Big Words


“Words: so innocent and powerless…how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them!”  Hawthorne

According to Jung, certain dreams are considered, “Big Dreams.” These are the dreams we have at night that remain with us long after we wake, sometimes for years. They can be analyzed symbolically and reveal certain important things to us from our unconscious minds. They are much more than a menagerie of sensations and scenes our brain is playing around with. They are significant. You will know a “big dream” when you have one.

With that idea in mind, I’ve started calling certain words in my life “Big Words.” Sometimes they are overheard while I’m on a walk, but usually they are directly spoken to me by a friend, acquaintance, or even a stranger. While writers speak to me constantly through the written word, the “big words” in my life are usually spoken or sometimes written by a person I know in real life. Unlike most daily conversations, these words don’t dissipate with time. Instead they have a way of settling in and taking up residence in my heart’s mind.

I’ve done a small series on here before entitled “Small Comforts,” in the past, and unintentionally, I’m calling this one “Big Words.” I thought that perhaps, even though these words weren’t directed at my readers, because they’ve remained with me for so long, they might become “Big Words” for others as well.

This week’s “Big Words” are just two small words and my most recent addition. I had randomly written a friend asking her advice on managing my home—cleaning and organization. She’s someone that I respect and seems in general to have a good handle on things. Looking back my message to her feels like someone spitting out sentences without taking any breaths, without punctuation. What I hear in what was meant to be a casual, friendly message is a tinge of the desperate: words like  “never enough, I’ve tried but I can’t, overwhelming.”

This lovely woman, in her gracious reply to my frenetic message, did give me some good ideas including hiring a cleaning lady if my finances allowed it! But before any of that advice, she wrote two simple words that became “Big Words” for me the past few weeks.

“Be gentle.”

Not be gentle with yourself. Just “be gentle.” I thought about the tone of my own message: the exasperation, the frustration, the clenching of fists even—that those words, “Be gentle” seemed to release. I exhaled reading them.

When Audrey was a baby and a toddler, I remember specifically teaching her gentleness. When she’d go to touch something excitedly, I would just say, “Gentle…” and instead of grabbing or shaking, she would gently run her hand over the object like she was petting a small animal and repeat in her baby voice, “gentle.”

The first word my friend wrote was just my name with an exclamation point, “Julia! Be gentle.” So maybe next time you’re feeling frenetic you can use this mantra beginning with your own name, this touchstone that unclenches hands and induces a slow exhale.

“Be gentle.”





How easily could God, if He so willed,
Set back the world a little turn or two!
Correct its griefs, and bring its joys again!
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Today we will offer our condolences and prayers on social media. I suppose that means different things for different people. I will intercede on your behalf. I will say your name before bed, or before meals. I will be thinking of you. Your loss will be on my heart and in my mind all day, the taste of it, the sick feeling in my gut, the oppression. But I will have no idea what it is really like to suffer your particular suffering. My compassion and empathy are genuine, but will only go so far because of the distance, and because it will interlace with fear—my own vulnerability and weakness. 

It wasn’t until quite a few years after my husband died that I began to tell people again, “I will pray for you.” I never wanted to utter those words truthlessly, and in the early years I knew that was all they would be if I said them.

I do not pray paragraphs of poetic words.  I do not worry aloud. Or bargain.  It doesn’t mean that I believe I have a power that others do not to somehow connect with God.

“Did you talk to God about it?” my 95 year old spiritual director would say. So sometimes it’s a conversation. Sometimes in writing. Often it is just speaking names aloud throughout my day, while I walk, or when they come to mind. Sometimes it is reading the names on a handwritten list I keep. Many names have been crossed off that list in recent months. They were not healed. They did not get better. I put one line through her name, replace it with the family members. It is they now, who need to be remembered.

“I will remember you in my prayers.” Not forgetting. Bearing witness to someone else’s pain without looking away. 

I started to pray again when Audrey entered kindergarten in the wake of Sandy Hook. It was instinctive—the way you would shield your child from harm. I found myself on my knees after dropping her off in the morning without thinking, and mostly just saying, “Oh God, oh God.” That was it. It was an understanding.

Many will say that we don’t need “prayers.” We need action. We need change. This is true too. But prayers do not have to be paltry. They speak of remembrance, connection, hope, and above all, love. And why should the good of anyone depend on the prayer of another? I can only answer with the return question, “Why should my love be powerless to help another?” George MacDonald 

A Life Unto Itself


“One begins the slow walk back to health by choosing each day things that enliven one’s selfhood and resisting things that do not.” Parker Palmer, “Let Your Life Speak” 

I am often, actually almost always—overwhelmed. This probably has something to do with being an only parent, being an extremely detail-oriented person, and repeatedly making to-do lists that are entirely too long for one day. A few years ago, I decided to really examine where my time was spent. I knew what my priorities were, but I wasn’t sure I was spending my time accordingly, so I purchased the above tiny jars and labeled them. I thought that if I could place something small in each jar every time I had invested time in that priority, I’d have a visual at the end of the day to see if the way I spent my time was indeed matching up with my values.

