Testimonial: Reimagining the Possible

unity papalini

The minister of my Unitarian congregation invited me to share the story of why I joined our church. The Sunday I’m scheduled to speak happens to coincide with a moment of extraordinary upheaval in the national Unitarian Universalist Association. A senior-level hiring decision unearthed patterns of white supremacy and bias that many people of my faith believed didn’t exist, not here, not among us. We see yet again that privileges, blinders, and oppressive structures exist everywhere — even within people of goodwill who speak of inclusion and equity. Even those of us whose deepest value is radical love.

Continue reading “Testimonial: Reimagining the Possible”


Of Money and Mouths

Not enough to buy a senator, but it ain’t zero.

The afternoon lull is the devil’s playground. The task list hasn’t diminished but the energy to tackle it has. In creeps a craving: Pastry. Muffin. Want want WANT.  The Hunger — altogether different than being hungry — wells up and threatens to wash me out to the closest Panera.

At some point along the way, the occasional treat becomes a regular fix. I start plucking a couple of dollars a day from my already rickety financial scaffolding while simultaneously weighing myself down with doses of sugar. Treat turns to habit.

I’m ready to break it.

Continue reading “Of Money and Mouths”

A Gift of Need

We are embodied spirits who need raw material, both physical and spiritual, to create. But we forget that we are also social beasts who need not slash through the bramble of those needs alone.

Maria Popova in the postscript to The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

Fruit Gathering

A friend wrote to me with an offer of help. A generous spirit by nature, she also follows Momastery which further expands the reach of her care. She has a modest surplus in her family this year and felt called to support the extraordinary Together Rising Holiday Hands project. After a bit of soul-searching she made a brave overture: she sent a note offering me a small financial gift so Bug and I could get through the holidays.

I say “brave” because it takes guts to reach across all the garbage associated with need, class, and the myth of self-sufficiency. Someone might balk at a gift of money, might see it as presumptuous or even condescending. We live in a world in which monetary woes signal a deep vein of trouble. Financial solvency, naturally, is a proxy for moral rectitude. Hell, people use the term “charity case” as an insult.

On this side of the divide, I can hear all too clearly poverty’s cruel whispers. Stupid. Impetuous. Shortsighted. Fool. If I’m stuck in the land of scarcity and hardship, my own carelessness is to blame. I misplaced my citizenship papers. I missed simple instructions that others of my native land were bright enough to grasp. The doctors and professors and architects who once sat next to me in 7th grade Algebra picked up information that I failed to absorb, and here I am circling endlessly around a single zero-sum problem: Christmas tree or Christmas gifts? Because this year, it won’t be both.

This is why I square my shoulders, smooth on makeup, and change into the cheap-but-passable dress shoes stashed in a drawer at work. When I notice — as I did yesterday — that a run is making its way up my off-brand stocking, the floor tilts and nausea roils. Exposed. Through that thin fraying, the world can see my forever-crumbling veneer of okay-ness and find out I am, in fact, poor. Surely people will begin to harbor doubts. Surely they will wonder what is is really amiss with this woman who has failed so completely to deliver on her privilege, education, ability, and access.

For all these reasons and more, my dear friend’s act was indeed brave. When she offered the gift, she risked sending the message that she sees me as broken and incapable of taking care of my business.

Instead, the opposite happened.

Well, not quite the opposite. More like the inverse, perhaps?

I actually did feel seen.


Someone made the choice to cut through the wicked illusion of invulnerability and say, I see you. I see you are struggling, and I see you could use a hand. She offered not because the struggle is a sign of failure, but because the struggle just is.

And because she has a loving heart.

And because she can.

When the note came through my email, arms much stronger than my distress folded me into a hug. A voice brighter than those hateful whispers reminded me, we all belong to each other.

My old friend asked if I would accept, and I said, unequivocally and with a warm shiver moving right through the front of my chest, yes.

The karmic chuckle came just hours later when another woman — a neighbor — texted to ask if I could pick up her son after karate. She is a single mom too, and a teacher, and always digging deep for the time and money to make it all work.

Had her request come a few hours earlier, the answer would have likely been the same but it would have felt entirely different. I would have had to lift instead of being lifted, like great, another f***ing thing I have to do. But the dear one had stepped over and opened up a window. The breeze was already passing through. The earlier offer reminded me that generosity is a choice. We all have more to give than we realize, and that even the small gift is a treasure.

My neighbor asked for a hand, and I said, unequivocally and with an easy smile, yes.

It’s only because giving is so much associated with material things that receiving looks bad. It would be a terrible calamity for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches. Of what good abundance then?

