Category Archives: Relationships

A Beautiful Life Ends Beautifully



My godmother, Marian, died last Saturday. It was both sudden and not sudden. She had been fine on Memorial Day when I called, but then a fall on Tuesday led eventually to her being moved to the ICU in the early hours of Saturday morning. They started a morphine drip to make her more comfortable, and we knew she was slipping away.

Two of her children were with her at the end, the other two spoke to her via cell phones that we held to her ear. One drove for more than 4 hours, never expecting to reach her in time, but she kept on breathing quietly, as if she were asleep, for hours after the ICU doctors expected, so he arrived in plenty of time.

Starkey and Marian

Marian with Starkey

During the day, her friends including my children and many of her neighbors came to say goodbye. They sat with her, held her hands, touched her head, spoke to her about what she had meant to them, talked about her fantastic taste, even told her how her beloved little dog was missing her. We had 6 chairs around the bed, and at various times all 6 were full.

Finally at 4:38 in the afternoon with her two sons, me, and another extremely close family friend sitting around her, she took one long breath. Her son said, “Come on Mom, you can make it just a little longer.” He was thinking about his daughter who was on her way by train, due to arrive in about an hour. Then she took one more breath and was gone. Her face instantly looked different, I speculate because all the little muscles relaxed.

Marian knew how to laugh

Marian knew how to laugh, here with my mother

This week there have been many celebrations of her life with all her children and their families around, including 5 grandchildren — a Memorial Service, an open house at her house, countless small conversations, many of them laced with laughter. She was loving, wise, adventurous, and beautiful in many ways. Her hairdresser came to the Memorial Service and talked about how she had helped him learn to love the town that he’d grown up in. He also pointed out the beauty of her twinkling blue eyes, amazed that nobody else had mentioned that particular beauty. She also never stopped learning — she’d completed a PhD in Art History in her 50’s and was reading a book in the hospital about an English lord traveling around Yellowstone in Wyoming in the late 1800s.

In the program for the Memorial Service, the family included a letter that Marian had written my daughter Laura five years earlier, after Laura asked her for stories about her long life. That letter, especially the last long paragraph, has an important message for those of us still marching on, especially young people.

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

The letter brings to mind her daughter’s comment that Marian always moved to the next stage of life without looking back and regretting the stage that had just passed and without trying to hurry through to the next stage. When she was a mother of small children, she was a mother of small children without wanting to speed up her children’s growing up. When she was a very old woman, she figured out how to enjoy the benefits of old age without (much) mourning of the abilities that had passed or the traveling she could no longer do.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Laura,

Marian with Laura

Marian with Laura at my MAPP graduation - when Laura made the request

You can’t imagine how flattering it is as an old woman to be invited by someone of your generation to reminisce about times past.

It was wartime when I emerged from college — as it had been throughout my college career. Pearl Harbor was attacked my freshman year at the University of Idaho, Hiroshima was bombed during my honeymoon in 1945, just after I had graduated from the University of Chicago. Besides the fact that women’s liberation was just beginning to take form, the chaos of wartime cultivated a lemming-like move to the altar: we all wanted to get married, have children, have homes. I had had the dream of becoming a journalist, but I quickly traded that ambition for the security of marrying Bill when he returned from the European front. He had a 45 day furlough before he would be sent on to Japan. What I want to convey to you is the chaos of world events and the unpredictability of my own world when I was at the point of my life that you are now.

So it was make-shift time for me. Instead of looking for a newspaper job, I became a receptionist at the University of Chicago Press, commuting on weekends to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where Bill was waiting for release from the army. By March, when he was again a civilian, we headed for New Haven where he resumed the first quarter of his junior year at Yale. I learned to cook, our apartment was a way-station for returning former students, we spent weekends exploring New York City and going to Dodger games, we often saw your grandparents who were living in New London, Conn. where Lou was stationed at the submarine base there. It was a carefree time and we made the most of it.

