For the last couple months, I’ve been working on a writing project with my friend, Lisa, that involves perusing our old journals and reading old letters we wrote to each other.
Lisa and I started writing to each other after we spent a summer working together on Capitol Hill in 1979. And, surprisingly, we both kept most of those letters.
We’re not sure why we stopped writing letters except that the letters seemed to slow after the advent of email.
As we have shared portions of our letters with each other, we have laughed, rolled our eyes, blushed, and marveled at who we were and what we shared with each other.
In some ways, these journals and letters feel too personal and a little incriminating. They run the gamut from the silly and emotional to the cerebral and the eerily prophetic. And, it’s all there — the very real facts about who we were and what was happening in our lives.
They do not capture the glossy, social media versions of our lives, but the real stuff in our hearts and heads — everything from religion and politics to dating, marriage, family problems and everything in between.
Tucked in one of my old journals was an article I saved on letter writing from a 1981 Time magazine by Roger Rosenblatt.
“”Why write letters?” he asked. “To create at least a few moments in life where thought and deed are amaranthine, and will not be fudged or withdrawn like spoken language with ‘I said no such thing’ or ‘I didn’t mean it that way.’ You meant it all right. And that way. “
I had to look up the word amaranthine.
It means immortal, unfading, of undying quality. And yes, those old letters of ours are amaranthine, definitely immortal. They’ve boomeranged back to remind us of exactly who we were in our 20s and 30s.
They are proof that — yeah, we meant what we said and we meant it that way.
I have wondered and asked Lisa and my family about whether I should blot out some parts of my journals or tear out a few sections.
Annie said, “Then we will wonder what secrets you didn’t want us to know.”
There aren’t really any secrets — just my life so crystal clear, and me, so flawed, human, and real.
In a world full of posed selfies, perfectionist bloggers, and carefully crafted optics, these journals and letters make me feel unusually vulnerable. They aren’t the pretty version of my life that capture some smooth, buttery arc, they are my unedited life with all my disappointments, angst, worry, analysis, second-guessing, complaining, and wonderings; and also joy — lots of pure fun, learning, new experiences, and just plain joy.
In the end, for now, I’m keeping all of it. My poor daughters will have to decide what to do with the volumes of journals and the stacks of letters. But, one thing is sure: they will know the real me for good or bad.
If you’ve kept old letters or journals, take some time to dig them out and read them.
It will introduce you to your old self, but it will also remind you of your old life and the many wonderful people who were part of it. You will be reminded of your worries and fears, but if you keep reading, you’ll see things usually got better. Things generally worked out.
I believe the words of one of my favorite writers, Joan Didion, who said, “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not…We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
Yes, there is no going back and rewriting or reshaping all those old letters and journals to make me appear to be someone better, smarter, wiser or more mature. But there is great value in being on nodding terms with the person I used to be.
It’s helped me remember things I thought I’d never forget and reminded me of who I was. When we remember who we were, how we felt, what we thought and believed, we can be reminded of who we are now and who we’ve become.
I’ve been texting my brother this morning about some Christmas returns that we need to make.
Then I told him I have a new computer and wondered if he wanted my old one.
“Yes!” he texted, “if mom doesn’t give it away first like she did the last computer you gave me.”
I forgot about that.
I gave him a computer a few years ago and mom saw it in her house and gave it away to someone else.
She’s been known to give away some pretty big things.
Several years ago, she really wanted a dog.
My aunt and uncle had a shitzu that she adored. She decided she had to have one. “They’re such cute little things,” she said. So she asked my aunt and uncle if she could have one of their puppies next time their dog had a litter.
She was so excited about getting one of those cute little puppies. She waited for it to be born, debated names for it, and counted down the days until she could welcome the furry little pup into her home.
When the day finally arrived, she quickly developed pet buyer’s remorse. It was too much work, needed potty training, and so much attention.
She didn’t have the patience to for it, so she abruptly gave it away.
My sister’s friend wanted a dog so that was the perfect solution. She packed up the dog and all its belongings and off she went to hand it off to someone else.
