Legacy: What Will Your Verse Be?


In keeping with my recent focus on issues of aging, my blog this week comes from change management consultant, Jann Freed, whose most recent book looks at aging with wisdom, or “sage-ing.”


legacyWe often think of a legacy as something that emerges at the end—the end of our lives, the end of a job, the end of a career.  But in reality, we leave our legacy daily with what we say, how we say it, and what we do.

I like to ask:  Are we living our lives in ways we want to be remembered?

After the death of Robin Williams, people reflected on his many movies.  While I loved Good Will Hunting, my favorite movie was Dead Poet’s Society.  As someone whose first career of 30 years was that of a college professor, I was enamored by the way in which his character, John Keating, engaged the students in learning.  Here is one of my favorite lines from that movie:

“We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer: that you are here; that life exists, that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”


What is your verse now?  

We often think of legacies as positive—people who have made a positive difference.  But legacies can also be negative and it can happen fast, as we witnessed with Coach Joe Paterno and even more recently with Bill Cosby, whose legacy went from great to bad almost overnight.

Yet, legacy thinking is forward thinking.  When we are intentional about our words and actions, we are anticipating how we affect others.  Many of us do not have the money and influence to have our name on a building, an endowment, or a stadium named after us.  But are we leaving the world a better place?

When talking about legacy, I advocate writing an ethical will, which is more than a legal document that describes how we want to allocate our financial and physical assets.  An ethical will (www.ethicalwill.com) is a document that communicates our values, beliefs, and other stories that we want to pass onto others.  Sometimes this document is referred to as a legacy letter, but the intent is the same—to share with others what matters most to us.  An excellent book on ethical wills is titled So the Tree Grows—Creating an Ethical Will—The Legacy of Your Beliefs and Values, Life Lessons, and Hopes for the Future by Jo Kline Cebuhar.

Since many families are scattered and most of us are not sitting around the kitchen table every week sharing stories, being intentional about what you want people to know is important.  When I realized that my sons kept the notes, letters, and cards I sent them at camp, during college, and beyond, I have started writing them “legacy letters” on their birthdays.  While I don’t call them that, I write the letter with the mindset that I am sharing what I want them to know and remember right now.  As they have gotten older and grown in maturity, the subject matter changes.  This has been a nice tradition—whether they realize what I am doing or not.

As Barry Baines, the founder of “EthicalWill.com” says:  “We all want to be remembered and everyone leaves something behind.”  It is the little things that can make a big difference.  Being intentional and thoughtful helps give purpose, meaning, and direction to our life.

So rather than drift with the wind, I challenge you to think about how you want to be remembered.

What will your verse be?  


Jann Head ShotIn Jann’s first career as a college professor of business management, she held the Mark and Kay De Cook Endowed chair in leadership and character development at Central College in Pella, Iowa.  She retired in 2011 as professor emerita and is now a leadership development and change management consultant with The Genysys Group.  She calls herself “The Transitionist” because her focus is on helping organizations and individuals get from where they are to where they want to be.

She is the author of five books and the latest is titled Leading with Wisdom:  Sage Advice from 100 Experts. If you want to explore how some of our great leaders have created a legacy, you might enjoy Chapter 9, which is titled “Leaders Live Their Legacy.”

Thoughts on the “End of Life”


What is your definition of death? Is it the same as “the end of life”?

End of LifeBased on survey responses from the participants in my seminars on the Bio-Ethics of Aging, the answer depends on whom you ask. What stands out, from their responses, is that discussions of end-of-life issues are fraught with potential for misunderstanding, as the same words mean different things to different people.

For example, most participants defined death in terms that pointed to the cessation of lung and heart function.  A few defined it as the cessation of brain function. Both are accepted medical criteria, but they can result in very different conclusions in different circumstances. Moreover, under current medical practice, policies and procedures to establish the time and fact of death may vary from state to state and from hospital to hospital within each state.

What counts, when you are facing the actual or imminent death of a family member is not your definition of death, but the opinions of your doctor and/or the policies of your hospital. Do you know what they are?

By contrast, the respondents offered definitions for “end of life” that covered a much broader spectrum.  A few individuals defined it in medical terms, often based on religious beliefs.  What I had not expected was that so many participants would define it in terms of the ability to engage in everyday activities—and that there were almost as many definitions as there were respondents to the questionnaire.

