The Bio-Ethics of Aging

Bio-Ethics of Aging

I wonder how many of my readers have managed to avoid the quandary that surrounds the health care needs of so many of our aging parents:

  • Should you respect their desire for independence or insist that they live where their medical needs will be taken care of?
  • Should you approve surgery or chemotherapy for an Alzheimer’s parent who has a malignant tumor?
  • Should you insist on insertion of—or removal of—a feeding tube for a stroke victim who will never regain even minimal intellectual or physical function but is in no immediate danger of death?

These issues loom large in my mind as I revise the syllabus for a class I teach on the Bio-Ethics of Aging.  What I see is that our lives have become ever more complicated as medical technology and innovative drugs have provided more sophisticated—and more expensive—ways to keep aging and death at bay.  Where once diminished capacity and ultimate death were considered to be inevitable stages of life, they are now increasingly challenges to be overcome.

The problem, as any reader of the daily newspaper will know, is that we as a nation are resource constrained. We do not have enough money or enough geriatricians or enough kidneys or enough antibiotics to treat every single older person who wants to be treated.  While we are only one of many countries facing rising health expenditures as the baby boomers age, we are unique among the developed countries in our lack of a consensus on what kind of health care should be provided, to whom, under what circumstances, and who should pay for it.

In practice, the United States rations health care based primarily on who can pay rather than who has the greatest medical need.  Even with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, access to health care depends on the ability to meet co-pays … to meet defined income limits … to meet state-by-state Medicaid criteria for income and co-pays.

I am teaching this course because I believe that both the baby boomers and their children desperately need to understand the ethical, legal, and pragmatic choices they will face in the next decade or two.  From a bio-ethical perspective, not all health care is the same.  From a bio-ethical perspective, each of our decisions about health care for us and for our parents has worrisome implications for the health care, education, and employment of the generations to come.

A key question addressed in the Bio-Ethics of Aging is not whether we should ration health care—we already do—but whether we should allocate it in a way that is more transparent and more equitable than our current system. I believe the answer is “yes,” but I challenge my students to define what that more equitable system might be.

Bio-Ethics of Aging
Senior College of Greater Des Moines
September 8, 15, 22, 2014 – 10:00 – 11:30 am
Pappajohn Center, Room 218

To register for the course, please google

Being Lost


                      Though your destination is not clear                                                                         You can trust the promise of this opening;                                                                 Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning                                                                         That is one with your life’s desire.         ~John O’Donoghue  


being lostFor the past week or so, I have been feeling very lost … and it feels wonderful.

It sounds contradictory, doesn’t it?  If you accept Webster’s dictionary definition—”unable to find one’s way; not knowing one’s whereabouts”—being lost should be an unpleasant experience.

But from another perspective, being lost is akin to stepping outside your comfort zone. It paves the way for looking at life through a different lens.

So says author and essayist Rebecca Solnit. To Solnit, “Lost [is] mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry. The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live…”

In other words, to get lost is to begin to live.

In my mind’s eye, however, there is a significant difference between being lost and being outside my comfort zone.

When I am outside my comfort zone—something that has happened many times in my life— I am forced to find new ways of coping. But whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant, my inner compass generally tells me where I am and where I want to get to.

By contrast, being lost means that I don’t quite know where I am or where I want to get to, at least metaphorically. I’ve defined myself for the past eight years as a writer.  But can I be a “writer” if I don’t know what I want to write about. I have an idea about a new book, but I’m not committed to it. I have a long list of potential blog topics, many of them linked to themes of my novel, but they don’t inspire me as they did while A Fitting Place was a work-in-process. I’ve done quite a bit of freelancing, but I have little enthusiasm for seeking out new freelance assignments.

Perhaps it’s a simple case of writer’s block.  But it has occurred to me that, as woman on her eighth distinctly different career, I have a history of changing horses on a regular basis.  Has my career as a writer run its course?

Since my novel was released in May, I have filled much of my time with busy-ness: Facebook posts, tweets, Google +, checking stats on book sales, and reading an endless stream of blogs on writing, publishing, and marketing—anything to mask my sense that I had no idea what I wanted to do next.  But then, this past Sunday, as I read Solnit’s words on the link between getting lost and becoming alive, I realized in a burst of insight that not knowing what I want to do next is a gift.