“I’ve never been so relieved in my life, ” she said, “I can’t have a pet. They are too much work and a pain in the neck. Remind me next time I say I want a pet that I really don’t.”
A cat showed up at her house a couple years later and took up residence there. She tried not to feed it and make it feel at home so that it would return to its owner, but it never left.
So, she started to feed it and care for it and finally decided to adopt it.
“Mom, remember you don’t want a pet. You asked me to remind you that you can’t have pets. They are too much work.”
“I know but this cat is different. It’s here all the time anyway. I might as well take care of it.”
Then, one day she got tired of it.
In fact, I had proof of her pet meltdown on my voice recorder.
She didn’t realize she was still being recorded after she left me the message to call her back, so I heard quite a rant about her “damn cat.”
“Oh, you little beast,” she screamed. “Stop wrapping yourself around my ankles every time I turn around. Oh, stop it! You’re driving me crazy! I can’t go anywhere without you following me and thinking you can just wrap your furry little self around me every five minutes!”
Knowing her track record with pets, I knew the cat was on its way out.
When I called her back, she said, “I couldn’t stand that cat for one more minute. So, last night I called Becky (my pet-loving cousin) and told her I was bringing it over to her house. It was late, and I was in my nightgown but I couldn’t even wait until morning. I just scooped up that little beast and drove it over to Becky’s and said, ‘here! It’s yours now.”
“I’ve never been so relieved in my life,” she said.
(Except when you gave away the dog, I thought, but did not say.)
A few weeks later, mom’s neighbor came over to her house and said, “I haven’t seen my cat for a few weeks. She used to hang around here a lot. Have you seen her?”
Yes, she gave away the neighbor’s cat.
We have devised a plan for the computer. I will label it with my brother’s name and he will not leave it anywhere in her house where she can see it because you never know what she’ll decide to give away.
It’s Christmas and the last thing anyone wants at Christmas time is a sad farewell to a friend.
On the other hand, when the hallmark of that friend’s life was a deep love of Jesus Christ, the very reason for Christmas, there is something sacred about her leaving this life at at this beautiful, celebratory season.
Dana Sue Kimball Israelsen died last Sunday at age 59 of lung cancer.
She never smoked a day in her life and was never overly exposed to secondhand smoke. Yet, two years ago, she was surprised by a lung cancer diagnosis. She miraculously beat it the first time, but it quickly returned “with a vengeance,” to use her words.
Her optimism in the face of a stage IV diagnosis was remarkable. She was sure she would survive it, but unexpectedly, after many chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she passed away last Sunday.
I knew Dana Sue when she lived in Washington, D.C. and we both worked on Capitol Hill, and then in the Reagan Administration in federal government jobs.
When I moved back to Utah, we lived only a couple miles from each other. And, when I heard about her cancer diagnosis, I reached out to her — knowing personally about the bewildering world of both the diagnosis and the treatment.
She had many questions, primarily about chemotherapy — what would it be like, how would she feel, what would her quality of life be like, tips for getting through it, etc. I wished I had better, more comforting answers for all her questions.
She went to her first chemo treatment armed with her usual sense of humor and threw a party for all the patients in the room with her.
As she explained the effects of the treatments — pain, uncontrollable night sweats, extreme hormone fluctuations, incredible anxiety, and more pain — I related to them all and sympathized with her. She joked that each session was like entering a torture chamber. I agreed and suggested she just count them down, rejoicing in each one being behind her.
I believed, like she did, that she would get better, bounce back, put cancer behind her, but in the end, it took her life.
She only had two requests for her funeral — 1) that it be short, and 2) that it be a celebration of her life. Her friends and family delivered on both requests, celebrating her life with one uplifting or hilarious story after another.
A friend told how Dana Sue once worked for Robert Redford and how her employment ended after she accidentally locked him in his barn.