For example, some defined it in terms of the end of “useful life”—the inability to contribute in some way, be it financial, emotional, or simply helping with the grandkids. Others defined it in terms of loss of dignity, e.g., the point at which you can no longer take care of yourself. Some defined it in terms of the mental or physical capacity to participate in everyday activities at some—for the most part, undefined—level.

What was clear, from these responses, was that not being dead was not the same as being alive. But these definitions left many questions unanswered, and offered little guidance for someone having to make a decision about a medical treatment that would prevent biological death, but would not return your parent or spouse to the kind of life they wanted.

The issue matters.  I know from painful, personal experience that it is so easy, when you’re struggling to cope with a traumatic situation, to let your physician make all the decisions. When my mother fell and broke her hip, her Alzheimers had already advanced to the point where she could not reliably dress, bathe or get herself to the bathroom. She was not dead, but neither was she alive by her definition; her wish to be dead in that situation was very clear.

Even so, she was sent automatically to the hospital, where I seemed to have no choice but to authorize surgery to repair her hip, an operation from which she never recovered enough to even use a walker. She was even less alive than before the surgery.

The incident prompted my brother and I to research our options in the event of additional trauma.  Our decision, with which many may disagree, was that we’d keep her comfortable but would not authorize any treatment that required hospitalization or would delay the death she so clearly wanted.

When my mother’s physician disagreed, we found a new physician who shared our point of view.  To this day, however, I cringe to think of how it difficult it would have been for my brother and me if the first we learned of our doctor’s definition of “end of life” was when my mother was a candidate for treatment of cancer or a urinary infection … and when we did not yet know what our legal and medical options were.

If you’ve never talked about this with your family or your physician, maybe it’s time.  What most of us want, when an end-of-life occasion arises, is the ability to deal with an already difficult situation with love, compassion and the certainty that you are doing the “right thing.”  Are you prepared?

The Right to Decide


medical_heartMuch of the focus of the seminar I teach on the Bio-Ethics of Aging relates to the distribution of health care in a world of finite resources.  An equally important issue, based on the responses of the participants during the three sessions, is the nature and scope of one’s right to decide how to die.

In this context, I would note that the initial impetus for my interest in bio-ethics was the prolonged and painful process of dying suffered by both of my parents.  My father, a devout Catholic, was bedridden and in pain at age 54 with the gruesome complications of diabetes. While his faith made it impossible for him to “hasten” his death, he repeatedly expressed the desire to be allowed to die. The last and most tragic chapter of his illness was that four of the five times his heart failed, his doctor took extraordinary measures to get it pumping again.  When resuscitation failed the fifth time, I mourned loss of his life, but celebrated his death. Legally, he had the right to decide to die a year earlier, but he did not have the stamina to overcome his doctor’s refusal to let nature take its course.

The situation was quite different with my mother who hung in there until a week before her 90th birthday. A talented, capable, vibrant woman who romped through eight decades with élan, she made her end-of-life wishes known when she was 70 and still outrageously sound of mind.  She handed my brother and me each a packet containing detailed instructions from the Hemlock Society, a guidebook for “hastening” her death if she was terminally ill and could not manage for herself.

Her wishes were excruciatingly clear. But in 1985, who knew about Alzheimers?  Her advance directive did not include brain plaques as a “terminal” disease that would trigger her living will.  And even if it had, the laws of the U.S. made it impossible for us to honor her wishes and preserve her dignity during her last decade. No longer of sound mind and increasingly unable to take care of herself—the essence of what she wanted to avoid—she did not meet the requirements of those few states that provide for physician-assisted suicide. The tragedy of her illness was that her occasional flashes of coherence—when she begged to have us end it for her—were far too fleeting to meet the legal requirements in even the most compassionate of states.

And so, a decade after my mother’s death, I’m doing my small bit to prevent others from having to endure the painful and prolonged process of dying that my parents went through. In theory, each one of us has the legal right to decide whether to accept or reject health care. Unfortunately, many do not realize that this legally enshrined principle of “patient autonomy” gets short shrift in far too many cases.

One of the prime offenders of patient autonomy, as I saw with my father, is the medical profession. As Atul Gawande observed in his recently released and not-to-be-missed book, Being Mortal, “the way our professors saw it, the purpose of medical schooling was to teach how to save lives, not how to tend to their demise.”  But death is an inevitable part of life.  Medical advances can make our lives longer, but they cannot “fix” the fact of our mortality. What is to be hoped is that more and more members of the medical profession will learn to help us live a good life and then die a good death.

