Honoring Your Wishes


The death of Baldr (Wikimedia Commons image)

Today’s post is a sermon I gave Sunday at Trinity Episcopal in Iowa City. Regular readers will recognize some familiar themes from previous Holy Rover posts. If you’re interested in the Honoring Your Wishes program but don’t live in Iowa City, you can find similar programs in many other places. In the U.S., see Caring Connections, which is part of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. A growing number of other countries have similar programs.


My friend Teri, who came from a large Catholic family in Dubuque, used to tell a story about the death of one of her aunts. As the woman neared the end of her life, her daughter called Teri to ask if she wanted to be part of the group that was gathering at her mother’s bedside.

Teri asked how many people were there. There was a pause as her cousin did some counting, and then she replied, “Oh, there are about 65 of us here.”

Teri decided that her aunt probably had enough loved ones to see her off.

Now that’s quite an image, isn’t it, of all those relatives at a bedside? I hope Teri’s aunt was a people person.

I’ve thought of this story a number of times in relation to Trinity’s new Honoring Your Wishes program, which is part of a national effort to make the American way of death more humane and gentle. The death experienced by Teri’s aunt (while perhaps a bit overpopulated with relatives) is increasingly rare in our country. Most people will instead die in hospitals, separated from those they love, often after undergoing medical procedures that have been done not to provide them comfort or cure but rather because loved ones didn’t know their advance wishes and doctors want to protect themselves from potential liability.

81lKYnfLpGL._SL1500_Physician and author Atul Gawande does a brilliant job of dissecting the problems with this system in his new book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. In it he says that surveys have found that most people’s priorities for end-of-life care are much broader than simply prolonging their lives. Their top concerns include avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others, and achieving a sense that their life is complete. Writes Gawande: “Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars. The question therefore is not how we can afford this system’s expense. It is how we can build a … system that will actually help people achieve what’s most important to them at the end of their lives.”

The Honoring Your Wishes program is part of building that new system. LaCrosse, Wisconsin, shows what can happen when it is widely adopted. Nationally, about 30 percent of adults have an advanced health care directive detailing their end-of-life wishes. In LaCrosse, about 95 percent do. It has simply become the norm to talk about end-of-life matters in LaCrosse. As a result, LaCrosse has the lowest per capita health expenditures in the last year of life of any city in the U.S. More importantly, its citizens have been spared an immense amount of grief and heartache. Because of these discussions, people tend to have better deaths, with fewer hospitalizations, better quality of life, and less stress on families.

Here at Trinity, we have three members who have gone through Honoring Your Wishes training. We hope everyone in the parish will make an appointment for an Honoring Your Wishes session. While you may already have had discussions with a lawyer covering legal matters, this conversation is more holistic in scope. It generally is done in two parts. You’ll be asked to think about what your wishes are for your final stage of life. You’ll designate two health care agents who will make decisions for you if you are not able to make your wishes known. The result is not a check list of procedures—ventilator “no,” feeding tube “yes”—but rather a narrative that will guide those who love you. You may think this is something that only the elderly need to be concerned with, but in many ways it is best to think of these matters well before you are likely to confront them. And sometimes tragedies occur, of course, even to the young and healthy.

I know Bob and I found our Honoring Your Wishes conversation to be very thought-provoking. We consider it to be a gift to our children to have our end-of-life wishes be explicit, detailed, and known to them. The conversation has also helped trigger a deeper reflection on what makes life meaningful to us. This is one of the things that makes the Honoring Your Wishes program different from visiting with your lawyer. Health care decisions are important, of course, but confronting our mortality raises existential and spiritual questions of far greater importance. In the words of Buddhist teacher Kathleen Singh, thinking about our deaths can be like jet fuel for our spiritual practice. It’s why medieval monks kept skulls on their desks and Buddhists meditate in graveyards.

41fiKyUKqnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Singh writes about the power of this path in her book The Grace in Aging. She explores the ways in which growing older can help awaken and deepen our connection to spirit. Many of these opportunities, frankly, we likely see as negatives. If we’ve relied on beauty or power for status in the world, inevitably they will fade as we age. If we lacked the time for spiritual practice when younger, illness or disability may give it back to us. If much of our life has been spent feeding the ever-hungry ego, growing older gives us the chance to look at what we’ve mistakenly nurtured with such care.

Singh uses a memorable image to illustrate how many of us live. When we feel threatened or insecure, we respond like jack-in-the-box toys. Our thoughts and habits are like that clown that keeps bouncing up from his box. We each have our clown of choice: perhaps anger, self-pity, a need for approval, a seeking after control, a desperate clinging, or jealousy. These are our habitual escape routes, well-traveled paths that condition our responses to whatever we confront.

