Unpacking in Prague: Women’s International Network

Packing for Prague. I like the sound of it.

icprague

icprague

This week, I’ll be in the capital of the Czech Republic as a presenter at the global Women’s International Network conference.  The W.I.N. conference is an annual happening that draws in both women and men from around the world, and from among global business and opinion leaders, entrepreneurs, executives, academics, NGO representatives, artists, and yes, a couple of us writers.  Over several days, we’ll participate in plenary sessions, workshops, forums, dinners and networking activities. For this, I’m packing, among other necessities, yoga stretchies, a great-fitting suit, dental floss, my scriptures, and a ball gown. To give you an idea.

travel nytimes

travel nytimes

I’ll first be presenting an extended workshop entitled, “Making a Home in the World: The Whats and Whys of Raising a Global Family.”  I’m all ready to roll this one out, an audio-visual, bells-and-whistles journey through our life, packed with years of my personal research into the various angles of expatriate living.  How many of “us” expatriates are there in the world? What is the average failure rate of expatriate assignments? What are the primary reasons for that failure? What can expatriates themselves and sponsors of expatriate relocations do to avoid such failure? And then I’ve rehearsed a tap-dancing interlude, if things go really well. (Or if they don’t. Either way, I might have to dredge up my inner Ginger.)

That, friends, promises to be the high energy, speedy, dynamic and entertaining part of this week for me.

wikicommons

wikicommons

Then there’s another moment. For it, I’ll have neither Power Point nor body mic. Not a single bell. Nowhere a whistle. No tap shoes. I’ll be part of a forum panel, which will address issues of feminine resiliency. My contribution is entitled, “When Crisis Hits: Tragic Loss, Resilience, Living Onward With Grace.” As you intuit, this is where I’ll share our family’s story from the point of view of the mother.  Whereas in the first workshop I recount how and where we’ve come this far geographically, in the second I’ll describe how and where we’ve come spiritually. Scriptless and ready to field questions, I’ll get to share with complete strangers what drills directly into the marrow of my soul’s bone.

travel nat'l geo

travel nat’l geo

When I arrive tomorrow in Prague, and find myself alone in my hotel room, I’ll lay out my yoga pants and glam gown on my bed, then dump out my cosmetics from their Ziploc bags onto the small bathroom counter.  I’ll then turn on my chosen inspirational music on my phone. (Coldplay, Ella, and the MoTab are set to drown out my droning self-doubt.) Then I’ll roll my impossibly heavy carry-on to a corner,  the one bursting with 50+ copies of this book I’ve written, the book that will be sold at the conference bookstore, the one that, like my newly-minted business cards, has my face on its every surface.

It could make one feel important. For about nine seconds.

Finally, I’ll take out four enlarged and framed pictures. I’ll  find  a place in this hotel room to line them up for company and for comfort.  One picture, a girlfriend in Singapore made. It is a posthumous family portrait (how else to put it?) with all of us smiling in 2010, and she photo-shopped in our oldest, Parker, absent to the eye since 2007.  There he is, though – right there! – smiling more broadly than any one of us.

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Next to that picture, I’ll place three more shots just of Parker. There’s the shot of him leaning against a lamp post in Montmartre. And then the shot taken right before he rode that sling shot contraption in the Tuileries.  And in the third picture, he’s drumming his djembe in front of the Eiffel Tower, his favorite place to hang out. He’s drumming that djembe with abandon, and with a beaded head band a little Moroccan girl had just gifted him.  “I put it on to make her laugh,” he told me when I saw that picture in June.   “And she did! Man, she was so sweet.”   A month later, he died.

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Here’s part of what I’ll be thinking, maybe, as I unpack in Prague.  That over 25 years ago I dreamt of a moment like this :  I would write a book. Pages, a front and back cover. And I would arrive at some international conference to talk about that book. In an auditorium. Where there would be (in my dream) many languages. A microphone. Beads of sweat. I’d be pretending (as everyone with a book, an auditorium, a mic and sweat must pretend) to be confident.

Certain realities , it turns out, can be more powerful than certain dreams. The me of 25 years ago would never have believed it. Yet the me of today is living it.  The Reality that we chose and that has driven us became this: a loving (and imperfect) marriage and four splendid (and human) children with whom we’ve pursued a life that skipped, groveled and hiccupped across many geographies. Reality, for me, meant I needed to be with these children in an intense manner to hold stuff together. There was simply no bandwidth in that Reality (and less and less personal ambition, over time) for pursuing certain Dreams. And of course there was the Reality of death.

While we’ve crawled through death, it seems the Dreams have hung there, waiting for another Reality to catch up with them.

czech transport

czech transport

Tell me, though. Are these photos in a hotel room – these precious children, this flawed but thriving family, that smiling spirit son, this carry-on of published words  – are they not Reality?  To what do I ascribe the convergence of a misty Dream and a rock hard Reality? The luggage-tagged and framed-smiling evidence of something I have lived? On this autumn day? In Prague?

Is the human heart even engineered to handle so much gratitude and so much pain – such Dreams and such Realities – and keep on beating? And strongly enough to speak about it all?

Wish me luck.

Parisian, Peruvian, Mexican, American: Multicultural Mom Writes a Strong Review

Your nationality might be easier to pin down than is Maria’s.  Born to a spicy combination of Peruvian and Mexican parents, educated in the U.S., married to a Frenchman and raising young (trilingual) children in the swoon-worthy countryside west of Paris, Maria Olivares Babin is a real global mom. An expert on mingling cultures and nurturing a family while straddling linguistic and geographic borders, she also keeps on top of a blog that is as lively, lovely and photogenic as is her family.