State laws also conflict with the concept of patient autonomy and the ostensibly legal standing of an advance directive. The five states that allow “physician-assisted” suicide do so only for patients who have the mental capacity to articulate their desire to die in the presence of two separate physicians, as well as the physical capacity to self-administer the medicine of choice. The mental capacity without the physical ability is not sufficient. An advance directive that explicitly documents the desire for death in the case of mental incapacity is not sufficient.

As I contemplate my next novel, I know that end-of-life issues will be a key plot thread, and the source of a broad range of conflicts between my characters.  Over the next year, I anticipate doing a series of blogs on health care issues, blogs that raise critical questions for which there are, at present, not very many answers.

I hope you will find the questions helpful in finding your own answers, in exercising your own right to decide.


Modern Medicine-A Curse or a Cure


Bio-Ethics of AgingFor the second time in two months, I am teaching a three-week class on the Bio-Ethics of Aging. For the second time in two months, I am struck by how little thought otherwise knowledgeable and well-read people have given to the health care and end-of-life issues the baby boomers have to come to grips with as they age.

One of the key questions that we deal with is whether end-of-life decisions should be made by you or by the medical community.

I was thrilled when my one of my favorite bloggers and writers, Joan Z. Rough, asked me to do a guest blog for her on aging and end-of-life issues. The timing of my blog for coincided with the very public death of Brittany Maynard, the very public discussion of end-of-life issues for a young Iowa woman suffering from brain cancer, and the rather more private but intentional death of an older woman I have admired for years.

It is a blog I would have put here if I had not already committed to publishing it on her site.  I hope that you will visit Joan’s website to read my comments.

Here is an excerpt from that blog to tempt you …

As recently as 200 years ago, if you stopped breathing, you were considered to have died, whatever the cause. There were few scientifically based options to prevent or delay death.

A watershed moment in the history of medicine came with the invention of the stethoscope in 1816 and the ability to register a heartbeat. But there were still no science-based treatment protocols.  For the next century, death continued to be, as it had been for much of the history of mankind, a part of “God’s plan” or—if you were of the atheistic or pagan persuasion—a matter of fate.

Until 1928, that is, when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Suddenly, man no longer had to rely on God or fate to determine the outcome of an injury or an infection. Over the last 90 years, our ability to triumph over illness has expanded exponentially.  Today, we can prevent most infectious diseases (Ebola being a notable exception), repair a faulty heart, excise a malignant tumor, or replace a failing kidney.

For much of the 20th century, these medical advances focused on preventing “premature” death from infection, disease or trauma. But these often seemingly miraculous discoveries had a number of unintended consequences.  For one, the medical advances that keep young and middle aged Americans healthy have played a major role in the explosion of health care costs for the elderly. By preventing or curing acute illness, we have expanded the population vulnerable to chronic illnesses such as diabetes or COPD, many of which cannot be cured at all and are treated at great cost.

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Do Labels Inform or Conceal?


labelsOne definition of a “label” according to the Oxford Dictionary is “a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive.”

I was reminded of this definition as I read David Brook’s editorial today on “partyism,” a word coined by Cass Sunstein at Harvard to describe discrimination based on political affiliation.  Brooks’s comments were prompted by surveys that indicate that discrimination based on political affiliation is now greater than discrimination based on race.  He noted, for example, a comparison of polling data from 1960 with 2010. In 1960, the percentage of people who indicated they would “be ‘displeased’ if their child married someone from the other party” was about 5 percent for both Republicans and Democrats. By 2010, it has risen to 49 percent for Republicans and 33 percent for Democrats.

Much of Brooks’s article focused on the destructive impact of what he called hyper-moralization (the automatic association of moral and ethical values with party labels) on the political process.  His conclusion, on a higher philosophical plane, is worth repeating:

“This mentality [of hyper-moralization] also ruins human interaction. There is a tremendous variety of human beings within each political party. To judge human beings on political labels is to deny and ignore what is most important about them. It is to profoundly devalue them. That is the core sin of prejudice, whether it is racism or partyism.”

Or, I might add, sexism.