As is often the case with me, my execution of the idea never took place. It turned out though, that just having those little jars staring at me on my desk was enough for me to internalize them.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” said Annie Dillard, and I started to think of each day as a tiny life unto itself. If I die later today, I’d think, would I be happy with how I’ve spent just “this day?” If what I value is getting out in nature, spending quality time with Audrey, writing—then if I’ve spent most of my day doing those things—and let’s say, not endlessly scrolling on FB—then I will be content.

We’ve become accustomed to the huge successes and achievements people share on social media, but rather than pout because we haven’t made a tremendous social-media worthy “success” of ourselves, we can still focus on filling each “day-life” with goodness. “The most meaningful lives, I’ve learned, are often not the extraordinary ones. They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.” This is the epiphany in a NY Times op ed piece by Emily Esfahan Smith that I highly recommend you read in its entirety.  Long-term goals are still important to me, but I focus more on living my tiny day-life the best way I know how, hopefully—with dignity. It sounds simple enough—but many of us get lost in the busyness of life and end up just reacting, or even just surviving. Living in day-lives means slowing down and being intentional about your small actions throughout the day.

In the book Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie, who is dying, suggests this: “Do what the Buddhists do. Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, “Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?” I think when you lose someone close to you suddenly, that bird comes to live on your shoulder and never leaves. You understand in a way that many do not yet that tomorrow is not promised. There’s always the possibility that those long-term plans and goals you’re striving for will not have the chance to materialize—but—you have this one day.

How do you try to live intentionally and spend your time wisely? 


Digging for Star-holes


“So strange, life is. Why people do not go around in a continual state of surprise is beyond me.”  William Maxwell 

“First it’ll be September, then the holidays, then you’re half-way through the school year, then done, and before you know it, you’ll be back here again.” These were the unusually deep and philosophical thoughts from my cashier at J-Crew when I was back to school shopping a couple of weeks ago.

Time warps and bends in strange ways when you lose someone, especially the parent of your then-baby. Instantly, you envision all of the milestones and years ahead that she will have without him. Those moments line up in an obedient row. Each occasion, each year you live through—the cartography of your loss, but also life magnified.

Last night at bedtime— first day outfit laid out, nervous excitement in her restless limbs, I read George MacDonald’s account of a little boy named Diamond who visits with angels who are digging for stars with pickaxes:

And every time a star was dug up all the little angels dropped their tools and crowded about it, shouting and dancing and fluttering their wing-buds.

When they examined it well, they would kneel down one after the other and peep through the hole; but they always stood back to give Diamond the first look. All that Diamond could report, however, was, that through the star-holes he saw a great many things and places and people he knew quite well, only somehow they were different—there was something marvelous about them—he could not tell what. Every time he rose from looking through a star-hole, he felt as if his heart would break for joy; and he said that if he had not cried, he did not know what would have become of him.

I am surprised by my tears this morning when I drop her off. She was two, then three, now four, five, six, seven, eight…”She started fourth grade today,” I will tell him like I always do. This morning I remember how she told me on her first day of preschool that she had heard her father’s voice the night before in her crib, when she was alone, wishing her a good first day. I wonder why that was possible then and not now—that star-hole.

I wish for a way to slow things down and sort things out. Maybe if I write, or walk, or pray. But this is all part of it too, so it’s probably best that we just bear it—the bittersweet, the wonder, and the surprise.

Helping My Daughter Celebrate a Father She Doesn’t Remember


I know I have quite a few readers here that have followed my writing since it was published here almost seven years ago. Last year around Father’s Day I wrote a piece that in some ways seemed to continue my thoughts from that NY Times article. That piece was published this week.

As my daughter gets older, I often think about whether or not to share these writings, and at a writing seminar I went to two weeks ago at Princeton Seminary this topic came up a lot with regards to nonfiction/memoir writing. I really liked how one of the writers, Vinita Hampton Wright, described her thinking process on it. “I follow the rule of love,” she said. Would my daughter possibly one day enjoy reading this piece? If, in the words of another writer there, Mihee Kim-Kort, we write to become more alive and make others more alive, would this also contribute to “aliveness” in that way? That is my hope.

“Love, like loss, doesn’t reside in memory. It doesn’t reside in words or even in story, though those come a bit closer. I know because I’ve watched a little girl grieve and love a man she has no real memory of.” 

You can find the full piece here.