Moving Stories of Compassion

Today is the anniversary of the first mass posting on compassion by members of 1000 Voices of Compassion. What did I learn writing a post every month about some aspect of compassion? That compassion is, like everything important in life, complicated, difficult, and worth the effort. I could point you to the posts I wrote that taught me the most, but I realized I learned even more from others. So here are three links to my favorite compassion posts from the past twelve months.



The first is a story about nurturing that reminds us that overdoing it can be as bad as neglect.

I also loved the story of an unlikely angel who told a woman who’s son had been attacked that the attacker was more in need of her prayer than her suffering son.

The last story, about a woman who was grateful for the cancer the that took her daughter, resonated so deeply with me, it inspired me to write about my own unexpected gratitude for a suicide attempt.

I hope you’ll take time to visit at least one of these posts. You’ll find deep feeling and a new way of seeing the world in each of them.

Today, members of 1000 Voices of Compassion are celebrating a year of compassion. To see a list of other posts on compassion, click here.

Unexpected Gratitude for A Suicide Attempt

photo by Kurt Fristrup

It’s amazing what you can be grateful for. Sure, we’re grateful for food on the table, a roof over our heads, robust health (if we’re lucky enough to have it), the usual stuff everyone talks about on Thanksgiving Day. Gratitude is simply recognizing the value of something. Sometimes it’s something we’ve come to take for granted, like turning on a tap and getting hot water. Sometimes it’s something horrific that doesn’t sound like any good could possibly come from it all. And yet, we can still be grateful for the terrible as well as the good in our lives.

I got a phone call one evening from someone I hadn’t known for long. Sherry* was a member of a club I belonged to. I didn’t know much about her, and wasn’t sure why she was calling me. I had talked to her about mental illness in the past, just a little, because it runs in my family and hers. Otherwise our interactions had been minimal. I couldn’t imagine what she was calling me about.

After a polite greeting, Sherry told me that she had been admitted to psychiatric hospital because she had attempted suicide. She was calling from a locked ward. I was startled, then sympathetic. I was able to listen to her and hear her story with compassion and understanding. She was afraid to call her family and closer friends, because she didn’t know how they would take the news. I reassured her the best I could.

When that phone call was over, I thought the strangest thing I may have ever thought in my life — how grateful I was that a suicide attempt by one of my relatives had prepared me for this moment.

I am still floored when I think that I could be grateful for something so horrible, but I am. When I first heard that a close relative had been put in the hospital for a suicide attempt, I was grateful she was still alive, but otherwise, I was a mess — frightened, angry, unsure, confused. I never thought I would be grateful for my part of the experience: hearing her story, visiting her in the locked ward, watching her go through therapy and recover. How could I be grateful for something so harrowing and painful?

And yet, only a year later, there I was on the phone, talking calmly to a woman I barely knew, and being of comfort to her. I was able to talk to Sherry about her situation because it wasn’t exotic or bizarre to me. It was something I’d dealt with before.

If Sherry had called me the year before my family went through our suicide crisis, I don’t know what I would have said or done. I would have been completely flummoxed, probably said all the wrong things, or worse yet, hung up and left her to deal with her problems alone.

Knowing how badly I might have responded makes me even more grateful that I was prepared for that moment and able to hold Sherry’s hand as she went through her ordeal. Thanks to that phone call, I am grateful for one of the worst times in my own life. I try to remember now that even the darkest moments can have an unexpected silver lining.

Is there anything awful in your life that you are grateful for today?

*Not her real name

Today, members of 1000 Voices of Compassion are blogging about gratitude. To see a list of other posts on gratitude and compassion, click here.

Handmade Holidays: Thanksgiving 2014

We had a quiet Thanksgiving at home this year with one friend as our guest. While the elaborate cooking always makes it feel like a celebration, I wanted to dress things up a little. My new focus on the handmade life had me watching for the things we did ourselves.

First off, I took the time to make myself an apron. Inspired by Marisa Lynch, I bought a strapless dress too small for me to wear at a thrift shop because I loved the roses on it. Right from the start, I intended to make it into an apron, but I only sat down and tackled it this week.

The strapless dress I started with.
The strapless dress I started with.
The apron I made for it. (Festive!)
The apron I made from it.

I also wanted the table to look festive. I bought flowers from a local florist and put them in a handmade vase that was given to me as a gift.

We own a beautiful batik tablecloth, but it’s dyed with indigo, and somehow dark blue doesn’t really go with a harvest color scheme. Then I remembered that one of my unfinished quilts is a maple leaf quilt in harvest colors. It was too big for the table, so I folded the edges under. I love how it made the table look. Best of all, my place mats went with it as if I’d been planning this all along.

The table cloth is an unfinished quilt top. I love how it looks!
The table cloth is an unfinished quilt top. I love how it looks!

The cooking of the Thanksgiving Day meal can be a great place to practice the handmade life. My husband did most of the cooking this year. Everything we ate was homemade. All of the foods met my strict dietary needs, from stuffing without any grains in it, to baked apples without any sugar added. It was all super delicious!

Sauce made from whole cranberries and apple juice concentrate. Tart but yummy.
Our bird, full of grain-free stuffing.

