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Archive for October 2012

Feast of the Saints

They know how to do it: survive and support each other and share what they have. They are, after all, New Yorkers.  

The power, offering light and heat, remains a memory and a wish; refrigerators simply store food, not chill it, while folks wildly seek sources to charge their communication centers: cell phones.  

Tonight, on Hallow’s Eve, we await tomorrow’s holy day: All Saints’ Day. A day when Catholics and others share a tradition of celebrating those who have gone before us, remarkable people who showed compassion and love and sacrifice and courage and sought justice and welcomed the stranger.  People of faith who responded to their call to serve others, their call to love God, by loving God’s creatures, by lessening suffering with comfort and kindness, amid chaos.  

We do not have to look to our deceased patron saints to celebrate the Feast of All Saints. Tonight, many of those saints are working without sleep, or food or warm clothes. They brave the midnight darkness to work within the chaos and make order. They offer peace and kindness and hope.  

They are, after all, New Yorkers.

(S-R photo)

We watch and pray…NYC

As the East Coast moves through the day and assesses Sandy's devastation, the rest of us watch, pray and think of how we will help in the days ahead.

(S-R photo)

Texting as lifeline to NY relatives

My niece, Laura, lives in Long Island, and her family is just two blocks away from a mandatory evacuation area for Hurricane Sandy. We talked yesterday as they scurried about getting ready.

I texted her this morning to see how they were doing and she just texted back: “Power went out two hours ago. It's rainy and windy and stressful.”

I texted her back, but I don't want to keep texting her, in case her cell phone will run down. I want to know: Can she access her car charger? How will we get back in touch? When will I hear from her again?

I have long held — and experienced — that is easier to be on scene with loved ones during a crisis, but it's impossible in this case, though I am in Chicago, a lot closer to NY than Spokane. Still, all flights canceled, all trains, all buses. She and her family are locked out from the rest of us for now.

So we wait, watch and pray. And feel gratitude for texting. 

(S-R photo)

Italian secrets

I love Italy. That year we spent together was filled with magical experiences and a few growing pains. So when I hear news from Italy, it feels like news from home…Oh, the secrets she kept while I explored her cities, trains, art, and people. Secrets about a judicial system that is, well, whacked.

Last week two decisions came out of that country that – when compared/contrasted – make no sense. And even when they stand alone – whacked.

An Italian judge convicted seven scientists of manslaughter sentencing them to “six years in prison for failing to give warning before the April 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people, injured an additional 1,500 or so and left more than 65,000 people homeless in and around the city of L’Aquila in central Italy.”  Huh?

And… and  Friday’s decision by an Italian court convicted former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of tax evasion, sentencing him to four years in prison.

I really hope Amanda Knox left a few good books and a whole lot of patience behind.

(S-R archives photo:Firefighters carry a woman out of a crumbled home in the city of L’Aquila, after a strong earthquake rocked central Italy, 2009)

Retirement destination?

With 10,000 people retiring in the US every day, retirement destinations are a hot topic.

Where shall we go to enjoy life without alarm clocks summoning us to a detailed schedule?

Perhaps the island of Ikaria should be added to our list of idyllic possibilities. On the island of Ikaria, residents seem to enjoy remarkable longevity within an easy-going lifestyle.

(S-R archives photo)

Grieving on General Hospital

As some of our regular blog readers know (thank you EndNotes loyalists) I am living in Chicago for three months, on sabbatical from the newspaper, doing an internship at Rush Medical Center in chaplaincy. (My planned encore career when I'm older.)

Anyway, I came off a 24-hour on-call Wednesday morning, followed by class on grieving cycles, followed by my “treat” for surviving on less than three hours sleep. I got my nails and toes done in a little salon down the street from where I am living.

Anyway, the TV was on, tuned to General Hospital. And one of the characters, Jason, has apparently died. His wife is in total disbelief, which we discovered in class that day is quite normal. Others were trying to get her to understand that Jason wasn't coming back, but she didn't care.

