April 1969

I’ve read a few articles about how and why the art of letter-writing is diminishing, and while I would point out that as technology changes in our day-to-day life our artistic expressions change not diminish, I will say some valid points have been made. Younger generations are used to emails and texts, and think that the USPS is for Christmas cards and junk mail. We tell people we love them many ways, and while I agree that “luv u” in a text does not have the impact of a scripted “I love you” at the end of a letter, I think there are other reasons to take the time to write it all out. By hand, if possible.

Remember when I talked a little bit about Hermes and Hestia? (See “Thresholds”…if interested.) Hermes is out in the world, concerned with helping us transmit data and communicate. Hermes isn’t concerned about content: he just wants to get it out there. Hermes’ counterpart in the Olympiad is Hestia, the protector of hearth and home. She protects that which insulates us, for example not just the physical construct of a home, but the psychological protection of one. She represents not the breadth of our world, but the depth of the relationships and places that formed our understanding of ourselves and our culture.

My father wrote me wonderful letters. He wrote me postcards from wherever he travelled as I was growing up, and they were always loving, and almost always hysterically funny. The best thing he did for me in college (besides paying for it…thanks, Daddy!) was write me letters. Wonderful letters. Pensive, humorous, affectionate, and deeply personal, in the sense that his words showed how well he knew me. And there are many. But here are some of my favorite quotes from letters my father has written me over the years:


 Above: This is a postcard my father sent me from Williamsburg; I was about 8. He wrote:  This is one of the most interesting shops in Williamsburg. Here they make puppy-dogs out of old violin, guitars, and so on. You can see one of the finished dogs on the floor. See you soon!

Here are some more:

  • (Card from him when I was out of college:) My Dearest Lizzie—We are on a train headed south from Seattle to Portland. Out the window I see Mount Rainier rising like some outrageously good idea and shining white and pink in the afternoon sun. I think of you, and I think of love.


  • (21st birthday…he wrote me a poem; here are some excerpts:) You’ve grown and grown as if growing were some obligation/You took on—or out of fear–or out of a joy we older people have forgot/….Keep growing E/And don’t lose the ribbons of a girl somewhere along the way/You always looked lovely in ribbons. 
  • (25th birthday…same thing:) Just missing half my age/She stumbles into 25/All eyes for the surprise/…No matter what, I am for you/Choose as you choose, do as you do./Just take my hand when day is done/You’ll always be my little one. 
  • (A letter when I started teaching:) Happy Birthday, Elizabeth. Once more I write it—and I wish you a happy day, every day. Your teaching goes far beyond the classroom. You have taught me lessons in love, and support, and trust that I could not have learned from anyone else, which is to say that I would not have learned them at all.

Can you imagine how I felt, receiving these words in the mail? Perhaps you know, this eternal gift of words that can be unfolded and rediscovered. And perhaps the younger generations aren’t not writing letters because they’re lazy, as some have suggested. Most grew up not exposed to the joy that comes from knowing that someone out there wasn’t doing anything else, but sitting down and writing to you. If it’s handwritten, it’s a double joy, because as the words were being written, maybe, just maybe, they weren’t also answering email or watching TV. Learn to bring Hestia to your messages, and every now and then, write a letter to someone you love.

Stamps are 49 cents, last time I checked, but buy some “Forever Stamps,” and that way when the cost has gone up to about $5, you still can make the power of your words come from the words themselves, and not how much it cost to send them.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. Thanks for the letters. I love you, like any daughter has ever loved a father, in the best possible way.






I’ve seen this Einstein quote quite a bit lately, usually framed by pictures of various young people texting in places where they should be engaged with either the natural world or another human being. And yes, it is true, engaging with some size screen has replaced many more social forms of interaction. This seems to have consequences that are disheartening for those of us who believe that the very best of human qualities, for example empathy or non-creepiness, cannot be developed through interaction with a computer. I will say, however, as someone who has done a fair amount of research about technology and its psychological ramifications on the creative spirit, that I don’t think we’re being fair to our “generation of idiots.”

Let’s consider for a moment “The Judgment of Thamus.”This fear that technology could interfere with our intellectual capabilities is not a new one. It occurred to Plato, too. In Phaedrus, Plato recounts a conversation between the god Theuth and the then king of Egypt, Thamus, in a story commonly referred to as “The Judgment of Thamus.” Theuth was considered the deity and discoverer of numbers and calculation, and some sciences, but also letters. The god approached King Thamus, offering all of his impressive inventions and encouraging the king to distribute and share these inventions with all Egyptians. King Thamus wasn’t keen on this idea of letters. Theuth assured him that the utilization of letters would improve Egyptians’ memories as well as their wisdom. Thamus was pretty sure that letters would make his people only remember symbols, and not encourage them to actually think with their brains and their souls. Sound familiar?