Since reading Singh’s book, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own jack-in-the-box. Singh doesn’t present a magic formula for keeping that clown from re-emerging when I least expect him, but I think I am a little less automatic in letting him loose. And if you think you don’t have one of those jack-in-the-box clowns-—well, you’re welcome to have mine. I’m getting awfully tired of him.

The paths to spiritual growth as we grow older are many. Silence. Solitude. Forgiveness. Humility. Mindfulness. An opening of the heart. Seeing this process unfold is one of the reasons why it can be so transformative to be around those who are dying. Perhaps you have been privileged to see this happen. Old hurts get forgiven. Memories are cherished. The best in people emerges, as if dying is a fire that burns away all their impurities.

I remember visiting my great aunt when she was well over 100. There was not much left of her other than love. I was a bit startled when she told me how much she loved me, in fact, because we hadn’t been particularly close. But I think she deeply loved me then, just as she radiated love for the nurses who took care of her and for the housekeeping staff and for anyone who happened to wander into her room by accident. That’s a pretty good way to end your life, loving everybody who comes through your door.

The Bible certainly gives us plenty of messages about our mortality. Think of all those passages in the Psalms about flesh being like the grass. Or recall that powerful moment in every burial service when the priest faces the bodily remains of the person who has died and says, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That same phrase, of course, we will soon hear on Ash Wednesday. As Christians we believe that the grave is not our final end, but I think our faith also invites us to wrestle with the spiritual challenges of confronting the inevitability of our deaths.

(Wikimedia Commons image)

A couple of years ago I had the chance to hear the Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr give a speech. At the end he answered questions, including one from a speaker who identified himself as a Hospice employee. The man asked Rohr why he thought so many people struggled spiritually as they approached the end of their lives. Rohr answered with this: “You don’t want to leave your homework,” he said, “until the night before the test.”

So here at Trinity, you might think of the Honoring Your Wishes program as a kind of homework. If you want extra credit, you can read Gawande’s book Being Mortal and Singh’s book on Grace in Aging.

Or here’s something you can do right now, a little exercise that I hope will help you realize why these matters are important. I invite you to close your eyes and take a deep breath, and then another. And I hope you will remember that these breaths are not infinite. One day they will cease. They are a slender thread that ties us to life.

One breath.

Then another.

Each one a gift.

Posted in Aging & Spirituality | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

It’s Your Funeral. Discuss.

We seem to be on a theme of spirituality in aging these days, so in that spirit I offer to you a video recommended by my friend Lucy, who had seen singer Christine Lavin in concert recently. Lavin sang a song about what can happen when you don’t plan your funeral in advance

(Note to my family: I want my body to be put in a Viking longboat on the ocean–or the Coralville Reservoir if that proves too difficult–and have one of my sons shoot a flaming arrow from the shore to set it alight. There should also be plenty of wine served at the reception).


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The Grace in Aging

41fiKyUKqnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Every so often I come across a book I read very slowly. I want to savor every sentence, wring every bit of meaning out of each line, and think deeply about how the words apply to my life. Kathleen Dowling Singh’s The Grace in Aging: Awaken as You Grow Older
is one of those books.

First, let me acknowledge that it has a somewhat clunky title. It sounds frightfully earnest, doesn’t it, like the literary equivalent of bran cereal? And books on aging don’t exactly fly off the shelves, unless they’re ones on how to slow down the process of growing older.

Singh’s book is meant to appeal to those who don’t want to live their last decades on spiritual autopilot. Her central premise is that aging (whether you’re 40 or 90) is an opportunity for spiritual awakening.

In chapters that include meditations on Withdrawal, Silence, Forgiveness, Humility, Presence, and Commitment, Singh explores Buddhist teachings in an accessible way. This may be the single best book I’ve ever read on Buddhism (or perhaps it’s just that I’m more open to the truths of Buddhism now than I’ve been in the past). But Singh’s gentleness, insight and wisdom will teach you a great deal even if you’re a member of another faith or follow no organized religion.

“Are we willing to leave this unimaginably precious gift of a human life unopened?” she asks in the book, explaining that growing older gives us a wide range of triggers for awakening. Many of these opportunities we likely see as negatives. If we’ve relied on beauty or power for status in the world, inevitably they will fade as we age. If we lacked the time for spiritual practice when younger, illness or disability may give it back to us. If much of our life has been spent feeding the ever-hungry ego, growing older gives us the chance to look at what we’ve mistakenly nurtured with such care.

Confronting our mortality, writes Singh, is jet fuel for our spiritual practice.

Dying, of course, lurks behind all discussions of aging. No party, however fun, lasts forever. One can see this essential fact as depressing and tragic–and certainly in individual cases it is, and Singh doesn’t suggest we short-circuit the natural process of grief, either for ourselves or for the loss of a loved one. But if done well, a person at the end of his or her life moves through the classic stages of spiritual growth to surrender into the grace in dying.

