Where Hope Meets Justice


Artwork by Becky Slater

“Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune without the words,
and never stops at all.”
-Emily Dickinson

John looked at me and proclaimed, “I am turning my life around. I’ve cleaned up my credit report, and gotten my driver’s license. This is the next step.” With those words, he picked up his pen and signed the paperwork to clear up his criminal record. John was hope in action.

I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of hope through my work at Well for the Journey, a center that offers innovative programs for spiritual wellness. Since leaving my law firm years ago, my energies have been devoted to developing programs and classes that help people lead more meaningful, centered lives. Hope is a motivating force within each of us that inspires and strengthens people to move into a better place. Hope is likely the catalyst that propelled me to dust off my law degree and begin volunteering with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service to help in a very specific area of law: expungement.

Expungement is the legal process by which you can have criminal charges removed from public view. Governed by state law, the rules by which one may expunge charges vary from state to state. In Maryland, generally only those charges for which you have NOT been convicted can be expunged. This covers a fairly wide array of dispositions, including an acquittal (Not Guilty), and situations where police or prosecutors decide not to proceed further than arrest. Convictions for certain “nuisance” crimes (for example, open container and disorderly conduct) and those that are no longer crimes (such as possession of small amounts of marijuana) can be expunged under certain circumstances.

Expungement is a place where hope and justice meet.

To their credit, Maryland lawmakers have recognized the need for expungement to be more accessible and available. The last two years have brought welcome changes. First in laws that took effect in October of 2015, and recently as part of a criminal justice reform package passed in 2016. There are almost one million expungeable cases in Baltimore City alone, and that number will rise when new changes take effect in the upcoming months.

I first learned about the importance of expungement over ten years ago while serving as a job counselor with an organization called Genesis Jobs (which later became part of Goodwill Industries). The existence of criminal charges on one’s record is a monumental obstacle to employment. It was incredibly frustrating that good, qualified job candidates could not be find work due to their arrest charges for minor crimes, especially when they were never convicted of the charges! I kept mumbling that someone needed to do something about this problem.

Then came Baltimore’s spring, almost a year ago, when our city erupted. In the wake of the death of Freddie Gray and the uprisings that ensued, I wondered how I could help bring hope to those living in seemingly hopeless situations. What set of gifts and skills did I have to share? So many people living in or near Baltimore wondered what they could do to help heal our city and its people. There are no easy answers to the multi-dimensional problems that persist in our city- it will take a multitude of people playing unique, small parts. After months of praying for guidance about how I could contribute in a practical way, I came across a flyer for an expungement clinic and a telephone number to call for Maryland Volunteer Lawyers. Then I learned that lawyers got free training…there were no excuses. I gave myself a little pep talk, picked up the phone and volunteered to help at the clinic.

Hearing the stories of my clients has been humbling. Sometimes people have a few troubled years and then work hard to turn their lives around. Not surprisingly, addiction often plays a role in those bad years. I’ve met people, including a woman in her late seventies, who weren’t even aware that they had a record until they went to apply for a job. This can happen when someone close to you gets arrested and you are nearby and get rounded up too. Those charges remain on your record even if you are never prosecuted. Even when people have convictions on their record that they understand cannot be expunged, they want other charges expunged. One man said, “Hey, I take responsibility for that crime. But those others on there I want off my record- that was not me.”

While each person has a unique story, they share something in common: hope for a better future. I’m convinced that hope is manifested through relationships. Sometimes we are called to be with people in seemingly hopeless situations and be a sign of hope. We can help others believe in a better future, even when they can’t see it. To do this requires suspending- or moving through- our cynicism, judgments, and fear of people who are different than us. It’s not easy…but this is how we build hope together. This is how we move forward as a community.

As I shook hands with John and said goodbye, he commented on the beautiful spring day. I responded, “Spring is a time of hope, isn’t it? Good luck to you.”

1. If you want to learn more about expungement visit mdexpungement.com, a website developed by Matthew Stubenberg, a talented attorney at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.

2. I am deeply inspired by Bryan Stevenson and his book, Just Mercy. Book review coming soon to this blog.

Your Personal Calling: Perspectives from The Alchemist

How can you live into your personal calling? What prevents you from realizing your dream? What kind of obstacles should you be prepared to encounter?

I’ve just finished reading one of my summer reading list books: Paulo Coelho’s classic, The Alchemist. This little novel has me thinking. It’s been translated into over sixty-seven languages and is one of the most widely read books in the world. What is it that appeals to so many readers?