I am healthy and have enough energy to swim a half mile every day.  I share a love with a thoughtful, caring and healthy man. Being lost frees me to travel,  to spend hours reading, to sit and watch the full moon rising over the skyline.

Why, a few months shy of age 70, do I have to have a purpose every day?  Why should I not take joy in the fact of being lost?

The world is, potentially, my oyster.

To be lost is to be fully present  ~Walter Benjamin

From the Perspective of A Reader


moral-dilemma-empathic-concernShortly before A Fitting Place came out, a friend asked how I would measure the book’s success.

My answer was unhesitating: I wanted it to prompt readers to re-examine the way in which we all make relationship choices.  I hoped that A Fitting Place would:

  • give readers more empathy and understanding—for themselves and for others—of the way in which circumstances, habitual behavior patterns, and societal stereotypes influence the relationships that we choose, and
  • recognize that every relationship reflects a series of choices that we could have made differently, and that we can change if we ourselves are willing to change and grow.

My first clue that I might achieve my goal came one day last week when a middle-aged acquaintance said, in passing, “I loved your book. But I have to tell you, I wouldn’t have read it if I’d known what it was about.”

Straining to keep my jaw from dropping, I asked, “Why did you read it?”

Sailing Down the Moonbeam was wonderful.  So I bought this when it came out. I never checked to see what it was about.”

My reader went on to say that her religious objections to homosexuality had stopped her from ever thinking about the emotional dynamics of a same sex relationship. When she realized what the book was about, she almost put it down.  “But I had to keep reading. I had to know what happened to Lindsey.”

As the conversation continued, she noted that, unlike Lindsey, she’d had multiple sources of emotional support in the wake of her own failed marriage. But now, my reader could empathize with someone who was emotionally bereft.  “Lindsey was reaching out for a relationship that was supportive and nurturing. I could understand that. It made me realize,” she said, “that I needed to be open to alternative ways of dealing with life.”

I had a virtually identical conversation with a woman in her 70’s a few days later.

I was fortunate that both women were willing to speak so openly with me.  From the book clubs I’ve met with so far, I know they are not the first readers to object to the same sex love affair on religious or social grounds.  But they were the first to acknowledge that A Fitting Place pushed them to think differently and even empathetically.  And because these two women were willing to “step outside their comfort zone,” they understood that A Fitting Place was about relationships, not about sex.

On a related note, I’ve had a lot of readers—and reviewers— refer to A Fitting Place as “a page turner” or say that “I couldn’t put it down.”  To my delight, I’ve heard repeated stories of readers who planned to peruse “just one more chapter,” but stayed up into the wee small hours or went to work late in order to finish the book.

A Fitting Place seems to be a good read as well as a thought-provoking book.

For a writer, that has to count as success!

Letting Go of Anger


Letting-GoThe fine art of “letting go”—Buddhists call it detachment—has been one of my guiding principles since my early 40’s, when I spent a year crossing the Pacific Ocean on a small sailboat.

That was the year that I learned, in a visceral rather than intellectual way, that letting go is what you have to do if you hope to live in the moment.  A quest to find familiar foods—McDonalds and whole wheat bread—in Pacific Island communities could only hamper your discovery of such local delights as pamplemousse, guava, conch fritters, and ceviche.  Setting expectations—e.g. planning to arrive in Tahiti on a specific date and time—when you couldn’t control the weather or the currents was a sure-fire way to miss the sensual beauty of a day at sea … the dawn light creeping across the fluid surface of the sea, the porpoises who cavorted in our bow wake.

But letting go of these sorts of things has been easy for me compared to letting go of anger. Anger at a mother who neglected you. Anger at a spouse or friend who betrayed or demeaned you. Anger at the boss who passed you over for a promotion you deserved. Anger at anyone who violates your trust, who diminishes your self-esteem, who makes you question your self-worth.

I was reminded of this as I read a recent blog entitled, aptly enough, “Letting Go,” in which the author, Danielle, offered some practical tips for getting rid of anger.  Herewith, some tips of hers and some of mine.

  • Recognize that we all live in our own reality.

My mother was a case in point. She never intended to hurt her children, but she was so crippled by her own fear of being hurt that she had no emotional reserves to draw upon for the care of children. As she did with adults, she rejected me before I could even imagine rejecting her; she punished me for my inability to anticipate what she wanted. Somehow, my efforts to please her always failed.  I could never be the child she wanted.

