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Goethe once wrote that all writers are homesick, that all writers are really searching for home.  Being a writer is being on a constant search for where you belong.”– Mary Morris, “Looking for Home”

I’ve stubbornly refused to call San Diego “home” since relocating here in 2006.  Never one for crowded beaches, deserts and arid land, my heart finds no affinity with the landscape.  It’s little wonder, I suppose.  I was raised in rural northern California, a place where residents resented Southern California’s drain of our natural resources and periodically sought to secede and be the State of Jefferson.

I grew up among Jack pine and Douglas fir trees, in a small valley surrounded by mountains, part of the Cascade Range, and where summers were spent swimming in cold mountain lakes and rivers.  Yet I admit that as I waited in the Oakland airport to board a flight to San Diego on Friday evening, I was eager to get “home” to San Diego.  After a week of teaching in Berkeley, I was ready to sleep in my bed, sit in my easy chair, and resume the routines that mark my days:  walks with my dog, coffee on the deck while the birds cavort at the fountain and chatter in the treetops, writing in the quiet of early morning.

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks,” May Sarton wrote at the beginning of A Journal of Solitude, “to take up my ‘real’ life again at last.”  I suppose that’s how I felt in my return.  Whatever city we live in at the moment is less important that the space we shape for ourselves, one that offers that “room of one’s own,” whether a corner of the kitchen or a bedroom turned into office.  Remember Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own?  Written at a time when women were not allowed into particular universities nor recognized in a literary world dominated by men.  Woolf famously said, A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

There are many analyses of the book, and while I am not a fiction writer, what I took from reading Woolf so many years ago was simply the necessity of making a place for my creative work.  Without one free of interruption or distractions, my creative work is compromised.  I love my teaching, but it consumes my energy, and when I turn to my writing, I am often spent.  Add to that the intensity of the week-long class, “Writing as a Healing Ministry,” one I’ve taught for over ten years and requires I travel to Berkeley each July and reside in faculty housing for the week.  At the end of the week,  I am all the more in need of reclaiming my routine, the mental and emotional space I need to nurture my creative life.

In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.—Virgina Woolf

In her delightful book of writing invitations, Room to Write, Bonni Goldberg explains the choice of her book title as “creating room for your writing…  Making room in your life to write,” She adds, “generates even more room for your writing.”  Creativity doesn’t just happen.  Our muses don’t just come whenever we beckon.  We have to create and protect the space needed to nurture creativity.  Only then will the artist within each of us be fully revealed.

This morning, my dog Maggie and I were once again up at 5:45 a.m. to walk.  She knows my routine by heart and seems to find nearly as much satisfaction in the certainty of that walk, as I do, even our time sitting on the deck, and as I prepare to write, in taking her place on a cushion near my feet.  We’re  at home again, stepping  into the comfort of routine and the place we call our own.  This morning, even the birds seemed to welcome us back.  Hummingbirds frolicked nearby at the fountain; a woodpecker set to work on the century plants below our deck, and a red tail hawk glided over our heads to fly across the canyon.  I sighed and smiled.  It was good to be here.  It was good to be back in place, in the place that is my own.

Think about what it’s like to return to your place after a busy day or time away, the “room of your own” that lets you bask in quiet and solitude, even briefly.  What is it like to have that place where you can be alone, and, as May Sarton described, take up your real life again?”

 

I’m on my way to Berkeley this week, teaching “Writing as a Healing Ministry, a week-long intensive course for clergy, seminary students and anyone interested in attending.  During the week, we’ll explore the arena of therapeutic writing, witness many different approaches to leading healing writing groups, and by week’s end, each person will define how writing can be a healing ministry – for themselves and for others.  Part of the course is to also experience what it is like to write, deeply and honestly, from the heartaches and struggles of one’s life.  Invariably, we segue into the spiritual aspects of writing to heal, and for many in the workshop, writing turns to prayer.

Prayer.   It’s interesting that in this day of modern medicine, something as basic as prayer has such beneficial impact on our health and well-being. Dr. Larry Dossey’s book, Healing Words:  The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, summarizes a number of studies demonstrating the positive influences of prayer on health and healing among patients with breast cancer, HIV, and coronary disease, among others.  “I believe that everyone’s prayers helped me make it through with grace and strength,” one former member of my writing groups once said.

