Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Common Good

Monday was MLK's birthday.

As part of my job, I serve on a volunteer committee that plans an annual celebration of his legacy. So I spent a few hours at the Methodist church in Ridgewood, NJ, on Monday, being reminded of the relevance of that legacy to what's happening in the world today.

The keynote speaker was New Jersey Public Defender Yvonne Smith Segars, who focused her remarks on the theme our committee had assigned to this year's event: "Working for the Common Good." I confess to not really warming up to this theme. I know it was what Dr. King's work was all about--and am familiar with his famous words to the effect that if something's not good for one, it's not good for anyone. But I had a hard time connecting to it in a personal way.

Ms. Segars changed all that in the space of 5 minutes. She asked everyone in the audience to think of one thing they could do this year that would better the community. And she took no prisoners--threatening to call on us to ensure that we took her seriously. She then asked people to share.

Four or five people raised their hands and publicly committed to their goals. Then, one by one, Ms. Segars asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to help them. Within 60 seconds, each person had two or three supporters. "Now you have a committee!" she said. To cap off the exercise, she volunteered her support as well.

It was an exercise so elegant in its simplicity that it took my breath away. I left the church, came home, and took a giant step toward making my goal a reality: I signed up as a volunteer for the 2011 Women Build project with the Paterson Habitat for Humanity. It's something I've talked about doing for years. But in the glare of Ms. Segars' spotlight, my past excuses seem pretty flimsy.

So--this is my public declaration. I hope it will serve to hold me accountable. And if anyone wants to join me--send an email to Pat Sisti at

Monday, January 17, 2011


"It's good to look toward the end of things. Not only does it provide perspective, but it also provides the stepping stone to our next endeavor." Deng Ming-Dao

The idea for this post began when I saw the first "post-Christmas" tree lying unceremoniously by the side of the road.

Dead Christmas trees are one of the saddest of all sights. Nothing symbolizes the end of the holidays as dramatically as a succession of dried-out evergreens, stripped of their glittering finery and tossed to the curb.

Now I realize that there is a lot of sadness in the world. Sadness on a scale far larger than another holiday season coming to a close. Floods, mass shootings, plane crashes. I get that. But the writer in me does not want to let this dead tree thing go. I've tried for two weeks now to move past it, and it keeps haunting me. So I'm going to write this and (hopefully!) move on.

So much preparation goes into Thanksgiving and Christmas. Think of all the time and effort spent on decorating and card-writing and cooking and shopping. Everything must be "just so," including the most iconic holiday symbol of all--the tree. Selecting it, deciding where to put it up, decorating it, stacking gifts beneath it--it's all steeped in ritual, even for those of us with faux trees.

Why, then, is the dismantling given such short shrift? No fanfare. Just stashing everything back in the boxes, then bags, then closets as quickly as possible. And getting that tree out of the house.

For me, I think it's because I can't bear the empty feeling that comes with endings of any kind. If I banish all signs of something's existence, then I can forget it was ever there. (A strategy I've also employed with ex-boyfriends.) Is it possible that others feel the same way? Then maybe I can make peace with the sight of all these poor trees. Lying on their sides between sidewalk and street. Cloaked in mantles of dirty snow. Waiting for the recycling trucks to put them out of their misery. That is, until I think about the fact that they gave their lives so we could make merry.

Which leads me full-circle to my fake white tree. I admit to feeling sort of smug about having saved a stately Frazier Fir from this inelegant fate. But I'm realizing there's another advantage to going un-green--albeit a bit self-serving. There is something to be said for a tree you can simply shove back into its box and haul out to the garage. Instantly removing all signs of Christmas--indoors and out.

Kind of makes up for missing the scent of evergreen in my house this year.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


One of my intentions for the year is to read a poem every day.

Yesterday I opened "The Best of It," a collection of Kay Ryan's poetry, at random. This poem stared back at me from the page. After reading it, I smiled and said, "YES!" out loud. If you read my "White Space" post, you'll understand why...

Happy New Year, indeed!

Leaving Spaces
It takes a courageous
person to leave spaces
empty. Certainly any
artist in the Middle Ages
felt this timor, and quickly
covered space over
with griffins, sea serpents,
herbs and brilliant carpets
of flowers--things pleasant
or unpleasant, no matter.
Of course they were cowards
and patronized by cowards
who liked their swards as
filled with birds as leaves.
All of them believed in
sudden edges and completely
barren patches in the mind,
and they didn't want to
think about them all the time.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

White Space

“Turn the wheel of your life. Make complete revolutions. Celebrate every turning. And persevere with joy.” Deng Ming-Tao, 365 Tao

On Thursday I was driving behind a blue dump truck that was carrying a mountain of snow. My first thought was, “Where the heck is it going?” And my next thought was, “Take me with you!”

I imagined that the truck was headed for a dump where the small mountain of snow would be piled atop a much larger one. Behind that large mountain would be another, and another, and another. Piles of snow stretching all the way to the horizon. An oasis of white space.

This truck carting snow from one place to another symbolizes how challenging and messy the cleanup from Sunday’s blizzard has been. It’s also a great metaphor for what my life has been like this past year. I’ve moved a bunch of stuff from one place to another, but never really completed anything—except making larger piles. That may be why the notion of an endless expanse of white space is so appealing to me. It’s about clearing the decks of the mountains of unfinished tasks. And being left with the space to imagine, to hope, to create new things.

During the past week or two, I’ve been participating in an online writing project called reverb10. Each day, an email hits my Inbox containing a prompt designed to help me reflect on the past year—and think about how I’d like things to manifest in 2011. In the process, I stumbled across an old blog post by someone named Tara Mohr. It was entitled “White Space.”

I don’t know Tara, but after reading her post I feel like we’re kindred spirits. Rather than paraphrase, I’ve included the link so you can read it yourself. What I love is the way she has drawn the connection between canceling things in her calendar to creating space to do more with her time. She can do what she wants with that space, like filling it with things she’d actually like to do instead of obligations. Or she can take on the greater challenge of simply sinking into that open space, connecting with herself, and allowing whatever comes of the experience to guide her actions.

In a world where life seems to be accelerating at a pace so relentless that I, for one, am struggling to keep up—white space feels like a luxury. And yet, the more I’ve reflected on this past year—a year when I lost count of how many times someone said, “I can’t believe how fast time is passing”—it’s the image of that vast and empty field of snow that keeps coming to mind.

The last time I really felt the power of connecting with myself was in May, in Vermont, at that detox retreat. The whole point of that weekend was to give ourselves the freedom to go deep down and hear what our inner voices had to say. Mine spoke loud and clear—and it said, “Make space for self-expression."

So far I’ve only cleared a tiny space in a dark corner. This morning, in the pause between when one cycle ends and a new one begins, I vow to pick up my shovel every day and carve out my own field of white.