A daughter told a story about when she was recovering from surgery and her mother went to retrieve her a pain pill. While walking down the stairs with a glass of water in one hand and her daughter’s post-surgery pain pill in the other, she stopped midway and forgot what she was doing and where she was headed with the pill, so, she popped it in her own mouth, assuming it must have been for her.
In this funeral, there was laughing, celebrating, and crying both tears of joy and sadness.
Dana’s best friend, Marianne, summarized her life by saying the one word that describes her life is “impact.”
“Her life has been a series of impacts, large and small. She has not been one to sit on the sideline and watch. She has been the one right in the middle, thinking outside the box, problem-solving, making things better.”
The most notable comment made in her funeral by every speaker was that she lived a life devoted to Jesus Christ — always wanting to be found doing his will, his work.
Marianne said that while Dana Sue’s life looked charmed and perfect, it was far from it. She suffered just like everyone else, but as she searched for answers, she learned she could truly count on the Heavens.
“She went to work. She did all she could to work out her challenges, but when she had done all she could, she turned to her Savior. That is where the tutoring began. That is when the time that she and her Savior spent together became her refuge, her safe spot, her resting place….She began to see glimpses of her purpose and the reasons for her challenges.”
Finally, Marianne quoted Dana Sue, who said, “I have learned that without hope you cannot fight this. Your doctors can give you facts, statistics, and calculated possibilities. But hope comes from within and it is a gift from above.”
“Hope is not denial, but the gift of hope blesses us with the state of mind to deal with the gap between what is and what can be. It can be life sustaining.”
She spoke of her love of God and Jesus Christ and said, “I know they they know me and know what my family needs. All these things will be for our ultimate good. My favorite saying is, ‘they will turn straw into gold as we look to them in all things.'”
So, in the end, Dana Sue’s Christmas season passing, while heartbreaking and sad, is sacred and beautiful, even joyful, as one of her daughters mentioned. For Christmas, her ultimate hope was realized — her straw was miraculously turned to gold as she ascended to where we all hope to go.
Thank you Dana Sue for the beautiful life you lived, for the inspiration you provided, and for the ultimate hope you expressed through your words and daily life — the hope that blesses us with the state of mind to deal with the gap between what is and what can be, which is the true purpose of Christ’s birth, and the pure essence of Christmas.
It’s time to deck the halls with boughs of holly and all that other fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.
We just have one slight decorating dilemma…
For the last few years, Doug’s niece, Teresa, a professional decorator, has decorated our house for Christmas.
And, we have absolutely loved it.
Two years ago, she visited us in Virginia and brought suitcases full of ribbons, garlands, giant snowflakes, and other holiday surprises, and made our house look like a Christmas wonderland.
We tried to help, but we quickly learned it’s best to stay out of the way when she does her decorating magic.
First, because she works super fast and doesn’t need us getting in her way.
And second, she’s a professional decorator and she knows what she’s doing.
She didn’t need us saying things like, “Wait, are you sure you want to put that 7-foot tree on that table? Or isn’t that too much ribbon?”
“Trust me you’ll love it,” she patiently replied, as she kept working at a breakneck pace.
And, she was right.
We definitely loved it.
We’ve learned it’s best to just be her quiet assistants and fetch the lights, hand her the ribbons, and dig the Santas out of the storage bin when she needs them.
Unlike me, she doesn’t stop, think and debate where to put something because she has a crystal clear vision in her head that she’s trying to bring to life.
Last year, while we were in New York City for a weekend in December, Teresa came into our new home in Utah while we were gone and secretly decorated the entire house.
When we came back, it was just like when Dorey, Brian and Susan walked into their fully decorated Christmas house at the end of my favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street.
It was spectacular and magical.
She was our Kris Kringle.
The problem is now that we’ve been treated to such luxury by Teresa, we can’t decorate without her.
After two years of her Christmas magic, we’re spoiled.
So, we essentially begged her to do it again this year.
Just one more time.
She agreed even though she is crazy busy decorating other houses for real, professional clients.
In our excitement this year, we thought we could help her out by giving her a head start.
So we pulled out all our Christmas boxes.
