Category Archives: Writing

Meeting Reeve Lindbergh

“You write, and if there is one person in the world who you are sure will understand it is enough, and what you write glows with some kind of inner life, some life of its own.”  (Anne Morrow Lindbergh: War Within and Without, p.447)

[Over the years since the publication of Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I’ve worked on some other essays reflecting, specifically, on Anne Morrow Lindbergh and writing. This one captures a memory I’ll never forget.]

When Anne learned the news that Antoine de Saint Exupery had been killed flying for the French resistance in World War II she confided her feelings of futility about continuing to write into her diary. Anne knew that above all others Saint Exupery had deeply understood her work—he got her. She’d written The Steep Ascent—her 1944 novella—to him.  Anne’s meeting with Saint Exupery in 1939 had emboldened her to attempt this first work of fiction. Based on an true harrowing incident that occurred while flying over the Alps with Charles, The Steep Ascent is a parable that illustrates Anne’s belief, shared by Saint Exupery, that life is lived most fully when one is conscious of the shadow of death. Her hope for its publication was that it would reach him—as a letter might—but it never did. He died too soon. What was the point of writing now, she wondered. Who else could understand as he could?

Many things motivate people to write. Money, fame, immortality, recognition, self-expression, pure love of the craft—any or all of these may fuel a person. But I believe that underlying all these things one who has the soul of a writer writes for a more fundamental reason: the longing to connect. No matter the subject matter. Whether you have a story to tell or a subject to bring to life, you write because you want to touch someone—you long for communion.  

While working on the reflections for Gifts From the Spirit I was aware of writing to please myself. This may sound strange, but when you’ve lived most of your life trying to please others and finally are able to embrace the futility of that it’s enormously liberating. I had learned so much in the twenty years since I’d first imagined writing the book to actually doing it. In writing the reflections I was reminding myself of what I’d learned to be true.   

I later realized there was a little more to it than this. While I didn’t really write to please anyone but myself, there were certainly people who I wanted to like what I wrote.  First on that list would have been Anne herself.  I was aware, though, that she would never read my book; she died the year before its publication.  But right behind Anne on my list was her daughter.

Reeve Lindbergh is the youngest of the six Lindbergh children. Of the four remaining siblings, Reeve is the only daughter and the most actively involved in supporting the legacy of her parents. She is the author of several children’s books as well as books having to do with her famous family. I’d read her work over the years and it was clear to me that she’d struggled with who her parents were and who she was in relation to them, and that she was an aware, sensitive person, as her mother was. I hoped that one day I would meet her. 

At my very first meeting with Roy Carlisle in San Francisco he suggested I contact a member of the Lindbergh family to explain my proposed book. He felt it might be important to have their support in getting permission to use quotes from Anne’s diaries and letters. I knew just which family member that should be.

A few weeks after I sent off a letter to Reeve, care of her publisher in New York, I came home to a message from her on my voicemail.  She not only liked my idea for the book, she gave me the name, address, and phone number of her mother’s editor at Harcourt, Brace in San Diego and told me I should let the editor know that she, Reeve, had recommended I speak to her. She also left her own number at her home in Vermont, telling me to feel free to phone her if I wanted to.  Her voice was warm, enthusiastic, and kind—it was clear she wanted to be helpful.  It took a couple of days for me to recover from the shock and thrill of receiving this message. Then I worked up my courage to call her back.  

“She of all people would know whether I had captured something of her mother’s essence in my reflections. She seemed to feel I had, and that meant the world to me.”  

I learned that Reeve loved her mother’s diaries and letters best of all her published work and so was pleased to support a work that celebrated them. We spoke for several minutes and all the while I was speaking calmly and normally–I hope–my feelings were jumping up and down inside of me, doing back flips and cartwheels: Oh my God. I’m talking to Reeve Lindbergh! At the end of the conversation I promised to keep her posted on how the project developed.

Once my manuscript was complete, I sent it to her. Not long after, she sent me a handwritten response. This was not the first time I’d received a note from her and wouldn’t be the last. I have a file marked “Reeve Lindbergh” where I keep this treasured correspondence. Her lovely and gracious letters came on heavy ivory note cards with her letterhead printed in black at the top. This time was no exception.  My heart was in my throat as my eyes slid over the now familiar black-inked half print, half script.  She wrote:

How very touched my mother would be, as I am, to know that you have taken her words and gone forward with them into your own unique and important wisdom, out into the world. Your own understanding is extraordinary, your own words so beautiful—“The unbearable is latent everywhere. Even in beauty.” She would love that!

Reeve Lindbergh had quoted my own words back to me!  She wrote some other wonderful things about my book too, things that she gave my publisher permission to quote to use for promotional purposes.  

I was flooded with warmth, gratitude, and a deep sense of satisfaction. Reeve’s opinion was important to me because I knew I could trust her response. She of all people would know whether I had captured something of her mother’s essence in my reflections. She seemed to feel I had, and that meant the world to me.  