Depression—anger turned inwards—plagued me until I was in my 40s, when I finally recognized that I had been an unfortunate bystander in her own personal tragedy … that it wasn’t “my fault” and I wasn’t a failure.  Only then could I begin to let go of my anger at her. Only then could I begin to live my own life instead of the life I thought she wanted me to live.

  • Recognize that anger is often a response to “old tapes.”

Letting go of my anger at my mother did not, unfortunately, erase 40 years of painful emotions or the automatic behaviors I had used to cope with her rejection. Over the ensuing decades, I have managed to break most of those old habits, but there are still times when something sets an old tape to running. A paralyzing anger is the default response.

As complementary personalities, my partner Kent and I occasionally set off old tapes.  Fortunately, we understand each other’s foibles and can usually recognize the pattern in time to head off an angry response. Even when we fall prey to the old tapes, though, we can usually figure it out within a few minutes and let the anger go.

It is not always so with friends, even some I know very well. I recognize the hurt … I feel the anger … but it can take days or weeks or months for me to understand how much of my anger is rooted in something that happened 50 or 60 years ago.

  • Recognize that we often impose a higher standard of behavior on others than we do on ourselves.

We all make mistakes.  Sometimes our intentions are good, but we just plain get it wrong.  Sometimes, we’re too busy and self-absorbed to see what’s needed. And then, of course, there are times that we do the wrong thing because we’re still playing out those old tapes of our own.

One of the benefits of maturity is the ability, when we make a mistake, to forgive ourselves, to move on even as we vow to do better the next time.  Too often, however, we do not offer the same generosity of spirit to those around us, responding in anger when someone we trust does something that is hurtful.

For example, I expect Kent to understand and be forgiving when I make a mistake that wounds him, but when he slips up in a way that is hurtful, my instinctive response is often anger alongside a quick march to the moral high ground. I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that he is terribly—and wonderfully—human.

  • Recognize that the need to claim the high ground is another name for being a victim.

I have long believed that most things in life—including what other people say or do to us or about us—are fundamentally outside our control.

From this perspective, holding on to anger gives up the one form of control we do have—the ability to choose our response to what happens around us. Holding on to anger allows someone else to control your identity, to define you in terms of their actions rather than yours, to further diminish your sense of self-worth.

In a recent blog on The Confidence Gap, I observed that whenever something diminishes your confidence level, inaction erodes your confidence further, while positive action serves to rebuild it.  Holding on to anger is a form of passivity and inaction.

Letting go of anger represents an active decision to take control over your own life.

How does residual anger left from old tapes affect your life and relationships?

Where Metaphor Meets Life


              One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose                                                                                  sight of the shore for a very long time — André Gide


SJ #1I’ve been perennially in search of new lands—a metaphor for new ideas and new perspectives—since childhood. I’ve often had to lose sight of the metaphorical shore in order to find them.

Ironically, the most dramatic change in my perspective came when I had lost sight of the literal shore, a day when I was roughly a thousand miles out into the Pacific Ocean, heading west along an unmarked route. That day, my husband and I were two years into a planned circumnavigation of the world in a 37-foot sailboat, a journey that required me to abandon a successful New York career.

Throughout our cruise, we’d often had to trim our sails to unpredictable winds and set our rudder to compensate for erratic currents. We sailed as close to our intended course as we could, but all too often, we ended the day someplace other than where we’d set out to go. As good sailors on a well-fitted sailboat, not much could go very wrong, but we knew that if something did, we would probably die. Life and death were pretty much out of our hands.

That watershed day, a sunny afternoon with clear skies and calm seas, it struck me that sailing was a metaphor for life. I suddenly understood that I’d had no more control over my life and death when I lived and worked in New York City than I did while sailing on the Pacific Ocean. And it seemed obvious that if I couldn’t control my fate, I might as well spend my days doing something meaningful and satisfying, rather than wasting precious time and energy trying—all too often in vain—to meet the expectations of others.

It seemed equally obvious that if I hadn’t decided to sail away from the metaphorical as well as the geographic shore, I’d still be living under the illusion that I could actually control my life.