This past year I dipped my toe into the world of online teaching. The class was called “Technomythica,” and addressed what some of the Greco-Roman myths have to offer in terms of lessons about how humans should develop and use technology. Now, this class was specifically for home-schooled students, so I was teaching a group of young people who rely fairly heavily on modern technology. After 14 weeks of classes, each student was to present a project that reflected his/her understanding of the crucial points of the myths. The projects were amazing. 12 and 13-year-old students clearly understood what I was getting at: that even our most ancient stories, the very foundations for our modern belief systems, are both encouraging and warning us about what the creative impulse can create and destroy. Their conclusions included some profound insights: Prometheus warns of the necessity of forethought, and that the quest for knowledge can lead to unintended consequences. Psyche shows us that we must at all times be aware, and that ultimately the valuable things in life take thinking and hard work. Icarus warns us of our limitations, and Odysseus’s run-in with the Cyclops teaches that ingenuity and being crafty makes even the weak powerful. I was pretty impressed.

So what does any of this have to do with the fact that they won’t put the darn phones down? I think we need to remember the lessons that my students learned, and consider context. It is our job as a community to cultivate a world in which we use our tools for edification and entertainment, ever mindful of the ramifications of an over-reliance on these tools. Aren’t those the kind of challenges we have always faced? Haven’t we always had to adapt as the world changes, figuring out how to uphold our values as a culture? It is the responsibility of the family and the community to temper and protect, as well as teach the safe and edifying uses of our technology. And change is fast and furious; for generations the elders have looked at the younger generation with shaking heads and concern about what has been lost, while the younger generation looks forward with enthusiasm and brazen hubris. That doesn’t make any of us geniuses or idiots. It makes us human.

Einstein also said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is an idiot.” Let us be very mindful that the tools which we are using to measure the intelligence, creativity, and potential of our children is appropriate to the age in which we live. Because someday soon, these texting-in-inappropriate-places children will be bewildered adults, concerned that the younger generation has lost a grasp of the cultural values they have worked their lives to preserve.

Orpheus….and my Mama

Mary-Elizabeth and Elizabeth

Mary-Elizabeth and Elizabeth

The Backward Glance

Happy Mother’s Day! This will all sound irrelevant, but stick with me…I usually have a point. I love the Greco-Roman myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. For those of you unfamiliar with the tale, here’s a very brief recap: Orpheus was a beautiful musician, so beautiful that he was the favorite of the gods. He loved, and married, Eurydice. On their wedding day, Eurydice was tragically bitten by a snake and died. Because of his talent, the gods allowed Orpheus to go to the Underworld to retrieve his love, under one condition: he must not turn around and look at her as they ascended from the depths. He went to get her, but as he reached the Earth’s surface, he turned to help Eurydice into the land of the living, and she tragically fell back into the Underworld calling out her love for Orpheus. Bummer.

The backward glance that Orpheus makes has and is an image of great analysis. Orpheus’s backward glance was inevitable; that’s what humans do, they turn around to help the one they love emerge. Orpheus couldn’t be successful because humans don’t come back from death. But I’m so taken with this story because I love that moment of the backward glance: the checking; the love; the concern; the glimpse to make sure that your love is there; and ultimately, the loss. We are helpless. So I like to think of the myth of Orpheus as an acceptance of impermanence. No matter what our talents, intensity of love, or fervency, we cannot stop life from taking its course.

Ten years ago this June, I left my mother. To be more specific, I wanted to marry Robert, and move to California, which meant leaving the East Coast and my family. One of the first papers I was asked to write when I entered graduate school was about Orpheus, and I needed to reflect on the myth and its application to my life. I found the paper the other day. One of the topics I had been asked to address was a time when I felt like an “orphan”, a word derived from “Orpheus.” But I really think this excerpt is more about the backward glance.

The reference to Rilke is from his poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” The other references are to the writings of the professor for my class, because I’m not stupid. (I got an A+.) Also, the Perlman reference is from Michael Perlman’s Hiroshima Forever: The Ecology of Learning. Great book…highly recommend it also.


Mother’s Day 1993

Here’s the excerpt from my paper: (totally out of context)

…Our soul allows for mourning, which is important on both collective and personal levels. We may well learn psychological commemoration by looking into our own psyches for its place. Perlman writes that “the art of memory at times takes us into an in-between realm, where one experiences the moon-like – part immortal and part mortal—quality of the psyche. It is in this realm…that the art of memory finds its place” (47). In this moon-space where the Orphan looks for direction is where mourning and memory can coexist and then surface to help an individual navigate the abyss with soul in mind.

In July 2004 I stood on a rather remote mountain road in a parking lot in front of Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill, NH. I was facing my mother, and we were saying goodbye.