The emotions displayed were authentic for the most part, and I liked how they tackled some of the end-of-life concerns I've seen in the hospital so far. Have I reconciled with the people I'm estranged from? Have I made a difference? Why did the person have to die now?

The only thing pretty fake: The stimulant they give actors so they can cry. One character obviously used way too much. Her eyes were bloodshot as if she was coming off a bender.

But all in all, pretty good at covering some of the grief issues.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer …the words still sting – eight years later – when I use them to describe my health history. Some cancer survivors say, “Cancer was a gift.” Ummm, not my idea of a gift. I prefer boarding passes to fun places and homemade cards, cakes and family adventures as gifts. Not illness.

But I do get their message: the lessons learned from the experience remain.

Mostly, I cherish the outpouring of kindness from strangers –women whose posts on the breast cancer  web site   strengthened me and calmed my out-of-control anxiety. Women sent cards, one sent a jewelry pin of women standing together, telling me I was not alone. Mostly, I cherish those 3:00 a.m. messages when I had insomnia and would slip out of bed and log on, posting my questions, grief and fear. Within a few minutes women – often from a time zone where the sun was up – would answer.   I will never know their names, all the details of their breast cancer journeys, but I will love them forever.

A wonderful friend was diagnosed earlier this year with breast cancer, a cousin, too  and this week another woman I know, my age, faces those awful treatment choices.  I want to stay close and offer details of my journey, when asked.  Mostly, I want to be there in their 3:00 a.m. moments of terror or grief or loneliness.

I want to be their gift.

(S-R archives photo: Breast cancer survivors pose for a group photograph behind the INB Performing Arts Center on Sunday, April 17, 2011. )

A cab ride of conspiracy theories

Sunday evening, returning to my temporary digs in Chicago via cab from Midway, my cab driver who had seemed friendly and non-threatening started in on his world view which includes these beliefs:

  • The government is doing mind control through the cell phone towers and the contrails airplanes leave behind when they fly in the sky.
  • Everyone lies, he told me, in the government and the media, so he stopped watching television 20 years ago.

He started driving in what appeared to be circles getting closer to my neighborhood and as he circled, he revved up and went on and on, adding more theories.

I was getting a bit panicky. So I finally said: “You seem to be lost. My brother-in-law who lives here is a police officer. Do you want me to call him for directions?”

I was in front of my loft within five minutes. I lied, dear reader. My brother-in-law is a retired professor, not a cop. So really, I reinforced his belief that everyone lies.

What would you have done?

(S-R archives photo from the movie “Taxi”)


George McGovern

George McGovern, a man to honor and remember for his contribution to American politics, has died. He was a politician who advocated justice for poor Americans and supported civil rights for all of us.

McGovern characterized himself saying: “I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie (South Dakota)…My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever. I’m what a normal, healthy, ideal American should be like.”

May his legacy serve as a reminder of commitment to one’s ideals, nation and family.

(S-R archives photo: July 14, 1972, Sen. George S. McGovern makes his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach.)

Barking cough dilemma

I am at the airport waiting for a flight and there is a boy about 6 who is waiting for what I hope is a different flight. He has the telltale bark of what used to be called croup. But could it be whooping cough? He's a cute little guy and I heard him telling someone that he's on his way to Disneyland. So here's the dilemma? Should airline personnel step in and inquire about his condition before he boards the plane? He is pretty much barking non-stop so whether croup or whooping cough, he's likely contagious. Your thoughts?

Lessons in slump from A-Rod

I felt bad for Alex Rodriguez, the baseball great, because he endured a slump during the big playoff games. Lots of people jumped in to say how he was done, finished, kaput. And some commenters expressed a bit of glee because of his stunning salary. 

But I feel his story reminds us all that slumps happen throughout our life, and they can actually work for the good of mind, body and spirit in the long run. Mystics called them “dark nights of the soul” and they often came prior to time of great creativity and spiritual growth. 

A-Rod might not have the luxury of waiting for this to pass, as it likely will. In the meantime, he reminds us, too, that neither fame nor wealth can spare human beings certain things, like off seasons, slumps and dark nights.

