Posted by: Nancy | November 28, 2014

Experience: Nothing is Wasted

penelopeI came across a quote that helps place life events in perspective: “Experiences aren’t given to us to be ‘got over,’ otherwise they would hardly be experiences.”

It’s from the new biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, by Hermione Lee. She’s talking about the value of painful experiences. It’s a message to take to heart.

You could choose to put painful experiences out of mind quickly. It can be a kind of coping mechanism to push aside pain,  to set the memory out in the weather so rain and wind over time will erode the sharp edges of the experience.

Or you could turn that painful experience into an obsession, holding it tightly at the forefront of all thoughts; turn it over and over, endlessly examining the experience and relivingIMG_1232 the anguish.

In an interview, Hermione Lee shares that she likes to use a motto from biographer and novelist Victoria Glendenning: “Nothing is wasted.”

Lee says: “It’s a very reassuring and consoling idea, even if it isn’t always true. Think of those terrible phases in your life when you’re just grinding along, or you’re missing your way, or everything seems arid and disappointing. It helps if you can say to yourself, ‘But something will come out of this.'”

Penelope is right — it’s what you do with the experience that matters. It’s better to embrace an experience, to explore it fully, and understand it.  You don’t get over it, you use it. You find the balance to own the experience, accept vulnerability or failure or betrayal, recognize loss, hold fast to your moral core, find sustenance there. You may not lessen the loss (all pain is loss) but you can save it and use it as a lesson for future acts.

Posted by: Nancy | May 5, 2013


bleeding heart

I’ve been struggling to understand how to reconcile two alternate human traits — how we can be so fragile and yet so resilient.

It is so little to be missed. Just a breath, really, and then the delicate, insubstantial wisp of life is gone. Utterly gone.

It may be that we are always in the presence of death. It may be that some see and feel it more closely than others; sometimes we may not notice it all until it is within our immediate circle. We forget about it until we cannot ignore it.

I have mourned the loss of many friends recently. I have been surprised and saddened; I have cried for the gaping loss and emptiness. I have cried for my own loss and for the loss of others who loved the dead and now go on alone.

And yet… elsewhere, expecting to see death, I am surprised by the display of enormous willpower and unknown strength. The tenacity of living.

In the midst of frailty, in the feeling of being breakable and insubstantial, there can appear a vast power of living.

How strong we are.

How fragile we are.

This week, in my garden, I found my early spring bleeding heart plant bowed with snow. It had been a freakish snowstorm, and now it looked so sad I turned away, not wanting to dwell with the image. The next morning, the snow had dropped away and the pale crimson blossom stood out brightly, still full and healthy.

Today it was bobbing and bouncing  in the breeze , and I imagined it stretching gently, equally happy to greet the rain as the sun.

Posted by: Nancy | February 25, 2013

The most important thing

I’m not sure I can explain that title.

It came to me as I was thinking about a funeral, or really, a wake that we attended this weekend.

It was for a good friend, and it was almost too much to think about that he would no longer be there. I was sad for my own loss, but I was heartbroken thinking about his family, especially his wonderful wife who adored him.

I was thinking about how sudden it was. I mean, we had just been planning dinner. I still had his last email in my inbox — waiting for a response.

I was thinking about why it shook me: no more email, no chatter, no jokes, no goofy videos. (One of my favorites was Jay Leno interviewing the woman who performed CPR on a chicken. It lived.)

I would miss his droll wit, his absolutely perfect use of expletives –timed and punctuated for maximum effect (usually hilarity, although sometimes used in admiration). I would miss his laughter. He loved to laugh.

I already miss his support. He would make me feel like I had the world in my grasp. And I would believe him, too, because he was that kind of guy. I felt loved; he was that generous, so generous I now believe everyone who knew him felt that.

So at the wake, we all laughed until we cried. We laughed at his old jokes, his long stories, his vast interests in even the most obscure things (Laser egg art?) and his belief that he was surrounded by the most interesting people in the world.

And in those few moments, we were. He had, once again, transformed us all.

Posted by: Nancy | December 26, 2012

Have a little fun every day

Harry&Betty001I learned that message from a dear sweet man, on the occasion of his 75th wedding anniversary.

Harry and Betty were dressed to the nines, he in a navy suit with a bright red tie and she in an equally bright red dress. The family, three generations worth, were gathered to celebrate their wonderful marriage. The evening was focused on dinner, but the real treat was the storytelling.

The evening started with a serenade by a flock of young men from the same fraternity that Harry had attended 75 years earlier on the same campus. The boys dutifully came into the room and sang their fraternity and college songs — a lovely gesture, even if some looked like they couldn’t wait to fulfill this obligation and get on to the bars. The measured nonchalance all melted away when Harry stood to meet and talk and shake hands with every one of the young men. We were close enough to hear him thank each man, and then with a wink and extra handshake, give each his trademark advice: “Try to have a little fun every day.”

