Category Archives: Savoring

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

July Savoring

Now it’s high summer, the fig tree is full of huge leaves and small figs. At dinner time, light filters through the fig tree leaves, one leaf casting a shadow on another. Birds and deer are testing the figs, which are not ready yet. The fig tree reaches all the way to the ground, making leafy caves that children could play in.

Spike Buck

Spike Buck Through Fig Leaves

So much to savor this July — starting with temperatures that make it a pleasure to be outdoors. Downward comparison seems to make that pleasure more intense. Today it is 76 degrees at 2PM, but I’m mindful that it could be 96 to 100 degrees, far too hot so sit outside with pleasure. When we are outside, there are so many interesting things to feel, see, hear, smell, and taste.

  • Homemade peach ice cream. My husband makes ice cream at least once every summer from a well-thumbed book of recipes, many stained with use. He cranks it by hand with whatever help he can muster from children and friends.
  • A deer drinking out of the bird bath. We’ve been visited several times by a young buck with two velvety spikes. There are weeds that the deer are welcome to eat, but when they start into the fragrance garden, we run them off. It’s easier said than done. They no longer run when we bang a stick against a garbage pan lid. When I run down towards them, I wonder what I’ll do if they don’t run!
  • One bird sitting on a limb waiting for another bird to finish so it could have a turn in bird bath. The first bird splashing great arcs of water out of the bath, the second splashing itself much more daintily.
  • Hummingbird on Feeder

    Hummingbird on Feeder

    A hummingbird dive bombing a swallowtail butterfly that tried to land on the Monarda over and over again until the butterfly gave up. We knew hummingbirds were territorial with each other, but is this the way to behave in a butterfly garden?
  • The fragrance of magnolia blossoms and of gardenia blossoms that remind me of our wedding more than a quarter of a century ago
  • Buddleia up to the porch

    Buddleia up to the porch

    Silver Streak on Buddleia

    Silver Streak on Buddleia

  • The buddleia grown so tall that the blossoms are almost up to our level on the porch. On the 4th of July, we had an American flag butterfly garden with Monarda (red), Brazilian sage (blue), and Buddleia (white) all blooming at once.
  • Four or five silver streak butterflies on the buddleia at a time, sharing it with bumblebees. Two flying off, fluttering together, landing almost in tandem. I wonder how butterflies mate?
  • At night after it is dark, fireflies lighting up all around the yard and the almost deafening orchestra of evening bugs. I think they are cicadas. My mother once rode on a bus with a single cicada which sounded the same note over and over again. She found it rather tedious. The complexity and slow pulsing of the sound we hear comes from many many sounding together.

Just to reflect a little, my summer savoring is particularly piquant because of

  • Fleeting wonders. Most can’t be captured in photographs because they disappear so quickly. Try taking a picture of a hummingbird chasing a butterfly! Or of a hummingbird doing anything but resting on the feeder. I am constantly aware that this pleasure will soon be gone. The monarda and magnolia are done for the year, and the gardenia are almost done.
  • Downward comparison to other years, so much hotter and muggier. We’re having rain, which always seems like a miracle in July, and it’s keeping things green.
  • Family traditions so that today’s pleasures carry echoes of past pleasures
  • Family possibilities. When I see the green caves under the fig tree, I imagine children playing there. The tree was not big enough when my children were small, but maybe someday their children will enjoy hiding there.

I just had to add this picture of a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly that spent several hours yesterday in the buddleia, flittering from one flower stalk to another. I was in the middle of a business call when I saw it out my window. I put my phone on hold and hollered at my husband, thinking he’d want to see something that large and tawny. He stalked it with the digital camera.

Great Spangled Fritillary on the Buddleia

Great Spangled Fritillary on the Buddleia

I have to close with the last magnolia blossom of the season.

Last 2009 Magnolia Blossom

Last 2009 Magnolia Blossom

All pictures courtesy of Edward Britton, a man of great patience and persistence who still still hasn’t been able to capture a hummingbird in the air.

Leave a comment

Filed under Contentment, Savoring

My eternity list — another definition of happiness

Ghost Riders cover

Ghost Riders cover

I came across an intriguing way of thinking about happiness in Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, Ghost Riders. (pp. 205-206).

A character is sitting with a friend on a mountain, the air is not too hot, the sky is cloudless, and the laurel is in bloom.  She says, “It’s so peaceful here.  I’d put this day on my eternity list.”