The summer before my book’s publication I finally met Reeve in person in her hometown in Vermont. Knowing I would be in the east, visiting friends in the New York area, I had called ahead from California and invited her to meet me for lunch. I would happily make the drive to Vermont from New York. To my delight, she accepted and suggested an inn where I could spend the night when I got into town.  At noon the day of our meeting, I was in the lobby of the hotel, pacing as nervously as a teenager before a blind date, waiting for her to pick me up—something she had graciously offered to do. In a moment, Reeve came bursting through the front door, all smiles and warmth, and full of apologies for being just a few moments late. Her daughter had just returned from a trip the night before, and they’d sat up late talking. She shooed away my protestations about taking her away from her with a laugh; she was still in bed!  They hadn’t even unloaded her gear yet, she said as we headed into town, waving her hand toward the backseat of her Jeep that was a jumble of duffle bags and jackets.

Dressed in a cool periwinkle summer dress with a simple golden chain around her neck and gold hoops in her ears below her short curly blond hair, Reeve was down to earth, extremely easy to talk to, and a very good sport, even posing for a picture with me at the bookstore where we stopped for lunch. I felt a slight hesitation in asking for one when she introduced me to her friend, the bookstore owner, but I knew I would always regret it if I didn’t. There was a dream-like quality to this meeting and I was afraid that if I didn’t have a picture, I would suspect later that I had made it up.

Once introductions were over, we settled into our booth at the café and ordered iced teas and smoked salmon salads. I had read over the menu, registering absolutely none of it. Food was the furthest thing from my mind, so having no appetite, I simply followed her lead. As the waitress retreated, Reeve folded her hands and directed her china blue gaze at me across the table.

Now. What are we going to do to help you sell your book?

I was struck speechless for a moment, but it wouldn’t be the last time that day.

The conversation that followed included everything from the sharing of names, phone numbers, and addresses of people she felt I should contact, to discussions about future writing projects—hers and mine—to what kinds of books we each liked to read. I learned that Reeve is partial to mysteries. 

Occasionally, moments of awareness would flash across my consciousness, and I’d realize I was seated across the table from the daughter of two icons of the twentieth century. Two icons that I felt I knew intimately from reading everything they had ever published. The sense of the surreal vanished quickly, however, as the normalcy of simply enjoying our salads and iced teas and discussing everything from publishing to our sons who are about the same age brought me back to the present. And all the time the laundry of her returning daughter was sprawled across the backseat of her green Jeep Grand Cherokee that waited for us outside at the curb—just like any mother’s might be.

Afterward we lingered in the bookstore for a bit, chatting and browsing through the children’s section, where we saw several of her titles. Just as I was thinking that our time together was drawing to a natural conclusion and that we would soon head back to drop me off at my hotel, Reeve asked if I would like to come out to her farm to see the home where her mother had spent her final days. 

Things were not feeling so normal anymore.

“Reeve led me inside the cozy tent-shaped cottage that felt as if her mother had been there as recently as that morning. What is this thing that is presence and yet not presence?

When in her nineties Anne had become debilitated by dementia and a series of strokes that rendered her unable to communicate or care for herself, Reeve’s husband designed an A-frame that duplicated the chalet that had been a second home to her in Switzerland for many years. Then he built it on their farm property just yards from their own home.  It was here that Anne spent her final days with round the clock caregivers and her daughter and her family, and it was here that she died.  Reeve wrote poignantly about this difficult chapter of their lives in her book No More Words: A Journal of My Mother Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

I was mildly stunned. Agreeing to meet me for lunch had been so kind of Reeve. It was more than enough. This was an extension of grace I had not expected.

Our easy conversation continued unabated on the drive out to her farm. We swapped impressions of my hometown, St. Louis, the city whose name was borne across the Atlantic on her father’s plane, the city that cherished all things Lindbergh and welcomed her as one of its own. She also told me about a theatre company there that once invited her to a premiere of a play about the kidnapping and murder of her oldest brother—as if this was something she would actually be interested in seeing. We shook our heads in mutual dismay at this. The flow of our talk slowed just as we pulled up to the chalet and parked. Then, silence descended.

The sense that I was treading on sacred ground was palpable, and I became very quiet. Reeve led me inside the cozy tent-shaped cottage that felt as if her mother had been there as recently as that morning. What is this thing that is presence and yet not presence? [1] I thought of Anne’s apprehension of her lost baby boy so many years before as she touched the clothing and playthings left behind in his empty nursery. In the same way, she now seemed to be present in this space so full of her things. We walked through the door, past the tiny kitchen and into the sitting room where a worn and comfortable blue and white patterned sofa rested under a large picture window that looked out onto the Vermont countryside. The mantel over the fireplace was lined with feathers, stones, and shells. Dozens of shells.  

Reeve walked over, picked one up, and pressed it into my hand. Here, she said gently.

Wordlessly, I accepted the gift and my fingers closed around it. The smooth thick cone shell fit perfectly into the palm of my hand and I clutched it as she led me from the living room into the room that had been Anne’s bedroom, the room where she died.

Here was the window that looked out onto the tree where, despite the bleakness of February, birds came and perched on its snow-laden bare branches just after her passing. First the chickadees, then the juncos, then the bluejay. All paying their final respects, all saying goodbye.[2] She had loved birds and taken joy in watching and feeding them daily.