Women, Men, Politics

New York Times columnist Gail Collins looks at the presidential debates from a gender perspective: tone of voice – and all that talk about binders. She (quietly) hits the mark.

A male’s mail call

Our ballots for voting came in the mail today – and my heart did a little dance.

Not because I am eager to vote – although I am – but because this time there were three ballots in our mailbox. Our son, Alex, will vote for the first time.

When I asked him to watch the first presidential debate with me, he stayed 10 minutes. He detested the tone of “yelling” he perceived and announced, “I know who I am going to vote for anyway” and left the room.

 I don’t know if he perceives the privilege that voting offers. And I wonder how to impart that wisdom. As a student, traveling in 1976, I experienced some lack of freedom in other countries: a whistle blew as a fellow student paused in Prague, kneeling down to tie his shoe. He was admonished and told to get up and keep moving. In Moscow, I left the group and meandered through Gumms, a large department store. When I stopped to snap a photo with my Kodak Instamatic, a guard appeared and shook his finger at me, “Nichts!” Of course, these are simple actions. Still, it was Communism that governed and its citizens did not enjoy democracy.

 These stories matter not to my son, who wants only to vote for the candidates who will make life just for others. Even when he was a toddler, Alex often asked about a person’s character. When Becky showed him a statue of President Lincoln, he asked her, “Did he like children?”  We vet our candidates according to our values.  

I plan to sit down with Alex, his ballot, the voter’s pamphlet and probably a cheese pizza. Not because I will tell him how to vote, but to answer questions and watch him as he ponders choices, a privilege that never ceases to amaze me. No bloodshed or coups, instead we elect our leaders through a peaceful, informed process, with information at hand - served with a main course of pizza and, hopefully, a healthy side dish of enlightenment.

(S-R archives photo)

Recognition…at last

Sometimes it takes a long, long time for deserved recognition to arrive. Mother Marianne, a Sister of St. Francis in Syracuse, will be canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome on Sunday. Her remarkable work: in 1883 Mother Marianne decided to live among the lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai . She stayed for more than 30 years.

Those with the disease were cast out from their communities and forced to live in isolation. However, it was Catholic sisters and priests who brought compassion to the lepers who lived on the towering cliffs of Molokai.

“I am not afraid of any disease,” Mother Marianne wrote.

The isolation laws were lifted in 1969. Today, 17 people who lived in the “colony” have survived. Nine are traveling to Rome, with more than 100 other Hawaiians, and stopped in New York where Mother Marianne lived before her Hawaiian ministry.

Mother Marianne’s life reminds us that compassionate choices can overpower fear transforming the lives of those who suffer injustice.

(S-R archives photo: Sister Jane Frances kisses the coffin of Mother Marianne Cope, after a Mass to honor Cope at the Franciscan Motherhouse Chapel  in Syracuse, N.Y. 2005. Mother Marianne was honored as part of the beatification process, a prerequisite to sainthood.)

Hooking up in older age

Our EndNotes column today discussed whether a friend should be upset that a widowed friend is remarrying so quickly after her husband died. Our answer in a nutshell: Nah. Celebrate with her instead.

If we had more room to discuss, we might have added that aging baby boomers will likely do the couple thing in many different ways than the Greatest Generation did during their 60s, 70s and 80s.

The “roast beef dinner circuit” for widowers — in which widowed men were courted by widows hoping to marry again — might go the way of Magic Fingers beds (see newspaper's great story about that here). Women (and men) will simply have a lot more options for friendship and intimacy. I predict many widowed women will opt to stay single and even opt out of the dating game and, instead, pursue encore careers or travel a lot or pursue hobbies they never had time for during their demanding younger years.

I also predict there will be a lot more opportunities for friendship between aging men and women. Group activities will become even more popular and available, eliminating that “eating alone” and “sorrowful Sundays” syndrome many widowed people complain about.

And of course, I might be entirely wrong in these predictions.

Your thoughts?


Amazing comments from a twenty-something writer about the upcoming election.

Her words and insights offer evidence that wisdom does not require decades of experience – just great skills of observation and reflection.