That motto came up several times during the many stories about Harry and Betty — as a Marine Corps drill instructor visiting a favored young cousin who was unhappily strugging in boot camp, to graduating kids, to young couples on the occasion of their wedding. It was a philosophy that served him well as his family reflected on a lifetime of many, many laughs. There were stories of legendary root beer floats, kids’ memories of childhood stories, the bequeathing of a favored couch to a grand-daughter. (Harry to grand-daughter as the couch leaves his house for hers: “I hope you have as much fun with it as we did!”)

The “Try to have a little fun every day” philosophy isn’t hedonistic as Harry applied it; this was an act of service to others and a reminder not to take yourself too seriously. Bringing a smile, a laugh, to another is a noble act and a kindness. It is the sign of a welcoming heart, it is a gesture of sharing, a recognition of common humanity and emotion.

I can still hear Harry saying it: Try to have a little fun everyday.

I will.

Posted by: Nancy | November 4, 2012


I’ve been lurking lately.  Silent, but not absent.

This summer, I met a lovely woman. She was smart, open and vibrant, with a welcoming manner that invited and encouraged more interaction. She was curious about others, observant and thoughtful. She was recently married, and was exuberently in love and delighting in the intoxicating feeling of knowing that you are deeply loved. She was beautiful, vibrant, happy.

I knew she’d had health problems and she became ill again not long after our first meeting. I was hoping for good news, as I wanted to see her again and get to know her better. I was away, on a business trip, when I saw an email noting the news of her death.

I was shocked and saddened, surprised by the suddenness and finality. I felt cheated, I was angry at my loss — I wanted her as a friend. Then I felt sadness for her husband, her beloved. I haven’t been able to shake the sense of loss. Instead, it flows in like an unexpected tide, at small instances. Gone too soon.

* * *

I was in Colorado recently and over the course of three days, I saw the beautiful aspen leaves in the trees on the mountainside progressively turn from green to yellow. I saw them shimmy in the breeze. They remind me of laughter.

I also saw the mist awakening, slowly rising in the morning in the mountains. It’s one of my favorite sights, when the clouds come to visit us close to ground offering a taste of sky, a message of solace.

On the last day, we were treated to a glistening coat of snow on the mountain tops.

* * *

On another trip, also in Colorado, I am leaving the car rental lot at the airport, and approaching the security gate, I see two little wild bunnies. It’s all concrete, as far as the eye can see from there, and yet, these two little warm creatures scamper to hide behind a curb. They’re incongrous, but appear to be quite accustomed to this asphalt environment. I pull up as gently as I can.

I hand the paperwork to the man at the security gate and tell him about the bunnies I just saw. He looks a little surprised, but grins. “I feed them raisin bran,” he said, as if confessing a sin. He goes on to tell me more about them; one is quite young and the other quite brave. They watch for him, and he feeds them. They’re not pets, but they are companions.

Thank you for taking care of them, I say as I drive away.

* * *

The suddeness of the loss of my would-be friend gave rise to thinking about other losses — the ones that slip away a little at a time, like dreams fading. We were driving across Oklahoma in the very late hours of the night, close to dawn. The stars were brilliant, like I haven’t seen in ages. Then, all at once, one of them raced across the sky. A shooting star.

As dawn began to appear, I could see the frost on the ground, and later, mist rising from the low lying areas. Such a combination — ice and dew and fog.

I think of my sister, who used to love to sing in the car. And then she stopped. It’s still her; she’s still the same — but just a little less. Does she miss singing? Or would it feel foreign to her now? Maybe it was just the shooting star portion of her life. What else will be gone when I see her next? At least I got to see the shooting star.


Posted by: Nancy | July 22, 2012

City of Wonder

New York City.

Gritty. Dazzling. Crowded. A little shabby or forlorn in places, a bit unreal in others. Oh, but it’s wonderful. Two minor vignettes from a recent trip:

Friday night

After four days in NYC, I feel like I’ve caught the rhythm of the place. I’ve visited many of my favorite haunts already, so what to do?

We were sitting in the lovely lounge at the Yale Club, enjoying after-work drinks, when I spotted a discarded New York Times near our table. Odd that it hadn’t been picked up, but there it was and so I read: Forró Tonight!

The article “A Two-Step Invasion of Brazilian Energy” gave enough description of the forró phenomenon to intrigue us.  So apparently this music and dance craze is sweeping the hot clubs in NYC, but what appealed to me was the description of it as the “music of maids and taxi drivers.” I can relate!