The subject of labels and the damage they do has been a recurrent theme in discussions with book clubs and women’s groups about sexual fluidity as it relates to the same-sex relationship that occurs in my novel, A Fitting Place. I’ve been surprised at the number of women—a relatively small percentage of my audiences, but more than I expected—who flatly reject the notion of sexual fluidity, and insist that any woman who has had a same-sex relationship at some point in her life must be lesbian (or at least bi-sexual) because “a straight woman would never do that.”

When pressed for why they insist on these labels, the typical response boils down to: “Well, I’m straight, and I’d never do it. I just don’t get why any one else would—unless they were gay.”  A few will add that they simply aren’t interested in learning any more about the subject of sexual fluidity or same-sex relationships.

I never cease to be amazed when people assume they can speak for the world at large, based on their own individual experience. But the more disturbing aspect of these responses is that words that seemed descriptive in my college days—words that opened up a discussion about a different approach to sexuality—have become labels that all but eliminate the possibility of talking about diversity of human experience.

In Brooks’s words, these labels—lesbian, bi-sexual and even straight—have the effect of devaluing what is important about one of the most significant lifestyle decision that most of us have to make.

Notwithstanding my comments above, I have to keep reminding myself of the difference between a description that starts a conversation and a label that closes conversation off.

How often do you use “labels” in a way that shuts down the possibility of a conversation?

Girlfriends Matter


Welcome to Kathleen Pooler, who has joined us today to discuss the nature of friendship.  It is a subject of considerable interest to me, as the protagonist of my novel has never had the kind of girl friends that Kathy describes here and in her novel.


Some women pray for their daughters to marry good husbands. I pray that my girls will find girlfriends half as loyal and true as the Ya-Yas.”                               Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

I have plenty of awesome male friends whom I respect and admire but there is something unique and special about girlfriend relationships.


Carol Bodensteiner, Kathy Pooler, and Mary Gottschalk in Osceola, Iowa

I have always valued my girlfriends from every phase of my life. Together, we have experienced the joys and sorrows, the frustrations and challenges, the ruts and growth spurts of our lives. As I age, I find that I value them even more—both the old and new friends.

In the words of a popular Beatles’ tune: “I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.”

Martha tried to convince me not to marry when she listened to my doubts. Sharon coaxed me up the stairs and out the door the day I left my first husband because of his drinking. Judy supported me before, during and after both my divorces. Eileen opened my eyes to God’s presence in my life. Mary Sue and her family became my family away from my family. Meredith and Denise rallied around me when I escaped from my second husband for fear of physical abuse…

These are a few of many who stood by me—steady and true—through my life challenges. I had to find my own way in my own time but their presence in my life made a positive difference in helping me move forward.

Therefore, it came to no surprise to me when I read this UCLA Study On Friendship Among Women posted by Gale Berkowitz in 2002:

“This landmark study suggests friendships between women are special. They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriage and help us remember who we really are”

And the friendship phenomenon is research-based.

As stated in the article, this study came about when two women scientists, Dr. Laura Klein and fellow researcher Shelley Taylor discovered in a casual conversation over coffee in a lab at UCLA one day that “when men get stressed, they hole up; when women get stressed, they make coffee, clean the office and bond, ‘tend and befriend’.” This spearheaded a movement to include women in stress research and the results confirm what we already know:

 “Women live longer than men and friends help us live longer.”

In the same article, The Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that

The more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life.”

I am fascinated by this study even though it confirms what I have already experienced throughout my entire life—girlfriends matter. And the older I get, the more they matter. As we age and face more hardships—physical decline, loss of family and friends—we need each other more than ever.

In my memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, I show how my girlfriends give me strength and help me to move forward in my life. When I sat down to write this story, I had no conscious intent to include them. They showed up in my writing as they had shown up in my life to counsel and guide me.

And the many friends—YOU– (girls and guys) I have had the pleasure of bonding with on my writing journey are on the top of my list of people who matter and have made a positive difference in my life.

I will admit to being partial to girlfriend time—to bond in ways only girlfriends can bond. Who else can I go shopping with, spend hours on the phone or over coffee, get honest opinions about fashion trends, giggle over silly memories or whine over minutia with without getting a glazed-over look?  Just saying….

How about you? How have you experience girlfriend relationships?

KathyPoolerBrighterAbout the Author: Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, published on July 28.2014 and work-in-progress sequel, Hope Matters: A Memoir are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments:  domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

She lives with her husband Wayne in eastern New York.

