights atrocities but thought my role as a journalist required me to be as devoid of feeling as possible.

For years, I listened to lies and distortions from officials adept at manipulating the media and felt unfairly constrained by well-intentioned journalism principles undermined by ideological zealots and unscrupulous autocrats with no regard for the truth.

The longtime news-reporting approach I had followed grew from this premise: Each side gets to have its say. The reporter then puts these viewpoints side by side and lets the reader decide what it all means. Over and over, young reporters were told to report “just the facts, ma’am.” Unfortunately, we have learned how fact-benders can use this to obscure the truth in the most unbelievable ways. This is the case in the United States today just as it was during my reporting on the Communist Party’s iron rule in China or Robert Mugabe’s despotic pseudo-kingdom of Zimbabwe.

I still strive for fairness, accuracy and insight to put facts into perspective to help readers get to the truth. But now, with Trump reps telling journalists to shut up or promoting the absurdity of “alternative facts,” it’s just as important for some of us to tell you what we think about the things we see and how developments make us feel as the people we are – as parents, as independent thinkers, as community members, as taxpayers, as voters, and as witnesses to tragedy, hardship and triumph. I think of this as a “Newer Journalism,” a values-based social imperative that not only respects the truth but demands it. The need to right wrongs and expose lies is painfully – and frightfully – obvious following Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, a rise to power built on distortions, lies, preposterous claims, bullying tactics to squash dissent and a warped, continuing campaign to rewrite reality.

Despite Trump’s repeated references to the dishonest press, I find a shred of solace now remembering disgraced former Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew’s branding of media critics as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” (Yeah, Spiro. Whatever you say. You got yours.) Remember: Agnew and the equally disgraced former Republican President Richard Nixon made reporters their enemies as they grew more embattled day by day. In the end, the strategy failed; truth triumphed.

I spoke recently to a business associate from Nebraska who voted for Donald Trump. She told me how much she worries about the future her children and grandchildren will face. “I thought he would settle down,” she said. It was after reports of a Trump order being drafted to implement torture. It came amid court filings regarding the immigration ban targeting Muslims.

I like this woman. She is pleasant and efficient. She cares about people. But I am angry at her as well. What made her think this megalomaniac would settle down? “America elected this man and will just have to make the best of it,” she concluded during our most recent phone conversation.

No. You elected him, I thought. And you and your family deserve everything you get out of this guy. I hope those who oppose Trump hang the albatross that he will become around the GOP’s neck for generations. So-called Republican leaders failed their country when they refused to denounce his bigotry and hatred, choosing instead to voraciously gather any crumbs of support that fell their way. I hope I can find a way to be more magnanimous toward Trump supporters, especially those who were misled or guilty only of sins of omission for refusing to be critical thinkers or rational skeptics. For now, though, my feelings are raw and ragged. And so intense.

The woman I’ve quoted here also told me: “I wish the media would just stop giving so much attention to all of this.”

I didn’t want a debate but I had to register my thoughts. “No. You don’t want that,” I said. “You don’t want a government that operates in the dark.”

Then she told me she had heard of “someone in the media” who posted on Twitter that “someone” should blow up Trump, or “something” like that.

Again, I had to register my viewpoint. “That’s terrible,” I agreed. “But that’s social media. Don’t confuse the working media with social media.”

“Oh,” she said.

Since then I have tried to monitor news but not be consumed by it. My first reaction after the election was to avoid television coverage and read presidential biographies. I slowly ventured back to the world of current events, reading the New York Times Sunday paper each week and occasionally watching TV news shows. It’s a battle, though. One night, after watching replays of Trump comparing Vladimir Putin to what he called “a lot of killers” in the United States, I could think of nothing else.

My disgust with Trump’s demagoguery sometimes settles into a deep sadness. My disgust with uninformed voters who share Trump’s denial of reality continues to grow. My feelings quickly can turn to fear. It is real, it is deepening and it cannot be denied. It’s not unusual for me to toss and turn in bed for hours, sometimes even all night.

