Turning Darkness to Light



“One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life, I think, is to have a happy childhood.”  ~ Agatha Christie

“Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it.”  ~Maurice Sendak

What first comes to mind when you hear the word “childhood”?

I’m guessing you might answer: innocence, joy, play, fun, laughter, silliness, or wonder.

What about the word “depression”?

Childhood depression should be an oxymoron. But it is a reality for too many children and the parents who love them.

One of the special characteristics of children is that, unlike grownups, they don’t stay mad or sad very long. But some children are born with a brain chemistry, genetic makeup, or nature that make it difficult to experience the lightness and joy of childhood, no matter how loving and stable their home.

“We naturally want and expect children to be happy,” my writer friend Irene says, “and when they’re not, we try to do something about it. We buy them a new toy, do a fun activity, talk, give hugs. But sometimes we can’t fix the unhappiness, and this feels awful.”


Irene knows a lot about childhood depression. Her only son, now a young adult, showed symptoms of rage, frustration, sadness, and suicidal thinking by age eight. 

When other parents complained about their children’s everyday woes— not being picked for the travel team, not getting the lead in a play, having a squabble with a friend, being too shy—Irene was struggling to keep her child from despair. “I couldn’t relate to these parents. I felt alienated,” she said. “My son and I lived in a bubble of silence outside the norm.”  Irene’s parenting world revolved around psychiatrists, therapy appointments, hospitalizations, and various medications. She fought to protect her son in public school where he was often mistreated and misunderstood. “While some teachers were invested in him, others lost patience.”  Irene advocated tirelessly on her son’s behalf to keep him safe. “There were times,” she told me tearfully, “when I honestly didn’t know if I was going to lose him.” 

I met Irene a year and a half ago at a local meet-up of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator).  She’s a petite powerhouse who radiates energy and warmth. We immediately connected.  As we got to know one and other, we shared, not only our writing goals but our personal journeys of struggle and growth. Listening to Irene’s story, I marveled at her ability to exude such a love for life.

Irene has turned her painful experience into a passion project to help others. She wants to shed light on childhood depression, to open the uncomfortable discussion, and to let other parents and children know they are not alone. 

She translated this desire into action by writing and illustrating a small book with a big message. Celia and the Little Boy is the story of two children trapped in the darkness, and what it took for them to find their way out.”  Illustrated with child-like pencil drawings, this timeless tale is for readers ages 8 to 98. img_69311.jpg

Last week, I attended Irene’s book launch at the Canton Public Library. Speaking to a room full of supporters, Irene shared the story’s journey from inspiration to draft to published book. Irene’s son, now an adult, fully approved of her sharing his story, which is also his mother’s story.  Irene read the Celia and the Little Boy aloud while the pages were projected on a large screen.  I could just feel the overwhelming emotion of the audience as Irene read the last, hopeful sentence. 

The next step in Irene’s passion project is to connect with parents, teachers, pediatricians, and therapists.  Irene wants to offer, not only hope but information on this devastating illness that impacts families and communities at both the personal and national level.


We can all learn from people like Irene who, rather than allowing themselves to be pulled under, reach toward the light. They turn pain into healing and meaning. They become activists, mentors, volunteers, writers, and spokespersons driven by a sense of purpose. They use the lessons gleaned from their loss, grief, or struggle to help ease another’s burden.

Now I think I know how Irene maintains her inner joy. Like her book character, Celia, Irene feels the struggle, yet is still able to see the world as a “truly wondrous place”.  As she so eloquently writes in her dedication:  For all the children who dwell alone in the darkness and those who can see them.”


For more information on Celia and the Little Boy Irenebuchine.com



Do You Need An Accountability Partner?




Do you have something big you want to accomplish but haven’t?  Do you have trouble sticking to a long-term goal?

Last month, I wrote about finding inspiration when you are creatively stuck. One reader wrote me that she has no problem finding inspiration. “I’m filled with creative visions.  My problem is always follow-through, especially when the going gets rough.”    

As a writer, I relate to this predicament. Ideas come easily to me. The beginning stage of writing a novel is kind of like falling in love—everything is new and exciting.  Possibilities abound.  But sticking with it through the long haul inevitably means experiencing frustration, disappointment, and dry spells. And yes, sometimes loneliness and despair.

Whether you’re trying to write your first book, save for retirement, lose 20 pounds, or train for a marathon, staying on track is the hardest part.  Meeting any long-term goal requires continual motivation, discipline, and fortitude. Let’s be honest–who has an abundant supply of these traits?