Writes Singh:  “What we will observe, if we have the privilege to be present with someone at the end of his or her life, are the following special conditions: opening to mortality, withdrawal, silence, solitude, forgiveness, humility, the practice of presence, commitment, life review and resolution, opening the heart, and opening the mind. Those of us who are still living can take powerful lessons from the dying. Each of these special conditions is a powerful catalyst for transformation. They release us from grasping to self. Working skillfully, we can introduce and make use of these conditions in the midst of life, in these very chapters of being old. Just as these special conditions facilitate the grace in dying, they can lead us directly into the grace in living.”

Jack_in_the_box,_pg_1 (1)

Note the fleeing rats (Wikimedia Commons image)

Singh uses a memorable image to illustrate how many of us live. We are like jack-in-the-box toys, she says, each of us reacting the same way when we feel threatened or insecure. Our thoughts and habits are like that clown bouncing up again and again from his box. We each have our clown of choice: anger, self-pity, a need for approval, a seeking after control, a desperate clinging, or jealousy. These are our habitual escape routes, well-traveled paths that condition our responses to whatever we confront.

I’ve been thinking about my own jack-in-the-box a lot since reading this book. Singh doesn’t present a magic formula for keeping that stupid clown from re-emerging when I least expect him, but I think I am a little less automatic in letting him loose.

“How many of the finite number of breaths that I will breathe in this lifetime remain to me?” Singh asks. “This next inbreath. Will it come? This next outbreath. Is it the last? We are very present in such moments. There is no frivolity. Nothing inessential sweeps us back into dull and clouded mindlessness.”


(Photo by Bob Sessions)


Let me end with one of my favorite passages in the book:

“It’s a bit chastening to see how often we can think, after rising from a meditation or sitting or teaching, ‘Now . . . back to the real world.’ It’s important to rise slowly. It’s important, if we have so chosen, to remember that the intention to awaken encompasses every moment. No moment can be excluded.

There is, initially in a practice and for quite a long time afterward, a dynamic of compartmentalizing our spiritual life. We rope off many corners and many rooms in that vast, interior castle.

We want to resist that decades-old impulse to fall back into the dream of self, the sleep of form only. It’s very helpful to look at the areas of our lives that we wish to cordon off or that we don’t choose to view with the eye of spirit. What’s off limits? Is it work? Relationships? Family? What we do for relaxation? Is it vanity? Is it attachment? Or grudges? Or fears? Shame or other unhealed aspects of our psyche? It’s good to know what we hold as not available for inquiry. There lies our ignorance.

Eventually, as we continue to engage these last years for spiritual practice, we come to see that every moment, every interaction, every circumstance arises from the ground of being. Every moment is one of the places where our feet make contact with the noble path.”



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Sacred Journeys, Near and Far


Reese Witherspoon stars in the movie Wild, which chronicles a pilgrimage on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Now that the holiday season is past, I’m back to Rovering again here at the Holy Rover. But even during my break away from writing, the theme of pilgrimage kept coming up. Today, near the beginning of this new year, I want to share some of those gleanings.

The first is the Reese Witherspoon movie Wild. I’ve been a bad girl, I’m afraid, and didn’t read the book first, but I loved the movie. It’s based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, in which she recounts her 1,100-mile walk on the Pacific Crest Trail. She is perhaps the most woefully underprepared hiker ever to complete this challenging route (the scenes with her ridiculously heavy backpack are worth the price of the movie). But as the film went on, it became increasingly obvious to me that she was on a pilgrimage. I don’t think the word was ever used specifically, but her journey had all the hallmarks: the seeking after meaning, the desperate need to recover from trauma and heartache, and the healing that slowly happened because of the journey. It’s a splendid film, one I highly recommend.


PBS’s Sacred Journeys series explores six of the world’s great pilgrimages, including Shikoku in Japan. (Sacred Journeys image)

And then there’s the new PBS series by Bruce Feiler, author of books that include Walking the Bible. His Sacred Journeys is a six-hour documentary that takes viewers along on some of the world’s great pilgrimages: Lourdes in France, Shikoku in Japan, Jerusalem in Israel, The Hajj to Mecca, Kumbh Mela in India, and Osun-Osogbo in Nigeria. Like the Wild movie, this series is wonderful, full of personal stories of those making the pilgrimages as well as gorgeous photography and thoughtful meditations on the theme of spiritual journeying. Each of these hour-long episodes can be viewed for free through the PBS website. I recommend all of them.

Bruce Feiler wrote a lovely piece for the New York Times on The New Allure of Sacred Pilgrimages. In it he talks about the surprising growth of pilgrimage travel around the world despite declining levels of commitment to organized religions in many countries. The United Nations estimates that of every three tourists worldwide, one is a pilgrim, for a total of 330 million people a year. These figures include 30 million to Tirupati in India, 20 million to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, 15 million to Karbala in Iraq, and four million to Lourdes.