We find prayer in every religion and culture, written in every language.  Studies have found that religion and spirituality are very important to the quality of life among many cancer patients.  Prayer sustains us and offers solace.  My daily writing practice is my meditation, my solace and my prayer.  Although religion and spirituality are related, they are not synonymous.  Religion refers to a specific set of beliefs and practices, usually within an organized group, while spirituality is more concerned with our beliefs about the meaning of life.  You may think of yourself as religious or spiritual or both.

Whatever our religious or spiritual beliefs, our faith or spirituality can provide strength and comfort.  “As part of our wholeness,” Stephen Levine said in a 1994 Sun interview, “we need our woundedness.  It seems written into spirituality that there’s a dark side to which we must expose ourselves.”

Cancer may seem like a dark night of the soul; it may even challenge your faith, but it may also offer you the chance to explore your spirituality by deepening your self-understanding and compassion for others. “My faith grew, and I prayed a lot,” said another.  Laura, who lost her struggle with metastatic cancer, wrote a prayer for mercy as she struggled through long periods of treatment:

A wad of pain
In the pit of my stomach
Lord have mercy

I focus on it
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy…

Writing can be a form of prayer or meditation and it often becomes the prayer itself.  “When you’re caught up in writing…” poet Denise Levertov remarked in her final interview, “it can be a form of prayer.”  Writing takes us on a voyage of discovery, and in the wake of cancer or other life-threatening illnesses or suffering, it can become a deeply spiritual practice.  Writing offers a door into our spiritual journeys. During cancer treatment or other serious illnesses, we’re often face to face with our mortality.  That’s when the irrelevant and unnecessary falls away, revealing the meaning in our lives.  Call it what we will–hope, prayer, faith, or a meditation–we discover a higher consciousness, something larger than ourselves.

Varda, who died of metastatic breast cancer several years ago, wrote throughout her cancer journey, often humorously, sometimes poignantly.  As she neared her final weeks, she examined her faith, acknowledging that even though challenged by cancer, her faith had offered her strength and solace:

But our relationship has changed.  In asking me to surrender to this illness, God has asked me to let go—to trust—float free.  And I have found this to be a most precious time.  My cancer has challenged my faith, and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had.  I have found true surrender, enormous peace.

This week, think about those beliefs or practices that sustain you.  Write about prayer or meditation, about your faith or spiritual journey.  Perhaps your faith has been challenged like Varda’s.  Perhaps your illness or life struggles led you to a spiritual journey you didn’t anticipate.  Write about it.

Geese appear high over us, pass, and the sky closes.

Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way,

clear in the ancient faith: what we need is here. And we

pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart,

and in eye, clear. What we need is here.

So much died here last year

but last month rain forced

peach-red mouths out of balding sand,

and within weeks sun coaxed

tiny constellations of yellow,

purple, and white into sandy flats,

along rocky dirt roads . . .

I will never be the same

knowing how effortlessly death

rests in the cells of my body,

yet with each step I am willing

to say yes to the chances I take,

to the hope no one can take from me

here in the midst of my recovery

now that I’ve seen what can thrive

in the bankrupt landscape of the heart.

 (From “Hiking in the Anza-Borrego Desert after Surgery,” by Francine Sterle.  In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Karin Miller, Ed., 2001)

 

“Healing” is a word I frequently use. My cancer writing groups were inspired, in part, by the research on writing’s healing benefits.  Both my books on the subject contain the words “heal” or “healing” in their titles.  But I have new respect for what it means, at this stage in my life, to heal.  Like you, I’ve experienced emotional and physical healing more times in my life than I care to admit.  But for the past several weeks, my life has been concerned with the long, slow process of physical healing.

In early April, I suffered a bruised tailbone when landed on the hardwood floor as my desk chair rolled out from under me when I sat down.  A week later, I strained the muscles in my right arm badly when I threw caution to the wind and lifted one too many potted plants on our deck.  Days before I was headed to spend the month of May in Toronto, I fell, rather badly, as I backed up to take a photograph of my husband and his new car.  I confess my eyes were on the camera, not where I was stepping, and my back heel caught on a garden stone.  I took a fine photograph of the sky and telephone wires as I fell, landing hard on my already bruised tailbone and shoulder before my head hit the pavement.  I felt more embarrassment than injury at the time; the pain came later.  All of this preceded, I might add, the advent of my seventieth birthday.  Not only my body was damaged, but so was my self-image.   I’ve been forced to accept that as I age, I need to be more considered about some of the physical tasks I undertake—or at the very least, pay attention to where I’m stepping!