I was leaving a career, friends, a proximity to family, a birthplace, a history—the very best of which I would always have very close, not just in memories but in my books and my computer and my telephone and most of all in my very skin. I had already, years before, learned the difference between the geography of the country and the geography of my heart.

My mother and I had decided that when it was time for me to go we’d all head up to where I had spent my childhood summer vacations. Somehow it would help having this blurring of past and present as the location for departure.

So there we stood, tensely pushing out the “call-so-I-know-you’re-safe” and the “don’t-forget-to-mail-your-address-change-to-social-security.” My mother’s husband slipped away respectfully and went back into the restaurant, unable to play a role in a goodbye in whose making he had no part. My future husband retreated to the car to escape what he would later call “the palpable emotion of the moment.” Nothing can be said or done in such a moment to convey about what will happen next. So my mother and I went ear to ear; nose to neck; entangled; disengaged; hiccuped “bye,” and parted.

I got in the car and barked out “Go!” as if I had just robbed a bank. Who knows—maybe I had? I have only made withdrawals from a mother’s love account, and do not yet know fully from where the deposits come. I felt like I was taking something away from her, and yet she was gladly giving it.

I shifted in my seat, and my husband said, “Don’t look back; you’ll just make yourself crazy.”

But I cheated. I peeked into the rear-view mirror and caught my mother not soulfully staring after the car, but doing a run-walk back into the restaurant to find her husband… And that was the moment I felt like an orphan.

This is an excerpt from my personal account of a moment when I myself was the Orphan, balanced between two worlds, equally perilous in their limitations to my soul being whole. As Romanyshyn writes, I was “between a home, which is a heritage, and one that beckons as a destiny” (Ways of the Heart 41). My glance back revealed Rilke’s Eurydice in the form of my mother, already gone, “already loosened like long hair, poured out like fallen rain, shared like a limitless supply. She was already rooted” (Rilke 53).But, as Romanyshyn points out, “the backward glance is instruction in the art of holding on and letting go” (151).


In Ireland together…just us!

So this is what I want to say for Mother’s Day: my mother will always be a part of me that is irretrievably hopeful, joyful, and beautiful. I will always wish I could have been more for her, and grateful for the happiness I have brought her. And for forever, I will remember that moment on a mountain in New Hampshire, when I said with my actions that I was ready, that I believed, and that my backward glance was to watch the falling away of my childhood, and my reliance on her to show me how to be a woman.


OMG Canada!



 I don’t know many Americans who think a lot about Canada. I grew up thinking of them as our friendly neighbors to the north. In college, I loved going to Canada: while we could drive up from Massachusetts to New Hampshire to procure beer on a Sunday, Canada was even better because it was legal to be drinking there. It always seems to be an interesting side-note to a biography for a celebrity; “Oh, and he’s Canadian! Well how about that?” Not exactly exotic, but more interesting than American.

In my more recent life, I’ve taken a greater interest in Canada. Now I live in Washington, so it’s close. I’ve visited a few of the provinces over the years, and always had a good experience. Except in high school. I went to Toronto for a band trip and it was a nightmare, but that’s another story that would involve besmirching people who I’m sure are perfectly lovely people now. Also, I wasn’t with Canadians, so it doesn’t count. I spent about a month living on a Native reservation in Alberta in my 20’s and then more recently went on a vacation to Montreal with my mother. I learned enough to know that there is a cultural richness to the country that distinguishes it from America, as well as some quirky social practices and obsessions with sports and foods that I don’t understand.

Now, as with all cultural humor, I’m just as subject to the shame of laughing at that which we find funny because we think it’s true. But I’ve always laughed at jokes about Americans, feminists, white people, Irish, Germans…classifications all of which have a stake in my identity. So while I will “get my dander up” in support of an ethnicity being made fun of, I laughed through the Canadian jokes on How I Met Your Mother. If that reference doesn’t resonate for you, think South Park, maybe Jim Carrey’s bit about being a Canadian. At any rate, here’s a pretty funny clip of Molson commercials that cover many of the generalizations about Canada:


 Funny, right? I know we’re not supposed to say it, but many Canadians do say “ay?” at the end of sentences and it does sound, at least to this American, like they’re saying “aboot”. What I really want to address, though, is the reputation the Canadians have for being nice. Even-keeled, friendly, willing to help, and kind, even under pressure. I’m sure there are plenty of Canadian serial killers, and they have all the problems of any modern culture when it comes to crime, drugs, environmental issues, and such. Plus, we can’t forget that they gave us Justin Bieber. Thanks, Canada.

. A few weeks ago, I went on a grand vacation to British Columbia, designed entirely by my wonderful husband. In honor of my birthday. We were going to drive up to Victoria and spend the night in an absolutely beautiful hotel. Then we were off to Tofino, a resort town on the western coast, where we would stay at a five-star resort on the rocky coast that, evidently, is world-renowned. Then, we would ferry over to Vancouver, spend the night, and mosey on home in our smart little two-seater sports car.