The four Babin children

The four Babin children (Image: Maria Babin)

(Image: Maria Babin)

(Image: Maria Babin)

Dad Babin and youngest (Image: Maria Babin)

Papa Babin and youngest (Image: Maria Babin)

Maria with the three who can eat solids, like pizza. (Image: La Famille Babin)

Maria with the three who can eat solids.  Like pizza.

How does someone planted in Normandy, France stumble across another writer-mother-nomad living near the banks of Lake Geneva, Switzerland? You can guess it was not on a morning stroll.  The story’s a bit more involved than that.

(Part of) la Famille Babin

(Part of) la famille Babin

The story is bitter-sweet, too, and I won’t share it all here because for today, I want to focus on the kind of happiness and deliberate joy Maria radiates, as you’ll soon discover, right off the computer screen.  But I’ll reveal this: a few weeks after we lost our oldest son to a tragic drowning accident, my husband and I were invited to speak at a large conference in Versailles, France.  Maria and her family, recently installed in their French life, happened to be in attendance.

(Image: S. Furner)

(Image: S. Furner)

(Image: S. Furner)

(Image: S. Furner)

Montmartre Montage (Image: Maria Babin)

Montmartre, Paris Montage (Image: Maria Babin)

More Montmartre Montage (Image: Maria Babin)

More Montmartre Montage (Image: Maria Babin)

Years passed, and our family moved, as we tend to do – Munich, Singapore, Geneva – while Maria and her Babins dug into that legendarily mulchy soil that grows France’s best apples and produces that country’s richest dairy products.  The parents (or was it the fertile soil?) continued to expand their family.  Along these two divergent routes of two global mothers, I continued to hear stories of the Babins.  I asked always for updates, marveling at Maria’s graceful mastery at integration.

Maria and daughter in the heart of the City of Light

Maria and daughter in the heart of the City of Light

Should I admit? I was fascinated – FAscinated! – by this exotic yet grounded woman, whose rich background complemented her quiet gumption. She was the Whole Multicultural Shabang.

Emphasis on the Bang.

Still only part of la grande famille Babin. . .

Still only part of la grande famille Babin. . .(Maria to the right in red sweater)

Now you can read her voice.  

Enjoy this generous review of Global Mom, written by another global mom.

I’m sure you’ll understand why it’s such an honor for me to merit her time and reflection.  Just thanks, Maria.

When a Fellow Expat Mother Reviews Your Book. . .

Ute Limacher-Riebold has a profile that makes one’s eyes pop, glaze over, wink twice, then close with reflection and a bit of – oh, I don’t know – Global Mom reverence. I’ve quietly followed her blog for a while, then recently dared to drum up an offline connection.  Ever since, I have been greatly enriched by our cross-cultural interaction. One of those times where I am indeed grateful for the power of social media.

expatsincebirth

Let me introduce Ute before you click over to her blog, where she has (voluntarily, without my request or prompting!) written a thoughtful and thorough review of my recently published book.

firenzemoms4moms

firenzemoms4moms

Born in Switzerland, she spent her childhood in northern Italy, attended university in Switzerland (completing a PhD in French medieval literature), worked there in the Department of Romance Studies, scooted down to Florence for professional reasons (and had a baby son there), scooted back up to the Netherlands (where her twin daughters were born), and now maintains a rich treasure of a blog, Expatsincebirth.

scienceillustrated.com

scienceillustrated.com

Yes, as you guessed, Ute is a polyglot.  She masters German, Italian, English and French, and in turn considers herself a comfortable coalescence of all of these cultures.  No doubt her Dutch is nearly as impeccable by now, and she, her husband and her children (all multilingual, as well) are flavored by the Dutch language and culture, too.  Her life experiences offer a strong model for the kind of nomadic, borderless living that is becoming more and more common.

mondial.infos

mondial.infos

I’ll be returning in future posts to Ute and similar writers and mothers. Their global outlook and multicultural life experiences will surely inspire a holistic view of how to navigate this fascinatingly diverse and ever-shrinking world.

**

Do you know families like this, who move between countries, cultures and languages?

Are you one? Tell us about it.

What do you imagine the costs are for such fluidity?

The benefits?

If you happen to live a more localized life, what things would be hardest to sacrifice to have such global experiences?

And what about localized living would you not mind giving up?

Revealing Interview: Mormon Women Project Talks With Global Mom

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The following is an excerpt from the recently published interview with Neylan McBaine of Mormon Women’s Project. To view the full interview in its original, and to read other intriguing interviews with women of my faith from around the world, go here.

MWP: Would you please describe the trajectory of the story that you’ve written in your recently published memoir?

MDB: The book begins when we had been married for seven years, Randall and I, and we were living in the New York City area. It was my husband’s first job and at that point we had two little children, Parker and Claire. I had been, as I describe in the book, busy following a few different career trajectories: I was a full time mother; I was teaching writing part time at a local college; and I was launching a career as a musical theater actress. And it was right in the middle of a musical that I was in that my husband received an offer pretty much out of the blue for us to move to Scandinavia for two or three years. As it turned out, that move ended up lasting a couple of decades. . .

MelissaDaltonBradford4

We were in Norway for just under five years, time to have our third child, Dalton, and then we moved to Versailles, a medium-sized city which lies just fifteen minutes outside of Paris. We were there for four years, just enough time to have our fourth child, Luc. . .We moved to the heart of Paris, two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. We enrolled our two youngest, Dalton and Luc, in French schools.  Our two oldest attended an international school, and we were there for a little over four years.

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We lived in Munich for three years, and then went to Singapore, where we were supposed to stay for many years, if not until the end of Randall’s career.  But there was a sudden restructuring and the entire international component of the multinational company he was working for was dispersed and his position was moved to Geneva. That’s where we live now. .

MWP: Tell me a little bit about the honest costs to you personally and to your family.