Healing from all of these mishaps has taken far longer than my body ever required to recover from the bumps and bruises of a rough and tumble childhood—and it’s given me pause for thought.  I’ve seen doctors, been to acupuncture and worked with a physiotherapist.  But my body refuses to be rushed in its healing process, and that new reality is forcing me to learn a tough lesson of patience.

What does it mean to heal?   Obviously, time is involved, but google the word “healing,” and you’ll be confronted with more variations on it than you can possibly read, whether from traditional medicine, psychology, religion, or the alternative healing arts.  Look up “healing” in the dictionary, and you’ll find  “the natural process by which the body repairs itself,” and “tending to cure or restore to health.”

In my cancer writing groups, “healing” has more of an emotional and spiritual context.  During the experience of cancer, terms like “recovery”, “in remission,” and, for some, “cure,” are more commonly used to describe the body’s process of repair during treatment.  “Healing,” on the other hand, carries multiple meanings, and what each person considers as healing is unique to their lives and situation.

It’s not just the body that needs healing during cancer.  A cancer diagnosis threatens our sense of wholeness and of self.  We suffer, although out of that suffering, we may gain new insights into what it means to be human and what truly matters to us—which can be a prelude to healing.  Healing is more than physical repair; it involves transformation.  We emerge from the cancer experience in remission or with “no evidence of cancer,” but we aren’t the same people we were before it.  We’re changed. Our lives are redefined, and so is our sense of meaning.  To come to terms with that change, that altered self also takes time—it’s a process of healing, and it, too, cannot be rushed.

In a May 2005 article by Thomas Egnew,“The Meaning of Healing:  Transcending Suffering,” appearing in the Annals of Family Medicine, the author explored the meaning of healing and translated it into behaviors—all as a way  to help doctors enhance their abilities to be healers. Egnew included three major themes in his definition, and not surprisingly, they are ones that readily apply to anyone:  wholeness (to become or make whole), narrative (a reinterpretation of life), and spirituality (the search to be human; to transcend).

Healing requires that we have the courage to truly plumb the depths of who we are—who we have become as a result of cancer—or any other major life upheaval.  Last summer, I was among a group of presenters at the Omega Institute in New York along with oncologist and pioneer in integrative medicine, Jeremy Geffen, MD, the weekend’s featured speaker.  Dr. Geffen defined seven distinct levels of healing needed to regain wholeness.  According to Geffen, as he listened to his patients their concerns and questions over the years, he saw a pattern emerging,  Patients’ concerns fell into one of seven interwoven, yet distinct, areas.  Ultimately, he labeled them as “The Seven Levels of Healing.  They include:

  1. Information or knowledge
  2. Connecting with others
  3. Exploring safe and effective ways of tending to our health
  4. Emotional healing
  5. Harnessing the power of the mind
  6. Assessing our life’s purpose and meaning
  7. A spiritual connection

(The Journey Through CancerHealing and Transforming the Whole Person, by Jeremy Geffen, MD, 2006).

Healing, true healing, is complex and multi-dimensional.  And it takes time.  I thought I understood that, at least during those “big” illnesses and surgeries I’ve endured.  The fact that some bruising and muscle sprains have required me to re-assess so much of what I’ve blithely taken for granted about my body has forced me, again, to slow down and reconsider what it means, this time, to heal.

What about you?  Do Geffen’s seven levels of healing resonate with your experience?  How would you define “healing” if asked by someone newly diagnosed with cancer?  What, in your experience, has been healing for you?  What people, places or activities have been important in your healing process?    Think about what it means to heal.  Write about it.

Blues a healer, all over the world
Blues a healer, healer, all over the world, all over the world
It healed me, it can heal you
The blues can heal you, early one morning

(“The Healer,” by John Lee Hooker & Santana)

The blues.  Their roots lie in African-American history, from Southern plantations of the 19th Century, sung by slaves and share croppers as they toiled in the cotton fields. The blues evolved, interacting with jazz and giving birth to rhythm ‘n blues and rock ‘n roll.

Nothing “blue” would have defined our evening last night as we attended a live performance by the San Diego blues band, 145th Street, as they paid tribute to the great slide guitarist and blues singer, Muddy Waters.  Instead, you would have witnessed a crowd of people, young and old, on their feet, moving and clapping to the hard rhythm of Waters’ best loved songs.