If you recognize yourself here, then you may benefit from an accountability partner. An AP is a trusted individual who holds you responsible for achieving your goals. In working with an accountability partner, you identify goals, then come up with a short-term plan of action. You then report your progress through regular checkpoints via email, phone, Skype, or in-person.

An accountability partner can also offer:

-Advice and perspective

-Ideas and resources

-A listening ear

–Support and motivation


Sometimes, an AP is just a kind soul who volunteers 15 minutes a week to keep you on track. Then there’s the reciprocal partnership in which you serve as each other’s AP. Psychological research backs up its effectiveness. Just finding a partner with whom to share your goals increases the likelihood that you will achieve them. It’s  a lot more fun to take a daily power walk with a friend than go at it alone for 45 minutes. Knowing you must check in with your weight-loss buddy each week makes it easier to pass up that chocolate donut. Reporting your daily word count to a fellow writer keeps you glued to your laptop (and off Facebook). 

By working with an AP, you are harnessing the power of positive peer pressure to motivate change.

Tips for finding an Accountability Partner:

Look to a trusted friend, neighbor, co-worker, classmate, or family member. If you’re a writer, try posting a request on a writer’s forum. Check out local writer’s groups. Network at a writing conference.  

Tips for Making it Work:

—Know what you want to get out of the partnership.

—Find a partner who is looking for similar goals/results.

—Find a partner who is in a similar place of experience.

—Decide on the method and frequency of communication.

—Be honest.

—Be willing to invest equally in the relationship.

 I recently found my AP—or I should say, she found me.  Connie and I live 800 miles apart.  We email and talk on the phone. We share goals and next action steps. We identify challenges and offer each other feedback. Why is it always easier to help someone else with her problem areas? Though we are working on different types of writing projects, the process is similar.  We both must make time for our writing and avoid distraction. We both need to track our word/page count. We both must troubleshoot and problem-solve. 

Since I have a lot more writing and publishing experience than Connie, I’ve had to identify the areas in which she can best help me. I won’t be looking to her for critique—I’ve already found someone for that.  Rather, it’s the act of stating my goals out loud to another human and reporting my progress that matters.  If I don’t complete my stated goals, Connie helps me figure out why. Her coaching background offers me techniques for deciding which projects I should invest my time in. In turn, I suggested that we each track our time and keep a Got Done list.  Already, I’ve noticed an uptick in my productivity.

This new relationship is a work-in-progress.  The only challenge so far is that Connie and I really enjoy talking to each other, so phone meetings go off in many directions. Maybe this just means that, in addition to finding an AP,  I’ve made a new friend.

Have you worked with an accountability partner? If so, what were the results?



“Poems are made from the lives lived, borne out of experiences and shaped by solitary thought.” ~ Jill Bialosky

I just finished reading a wonderful new book that I picked up solely because of its intriguing title: Poetry Will Save Your Life by Jill Bialosky (Atria Books 2017). The  Kirkus Review sums it up well: “An emotional, sometimes-wrenching account of how lines of poetry can be lifelines.” 

This short memoir is centered on specific poems that have brought the author comfort, meaning, inspiration, or understanding during pivotal moments in her life. Bialosky organizes the book by themes such as Shame, Memory, Escape, Passion, First Love, and Mortality. A brief bio for each poet is included which deepens our awareness of the poem’s meaning. Each poignant chapter could stand alone. 

Throughout the book, Bialosky reflects on the profound lessons and meaning poetry can offer us. “Poems are composed of our own language disordered, reconfigured, reimagined, and compressed in ways that offer a heightened sense of reality and embrace a common humanity.”

Whether you are a poetry lover or haven’t read a poem since high school, there is something in this book for everyone. 

Ms. Bialosky, an award-winning poet, novelist, and book editor, never veers off into English professor mode when reflecting on the poems. Rather, she selects key phrases or themes that connect with her experience. Here she examines a stanza of E.E. Cummings poem, somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond.                

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

Bialosky explains that the “use of the word voice as a modifier for eyes allows the reader to experience how much the speaker of this poem “sees” into his subject. Then she intuits the poet’s question:  How is it that one person can unlock something private within us? Or awaken things in us we fear?” 

Bialosky writes about the death of her first child shortly after birth. She shares the never-ending pain of her beloved young sister’s suicide.  In the chapter of grief, Bialosky comments on Auden’s poem, Musee Des Beaux Arts.  “W.H. Auden documents the otherworldly state of grief and tragedy; how it strikes families while others are doing the dishes or taking the dog for a walk. Even dogs continue on their doggy life.” 

Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can connect to this paradoxical state of being: How can everyone else just go about their business when my beloved is gone? 

Bialosky says, “I will spend years trying to capture the experience of suicide in a prose work…Poems remain a sustaining source of comfort.

Like Jill Bialowsky, words, too, have been an integral part of my healing after losing my father—words shared with a therapist, words of comfort from family and friends, words I have written, and words of those who have crawled through the tunnel of trauma and grief and come out the other side.

It has been exactly two years since my father’s tragic death. In some ways, this is unfathomable.  How could two years have passed?  This disbelief has me thinking more about the elusive nature of time. If time is constant, why do our brains perceive it so differently? Why does time slow down when we grieve and speed up when we are happy?  Why when we are waiting excitedly for a special event, do the days not move fast enough?          


For centuries, poets have pondered time’s mystery. Consider Henry Van Dyke’s poem, Time Is.

Time is
Too Slow for those who Wait,
Too Swift for those who Fear,
Too Long for those who Grieve,
Too Short for those who Rejoice;
But for those who Love,
Time is eternity.

Emily Dickinson expresses this idea of expectation and waiting in her poem, If You Were Coming In The Fall.  Although the agoraphobic poet spent most of her life inside her Amherst, MA home, Dickinson enjoyed her share of romantic interests. The following poem is thought to be attributed to a family friend, Judge Otis Phillips Lord, who died 2 years before Emily.


If you were coming in the Fall,

I’d brush the Summer by

With half a smile, and half a spurn,

As Housewives do, a Fly.

If I could see you in a year,

I’d wind the months in balls—

And put them each in separate Drawers,

For fear the numbers fuse—

If only Centuries, delayed,

I’d count them on my Hand,

Subtracting, till my fingers dropped

Into Van Dieman’s Land,

If certain, when this life was out—

That yours and mine, should be

I’d toss it yonder, like a Rind,

And take Eternity—

But, now, uncertain of the length

Of this, that is between,

It goads me, like the Goblin Bee—

That will not state— its sting.


Jill Bialowsy concludes that “poetry gives shape to those empty spaces within us that we have no words for until we find them in a poem.”  

Do you have a favorite poem or one that holds special meaning?

Do you regret quitting ______?


Do you regret quitting music lessons as a child? Do you wish your parents had pushed you to continue studying piano?  Do you regret dropping out of competitive swimming or gymnastics or skating or dance? 

What about your own children? When do you let them quit a sport or artistic pursuit? What if your child is very talented? 

In my unscientific survey, the answers run the gamut from insisting one’s child continue studying to a certain age or level, to leaving the decision completely up to her. Some parents told me they don’t even suggest lessons until their child asks for them. 

For certain activities like singing, acting, and painting, one can much more easily pick it up again an adult.  But for other pursuits, there is a window of possibility both physically and mentally.  The opportunity for training narrows.  At some point, the pre-professional student must decide where he is heading because of the increasing demands of pursuing his art or sport. There is only so much time.

If you have devoted years to supporting your child’s passion or talent and he suddenly decides to quit, your heart may twist in a knot.  Maybe you see yourself in him. Maybe he is (was) living your own unfulfilled dreams.  You might believe that he is foolishly passing up opportunities for accomplishments and accolades. You worry that he will regret his decision.

My son walked at 9 months and was catching a ball by his first birthday. His pediatrician noted “motor skills genius” on Sam’s chart. At age 9, just before he was to earn his first black belt in karate, Sam insisted on quitting. It wasn’t that he didn’t like karate anymore (he practiced at home all the time), he didn’t want to go to the classes. His father and I wondered if the additional requirement for the black belt (writing an essay and leading the class) was the culprit. Or, maybe it was the intimidating and stern sensei. (Heck, this man scared me.)  Sam could not articulate the real reason, if there was one, but he put up quite a big fight and refused to continue training at the dojo.

The sensei told us we were making a terrible mistake. Sam showed exceptional talent.  The rewards for his personal development down the line were too great to pass up. Parents shouldn’t make such an important decision on the whims of a fickle nine-year-old, he said.

We let Sam quit.


Still, our son never stopped moving. In addition to studying piano and chess, Sam excelled in swimming and tennis. He played varsity basketball and fenced competitively.  Recently, he’s taken up martial arts again.  Sam, now 23, holds no regrets about our/his decision, though admits to wondering if it was the “right” one.

With my youngest daughter, Audrey, the decision to end her pre-professional ballet study at 16 was hard on both of us, but mostly me. Dance was (and still is) my passion.  It meant a lot that my daughter and I shared this.  Despite the sacrifices involved, I committed to supporting her training (which mostly involved driving and waiting.) I loved watching Audrey grow as a dancer. I miss those days.