Next to the window was her bed, a single bed, and I thought of how she had lived for more than twenty years as a widow alone. Framed photographs seemed to fill the room and covered the entire surface of her desk. Here were the real people I had only read about: Charles, their children, their grandchildren, Anne’s own parents and brother and sisters—many of them long gone—only their images witnesses to her passing. I stood on the edge of this small room taking it in as Reeve stood quietly in the doorway, and was overcome again with a sense of Anne’s presence as tears welled in my eyes. I was standing on holy ground. Wordless, still, I could only breathe and grasp my shell tightly.  

Eventually Reeve took me down some carpeted stairs to the basement, a finished room with floor to ceiling bookshelves that was Anne’s library, and the transcendent spell was broken by the unwelcome intrusion of my cell phone. I quickly apologized and switched it off. As I perused the titles, many of which were first editions of the Lindberghs’ own books just like the ones on my own shelves at home, Reeve explained that many of the books would be donated to a local Buddhist meditation center. I remembered reading in her book that some of Anne’s caregivers in her final years had been associated with that center.

I have no recollection of what we spoke of later on the drive back to my hotel. I do remember, though, that when Reeve and I took our leave of each other at the entrance to the inn amidst an embrace and my murmurs of profound thanks, Anne’s shell remained tucked into the palm of my hand as if it simply belonged there. It had never occurred to me to put it into my bag. Like a small child who receives an unexpected, too-good-to-be-dreamed-of treasure, I couldn’t seem to let it go and held it firmly all the way back to my room.


[1]  Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), p. 258.

[2] Reeve Lindbergh, No More Words: A Journal of My Mother Anne Morrow Lindbergh (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001) p. 169

Sue and Her League of Extraordinary Women

Sue Trantham Rector (back row, third from right) is a woman with an exceptional ability to attract, lift up, and inspire just about everyone she meets.

Sue and I were high school classmates, but didn’t actually become friends until we were well into middle age.

A few years ago out of the blue, I received a long, lovely email from her. She reintroduced herself, told me a good deal of her life story, and explained the reason for getting in touch.

Sue was in a transition period in her life. She had discovered Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic itself: Gift from the Sea and wanted me to know how much both books had meant to her.

As she wrapped up her email, she wrote:

When I finished your book, I felt somewhat sad because I am always looking now for ‘genuine friends,’ those individuals that I can truly be myself and have a connection, an intimacy with. Wish you still lived here…I think we could be good friends.

I so appreciate you helping me go down a path to discover Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s work and for the path that your words took me, to help me become more aware of myself, who I am, and who I want to continue to be…(I) wish I could meet you and shake your hand. You touched my life and helped me a great deal. I will share your work and Anne’s with as many women who are willing to take the challenge to look inward and find a place of their own.”

The rest of the story is that we did indeed meet and have become good friends. Sue has been true to her word. She continues to tell the story of what Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea and my Gifts from the Spirit have meant to her, buys copies, and gives them out generously to her friends.

“Sue… is a woman with an exceptional ability to attract, lift up, and inspire just about everyone she meets.”

When I was in St. Louis recently she gathered about a dozen of them for dinner in a private room at a restaurant and invited me to share in a conversation about the discovery of my grandmother’s copy of Gift from the Sea that led to my own path of self-discovery as an author.

Through her conscious decision to make choices about where she puts her energy and who she allows into her life, Sue attracts like-minded friends. Her tremendous ease within herself enabled her to host the evening with poise and put all of us at our ease too.

Sue’s intention to fill her life with extraordinary women—genuine friends—has blossomed, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

A few weeks afterward, Sue’s friend Pam Lee pays it forward with her book group in Florida.

What is This Thing That is Presence and Yet Not Presence?

Not long ago when we moved my mother and had to break up the home she and my father shared for thirty years, the only St. Louis home my son ever knew, the hardest thing to let go of was my dad’s ancient workbench. This excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh is for all of us who have lost fathers this Father’s Day.

“My boy is so far away, even here [at her mother’s home]–until I went upstairs. As I walked into his room…everything came back. I looked at his toys, the rooster, the Swedish horse…the little blue stool, his cart of blocks…Then the bureau drawers–each one so full of him. Just the familiarity of my hand on the crib seemed to put him back there. What is this thing that is presence and yet not presence? I went down crying but more satisfied.”

HOUR OF GOLD, HOUR OF LEAD, pp. 257-258

Anne made this diary entry just eleven days after she learned that her infant son had been killed. Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. was stolen from his crib at the Lindbergh’s Hopewell, New Jersey, farmhouse in March of 1932. After two months of raised and dashed hopes for his safe return, the eighteen-month-old child’s body was discovered half-buried in a wooded area less than five miles from their home. He never lived beyond the night he was taken.

Six months pregnant with her second child, Anne was visiting her mother’s home, where she and her husband and child had lived while they waited for their own home to be built. They had not been back since baby Charlie’s death. Anne tiptoed upstairs and gently opened the door to her son’s room. She was flooded with more than memories: she felt his presence. The smell of the tin of Johnson’s baby powder, the little crushed blue jacket he wore over his sleeping suit when he came downstairs to play every night, his gray pussycat with the tail nearly off. In each of these things, she found her baby. She stole back downstairs in silent tears, but was comforted. He didn’t feel so far away.