Kumbh Mela is the world’s largest pilgrimage, held every 12 years on the flood plain of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India. (Sacred Journeys image)

Part of the reason for this growing interest is that International travel is far easier today than ever before But Feiler says that even more important is the increasing fluidity of religious identity. People are seeking out their own answers to questions of faith and tradition. He quotes a pilgrim who had made the journey to Israel: “The moment that you stop questioning,” he said, “is the moment you stop growing. You’re either walking in the direction of God or you’re walking away.”

I especially like what Feiler has to say about the need to be active in one’s spiritual life: “So much of religion as it’s been practiced for centuries has been largely passive. People receive a faith from their parents; they are herded into institutions they have no role in choosing; they spend much of their spiritual lives sitting inactively in buildings being lectured at from on high….A pilgrimage reverses all of that. At its core, it’s a gesture of action. In a world in which more and more things are artificial and ephemeral, a sacred journey gives the pilgrim the chance to experience something both physical and real. And it provides seekers with an opportunity they may never have had: to confront their doubts and decide for themselves what they really believe.”

So as 2015 begins, perhaps the idea of pilgrimage is blossoming in your life as well. It may be a journey across the world or to a retreat house close to home. It may be an interior pilgrimage, one of illness, grief, or loss. It may come near the beginning of your adult life or near the end. But today I hope you’ll take a minute to ask yourself, “Where am I called to go? And what do I need to learn?”


A pilgrim at Lourdes in France takes part in a candlelit procession. (Sacred Journeys image)

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After the Fire, a Rebirth in Stuart


The Saints Center for Culture and the Arts in Stuart, Iowa. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Sometimes the stories in the news seem overwhelming, don’t they? Each day brings another tale of intolerance, injustice and tragedy. So today I want to tell you about a place that has restored some of my faith in the goodness of humanity: the Saints Center for Culture and the Arts in Stuart, Iowa.

Its story begins in the early 1900s when the Catholic community in this small town west of Des Moines decided to build a church. And not just any church: they wanted a BIG church, one that was loosely modeled after St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. The church that opened in 1908 was a blend of Byzantine and Romanesque styles, with an exuberantly Baroque interior complete with handpainted frescos, stained glass from Germany, altars of Italian marble and a massive copper dome 90 feet above the ground.

For nearly a century this church, known as All Saints, was a regional landmark, voted the “Most Beautiful Church in Iowa” by readers of the Des Moines Register and well-loved by the entire community of Stuart.

And then on an August day in 1995, an arsonist poured 25 gallons of gas inside All Saints and ignited a conflagration that drew 20 fire departments from a 50 mile radius. Despite the best efforts of the firefighters, by the time the flames were extinguished virtually everything in the church was destroyed except for its exterior walls. The arsonist, a man named Charles Willard from Des Moines, was motivated by a hatred of the Catholic Church and a desire to (in his words) “take the heart and soul out of a small town.”

The fire in 1995 destroyed virtually everything but the walls of the church. (photo courtesy of Saints Center)

The fire in 1995 destroyed virtually everything but the walls of the church. (photo courtesy of Saints Center)

Willard was caught (which wasn’t hard, since he sent letters to two bishops and a TV station claiming credit for the crime). He later served a dozen years in prison. The town of Stuart, meanwhile, struggled with the dilemma of what to do with the shell of the building. Catholic leaders had decided that the cost of rebuilding was too great and that instead a new church would be built on the outskirts of town. The loss of Stuart’s most famous landmark was a blow to the entire community.

And then a miracle occured.


Detail from a door in the Saints Center (photo by Bob Sessions)

Well, in more prosaic terms, a lot of things came together, but it’s hard not to see the entire process as somewhat miraculous. The citizens of Stuart, a town that hadn’t passed a bond issue since the 1950s, approved a $1.7 million measure to help fund the building’s restoration. The state of Iowa contributed grant money. Individual citizens gave donations. By 2007, $4 million had been raised, and over the next two years a massive restoration project was undertaken.

In 2009 the church opened once again, this time as the Saints Center for Culture and the Arts. Today it hosts a wide variety of special events, including weddings, concerts, theater performances, and reunions.

When I visited the Saints Center recently, I found it hard to believe that this remarkable building had been reduced nearly to ruins. Today its main hall is a warm, inviting public space, filled with light from the clerestory windows underneath the dome that once again tops the structure. White walls alternate with columns of exposed brickwork from 1908. While much of the church’s Christian iconography has been removed, its original St. Joseph altar is kept in an alcove in the main hall. Darkened and damaged by the flames, it is kept as a reminder of the fire.