It is this last concept—that you grow the most when you step outside your comfort zone—that has been the leitmotif of my life as an author. My memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam starts with my decision to step out of my comfort zone from a professional and cultural perspective. It ends as I begin a new, more purposeful way of life that has sustained me for a quarter of a century.

But few people have the option of quitting their jobs and heading off into the sunset. I wanted to write a novel about “every woman,” to explore the growth that can take place even if you never leave home.  Just as sailing was a metaphor for a life out of control, “A Fitting Place” is a metaphor for learning how the pieces of one’s life fit together.

In A Fitting Place, Lindsey Chandler is hurtled out of her psychological comfort zone by the betrayal of those she most trusts. Her journey to emotional maturity finally begins when she begins to re-examine her entire value system, including loyalty, marriage and gender roles.

How has stepping out of your comfort changed your life?



A Fitting Place

My blog today is adapted from a piece I wrote for “Plain and Fancy,” Marian Beaman’s delightful website on the challenges and opportunities of a life that started in a Mennonite community and took her to a wide-ranging career in academia, with a stint as a neighborhood activist.

I will continue to blog on other aspects of universal human relationships in the weeks to come. I welcome guest contributors whose own experiences offer another perspective.

If you’d like to contribute, please contact me at



Buy a paperback copy of A Fitting Place                       Buy A Fitting Place for Kindle 


Redefining Success


My blog this week is reprinted from “Live, Write, Thrive,” the website of Susanne Lakin, a West Coast novelist, copyeditor, and writing coach.  Her comments on the author’s effort to stay sane while trying to generate book sales offer a wonderful perspective on the broader human question of how each of us defines success.


Photo Credit: Lakbay 7107 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lakbay 7107 via Compfight cc

Have you ever asked: “What on earth possessed me to want to be a novelist?” Are you starting to realize this journey of being an author is not a short sprint but a marathon—and often a grueling one at that?

When you hear of the numbers of novels submitted to agents and publishers each year (in the six figures), you sometimes think winning the lottery offers better odds than getting traditionally published. But then . . . you finally break through and get a contract, and months later are holding your brand-new brilliant release in your hand, feeling like you’ve finally arrived.

Not Even Fifteen Minutes of Fame . . .

Yet . . . if you’re like me, the flashbulb moment of that exhilaration lasts a very short time, only to turn into something akin to another stark, depressing realization—that the odds your book will become a huge hit or best seller is . . . well, about the same odds as winning the lottery, and you’re back to the same place (or almost the same place emotionally) as you were when you first starting sending out your first queries to agents.

I don’t mean to dive right into depressing statistics and start you into a tumble toward negativity. Quite the opposite. When considering that the novelist’s life is more a marathon than a sprint, I thought of the one thing that we all really need to focus on to keep going in this writing life, and that’s a fresh attitude.

The Desire for Success Can Wear You Down

In the twenty-eight years of my publishing journey, I’ve seen some authors who I would call plenty successful—with many wonderful published novels under their belt, having won some awards and getting great acclaim—suffer from continual disappointment, frustration, and even despair over their writing career. While I waited for my first “breakthrough” novel to go to press, I had foreboding nigglings in the back of my mind, telling me that would never happen to me. I would be on the NY Times best-seller list out the gate!

Yet, four published books later, I found myself crying for a week at the completion of my latest novel. Why? Because I knew it was the masterpiece and apex of my writing life and ability, and I knew the book would never sell big and get the acclaim I felt it deserved. Why? Because it was wholly imaginative, original, untraditional, and broke “all the rules.” I knew that I was risking much by writing the book pressing upon my heart, yet even a couple of years later, I don’t regret a second that I spent writing that novel. I wouldn’t change a word.

A Challenge to You to Change the Picture

So, where is all this whining and negativity leading to? I spent a long year stepping back and evaluating the writing life. And I would like to challenge you to stop and think a bit about your goals, dreams, hopes, and beliefs.

We have been programmed to believe many things that, I feel, contribute to our disappointments, frustrations, and feelings of failure as writers. I believe it’s time to redefine, truly and in our hearts, what success means and looks like to us. Rather than give you a list of practical things your can do like blogging, tweeting, scheduling your time better, and improving your writing craft, I’d like you to think about making this your primary goal for this day, this month, this year: to have a fresh, new attitude about your writing journey.