“What is this thing that is presence and yet not presence?” Visiting my mother in St. Louis a few months after my fathers’ death, this question became real for me. I was there for our annual summertime sojourn, the first time I’d been home since his funeral the winter before. I lived in California now, and the geographical distance had buffered the realization that he was gone. Intellectually, I knew he was, of course. But, emotionally, it wasn’t entirely real; when you don’t see someone regularly you don’t meet the person’s absence as sharply as you do when you live nearby.

While I knew there would be a reckoning with this trip, it didn’t come right away or in any way I expected.

I didn’t apprehend the reality of his death in the places I thought I would. Not in his empty, dark blue, leather recliner, situated in the best possible location in the family room for TV viewing. This was the “dad” chair, reserved for him with unspoken understanding all the years I was growing up and into the present—except when his grandson came to visit. (My son was granted a special dispensation to park there for his morning cartoons.)

I didn’t find it either when I sat at the desk in his study. He’d sit there to read the paper while his grandson took over his armchair in the family room. Tipping back in his swivel chair, with drugstore reading glasses perched on the edge of his handsome nose, my father would peruse the St. Louis Post- Dispatch—even if it was that liberal paper that knocked the Globe-Democrat out of business.

I didn’t realize the fact of his death, either, in what would have been his empty place at the table. Just as his chair had the best view in the room for seeing the television, my father had the best view in the breakfast nook, the place he and my mother took their meals. At his place you could look out a bay window onto a pastoral scene where horses grazed in a field thatpage45image3675840touched their property. Now my mother moved my older brother, who was also visiting, into this spot. (If it sounds like the men in my family get preferential treatment, it’s because they do.) So even his absence at the dinner table didn’t strike me deeply.

That my father was permanently gone did not become real to me until several days into the visit, when I ventured downstairs into the basement. That’s where it hit me.

I slipped quietly down the carpeted basement stairs. Yes, carpeted. My father was the kind of man who not only carpeted his basement stairs, but also regularly vacuumed the concrete basement floor. Instinctively, I made my way over to his workbench.

My dad built his workbench when he and my mother bought their first house. They had moved twice since, and never left the workbench behind.

Standing in front of it now, I pictured it in the tiny laundry room it occupied when I was four, and then later in the larger laundry room in the house where I grew up. It was a permanent fixture in the life of our family. It was the place where things that needed to be repaired were piled, where shoes that needed shining were shined, where my father could often be seen hunched over, working his magic on some electrical gizmo (his favorite word of choice) that needed overhauling.

I grew up believing that my father could fix anything.

Years later, when my parents moved to the new house, he would take my son downstairs to the basement and let him tinker with him at his workbench. I can still see my preschool- age son perched atop a sturdy plastic drum of laundry detergent before scraps of discarded wood, drilling holes with the old manual drill that had belonged to his great-grandfather, and hammering nails with his grandfather’s tack hammer—right alongside his granddad. Some summers they would make special projects together. One year it was a birdhouse; another, it was a concrete-and-tile steppingstone for the garden.

Although I stood alone at that moment with my memories rushing at me, I was surrounded by my father’s presence. He was there.

There, in the stained, scuffed surface of his workbench where he had polished shoes, built Pinewood Derby cars, repaired lamps, painted furniture, framed pictures, fixed the cord on my mother’s iron, and completed innumerable other tasks that kept the surface of our lives functioning smoothly. And each tool, hanging in its spot on the pegboard of his workbench just where he’d left it, was full of him.

I was overwhelmed by his presence. And I knew, for the first time, that he was gone. The reality that I hadn’t been able to access before came now. And along with the tears that came from deep inside my body came the knowledge of what he had meant to me.

My father was a man who wasn’t comfortable with his feelings and didn’t share them easily, and so he showed that he cared in practical ways. Building, repairing, improving, fixing–he loved to do all of these things and we received the benefits. Here was a man who showed care through his handiness. He was able to love through doing the thing he loved. My loss became real that summer day because in my father’s workbench I found his essence.

“What is this thing that is presence and yet not presence?” Anne asked. It may be this: We inhabit the things we love and, even in death, if we have loved we leave some of ourselves behind.

“When one finds a person who has the same thought as yours…”

When one finds a person who has the same thought as yours you cry out for joy, you go and shake him by the hand. Your heart leaps as though you were walking in a street in a foreign land and you heard your own language spoken, or your name in a room full of strangers.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh: WAR WITHIN AND WITHOUT, p. 33

A picture of a young Anne Morrow Lindbergh sits on my desk. I clipped it from a second-hand bookstore copy of Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead and put it in a brass frame that once belonged to my grandmother. The picture of Anne’s sad face, photographed shortly after the kidnappingand murder of her baby boy, has been a companion for years. It sat on my desk when I lived in Princeton, New Jersey, and it is here on my desk in Southern California, where I live now, right next to a photograph of my grandmother.

It was my grandmother’s copy of Gift from the Sea that introduced me to Anne Morrow Lindbergh. This first edition teal-and-white volume rested untouched on a bookshelf at my parents’ home for years after my grandmother’s death when I was ten. During my teenage years I spent hours talking to my friends on the phone that hung on the wall next to this bookcase. I gazed at the binding of this book nearly every evening as I chatted, connecting to my friends, the world outside my family. Sometimes I even picked it up and looked at it, mildly curious about the woman married to the man for whom my high school was named. But I was not curious enough to read it. Not then anyway.