According to Dick Doherty, one of the prime movers in the drive to restore the Saints Center, the building’s rebirth has been a catalyst for growth for the entire town. “The Saints Center has helped revitalize Stuart,” he says. “It’s become a very popular place for weddings, in particular, and that has helped other local businesses like caterers and hotels. Thanks in part to the money that’s been brought into the town from the center, we’ve been able to build a new city hall, school, and aquatic center.”

The main hall of the Saints Center is filled with light from the windows that line its dome. (photo courtesy of the Saints Center)

The main hall of the Saints Center is filled with light from the windows that line its dome. (photo courtesy of the Saints Center)

The fire has had another surprising legacy:  the Learning Museum for Religious Tolerance. Housed in two kiosks at the Saints Center, this self-guided, online resource explores Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Indigenous Beliefs, and Chinese Traditional Religions, as well as the path of atheists and agnostics. It includes video interviews with people living within 60 miles of the church who follow the varied traditions. They talk about their beliefs, rituals and hopes for peace among all religions.

“We wanted to show that in the end, tolerance is much stronger than hate,” says Liz Gilman, who headed the online museum project.

Here’s one of the pieces of information about the Saints Center that I found most intriguing: after the fire, structural engineers found that the steel beams in the church’s walls had actually been made stronger because of being tempered by the intense heat of the fire.

That’s what tragedy can do, is that not right? Sometimes it destroys, and sometimes it makes things stronger. That’s true for buildings, and it’s true for people too.

Someday I hope you can visit the Saints Center, to see what can happen when people refuse to let intolerance and hate have the last word.

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The Happiness Curve

Today marks the beginning of Thanksgiving week here in the U.S. It’s hard to think of a more wonderful holiday, for the only things you need to do are eat a lot of delicious food and give thanks for your blessings.

I’ve been looking for something to post about gratitude and came across this article in the Atlantic, one that at first might seem like a bad fit: Jonathan Rauch’s The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis. But the more I reflect on it, the more I realize it’s quite appropriate for the holiday.

At the heart of the article is a conundrum: why is it that life satisfaction typically declines after the first couple of decades of adulthoood, bottoms out sometime during the 40s and early 50s, and then increases with age, often (though not always) reaching a higher level than in young adulthood? The pattern, which has been observed across many cultures, is called the Happiness U-curve.

Illustration by the Atlantic Magazine

Illustration by the Atlantic Magazine

Author Jonathan Rauch writes about his own adventures on the happiness rollercoaster. Despite enjoying considerable professional, personal and financial well-being while in his 40s, he was plagued by a sense of disappointment and frustration. He couldn’t help dwelling on his discontents, both real and imaginary, and tried to resign himself to the fact that he was unlikely ever to be much happier.

He writes: “[Then] as I moved into my early 50s, I hit some real setbacks. Both of my parents died, one of them after suffering a terrible illness while I watched helplessly. My job disappeared when the magazine I worked for was restructured. An entrepreneurial effort—to create a new online marketplace that would match journalists who had story ideas with editors looking for them—ran into problems. My shoulders, elbows, and knees all started aching. And yet the fog of disappointment and self-censure began to lift, at first almost imperceptibly, then more distinctly. By now, at 54, I feel as if I have emerged from a passage through something. But what? … Long ago, when I was 30 and he was 66, the late Donald Richie, the greatest writer I have known, told me: “Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, Is this all? And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, Actually, this is pretty good.” In my 50s, thinking back, his words strike me as exactly right. To no one’s surprise as much as my own, I have begun to feel again the sense of adventure that I recall from my 20s and 30s. I wake up thinking about the day ahead rather than the five decades past. Gratitude has returned.”

The rest of the article explores the reasons why Rauch’s experience is common. Many studies show that the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into our seventh decade or later. What typically happens is that people become more accepting of their limitations. As people age they realize their future is increasingly constrained, and so they set goals that are more realistic and easier to pursue. (Out: winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. In: finishing up that essay for the local newspaper.)

To me one of the most fascinating parts of the article is its description of the “science of wisdom.” Writes Rauch:

There is no evidence … that people get wiser as a result of aging per se (as opposed to learning from experience over time—also, of course, an element of wisdom). And there is no “wisdom organ” in the brain. Wisdom is an inherently multifarious trait, an emergent property of many other functions. . . But it does look likely that some elements of aging are conducive to wisdom, and to greater life satisfaction. In a 2012 paper evocatively titled “Don’t Look Back in Anger! Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Nonsuccessful Aging,” a group of German neuroscientists, using brain scans and other physical tests of mental and emotional activity, found that healthy older people (average age: 66) have “a reduced regret responsiveness” compared with younger people (average age: 25). That is, older people are less prone to feel unhappy about things they can’t change—an attitude consistent, of course, with ancient traditions that see stoicism and calm as part of wisdom. In fact, it is well established that older people’s brains react less strongly to negative stimuli than younger people’s brains do. “Young people just have more negative feelings,” Elaine Wethington, the Cornell professor, told me. Older brains may thus be less susceptible to the furies that buffet us earlier in life. Also, as Laura Carstensen, the Stanford psychologist, told me (summarizing a good deal of evidence), “Young people are miserable at regulating their emotions.” Years ago, my father made much the same point when I asked him why in his 50s he stopped having rages, which had shadowed his younger years and disrupted our family: “I realized I didn’t need to have five-dollar reactions to nickel provocations.”