We had come close to not going to the show at all.  Yesterday was hot, and by day’s end, I was tired and irritable, wanting to do nothing more than sit near the air conditioner.  But we’d bought the tickets in advance, and it seemed a waste to not use them, so I dragged my wilted self out the door with my husband, and we drove downtown.  We arrived a full half hour before the performance began, but already, the room was crowded with fans.  Luckily we managed to snare two of the last available seats.  A short time later, the band filed on stage and launched into their first number.  Within moments, the irritability and lassitude I’d been feeling had disappeared.  The musicians rocked and, as it turned out, so did we all.

“When you are feeling particularly down or upset, make music your friend,” advised music therapist, Dr. Suzanne Hanser, in a recent article in Coping with Cancer Magazine.  “Begin your day with music. Music with a strong beat or dance rhythm might make you boogie out of bed…”  Well, I can’t vouch for wanting to boogie out of bed–I prefer quieter starts to my days– but I do know that music can elevate one’s mood and sense of well-being.

Mark, Sichel, LCSW, writing for Psychology Today, states:  “While music therapy  as a distinct field has been around a long time, it’s only recently that I’ve begun suggesting to patients that they sing their way out of the blues… Losing yourself in the right music is an immediate, unconscious and effortless way to reframe your situation.”  Hmmm.  Years ago,  I was a devotee of Donna Summer’s “I Will Survive” and the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want…,” belting out the lyrics right along with the recordings as I nursed a broken heart.

“The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental,” Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of Awakenings wrote. “It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.” Music has a long history in medicine and healing. The ancient Greeks believed music could heal the body and the soul. Ancient Egyptians and Native Americans incorporated singing and chanting as part of their healing rituals. Even the U.S. Veterans Administration incorporated music an adjunct therapy for shell-shocked soldiers after World War II. Today, music therapy is widely used in hospitals and cancer centers to promote healing and enhance the quality of patients’ lives.

Google “music and healing,” and you’ll find a number of articles attesting to the physiological and emotional benefits of music.

  • It aids our autonomic nervous systems, positively affecting blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing.  In fact, music can actually improve the overall functioning of our cardiovascular systems.
  • It helps reduce stress, aid relaxation and alleviate depression.
  • In cancer patients, music can decrease anxiety. Together with anti-nausea drugs, music can help to ease nausea and vomiting accompanying chemotherapy.
  • It relieves short-term pain and decreases the need for pain medication.
  • It’s effective in diminishing pre-surgical anxiety and beneficial for patients with high blood pressure.
  • Music even plays a role in improving troubled teens’ self-esteem and academic performance.

Add a little movement to the mix, as many in the crowd of people did last night, and you may find yourself smiling even more.  Dance or movement therapy is a newer expressive or healing art, and yet The American Cancer Society states that “Clinical reports suggest dance therapy may be effective in improving self-esteem and reducing stress. [It} can be useful for both physical and emotional aspects of quality of life.”  I used my version of dance therapy during the most difficult period after my first husband’s sudden death. I often played favorite rock’n’roll tunes and danced to them in our darkened living room once my children were asleep.  It was far more beneficial to my spirit to dance in the dark than sit alone and cry!

Let music be your muse this week.  Why not take time to listen to some of your favorite music?  Maybe you’ll feel like dancing, or perhaps you’ll find old memories ignited.  Perhaps certain music lulls you to sleep.  Whatever your experience, notice how music affects your mood, even how different selections trigger different feelings or memories.  Write about what happens when music is a part of your day.

I think I should have no other mortal wants if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.– George Bernard Shaw

I awakened a half hour later than usual this morning.  Deep in a dream that ignited long ago memories of a kindergarten playmate, I awoke with a start and looked at the clock.  Six thirty.  “Oh no,” I murmured to my dog, asleep at the side of the bed, “I overslept.”

Normally, I awaken a few minutes before six a.m., but today, I slept well past my usual time.  I hurriedly threw back the covers and groggily made my way down the hall to pull on my walking clothes, brush my teeth and hair.  It took more time than usual to make the coffee, feed the dog, and do my regimen of stretching exercises before I was ready to fasten the leash to her collar, the signal that we’re ready to head out the door.  Normally she waits patiently, used to the routine of my mornings, but today, she found one of my Croc sandals in the hallway and managed to chew a chunk out of the strap before I realized what she’d done.  It seemed we both were unsettled by the disruption and predictability of our early morning routine.

In the poem, “Habit,” Jane Hirshfield describes small rituals that are part of our daily lives:

The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings, no fewer, no more,
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

(Excerpt from “Habit” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt)

My morning habits, the little rituals of each day, began during a time of difficult transitions, when I adrift in grief and turmoil, coming to terms with the death of a husband and a new life as a single mother.  Writing in the early mornings before my children awakened, became a life line, the port in my storm, the way I could make sense of the myriad of emotion that threatened to overwhelm me. 