The story is about listening to one’s dream and setting out to achieve it. In the forward, the author writes, “We all need to be aware of our personal calling…the path that God chose for you here on Earth.” Mr. Coelho explains that our dream is buried deep within our souls so as to be invisible. Many of us don’t have the courage to uncover our own dream, let alone work towards it.

He identifies and explains four obstacles that prevent us from living into our dream:

1. We think it’s impossible. We are told repeatedly that what we want to do is impossible, and layers of prejudice, fear, guilt, and cynicism bury our dream. It takes courage to disinter our dream. “Disinter” – a new gem of a word that I discovered in this book: it means to unearth, to unbury, to dig out, and to bring that which is obscure into plain view.

2. We are afraid of hurting or disappointing our loved ones. Once we dig out our dream, discover it, and consider it, we can become so concerned about the people we love that we stop there. We fear hurting them or abandoning those around us as we pursue our dream. We don’t realize that love actually is an impetus, and those who genuinely love us want us to be happy and will accompany us on the journey.

3. We fear failure and defeats. If we’ve done the work of #1 and #2 above, failures and setbacks cause great suffering. We can’t fall back on the excuse, “Well I didn’t want it anyway.” In fact, we really, really do want it and we’ve staked everything on it. We will face setbacks, struggles, and failures, but as Coelho advises, “The secret of life is to fall seven times and get up eight times.” We can’t be afraid of failure.

4. We believe that we are not worthy. If we have labored at #1, #2, #3, we may suddenly stop and abandon the dream for which we fought so hard. This stems from belief that we are not worthy of the dream. Often, this type of self-sabotage occurs just as we are on the verge of realizing the dream. Coelho explains that this is the most dangerous of the obstacles because “it has a saintly aura about it: renouncing joy and conquest.” He writes, “But, if you believe yourself worthy of the thing you fought so hard to get, then you become an instrument of God, you help the Soul of the World, and you understand why you are here.” (WOW- powerful thought!!!)

The Alchemist centers on a boy named Santiago who is quite happy being a shepherd. But following several powerful dreams, he decides to set off in search of treasure buried in the Pyramids of Egypt. His journey takes him through challenging terrain, including the wild and dangerous desert. He encounters obstacles that test him, threatening to dissuade him from his journey. Key characters and events guide him on his way. Listening is central to Santiago’s journey-by attuning himself to signs (called “omens” in the book) and experiences, he begins to understand the importance of intuition and immersing oneself in the universal current of life.

Does Santiago’s journey sound familiar? It should. It is a journey that is common in myths, legends, stories, religious ritual, and psychological development. Consider Odysseus in The Odyssey, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, even Jesus or the Buddha in sacred stories. Psychologist Carl Jung identified this archetypal journey as key to psychological growth and maturity. Joseph Campbell calls it “The Hero’s Journey.”

Mary Oliver describes it in her poem, “The Journey”:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

This archetypal journey also unfolds in our own lives, IF we have the courage to take it. At Well for the Journey (“The Well”), I’ve been privileged to watch and accompany others who are on this journey. People come to The Well for a variety of reasons, but often they have become aware that something is propelling them into unknown territory, and they seek guidance and encouragement. It is hard work, and, as The Alchemist reveals, we cannot do it alone. In small groups, ordinary people serve as gentle guides for one another, often unknowingly. We learn to listen to all of life, attuning ourselves to the Source of Life that guides, inspires, and loves us along our journey. Sometimes a piece of wisdom or a personal story is offered and it is just what another person needs to hear. It has been awe-some (in the truest sense), to watch others uncover their part of God’s dream, become more enthused and live into the fullness of life, and contribute their gifts to the greater good.

Are you intrigued? Maybe it’s time for you to read or reread The Alchemist. Maybe it’s time for you to listen in a deeper way to what’s inside your own soul. Find people around you to help you listen. If you need help, come to The Well or form your own community to help you listen. Ask God (or whatever you call your divine source) to guide you. You will be led. Be prepared to confront challenges and obstacles. Don’t give up.

Blessings on your courageous journey.




Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Navato, CA: New World Library, 2008.
Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.
Crowley, Vivianne. Jungian Spirituality. London: Thorsons, 1998.
Oliver, Mary. Dream Work. NY: Atlantic Monthly, 1986.

Life’s Lightning Strikes

What?!!! Lightning struck our house?!!! Oh my God!!!