One night, I sought comfort in words that inspired me way back when I was that journalism and political science student at the University of Nebraska.

I was on the convention floor at the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York when Massachusetts Sen. Teddy Kennedy chose graciousness, passion and dedication to democracy to inspire people like me who wanted to pursue ideals, who wanted to work, who dared to dream, who believed in values.

Thank God for YouTube. In the suspended moments of my pre-dawn unease, I pulled up the video clip of that monumental speech by Kennedy. It reminds me how political defeat stung back then but didn’t derail hopes. May you, too, gain inspiration for warm thoughts of a better day from Teddy Kennedy’s speech quoting Tennyson:

“The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Paris: Putting together the pieces

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I want to say something that matters.

I am feeling it instead – just feeling, without understanding.

That must mean I am failing as a writer.

Or am I surviving as a person?

Maybe I don’t want to know.

Or is the true meaning here about perspective?

All I can say is: I love Paris. And to the French people, who shared our pain in 2001, I am so, so sorry for your suffering. We watch from afar, wishing it didn’t have to be this way for you. Or for us. We hear the threats. We wonder. Again.

I must do something. I don’t want to feel hopeless. Or helpless.

So I write. It’s what I do. I keep my hands busy at times like these. Find a familiar place, I tell myself. Herd your words to a spot on the hill where the view is expansive, where there is shelter from the wind, where the sunlight falls in front of you and warms and exposes. Be a shepherd of ideas and feelings.

For now, though, clarity eludes, shadows loom, understanding evades.

From your streets, from your concert hall, from your restaurants and your soccer stadium to our streets and homes, please know we mourn with you.

You are not alone; we walk with you through these dark patches.

Along with you, we seek meaning and definition but seem so often to grasp nothing tangible in the haunted vastness after unexplainable tragedy, sensing instead the presence of unknown shapes with unrecognizable textures. I would like to hear words of reassurance about our shared future, but none come, not even in whispers.

“Keep going.” That’s the only idea I can muster, the closest I can get to conjuring a sense of resiliency while realizing meaning, congruity of purpose and understanding – all remain out of reach, still, for these long days lost in space.

Photos in the newspaper draw me in – glimpses of tragedy, informing and depressing. Captions: Tending to the wounded. Bullet holes in glass panes next to unbroken wine glasses on a shelf. Unscathed crystal exists within the shattering, alongside the destruction. Then the video images: Water spraying from a hose, washing away blood on a city sidewalk.

I scanned the front page of The Washington Post this morning at my neighborhood coffee shop while I waited for my drink to steam and be sweetened. I squinted. Frowned. I didn’t have my reading glasses with me. I struggle, in many ways, to make sense of what is being said and written. So many letters in print with blurry edges. Meanings cut deep, for sure. I feel compelled to look at scenes I don’t want to see but wish I could understand.

I put the newspaper down. A woman asks if it is mine.

“No, here,” I say, picking up the paper again and extending it to her. “It’s all yours. But you might not want to read it all.”

“You are right, so right,” she says. “But I have to at least look at it, don’t I?”

I nod. She closes her eyes, briefly, and exhales slowly.

I want to write something that matters.

But I don’t know where we are right now.

Soon I’m leaving the parking lot, coffee nestled in the drink holder to my right. I edge nearer to the intersection so I can see around the bushes.

I look to the left, then right, then once more to the left before accelerating.

I am not talking about what matters. I wonder why.

Now, as I write this, I realize: I am not sure where I want my thoughts to take me; I am not sure where my writing should take me.

Here is the way it looks to me at this point: I don’t know where the greater wisdom rests, or where I can go to find my own version of enlightenment, or how to pursue such ideas.

I am sad and confused, frustrated and scared.

Now another thought: This is only the beginning.

The beginning, yes, and I have found no way to make this puzzle start to take shape. Not yet. I am not even sure if the pieces are all here.