(S-R photo)


Just returned from seeing the new movie Argo. Ben Affleck directs  the story of the CIA-assisted escape of six Americans hiding in Iran at the home of a Canadian diplomat; the six American consular officials slipped out of the American Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 as it was overrun by militant students. The remaining 52 Americans were held hostage.  

The movie is based on the book written by retired CIA operative Antonio Mendez and journalist Matt Baglio. Ben Affleck plays Mendez. The film uses actual news footage and ends with comments from President Jimmy Carter.

For some viewers, the film -which does take artistic license with details -  is a before-my-lifetime history lesson, but for many who vividly recall this event, the movie reveals one now-declassified story from that horrible violence which lasted 444 days for the Americans left behind.  

President Clinton declassified the information in 1997.  Argo is a story worth telling – a story of immense courage, hope and redemptive imagination.

(S-R archives photo: Former Iranian secret agent Saeed Hajjarian points to a copy of a photograph showing a U.S. hostage and an Iranian during the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.)

She wants to go to school

The young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousufzai simply wants to go to school and become a doctor. She was shot earlier this week. An arrest has been made of a number of suspects. The young girl has had one of two bullets removed from her body. She is on a ventilator and is listed in satisfactory condition.

“The school is owned and operated by the teenage activist's father, who takes great pride in his daughter's accomplishments and is a champion of education for girls.”

While we bicker over the political debates and FACEBOOK our platform preferences, we forget that the privilege to do so is not universally shared. Many around the world are voicing their good thoughts and prayers for the survival of one amazing, brave teen-age girl – who dared to speak her truth.


(S-R archives photo)

On-call chaplain meets A Christmas Carol

In my chaplain internship at Rush University Medical Center, we have a 24-hour on-call shift every 7 to 10 days. The other chaplains get off their pagers at 5 p.m. and transfer their pages to the on-call chaplain. Your pager beeps everytime a chaplain has made the transfer. It's a challenging experience to be the sole chaplain on call in such a huge medical center, and one of my colleagues here commented how lonely it feels when the pager keeps dinging at 5 p.m. Friday and you're the one person on-call and you picture everyone else going home to a nice relaxing Friday night.

It feels a little bit like that scene in the classic “A Christmas Carol” when the young Scrooge is alone at boarding school during Christmas vacation and watches, sadly, as everyone else leaves to the loving embrace of families taking them home and he's let in the cold school, snow falling outside.

But then, his sisters appear to take him home, and he is happy once more.

I am not on-call tonight. Instead, a friend from Spokane, Mary Ann, is flying in tonight and we're going to the Notre Dame-Stanford game tomorrow. So I am feeling pretty darn unScrooge like this Friday!

(S-R Archives photo from Disney)

A Nat Park memory returns 50 years later

During my three-month sabbatical in Chicago, the “L” train I commute on each day goes over some very old urban tracks as it rounds a corner. I can see the track coming and every time, I have an instant memory of childhood, of Natatorium Park which had the Jack Rabbit roller coaster. It would start out slow and easy and then whoosh!

I sometimes think the “L” train will do the same. Turn the corner and magically transform into the roller coaster from my childhood, transporting me back 50 years.

Many people know that the The Looff CarrouselI, now in Riverfront Park, made its debut at Nat Park, but it's the Jack Rabbit that comes up most in conversations with my Spokane peers who remember Nat.

The roller coaster is a strange but comforting image and memory, as I commute each morning to Rush University Medical Center in an adventure far from home.

(S-R archives photo of The Looff Carrousel)

Three blocks of life

Moving through downtown this morning, early, early, after my peaceful walk around the lake, I was jolted as sirens blared. Soon a fire truck appeared, then a medic unit and then two patrol cars. All the first responders arrived first to tend to a homeless man whose arm had a severe and bleeding bump – like a golf ball protruding from under his skin. He looked dazed and disheveled with wild hair, dirty clothes, like he had just awakened from a night on the street… In the next block, a man knelt at the edge of the intersection, his head lowered and his hands folded in prayer with all the precision of a Benedictine monk. He was not distracted by the city noises and vehicles moving around him…I wondered what his heart longed for. In the next block a team of regulars were setting up their ugly, deeply disturbing photos (which is the point, I know) of aborted fetuses at various stages of gestational life.