 When lightning struck our family shore home a few days ago, thankfully, we were not in the house, nor even in town. But when such an unusual, dramatic event occurs, it naturally leads one to wonder about the big questions: What is the meaning in this? Why did this happen? Is God trying to tell me something?

I don’t know. I will never know. My ego wants so badly to affix an explanation (like a little gremlin in my mind that demands fixed answers), but I’m learning that the spiritual life involves not knowing. It’s the hard work of humility and letting go of certainty. I don’t like that very much.In fact, few of us like to live in the powerlessness and vulnerability of uncertainty particularly when we face danger, trouble, and distress. So what can we do?

We can ask for help and then lean into the faith that there is some source of goodness at work in invisible ways. We are not alone; God is accompanying us (yes, right now) helping us (yes, each of us) navigate our troubles.

The story of the lightning strike and dealing with its aftermath has brought to fruition some important lessons that have taken shape in my life over the past year.

The lightning strike was dramatic, part of an intense, powerful storm that blew through Cape May, New Jersey on the afternoon of Saturday, June 6, 2015. Neighbors actually saw the bolt of lightning hit the house and heard a loud explosion. Our next-door neighbor was blown off his bed. The bolt hit the top of the chimney, traveled down the side of the house into the pipes and wires, from the tippy top of the house to the lowest point in the basement. So freaky!!! Electrical smoke ensued, but no fire, thank God. The brick chimney, air conditioning system, and various electronic systems were damaged. After arriving to assess the damage a couple of days later, we smelled gas and discovered that the lightning’s electrical force created a small hole in the hidden internal gas plumbing line resulting in a gas leak. The house could have exploded. Oh my God!!!

Lightning and other such stormy events can happen anytime. One out of 200 houses are struck by lightning each year, according to the National Lightning Safety Institute (so much more frequent than I would expect). But there are other life events that can feel like being struck by lightning, leaving us vulnerable as we try to pick up the pieces. Here are some tips for you to move through the aftermath of whatever “lightning” you experience. I’ve found that three P’s – People, Perspective, and Praise – have been essential in helping to cope with the turmoil of life’s lightning.

  1. PEOPLE. Upon discovering the gas leak, I called the gas company who promptly dispatched a serviceman (Dave, my hero) within 30 minutes to assess the situation and provide instruction. I was so frightened that I couldn’t comprehend what Dave was explaining to me. He talked on and on about which gas line was damaged and what needs to be properly “grounded” in the future and how we can provide “unions” in order to fix it. Needless to say, these words do not mean the same thing in the spiritual care world in which I work as they do in the world of plumbers and electricians.

Close friends and neighbors, Terri and Bob, swooped in, took copious notes and   helped me listen to Dave’s explanations. Other neighbors and countless service people appeared throughout this drama to help and support us. Most days, it is virtually IMPOSSIBLE to get service people to show up the same day in our small town of Cape May (locals call this phenomena “Cape MAYBE”). Yet on this particular Monday, numerous service people showed up on time to help deal with this crisis.

Lesson #1: Ask for help and watch closely for angels in disguise who are sent to help you.

  1. PERSPECTIVE. Aside from this lightning episode, I’ve been dealing with much emotional turmoil over the past several months, grappling with frustration, grief, and resentment involving people I love. To help me move forward, my motto has been “reframe, reframe, reframe.” To reframe is to look at what you are experiencing from a different viewpoint. We can reframe our perspective by placing ourselves in others’ shoes, by readjusting our lens outward to look at the bigger picture, or by trying to move ourselves to a new vantage point. Regardless of the technique, reframing a situation changes our perspective and helps us adjust to and find peace with difficulties. Was it lucky or unlucky that our home was struck by lightning? I choose to take the view that we are lucky to be alive.

Lesson #2: Seek new perspective- reframe, reframe, reframe.

 3. PRAISE. A few months ago at a workshop, I was told to reach my hand into a small brown bag and select a poem. The following poem from Rainer Maria Rilke was given to me.

Praise dear one,

Let us disappear into praising.

Nothing belongs to us.

This poem was exactly what I needed at the time. First off, who doesn’t love being called “dear one”? Beyond that, it reminds us that our grumbling is rooted in the belief that we own things or are entitled to them. Nothing belongs to us. We come into the world with nothing and we depart with nothing. My brother says that expectations are resentments waiting to happen. By detaching from our expectations (lifelong work!), we become lighter and our burdens gradually seem to disappear. Then we are able to thank our lucky stars, count our blessings, and praise God.