Shapes, colors, patterns, links – I’m not making connections.

Not yet.

So I will go back in time.

I choose to remember the long walks, Paris beautiful whether cold or hot, the art, the wine, the food. And the people. The city became a refuge so many times for my husband and for me when our work as foreign correspondents became difficult to bear. After our son and daughter were born, it became our family’s magical city. Oh, the memories. And now, new memories dominate, sad ones that won’t go away.

For now, we must strengthen our resolve to continue to stand together, to work together, to fight together.

For the people of France and for victims of terrorism everywhere, we are with you in spirit. That is true in the spring time, and in the fall.

And we are not giving up.

Not ever.

Coloring life in blue, powder and steel

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I called her Aunt Pat.

She wasn’t my Aunt Pat, not technically. She was my college roommate’s Aunt Pat.

To me, she was a pseudo-Aunt Pat. She laughed the first time I called her that, so I called her that over and over.

After my mother died during my junior year at the University of Nebraska, Aunt Pat put me on her radar. She kept me there, showering me with Hallmark kindnesses on Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, birthdays. Later, she did the same for my children.

Aunt Pat had her own children – two boys a bit older than me. They became kindred spirits. Whenever I called Aunt Pat, we spent a lot of time catching up about everyone. That’s what you do with a favorite aunt. We reminisced. I told her my worries. She commiserated.

Aunt Pat died last May.

Two months before that, I went to see her in Pender, the town in northeast Nebraska where I could go to unwind from pressures and feel surrounded by friends. Last March something told me: You’ve got to get up to see Aunt Pat. It’s been far too long.

As usual, we laughed a lot. She soon grew tired. As she hobbled to her bedroom assisted by a beloved caregiver, I called out: “Sleep tight, you little bug.” It was the sendoff she always gave me whenever I headed for bed while visiting her. Aunt Pat chuckled when I used the line on her. She thrust her cane into the air – another resolute gesture to savor like all the others that punctuated her bold encouragements aimed at making me believe in myself.

Early in October I visited her grave when I was back in Nebraska.

The day before, I sat with the son in Pender who is serving as executor of her estate, looking at photos of Aunt Pat’s paintings. We laughed, of course, as we recounted highlights of a life well lived by a woman deeply loved. Sometimes silence seemed the warmest refuge, a glowing, penetrating warmth – an Aunt Pat kind of warmth.

“Come here. I want to show you something,” Aunt Pat’s son said.

We walked to the hall closet. I looked in to see all of her record albums, the music that accompanied our late-night chats in the art room, those deep talks about inspiration, and life, and dreams. So many wonderful memories I have of discussions that might meander from Nebraska football to musings about how to keep fighting when you feel weary and worn by struggle or worry.

Then, I saw it: The Billie Holiday album Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.

I picked it up, held it against my chest, closed my eyes.

“Do you have a record player? You can take that album if you want,” her son said.

I shook my head. “No. No player.”

Aunt Pat and I played that album one night when I was feeling blue. We talked about racism, Aunt Pat and I. We talked about loss and heartache. We talked about violence and war. And desperation. Then we talked about marshaling hope to find a way out of darkness. It sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t help myself: We talked about anything and everything.

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I told Aunt Pat about having similar heart-to-hearts with my mother. I told her about one of my fondest recollections of growing up: Awakening on Sunday mornings to the smell of bacon with the sounds of Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong or Ray Charles filling our house.

I described memories of my mother philosophizing after we watched the movie Lady Sings the Blues together: “However much we may struggle, she struggled so much more.”

Just weeks ago, as I drove the 14 miles from Pender to the cemetery in Aunt Pat’s hometown of Walthill, I took that Billie Holiday album with me. When I stood looking down the hillside from where Aunt Pat and Uncle Ron are buried, I thought about the art room in Aunt Pat’s house. I remembered Aunt Pat telling me about the value of north light: “It’s special,” she said. “Artists need north light.”