Such an odd juxtaposition: defending life with photographs while steps away, suffering people struggled and prayed for healing and peace.

(S-R archives photo)

At long last…

It is never too late to honor a fallen soldier or for a family’s angst to finally be relieved. For families of servicemen and servicewomen, a burial of remains is the final and often necessary ritual to honor their loved one. 

Today, after 37 years, Pfc. James Jacques will be buried with full military honors at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver on what would have been his 56th birthday.

May he rest in peace and may his family’s grief be healed; may they also feel a nation’s gratitude for a young man’s commitment to his country.

(S-R archives photo)


October is breast cancer awareness month and among the flood of pink ribbons are lots of myths about this disease.

As a breast cancer survivor, I can tell you that I have heard many of these myths. Take time to read about what is fact and what is simply nonsense in the wind. You may feel relief and better informed.

(S-R archives pphoto:  Spokane resident Jackie Colton lines up for the start of the Susan G. Komen Eastern Washington Race for the Cure, April 23, 2012)

The kindness of calling

My great-nephew Noah lost his cell phone while on vacation over the summer at the Washington ocean. Yesterday, I got a voicemail from a woman who said: “Hi Becky you don't know me but I am down at the ocean and found this cellphone on the beach and thought you might know who the phone belongs to. I am going to leave it at the Pacific Beach State Park Ranger Station.”

Turns out she called several of Noah's “recent calls” and left similar messages. This was completely kind of a stranger. She didn't leave her own name or number so there's no way to call to thank her, but perhaps others who read this will remember how much it means when strangers go an extra step for people they will never know.

Thank you kind stranger. I hope to pay it forward someday.

(S-R archives photo: Washington beach)

The numbers…the faces…the lives

We have suffered and lost enough of our soldiers. The war in Afghanistan drones on. The 2000th casualty has died. When will it end - this longest war?

A package waits to be mailed on my dining room table for a nephew who serves in Afghanistan. Filled with Halloween candy and love, it will make its way across the world to a land I cannot even understand or imagine.

Our mindfulness as a nation about this war seems lacking as acute suffering continues – in fatalities, injuries and separation of loved ones.

(S-R archives photo: The grave of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Harris is seen through an American flag as the the sun rises over Georgia National Cemetery Monday, May 28, 2012, in Canton, Ga)

Where contagion begins?

The 2011 movie Contagion has been showing on cable movie channels in recent weeks. It shows how a deadly, contagious virus can begin innocently enough and then spread so far and wide that thousands die and cities completely shut down.

What I liked about the movie was how realistic the scenario was. For instance, not everyone got the virus, just as some people would be immune for reasons unknown if something like this happened.

The movie is so powerful, in my opinion, that whenever I get an alert like the one below, I wonder: Is this the big contagion?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent out this alert in recent days:

CDC is working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners to assess the public health risk presented by a recently detected, novel coronavirus, associated with severe respiratory illness in two men. The first patient, a man aged 60 years from Saudi Arabia, was hospitalized in June 2012 and died; the second patient, a man aged 49 years from Qatar with onset of symptoms in September 2012, was transported to the United Kingdom, where he remains hospitalized on life support. Because of the possibility of frequent updates as new information becomes available, readers are encouraged to consult the CDC coronavirus website

(Photo still from the movie Contagion)

St. Joseph Children’s Home

In 1973, Becky and I were among a group of Gonzaga freshmen who would spend two evenings each week at St. Joseph Children’s Home, tutoring young kids who lived there. I remember the enormous building and the echo of steps in the hallway.

 Becky and I were at Gonzaga because we were born into families that valued education and families who took good care of us as we grew up; we had a home, food, clothing and parents who nurtured us. The opportunity at St. Joe’s was one of giving of our time, but it also was about education – ours.