When I consider the lightning storm and what could have been catastrophic, it’s easy to praise. It’s more difficult to offer praise, though, when you face trouble or disaster, and you cannot see the good anywhere in it. See #1 and #2, and then hopefully, in time, you will get to #3.

Lesson #3: Praise, dear one. Nothing belongs to us.

Though nature’s lightning doesn’t strike every house, life’s lightning does strike everyone and we discover ourselves shaken up in unexpected ways. When that happens, may you lean into people, perspective, and praise to help you move through.

Blessings and love,


Digging God Out


There is a really deep well inside me.

And in it dwells God.

Sometimes I am there too.

But more often stones and grit block the well,

and God is buried underneath.

Then God must be dug out again.

-Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life*

How timely that one of my first days of December was spent with nice men who came to clean out our well, replace the pump, and get the water flowing. Our backyard is fairly deep, reaching more than 450 feet below the earth’s surface. The water pressure has been gradually decreasing so we knew it needed a good servicing.

What a God-wink. That rascal, God, has such a sense of timing and humor. I can almost hear a gentle laughter. It is the first week of Advent and there is a divine invitation here. It’s time to dig God out.

In the Christian tradition much of December is spent in the season of Advent. Advent is the season that we wait and watch for God to break through (again) and be born. Advent culminates with Christmas, when we celebrate God’s coming to us by being born in the form of Jesus. It is paradoxical because we acknowledge that God is already here and hard at work (thank goodness!). Yet, God will also come again. Isn’t this so reassuring to know that God is not finished? Our world is so desperately in need of Love.

God is in all of creation, pulsing with life- often very hidden, but also very evident. The heartbeat of God is also within each of us, and we are called to be bearers of this presence.

Unfortunately, there is so much that blocks and clogs this Source of Love. So much stuff: worries, fears, expectations, self-centeredness, cynicism, judgments, lack of forgiveness, and ego to name a few. There is also this feeling of unworthiness- do we really believe that we are sacred?

What can you and I do to dig God out? Wouldn’t it be great if nice men could come and clean out the grit and dirt and replace our pumps? But alas, there is no such easy fix. Instead, this unblocking, unclogging, and digging out is the task of a lifetime. In fact, it is probably central to the spiritual life in most faith traditions.

Perhaps it begins with an intention to pay closer attention. What if we listened for the heartbeat of God pulsing around us in ordinary moments? What if we looked for signs of the Divine breaking into even the most challenging situations? What if we tried to honored the sacredness of our loved ones as well as our enemies?

That could be a start. Let us dig.

*Etty Hillesum was a remarkable modern day mystic. As a young Jewish woman, she chronicled her spiritual journey through her diaries. She died in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 29.

Claiming “Contemplation”- Part 1

Contemplation? No, that’s not for me. That’s for quiet, reclusive people. That’s for those serious, religious people. Not to offend those that really love the word “contemplation,” but it brings to mind an image of navel gazing. In fact, if you look up the definition of the word, some dictionaries actually refer to navel gazing.

For years, I’ve resisted the word “contemplation.” Sometimes situations or words get under our skin because they have a lesson to teach us. I’m thinking that’s the case with this word.

Recently I discovered a passage from Thomas Merton (a spiritual guru whom I admire but don’t really “get”):

“Contemplation is life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.  It is spiritual wonder.  It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.  It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant source.  Contemplation is above all, awareness of the reality of that source.  It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond reason and beyond simple faith…” (Seeds of Contemplation)

WOW. Although this passage is pretty deep, there are some words that jump out at me: wonder, awe, awake, alive, invisible, Source. These are all words that I LOVE. Not only does he use some of my favorite words, Merton describes a life that I desire and aspire to. And his description has nothing to do with being reclusive, overly serious or navel-gazing.

Merton describes a way of being and living that is available to all of us. Imagine if we could live like this! We’d be engaged with real life. We would awaken to the fact that there is that of God in all things. We’d be tuned into wonder. We’d be overflowing with gratitude. Everyone we meet would be able to sense this alive-ness within us. We would be almost glowing!

So maybe it’s time to claim contemplation. Or at least open the door to it and get to know it better (Part1). Then perhaps it could become part of our everyday lives in a way that makes difference in the world.

More to come. Stay tuned.