MDB: I will tell you what a couple of them are. The core costs are related to community. I don’t have a continuous, long-standing community with me, and I have not had that kind of permanent, reliable, known support ever while raising my family.  When your life is going peachy and there are no speed bumps whatsoever–then you might not feel you need a strong community. You can breaststroke all by yourself. But when you are paddling upstream against currents like new cultures, new languages, new ways of doing everything, parenting while your partner is half a world away and for over half the month, and when there are whirlpools . . . Oh, I didn’t think I would come to that metaphor, but I tend to always come back to water and drowning metaphors. . .

global MWP

For more of this extended interview about global living, traumatic loss, the journey with grief, and how to help someone who is hurting deeply, please click HERE.

Global Mom: A Memoir – Book Trailer

You’re invited to this, the exclusive trailer premier. Let me bring you to my treasured Norwegian farm table in my cozy home in our little Swiss village. Take a brisk look at a few images chronicling our family’s life, and listen as I invite you to read what I hope will be for you a valuable – even life-changing – book.

Please give me a birthday gift by sharing this with all your family and friends.

(Let’s flood!)

Scaling Today’s Educational Landscape: A Moral Dilemma?

alpinist

alpinist

Our son Dalton is scaling a Swiss mountain today.  This is a day trip shared with his graduating class, an extremely rare communal activity meant to symbolize the sort of synergy and determination needed not only to survive, but to have success in the academic gulag they’re participating in.

Hiking is going to get these kids well-oxygenated, too, I’m told. They’ll need it, since they’re doing the “full I.B.” meaning the International Baccalaureate diploma.  This means they’re going under for nine months straight. That’s a lot of breath holding.

“If you possibly can, don’t allow your child to do more than 45 hours of homework outside of class per week,” parents were warned last week in a parent orientation course for this, the last year of the I.B.  “And beyond that, don’t  plan on any travel, not even for a morning, between now and June.” We’d counted on as much.  In fact, all meals will be eaten over textbooks, and if that fails, we’ll serve Dalton intravenously.

He must, must, must make it to the summit. This is the I.B.’s driving mantra.

depostiphotos

depostiphotos

As promised here, from time to time I’m going to be posting on what the International Baccalaureate is specifically, and what our kids’ international schooling over the years has been like generally. We’ve known over a dozen approaches to education – local, public, local language, bilingual, English, private, Norwegian, British, American, French, with or without uniforms, with or without recess time, with or without a single drinking fountain within the zip code.  Additionally, Dalton is our second child to undertake the full I.B., and it so happens that the school our boys now attend is the oldest continuously operating international school in the world.  And it created the I.B.

Should that background give us all some sort of advantage with this I.B. beast? And does the I.B. beast give young learners an advantage when considering colleges in the United States? And the more pressing question: do universities in the United States welcome/prefer/penalize/or not know what to do with an internationally-focused education? Start formulating your thoughts, because we’ll want to hear them all.

In the mean time, I found this NYT article by Ruth Starkman that should stimulate some responses:

amazon

New York Times, Published: August 1, 2013

A HIGHLY qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India.

Why was he not top-ranked by the “world’s premier public university,” as Berkeley calls itself? Perhaps others had perfect grades and scores? They did indeed. Were they ranked higher? Not necessarily. What kind of student was ranked higher? Every case is different.

The reason our budding engineer was a 2 on a 1-to-5 scale (1 being highest) has to do with Berkeley’s holistic, or comprehensive, review, an admissions policy adopted by most selective colleges and universities. In holistic review, institutions look beyond grades and scores to determine academic potential, drive and leadership abilities. Apparently, our Indian-American student needed more extracurricular activities and engineering awards to be ranked a 1.

Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G.P.A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A.P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. His score? 2.5.

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Both students were among “typical” applicants used as norms to train application readers like myself. And their different credentials yet remarkably close rankings illustrate the challenges, the ambiguities and the agenda of admissions at a major public research university in a post-affirmative-action world.

WHILE teaching ethics at the University of San Francisco, I signed on as an “external reader” at Berkeley for the fall 2011 admissions cycle. I was one of about 70 outside readers — some high school counselors, some private admissions consultants — who helped rank the nearly 53,000 applications that year, giving each about eight minutes of attention. An applicant scoring a 4 or 5 was probably going to be disappointed; a 3 might be deferred to a January entry; students with a 1, 2 or 2.5 went to the top of the pile, but that didn’t mean they were in. Berkeley might accept 21 percent of freshman applicants over all but only 12 percent in engineering.

My job was to help sort the pool.

We were to assess each piece of information — grades, courses, standardized test scores, activities, leadership potential and character — in an additive fashion, looking for ways to advance the student to the next level, as opposed to counting any factor as a negative.

External readers are only the first read. Every one of our applications was scored by an experienced lead reader before being passed on to an inner committee of admissions officers for the selection phase. My new position required two days of intensive training at the Berkeley Alumni House as well as eight three-hour norming sessions. There, we practiced ranking under the supervision of lead readers and admissions officers to ensure our decisions conformed to the criteria outlined by the admissions office, with the intent of giving applicants as close to equal treatment as possible.

The process, however, turned out very differently.

In principle, a broader examination of candidates is a great idea; some might say it is an ethical imperative to look at the “bigger picture” of an applicant’s life, as our mission was described. Considering the bigger picture has aided Berkeley’s pursuit of diversity afterProposition 209, which in 1996 amended California’s constitution to prohibit consideration of race, ethnicity or gender in admissions to public institutions. In Fisher v. the University of Texas, the Supreme Court, too, endorsed race-neutral processes aimed at promoting educational diversity and, on throwing the case back to lower courts, challenged public institutions to justify race as a factor in the holistic process.

In practice, holistic admissions raises many questions about who gets selected, how and why.