All of this brings to mind a family treasure that I discovered in my files not long ago:  a 15-page transcript of an interview done by my Aunt Vernelle with my grandfather, Carl Erickson, when he was 82. In it he describes his hardscrabble life as an Iowa farmer with remarkable equanimity. My favorite line is this: “Oh, the first 25 years we was married it was really rough going. But after that it started to get better all the time.”


They got older–and happier.

So here’s to riding the Happiness Curve into our future, surfing along the crest of midlife dissatisfaction until we can land on the Caribbean beach of our 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond. It’s not that everything is perfect there—but the view is good, the pina coladas are delicious and the sand between our toes is warm.

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Thanking Veterans, One Rock at a Time


Bubba Sorensen stands next to the original Freedom Rock near Menlo, Iowa. (Bob Sessions photo)

Today is Veteran’s Day in the U.S. In honor of the holiday I want to tell you of a veteran-themed pilgrimage spot in Iowa—well, to be more precise, make that 26 pilgrimage spots, with the number rising each year.

The story begins in a movie theater in 1999, when Bubba Sorensen, an art and design major at Iowa State University, was watching the movie Saving Private Ryan. Viewing the World War II tale of heroism and tragedy made him want to do something to honor veterans himself. He remembered that near his home in southwest Iowa there was a larger boulder that was typically covered with graffiti. Sorensen decided he would paint the rock with a patriotic mural honoring veterans (though its rough and uneven surface was hardly the best canvas for a work of art).

The local response was immediate and enthusiastic. People loved the decorated boulder, which was dubbed The Freedom Rock. As its popularity grew, Sorensen was asked to do similar projects in other places.

Today Sorensen mural work has become a full-time job. While he does a variety of projects, his patriotic murals on rocks have become his signature genre. His goal is to paint a Freedom Rock in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. So far he’s completed 23, with another 60 counties in line. “I figure it will take me till about 2023 to get all 99 counties done,” he says.

As word has spread of his efforts, veterans have flocked to support him, sometimes in unusual ways. “I remember I was working on repainting the original Freedom Rock in 2006, and a group of guys happened to drive by on their way to Washington, D.C.,” he says. “They were going to scatter the ashes of a friend at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When they saw what I was doing, they asked if I would mix some of the ashes in with my paint. Since then, I’ve gotten this request pretty frequently. Quite a few of the rocks include ashes from veterans.”


Sorenson’s first Freedom Rock is about 12 feet tall and is repainted every year with a new set of images. (Bob Sessions photo)

While Sorensen repaints the original Freedom Rock each year for free, he creates other patriotic murals on commission. Many of the Freedom Rocks are located in out-of-the-way corners of the state, making it a bit of a treasure hunt to find them. “I go with whoever asks me first in a county,” he says. “Sometimes it’s in the center of a town, and sometimes it’s out in the country.”

As I talked to Sorensen, it was clear that his mural work has become both a career and a calling for him. “This has taken off in ways I’d never dreamed of when I started,” he says. “I have three goals: to honor veterans, to promote Iowa tourism, and feed my family. So far I’ve been able to do all three.”

Sorensen’s murals around the state depict images from all of the nation’s wars, from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan and Iraq. The people who are featured are typically veterans from the surrounding area who have been killed in conflict.


A makeshift shrine has been created by visitors to the Freedom Rock. (Bob Sessions photo)

It was a foggy, cool morning when I visited the original Freedom Rock. I was moved to see the tokens that have been left on a nearby telephone pole (for holy sites appear wherever there is need of them). Pinned to the pole were flags, medals, pictures, and patches representing various military units. And in the guest book kept in a nearby kiosk were signatures of people from around the country who had visited the rock. “The original Freedom Rock is getting more visitors every year,” says Sorensen. “We’ve even had people from France, China and Kenya. I enjoy visiting with people while I paint. You never know who’s going to show up.”