She blogs weekly at her Memoir Writer’s Journey blog: http://krpooler.com

You can reach Kathy at:




Kathleen Pooler/Memoir Writer’s Journey (Facebook)

One Lovely Blog Award


blog awardI have had the great honor to have been given the One Lovely Blog Award not once, not twice, but THREE times in the past few weeks. My thanks go to Cate Russell-Cole, who is tireless in her efforts to support writers, Carol Bodensteiner, whose commentaries on the small moments of every day life are beyond inspirational, and Kathleen Pooler, who has been a thoughtful contributor to this blog on several occasions.

One of the rules of the Award is that you must share 7 things about yourself that your readers may not know. So here are mine:

  1. I attended a convent boarding school in high school (Catholic). If any of the nuns are still alive, they may be relieved to know that the scoundrels who raided the kitchen on a regular basis were my roommate Janie and me.
  2. The shock of my young life came when I left the convent world (at age 16) for the University of Chicago, at the time considered to be a hotbed of communism and sexual experimentation.
  3. My birthday present to myself for my 70th birthday was to get Invisilign braces. The good news is that they are virtually invisible.  The bad news is that I can’t snack (well, maybe that’s good news) and I have to brush my teeth half a dozen times a day.
  4. I hate exercise, and do it only under duress. Fortunately, I have picked my friends—and my partner Kent—wisely. They are all exercise freaks and force me to do it regularly.
  5. I collect crosses that are also works of art. It began as a compromise for a household in which one member is religiously inclined and the other is not. It’s now become an active interest for both of us.
  6. I love orchids. All three of my bathrooms are always decorated with gorgeous specimens that I find at—of all places—Lowe’s. They are beautiful, relatively inexpensive, and seem to last forever!
  7. On the socio-political spectrum, my brain runs red (all those years working in Wall Street) and my blood runs blue (growing up in a world of social workers.) So I almost never find a political candidate that satisfies both my economic and social goals.

Another rule is that a winner has to pass on the award to other worthy bloggers.   Here are my favorites, all of them writers who blog about the business of life rather than the business of writing. (Given the fact that I have always abhorred anything resembling chain mail letters, I absolve them from the obligation of passing the award on unless they choose to.)

If you click on the individual’s name, it will take you to the website.

Jo Kline Cebuhar – So Grows the Tree

Gwen Plano — From Sorrow to Joy — Perfect Love

Janet Givens — And So It Goes

David Lawlor — History With a Twist

Marian Beaman – Plain and Fancy

Susan Weidener – Women’s Writing Circle

Richard Sutton — Saille Tales

Maria Popova – Brain Pickings

Sonia Marsh — My Gutsy Story

Joan Rough — One Rich Life

Check out each and every one of them … they will all brighten your day.

Are You the Friend I’m Looking For?


My guest this week is Jean Balser, a friend and writing colleague from Des Moines. She ponders the wisdom of rekindling lost friendships.


“Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other is gold.”                               ~ Girl Scout Song


writing to a friendI’ve always thought this was good advice, and am fortunate to number among my adult friends women I first met in grade school.

I correspond regularly with women I knew in New York more than forty years ago when we were all new mothers and far from our own families.  Back then we supported each other, baby sat each others’ children and cried with each other over our husbands’ affairs and subsequent divorces.  Now I enjoy seeing pictures of my friends’ grandchildren as much as I enjoy bragging about and sharing photos of my own beautiful granddaughter.

Recently I learned to play mah jongg and have met many fascinating women through the game; and when I married my husband eight years ago I acquired a whole new set of his friends.

But there is another adage that I wonder if perhaps I should also heed:  Let sleeping dogs lie.

Several years ago, I was reminded of a friend I’d had in Brooklyn. We’d lost contact when I moved back to Iowa some twenty years ago. With the miracles of Facebook and the Internet, I thought it would be fairly simple to find her.

After a bit of electronic sleuthing, I came up with an address for Mary Lynn Cordone (not her real name) in New York.  So I wrote her a chatty little missive: “Hi!  I don’t know if you are the person I am looking for but we lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn about twenty years ago.” I made sure to include my return address (but not my phone number.  If my inquiry fell into the wrong hands, I didn’t want some demented spinster calling me in the middle of the night.)

Off my letter went by snail mail to an unknown destiny.

Several weeks went by and then, nestled among the ads for hearing aids and requests for donations, was a plain white envelope with Mary Lynn’s return address and a tiny butterfly sticker in the upper left hand corner.

I opened the letter and began to read.