I could see the fundamental unevenness in this process both in the norming Webinars and when alone in a dark room at home with my Berkeley-issued netbook, reading assigned applications away from enormously curious family members. First and foremost, the process is confusingly subjective, despite all the objective criteria I was trained to examine.

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In norming sessions, I remember how lead readers would raise a candidate’s ranking because he or she “helped build the class.” I never quite grasped how to build a class of freshmen from California — the priority, it was explained in the first day’s pep talk — while seeming to prize the high-paying out-of-state students who are so attractive during times of a growing budget gap. (A special team handled international applications.)

In one norming session, puzzled readers questioned why a student who resembled a throng of applicants and had only a 3.5 G.P.A. should rank so highly. Could it be because he was a nonresident and had wealthy parents? (He had taken one of the expensive volunteer trips to Africa that we were told should not impress us.)

Income, an optional item on the application, would appear on the very first screen we saw, along with applicant name, address and family information. We also saw the high school’s state performance ranking. All this can be revealing.

Admissions officials were careful not to mention gender, ethnicity and race during our training sessions. Norming examples were our guide.

Privately, I asked an officer point-blank: “What are we doing about race?”

She nodded sympathetically at my confusion but warned that it would be illegal to consider: we’re looking at — again, that phrase — the “bigger picture” of the applicant’s life.

After the next training session, when I asked about an Asian student who I thought was a 2 but had only received a 3, the officer noted: “Oh, you’ll get a lot of them.” She said the same when I asked why a low-income student with top grades and scores, and who had served in the Israeli army, was a 3.

Which them? I had wondered. Did she mean I’d see a lot of 4.0 G.P.A.’s, or a lot of applicants whose bigger picture would fail to advance them, or a lot of Jewish and Asian applicants (Berkeley is 43 percent Asian, 11 percent Latino and 3 percent black)?

The idea behind multiple readers is to prevent any single reader from making an outlier decision. And some of the rankings I gave actual applicants were overturned up the reading hierarchy. I received an e-mail from the assistant director suggesting I was not with the program: “You’ve got 15 outlier, which is quite a lot. Mainly you gave 4’s and the final scores were 2’s and 2.5’s.” As I continued reading, I should keep an eye on the “percentile report on the e-viewer” and adjust my rankings accordingly.

In a second e-mail, I was told I needed more 1’s and referrals. A referral is a flag that a student’s grades and scores do not make the cut but the application merits a special read because of “stressors” — socioeconomic disadvantages that admissions offices can use to increase diversity.

Officially, like all readers, I was to exclude minority background from my consideration. I was simply to notice whether the student came from a non-English-speaking household. I was not told what to do with this information — except that it may be a stressor if the personal statement revealed the student was having trouble adjusting to coursework in English. In such a case, I could refer the applicant for a special read.

Why did I hear so many times from the assistant director? I think I got lost in the unspoken directives. Some things can’t be spelled out, but they have to be known. Application readers must simply pick it up by osmosis, so that the process of detecting objective factors of disadvantage becomes tricky.

It’s an extreme version of the American non-conversation about race.

I scoured applications for stressors.

To better understand stressors, I was trained to look for the “helpful” personal statement that elevates a candidate. Here I encountered through-the-looking-glass moments: an inspiring account of achievements may be less “helpful” than a report of the hardships that prevented the student from achieving better grades, test scores and honors.

Should I value consistent excellence or better results at the end of a personal struggle? I applied both, depending on race. An underrepresented minority could be the phoenix, I decided.

We were not to hold a lack of Advanced Placement courses against applicants. Highest attention was to be paid to the unweighted G.P.A., as schools in low-income neighborhoods may not offer A.P. courses, which are given more weight in G.P.A. calculation. Yet readers also want to know if a student has taken challenging courses, and will consider A.P.’s along with key college-prep subjects, known as a-g courses, required by the U.C. system.

Even such objective information was open to interpretation. During training Webinars, we argued over transcripts. I scribbled this exchange in my notes:

A reader ranks an applicant low because she sees an “overcount” in the student’s a-g courses. She thinks the courses were miscounted or perhaps counted higher than they should have been.

Another reader sees an undercount and charges the first reader with “trying to cut this girl down.”

The lead reader corrects: “We’re not here to cut down a student.” We’re here to find factors that advance the student to a higher ranking.

Another reader thinks the student is “good” but we have so many of “these kids.” She doesn’t see any leadership beyond the student’s own projects.

Listening to these conversations, I had to wonder exactly how elite institutions define leadership. I was supposed to find this major criterion holistically in the application. Some students took leadership courses. Most often, it was demonstrated in extracurricular activities.

Surely Berkeley seeks the class president, the organizer of a volunteer effort, the team captain. But there are so many other types of contributions to evaluate. Is the kindergarten aide or soup kitchen volunteer not a leader?

And what about “blue noise,” what the admissions pros called the blank blue screen when there were no activities listed? In my application pile, many students from immigrant households had excellent grades and test scores but few activities. I commented in my notes: “Good student, but not many interests or activities? Why? Busy working parents? And/or not able to afford, or get to, activities?”

IN personal statements, we had been told to read for the “authentic” voice over students whose writing bragged of volunteer trips to exotic places or anything that “smacks of privilege.”

Fortunately, that authentic voice articulated itself abundantly. Many essays lucidly expressed a sense of self and character — no small task in a sea of applicants. Less happily, many betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable, as were canny attempts to catch some sympathy with a personal story of generalized misery. The torrent of woe could make a reader numb: not another student suffering from parents’ divorce, a learning difference, a rare disease, even dandruff!

As I developed the hard eye of a slush pile reader at a popular-fiction agency, I asked my lead readers whether some of these stressors might even be credible. I was told not to second-guess the essays but simply to pick the most worthy candidate. Still, I couldn’t help but ask questions that were not part of my reader job.