While our group was small, the carefully made food and attention to aesthetic details did make it feel like a party. I felt a quiet joy throughout the day that tells me my Thanksgiving day celebration was a success.

Did you do anything to personalize your holiday this year? What handmade touches did you add to the festivities?

9 Reasons I’m Thankful for Facebook

It’s that time of year, when we stop and reflect on all the good stuff in our lives. While I’m grateful for my family and friends, the roof over the my head, the food on the table, and my recently restored health, I thought I’d take the time to be thankful for something that mostly gets criticized: Facebook. One of the more famous internet black holes, Facebook can suck up your time and brain. But there are some great things about it, too.


  1. I can skip reading the paper and listening to the news. Not only does the big stuff show up on Facebook, but you have people to moan with when the news is not good.
  2. I can get a cat fix without having to install a litter pan.
  3. I have somewhere to go when I need to laugh.
  4. It’s free.
  5. The quizzes posted on Facebook reassure me that I am indeed unique. My inability to pick from the limited choices reminds me that I can’t be pigeon-holed. Then I get an answer that I disagree with, just like 79% of the people who took the quiz.
  6. I get to see pictures of people I knew in high school and wonder when they got old.
  7. I have something to do when I cannot face whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing at the moment.
  8. The complete circle of life is there to be seen: births, deaths, weddings, graduations, vacations, and the need for caffeine to get us through it all.
  9. Best of all, I’ve seen a cat in a shark suit riding on a Roomba. I can die knowing that I have truly lived.

Thank you, Facebook.

In case you somehow missed it, a cat in a shark suit riding on a Roomba:
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Is there anything you’d like to thank Facebook for?

How I Found Out Grains Make Me Hungry (And Why I’m Happy About It)

I stopped eating grains in June of 2013 to see if I could improve my health by changing my diet. It was my nutritionist’s idea and I was finally desperate enough to listen to her, even though grains had been a major part of my diet for decades.

I stopped eating oatmeal for breakfast and brown rice at dinner. I said good-bye to rice pasta and corn tortillas. At least I didn’t have to go through bread withdrawal; I’d given up wheat products years before, when I discovered that gluten was making me tired and depressed.

I started feeling better immediately. My constant fatigue lifted and my limbs felt lighter. The heaviness that made the smallest task seem like a challenge lifted, and suddenly it was easy to do things I had avoided before.

I became a new woman in no time at all.

My awareness of the effect grains have on my body and my energy makes it a lot easier to avoid eating them. The only real problem with giving up grains is that I miss them. When it comes to food, I like variety. No grains means very few starch options, and there are days when I think I’ll scream if I have to eat another sweet potato.

So I suppose it’s natural that, after four months without grains, I was wondering if maybe I could have just a little, now and then, without suffering ill effects.

Friends came to town and we decided to take them to a local Ethiopian restaurant.

Ethiopian food served family-style (photo Nyala Ethiopian Restaurant)
Ethiopian food served family-style (photo Nyala Ethiopian Restaurant)

In the past, we had enjoyed our Ethiopian meals served family style. A big tray lined with injera bread, piled with spiced meats and vegetables is set before you, along with a basket of more injera cut into strips. You use the bread to pick up the meat and vegetables. Savory dishes served as finger food; what could be more fun?

Traditionally, injera is made entirely of teff, a tiny grain grown in Africa. Most American restaurants make their injera with some wheat flour added, but Nyala  offers injera made from teff only. I knew I couldn’t eat injera with wheat in it (gluten is not my friend), but 100% teff might be OK. I decided to give it a try.

By the time our food arrived, I was pretty hungry. I dug in with the others, using the teff-only injera to pick up the spicy meat. As I ate, my stomach growled. At first, I thought my empty stomach was just behind the eating curve. But by the time the meal was nearly done, I was even hungrier than I’d been before. With every mouthful I took, I got hungrier and hungrier and hungrier.

It reminded my of the book The Phantom Tollbooth. Milo is served a meal of Subtraction Stew. The more he eats, the hungrier he gets. He is told that in Digitopolis, people only eat when they are full.

As a kid, I thought this was a hysterical idea. Experiencing it for myself as an adult, I didn’t like it as much.

I had started out hungry, not full. And I hate being hungry.

I came away from that meal acknowledging that grains, especially grain ground into flour, makes me hungry. I eat food so I’ll stop being hungry. I’ve recognized in the past when something like fruit juice or caffeine increased my appetite and made changes as a result. But this was the most direct and immediate example of a food making me hungry that I’ve ever experienced.

I could be upset that my attempt at having just a little grain was a failure, but I’m not. I’m grateful to realize that grains cause me this problem. For years, grains were a big part of my diet, and for years, I struggled with my weight, because I was hungry all the time. I didn’t know then that the food I was eating was causing the problem, but I’m glad I know now.

A Blue Jay Reminds Me Not To Take Things for Granted

The first Thanksgiving after my divorce, I wound up at my sister’s in-laws’ for dinner. Along with their immediate family, they had gathered in other strays like myself, including three people from Britain.