It wasn’t until my twenties–when I was home on vacation from graduate school at Princeton Seminary and preoccupied about my vocational future and a man in my life–that I pulled the book out to read. I was absorbed immediately. Maybe enchanted was more like it. It wasn’t just what she said–which spoke right to me–it was the way she said it. There was beauty in the way she used words. As I read on I was moved further.

Sparingly etched in blue ink throughout the book were underlines and an occasional exclamation mark: “The problem is not merely one of Woman and Career, Woman and the Home, Woman and Independence. It is more basically: how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center; how to remain strong…” [i] and “Woman must be the pioneer in this turning inward for strength…” [ii] and “…women need solitude to find the true essence of themselves…” [iii]

The markings were in my grandmother’s handwriting. It had been more than twenty years since her eyes and hand had swept across these same pages, but at that moment I felt she was with me. Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s words became a bridge for me, linking me to this woman I had loved so much and lost.

Discovering who my grandmother was through Anne’s words was important to me because in some way that seemed to tell me more about who I was too. It was reassuring to know that the grandmother who had meant so much to me when I was small thought about her inner life. Maybe this was why I’d felt so connected to her as a child.

When you find a person who has the same thought as yours, you want to get to know her better. My grandmother was gone, but there was much more I would learn about Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

After reading Gift from the Sea, I searched for anything and everything I could find by or about her. Most of Anne’s books were available at the Princeton public library, fortunately; they were nearly impossible to own, though, because nearly everything but Gift from the Sea and her one book of poetry, The Unicorn, were out of print. I became well acquainted with second-hand bookstores, and occasionally was lucky enough to find one of her books. Then the man I married conducted an all-out nationwide search–in the days before the Internet existed, mind you–and, amazingly, unearthed every hardcover volume I didn’t already own, surprising me with them for a wedding present. My collection was complete.

The dearth of availability was a mystery to me. While Gift from the Sea continued to sell millions all over the world and had become an inspirational classic, what about the rest of her work? Why was it out of print? And why was practically nothing written about her?

I discovered Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s work when I was a seminary student, struggling to learn more about the meaning of life and God–and myself. Privileged to be attending one of the best theological schools in the country, I studied with professors who were world-renowned and read widely in fields as diverse as psychology, philosophy, education, theology, Biblical studies, women’s studies, and history. But what I kept coming back to, what I really wanted to read, was more of Anne. Her work touched not only my mind, but my heart, too.

I was fascinated by the life she led. As a major twentieth-century figure married to an American icon, she was both a player in and witness to some of the most important historical events of her time. But what was even more remarkable than that, to me, was her inner life. Here was a woman who, in the eyes of the outside world, seemed to have it all. Raised with all the advantages her wealthy parents could give her, Ivy League educated, married to the most popular man in the world, she was talented and successful in her own right and became a best-selling author. But this wasn’t the whole picture.f866fe37c963cf1e832e8e69a006cfe3

The rest of the picture–the picture that emerged as I read her published diaries and letters, is that of a woman who was alienated from herself, who struggled to understand herself, her relationships, and her place in the world. I saw a woman who had not arrived, but was on a journey–a journey toward self-awareness.

Anne’s body of literary work follows the same theme: The journey of spiritual awareness–of coming home to yourself. Whether it’s her poetry, her prose, or her personal writings in her diaries and letters, she takes her reader by the hand, and graciously, companionably, points the way: Take the inner road, she says. The answers are inside you. My Post-It note-marked, scribbled in, underlined, and highlighted five volumes of Anne’s diaries and letters are scattered here on my desk today, right alongside my pictures of Anne and my grandmother. Bring Me a Unicorn; Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead; Locked Rooms and Open Doors; The Flower and the Nettle; and War Within and Without. These dog-eared, slightly yellowed, tattered book jacketed copies were second- hand to begin with, but they are treasures to me nonetheless, for what they meant to me as a young woman who was on the threshold of self-discovery and what they mean to me still.

Coming across Anne in these books was like meeting someone who spoke the same language I did. Her reflections resonated deep inside me: Yes. I know just what you mean. When I read Anne’s diaries and letters I felt less alone. Here was someone who struggled with the same things I struggled with, who put into words things I felt but could not articulate, who reminded me of some knowledge dormant inside me: that the things I long for are already within me. And who, by her example, gave me courage to get on with my own inner journey.

And so I did, and I’d like to share some of it with you. The passages you will read from Anne’s diaries and letters are thoughts of hers that I’ve returned to again and again over the past twenty years. These are the reflections and observations that leapt out at me, that something inside me said yes to. I wasn’t always conscious of why these thoughts seemed so true during my earliest readings. But as the years have gone by and I have understood more about myself, I understand more about her, too. The truth that I apprehended only dimly as a young woman has become clearer with time and self-awareness.

And so I offer one woman’s take on Anne Morrow Lindbergh–who she was and what her legacy is. I hope that in my personal reflections on Anne’s life and words and wisdom, you too may hear your own language spoken. Or your name in a room full of strangers.

(Excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 2002, 2014, copyright Kim Jocelyn Dickson)

[i] Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea (New York: Pantheon, 1955) p. 29.
[ii] Ibid. p. 57.

[iii] Ibid. p. 50.