Recently, I wrote about the experience for Grown and Flown, a wonderful website and blog on parenting young adults. After this publication, I’ve received a lot of comments from others parents in similar situations—soccer, horseback-riding, violin—who related to my angst.

Interestingly, another mom wrote to me describing the opposite situation. She and her husband were never fully on board with their daughter’s desire to pursue dance professionally. After graduating with a BFA in dance, their daughter is now trying to get her big break in NYC. The reader wrote:  “So.. I was never a dance mom. More a mom that allowed my child to steer her ship….hoping that I did the right thing and that her dream becomes a reality.” 

Her honest words put a new spin on this parenting dilemma.   

You can read my essay, The Last Ballet Lesson”, here.   I welcome your thoughts.


  My ballerina.

Writing Hard Stories



“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story…” 

~Isak Dinesen


I read a lot of memoirs. I enjoy getting lost in someone else’s emotional journey. A great memoir goes beyond the personal to the universal and offers the reader more than the events themselves but the meaning, as well. Great memoirs enlarge our view of the world and ourselves.

Some stories, though, seem too big to tell, even if they are begging to be told. Life complexities overwhelm.

The desire to translate explosive emotions into words, to order fragmented images, cannot be about making art or perfection or publication, at least in the beginning. First, the goal must be to know what one feels, then to figure out what happened—to claim your story.  As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “All I know is what I have words for.”  Then you tell it again and again in different voices, and then, perhaps, find a way to release it.

So how do we begin to shape an unruly story?  There are so many decisions to make. Where to begin may be the biggest. In her memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos says, “Every story begins with an unraveling.”  I like that idea. 

The act of telling a big story is a process of spinning chaos into order as Dani Shapiro discovers in her new memoir, Hourglass. “The narrative thread doesn’t stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot…”

In trying to weave a big story, the writer must ask: what parts should I hold up for inspection and which ones do I leave out? These white spaces, though, are necessary; choosing them is the hard part.

How deep does one dig among the layers?   

These questions are ones I have grappled with as I tried writing about the tragic accident that took my father’s life. The story is so much more than the facts. And this story is not just my own.  It is my mother’s story of survivor guilt, and my sister’s story of arriving too late, and my brother’s story of choosing to see my father’s burned body, and another brother’s story of deciding to stay home, and another brother’s story of overseeing the far away burial. It is my daughter’s story of watching me answer the phone that fateful evening and then slip away. 

Finding my voice in this sad chorus is messy, uncomfortable work.

* * *

One day, as I was working with a student on her college application essay, I heard myself say, “You’re trying to cram a big, complicated story into one frame. It’s not working. Try zooming in closer. What do you see? What is your story really about?” 


It wasn’t the first time I’d given this advice, but at that moment, I heard it anew.

What is my story really about? 

The answer was “many things”.  The origin of fear.  The love of a daughter for her father. Family dysfunction. Religion. A freak accident. Grief. How trauma affects the brain. Healing through words. And this overwhelming realization contributed to my writer’s block. 

The breakthrough finally came when I stopped trying to create a unified big picture and took a snapshot instead. 

You don’t have to tell the whole story at once.

The resulting essay took on multiple forms and drafts.  I decided to submit it to The Sunlight Press whose missions seemed fitting: “We want to hear the ways people turn toward light and hope… and also how they respond to the darkness and navigate unknown spaces. Epiphanies are born from the ordinary and the extraordinary…we want to know about these moments.”  

To meet the word requirement of this online journal, I needed to shorten the story, thereby, getting closer to its essence. When the editor asked me to slightly revise its original ending (without saying how), I was, at first, taken aback. Then, the more I read my last lines, the more I realized I’d been too cryptic, perhaps too poetic. So I made it more truthful and simple. A tremendous sense of relief and satisfaction followed. It was published on July 9, 2017.

And that, I think, is the power of writing our stories. Unlike in real life, we can assemble the pieces with our own hands and, sometimes, even make the ending a little brighter.


Strangers on a Plane


I consider myself a friendly person. I enjoy interesting conversation and connecting with people. I don’t care much for small talk, though. I much prefer to gain something from a conversation. At a party, I can easily meet a stranger and know her life story by the end of the evening. I think I’m pretty easy to talk to—except maybe on an airplane.

If you’re looking for conversation 30,000 feet in the air, you probably don’t want to sit next to me.    