The assistant director’s words — look for “evidence a student can succeed at Berkeley” — echoed in my ears when I wanted to give a disadvantaged applicant a leg up in the world. I wanted to help. Surely, if these students got to Berkeley they would be exposed to all sorts of test-taking and studying techniques.

But would they be able to compete with the engineering applicant with the 3.95 G.P.A. and 2300 SATs? Does Berkeley have sufficient support services to bridge gaps and ensure success? Could this student with a story full of stressors and remedial-level writing skills survive in a college writing course?

I wanted every freshman walking through Sather Gate to succeed.

Underrepresented minorities still lag behind: about 92 percent of whites and Asians at Berkeley graduate within six years, compared with 81 percent of Hispanics and 71 percent of blacks. A study of the University of California system shows that 17 percent of underrepresented minority students who express interest in the sciences graduate with a science degree within five years, compared with 31 percent of white students.

When the invitation came to sign up for the next application cycle, I wavered. My job as an application reader — evaluating the potential success of so many hopeful students — had been one of the most serious endeavors of my academic career. But the opaque and secretive nature of the process had made me queasy. Wouldn’t better disclosure of how decisions are made help families better position their children? Does Proposition 209 serve merely to push race underground? Can the playing field of admissions ever be level?

For me, the process presented simply too many moral dilemmas. In the end, I chose not to participate again.

Ruth A. Starkman teaches writing and ethics at Stanford and, from 1992 to 1996, taught writing at the University of California, Berkeley.

Knowing What’s Going To Happen Next: When a Friend Dies

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme,and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.   Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” – Gilda Radner

Left ot right: Maureen, Melissa and Natalie, front row at the Château de Versailles.

Natalie in her light brown curls, signature smile, and beige trench coat, sitting at my left elbow (I’m center, in burgundy). Château de Versailles

I learned this morning that Natalie, whom I’ve known most of my life, and who is only a few years older than I, passed away yesterday at 6:32 p.m.  She had battled the devouring dragon of cancer for a long time. Her death, I have been told, was quiet.

At my desk, blithely culling my decades-deep archives for pictures for yesterday’s post, I was thinking of this woman as her image passed under my eyes. It’s strange and painful but somehow beautiful to think that in the same moment I was posting away, crossing and recrossing my legs, breathing steadily and smiling while studying a friend’s features, that very friend was being released from this life and the diseased body that encased her buoyant spirit.

Someone wrote on Facebook that “her spirit [was now] free as the wind,” and someone else expressed her conviction that Natalie is now surrounded by loving heavenly beings. These are things I believe.

Correction: These are things I know.

I don’t expect anyone else to believe or know them as I do. But given that the header-title up there announces the fact that Melissa Writes of Passage, it makes sense that I stare down the ultimate and common passage, death. I do not know death from the horrifying and perhaps purifying experience of extended suffering that Natalie had, the one that her family and closest friends have ushered her through; I do, however, know some other things from irrefutable, repeated and shared experience that is so intimate, I hesitate to put it in words, written or whispered. Forgive me as I lurch and fumble.

“Life after death” is about two realities: what happens with those of us who survive the death of another, and what happens when we die.  Life in some form follows both events. I’ll talk first about the first, grief, which I know well. I’m still moving toward the second experience, as are we all.

Natalie

Natalie, front and center; ninth from the left, tenth from the right

Surviving another’s death; Living with grief

In this slippery passage of life, we can’t be certain about what’s going to happen next. We can, however, be sure that death will be at the end of all the uncertainty, the final leveler. It will be there, waiting, at whatever will mark the end of your mortality and mine, and of the mortality of every last person we know and love. Death can come in any way, at any moment, and to any one. Let that be a warning. Let that be a reward.

With that backdrop, being in this life might sometimes feel like we’re Mr. Magoo bumbling through an obstacle course built on lava-filled and rapidly shifting plate tectonics while being chased down on all sides by Dementors, Orks and Aliens.  I’ve had those not-so-deliciously ambiguous moments, which sprang not from anticipating my own death, but from outliving my own child.

Gildna Radner, the comedienne, was a performer, as was Natalie, the violinist.  Both women died too young of cancer. For some bereaved, I can imagine their friends’ suffering and deaths feel cruel, brutal, heinous, ironic, senseless.   As the survivor of my son’s tragic death at age eighteen, I know something about the way these feelings of grief can throb and rage inside the rib cage, gnaw at the base of the brain, put dangerous tension on relationships, and how they can singe the corners and core of the heart.

There are other responses, however, which might come over time and from making challenging, deliberate choices. They can lead from raging in the rib cage to enlargement, from gnawing in the mind to illumination, from tension in our ties to welding, from singeing in the heart to singing.

What is the most important ‘”challenging and deliberate” choice we who live might make in order to glean something from death?

I suggest we begin by choosing to look at it. “Let death be daily before your eyes, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything,” wrote Epicetus. A modern spiritual leader expanded on the same thought:

All men know that they must die.  And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence. . . .  It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other.  We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation.  If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything it is for knowledge on this important subject.

Joseph Smith

Until the evil of death is acknowledged for the traumatic event it is, we live, I believe, actively devaluing and rejecting two of our most humanizing qualities; vulnerability and compassion. Minimizing the impact of death also numbs the innate spiritual ability in all of us to refigure our relationships, which I believe continue in spite of separation through death. These continuing ties can greatly enhance our living years. They can guide us.  They can, even, give us greater life. Dr. Kaye Redfield Jamison, clinical psychologist and author, says something similar:

‘Blessings may break from stone,’ wrote George McKay Brown. ‘Who knows how.’ Grief is such a stone. It gives much to the living, slows time that one might find a way to a different relationship with the dead. It fractures time to bring into awareness what is being mourned and why. … ‘Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition,’ wrote Graham Greene.  Grief is at the heart of the human condition.  Much is lost with death, but not everything.  Life is not let loose of lightly, nor is love.  There is grace in death.  There is life.