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

I did well in graduate school and was given a scholarship to continue beyond the Master’s degree, but didn’t seriously consider becoming a professional. I wasn’t eager to begin having babies, but I felt my role was as a supporting, not competing wife. When Bill had finished his graduate work and received a Fullbright Scholarship for a year in Paris to research his dissertation, I was blissfully happy with the choices I had made. We had a wonderful year, traveling the Continent, visiting your grandparents several times in Oxford. I came home pregnant — Peter was born the day after your mother, July 6, 1951. Your grandfather sent us a cable reading, “Kathryn Leigh arrived,” to which Bill sent the reply, “Kathryn meet Peter.” And so they did, a few years later.

The landscape where you stand, at the brink of your adult life, is so very different from mine. Women have been liberated, not just the exceptional ones but across the board. The choices and opportunities may be overwhelming, but at least you can’t feel limited. A few years of free fall are probably not a bad idea — just savoring life (as I would describe my early years of marriage in New Haven and Paris). Jumping from college into career or into marriage-with-children might prove too confining, even a mistake as you look backwards — as I am doing here — from your eighth decade. These are your luxury years, if you have enough money to give yourself freedom, when you can keep sensitive and searching for what your inner self really is trying to tell you. Pause and smell the roses. But don’t become passive and let the years roll on and over you. A few false starts aren’t necessarily a disaster.

It has been great fun to write all this down.


Marian had a beautiful end, but that doesn’t mean we were ready to let her go. Ah, grief, sadness, the feeling of a hole in one’s life. But also humor, love, and sweet memory. When I lost another friend recently, I found comfort in George Bonanno’s research on bereavement, summarized in Grief is Part of Life. He found that resilient people get comfort from remembering. Perhaps that’s why we all get together after someone dies, to enrich each other’s collections of memories with our own particular stories. I’m richer for knowing that Marian sent her children out to play in the rain because she thought it was sensuous, even as all the other mothers were calling their children in. I’m richer for her granddaughter’s story of taking a raft trip together down the Grand Canyon when Marian was 82, with the guide calling out, “Better wake up your grandmother, we’re coming to another rapids.”



Filed under Contentment, Extraordinary people, Friendship, Gratitude, Meaning, Relationships, Savoring

Calming Someone Else Down

My daughter recently became very upset about her job. I found her stamping around the house in a terrible mood, making justifiable complaints.  She plopped herself down on the couch saying, “I’m just going to call them up and quit. I’ve had enough.”

My initial impulse was to argue with her. The job gives her the flexibility she needs to take prerequisite courses for applying to nursing school. The things that were bothering her didn’t seem that overwhelming to me, and I knew she didn’t have the time to look for another job.

Maternal Instinct

Maternal Instinct

But instead of arguing, I just sat down beside her and put my arms around her. If I said anything at all, it was something low and vague and sympathetic.

Pretty soon, she was up and moving around again, only this time she was working out the details about how to deal with the day’s challenges.

What did I learn?
I already knew that arguing with myself when I’m upset doesn’t help. The first step toward a resilient response is for me to calm myself down.

The experience with my daughter helped me extend that learning to the way I operate with other people. The first step to help someone else be resilient is to help them calm down. When I saw my daughter unhappy, I felt an urge to do something, but I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut. Only afterwards did it occur to me that the maternal instinct that led to gentle touch was just the right way to help her calm down.

We recently published a little book of edited articles from Positive Psychology News Daily called Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves. Most of the chapters are about ways to become more resilient yourself. My chapter explains why it is important to calm down first before trying to argue with yourself.

Perhaps we’ll publish a second edition some day with new articles about how to help others be resilient. I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Image: Maternal instinct courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar


Filed under Relationships, Resilience

A Story Like the Wind

A Story Like the Wind
Fifteen years or so ago — I know this because of the receipt I used as a bookmark — I first read Laurens van der Post’s two novels, A Story Like the Wind and A Far Off Place. They were so powerful that I couldn’t read any other fiction for months. They also stuck to me, little images that have enriched my life.