There were bird feeders in the backyard, and we talked about the fact that I worked at the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell. Later, one of the Brits pulled me by the sleeve to the window.

“What,” she asked in a breathless voice, “is that?”

She pointed out the window and I looked, expecting some bland and difficult to recognize “little brown bird”, afraid I would disappoint her with my ignorance.

Sitting on the feeder was a blue and white bird with black markings on its face and a tall crest of blue feathers.

“It’s a blue jay,” I said in a tone of complete indifference. Where I grew up, blue jays are as common as coffee shops in Seattle.

She was undaunted by my world-weary attitude. “Wow.” A northern cardinal arrived and she asked me its name. She was just as excited to see it as she had been to see the jay. She grabbed her friends and they all stared out the window with their mouths hanging open as the jays and cardinals came and went.

Those red and blue birds that were so familiar to me looked exotic and tropical to the visitors from England. My ordinary was their extraordinary.

As I stared at the bright plumage of the birds and listened to their gasps of wonder, I promised myself I would remember that jays and cardinals are beautiful. I wouldn’t let the fact that I saw them all the time dull me to their beauty. I would not take them for granted ever again.

Only I did. I lived in New England for ten more years, and I saw jays and cardinals all the time without thinking back to the wonder those British travelers had felt.

I now live on the very western edge of the eastern blue jay’s territory, in a place where there are no cardinals at all. There are other lovely jays to see here, but they aren’t as striking as the blue jay I grew up with.

I was lucky enough to see an eastern blue jay last week. I spent a lot of time watching it through my binoculars, admiring the crisp black and white markings and the brilliance of the blue feathers on its head and back.

Eastern Blue Jay  photo by Kurt Fristrup
Eastern Blue Jay photo by Kurt Fristrup

I gloried in getting such a good look at it. We have feeders up, but jays rarely come in to them. I often hear them calling when I take Dory on our walks, but to actually see one clearly is a treat.

I have learned again that blue jays are extraordinary. Now when I see one, I remember those Brits at Thanksgiving, and share their wonder at the beauty of a jay. I promise myself that I won’t take them for granted ever again.

I can’t wait until I get to see a cardinal.

The Magic of Gardening: Mom’s Lesson Takes Root

I don’t think of my mother as a gardener. To me, she is a planter. The house I grew up in started with an acre of bare dirt on a steep hillside, but Mom changed all that. For years, she bought bare root bushes and trees and planted them everywhere. Our neighbors used to tease her about all her sticks, but today that house has a forest of mature trees around it, thanks to Mom.

Mom did her best to share the love of planting with us when my sister and I were kids. Every year, we laid out a huge vegetable plot and planted our seeds one at a time. We did our best to keep up with the weeds and bring in the harvest.

“Gardening is like magic,” Mom would say. “You put a seed in the ground, sometimes a tiny, truly insignificant looking speck, and with sun and water it turns into a huge plant, with flowers, leaves, and even parts you can eat.”

The word “magic” should have gotten my attention, but vegetables were not my thing. I didn’t eat raw tomatoes until I was a teenager. Zucchini and broccoli seemed inedible. Growing vegetables had no appeal. If we’d been planting chocolate chip cookie bushes, then I would have cared.

Besides, gardening was hot, dirty work. I didn’t like putting my fingers into the soil. Who knew what was hiding in there? Worms, bugs, maybe even slugs. Shudder. Whenever I had to dig into the dirt, I held my breath, terrified I’d touch something icky.

The thing I liked best about gardening was getting the Burpee kid’s packet. For 99 cents, you got a single envelope containing a mixture of mystery seeds. I loved that there were big seeds I could recognize, like the corn kernel and the wrinkled pea, and tiny seeds that looked like specks of dust. I loved holding that diverse pile of seeds in my hand. Planting it didn’t seem necessary at all.

Fortunately, I am learning the joys of gardening as an adult. I eat lots of vegetables today that I wouldn’t even look at as a kid (including broccoli), and harvesting is one of my favorite activities. I love pulling zucchini off the plant and realizing that my bowl is already full before I’m done picking the ripe tomatoes.

Part of our harvest (2012)
Part of our harvest (2012)

I’ve also discovered the peace that comes with wearing gardening gloves. I don’t think I’m as sensitive about the bugs and worms as I was, but I wouldn’t dream of digging into the soil without putting on one of the many pairs of gloves I own today.

My favorite gardening gloves. Perfect for pulling up thistles.
My favorite gardening gloves. Perfect for pulling up thistles.

Mom was right. Planting seeds is magic. I usually gripe and moan about the work that goes into getting all our plants into the beds in the spring (Sorry, Kurt), but when summer is well under way, I am proud of our garden. I admire the giant plants that grew up from sprouts and am astonished every time I pick a vegetable off a vine. Their appearance is nothing less than miraculous.

It took Mom’s lessons thirty years to take root, but her planting skills are formidable. The gardening seeds she planted in me are sprouting and growing, blossoming long after you might think they were dead.

Just like magic. Thanks, Mom.


What about you? Do you garden? Did you as a kid? Did an adult try to pass on a loved pastime that you didn’t learn to appreciate until later in life?