There’s comfort in habit, the little rituals that become part of each day.  They allow us to feel connected to ourselves and to the world.  We create rituals around important life events—birth, puberty, marriage, death—a way of honoring our transitions from one chapter to the next.  In times of uncertainty and change, our rituals keep us grounded.    They help us navigate difficult times, provide a sense of familiarity and constancy.

Our daily rituals can even help us heal. They offer time to be quiet and focus on our intentions and actions.  They can also  function as talismen against fear, and give us the assurance we will be all right.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

Author Barbara Biziou (www.joyofritual.com) writes that our healing rituals, the little habits that offer us solace or replenishment, allow us to be active participants in our healing process.  What defines a healing ritual?  They are the things we take solace in doing, a prayer or meditation, a solitary walk in the woods, working in the garden, listening to music, a massage, or sitting quietly at a window with a cup of tea or coffee..  It doesn’t matter what your healing rituals are.  What matter is that they help you renew and replenish your spirit and able to  hear what’s in your not only your mind, but your heart.

I still write each morning—letting my heart have equal time with my mind on the page.  I do it after my early morning walk with the dog, after she and I sit together on the porch swing and watch the sun creep across the canyon, after my first cup of freshly brewed coffee.  This is my daily meditation, a time of refuge and quiet before the day intrudes with its list of tasks and disruptions.  Without the constancy and regularity of my early morning rituals, I feel, as I did when I overslept this morning, slightly off kilter, not quite ready to take on the day.

What small habits or routines offer calm or comfort in your daily life?  How?  Why do they matter to you?  What do they teach you about yourself?  How, in the midst of pain or suffering, do they provide solace?  Write about those daily habits, the healing rituals, that are important to your life, your sense of well-being.

SumerIsIcumenIn-line

Summer is i-cumin in—

   Lhude sing, cuccu!

 

I found myself humming the old medieval round, “Summer is i-cummin in” as I sat outside early this morning, watching the marine layer melt away as the sun burned through it, listening the chirp and chatter of birds that populate the trees in the canyon beneath our deck with my dog on my lap, my coffee in my hand.  It was a glorious summer’s morning, and I remembered the carefree spirit of the ancient tune.

The official arrival of summer, the summer solstice, occurred early yesterday morning, and while our newscasts were filled with the sobering and relentless news of crises in the mid-east, many other people in the world were celebrating the advent of summer.  For example, some celebrated by attending the annual festival at Stonehenge, one that dates back thousands of years, and still draws modern druids and many others who are there to witness summer ‘s first sunrise. In the Scandinavian countries, midsummer celebrations, roots also dating back to the pagan celebration of summer solstice, with festivities, dancing, and parades occurred in towns and villages across Scandinavia.

I do not remember any solstice celebration during my childhood.  As far as we were concerned, summer began on the last day of school—whatever the date.  We practically danced home from school, bags loaded with the remains of the year: used pencils and erasers, notebooks and a certificate declaring we’d move to the next grade in the fall.  We were filled with excitement and anticipation.  Summer meant two months of holiday, of long days and evenings when the sun lingered in the sky.  It meant running through the sprinklers on hot days, softball played until dusk on neighborhood streets, and after dinner drives to the local Fosters’ Freeze for soft ice cream.  Summer was picnics and watermelon.  It was Sundays spent swimming and boating on a nearby lake.  It was a time of abandonment and freedom.

Summer was synonymous with new adventures:  picking blackberries, catching butterflies and lizards, turning Manzanita bushes into fortresses, looking for buried treasure, or, with the gang of neighborhood children, creating summer theater, circus acts and parades for our parents.

Looking back, I am filled with longing for the freedom, the curiosity, and the sense of immortality that children possess, the utter joy in lying down in tall grasses to find faces or shapes in the clouds that dotted the blue sky above us.  We lived in the moment, and every summer’s day was rife with new possibility.

I think about those carefree days as summer begins, and how, in a climate that is dominated by sunshine, I know I will soon beg to escape to an air-conditioned room as the predictable heat waves arrive.  Summer, in these parts, is also synonymous with the danger of wildfires.  Couple that with the nightly news casts of drought or tornadoes, flooding and mudslides in other parts of the country, and summer loses some of the appeal I once remember.