In late afternoon, on that hill early this month, Aunt Pat’s grave was awash in north light. It felt so right.

I looked north from the cemetery, surveying the vastness of the rugged Nebraska beauty that requires unique insight and understanding to appreciate. I saw the oranges, the yellows and the vibrant green of grass breathing life into the newfound fall of early October. I took in the many blues of the late-afternoon sky, from the threatening clouds on the outer reaches to the pastel splotch breaking through between the barren tree on my left and the leafy limbs framing the scene on my right.

I sensed a special perspective, much like the views that dominate Aunt Pat’s paintings, like insights, pleasures, challenges and beliefs we now nurture and cherish, like a burnished heart keeping alive her generosity of spirit.

I took photos of the Billie Holiday album at Aunt Pat’s graveside. I took one while holding the album cover in my left hand as my right hand positioned the camera and snapped the shutter. I took some of the album cover leaning against the stone marking the graves of Aunt Pat and Uncle Ron. I don’t know why I did it; it just seemed fitting to tie these elements together.

And I took photos on my way out of the cemetery, a scene I can’t get out of my mind when I think of Aunt Pat: Unfurled before me was nature’s quilt of sky stitching together the softened hue of powder blue with the haunted patches of darkening gray and steel blue.

Aunt Pat told me to be an artist at whatever I do. She told me to believe in myself. And she made me feel special, always, and oh so loved.

How fitting when I left the cemetery that day to hear the strains of Van Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl from the radio of my rental car. As I drove by the house where Aunt Pat lived as a child, these lines resonated: “So hard to find my way, now that I’m on my own.”

Suddenly more memories loomed, big and bold: When I left college and didn’t know much about what I wanted, Aunt Pat encouraged me to follow my heart. Whenever parental responsibilities started to overwhelm me, I called Aunt Pat and she helped me work my way into the clear. Without a doubt, it has been hard, at so many times, to find my way.

Now, without her in that Pender art room to take my calls, I am on my own in more ways.

Today I thought about Aunt Pat and responded by googling Billie Holiday. I learned this is the year marking the 100th anniversary of the late singer’s birth. Then I smiled, browsing the website run by her personal estate and seeing that she died on July 17th – the same date as my birthday. I ran down the list of Lady Day’s songs, remembering what it was like to listen to them with my mother and then later with Aunt Pat.

I found myself noting, again, the wisdom and eloquence of quotes from Billie Holiday. “A kiss that is never tasted is forever wasted,” read one. Then this: “I’m always making a comeback, but nobody ever tells me where I’ve been.” And another: “Sometimes it’s worse to win a fight than to lose.”

Yes, Aunt Pat, life is about finding your way. It’s about finding the artist inside yourself and letting her breathe in, and out, pausing and reflecting, trusting and believing, aspiring and demanding more of yourself but also knowing sometimes you need to lighten up, to give yourself a break, to rest.

Aunt Pat made me believe when I differ from others I must embrace what makes me stand out. Look for the genuine luster in life, she would say, and take time to cherish moments as well as memories.

Above all, I must grow from the encouragement of loved ones and friends to contribute to the world in my own way. This, I now believe, is the art of living: Treasuring your own sense of worth and being true to the artist within.

After all, as Billie Holiday said and I think Aunt Pat would agree: “If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.”

For love of game

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Zach Johnson’s hands seemed to reach cautiously for the Claret Jug.

Just minutes before, he blinked and winced, fighting back tears and apologizing to a global TV audience while struggling to comprehend a win he once considered unattainable: “I’m a mess. Sorry. Thanks.”

In sports, there are trophies.

Then there are tro-phies, like the Claret Jug.

And beyond shadows cast by vaunted hardware and the blinding sheen of victory, other treasures exist: true trophy moments.

I have enjoyed a lot of these lately, times when a sport seems bigger than any competitor, success over challenge more important than the result. From high-profile international performances to private accomplishments and sacrifices by members of my family or children of friends, the world of sports creates much to polish and savor.