I love this story. Bubba Sorensen didn’t set out to make a career for himself. He certainly isn’t getting rich painting rocks in rural parts of Iowa. But he is making a living honoring those who often get forgotten except for Veterans Day. And once he’s finished each rock, it becomes a new shrine for those who were killed in close-to-home battlefields such as Yorktown, Shiloh and Gettysburg, or in far away places like Verdun, Dunkirk, Midway,  Inchon, Xuan Loc, Kandahar, and Fallujah. They stand as sentinels, silently reminding us of those who gave their lives in service to their country.

See The Freedom Rock for information on where Bubba Sorensen’s murals are located. The original Freedom Rock is on Highway 25 near the small town of Menlo, Iowa (one mile south of exit 86 on I-80). 

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That Most Beautiful Form of Courage


Northeast Iowa in Fall (Bob Sessions photo)

What the day gives

Suddenly, sun. Over my shoulder
in the middle of gray November
what I hoped to do comes back,

Across the street the fiery trees
hold onto their leaves,
red and gold in the final months
of this unfinished year,
they offer blazing riddles.

In the frozen fields of my life
there are no shortcuts to spring,
but stories of great birds in migration
carrying small ones on their backs,
predators flying next to warblers
they would, in a different season, eat.

Stunned by the astonishing mix in this uneasy world
that plunges in a single day from despair
to hope and back again, I commend my life
to Ruskin’s difficult duty of delight,
and to that most beautiful form of courage,
to be happy.

“What the Day Gives,” by Jeanne Lohmann, from The Light of Invisible Bodies: Poems by Lohmann, Jeanne published by Daniel & Daniel Pub Paperback, © Daniel and Daniel Publishing, 2003.

Posted in Poetry | 7 Comments

In Which I Unleash My Inner Viking & Discover a New Ancestor


A sign from Reykjavik (Bob Sessions photo)

The picture at left (a sign we saw in Reykjavik) begs the question: why in the world would one want to unleash one’s inner Viking? They were, after all, the feared Northmen who plundered and raided the coastlines of Europe for hundreds of years, beginning with the sack of the English monastery of Lindisfarne in 793.

I knew the reputation of these bad boys on my family tree before visiting Iceland. But while I was there I visited a number of sites that helped give a more nuanced interpretation of the Viking Age, including the National Museum of Iceland, the Settlement Exhibition at the Reykjavik City Museum, the Saga Museum, and Viking World. While I’m not quite ready to buy the entire Vikings-Were-Just-Misunderstood-Farmers explanation, I was happy to learn that my ancestors weren’t an entirely blood-thirsty lot.

Viking-friendly historians point out, for example, that these Norsemen lived in a violent age, and that Europe had plenty of marauding groups that rivaled them for ferocity. What’s more, many Norsemen put their seafaring skills to use as merchants, traders and explorers.


Leif the Lucky and me in Reykjavik (photo by Bob Sessions)

Exhibit A is Leif Erikson. He was dubbed Leif the Lucky because things just seemed to go his way—including landing on the shore of North America somewhat by accident around the year 1000. Leif dubbed the region Vinland (historians can’t agree on exactly where he landed, but a good guess is somewhere on the coast of what is now Canada). He was said to be a handsome, wise and generous man, just the sort of person one wants to have in the family gene pool. I was happy to have my picture taken with him in Reykjavik, where there’s a mammoth statue of him overlooking the city.

It was another statue that caught me by surprise. As we were driving along a deserted stretch of highway on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we came upon a monument honoring Leif’s sister-in-law, Gudrid.

Gudrid was born on a farm near the statue, but she certainly didn’t stay there for long. As you can see from the map below that depicts her travels, Gudrid had the Viking wanderlust something fierce. She lived in Iceland and Greenland before traveling to Vinland, where she gave birth to the first child of European origin in the New World. Three years later, she traveled to Norway, then back to Iceland, where she settled on a farm and raised two sons on her own after her second husband’s death. Then, at an age when most women were settling into old age, she sailed to Denmark and walked on pilgrimage to Rome.


A sign at Gudrid’s statue on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula depicts the many journeys she took. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Let me repeat that: She walked on pilgrimage to Rome. Isn’t that amazing? Historians say Gudrid was probably the most well-traveled woman of the Middle Ages. She crossed the stormy Atlantic no less than eight times. She straddled the Old World and the New and the shift between the pagan and Christian eras. She’s lauded in the Sagas as “Gudrid the Far-Traveler,” a woman renowned for her courage, wisdom and goodness. To this day, most Icelanders proudly claim descent from her.

Forget Leif Erikson–after learning about Gudrid, I want to change my name to Lori Gudridsdóttir.

Nancy Marie Brown’s book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman gives more background on this remarkable woman. Gudrid lived during the era when beliefs in the Norse gods and goddesses were being supplanted by Christianity, but there was still considerable blending of the two traditions. Images of Christ from the period, for example, have a lot in common with muscular Thor.