Blessed Messiness

People often think of life as either a fairy tale or a tragedy, but the truth is that it very much a combination of both. It is blessed messiness.

I spent this past Labor Day weekend in Cape May saying goodbye to the summer. It was a beautiful weekend filled with family and friends beside the sea. We had a houseful of fun guests. Many of our family members got dressed up and attended the Commodore’s Ball at the Yacht Club. Our pictures on Facebook made it look like a fairy tale weekend.

What people didn’t see was the sadness hidden beneath the surface. Saturday, August 30, was the one-year anniversary of the death of our beloved niece, Meg, who died tragically from her addiction. We were missing my mom whose absence has been so magnified through the summer. Saturday afternoon we held Dede Boutique, sorting and dividing Mom’s baubles and costume jewelry.

The weekend was lived as both fairy tale and tragedy. We visited Meg’s and Mom’s ashes, prayed, and hugged. My sister (Meg’s mom) and I got our nails done – toes painted in Meg-like fashion, fingers painted in Mom-like fashion. We attended the ball on Saturday evening with a desire to lean into life and look forward, rather than dwelling on the grief that still lived in our hearts. All the girls wore a piece of Mom’s jewelry.

Life is filled with joy and sadness. We smile and cry, sometimes simultaneously. Our joys get plastered all over Facebook, while the sadness gets hidden in our private journals. That’s human nature- who wants to wallow publicly and bring everyone else down around them?

Don’t let the seemingly perfect Facebook pictures fool you. We all live somewhere between the Fairy Tale and the Tragedy. It’s good to remember this time and time again when we see everyone’s happy posts and photos.

We do well to live authentically, honoring the blessed messiness in our own lives, as well as in the lives of others. Meg’s final Facebook post contained the following quote: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

I offer a blessing for everyone reading this:

May you know that you are not alone;

May you have the strength to lean into your joys amidst your struggles;

May you discover a gentleness to hold the good and bad together;

May you remember that you are loved.



The Invention of Wings: Seeking Freedom

On the eve of the 4th of July, a holiday that celebrates freedom, it seems appropriate to review a book that explores freedom.

Sue Monk Kidd’s Invention of Wings is a stirring, inspirational story centering on the universal human quest for freedom. Set in early nineteenth century Charleston, the historical novel explores the intertwined lives of two girls who challenge the injustices of slavery and oppression.

As the book opens, Hetty (“Handful”) Grimke, a ten-year old slave, recalls her mother’s story about her African ancestors who had wings that helped them fly over trees and clouds. Handful’s mother tells her that one day, Handful will gain her wings and fly to freedom.

Sarah Grimke, a white girl from a prominent, wealthy Charleston family, receives Handful as a gift for her eleventh birthday. Horrified, Sarah attempts to disclaim the gift in front of the family guests at her party. She later vows to help Handful get free.

Over the next 35 years, both girls struggle to find their wings. While Handful’s struggle is obvious and brutal, Sarah’s is one of mind and spirit, as she has a driving desire to be a lawyer, unthinkable and unattainable for a woman at that time.

Historical fiction helps us learn about history as we enter into the real and imagined stories of those who lived before us. I find myself grateful for the courage and sacrifice of those who enabled me, centuries later, to have a voice, obtain a law degree, and follow my dreams. With the Source of Love as our guide, we are invited to continue the work of freedom today, often in less obvious ways.



The Serendipitous Gift

“Love one another; that is where all good things begin.”

-Dede Wilson (Mom)

A stud sensor.  I opened this seemingly random gift on Christmas Eve as part of our traditional gift swap and wondered what the heck it was. No, it’s not a tool to find attractive men! The packaging instructions revealed that it is a tool that one uses to locate support frames behind a wall of a home or building.

The tool sat on a table in the family room for a few days waiting to be moved to the basement workshop. Yet, I kept pausing to look at it; something intrigued me. It dawned on me that the stud sensor is a wonderfully symbolic gift, as I am in search of some stability.

My foundation has been profoundly shaken.  Mom died a week before Christmas and I am struggling to readjust to life without my mother in it.  Our mothers are our original source of life as well as our teachers, listeners, cheerleaders, and companions. They love us in a way that no one else does, and they hold us together in ways we don’t even realize until they aren’t here.

A stud sensor is a serendipitous reminder that there is and has always been a hidden framework holding me together, holding our family together, and holding our world together.