Then, we just stood and stared at everything, feeling completely overwhelmed.
“Where do we begin?”
“What did Teresa do last year?” Doug asked.
We started looking through old photos to see how she did it.
“Well, it looks like she put the Dickens’ carolers on the mantle, but I don’t know how she got the garland and ribbon to look like that,” I said.
“Maybe we should call her,” Doug said.
“We can’t call her. She’s decorating a million other trees for paying customers,” I said.
“Then, maybe we should just wait for her to do it all. I’d hate to put stuff out and then have her redo it. That would really waste her time,” Doug said.
“Yeah, we are probably doing her a favor by doing nothing,” I agreed.
So, here we sit in our house full of boxes waiting for Teresa because suddenly we don’t trust ourselves to even put a simple caroler on the mantle.
Oh, Teresa, Teresa, Teresa, what have you done to us?
We probably have an unhealthy dependency on her now, but, the thing is, we don’t want to break ourselves of it because we like it.
It helps us get in the Christmas frame of mind.
And like Kris Kringle said in Miracle on 34th Street, “Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind.”
Teresa is like our Kris Kringle, and she helps us get into that Christmas frame of mind.
So, we’ve decided it’s best to just wait…
We’re doing her a favor, right?
So, from now until Tuesday, we will be like giddy children awaiting Santa’s arrival.
And on Tuesday night, we will be like Dorey, Brian and Susan — running through the house admiring every perfectly placed pillow and Dickens’ caroler, and quoting Susan, “I believe. I believe. I believe!”
Doug planned a little party for me and announced in the invitation that “Her age has finally caught up to her era.”
My age now represents my era of hippies, women’s lib, The Beatles, peace, flower power, countercultural activities, revolution, and protests against social norms.
So for my 60th birthday, I had a little countercultural, revolutionary experience of my own.
Call it an epiphany — like a little firework that went off in my head and illuminated something simple, but inspiring for me.
It happened a few weeks before my birthday at an LDS Public Affairs Women’s Outreach Team event in the Relief Society Building on Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.
I was listening to some remarkable women talk about the good, charitable things they are doing to make the world a better place.
I looked around the historic room in the Relief Society Building at the portraits on the wall of the past LDS Church Relief Society Presidents, and was surprised at the emotion that swept over me.
For those not a member of my faith, the Relief Society is the women’s organization of the Mormon church — the largest women’s organization in the world. Its purpose is to strengthen faith in homes and families and to relieve the suffering of those in need.
I feel deeply proud to be part of an organization with such a noble purpose.
And for a brief, beautiful moment in that Relief Society room, I felt apart from the world around me — separated from the news of hurricanes, political unrest and acrimony in the world.
I felt wrapped in something warm, uplifting, and powerful.
I looked around the room and saw a group of strong, compassionate, remarkable women — most of them working or volunteering for nonprofit associations that benefit other women, and I was struck by the immense value they add to the world.
I wondered if I was worthy to be in that room.
I listened to Sharon Eubank, the new first counselor in the general Presidency of the Relief Society, and the director of LDS Charities, a humanitarian organization that provides generous assistance to millions of people around the world.
Am I that dedicated? I wondered.
I certainly don’t have her large sphere of influence.
But, then the thought came to me — concentrate on your own sphere of influence.
During the brief few hours I spent in that beautiful and historic Relief Society building, I felt uplifted and strengthened by the women around me and had a profound “countercultural” experience.
A simple message floated into my mind that said, “Be Like Them.”
I looked around the room at the portraits of past presidents, and into the faces of so many remarkable women I admire, and thought, “Yes, I want to be like them.”
I think the reason this epiphany hit me so powerfully was that I was … brace yourself … somehow, without even realizing it, comparing myself to other women and feeling like I should step up my game to be more like them.
I’m ashamed to say, I was thinking about their beauty, their clothes, their careers, their brilliance, their vacations, and even their beautifully decorated Halloween porches.
I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I felt that nudge to try to rise above those types of comparisons and strive to become more like the women in that room.