 I tutored a 9 year old boy named Robby, who had a younger brother who also lived at St. Joseph’s. I remember his enormous brown eyes and his easy willingness to be with me – a stranger at first. I have a photo of Robby and a poem I wrote, in a scrapbook, tucked away, somewhere.  I took him to dinner a few times at the COG (Gonzaga dining hall) where he ate an inordinate amount of food. “Oh, yes,” said the sister when we returned to St. Joe’s, “I forgot to tell you that he never knew when he would eat before he came here, he tends to stock up at meal times. You need to limit his food or he may get sick.” I remember feeling stunned that any adult would neglect or be unable to feed her child. Yes, it was about education - mine.

When I told my parents about the visits, my dad sent me a letter with $20 in it and wrote, “Take those little boys to the circus – every child should have that experience.” So, we went. They loved it –and so did I.

When I read the St. Joseph Children’s Home reunion story today, I cried. Not sure why.

Maybe it is the wondering that crept in – what happened to Robby? He would be about 47 now. Did he find security? Did he leave Spokane? Perhaps I cried recalling the intense and selfless love that the sisters offered to children. They created family where there were gaps; they loved in the midst of social and family chaos.

 I imagine that Josephine passed me in that hallway in 1973. I hope that she someday loses the embarrassment she says lives within her about her childhood home. While the “family” she had was not traditional, her St. Joseph family gave her what she needed  most: love.

Keep the lid on! Most teens are.

Many of us aging baby boomers have a habit of comparing notes about how much they drank and drove in high school and college, and we wonder how we ever survived. In my first job in Fort Lauderdale, we'd buy six packs on Friday afternoons and drink several on our way driving to the party place and then drink some more and at the end of the night drive home snockered.

Is it luck, miracle or destiny that more of us didn't die?

Well, here's some good news from the CDC today. Modern teens aren't as stupid as we are. Here's an excerpt from the press release:

“The percentage of teens in high school (aged 16 and older) who drove when they had been drinking alcohol decreased by 54 percent between 1991 and 2011, according to study released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nine out of 10 high school teens (aged 16 and older) did not drink and drive during 2011.”

(S-R archives photo)

Inked forever with love

The children and grandchildren of their elders want the stories told and remembered - and so the descendents carry a permanent reminder of these stories of horror and redemption:  tattoos. Not just any tattoo, but the same number as their elders were inked with by Nazis at the death camps during WWII.

“We are moving from lived memory to historical memory,” noted Michael Berenbaum, a professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles who is among the foremost scholars of the memorialization of the Holocaust. “We’re at that transition, and this is sort of a brazen, in-your-face way of bridging it.”

Our families carry stories told at holiday time – often stories of pranks or romance or successes, but these stories are ones of darkness and hope and courage and freedom. Stories descendents honor, stories they remember and share and bear witness to with their own bodies.

Stories all of us, no matter our heritage, must never, ever forget.

Parenthood in 2012…a (techy) breeze

As parents, we recall all it took to care for our infant children. My father reportedly said as he loaded the car in 1955, “We will go to Duluth again when she can load her own play pen into the car!” The 150-mile trip from Minneapolis to my grandparents’ home in Duluth took 4 hours by highway and loads of equipment.

In the 1990’s, we had a porta-crib, collapsible stroller and diaper genie to make the early months easier. All of which we acquired via in-person shopping. I skipped the heated “baby-wipe warmer” opting for the “baby warner” – “WARNING: here comes a cold baby wipe!”

Parenthood today is on fast-forward when it comes to stuff and interacting. No need for the 150-mile schlep when Skype provides “face-to-face” visits and the stuff of babyhood comes easily with clicks and instant delivery, instead of Saturday morning jaunts to BabyLand.

And what stuff is really needed during the early years is a lot less than what we think.  But most of the stuff  does make parents’ lives easier, allowing more time to love and enjoy a most amazing miracle:  a precious new life.

(S-R archives photo)

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About this blog

Writer Catherine Johnston of Olympia, Wash., addresses issues facing aging baby boomers and seniors as well as issues of serious illness, death and dying, grief and loss.

Ask a question: Catherine welcomes questions about aging issues and grief. Email her at

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