The $1500 Gooey Butter Cake: NICE!

IMG_1423I’m still in a bit of shock about this year’s fundraiser results. It’s not like I was unaware of the power of the cake, but when it went for $1000 more than the highest bid for indoor skydiving and only $500 less than two primo tickets to the finale of “Dancing with the Stars” I realized that there was more to this story than a box of cake mix, some eggs, a stick of butter, powdered sugar, and cream cheese.

Each year during my school’s annual benefit season, teachers are asked to donate their time and talent in experiences that are put up for auction and bid on the night of the gala. Last year when my initial offering of gooey butter cake appeared, it was bought straightaway for the suggested price of $200. (The $200 Gooey Butter Cake) It went so quickly that this year I knew it would be put up for auction without a ceiling.

A week before this year’s big event, when it was time to make my sales pitch at morning chapel for my “Teacher Experience” that wasn’t an experience at all, I knew I’d have to update my approach.  That meant just one thing. I had to come clean. The previous year I’d ended my presentation dramatically, reminding students that gooey butter cake was NOWHERE to be found in southern California and that their best chance of having it again was in asking their parents to bid on the one I’d bake for them, St. Louis-style.

As it turned out, this was not completely true.

‘In the interest of our school policy of honesty in all things and truth in advertising, I come before you today to set the record straight,’ I confessed as I stepped up to make my pitch. ‘A reliable source informs me that gooey butter cake can now be found in southern California!’

Stunned silence as the following picture appeared on the overhead screen:

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When the gasps of horror and giggles died down I explained that I’d done some investigative research and this is what I’d discovered.

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More gasps.

I compared and contrasted the two products, pointing out that despite its claim as the ‘Gateway to Flavor’ and the friendly price point of $1.49 or 2 for $2.50, the extensive list of ingredients on the Walgreens’ brand of gooey butter was nearly unpronounceable as compared to the simplicity of ingredients in my homemade cake. I tried to be as kind as I could about the inferior imposter and closed my pitch with this call-to-action plea:

‘I’m sure the folks at the NICE! company mean well, but wouldn’t YOU rather have a gooey butter cake baked just for you by a NICE teacher like ME?’

Apparently, that clinched the deal. The rest was gooey butter history.

In hindsight I’ve realized that along with the sheer power of the cake there were some basic sales principles at work here that, despite the fact that I nearly failed Econ 101 my freshman year of college, I have finally understood:

  1. Create a buzz. Because I use gooey butter cake as an example of my favorite dessert in class when I teach expository writing, students are inundated with knowledge about it, intrigued by its foreign Midwestern origins, and curious to sample it, which leads to…
  2. Don’t underestimate the role of the stomach in decision making. After we complete the writing unit I bring in samples of GBC for the students to taste. Their heightened anticipation from hearing all about it along with its pure deliciousness creates further buzz.
  3. Limit supply, increase demand. Now that gooey butter cake is a benefit item I no longer share the recipe with students and their families. Big deal, you might be thinking. Anyone can get the recipe in a hundred places on the internet. True, but not one baked just for them by their writing teacher. Which returns us once again to #1.

There’s one more principle that renders my list pretty much irrelevant because it’s the one that really matters. And that’s the generosity of the parents who purchased this St. Louis-born treat to help our school and make their daughter and her classmates happy.

Now THAT was really nice.

 

The Nap, Revisited

Long KdgI wasn’t always a big fan of the nap.

As my kindergarten report card attests, rest time was the first subject I ever failed in school. (Click on report card to enlarge if you don’t believe me.) I really didn’t see the point in lying quietly on a hard linoleum floor for fifteen minutes when there were so many interesting things to explore—the play kitchen for one. My lousy grade wasn’t the only price I paid for my restlessness though. All that long year I was never chosen to be the child who tiptoed around tapping nappers on the head with a sparkly silver-starred wand, granting permission to rise and stow away mats. Only the students who “relaxed” earned that privilege.

Before entering school I was a big-time nap resister as well. I am still mortified to reveal I slept in a crib until I was pushing four. Four! Later I always wondered: were my parents too chintzy to invest in a big girl bed for me during those years? Were they trying to keep me, the baby of the family, a baby? Or—and this is what I’ve decided was probably the case—was it my mother’s only hope of catching a break? I learned recently there’s a parenting syndrome called “third child fatigue.” I was the third child and I hated naps, so my mother must surely have been fatigued. Without those confining side rails there was no way I would’ve stayed put on my bed and given her the rest I’m sure she desperately needed.

What a difference a few decades make. I first discovered the joy of the afternoon nap as a college student, catching up on late hours spent studying and having fun. Then later, when I was pregnant with my son, I found myself answering the siren call of the snooze every afternoon around three. I realized after he was born that my body had been preparing me for his schedule all along. When he went down at three o’clock for his afternoon siesta, so did I. Our inner alarm clocks were in synch long before he made his appearance.

Today naps are a luxury I’m free to indulge in only during summertime and the occasional weekend. Nothing is lovelier than curling up with a book after lunch, feeling my eyes grow heavy, and floating away for a few minutes. Taking time out from my to-do list feels like the ultimate gift of self care. When I come back, I’m refreshed and ready to resume my day again.