Kay Redfield JamisonNothing Was The Same,  pp.181,182

Our own death; Living eternally

What I can add to Gilda Radner is that after death, I know something does happen. That is delicious to me. Deliciously unambiguous.

Death as an event is not shrouded in ambiguity. It is straightforward, natural, an advancement, a transformation, a passage. As spiritual entities inhabiting mortal bodies, we are not meant to remain in this decaying state nor on this earth forever.  We are intended for far more magnificent and expansive experiences. As said the French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.

Natalie wearing a flowered peasant blouse and her irreplicable smile.

Natalie in a flowered peasant blouse.

But we cling desperately to this life. It’s only human to do so.  Hundreds of devoted friends fought and campaigned and lobbied the medical and heavenly powers that be for Natalie’s life. There were glorious benefits concerts, generous donations, organized caretakers, trips for retreat, quiet mornings spent just sitting with her, I’ve been told, and the countless communal fasts and desperate prayers, I’m sure. Mine were among them.  We’ve all known how the best in the human spirit can be caught into the warm updraft of the divine, and how entire communities, entire lives, can be altered by a crisis like this. How we will tear, tooth and nail, and shred at heaven’s curtain for a brother or sister’s survival!

Last month, however, Natalie visited my parents.  She’s known them, fellow musicians, since the days captured in these photos from the ’70’s. It was a simple, brief visit in their living room.  Natalie was conserving energy, she said, which explained her hushed voice, her stillness, the palpable calm that spread out in the room like the sound and shade of a sunset.

“We’re redoubling our prayers for you, Natalie,” my Mom said.

“And hoping for another breakthrough and some sort of–”

Natalie cut my Dad off, mid-phrase, with a limp wave of the hand.

“No, no. Please. Don’t pray for healing,” she insisted, her eyes steady.  “I’m prepared now. Pray for my release.”

I have to conclude she told others the same. And released she was.

Natalie didn’t know in July of 2007, when she played prelude music on her violin at our son’s funeral, that cancer cells were already conspiring to assault and destroy her body.  That only six years later, she would join our musician boy in the neighboring realm – “the next room”, as a prophet once called heaven, the vast world of spirits.

What happened next? Graceful, ivory-skinned Natalie stepped into a slow explosion of ultra radiance peopled with “loving heavenly beings,” who from their watchful position, have known and mentored her in life, who have in turn awaited her arrival with shimmering joy and outstretched arms, who have since swept her up,  gathering her into glistening, swirling currents of unbelievable, unearthly music. She is playing as never before.

Natalie in lavender  maid of honor at my sister's wedding.

Natalie in lavender sash, as maid of honor at my sister’s wedding.

DO THE WALK OF LIFE: Thoughts On Mortality While Limping Around Provence

Walking, jogging. I don’t know how I could survive without either of them.  I inherited my highly-mobile gene, I think, from my Dad, who was jogging in the ‘60’s, decades before it was hip to do so.

“Was that to keep you young?” I once asked him.

He lifted a brow. “No. It was to wake me up.”

Dad, snoozing.

Dad, snoozing.

Raised on a dairy farm in Utah, my Dad had gotten used to awakening to the shock of cold water splashed on him either by his father or by any one of his three brothers. Predawn, those men tugged on boots, denims and gloves and loaded into the back of a huge red cattle truck.  If ice water hadn’t gotten them started, a lung-full or two of the stinging smack of fresh manure usually finished the job.

Years later, when Dad was knee-deep in other kinds of. . .well, when he was deep in his Ph.D. studies, he pushed himself out on a jog every morning at dawn to wake himself up for long days of study.  He jogged daily until a few years ago. I think he jogged in the same pair of baggy grey sweats and worn tennis trainers for four decades because this was not about trendiness or beating a personal best or controlling body fat. It was more about waking up and staying intensely awake, which is the way he lives.

Student group, Château de Versailles. (Dad's taking the picture.)

Foreign study group, Château de Versailles. (Dad’s behind the camera.)

Student group, Rome. (Dad's taking the picture again.)

Foreign study group, Rome. (Dad’s again behind the camera.)

When I was a teenager and my parents led a foreign study group to Austria, my Dad out-cruised every last of the 30+ college students. Up mountain faces to European castles. Down winding paths into ancient grottos. He blazed the way, puffs of smoke trailing him like The Road Runner from my childhood cartoons.  Bee-beeeep!

Dad in the '70's, Madrid, Spain.

Dr. David Dalton, my Dad, in the late ’70’s, Madrid, Spain.

Because of that energy, the students gave him the name “Bionic Beine,” (Beine: German for legs), which proudly-worn title makes today’s gradual physical wearing down that much more frustrating. At almost eighty years old, my father’s body is starting to show its many years of good use, and now it’s come down to the hard truth that he needs a hip replacement, and soon.

But until he gets that real bionic Beine (or better, bionic Hüfte, or hip), his mobility is crumbling right along with the head of his right femur. “Avascular necrosis of the femoral head,” the orthopedic surgeon called it.  “But in my language,” my Dad said, “it’s called agonizing.”

First there was the limping.

In Rousillon, France

Dad in his late ’70’s,  Rousillon, France

Then the cane. . .Then the crutch. . .Then two crutches. . .

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Then more and more sitting to rest from constant discomfort . . .

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And then, last week, the shooting, excruciating agony. . .