Henry Miller, in a love letter to Anais Nin

The neighbor followed up her request for the karate pick-up with at least 4 texts. The first explained, the second apologized, the third cracked a self-deprecating joke, and the fourth explained again. I could almost feel the tightening of the knots as she worked so hard not to seem “needy” while also needing. I wanted to reach out and put a hand on her shoulder and say, you’re welcome.

As in, really: You are welcome right now, in this moment of asking, to be exactly who and where you are.

I responded by texting back her that her son is a delight, and I’m happy to help, and finally that she is an inspiration.

Meanwhile, I play the same internal game of twister. A follow-up email from the old friend sits unanswered in my inbox. Now that I’ve said yes to the gift, I also have to say yes to the insinuation that this tough little life I’m trying to manage is worth the effort. I have to suspend my disbelief and hold as credible the idea that Bug and I are important and loved.

That is quite a contortion of my default posture.

So I choose to accept the audacious notion — at least for a few moments here before the husk grows thick and the eyes narrow yet again — that we grow the sum total of generosity in the world as much by accepting gifts as by giving them.

Yes, my friend. We do all belong to each other.

Photo credits:
Fruit Gathering by Gregory Orloff
Spring Harvest by Els Noordhoff

10. Things I Can Find: Riches

When you find $20 in your jeans you forgot was there, it’s win. Even if you don’t believe in karma, luck, or any other breed of metaphysical sentience, your rationality clocks out for its afternoon break. Someone out there has pinned a blue ribbon to your chest and given you a thump on the back. “Today, you get the prize.”

Why, you might ask?

“Oh, just because you’re you. And you deserve it. Let’s leave it at that.”

There’s a bounce in your bones when you stroll out the door.

Money is nice and all, but the company of Andrew Jackson isn’t the high. No, the high is the sweet but fleeting moment when you’re walking among the profligate. Hell, I didn’t need the cash to begin with and then I forgot I even had it. Maybe my prospects aren’t so bad after all.

Ah, yes. This must be what it feels like to be rich.

The buzz wears off as soon as you fold the bill in with all the others in your wallet. It’s not free cash. It was Plain Old You who had to work for it, and Plain Old You who put it in your pocket. Now Plain Old You will put it towards a grownup need like your heating bill or the busted garbage disposal you’ve been putting off replacing.

That said, it’s a relief to know you weren’t worried about money — at least not that money — from the moment you absently pocketed it all the way until now. The added bonus is that you didn’t need it in the meantime. Now you know you really can save a few bucks each month. You really can stash a little more in the someday-fund.

You really can dream.

This happy surprise happened right here in my kitchen today. Only it wasn’t jeans. It was an envelope that had landed at my parents’ house addressed to my previously married self. It was from a bank whose account I drained — or thought I had — when I patched together the 20% down payment on this condo. I sliced open the flap and pulled out one thin page. An end-of-year tax document told me I had earned $10.35 in interest in 2014.

Sure, $10 is a nice surprise.

But interest on what?

After rooting around for my old login and password, I discovered that the account is alive and well. It ain’t sending anyone on a cruise, but it’s there.

Is this what it feels like to be rich?

Maybe a little. Rich and lucky. Not roll-the-dice lucky. More like blessed-with-kindnesses-I-can’t-grasp lucky. It’s as if yesterday-me — with the support of the loving circle of family and guides and friends — offered up a gift to today-me. Because she had so much help and love, she didn’t need that bit of cash to survive the chaos of her life. And instead of treating herself to some luxury with it, she tucked it away for a future self she hadn’t even met yet.

Maybe she knew I’d need it eventually.

Maybe Plain Old She just wanted to provide Plain Old Me what little peace of mind she could.

Now I get to do the same for a someday-self. While I’m not sure yet what form this will take, I want her to find a stash of unexpected riches tucked into a forgotten fold. I want her to experience that buoyant moment of feeling rich. It’s unlikely she’ll be rolling in wealth, and for that moment, she’ll feel flush.

To some extent, she’ll be flush, because all her previous selves loved her enough to squirrel a little away for her to cultivate the life she wants for herself, her family, and her community.

Imagine all these iterations across the continuum of the self. Each finds a way to pay it forward, a few dollars at a time, one year to the next.

In a decade, maybe Plain Old Me will be looking out onto a garden in her own back yard. Maybe she’ll be packing her Plain Old Kiddo off to college debt-free.

Maybe she’ll find that she’d pocketed exactly what she needs.



Present Moment

Last night, my Mister and I talked across our nightly distance. We told each other stories of gifts. What had we received that had really knocked our socks off? What were we proud to have given? Both of us had to reach far back for the most shivery memories. A brother’s model aircraft carrier. A first double-cassette stereo materializing in the bedroom on Christmas morning.