Best of all, a big show tonight. So off we go to Lincoln Center, to “Mestres Do Forró Nordestino: Tribute to Luiz Gonzaga” at Damrosch Park. It turns out that the show is a tribute to Luiz Gonzaga on the centennial of his birth.

The music is a cross between samba and Cajun, a saucy, can’t-stand-still kind of music. And since it’s Brazilian, it’s more sensual and sexier than you can imagine any accordian-fiddle-drum-triangle combo can be. Forró is danced in pairs, sometimes close and tight, sometimes wild and loose. Always joyous.

Gonzaga is the grandfather of  Forró, and all the musicians seemed quite proud to be paying tribute to him and introducing his music to New York City on a hot summer night. We saw Walmir Silva, who reminded us of some of our old-boy rugby friends, and also, the extraordinary Quarteto Olinda in their first New York City appearance. Hope you’ll take a listen (here for Quartero Olina or find other forró from your favorite music site).

We join the throngs of joyous dancers under the stars. We leave, sweaty, and happy with a new beat in this grand city.

Saturday night

We’re leaving McSorley’s in the Village (a special place, see previous posts about McSorley’s 1, 2, and 3). We hail a cab and greeted by a young man with a handsome, round face, and a big toothy grin.

“Hello!” He greets us like old friends, completely open. “Where do you want to go?”

Grand Central Station, we say. “OK, OK,” he says, still beaming. “Where is that?”

Wha? We’re laughing now. What? You’ve never been to Grand Central Station?

“No,” he says. “You see, this is my first day on the job. I am new at this.” His English is good, but halting — he is from somewhere else. And the big smile again. “Do you know how to get there?”

I tell him, and I’d like to believe he learns at least a couple of the major thoroughfares on the way. He gets us there safely, and we give him a healthy tip and wish him luck in his new job. I can still see his face smiling back at us; he’s positive that all will be well.

I worry about him later, but then I think of his smile and his attitude.

He will do fine.

Posted by: Nancy | May 28, 2012

The Wilderness in my Backyard

I spend as much time outdoors as I can. It’s been such a gorgeous springtime, I’ve had lots of excuses to be out — planting, weeding, rearranging, cleaning up, etc.

The other day, I was in the backyard, working at my planting bench.  A rabble of butterflies — five or six — came along, swirling and twirling around me. Then suddenly, they stopped and lit on me.

I stopped, too. No movement at all, just breathing in this moment, when I was …chosen… by four or so butterflies. They rested a bit, walking some, an occasional slow open and close of the wings. It lasted only a couple of minutes, and then on cue, they all rose twirling away.

They left me feeling privileged and happy, belonging in the moment.


A few days later, just at nightfall. We are sitting outside with a glass of wine, reviewing the day and waiting for the moon to rise.

A neighborhood cat breaks the quiet with an athletic leap to the top of our six-foot wooden fence. She is alarmed, fur turned to bristles, and she is watching something intently.

We are silent watching the drama unfold. A red fox slips into the yard; this was the cause for the cat’s alarm. The fox makes a quick and effective reconnaissance of the yard, coming within a few feet of us, then quietly lopes out the same way.

Meanwhile the cat has used the opportunity to sneak away from the fox. The moon rises without incident.


One bright morning, three mallards came to visit our pool. There were two males and a female, caught up in some kind of tangled relationship. The two boys appeared to be rivals, occasionally swaggering toward each other, sometimes honking. She sat above the fray, literally, on top of a brick wall.

The males took turns swimming, and at one point the female also decided the pool looked inviting.

Then all at once, the three arose in a bustle and were airborne, all in a pack. And gone.


Another night, another glass of wine, sitting outside with my love. This time, we are sitting at a small bistro table, near a small garden. The oriental lily is massive and fragrant, right at eye level.We are positioned to catch the last bit of sunlight.

The sun sets, and dusk takes hold. Soon, our bats are swirling and diving, performing pretend dive bombs all around us, always pulling up at the last second. We marvel.

But then something is too close. Right in front of me, now beside me. I freeze and feel chills race up my spine. I’m afraid this bat is entirely too close.

But then, I see it at the lily. It’s not a bat at all, it’s a hummingbird, dropping by for dinner at the lavish pink lily. Less than two feet from my face.

I think I can hear the soft whoosh of its wings, but I might be imagining it. The tiny wings are moving so fast that they look out of focus, fuzzy in the waning light. Again, a tiny bit of nature pays a visit and leaves full of wonder, feeling lucky and enriched for our experience.

Tiny things.

All around us.


So glad to share the world with them.

(A tribute to Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, and charming butterflies everywhere.)

Posted by: Nancy | May 12, 2012

Exquisite Moment No. 2

A couple of weeks ago I met an elderly man who lives alone in the wilds of Arkansas. He seemed lonely to me, living alone in a home made for two.