Mom’s life and legacy point the way. Although she’d been sick with Stage 4 cancer for almost two years, she lived, laughed, and loved fully through the end of her life.  Her final words,  “I love you,” were communicated via hand gestures, as she was on a ventilator.  Just before she was wheeled out to the operating room, she pointed to her heart, spelled “L-O-V-E” with her finger into the air, and then pointed to each person in the room, including the orderlies who had arrived to transport her.

“Love one another; that is where all good things begin.” Mom offered this advice in a recent interview, echoing insight from wise people such as Moses, Jesus, and The Buddha. Such good company!

Relationships form and support us. When shaken by loss of any kind, it is vital to remember that love is the foundation for all of life. Although no one can replace a loved one, we will, in time, adjust to a new way of living. Interconnected relationships become reshaped, new ones are built, and we discover support. We love each other through it. Thankfully, help comes from God, from the angels that surround us, and from those who came before us.

Written in gratitude for all those who are providing a supportive foundation by offering their love, care, and prayer. 

A Nest for the Season

What a delightful surprise! While putting up the Christmas tree at The Well Center this past week, we discovered an empty bird’s nest tucked inside the boughs of the tree!  The nest is a simple, fragile creation made of scraps of grass woven together by a bird that needed a home and a safe place to give birth.

This empty bird’s nest-perched amidst the community’s tree-is a wonderful invitation for all of us.  Where are the places of refuge in our spiritual lives? How can we make spaces in our lives for new growth? How can we come together and become a nest for what wants to be born in us?

In the Christian tradition, the period just before Christmas is known as Advent. It is a time for waiting in expectation for God to come and be born again and again and again. In the hustle and bustle of the season, take time to listen for and nurture the new life that is growing in you. Advent, darkness, and winter remind us of the importance of nestling in to wait in empty expectation for the new life that is growing.  Be a nest.



Family Stories Make Us Stronger

“Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time.
It is the way wisdom gets passed along.”
-Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom

With the holidays upon us, chances are you will find yourself listening to family stories. If you are hearing them for the umpteenth time, you might feel like rolling your eyes or tuning them out. Instead, sit back and listen a little bit more carefully. These stories are probably making you stronger.

Last summer I came across a New York Times article titled “Stories that Bind Us” by Bruce Feiler describing an interesting fact about family stories. Recent research reveals that children who have heard family stories about life’s ups and downs develop resilience and strength. Psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, psychologists at Emory University (one of my alma maters!) have found that children who know a lot about their family history tend to face life’s challenges better than those who don’t. Hearing family stories make us better able to face adversity.

Simple questions asked of our elders can evoke conversations that reveal a valuable family narrative:

Where did you grow up?
What is the story of your birth?
What illnesses or challenges did you encounter?
What are some important lessons that you have learned?

Personally, I love hearing family stories that make me laugh. They remind me to laugh in the face of embarrassing and humbling situations.

One of my favorite stories that is part of my fiber involves my mother and her mother (“Muzzy”). A few years after the sequential sudden deaths of Mom’s brother and father, Mom and Muzzy traveled together to Europe on vacation. Mom was in her early twenties. They were enjoying a perfectly delightful evening at a fancy Paris restaurant and were dressed in their fine clothes, speaking eloquent French with the wait staff. Following their meal they tried to make a gracious departure from the restaurant. Mom opened the door for her mother, whisked Muzzy through the door, and followed her, shutting the door behind her. Ooopsies! It turns out they stumbled on top of one another right into the cleaning closet! The maître di and the waiter rushed after them, flabbergasted. The men opened the door and pulled these two lovely ladies out of the buckets, mops, and debris, and helped them proceed to the correct exit door. They laughed, out of both embarrassment and amusement, and that laughter has echoed for years afterward.

This particular family story has been quite helpful in the face of my own klutzy, humbling situations. For example, while on the way to my law school moot court argument (an absolutely terrifying endeavor for me), I fell off my new high heels and stumbled down a flight of stairs. Not to be dissuaded from the task at hand, I showed up in front of a panel of attorneys from Atlanta with a gaping gash in my chin, blood on my lovely new suit, and several runs in my stockings. What is one to do in this situation but carry on and laugh? (That and go directly to the hospital to get multiple stitches!). This story now lives in family lore, hopefully helping future generations who are sure to experience embarrassing and humbling episodes.

So as you gather around the table or the hearth, or if you find yourself packed in a car with multiple generations, take time to listen to the crazy, surprising, and often inspiring family stories. You will be made stronger and wiser.

Bruce Feiler, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html