These are the truths I am learning to embrace, and I hope you will post these and think about them often:

  • Success is not defined by numbers or money earned. Instead of trying to be successful by worldly standards, think about significance. How can you deepen your writing and reach out to readers in a significant way? Believe that what you have to say through your words is significant and important. And put the care and attention into your writing that you and it deserves.
  • You are not writing to please the masses. You may never please the masses. And writing to please yourself is not the goal either. We write for an audience, and know the kind of hearts we want to touch. Write, then, for that audience in all sincerity and passion, and trust that from that place your voice will ring out.
  • Don’t validate yourself based on others’ opinions of you or your writing. Accept helpful criticism and critiques and keep improving your craft, but know you will never please everyone and it’s foolish to try. In my former writers’ group we used to applaud loudly when an author got her first scathing review. It’s a badge of arrival.
  • Find a few really supportive writer friends to be on this journey with you. Encourage one another, promote one another, critique for one another. One way to stop focusing on your own sense of failure is to help others. I find great joy in helping my editing clients get agents and publishing contracts, and their success brightens my day. There is nothing wholesome in jealousy, envy, or a competitive spirit. Believe your audience is out there waiting for your books and write for them. There will always be terrible writers enjoying incredible success with terrible books. It’s easy to want to throw your hands in the air and say “I give up!” when you see the awful stuff getting praised as great writing. Right, it’s not fair. Now, get over it. Really. If you don’t, it will drive you nuts. I tell this to myself a lot!
  • Know that traditional publishing is undergoing radical changes. This is actually great news for authors, for now, with the trend of ebook publishing and social networking and marketing, any good author can get known, grow a true fan base, and connect with readers who love her books. And that’s what we need remember—that we are writing for that connection between writer and reader. The future never looked so bright to be able to accomplish these things.

So take heart and a deep breath and think about redefining success with a fresh attitude—one of optimism, enthusiasm, and a renewed dedication to write the best novels you can, knowing that your readers are out there and in time you will find them—and they will find you. To me, that is the only way to stay sane.

Any thoughts on keeping your sanity by the way you define success? How do you define success?

Redefining Success - Susanne LakinIn addition to being a novelist, copyeditor, and writing coach, Susanne Lake is a mom, a backpacker, and a whole bunch of other things that she loves to write about.

Based in San Francisco, she teaches workshops on the writing craft at writers’ conferences and retreats. She also enjoys guest blogging, and would be delighted to do a post on writing and editing.  To read Susanne’s blogs or make a request for teaching or guest blogs, click here.

Susanne is also on Facebook and Twitter

Stuck Inside Myself

stuck insideMy guest blogger last week used those words—“stuck inside myself”—to describe her spiritual malaise, her inability to “remain calm and at peace” in the face of the bothersome details of every day life.

I too have always found mindfulness hard to come by.  But living in the moment has been particularly challenging during the past year, as I labored on the final stages of my first novel, A Fitting Place.  Reading Joan’s essay, it occurred to me that I was stuck inside myself because I had allowed my life to take a wrong turn.

Don’t get me wrong. I gloried in the hours I spent writing my novel.  I loved doing the research that added complexity and depth to my characters. I delighted in watching my protagonist Lindsey Chandler mature, often changing in ways I had not anticipated, and changed me as I watched. I relished the many hours of insightful discussion with my writing partner Carol Bodensteiner as she worked on her novel, Go Away Home.

But as I transitioned from writing to publishing and marketing, I seemed to get more and more stuck inside myself. I resented the seemingly endless hours I spent on social media, garnering information about titles and book blurbs and covers and printing options and, of course, marketing strategies. All of it was information I needed, but I did not find it interesting.  I grew grumpier with every passing day.

My stuck-ness got worse once my focus shifted full-time to marketing.  The ever-growing list of tasks made it almost impossible to enjoy riding a bike or reading a book—assuming I actually got on a bike or picked up a book. The fact is I hated doing virtually every task on that marketing list, and was well on the way to hating pretty much every routine task I had to do, no matter what the purpose.

My distaste for marketing goes back a long way, to age 7, when I was the only one in my troupe who failed to sell her quota of Girl Scout cookies. I hated asking strangers to do something for me.

That pattern followed me throughout my career in finance.  I have strong analytical skills and can explain complex ideas in simple terms.  My career moved forward because someone saw first-hand what I could do, and was willing to open doors on my behalf.  I rarely had to send out resumes, and never got so much as an interview when I did; indeed, only once in my life did I have to provide a resume before my first day on the job.