What’s an eternity list?  She explains it based on the theory from an [unidentified] English physicist who theorized that every moment in time lasts forever, that time may seem to flow, but it is actually separate nows, “each existing forever in its own dimension.”

So she speculates that maybe that’s what heaven is – “getting to live forever in one really wonderful moment.  So the more happy moments there are in your life, the better your chances of spending eternity in a good place.”

Resilience from Flickr

Resilience from Flickr

Of course there are many unhappy moments in anyone’s life.  As I wrote recently in my PPND article on resilience, adversity is part of the human condition.  But at any given moment, there are a range of possible responses, some with happier consequences than others.  Face the misery inherent in your life, yes, but don’t take on any more than necessary.  

I shall start thinking about saving up my own eternity list — moments of communion with family and friend(s), moments of deep engagement in writing or working out details or talking about things that fascinate me, moments of physical beauty or pleasure, moments of knowing that what I am doing matters.


Filed under Contentment, Good with the Bad, Gratitude, Resilience, Savoring

Autumn Savoring

Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple

Earlier this year, I wrote about savoring on an early summer day, watching and hearing and smelling the glories of new life as it is emerging. Now it’s autumn and time for a different kind of savoring as leaves fall and trees become more and more bare.

It’s still a heady sort of savoring. There’s a special sharpness to it because it is so transitory and because it heralds the beginning of winter, a time of bareness and dormancy.

One day I walked down the hallway.  In the room on the right, the sunlight was filtering through the crimson leaves of the Japanese maple outside the window, giving the whole room a soft pink glow.

Driveway Carpeted with Leaves

Carpeted Driveway

Another day, the wind blew strongly, carpeting the driveway with yellow leaves.  It was a sudden change, from a tree full of yellow leaves to bare limbs in just a few hours.

An especially good way to savor autumn is to go walking in the woods. We’re lucky to have many acres of woods behind our house with many kinds of trees. We’ve taken several walks this fall, watching the change from week to week.  I made a conscious catalog of things that I was savoring:

  • The crunchy sound of leaves underfoot
  • The soft rustle of wind in the trees, followed in seconds by a rainfall of yellow leaves
  • Looking up through leaves that looked like a stained glass window with sunlight coming through tiny panes of green, yellow, and golden brown.
  • Finding a “green and burning tree” — with one side still green, the other crimson
  • Crisp air that tingles on your skin

I picked up a number of leaves for my husband to photograph for me — to capture not only the mix of trees we saw, but also the different states of change and the range of colors.

Sycamore, Tulip Poplar, Redbud ...

Sycamore, Tulip Poplar ...

Oak, Cherry, Maple, Sweetgum...

Oak, Cherry, Sweetgum...

Maple, beech, ...

Maple, Beech, ...

Bryant and Veroff describe savoring as “not just the awareness of pleasure, but also conscious attention to the experience of pleasure” (p. 5). Perhaps that’s why it is so much easier to savor autumn than midsummer. At any given moment, I am aware that the view I am seeing, right now the sunlight coming through the last remaining yellow and crimson leaves at the back of my yard, will no longer be there in a matter of days, if not hours. There’s an urgency that makes it easy to focus conscious attention.


Bryant, F. B. & Veroff, J. (2007). Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

1 Comment

Filed under Savoring

Butterflies and Hurricanes

The weather has been beautiful here, cool and sunny, remarkably so for the end of August and early September when it is often suffocatingly hot and humid.  My husband has gotten interested in butterflies and is frequently chasing them with the digital camera so that he can get enough information to identify them.  The smaller ones seldom stop fluttering, so it is harder to snap them.

I’ve written before about butterflies being particularly beautiful because they are so transient. We’re battening down for hurricanes that may go close by — hard-hearted Hanna, Ike, and Josephine in quick succession.  At the very least, they will bring heavy rains that will probably strip many of the flowers from the butterfly plants.  They may also bring wind damage and power outages.  So today is a lull, time to bring in all the wind-movable objects from the yard, charge the phones and computers, stock up on bread, water, and toilet paper (my sister has observed that people in Baltimore always shop for toilet paper when they are stocking up for a storm), and enjoy what is here that may not be in a few days.

So in the interest of savoring by sharing before the storms hit, here are some of the pictures he has taken in the garden this summer.

First, here’s a corner of the butterfly garden planted with butterfly bush and Brazilian sage and Monarda and several other plants beloved by bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds. Notice the stone on the ground on the left. It has a hollow to capture water and ridges where butterflies can sun themselves before flying away.

Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Garden

The pictures and captions tell the story.

Pipevine Swallowtail on Monarda

Pipevine Swallowtail on Monarda

Black Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush

Black Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush

Large Lace Border

Large Lace Border Moth

Red Spotted Purple

Red Spotted Purple

Summer Azure on a Fig Leaf

Summer Azure on a Fig Leaf

We were right under the storm track of Hurricane Fran in 1996. There’s still a hollow in the woods behind us where a circle of trees were knocked down. We lost power for more than a week. Hurricane Fran hit the month after my mother-in-law died. She had always stocked our freezer with containers of home-made chili whenever she visited. So after Fran, we invited friends who couldn’t cook because of power outages, pulled out all the chili from the not-working freezer, heated it on the gas stove in our basement apartment, and ate dinner by candle light.


Filed under Friendship, Good with the Bad, Savoring

Savoring an early summer day

Savoring is a set of skills that can be learned in order to increase the positive emotion we experience in our day-to-day existences.

Psychologists Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff published a book last year on this subject:

Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience
Savoring book cover

According to them, savoring involves noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life. In a way, it is a counterpart to coping with negative aspects of life. Savoring involves mindfulness and “conscious attention to the experience of pleasure” (p. 5).

Magnolia blossomWalking around my garden is a great opportunity to savor. There’s the lemony scent of magnolia blossoms. This year we had more than 15 blossoms in our tree — more than we’ve ever had before in the little tree we planted 20+ years ago. I guess trimming the trees around it to give it more sunlight made a big difference. I had so much fun these last few weeks finding and counting the buds and anticipating their beauty. Now I can luxuriate in their sweetness.

Swallowtail on MonardaMy husband has planted a butterfly garden complete with flowers that they like and large stones with hollows that collect tiny drinking places and give them spots to grow warm before they try to fly again. We also planted parsley with the hopes of attracting the parsley worms that turn into black swallowtail butterflies. Observing butterflies is a wonderful opportunity to savor. They arrive when they want to, flitter around, and then are gone. The best we can do is try to anticipate their needs. Unfortunately, our garden doesn’t have a great deal of sun, so it is hard for them to get warmed up to take flight. When we see them, we stop to look and marvel. We also bask in my husband’s forethought and efforts to make a small world to please them.

Green figsOur fig tree is starting to be full of green figs. Often when I look at the tree, I remember the cold snap in about 1985 that killed the tree to the ground. We mourned its loss, but our grief turned out to be premature. It has grown back taller than the house. The squirrels jump back and forth between the roof and the taller branches, and we can pick figs from the upper story windows. So looking at the tree is a source of thanksgiving, that what we thought was dead is now so alive.

Bryant and Veroff describe several savoring processes that regulate other positive experiences (p. 14), including

  • Marveling regulates awe.
  • Thanksgiving regulates gratitude.
  • Basking regulates pride.
  • Luxuriating regulates physical pleasure

These are all processes that can be practiced intentionally so that they become more common and habitual, increasing the positive experiences in our lives.


Filed under Gratitude, Habits, Positive Interventions, Savoring

Positive Emotion Image Map

I’ve been an active contributor to Positive Psychology News Daily (PPND) ever since it started. PPND is an online publication about positive psychology with regular articles by people who have gone through an applied positive psychology training program — the one at Penn and the one at East London University. We also occasionally have guest authors. The articles are based on positive psychology research, but they are also leavened with stories and suggestions for practical application.

I am now an associate editor of PPND, which means that I work in collaboration with the editor-in-chief, Senia Maymin and another associate editor, Timothy So, on ways to make the site more interesting and helpful to people. Now that we have nearly 300 articles, we concluded it would be good to create some guides to help people find their way to topics that particularly interest them or that correspond to whatever concerns they have on their minds right now.

I created the first of such guides, an image map for Positive Emotions. It’s a picture akin to a mind map for various topics that comprise Positive Emotions where each topic in the image is a link to a short description, a list of related PPND articles, and a list of other resources for those who want to dig deeper. Positive Emotion Image Map

We have plans for other image maps — e.g., Positive Actions, Positive Attributes, Relationships. This first image map certainly does not exhaust the space. But we would really like feedback as we go to be sure we’re creating something that people find useful.

Post comments here or there if you have suggestions, complaints, or kudos. Thanks!


Filed under Gratitude, Positive Emotion, Positive Psychology, Savoring