A Far-Off Place
For example, I’ve thought often about the time that the main character, 13-year-old Francois, behaved sharply and turned away from the adults who were trying to console him for the loss of his father. One of them, ‘Bamuthi, the Matabele leader on their homestead in the African bush, looks at the rest and says, “I give you a little fountain choked with mud.” They all nod, because they know the answer to the riddle: “the heart of a fatherless child.”

I lost my father when I was two, and it took me many many years to clean the mud out of the fountain.

I recently picked them up again and found them just as engrossing, even though the author is an egregious side-tracker. In the middle of a storyline, he switches into an earlier storyline and from then into an earlier one, or perhaps a digression into the natural life of babboons or elephants or lions or perhaps a long philosophical exploration of relationships between people and between peoples … so that sometimes it is hard to keep track of where you are in the original story. But the digressions are so full of rich detail.

I found myself tearing off little bits of paper to mark passages to go back to. Here are some of them:

In A Story Like the Wind:
‘Bamuthi: “Then a man-child also had to learn how to sing and above all to dance; for dancing and singing were the best ways he had of showing gratitude for the good things of life. Song and, above all, dancing were the surest ways of helping a man to endure the great trials of his existence; they were needed at birth, marriage and before war to strengthen his heart. … at the moment when the final loss of his shadow was upon him and those he loved, to drive away the power of death and revive the desire to live.”

Hiding courtesy kevinzim

Hiding courtesy kevinzim

Francois successfully shoots a huge, rogue elephant, Uprooter of Trees, that is drunk on fermented fruit and running amok across the homestead. Family friend and wild-life conservationist, Mopani: All he could get himself to do, therefore, was to talk at some length of the unfailing knack life seemed to have of confronting a man at the most unexpected moments with problems as large and dangerous as had been old Uprooter of Trees. Human beings, he stressed, always knew more than they allowed themselves to know. One of the things they never knew clearly enough was the power they possessed of overcoming problems even if they were thrice the size of Uprooter of Great Trees.

Mopani: “Have you ever known a more beautiful evening? I’ve heard it said somewhere that human beings should look on all things lovely as though for the last time. But this is the kind of evening which makes me want to look on it as if for the first time.”

Mopani: Remember always, Little Cousin, that no matter how awful or insignificant, how ugly or beautiful, it might look to you, everything in the bush has its own right to be there. No one can challenge this right unless compelled by some necessity of life itself. … Life in the bush is necessity, and it understands all forms of necessity. It will always forgive what is imposed upon it out of necessity, but it will never understand and accept anything less than necessity. And remember that, everywhere, it has its own watchers to see whether the law of necessity is being observed.”

In A Far Off Place:

Francois’ father, Ouwa: the real art of living was to keep alive the longing in human beings to become a greater version of themselves, to enlarge this awareness of life and then to be utterly obedient to the awareness. … Unlived awareness was another characteristic evil of our time, so full of thinkers who did not do and doers who did not think. … All this, Ouwa would ad, meant living in terms not of having but of being… For what, he often asked was the difference between the ‘Bamuthis of this world and the Europeans of Africa, if not that the Europeans specialized in having and the ‘Bamuthis in being.

And my favorite chapter in both books comes when Francois and his friend Nonnie, who have both lost everything and are traveling across the Kalahari with two bushman friends, sitting by a fire at night when Xhabbo asks a mime riddle than no one gets, and when he explains it, they all roll on the ground with laughter:

Nonnie: “Oh Coiske, do you know, until this moment, I thought we could never laugh like that again. I feel almost guilty that we could with Fa and your Lammie… “

Ligntning my first try courtesy of Kuzeytac

Ligntning my first try courtesy of Kuzeytac

Xhabbo’s reply: “[we] know that the sadness in you is no longer without a name and has found its voice. When sorrow finds a name and a voice, it is like the lightning you see calling and the thunder speaking after it to say that soon the rain will fall on you again.”

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Filed under Extraordinary people, Friendship, Good with the Bad, Relationships, Stories

Mrs. Tim – Spending Time with a Friend in Fiction

I am mindful that I can affect the shape of my life by choosing carefully the people that I spend time around. If a book or movie turns out to be about people who are mean or small-minded or boring, I ponder whether I really want to finish it.