What I realized as I read Joan’s essay, was that in the last year I’ve gone from a life filled with something I love—writing—to spending my days doing something I hate.  I was reminded of the bit of banal but nonetheless good advice that I give to the MBA class I teach each spring: You are more likely to be satisfied and successful if you focus on doing what you love and what you’re good at.

For me, marketing a novel fails on both counts.

I don’t like the idea of being a quitter, particularly after spending six years on a novel I believe to be of interest in a world still battling gender stereotypes.  I love the emails and letters from readers who experience a “shiver of recognition” as they follow Lindsey on her emotional and psychological journey.  But sometimes being a quitter is exactly what you need to do.  I don’t want to spend these precious years doing something that I don’t like doing—and don’t have to do—just to prove a point.

I want to live in the moment.

What choices do you need to make in order to live in the moment, to not be stuck inside yourself?


A Fitting PlaceMindfulness is one of the key themes in my novel, and I continue to blog on other aspects of universal human relationships in the weeks to come. I welcome guest contributors whose own experiences offer another perspective.

If you’d like to contribute, please contact me at



Buy a paperback copy of A Fitting Place                       Buy A Fitting Place for Kindle 


Living In the Moment

Please welcome my guest today, Joan Z. Rough, an artist, writer and poet. In her comments below, Joan  muses about the challenge of living in the moment, a key theme in my recently released novel, A Fitting Place.


“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right
                      now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant                                                    without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with                                                   the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this                                                                     way (which it won’t).”               James Baraz

living in the momentI love going out into my yard early in the morning to listen to the day awaken. With the first rays of sunlight, everything changes. Do you hear the woodpecker drumming on the old oak tree down the hill? There are baby crows nagging their parents to be quick about bringing them breakfast and the mockingbirds nesting in the cedar tree sound like they’re having an argument. Several robins are digging for worms and grubs not far from where I sit. A few houses down, a door slams and a child is whimpering. Traffic is picking up on Emmet Street, as commuters head off to work. The smell of eggs and bacon sizzling next door is making my stomach growl.  The huge expanse of deep blue sky is interrupted by a few fleecy clouds and the contrails of a jet liner going west.  Are the people on board sleeping or watching the landscape brighten with the sun below them?

Sounds heavenly, doesn’t it?  It’s a meditation. An awareness of the space I’m sitting in, an understanding of where I am. It’s being in the moment, at ease, and recognizing the world around me without making judgments about it. It’s called mindfulness.

I leave my seat on the patio to go back inside. The television is blaring the morning news.  Headlines on the front page of the paper scream out about bombings in Iraq, who beat whom in the primaries a few states away, and why the loser can’t be gracious about his or her tough luck.  Lilly, the cat rubs against my legs and the dogs follow my every move, wondering where breakfast is and why I’m being so poky. The teakettle is whistling and I can’t decide which tea to choose. I’m slightly annoyed that Bill forgot to empty the trash last night. It’s beginning to overflow. Where do I put the banana peels and the empty dog food can?

Mindfulness is slipping away.

A few hours later I leave the grocery store and get stuck in traffic.  There is an accident up the road and there is no way for me to turn around so I can go home another way. I’m worried that the ice cream I just bought as a special treat will melt.  I’m supposed to meet with the plumber in thirty minutes. The laundry sink is plugged up. Traffic is still not moving and I know I’m going to be late.  I look for my phone, but it’s dead. I forgot to charge it last night. My head starts to pound and I’m frustrated and pissed off that the day is not going well. My gut is filled with churning rocks and a few tears surface in the corners of my eyes. My head is filled with words like unfair, how can I, I have to, and I can’t. This is not what I had planned for my day.

I’m not only stuck in traffic, I’m stuck inside of myself, worrying about what is going to happen if I’m late to meet the plumber. I’ve forgotten that the sun is still shining.  I don’t notice the homeless man standing a few cars ahead of me holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Homeless and Hungry.  Please help. God Bless You.”  I can’t hear anything but the ranting going on in my head. I haven’t thought of or sent healing prayers to those who may have been injured in the accident just up the street. I rummage through my purse for something sweet to chew on, thinking it will calm my nerves.  I’m spinning off into a melt down and everything is about me, Me, and ME.