It’s easy to forget what summer once held, what it promised when I was a child.  It’s much too easy, in adulthood, to become consumed by the demands of daily life,  far too easy to forget how precious life is, how glorious a sunny day can be, how much is changing in front of our eyes while we, heads down and eyes on our screens, barely notice.

“Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “The Summer Day.”   As I read her words, I think that perhaps I should lie down in tall grasses, eat a popsicle and feel the juice drip down my chin, or simply sit on the porch swing and sing the song I once knew by heart:  “Summer is a ‘coming in, loudly sing cu-cu!”  What about you?  What will you do this summer, as Oliver challenges, with your one wild and precious life?

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

(In:  The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays, Beacon Press, 2008).

In our household, Father’s Day arrives just days after my birthday, and this year, the advent of my newest decade more than overshadowed any planning or celebration for my husband.  He’s stepfather to my daughters, and predictably, he “poo-poos” the event, saying, “it’s not important,” describing it as “just an excuse for commercialism,” but he “doth protest too much, methinks,” especially as I witness his complete delight as he opens a greeting card or hears a grandchild’s voice on the telephone recite the well-rehearsed “Happy Father’s Day Grandpa!”

In the article, “Father’s Day:  Even the cards are different,” which appeared in a 2008 edition of the San Diego Union Tribune, reporter Jenifer Godwin wrote:  Moms and dads are more equal parenting partners than ever before, with studies showing men do far more housework and spend more time with their children than previous generations.  Yet Father’s Day still doesn’t inspire the same need to bestow sentimental cards, gifts and dinners out as Mother’s Day.

Godwin cited a number of statistics to show the contrast between how we celebrate mothers and fathers, for example, more cards are sent to mothers on Mother’s Day and more money is spent on mothers’ gifts.  In fact, Father’s Day wasn’t even  an official holiday until 1972, over a half century after the official designation of Mother’s Day.  Add one more layer of complexity to this state of lesser remembrance, that of being a stepfather, and I suspect we’d find even greater disparity.

I guess it was the telephone call from one daughter early this morning, wishing J. a “Happy Father’s Day,” that got me reconsidering this post.  I always think of my father on this day, and I am just as certain my daughters pause to remember theirs, my first husband, whose life was cut short while the girls were still in elementary school.   But as I listened to J.’s laughter, his voice full of delight as he chatted with E. and our granddaughter, I began to think of the extraordinary influence he, as stepfather, has had both girls; how he so willingly embraced two teenagers into his life and weathered the “sturm und drang” of adolescence with as much commitment as any birth father.

We laugh together now about some of the stormier interactions, how one or the other daughter tested him at various times and fiercely reminded him that he was not “Dad” nor would he ever be.  Yet he responded with grace and the ability to dance that conflicted tango of step-fatherhood, of “I love you”—“don’t even think that I love you” that often defined those first years as a reconstituted family.  Little by little, the relationship between J. and the girls deepened and grew, and without any fanfare, their bond solidified.  “This is my father,” E. said as she introduced him to her high school French teacher three years later.  I stifled a gasp.  J. simply extended his hand to say hello, but I saw his eyes tear up for a moment.

J. has been instrumental in igniting one daughter’s interest and career in international community development.  When E. traveled to rural Thailand on her first work project, J. was working on a development project in Laos.  He made a 36 hour stop in Bangkok and took a twelve-hour bus trip to her village to share a meal together with her host family, before returning to Bangkok to fly on to Laos.  As our second daughter struggled with low self-esteem and fear of academia, he patiently accompanied her from community college to community college, until gradually, she had the courage to enroll.  He discussed readings and research with her as she steered her studies toward psychology and anthropology.  For the duration of her undergraduate years, C. never earned less than an “A” –even in the statistics courses she feared so much.  J. was coach and mentor, and I thrilled as I witnessed her blossoming and growing self-confidence.

This Father’s Day, I honor all fathers and their importance in our lives, but today,  I’ll be celebrating my husband with gratitude for  his patient and loving contribution to my daughters’ lives and my own.   He is friend, companion, mentor, and has become more father that anyone, including him, could have imagined.

He wasn’t hard on us kids,
never struck us…

He used to sing in the car
bought us root beers along the road.
He loved us with his deeds.

(From: “A Father’s Pain,” in A River Remains by Larry Smith)

Today I remember how deeply important fathers have been in my life and my daughters’, and whether fond or complicated, the memories of our fathers are full of stories.  Write one.  And to all the fathers—whether those who helped to birth us or those who were “like” fathers–who had a lasting and loving influence in our lives, Happy Father’s Day.

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