Johnson exuded reverence, relief and disbelief, clutching the prized jug while attempting to grasp a new reality: He had claimed golf immortality by triumphing over Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa and Marc Leishman of Australia in a four-hole playoff to become British Open Champion.

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Later, the clichéd display of a ceremonial kiss on the trophy would play out. But for a magical moment before that, the 39-year-old golfer from Iowa looked subdued, even solemn, casting his eyes downward onto the names of golf legends etched in silver.

To win this year on the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, Johnson had to overcome winds battering with wily gusts, punishing rain and schedules subjugated to nature’s onslaughts. Maybe staying grounded instead of trying to soar above it all became paramount.

Yes, it took great shots and timely escapes from near disaster. But even as he doubled over in apparent anxiety shortly after rolling in a 30-foot, downhill putt on the 18th green that eventually put him in a three-way tie for first place, Johnson may have sensed being part of the game was more important than emerging as conquering hero.

“What this does, if anything, is really puts things in perspective for me,” Johnson said when asked to explain how he felt after winning another major championship to go with his victory in the 2007 Master’s Tournament. “I play golf for a living and I’m grateful for that.”

For my part, I am grateful for lessons in humility and appreciation and respect for other athletes along with those who support them — all highlighted by this year’s British Open.

Jordan Spieth saw his quest to win golf’s Grand Slam in a calendar year die on that 18th green. His putt for birdie – to tie the lead at 15 under par after 72 holes of regulation play – missed by inches.

“It stings a little bit, “ Spieth admitted. “But ultimately I thought we gave it a great run.”

Spieth could have behaved like Dustin Johnson, who skipped the U.S. Open awards ceremony after missing two putts on the final hole to fall from assured victory to a share of the runner-up spot. Instead, the 21-year-old Spieth was among the first to congratulate Zach Johnson at St. Andrews.

Spieth’s graciousness in Scotland – a true trophy moment – makes Dustin Johnson’s dismal defeat even starker.

The most valued essence of sports combines love and respect for the game. Sometimes this requires more than you think you can give. And that, in turn, is why athletes who rise above challenge, frustration and heartache reach higher ground.

Cheering on the Waves of Woodley Gardens in Rockville, Maryland at swim meets this summer, I have seen fulfillment acquired by those struggling to finish races and admiration grow among teammates witnessing friends reaching personal milestones. I have seen gratitude mined from way down deep for a coach named Clay Miller who will retire after this season.

I have seen teen-agers and some not far beyond their toddler years show respect for Coach Clay so pure that it transcends the competitive nature of a whole lot of winners representing the Waves in the highly individualized sport of swimming.

All of this, from the links of St. Andrews to Woodley’s concrete hole in the ground that turns bright blue every summer, reminds me why I love sports.

In events featuring the world’s elite or the youngest of athletes, dedication and discipline matter most.

My daughter headed for a personal best.

My daughter headed for a personal best.

After my son’s first summer with the Waves, he told me he liked training with Clay because the coach cared about helping him improve even if he didn’t win races.

A different coach might have forced my 16-year-old daughter to choose between theater and swimming for the Waves after she got a part in a summer production at the Shakespeare Theatre Co. in D.C. Not Clay.

He let her find her place with the team. She responded, posting personal bests in the breaststroke, individual medley and backstroke. She coached younger Waves for Clay and never missed an early morning practice this season, even when her role on the team diminished as rehearsals and performances for Twelfth Night demanded more.

My 18-year-old son, once a year-round swimmer because of Clay’s encouragement, left the sport to concentrate on running. But Clay’s impact remains; he taught my son to believe in himself.

If you ask my son why he never dropped out of a cross-country race, even when he battled asthma, or rolled his ankle after planting his foot on a hidden rock, or suffered cramps and muscle strains, here is what you probably will hear: “Cross-country runners never quit.”

My son: “Never quit.”

As far as I know, Clay has not seen my son run. But I’m certain there’s a bit of Clay at the heart of my son’s deep-seeded resolve.