My fear of flying developed in my early twenties. I’d get anticipatory anxiety a week before my flight. I often had panic attacks on the airplane. Once, my body jolted during sudden turbulence and I accidentally hit the woman seated next to me.  I could never sit by the emergency exit because I knew I was incapable of assisting my fellow passengers “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”

Fortunately,  over the past several years, my fear of flying has diminished somewhat.  I can even get some work done during a flight.  Can’t say exactly what brought about this change. Maybe I’ve finally become desensitized. Or maybe becoming a parent forced me to put on a brave face for the kiddos. Perhaps the relaxation techniques I learned finally paid off.

Or, maybe it was just those yellow pills. 

Whatever the reason, it’s likely that the unpleasantness of air travel will get to me now more than the idea of donning a life vest. Given the current state of air travel, I bet most of us feel this way.

Still, I can never predict my mental state once on board, so I keep my guard. I have certain rituals I need to do during takeoff and landing.  I’m very picky about my seat choice. And, I don’t want to talk to any strangers. Fortunately, most people are plugged into their devices or watching in-flight “entertainment”. 

So, there I was a few months ago, about to board a 7:00 am flight to Toronto.  (Let me just say, I’m not a morning person. )  A well-dressed, older man smiled at me.  I smiled, faintly, then looked the other way.  He moved closer. “Traveling for business or pleasure?” 

I did an inner eye-roll at that original line. “Pleasure,” I answered, hoping my one-word reply would signal that I did not wish to make small talk.  But he continued in a chipper, wide-awake fashion.  I nodded politely as he gave me the weather report for Toronto.  As we began to board the plane, I felt relieved to escape. “Well, have a good trip,” I said.

What were the odds he’d be seated next to me, anyway?

As I walked down the too-narrow aisle, I got an immediate claustrophobic reaction. The plane was smaller than I expected. And, there were only two seats on each side of the cabin. So sooner had I settled into my window seat than Mr. Friendly appeared.

“Well, look at that,” he said, sitting down in the too-close seat beside me.

I ignored him.

I took out my phone and headphones, then put on sunglasses. (Don’t ask. Just part of the ritual.) I plugged into my favorite tunes. After the safety instructions were given, my seatmate asked me a question. I don’t remember what it was.  Then he made a joke about the TSA.  

I removed my earplugs.  “Sorry, um, just to let you know, I’m not a comfortable flyer,” I said. “Especially during takeoff and landing. So, please excuse me.”

He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. Do whatever you need to do.”

I smiled, then put back on my headphones.   

“Everything’s going to be just fine,” he announced over my happy music.

Ten minutes later, after we reached cruising altitude, my body relaxed a bit. Immediately, my friendly seatmate continued to engage me. “Feeling better?”

 Gee, didn’t he have something to read?   

 I  tried summoning my friendly self.  “Yes, I am, thank you.” 

He asked if I was from Boston and what I planned on doing in Toronto.

“I’m on my way to a family wedding,” I offered. 

“That’s wonderful,” he said, then sighed. “Unfortunately, I’m on my way to a family funeral.”

The juxtaposition of our travel purposes touched something within me. I removed my sunglasses. I listened as he described the loss of a dear cousin. 

Before long, I found myself in a thoughtful conversation with this stranger.

He was a hospital physician who loved his work. He and his wife of twenty years had both found each other after leaving long terrible marriages.  (His honesty and happy marital status removed any imagined pretense. ) I asked him what he thought the secret to a happy marriage was and he told me. Then he showed me pictures of his family and grandchildren.  He laughed that I was surprised by his age–73. I told him that people often think I’m much younger, too.

“Happiness is the fountain of youth,” he said. 

Then I heard myself ask:  “So, what’s it like to be seventy-three?” 

And he told me.

So there I was, in one of my least favorite places, talking about love and loss with a stranger. We exchanged stories about our professions. He asked me what I most liked to write about. I asked him what he’d advise a medical student.

We laughed about the White House circus and made predictions of our new president’s future. He made a joke about Trump on an airplane.

The flight passed by quickly—something that never happens to me. I realized that this man’s company distracted me from the usual worrisome engine noises and air bumps. Still, when the flight attendant announced that it was time  “to start our descent” my anxiety crept up.

My new friend sensed this.  “Just take a few deep breaths. Go back to your happy place.” 

And I did.

Once on the ground, the man gave me a few tips for navigating Customs. He needed to rush out to catch a connecting flight.  He wished me well and was on his way. 

In that moment, I was sorry to see him go.

During the past weeks, with all the terrible news stories about air travel, I thought about my random encounter with a friendly stranger in the unfriendly skies. 

Maybe he thought about me, too.