The specifics of most of what we had given others were hard to recall. Small recollections bubbled up of warming open some light in our beloved or kin. Also slashed across the arc of memory were those blistery scenes of our efforts missing the mark and landing (massage chair? bunny slippers?) with a splat. We’d seen the pinched mask of gratitude slip down over our dear one’s disappointed face before the box was even all the way open.

Mornings into years into decades. We sort of remember making someone really happy. We try to call up exactly who, or even if. Those are the gifts we hang onto, the ones we keep close. We make silent promises that we’ll give with more of ourselves. That we’ll find a way to make the next offering — the content or the way — light up in the hands of the one who receives it.

Tonight, Bug abandons dinner before he’s even taken three bites. Claiming homesickness, he pads over to curl up on the couch under our blue fleece blanket. We read together a book he adores, a saccharine holiday story called Santa Paws. My boy’s creased brow softens against my shoulder. Then he tells me he is still hungry.

“Can we have a picnic by the tree?” He asks.

We drag the blanket across the room and shake it out on the floor under twinkling lights. I re-heat broccoli and spaghetti and we work as a team to transfer forks and sparkly drinks to our quasi al fresco purlieus.

The cadence is different down low in the company of a blue-silver gleam. Bug lolls on his belly slurping up whole wheat pasta as I rub the dog’s woolen neck. The question that carried my Mister and me down last night’s wintry path meanders back around to now.

“Buddy, do you remember any of the Christmas gifts you’ve gotten before?”

“Yeah.” He rolls a little, hair falling back from his face. “The ring cat.”

I pause and try to connect this image to some toy or game in his collection. “The ring cat? What was that?”

“Mom!” He gives me a sideways grin. “The one where you put your rings on the tail. You know.”

Then it comes. I’d said “the gifts you’ve gotten” and he heard gotten for others not received. I say a little quiet thanks for imprecise vocabulary. “Of course I know,” I tell him. “That guy is the best.” It’s a small, green moulded cat that stands near the jewelry box on my dresser and holds up my stack of rings. “What else?” I ask

Bug proceeds to catalog all the items he remembers giving over the past few years. I listen in stunned silence as my seven-year-old prattles on. He remembers the football keychain he gave his granddaddy. The matching basketball fob he gave Tee. The earrings he chose for his gramma two years back and the gemstone ring he chose for her the next.

Bug picked out every one of these treasures at a country store children’s market held every December at a local park. Either Tee or I have taken him for the past three years. You give your kids a list and some money. The parents are sent off to entertain themselves for half an hour or so. The little ones go in with a volunteer and come out with wrapped gifts. Just like everyone else, you have to wait until Christmas morning to find out what the kiddos have picked out.

Bug continues down his list. He tells me this: “I gave you something you really like to do. Remember?”

I don’t, but I take a stab. “Writing?”

“Yep. You remember that pen?”

A vague image resolves into a sparkling shape. Beads. “Was that the one all covered in shiny pink?” He nods. Then he kind of drifts off for a minute and says, “Maybe — no, I gave that to Gramma.”

“Remember how you helped Gramma pick out journals for me one year?” I ask.

“Yeah. I went with her to the book store. You like to write in those.”

Bug rolls over and takes a bite of the giant chocolate cookie I’ve brought him from work. I gaze at him, crumb fingered and lit in purple. In his perpetual motion he’s wriggled over next to the small pile of gifts waiting for our pre-departure family gathering next weekend. I think back on seven Christmas mornings. Heaps of gifts for Bug pile up higher every year. I remember the Thomas train set. The wooden blocks Tee made by hand. The play kitchen they assembled together. The carved sled with its smooth ash body and metal runners perfect for Colorado snow. The rocking horse, ukulele, easel, puzzles. The tractors, board games, baskbetball hoop, pillow pet. The legos legos legos and more legos.

We are closing in on our eighth festival of excess. Every gift is chosen to light him up. Every gift is filled with loving care in the hopes this child will shine with pleasure or wonder or maybe even gratitude.

“Baby, do you remember any of the gifts you’ve been given for Christmas?”

He gazes into his chewy treat and thinks.


Lights are on the tree. They are under the tree, too, and even inside the packages bearing my son’s name. It just never occurred to me that what matters is not the “To” but the “From.” In all these heaps of stuff, the most valuable gift we’ve given Bug may have been to hand him $40 and his list of names, and then to send him on his merry way.

My boy’s face gleams as he gazes into the twinkling branches. His voice is drifty now. “Remember I got that necklace for you?”

I smile. “For sure. The silver one with the mama bird and baby bird. I love that necklace.”

“Yeah,” he says. “You do.” He touches one of the low ornaments, watching his reflection ripple and arc.