Hiking up inner walkways of too-photogenic Rousillon, France

Hiking up inner walkways of the too-photogenic Rousillon, France

We’d been marking my parents’ 56th (fixty-whuooaaw-sixth!) wedding anniversary in southern France.  There’s much beauty to photograph in Provence where we took them, and my Dad’s not one to be told he can’t catalogue the whole thing in pictures.  He’s one to sling his Nikon around his neck and climb up that drawbridge, take photos from the other tipsy precipice, run around this turret, slay the dragon, and climb on top of its back, only to get better light for the prefect shot.

Main square, Rousillon

Main square, Rousillon

Door, Roussilon, France.

Door, Roussilon.

Mausanne-des-Alpilles ladies

Mausanne-des-Alpilles ladies

I followed his lead and let him function as he wished. (Sometimes, though, I hijacked the Nikon as surrogate photographer, especially when stairs were involved.)

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But I learned something: folks raised on farms don’t acknowledge pain. That is, maybe, until they are immobilized by it.

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It wasn’t the ambulance that was most disturbing for my Dad. Neither was it the gurney, the wheelchair, the emergency room staff chattering at him in rapid fire French (one language he doesn’t speak).  Nor was it the crews wheeling him in and out of laboratories for hours on end taking imaging and tests. It wasn’t the morphine drip, nor the long needles to draw fluid from his joints, nor the news that he not only has a deteriorating joint, but that he also has ancillary symptoms that manifest like acute gout.  He didn’t seem to be bothered by the news that for as far as he can see, he’d be in pain that cannot be eliminated, only muffled.

It wasn’t all that. What was disturbing – and I saw this in his eyes – was that this body, the one he’d taken such good care of all these years, was betraying him. He was trapped. Inside himself. And there was nothing he could do about it.  Laid flat out and unable – regardless of intelligence, training, charm, will, wit, or all those accumulated years of hard farm labor and morning jogs – unable and incapable of demanding his body’s cooperation.  Dad was scared.

Bionic? Ironic.

The guy who was hip enough to jog in the early ‘60’s, now hobbling on a disintegrating hip?

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We’ve brought him home to our Swiss village, where, thanks to medication, he can try one daily stroll with my mother at his side. Here, there are red velvet flowers hanging in the window boxes and healthy brown-splotched cows grazing in a neighbor’s plot of green.  The people with Nordic walking poles come tramp-tramp-tramping past our home every day, walking (some of them) the last kilometer or two of three non-stop months of cross-country trekking.  Some, on the other hand, are loaded with giant back packs, heading down to the Santiago de Compastela. That walk ends in Spain.

My Dad sees them with their jaunty gaits, nifty titanium sticks, and hip joints probably polished to a slick ivory sheen.  He remembers when he headed a pack like that, unfazed.  And he can think, as I do a lot lately, about this one recent set back, which will be followed, we trust, by many colorful, photographable passages yet to come, starting with that hip replacement in a few weeks.  Then rehabilitation.  Then learning to walk all over again. All of which is part of simply moving onward, as every one of us must, through this mortality.

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What’s Our Destiny? Thoughts on Epigenetics While Bumming Around Provence

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Driving the plane tree-canopied Roman roads of southern France with my parents last week, I noticed in my peripheral vision that my mom, sitting next to me in the back seat, was gripping the door handle.

Why the grip? I thought. She’s buckled in, there’s no one else on this road, Randall’s a safe driver, and we’re cruising this long, straight line. 

Mid-thought, I realized I was gripping my door handle, too. Exactly like her.

I also saw my mom was chewing gum. (I dislike gum-chewing.)

And mid-thought, I realized I was mid-chawnk.

She’s so animated, I’d been noticing all week, and look at her whip up a conversation with any stranger. Like me, my kids say.  And just like the way she used to call for us – operatically, throughout our little Utah neighborhood –– “Oh, Daaaaaltons! Come to diiiinner!” –– she sings my son’s name to get his attention: “Oh, Dalton! Come to dinner!”

Just. Like. Me.

Then I looked at my Dad, sitting in front of me in that car. Strong brow, concave temples, intense eyes, I thought.  And what’s this man got against sleep?

An instant, and in the rear view mirror I caught my own eyes staring back at me: riveted. Emphasized by those sunken temples. Underslept. My Dad’s mesmerizing green-blue-gray bloodshot.

In Rousillon, France

In Rousillon, France

I used to draw caricatures, and when I was a teenager, I did one as an anniversary gift to my parents.  It featured me as a hybrid of my Mom and Dad: Dad’s brow, Mom’s chin, Dad’s eyes, Mom’s hair, Dad’s fast gait, Mom’s theatrical voice, Dad’s cold fingers, Mom’s wide feet.

I looked like Quasimodo in drag.

What I couldn’t draw as a teenager is what fascinates me more today. There are all these parental qualities I mirror, the ones no one can see or hear or measure in a caricature: My strong inclinations toward the spiritual. My voracious curiosity.  My sometimes flamboyance, my former brooding. My perfectionism. My anxiety.  My sweet and salty composite self that, in ways still being revealed to me, are reflections of not only my beloved parents, but my parents’ parents, and their parents’ parents. And theirs. And theirs. Farther back that I can comprehend.

I am them all.

in Yvoire, France. Dad and his camera.

In Yvoire, France. Dad and his camera.

. . .And his camera. . .

. . .and his camera. . .

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France.  Daughter, Dad, camera.

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France. Daughter, Dad, camera.

Maison Carrée. Daughter, Dad's camera.

Maison Carrée. Daughter, Dad’s camera.

When pregnant with our eldest, Parker, I had an ultrasound.  I forgot completely to check for the tell-tale plumbing showing gender, because what gripped me most – what flipped me out! – was this little thing that had to do with our baby’s hand.  The technician didn’t understand why I gasped, squealed, then grew teary: There in a swimmy, uterine vision, was that small, 5-month-old left hand, fisted (could this be true?) with the thumb tucked between the pointer and middle finger.