What happened to the profound peace, the sense of mindfulness, I felt earlier in the day?  Life doesn’t always provide us with a tree we can sit under and a chorus of birdsong.  More often than not, it sends us a traffic jam, a serious argument with a friend, a life changing injury, deadlines at work, and the overwhelming speed with which the world travels around us. It’s about what we label the good and the bad. It includes the beautiful melody sung by a wood thrush, as well as the gun shots I hear in the distance that send shivers up my spine.  It includes what I see, taste, smell, and touch. It includes my nasty thoughts about someone I’m not fond of and the delight I feel for the small boy I watch looking at a window display of toy trains. He is smiling and talking to himself.

I’m easily triggered by certain words, the way someone looks at me, or the sounds of a nearby siren.  As a small child I learned to be attuned to the way my father looked. When his eyes grew very dark, and the tone of his voice grew lower, I tried to make myself invisible.  When he hummed to himself and his eyes twinkled with mischief I knew everything was all right. When my mother had a glass of wine or a Manhattan in a restaurant at dinner, I knew we were in for trouble.  I was always anticipating or worrying about things I had done.

I’ve come late to mindfulness and find it extremely difficult to maintain. But when I manage to breathe deeply and pause before I react, being in the present moment keeps me in touch and in tune.  It’s a way to find ease in this crazy world and helps me to remain calm and at peace in whatever situation I find myself in.

The next time you find yourself worrying about tomorrow or something you said or did last week, take a deep breath, and be in the moment before getting caught up in the sticky web of life.


DSC_2659Joan Rough is an artist, poet, and writer of nonfiction.  Her poems have been published in a variety of journals, and are included in the anthology, Some Say Tomato, by Mariflo Stephens. Her first book, AUSTRALIAN LOCKER HOOKING: A New Approach to a Traditional Craft, was published in 1980. She is currently at work on her upcoming memoir, ME, MYSELF AND MOM, A Journey Through Love, Hate, and Healing.

You can follow Joan’s blog on her website at




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Learning to See the Other



You are a person only if someone else thinks you are a person 
                                                                    — South African proverb


See the otherThe dehumanizing impact of labels and stereotypes—the losses we suffer when we fail to see the other as a human being with his or her own unique story—was the subject of Naomi Tutu’s presentation to my Rotary group last Friday morning.

Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, has been a long-time activist for human rights.  She began her comments with a compelling portrait of a young girl growing up under apartheid. No one in the audience was surprised when she described a world that viewed her as a member of the class of “black women,” someone who had no story apart from her blackness.

Similarly, no one was surprised to hear that she had viewed white South Africans as members of a class who had no story apart from their role as “oppressors.” Under apartheid, legal, social, political and historical barriers made it difficult for both whites and black to see the other as individuals—to see the other in terms of individual aspirations, fears and delights.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

But Tutu got our attention when she observed that the white oppressors were themselves oppressed, the victims of a self-imposed oppression. Yes, white South Africans as a class had wealth and privilege and opportunities denied to the blacks. But individually, many South Africans lived in a state of nearly constant fear of the violence provoked by decades of apartheid.

Naomi TutuThis insight came during her first visit to South Africa after she had finished college and started working in the United States. Proud of her spanking new credit card and driver’s license, she rented a car for the drive to her family home. Like all black drivers in that era, she was stopped at a police checkpoint. When she was told to get out of the car, she complied but “with attitude.” As she waited, annoyed and resentful, for the officer to search her car, she watched his face. It took her only moments to realize that the young policeman—in a position of power and with a gun—was clearly terrified of what she, “a black woman,” might do to him.

In an effort to calm his fear, she talked about her visit to her family and asked about his family. They talked, as human beings with a shared humanity, for a quarter of an hour before she went on her way. I had an image of the policeman waving her off with a smile, of her looking back with a grin to wave at him.

That was only one of many stories she shared. All of them spoke to the essence of being a person, of recognizing the unique stories of each and everyone of us. Tutu spoke movingly about the hurt we cause as well as the opportunities we miss when we fail to recognize and honor our shared humanity.