Arianna Huffington discovered the importance of taking time out for rest in the middle of the work day herself after collapsing in exhaustion during her early days running the Huffington Post. She has since installed two nap rooms at HuffPo, where employees can sign up for one hour slots. They are always filled. Imagine–a workplace where a nap is not only tolerated, but encouraged!

I would love to go work there. In the meantime, perhaps I will install a George Costanza-like bunker under my desk at school and disappear during my prep times. I might even make a sparkly silver-starred wand and add a new and, no doubt, coveted position to our roster of classroom jobs. Teacher Waker!

Honoring the Heroic Human Spirit…

IMG_1155“I think that the human spirit—for all its dark side that I here portray—is in essence heroic.”                —Herman Wouk

I came up for air not long ago, after a two month immersion in the extended global conflict known as World War II. Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance—two volumes, 1,924 pages in all—were so compelling that if I could have put the rest of my life on hold, just to read, I would have.

I’d missed these best-sellers when they were first published in the ’70s and the subsequent mini-series of the ’80s. My history-loving son had read them as a freshman in high school and recommended them to me last summer. Having just spent a couple of years reading fiction and nonfiction around World War I, of which I’d previously known little, I was ready to move on. World War II seemed to me a more familiar subject. So many books and movies had covered the era that I wasn’t sure there was more to understand. I was wrong.

The brilliance of Wouk’s epic novels is in his ability to transport the reader into places and events around the world through the narrative of one American family and their circle of friends and loved ones. Wouk manages to make you care desperately about these characters, so much so that you find yourself willing to follow them anywhere. And follow them you will. The setting ricochets around the globe from Washington D.C. to Berlin, from Pensacola to Pearl Harbor, from London to Stalingrad, from the bowels of a submarine in the Pacific to the belly of a RAF bomber over Germany, from the Oval Office of the President to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Wouk manages to weave the fictional Henry family’s story into the historical narrative and the lives of actual historical figures believably, and the contrivance to place his characters in these key global hotspots is hardly felt because the story he tells is so engaging.

Harrowing, yet fascinating, the novels engendered in me a newfound appreciation of just what was at stake in this conflict that Wouk called “the worst world catastrophe” and how the geopolitical map changed because of it. One can’t help but wonder about the countless ‘what if’s’ as well. What if the British hadn’t been able to hold out against the Nazis as long as they did and England had succumbed to Hitler? What if Hitler hadn’t opened the eastern front in Russia? What if Germany had succeeded in developing the atomic bomb before the United States? And the big what if: What if the Allied nations had recognized the cancer that was metastasizing in Germany in the 1930s and intervened when Hitler invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia?

I can’t remember when I’ve read such an enthralling work of historical fiction, the kind that tells a character-driven story so well that you find yourself absorbing the history of the time almost as a by-product. The kind that makes you more appreciative than ever of all of the courageous men and women who served then and serve now.

Appendix: After writing this review, I came across this Atlantic article on Herman Wouk, who turned 100 this year. Despite winning the Pulitzer for The Caine Mutiny, Wouk has not received his critical due from the literary establishment. The issues are addressed here.

Trust Your Apathy

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“I am beginning to respect the apathetic days. Perhaps they are a necessary pause: better to give in to them than to fight them at your desk hopelessly; then you lose both the day and your self-respect. Treat them as physical phenomena–casually–and obey them.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, LOCKED ROOMS, OPEN DOORS, p. 276

 

I love this advice. It so goes against the unspoken rule in our culture to grit your teeth and slog on, no matter what.

Feeling tired, sad, or depressed? Get over it. Better yet, take Prozac. And then get over it. At all costs, keep busy, keep moving, keep achieving. Don’t slow down or you’ll never get where you want to be. And the guy behind you will overtake you and get ahead of you.

Who can deny we are an externally motivated culture, taught from early on to move away from the feelings that connect us to our spirituality and inner voice?

Anne struggled with apathy around writing her first book after the kidnapping and death of her son. Her family legacy and that of her husband, Charles, was to suppress pain through action. All of them dealt with difficult feelings by moving away from them. Her parents were wrapped up in public service, and Charles literally moved away from his own grief by taking to the air. Anne was encouraged from all sides to put the loss of her baby behind her by busying herself writing her book.

But she knew that was not the answer.

Anne’s lack of energy for writing, no doubt, was due to the loss of her child and her isolation in her grief. She couldn’t share her sadness with the people closest to her in any meaningful way, and so she worked her feelings out by writing in her diary and confiding in her closest friends.

During this period Anne learned that she had to pay attention to her inner rhythms. For her, learning to go with one’s internal energy flow was like sailing. You can’t force a boat to go further into the wind than it can without losing momentum and your bearings. The only thing to do is give it its head. It will swing and swing and suddenly catch the wind, bite into it and go. You may have to tack back to get on course, but ultimately you get there more quickly. For Anne, the road to writing her book was through her grief. She couldn’t step around it; she had to go through it.

I have often felt that if I lacked energy for doing something I needed or wanted to do that meant it would never be there. Whether it’s the energy for doing something as important to me as writing this book or something as trivial as trimming trees in my yard, any lull in motivation meant the energy would be gone forever; the thing would never happen. I have come to see that energy for any particular thing, like so much in life, simply ebbs and flows. There may be obvious reasons for it–as in one’s energy being tied up in grieving the loss of a loved one–or the reasons may be more mysterious. Maybe the time is just not right.