And…..we had a wonderful time. Because of Canadians. Believe me when I say, the cards were stacked against us. Here’s what happened: we were leaving on a Tuesday. The Saturday before, my husband, in pain, went to the doctor, which resulted in a quick trip for an MRI on Monday. We were preparing to leave Tuesday morning and he was in pain. I mean real pain. “We should stay home,” I said, knowing full well the machismo emanating from the man would not allow for any lapse in the plan. So off we went. We found out from his doctor that he had a herniated disk, serious enough that we should go right to the emergency room. Because we are American, we feared a hospital not in our country. Robert would use Alleve and just gimp around. Nothing would ruin this vacation! We’d go to the hospital when we got back!

I won’t go into all the gruesome details that began to build a wall of misery around us, but I will tell you this: the people we met made our experience a perfectly awesome one. I left my phone in the hotel room in Victoria (very typical); all I had to do was call the local UPS and ask for him to mail it to me. This man WALKED OVER TO THE HOTEL, retrieved my phone, and mailed it to me. Maybe he was pretending, but he sounded damn happy to do it. I went shopping in Tofino, and in the drug store, I cut off a man turning down an aisle…obviously my fault. “Excuse me,” I said under my breath, looking at the floor. “Oh, no! It was my fault. Excuse me!” said the man. Then the woman behind the counter walked out to point me in the direction of the wine store (I needed it). Dogs were cavorting and people hugging on the streets. At the liquor store, a woman approached me and enthusiastically gave me a tour of her favorite wines. Then she went outside to talk to my husband about how beautiful his car is. As we drove away, a group of locals waved. OMG. Nice people that weren’t being paid to be nice to us were everywhere.

For the duration of the trip, and in the following week, I referred to my travel companion (I will not say “my husband”, because the hoser in the car with me in no way resembled the sweet, intelligent man to whom I’m married) as “very un-Canadian.” We wound up leaving Vancouver at 6 AM, which would put us in an emergency room in Seattle around 9:30 and we only got caught at the border for aboot 40 minutes. This particular threshold between Canada and the US should be appreciated for its intended purpose of letting Americans know that they aren’t in America anymore (or if they are crossing back into America, cursing is now appropriate again). And, of course, to slow down drug trafficking. We saw someone getting arrested at the border. Exciting, ay?



Here’s why I think a threshold is interesting: it can be a literal or a metaphoric division between two areas that may not even need separating. Thresholds are logical places to make divisions, yet somehow arbitrary as well. I write mostly about culture, mythology and technology, but every day I’m encountering cultural “crossings” that I find fascinating.

Let me give you an example:  My back door sticks when you try to close it, and unless you slam it so it can be heard in Australia, it is not officially “closed.” The fact that door won’t close is fretful to the household; “Did you close the door all the way?” is commonly echoing through our house, and we have been told by two different contractors that to fix this door would defy the laws of physics.  Now, let’s forget about home security and heating bill issues for a moment, and think about what this really means, and why it’s so upsetting. This door separates the inside of the house from the outside. If I want to go “outside,” all I have to do is cross over that threshold. Technically, I can step over that line, and say that I went out today.  How weird that if we built onto the back of the house, that threshold would be moved, and there would be a whole new outside/inside delineation. I have a door with a philosophical presence!

Now, let me explain to you what any of this has to do with mythology. Hermes is the “messenger god.” Hestia is the goddess of the hearth and home. In classical mythology, Hermes’ influence ended at the threshold of the home, which is where Hestia’s influence began. Outside: Communication! Travel! New people! Inside: Warmth! Family! Security! Is that really true now? Where is the center of our home now? Where would a visitor of your home go to find its center? When you think about modern technology, the threshold between Hermes and Hestia has become much blurrier, don’t you think? Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a meal with someone texting, or talked on the phone with someone who was clearly doing email. Right.

Which leads me to think about the concept of “inside voice.” I’m trying to train my dog to respond to the command “inside voice!” which won’t work, because he’s a terrier and while he appreciates my responding to his noise, he will not be silenced. And most of us don’t step outside and start screaming. So I think this “inside voice” is a more conceptual idea, based on our cultural ideal that there are places where one should not be individually heard. If you hear kids yelling in play outside, they’re just being kids, but if they’re yelling in the library, there’s something wrong with their parents. In church, I used to be given a death stare if I opened my mouth at certain times, but was in big trouble if I wasn’t praying and singing so all could hear. How come I can yell, “Hey, over here!” while I’m trying to get the attention of a taxi, but that same proclamation earns me stares of contempt in the doctor’s waiting room? Thresholds, that’s why.

Anyway, that’s what I think about when the back door won’t close.