The weight of Tutu’s words struck me again only moments after her presentation ended. As I crossed the Drake campus toward my car, I found myself recoiling, intellectually if not physically, from a young man with heavily tattooed arms in a rainbow of green, red, yellow and blue. Mine was a shamefully elitist reaction, not unlike that of the white South Africans who saw only “a black woman.” Perhaps this young man was an honors student or a faculty member. Perhaps he was a loving husband and father. What right did I have to assume that that the color of his skin would tell me anything about his humanity?

How often do you fail to recognize our shared humanity, to truly see the other?


Tutu’s presentation reprised one of the key themes—the corrosive impact of stereotypes—in my novel, A Fitting Place, although my focus has been on gender rather than race. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on how stereotypes have affected your life. If you’d like to contribute to the discussion with a guest blog, please contact me here.


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Finding my Voice – From Finance to Fiction


As with last week, my blog is reprinted from a guest blog linked to the launch of A Fitting Place.  This was hosted on February 17, 2014 by Susan Weidener on her website, Women’s Writing Circle.


images-1As a voracious reader, I’ve always known that the author’s “voice” is critical to making a story come alive. But for many years, I assumed that voice came from just the right blend of word usage, syntax, humor, and tone.  I saw it as a skill, much constructing a proper sentence from nouns, verbs, and grammar principles. Knowing that each author’s voice is unique, I knew it wasn’t as simple as that, but for many years, that analogy seemed apt.

This delusion was fostered by the fact that, as a scribbler since childhood, writing was how I communicated what was in my mind. Writing was how I connected the dots.  It was how I made sure I hadn’t left out some critical piece of data. It was how I avoided drawing conclusions not supported by the evidence.

From my perspective, writing was how I gave voice to the jumble of ideas careening around in my head.

By the time I finished college, my writing skills were substantial. Whether I was writing an essay for a college professor, a report for a financial client or a guest editorial for the New York Times, I knew how to pen an elegant sentence.  I knew how to explain a complex concept in simple terms, how to build a persuasive case for a particular point of view. Once I knew what I wanted to say, I always founds the words I needed to say it.

And so, when I sat down to work on the first draft of my memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, at age 60, I expected the words to flow readily from my brain onto the page. Lots of words did indeed spill out, but I soon discovered they were not the ones I needed. “It’s your story, but I don’t see you on the page,” said one member of my writing group. “The woman in this story doesn’t sound like you,” offered a second.

Their message was clear: despite my demonstrable writing skills, I did not have a “voice.”

I tried a number of ways to find that voice, not least of which was mimicking aspects of my favorite contemporary authors—Kingsolver, Kidd, Wolitzer, among others. The result was stilted prose that yielded no insight whatsoever into two offbeat people who abandoned successful careers to sail around the world in a small boat.

In fact, the problem was not about getting the language and tone just right, but of knowing what story I wanted to tell. For all those years as a professional writer, I focused on the facts, on the logic of the case, on the information and evidence that responded to the needs of my audience. I had labored long and hard to remove “me” and any personal perspective from everything I wrote. It was an ideal role for an introvert who disliked being on center stage.

Unfortunately, I had left “me” out of the first draft of Moonbeam, emphasizing instead where we went and what we saw, as if the uniqueness of the places we visited was sufficient to make the story interesting. But readers of memoir and fiction are looking for new ideas and experiences, for unexpected perspectives. Even with stories that take place in unfamiliar settings, readers want that “shiver of recognition,” the sense that the author has connected with the emotions and values of the reader’s own life.

Through the questions and criticisms of my writers’ group, I discovered that my voice lay not in using just the right words, but in telling the story as I experienced it. It was exhilarating to watch my voice emerge once I began to give pride of place to my own personality and perspective, once I began to tell “my” story instead of “the” story.  It has been a different, but equally exhilarating challenge to find my voice in my forthcoming novel, A Fitting Place, which is not “my” story, but on an imaginary story as I might experience it.

But perhaps what is most exhilarating about finding my voice as a writer is that the introverted me—the one who tended to stand at the edges of most social situations–has also found my voice in every day life. Having learned to tell “my” story, it no longer matters whether I am telling it on the page or at the dinner table.

Have you found your voice?  How did you find it?


In the next few weeks, I will resume my blog on the universal human relationship issues that affect my characters in my novel, A Fitting Place.  I welcome guest contributors whose own experiences offer another perspective.  If you’d like to contribute, please contact me here

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