I was delighted to hear how she had spent some time in Florida but was glad to be back home in the City. I was pleased to learn that her daughter was happily married and living nearby.

Letters from Mary Lynn began arriving almost weekly and were filled with descriptions and photos of places I had loved in Cobble Hill.  The nearby park where my son Mikey and his best friend Alex skate boarded with their long blond hair blowing out behind them as they whizzed down sidewalks and leaped over curbs.  The Almontasser, my favorite Lebanese restaurant, where I had devoured lamb shish kabobs, green beans cooked with tomatoes and oregano, and Greek salads with feta and fresh herbs.

Her letters conjured up happy memories and brought me a certain sense of closure.  I had been so unhappy when I left New York that I couldn’t remember a time when I had enjoyed living in Brooklyn; Mary Lynn reminded me that it hadn’t all been bad.

And so we began to exchange our stories, explaining and describing the last twenty years of our lives.  I wrote about working as a caterer, about my family and about living in Iowa.  She shared her problems with her Tenants’ Association, along with her worries about her mother and about corrupt New York politicians.

Over time, however, her letters became bizarre.  She wrote that she was working on a “data base” and had proof that the US Government was stealing money from a secret trust fund, of the corruption in the Pentagon and of cover-ups and conspiracies by the Secret Service. She wrote of vague illnesses that confined her to her apartment.

I continued to correspond regularly but not as often; sometimes several weeks went by before I wrote back. Her letters also arrived at greater intervals and were more and more filled with angst.

Finally, I got the letter that made me question my decision to kindle our epistolary acquaintance in the first place.  In a letter to her after Mikey, Ann and Baby Sarah’s visit, I had had described how wonderful it had been to see my granddaughter and – well, I probably was a little too gushy.

“Dear Jean,” she replied in the briefest of notes.  “I hope you will forgive me but I just can’t read about your happy family right now.  Maybe sometime when I feel better.  Best to you and the professor.  MLC”

I have heard of schadenfreude, the taking of pleasure in another’s misfortune, but I’m not sure what to call distress at another’s happiness.

I have never broken up with a pen pal before, but I certainly don’t want to make anyone unhappy by my own satisfaction with life.  I guess I will just wait to see if she ever writes to me again.

In the meantime I’m thinking I should have let sleeping dogs lie and never written that note that began, “I don’t know if you’re the person I’m looking for….”


Jean Balser friendshipJean was raised on a farm in central Iowa and spent nearly twenty five years in New York before returning to her home in the Midwest.  She belongs to the Ankeny Writers’ Group and has been one of the editors of the last seven editions of the Iowa State Fair Cookbook.  She and her husband, a retired biology professor, are Drake basketball fans and Jean is an avid mah jongg player.  She can be reached at jeanbalser@msn.com.

Keeping Secrets


I am delighted to welcome, as my guest today,  Debra Engle and her musing on the barriers that secrets impose on connecting with those who matter in our life.  She has graciously offered to give a copy of her new book “The Only Little Prayer You Need” to one of the people (drawn at random) who leave a comment on this blog. 



Keeping SecretsIn my imagination, I have appeared on Oprah dozens of times. I am always scintillating, well-groomed, and wearing three-inch heels that would immediately topple me in real life.

During one of these imaginary appearances, Oprah asked me about the subject of lying.

“I used to lie all the time,” I said. “I lied when I was nine years old and told my mom I was wearing a slip when I wasn’t. I lied about wanting to marry my ex-husband.

“I lied to protect people. I kept secrets to protect myself. I didn’t even think it was wrong, because I always had what I thought were good intentions.

“Besides,” I said, “when it came to being honest with myself, I didn’t know what that meant.”

In my imagination, Oprah gave me one of her big girlfriend smiles, leaned forward, and asked, “So what did you learn?”

I thought for a minute, then answered. “I look back sometimes,” I said, “and think how much faster I could have moved through my life. Being dishonest with myself has been like constantly keeping my foot on the brake.”

This subject of honesty—of lying and keeping secrets—has been on my mind lately, both in real life and in my imagination. I’m at the fish-or-cut-bait stage of life, when I’m finally willing to disappoint other people rather than sacrifice myself.

Now when I write and speak and mentor, my question is not, “What do others want to hear?” It’s “What am I uniquely called to say?” That question comes with an initial dose of fear-based thinking, knowing I’m risking disapproval and criticism. What if someone challenges my beliefs? What if people leave the room shaking their head in disagreement? What if…gasp! … someone doesn’t LIKE me?