What is becoming clearer to me is that I can trust my internal inclinations. When I am impelled to do one thing and not another that may even appear to make more sense, I have learned to go with my impulse. When I do, I find, just as in Anne’s sailing metaphor, that while the path may be less direct, I get to my goal more quickly. And I avoid the wasted doldrums of guilt and self-chastisement and “I should be doing such and such.”

Recently I’d been sitting at my computer writing for four hours. I stopped for lunch and began to think about the things I needed to do in the afternoon: go to the bank, get the tires on the car rotated, exchange a scarf I needed for a wedding, stop at the grocery store. Yawn. I was exhausted from sitting and concentrating all morning and felt no desire to do all those things. Yet they needed to be done. I really wanted to get outside–it was a gorgeous, sunny eighty-degree day–and be in the water. And so I did. I went for a swim, dipped in the Jacuzzi, sunned for a while, and relaxed. Two hours later I was rested, showered, and able to do my errands easily. Had I pushed myself to do them first I would have felt tired, cranky, and put-upon. My little detour ended up being just the thing I needed to help me reach my goal.

A list of errands may be a small thing, but I find the principle holds true for the bigger things as well. When, like Anne, I “trust my apathy” and stop to consider what I really want and need in any moment, I hold life and life holds me much more graciously.

[Excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh]

The $200 Gooey Butter Cake

ImageWhat price gooey butter cake? I found out last month at my school’s annual benefit and fundraiser.

Every year teachers are invited to offer “experiences” to raise money for various programs at our independent school. Imaginative offerings run the gamut from after school Zumba classes to splashy high ticket items that are usually put up for bid at live auction. They have titles like “Disneyland with Your Teacher, 2 Friends, and All the Churros You Can Eat!” or “Limo Trip to the American Girl Doll Store for High Tea with Your Teacher and 3 Friends!”

What did I have to offer? I racked my brain for inspiration. I felt a bit like the little drummer boy without the frankincense, gold, or myrrh. I had no Disneyland season pass upon which to draw. And I’d raised a boy, so I didn’t know from the American Girl store.

What is it that students really want? I asked myself. And then the answer came to me. They want gooey butter cake.

Each fall when I teach my fifth grade students how to write the dreaded opinion essay, I draw them in by way of their stomachs. I model the classic five paragraph structure with my own topic, “My Favorite Dessert.” Once they write their essays, I bake a gooey butter cake and bring it to class for them to sample. They swoon. They rhapsodize. And they beg for more.

If you’re not from St. Louis, you may not be familiar with this simple, yet irresistible confection made from cake mix, eggs, butter, cream cheese, and powdered sugar. If you are from St. Louis, no explanation is required.

Two weeks before this year’s benefit, I donned my chef’s hat, took up my wooden spoon, and made my pitch during morning chapel. A dramatic PowerPoint presentation, “The Gooey Butter Cake Story,” recounted the legend of how it came to be–by accident of course, as all great discoveries seem to–during the Great Depression in St. Louis. I reminded my current and former students that this delectable treat could be found all over my hometown, but NOWHERE in southern California. That seemed to clinch it.

A parent reported to me afterward that her son predicted my gooey butter cake would “…go for thousands!” and urged her to get there early. 

The event organizers apparently weren’t clued in to the word on the street, so put it up for silent bidding with the option to purchase outright for $200. As instructed, my student’s mother got there early and snapped it up.

I wasn’t able to attend, but heard that there were quite a few disappointed people. The gooey butter cake was the talk of the evening. I was proud of my hometown. SoCal wants St. Louis gooey butter cake! Next year? Live auction!

Got Plot? A Handy Quick Check

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Recently I was sitting in on a picture book critique workshop, listening and reading along as a writer read from her work-in-progress, a story with no clear plot structure. I’d read many such meandering stories over the years as a writing teacher of children, until it occurred to me that the same simple strategy that my literature students use to summarize chapter and book plots could be used as a pre-writing task for storyboarding the main plot points in writing. What a difference! Using this method with my writing students has resulted in clearer plots and tighter stories that are much more satisfying to read.

While there certainly are more sophisticated and refined plotting techniques for writers of picture books to utilize, I find the following scaffold can quickly determine whether a story has a narrative structure.

Ready for this ‘handy’ trick? Open your hand and put out your thumb, then each subsequent finger for each bullet point.

  • Someone: Your main character
  • Wanted: What does your character want? This can be explicit or implicit and must carry though from story’s beginning to end.
  • But: What is the problem/obstruction that keeps your character from getting what he/she wants?
  • So: What does your character do to overcome the problem?
  • Then: The resolution. Does your character achieve what he/she wanted?

Someone wanted, but, so, then. A simple frame, but it’s enough to hang a story on. Try using it as a storyboard when planning your picture book or next chapter. Or use it as a diagnostic tool after you’ve written, to see whether your story has essential plot points. I’ve even introduced the frame as a discussion device in my book group, which has provoked some lively debates as we hammer out just what exactly our book was really about.

Simple, quick, and always handy, this tool is just an arm’s length away!

[This post was originally published at The Rhubarb Writers Group blog, July 2014]