That little voice basically schooled me, saying, “Hey, you’re capable of so much more. Why are you envying the woman with gold spray painted pumpkins on her porch?”
The message was so clear: Set your sights higher.
To me, that meant strive to be a quality woman, a woman of true faith and real substance.
It meant be more serene, accept yourself and your life and be happy; settle into yourself, embrace your role and find your own beautiful obsessions, which aren’t found in your closet or in the mirror or in the finest craft or furniture stores.
These qualities — serenity, acceptance, increased faith, contentment — aren’t found in having more things like gold pumpkins on my porch.
I’m hoping this new insight will last, that it will be etched in my psyche because aspiring to be a better person from the inside out actually seems within my reach.
It also brings more peace into my life than say, wanting to be taller, which would in turn make me thinner, which, unfortunately is not going to happen in this life.
Patricia Holland, one of my favorite inspirational speakers, said, “I believe that as women we are becoming so concerned about having perfect figures, or straight A’s, or professional status, or even absolute motherly success, that we are being torn from our true selves. We often worry so much about pleasing and performing for others that we lose our own uniqueness, that full and relaxed acceptance of ourselves as a person of worth and individuality. Too many women watch helplessly as their lives unravel from the core that centers and sustains them. Too many are like a ship at sea without sail or rudder, tossed to and fro… until more and more of us are genuinely, rail-grabbingly seasick.”
The solution to this seasickness she says is finding “the steady footing and the stilling of the soul—by turning away from the fragmentation of physical preoccupations … and returning instead to the wholeness of our soul.”
Now, that feels countercultural — focusing on the wholeness of the soul instead of frantically obsessing over keeping up with everyone around me.
This is my welcome to the 60s.
If I can focus on improving the wholeness of my soul, the 60s might feel pretty darn good to me.
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I am reprinting this blog I wrote in response to a salon.com “open call” on the question, “What can’t you bring yourself to throw away?” While it’s a sad reminder of a period of my life I don’t want to revisit, it’s also a reminder that breast cancer is real, and still affecting far too many people. Let this be a reminder that screenings and early detection saves lives. Early detection definitely saved mine.
It sits on the top shelf of my closet, inside a box, where I don’t have to look at it.
Most days I don’t even think about it.
I store breast cancer in my closet.
It comes in the form of a wig.
Not just any old wig — a custom-made, human hair wig that fit perfectly over my smooth bald head for nearly a year, giving the false impression to the world that I was in good health with a mane of beautiful blonde hair.
When a friend was diagnosed (the first in a series of six friends in four years since my diagnosis), I offered it to her as a gift.
I was done with it because it just shouted, “Cancer!” to me.
She gladly accepted it.
I was exuberant to let it go, like excess weight falling off my body, making me feel lithe, agile, and aloft.
Within days it showed up on my doorstep with a note: “Sorry, it didn’t fit.”
I held it cautiously like a snake I might pick up with a long, sturdy stick to keep it far from me until it could be tossed back into the woods where it belonged.
I could give it to the American Cancer Society, I thought, or just stuff it in the trashcan …
I didn’t have to keep it, but old ominous sayings ran through my head like, “If you get rid of it, you’ll need it.” Or, “If you keep it, you’ll never need it again.”
So I kept it, granting it a cancer-fighting power that would protect me from ever having to be caught up in the maelstrom of a cancer war again.
I tried to give it away at least three times, but it kept coming back with comments about it being too small.
Stupid small head anyway, I thought, as I marched upstairs to store it for the last time.
I climbed up on the stool, reached for the designated floral hat box on the top shelf of my closet, and stuffed it back in there for permanent keeping.
I worried that it kept coming back as a sign that I needed to keep it to ward off cancer.
Whatever works, I thought as I walked back downstairs.
Storing a wig in my closet is a small price to pay for being cancer-free.
I know this is insane, but old wives tales or not, I’m keeping that wig forever because getting rid of it makes me feel as naked, vulnerable and afraid as the day I looked into the mirror and saw a bald woman reflected in the glass, and realized it was me.