I have a collection of books that I re-read, like eating comfort food, when I need to spend time around people who are cheerful, brave, persevering, humorous, tolerant, wise — that is, in addition to the time I spend with my husband, children, and real friends.

I’ve been re-reading D. E. Stevenson’s series about Mrs. Tim for the last week or two. Mrs. Tim is an army wife in England from the late 1930’s through the late 1940’s. The first book actually grew out of the author’s diaries that she lent to a friend who wanted to know what life as the spouse of an army officer was like. The friend and her husband found the diaries so interesting and entertaining that they urged her to publish them. She pepped up her first set of diaries to make a book about a fictional character, Hester Christie — married to Captain then Major Tim Christie. The second book was based on her war-time diaries and required almost no pepping up because as she puts it, “there was enough pep already in my diary for half a dozen books.”

The last two books occur after the war when Major Tim was stationed in Egypt and Hester was left to manage alone — her children are both in boarding school except for holidays. In the third book, she works as a general dogsbody in a hotel, where she observes and participates in several stories of life being put back together after the war. In this book, Hester has an interesting discussion with her good friend, Brigadier Tony Morley about immortality. Tony had just finished a long conversation with a minister who had given a good sermon.

“Mr. Weir knew at once that I was really interested and came halfway to meet me. When people go halfway to meet each other something happens — something important.”

“Yes — but what is it?” I ask with interest.

“You give a bit of yourself and receive a bit of the other fellow, and you are both richer. … That’s one reason why it’s worthwhile to be alive,” continues Tony. “It’s a sort of immortality we can all achieve.”


“Yes. We all want to achieve immortality. We all want to leave our mark upon the world. What use is it to have lived if we leave nothing behind us when we die. One way to achieve immortality is to have children, another is to write or paint — but not everybody can achieve offspring or works of art.”

“I’m beginning to see.”

“It’s easy,” declares Tony. “if we go about the world giving bits of ourselves to people we meet . . . it’s worthwhile having lived . . . we leave something behind us which goes on–and on.”

I love these books because they are about the ordinary heroism of everyday people, finding ways to get along in their own particular times. Their times included all-out war, but they still squabbled about how to spend the money allocated to the officer wives to run the Christmas party — how much should go for decorations, how much for children’s gifts. Hester is observant and laughs kindly at herself and others.

These books may still be on the shelves of your public library or through Inter-Library Loan, and in a pinch they are available from Amazon.

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, also titled Mrs. Tim Christie,

Mrs. Tim carries on: Leaves from the Diary of an Officer’s Wife in 1940

Mrs.Tim Gets A Job

Mrs. Tim flies home


Filed under Meaning, Relationships, Uncategorized

Reflections on Marriage Part 2 – One thing to know

A colleague asked me recently about positive psychology lessons that could help people strengthen marriages.  I’ve written about this before (Reflections on Marriage), but his question reminded me of something very germane that I read in Marcus Buckingham’s book, The One Thing You Need to Know (pp. 16-24), based on research by Sandra Murray and colleagues at SUNY Buffalo.

The One Thing you need to know about marriage is

“Find the most generous explanation for each other’s behavior and believe it.” (p. 22)

Let me give an example of putting this to work.

To-do listMy husband is a very organized person. He has a system for making to-do lists that includes consulting several master lists — one for annual events like eye doctor appointments, one for monthly events, one for weekly events, and one for ongoing projects. Once he has made a list, he doesn’t like to do something that is not on the list unless it is of overarching importance. When I first knew him, I sometimes found it very annoying if I had an idea for a project, and he said, “It’s not on the list.”

So I could think, “I love him, even if he is sometimes really rigid about his lists.”