It took me a lifetime to be willing to take that risk, reminding me of a news magazine program I watched years ago. The program featured a World War II veteran who had kept a secret ever since his years in the service. Throughout the hour-long interview, the veteran talked with sadness about how much his hidden story had haunted him and shaped his life. Clearly ashamed of what he had done, this fine, caring man had been constantly companioned by his secret.

It built a wall between him and his family, convinced him that he was a disappointment and a coward, and sapped every bit of joy out of his life.

Finally, at the end of the program, the veteran agreed to tell his secret. With great effort and enormous shame, he revealed the story he had kept to himself for at least 50 years:

During a major battle, he had hidden beneath a fellow soldier’s body to keep himself from being killed.

That was it. He’d practiced the same act of self-defense that any of us would have in the same situation. But he’d condemned himself for it for half a century.

My heart hurt for this man, who clearly had lost his life not to bullets during the war, but to his own fear that he had committed the ultimate act of cowardice. The secret didn’t take his life, but the self-judgment behind the secret did.

That’s the secret about secrets. When they’re finally brought to light, we can see them as the imposters they are—illusions that we imbue with powers they don’t deserve. They slow us down, hold us ransom with fear and, like the veteran who couldn’t forgive himself, keep us from being the magnificent mortals everyone knows we are anyway.

So, this is my new story on another self-imagined Oprah: No more secrets. I’m off to write, to think, to dream. And to chuck the imaginary three-inch heels so I can put my foot squarely on the accelerator of life.


Deb Engle secrets 1Debra Landwehr Engle is the author of The Only Little Prayer You Need: The Shortest Route to a Life of Joy, Abundance and Peace of Mind, a brand new release from Hampton Roads that features a foreword by the Dalai Lama.

She is the co-founder and facilitator of Tending Your Inner Garden®, a program of creativity and personal growth for women. In addition, Deb teaches classes in A Course in Miracles and offers mentoring in writing, publishing and life skills. You can learn more at debraengle.com.

Standing the Test of Time


friendshipSherrey Meyer’s guest blog last week explored the ways in which social media has altered how we think about friendship. This past Sunday, NY Times columnist David Brooks, weighed in on what he saw as the essential and universal aspects of friendship.  Both essays are well worth reading.

But both left me pondering the “why and wherefore” of my own friendships over the years.  Neither essay quite captured my own experience.

As I look back, I have been blessed with many wonderful friends, but only a few who have “stood the test of time,” only a few with whom I can pick up where I left off, no matter how long it has been since I last saw them.

I think it’s because friendships, so often, are situational. You work in the same office or for the same company. You volunteer for the same charity.  You are in same bridge club or book club or investment group. Your kids are on the same team.  But when your world changes—you get a new job or leave town or get a divorce—the friendship begins to fray around the edges. As your immediate interests diverge, you talk less often.  Eventually the relationship devolves to birthday or holiday cards and the occasional lunch when your paths happen to cross.  The emotional memory remains strong, but the “friendship” itself is gone.

Don’t get me wrong.  Friendships are to be treasured, however long they last.  Shared interests and values make such relationships comforting, while educational, political and religious differences make the conversations stimulating.  Such friendships offer critical support to each other during life crises, and as Brooks suggests, provide a powerful motivation for us to live up to what our friends believe to be.

A striking feature of many of these situational friendships, particularly those formed during my working life, is how silo-ed they have been. For many years, my bridge club friends did not know my community service friends. My book club friends did not know my work mates. Each friendship satisfied a genuine aspect of my personality and/or character, but few friends ever saw the “whole” of me.

By contrast, the friends who have stood the test of time are those made when my life was not compartmentalized, in periods when I was not consumed by busy-ness.  A few date back to my youth, when we were still trying to decide who we would be when we grew up. Others appeared during periods of transition in my life.  What these friends share is that we got to see—and all too often had to endure—all the dimensions of each other’s personality and character.  We got the bad along with the good.

Because we have come to know the “whole” of each other, the friendships do not depend on knowing the same people, or working with the same clients.  Having shared our dreams and our aspirations, these friendships have been able to “grow, ” to remain alive and vibrant and mutually supportive, even as friends and spouses and specific life challenges have changed.

How have the important friendships in your life been formed?  I would love to hear your experience.