Just like his father.

(Next time you sit next  to Randall during a long meeting or airplane ride, take a look at his thumbed fist.)

Out walking. No one can outwalk us.

Out walking. No one can out-walk us.

. . .even on crutches. . .

. . .even on crutches. . .

“A woman is her mother/That’s the main thing,” wrote poet Anne Sexton.

A woman is her father, too.  And a man is his mother, and his father, a baby his daddy.  And we are our grandfathers, our grandmothers. We are all composites of someone, most often someone totally unknown to us, whose eyes, voice, gait or grip (on a car handle or on a thumb) we have inherited.

The question is, how?

Scientists in the field of genetics used to insist that a double helix was the essential tree of life, that DNA was destiny, and although a pretty twisted ladder, it was an unyielding one that linked generations to each other. That stance says that we are inextricably and irrefutably the result of our bundle of wiring, however prickly or sleek that might be making you feel right about now.

While that camp was nailing down that truth, anthropologists were telling us something else; that zip code, not genetic code, was our true destiny. That geography, (meant broadly or specifically), determines who you and I will become.  We can escape (or overrule) our genetic print-out by changing our environment.  Drug lords and sociopaths and saints and poets aren’t bred, they’re cultivated, and that cultivation implies culture. Tweak culture (through revolutions, political uprisings, schooling campaigns, a move to the burbs) and you’re tweaking generations of humanity. If nothing else, one can at least lean that DNA ladder on a different wall.

Behavioralists piped in. They argued that nurture, not nature and not society at large, determined the composite person. I grip the car door handle or sing my children home, not because I am neurologically wired to do so, and not because I sprang from a western culture where cars and singing are a norm, but because I was nurtured by a mother who holds tight and sings well. Caring contact, say the behavioralists, (like regular physical caressing and cooing during infancy – or the opposite, isolation and other forms of brutality) will “make” a certain person. They went further to say that enough caressing can greatly soften, even straighten, a dangerously kinked-up double helix.

You’re way ahead of me in this already, and you’re thinking, no, neither DNA, environment nor nurture have made you who you are. You have a will. And this cast iron will of yours has made you into the intelligent, compassionate, resourceful survivor you feel you are today. You are the czar of your destiny. You have overcome. You’ve mastered your genetically inherited temper, waistline, anxieties and ingrown toenails. You’ve risen from the rot of the projects, or you’ve not let the excessive wealth in which you were raised rot out your core. You’ve shaped a life around trust, love and service, although you were abused, neglected and abandoned. With such a will, you know you’ll overcome the rest.

Whatever you believe with regards to how we become who we are – DNA, geography, nurture, human will – there’s something new to consider. Its implications are huge. I talked my husband’s ear off while we jogged and walked the dusty paths of Provence last week, an apricot sunrise oozing over the silver-sage shimmer of olive trees. Here’s the thing:

All those notions are right, partially.  Our genetic imprint is central to, but not exclusively responsible for, who we are.  DNA is not rigid.  It is smudgy. It morphs. DNA is a pliable genome, a wobbly ladder. How does it change?  Through social processes. That includes our zip code, our relationships, and our choices.

The study of epigenetics (the interplay of biological and social processes on our genes) suggests convincingly that both our immediate and intimate environments as well as our will (choices) can override our genetic code, or at least change that code markedly.  Like you, maybe, I wasn’t surprised to learn this, since I’ve seen it in myself and in others. Change is possible, even change on the deepest cellular levels, the change and evolution of one’s nature. It’s just nice to find scientific research to validate my personal convictions.

“People used to think that once your epigenetic code was laid down in early development, that was it for life,” says Moshe Szyf, of McGill University in Montreal. “But life is changing all the time, and the epigenetic code that controls your DNA is turning out to be the mechanism through which we change along with it. Epigenetics tells us that little things in life can have an effect of great magnitude.”

What does this mean? This means we don’t only have some control over our genetic legacy, but we carry a great deal of responsibility.  As one researcher notes:

“Epigenetics is proving we have some responsibility for the integrity of our genome. . .Before, genes predetermined outcomes. Now everything we do—everything we eat or smoke—can affect our gene expression and that of future generations. Epigenetics introduces the concept of free will into our idea of genetics.”

With Mom, Sénanque abby.

With Mom, Sénanque abby. No, she and I did not plan our matchy-matchy outifts.

So! . . .

Sooooo . . . Where did I arrive at the end of this long Provençal walk?  And what conclusions can we draw from studies of DNA, nature, nurture and epigenetics?

First, it’s all fascinating, and second, I’m not done discussing it here on the blog.

Lastly, for me it is, as are all things, understood best in its personal application, which is where I’ll end today:

I love my parents.  How can I even begin to express the ferocity, the devouring and sweet knee-buckling tenderness I have for them? I love them. Even if for the cynic this means, maybe, I’m merely loving myself as their genetic reflection.

(What. Ever.)

In all reverence and daughterly clumsiness, I thank my parents, married 56 years this month, for being who they are, for finding one another all those years ago, for remaining together and devoted to us children (and our children, and their children to come) all these long years.

I honor them – and the whole spiraling ladder of their parents before them – for watching carefully not only what they did or didn’t smoke and eat, but what they imbibed and ingested symbolically.  The woman I am is, to a great extent, their human and spiritual epigenetic imprint, indebted eternally to them. They’ve kept a tight grip and held an intense (though sometimes bloodshot) eye on the road, as we’ve cruised this good life together.

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Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad.

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How are you a hybrid of your parents? Grandparents? Culture(s)? Teachers? Mentors?

What other factors influence your nature/spirit/humanity?

Leave a note for your parents here, and copy them on this post!