Two Quotes

“Somewhere it is written on a wall, ‘When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. When life is bitter, say thank you and grow.” -Joan Chittister, The Monastic Way

“The world–or the part we humans are in charge of–is a mess. A huge, unconquerable mess. You cannot fix it, nor can you put it all on the page to create a vast novel that encompasses and somehow solves the chaos. All you can do is write your own small corner of this world, how you, or the characters you make up, see it, feel it, and are affected by it. And maybe figure out one tiny thing in the chaos that you can help make right or illuminate.” -Barbara Abercrombie, The Year of Writing Dangerously


Making Potato Salad

(image from — I chose this picture for the bowl)

I am pleased to share a poem written by my friend from Writing Lab, Kathryn Johnson. Feeding people seems to be one of our basic instincts in the face of grief.


Making Potato Salad

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart. Ecclesiastes 7:2

A hundred miles away
Your voice crackles out the cell phone staccato message
Your father is dying.
So you’ll stay another day on the farm to arrange
The hospital bed in the windowed room
Where your mother
And your grandmother
Slept their waning nights next to the moonlit pasture.
I ask what I can do from here,
You list people to call, mail to send, then add
“Make potato salad.”

On the last picnic weekend twenty years ago,
The call came that the old man who had built our new church
Was dying of heart failure.
We arrived behind the ambulance
Too late.
You sat in the living room to comfort the widow and son,
I drifted to the kitchen with the at-loose-ends daughter-in-law.
Aimless strangers in a house of fresh mourning,
We found boiled potatoes and eggs
Pre-cooked for holiday lunch
Hours before this cloudless day tolled
Dark, somber, brassy.
I sliced the pickles, she peeled the eggs,
We measured mustard and mayo in a large mixing bowl,
Believing later
The grieving would be hungry.

But now, since you don’t eat potato salad,
I’ll mow the lawn, front and back,
I’ll wash your navy blue sweater and pin-stripe shirt,
I’ll pile up pictures of your father driving his tractor,
Smiling behind his commissioner’s desk,
Cradling his dark-eyed baby girl,
Sitting on the couch with his middle-aged sons,
Standing by the canal’s edge with the radiant blond wife of his youth.
I’ll fall asleep reading Ecclesiastes,
And tomorrow,
I’ll make oatmeal cookies, timed warm for your arrival,
In case you’re hungry.

Kathryn Duncan Johnson, May 2012

Begin again…


Syringa in my sister’s yard above Lewiston, Idaho.

Recently, driving to Lewiston or Chehalis or Mt. Vernon, I saw a woman lunging a horse in a round corral. It was a young horse, a paint, and I imagined it as a filly, though (driving along the freeway) I couldn’t really tell. It looked so simple. And then I thought of how it isn’t simple. Training a horse, writing a book, both begin with simple steps that don’t much resemble riding or writing. But one has to get up in the morning and take those steps. Eventually, they begin to accumulate. Eventually it can be called riding. It can be called writing.

I have been getting up every morning — every morning I’m at home — and scribbling, waiting for the muse to strike, hoping my life hasn’t become too busy to allow her access. Yesterday, thinking of that young woman in the corral with her paint filly, I decided to try retyping my novel from the beginning.

I cut ten pages from the prologue. I typed twenty pages. I cut a lot of phrases such as “she thought” and “it seemed to her.” I think it’s working. This morning I reread aloud everything I’d typed yesterday. I typed in more changes, and then I typed ten more pages.

“[I]t seems to me nonetheless that a book you write, like a dream you dream, can have more healing and truth and wisdom in it at least for yourself than you feel in any way responsible for.” -Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, 22

Happy Thirteenth Birthday!

Thirteen years ago today (on the 30th anniversary of the moon walk) our divine Miss Em made her debut. I cannot believe how fast she’s grown up. It’s also something of a head-spinner to realize that a mere thirteen years ago I thought I was young enough to have a baby.

So here’s to you, Emma Grace, Kissy Face. Emwa. Woman of scowls and laughter (and mercurial moods). As my friend Madelon says, “Spend a little time every day imagining the unimaginable.” You’ll do fine.


I think it was Meister Eckhart who suggested that, when we don’t know what to pray, we begin with “thank you.”

I seem to be having many conversations lately about retirement. Even my younger sisters are beginning to count not only the years but the months. I hope to retire from teaching sometime in the next few years. I hope never to retire as a writer. I want to be writing poems and stories and novels — and blogposts! — when I’m 90. When I’m 100.

“I’m fifty-three,” “I’m fifty-eight,” “he’s fifty now!” These conversations inevitably make me think of my husband who, thirteen years ago (on July 20, 1999) at age fifty-nine, adopted a baby.

And not to forget, a pic of the interior of my writing cabin. Thank you, Bruce.

Becoming Fierce with Reality

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality.” -Florida Scott Maxwell

I spent the afternoon visiting with my brother and sister-in-law. They live about an hour away from us, but because our mother lives in the opposite direction, I’ve never been to their house before. We reminisced about my niece, about how much she loved working as a CNA. She especially loved the old people and the stories they told her. I learned that on her breaks and lunch hours she would drop by to visit patients. She was also running up quite a food service bill, and had taken to climbing the hospital stairs instead of riding the elevator. None of this surprised me–she was the kind of kid who defines the word “gusto.”

I remember a few years back when, a year after a friend died, his wife said, “He is always with me. And I miss him so much.” I wish there were some magic cure–particularly for my sister-in-law. But would we want to mourn any less? There’s no getting around it. Here’s a poem from Emily Dickinson that says there’s also no getting through grief, only accepting that we’re inside it. And maybe we’re not alone.

I wonder if it weighs like Mine–
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long–
Or did it just begin–
I could not tell the Date of Mine–
It feels so old a pain–

I wonder if it hurts to live–
And if They have to try–
And whether–could They choose between–
It would not be–to die.

In choosing to live, however, we also choose to remember. (We choose to tell our stories, as Shelby knew.) I don’t pretend that my grief over my niece is insurmountable, but when I look into her mom’s eyes…well, it’s fierce. I wish I could help.