Or I could find a generous way to think about his list-making that includes it among the things I love about him. Buckingham says, “When you notice a flaw, recast it in your mind as an aspect of a strength.” In this case, I can think about how we never fail to pay bills or get the filters changed or shop for holidays or …. When we have a big event coming up, like giving a party or preparing for a hurricane, I can count on him to plan for it and execute all the things that on his list. His list-making has made my life easier and more secure.

So when I think about his list-making, my feelings are fondness and amusement and acceptance — even awe for how much he accomplishes. I haven’t compartmentalized a piece of him away hoping not to think about it. Compartmentalizing doesn’t really work. Those cordoned-off aspects of the person continue to be there, ready to generate irritation and resentment whenever you can’t ignore them. Besides, ignoring them takes energy.

I view this as a form of realistic optimism where I’m choosing how I want to deal with fuzzy meaning (a lovely term that I got from Dr. Sandra Schneider). There is no right or wrong interpretation of his list-making behavior. So I can choose an interpretation that increases my appreciation of him every time it becomes evident. It took a while to make this interpretation habitual, but it becomes easier all the time.

Aside: This approach is not suitable for violence or abuse of any kind. But it is helpful for the personality differences that lead to ongoing friction between two people who love each other and want to make marriage work together.

Source of to-do list picture

Murray, S., Holmes, J., Dolderman, D., & Griffin, D. W. (2000). What the motivated mind sees: Comparing friends’ perspectives to married partners’ views of each other. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36(6), 600-620. First sentence of abstract: This article argues that satisfaction in marriage is associated with motivated and benevolent biases in perception. Link to place to order

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Filed under Good with the Bad, Marriage, Optimism, Relationships

Mutual enrichment rather than victory

This weekend, I had an interesting conversation with a friend about arguments. We both dislike them. Instead of getting fired up to state our positions well, we both start wishing we were somewhere else.

When people disagree about something in a conversation, any statement will exhibit either inquiry or advocacy. Inquiry involves asking questions to find out more about the other person’s point of view. Advocacy involves making statements to defend or advocate for one’s own point of view.

Obviously both are needed as the conversation unfolds so that one person is inquiring and learning while the other is advocating and teaching. Things go awry in a number of ways. Sometimes there is an unevenness in terms of give and take — one person never stops advocating so the other is doing all the learning — and feeling frustrated because he/she speaks because the other person doesn’t seem to listen. Sometimes both sides are tied up in too much advocacy — each side mentally rehearsing his/her next argument while the other advocates.

Marcial Losada

Marcial Losada

Emily Heaphy

Emily Heaphy

Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy (2004) report on research based on observing and coding the speech acts of 60 work teams in the middle of annual planning. They calculated the ratio between 3 bipolar opposites as they occurred during the meetings: inquiry versus advocacy, positive versus negative, and other versus self.

Then they sorted the teams according to business performance.

They observed the following ratios for inquiry versus advocacy:

  1. High-performing teams (N=15): 1.143 inquiry to advocacy
  2. Medium-performing teams (N=26): .667 – These teams generally started out with a more even ratio which dropped when they faced major difficulties.
  3. Low-performing teams (N=19): .052. That works out to 20 advocacy statements for every inquiry statement.

My friend and I talked about inquiry and advocacy, and what we’ve observed in the arguments that we like and dislike. My friend summarized it thus, “I prefer mutual enrichment to victory.” But we both agreed that not everybody feels or behaves that way. When arguing with someone who prefers victory, we both just want to escape. I feel somewhat vindicated by the Losada and Heaphy’s data.

On occasion, I’ve been the mediator between groups with conflicting goals. When we’ve been successful finding an acceptable middle ground, it always follows some form of positive emotion and an agreement on both sides to allow themselves to be changed by what they hear.


Here’s a wonderful statement from the section in the Losada & Heaphy paper (2004) called Qualitative Observations:

Qualitative observations of the teams showed that high performance teams were characterized by an atmosphere of buoyancy that lasted during the whole meeting. By showing appreciation and encouragement to other members of the team, they created emotional spaces that were expansive and opened possibilities for action and creativity as shown in their strategic mission statements. In stark contrast, low performance teams operated in very restrictive emotional spaces created by lack of mutual support and enthusiasm, often in an atmosphere charged with distrust and cynicism. The medium performance teams generated emotional spaces that were not as restrictive as the low performance teams, but definitively not as expansive as the high performance teams. They did not show the distrust and cynicism of low performance teams, but they also did
not manifest the mutual support and enthusiasm characteristic of high performance teams.”