Brown writes that Christianity was likely adopted first by women in Iceland. While Viking women (freeborn ones, at least) enjoyed considerable status in pagan society, the new religion brought additional benefits. Infanticide–which historically was done more to girl babies–was outlawed. Distinctions between social classes were lessened among converts. But the biggest attraction concerned the afterlife.  “Valhalla, the glorious feast hall of Odin, was open only to men killed in battle,” writes Brown. “Several other gods had halls that welcomed certain dead, but most women . . . could look forward only to a cold, damp, dark, dreary and depressing eternity ruled by Hel, the half-giant daughter of Loki.”

To me the most surprising chapter of Gudrid’s life was her pilgrimage to Rome. Think of it: her husband was dead, her children grown. I can see her standing on the shore of the sea, pondering her future of settled domesticity. I’m sure there was religious devotion in her decision to go on pilgrimage, but I think she also was restless for another big trip. Her feet were itching. She who had traveled so far knew that there was one last journey in her.

And think of what she experienced, this woman who had lived only in remote outposts of the Atlantic. She walked across the Alps, saw huge cities, toured gilded cathedrals, and shopped in markets filled with exotic treasures from around the world.

When Gudrid returned home, she became a nun, living out the rest of her days in a church her son built for her. I’m sure she was devout, but I also think she must have spent a lot of time savoring in her mind all that she had seen.


A statue of Gudrid and her son Snorri stands near the farm where she was born in the latter part of the 900s. (photo by Bob Sessions)

(About the only thing Gudrid did that I don’t approve of was naming her first son Snorri. If you look at the picture of her statue at right, you can see what happens when you name your son Snorri: everybody thinks he’s a dwarf.)

Isn’t life wonderful? I came to Iceland eager to learn more about Leif Erikson, but to my delight I found an ancestor I claim even more enthusiastically.

Gudrid’s story helped me realize that there seems to be a recessive gene for travel in my family. The Vikings had it in spades, but through the centuries it became diluted. By the time it reached my farming ancestors in Iowa, it had pretty much dwindled out. My parents, wonderful people in all other ways, viewed travel with the deepest suspicion. Even a trip to a seemingly friendly state like Wisconsin or Minnesota held multiple risks—uncomfortable beds, unfamiliar roads, the prospect of getting lost, restaurants where you didn’t know exactly what to order. Best just to stay home.

For whatever reason, however, I got the traveling gene. It explains the route I’ve followed ever since leaving the farm of my childhood, the restlessness I feel whenever I’m home for more than a few weeks, and the sense I have of being most fully alive when I’m on a trip.

So here’s what I learned in Iceland, the insight that turned my trip into a pilgrimage (for the best journeys teach us about ourselves as well as other places). I know that for most of my life, I’ve felt like a chick that was put into the wrong nest at birth. But in Iceland, I discovered that my clan includes a lot of people like me. Some were Vikings, setting off in longboats to raid distant shores. Some were adventurers like Leif the Lucky. And some were like Gudrid the Far-Traveler, who seemed to have taken nearly every opportunity she had to set off to sea. I can recognize a kindred spirit when I see one, even from a distance of 1,000 years.



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Iceland’s Ring Road


The Ring Road of Iceland is one of the world’s great road trips. (Bob Sessions photo)

There are times when we English majors simply have to concede that images trump words.

Today is one of those times, for I honestly don’t know how I can adequately convey the beauty and grandeur of Iceland’s Ring Road. Bob and I spent eight days driving this 2,000-mile route that winds along the coastline of the main island of Iceland. When we started, we kept comparing the landscape to other places we had seen, from Scotland and New Zealand to Wyoming. But gradually we fell silent, for the ever-changing vistas proved themselves to be incomparable.

I know of no other country like Iceland. It holds mountains, waterfalls, high deserts, rich pastures, and tiny villages tucked under the looming shadow of glacier-topped peaks. One valley would be lush and green, and the next as bleak as the surface of the moon. Other than one 15-minute nap, I don’t think I missed a single section of the entire trip, for I was mesmerized by what was unfolding. Each night I dreamed of what we had seen that day, the images and colors gliding one into the next with wraith-like fluidity.

We did other memorable things that week—hikes up steep mountain canyons, meals of fish soup served in tiny cafes overlooking the sea, soaks in outdoor hot tubs with a cold rain needling our faces, and nights when we marveled at the northern lights dancing across the sky. But when I look back, what I remember most is that endless ribbon of highway, beckoning us ever onward, teasing us with the prospect of yet one more radiant expanse of sea, sky and earth.

So I wave the white flag and give up trying to describe it. Instead, here’s a small sampling of what we saw (with thanks to Bob Sessions for the images and Kevin MacLeod for his tune “Long Road Ahead”).

Visit Iceland can help you plan your own trip on the Ring Road.

Posted in Iceland | Tagged | 10 Comments