He obviously missed his wife, now dead many years.The house remained a shrine to her; her rooms and objects untouched and unmoved.

He was retired, and appeared to spend his days in front of the television and computer. The stock ticker raced across the screen, interviewers talked incessantly about the days gains and losses. He managed his investments with a broker or adviser — the source of some company — and he kept his affairs in order with a lawyer, another source of some companionship. His final contact was a housekeeper, a closer relationship but still lacking.

Until the peacocks came.

He was transfixed telling about the peacocks. He was sitting on the front porch, watching the day. The neighbor’s old dog was nearby, sleeping in the yard, certainly. Then they appeared.

They were three. And they were magnificent. They presented themselves to him and elegantly, set about adopting him. He couldn’t move that first time, he just sat motionless in his chair as they came — one to an empty pedestal planter on his right, one to the symmetrical planter on his left. The third strutted around the lawn.

He was hypnotized, enchanted by these mysterious creatures. They stayed.

They found their way into the back yard, where he could watch them from his breakfast nook and television room and library. He bought giant bags of scratch feed for them and they rewarded him with their attention.

Unlike many peacocks, these did not scream at him. I believe they rescued him.

His imagination was wild. “Where did they escape from?” he wondered; “Who could bear to just release them? Why are they here? Will they stay?”

Familiar questions, no? They are the same questions — more or less — that intrigue most of us at one point or another.

For my friend in Arkansas, I hope they stay. They bring him happiness, they give him a new story. It’s just what he needed.

A bright flash of color, a show of life, in a hidden corner of the world.

Now he wonders, “What shall I call you?”

Posted by: Nancy | April 29, 2012

Exquisite moments

I’ve wanted to hear Donald Johansen for  a long time, so I was excited when the world-renowned anthropologist came to Kansas City last week to speak at the Linda Hall Library (one of my favorite spots in town, see previous post on Darwin).

He did not disappoint — he was humble and appreciative, and utterly captivated the sellout crowd from his first moments at the podium.

There was never any doubt of his expertise — his talk was peppered with the kinds of detail that require many speakers to check their notes, but he showed mastery and depth of knowledge, the sign of an inquisitive mind. He comfortably explained the mass spectrometry of argon dating, genomic records, the importance of fossilized pollen, how to perform skeletal comparisons.

But what made his talk stand out was his storytelling. He took us with him, back to that November day in 1974, along the wash in Hadar, Ethiopia.

He shows a photo of the landscape. He describes walking and turning his head, and his gaze settled on what he knew, immediately, was a humanoid elbow fragment.

My mind was in the right place,” he said. “I had the right sense of discovery. I knew my life would change at that moment.

His gaze extended, and he quickly spotted the other fragments that would make up the remains of “Lucy,” a 3.2 million year old humanoid ancestor, possibly the most famous fossil in the world.

A side note: We’re very lucky that the informal naming stuck — Lucy, by virtue of that simple and accessible name, became an individual to us. We began to be able to imagine her, specifically her, in a way that became familiar and understandable.

Johansen was right; his life changed in that moment.

His pursuit of knowledge, his quest to understand where we came from and what our existence means, became a deep responsibility. His search is for more than bones; he seeks out what makes us human.

He said he later realized that had he turned the other direction, had he not been prepared to see, he may never have had that moment.


Posted by: Nancy | April 8, 2012

A New Yorker moment in KC

Scene: Family room and kitchen at Mike and Karen’s house, about 20 people, chatting, eating and drinking.

A jazz combo is set up in one corner of the room — piano, drums, cello, two saxophones.

The musicians are young men, students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Music Conservatory. They are in the Jazz Program, led by Bobby Watson.

It’s a lovely time just being with friends; an evening made sweeter by a reunion with friends from 15 years past. We are eager to catch up and happily revisit old memories and restart old conversations.

Then the band starts.  In my memory of the night, everything else stops.

These young men are playing with a sophistication and touch beyond their years. It’s incongruous; baby-faced young men (no disrespect!) playing with joy, elan, and wisdom. It’s like they know a secret that the rest of us are searching for.

The drummer has blonde hair, tightly cropped. He’s slender and angular, and graceful. And when he plays, he is exuberant. Every note shows on him, in his eyes, his grin. He plays with an intensity, mindful of his part in the ensemble — at times caressing the cymbals, at times a dervish of motion. But the endearing trait is how much fun he’s having, the exuberance of his play.

I looked around the room at the rest of the crowd. All were transfixed, or transported, by the music and promise of these young men. We felt lucky to be there, to be a part of it.

The fact that it was happening here in Kansas City, just a few streets from our home, made it even better. We’d expect this in New York or maybe Chicago. It reminded me that magic is not tied to places, but hearts.


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