Losada, M. & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47, 740-765.


Filed under Job Satisfaction, Relationships

Reading Science Out Loud

My husband and I have a new entertainment: I read out loud to him from books about scientific subjects that I’ve checked out of the public library. We do this at the ends of meals mostly — I have always eaten much faster than he does — in my opinion because I grew up one of many children and he was an only child. We joked that there were two ways to be at the table: quick or hungry. I haven’t been able to break that early habit.

So while he takes his time and tastes his food, I read out loud.

We started with Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin. I started reading it to myself and had so much fun with it that I kept reading him passages out loud. So I decided to go back to the beginning and read it all out loud. It was fascinating to explore the connections between our body plans and those of other species on both the paleontological and molecular biology fronts — for example, how our limbs are structured relative to those of late fish, amphibia, and other mammals (one bone, two bones, lots-a-bones, digits).

When we finished that book, I returned to the library to pick up books referenced by Your Inner Fish. I found 4, and my husband suggested we read them from earliest geotime forwards. Life on a Young PlanetWe just finished Andrew Knoll’s Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, an exploration of fossil remains in rocks going as far back as the Archaean Eon, as much as 3.5 billion years ago to the “earliest glimmers of life (maybe).” I hadn’t been aware that our planet didn’t always have so much oxygen available, that the chemistry of ocean water has changed repeatedly. Nor was I aware what an enormous part that microorganisms play in keeping the oxygen, carbon, and other cycles going. It’s a good lesson in humility for humans.

So why do I write about this oddball form of entertainment here?

First to celebrate that I married a man who has the strength Love of Learning as much or more than I do. We have such a good time talking about the ideas that are new to us. He has a much better grounding in science than I do, so he often gets to explain back to me what I just read.

Second to explore another downward comparison that makes me appreciate a much used skill. I did a lot of stumbling over names — I started saying “the AK group” instead of “Akademikerbreen Group,” for example. I also found some of the sentences a little hard to parse as I went along — I’d read a word as a noun, and then realize it was the verb and have to go back and reread the sentence. But for every sentence where I did that, there were 100’s that I was able to read and and speak as I went. Wow, what a complex skill I take for granted all the time! I don’t think these authors expected to be read out loud.

We’ve finished several more books. The first 5 are listed below and the rest are in a later posting:

Time Travelers Wife
Michael Novacek, Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002

Read a review in American Scientist.

Ian Tattersall, The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE. Oxford University Press. 2008.

Here’s a link to a picture of Ian Tattersall and a short description of his research interests.

Carroll, Sean (2005). Endless forms most beautiful: The new science of Evo Devo. New York: W. W. Norton.

This book was very stimulating and full of of explanatory pictures. The mechanisms of development are both complex and elegantly simple. The book brings together evidence from many fields – from fossils to fruit fly experiments.

Bainbridge, David (2008). Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A fantastic journey through your brain. Harvard University Press.

This book was great fun — history, science, and technology of understanding how the nervous system works from bottom of the spine to front of head. The zonules of Zinn are the little fibers attached to the lens of your eye that can be pulled on by tiny muscles to flatten the lens so that you can see the distance.

Carroll, Sean (2006). The making of the fittest: DNA and the ultimate forensic record of evolution. New York: W. W. Norton.

This is a very readable explanation of evolution as it can be read by looking at the DNA of various species. It discusses fossil genes (genes that have mutated into non-functional forms because the associated features give no advantage to the species), immortal genes (genes that are so crucial to life that mutated forms do not survive), toolkit genes, gene switches. It also explains the mathematics of evolution in terms of variation, selection, and time.


Filed under Gratitude, Reading Aloud, Relationships, Strengths