Thank you to all of you dedicated athletes and coaches who love the game, who step up and put yourselves on the line, who reward those around you with respect and regard.

Thank you for true trophy moments.

Amen!

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Hallelujah!

And thank God.

Thank you U.S. Supreme Court justices for your ruling today affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry no matter where they live in this country.

And thank you for your decision yesterday protecting Obamacare, a ruling defending the interests of all Americans and the right of everyone to have affordable health care.

The verdict is in: People matter.

Your suffering matters. Mine, too. This is true regardless of your ability to pay for the medical care you need, or how I may choose to live my life with the person I love as we honor one another by respecting the rights of others to shape their own lifestyles and values.

So many have fought and struggled against insult and injury, against the denial of that sacred ideal of creating a life built on love and commitment to your true heart partner, the person you find and choose for yourself, whoever he or she may be and wherever you desire to reside.

Remember the sacrifices of those previously denied the ability to turn same-sex relationships into unions sanctified by marriage vows. People have been shamed. Pilloried. Cast out of families, turned away from jobs. Consider how long our society’s backward thinking led to gay people being tortured psychologically, emotionally, physically. Even murdered.

This is a day to cherish the progress we are making as a society. It doesn’t always come as quickly as it should, but let’s keep moving toward the light. That’s what we’re doing now, in the wake of these two momentous court decisions.

If someone tells you the Bible preaches against same-sex unions, let’s contemplate that assertion. Then with rationality and deep thought, move on. With a nod to my Christian heritage and out of respect for the many non-Christians I have come to know as kindred spirits, let us consider the guidance offered in Matthew 7:1-3: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

You live your life, I’ll live mine. Respect the rights of others and expect others to respect your rights. Do not impose your values. Do not undermine the aspirations of others. Treat people justly and fairly, without judgment or rancor.

Yes, President Obama, this is about that hallowed quality we in America want to hold forever in our hearts: Freedom. Throw in liberty. And acceptance.

Cue President Obama for his reaction to the High Court’s decision upholding gay rights: “This ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts. When all Americans are truly treated as equal, we are more free.”

Amen.

Now cue my 16-year-old daughter, who bounded downstairs from her room after learning of today’s landmark Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

“Finally, America!” she said. “It’s about time.”

What a week. Let’s also throw in the Supreme Court’s decision today in favor of a Muslim woman denied a job because she wore a hajib, the black scarf that symbolizes her faith. While we celebrate the monumental step we’re making to defend gay rights, let’s also honor the virtue of religious freedom and the protection of freedom of expression.

Then my 18-year-old son joined the celebration. His response was just as heartfelt, but more succinct: “Wow,” he said, a huge smile on his face. “Wow.”

Hallelujah.

They get it. They value it and respect it.

We exchanged high-fives. I called my husband. We laughed, especially when my husband, tongue in cheek, offered his perspective: “I think it’s great. Now all of those zealot right-wing radio guys are going to have to work all weekend trying to shoot all of this down!”

More laughs.

My daughter, keeping a watchful eye on her phone, said the common theme among her friends reflecting on the two major court decisions was this: “Go SCOTUS! Go POTUS!”

I’m giddy, maybe trending toward an all-out gloat. Perhaps I should swallow some of that, but no, I’m going with it anyway. I know in many ways this is just a beginning; we can’t wipe out homophobia overnight or instantly convert bigots and haters. But we can dream and hope and relish on this oh so important day.

If I could sing and play the bass, I would raise my voice in a politically inspired version of one of my favorite Elvis Costello tunes: “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?”

I’ve been known to pluck a melody or two on the guitar, but never the stringed bass. So I’ll settle for humming rather than full-throated warbling.

With Elvis Costello’s words highlighting a sense of altruism, faith and mercy cycling through my brain, I propose this toast: “Here’s to peace, love and understanding.”

Here! Here!

And a great big Amen.