In last month’s post I described sitting in a sixth-floor hotel room watching the construction of a building in downtown Seattle. Three weeks later, I study that same building, but from a different angle. This time I observe from a bed on the fifteenth floor of Seattle’s Virginia Mason Hospital.


My different perspective started with an appointment with my primary care PA to discuss abnormally low (for me) blood pressure readings, and a couple of incidents of near-fainting. She ordered a STAT blood draw that returned critical-level numbers (half the red blood cells one needs to function), and I was hustled to our island hospital’s Emergency Department. There I was transfused with two units of someone else’s blood (thank you, whoever you are). Then I was transported off the island, by ambulance via ferry and freeway, to a hospital with a good reputation for gastroenterology expertise, in search of a suspected internal bleed.


The following seventy-five hours were a necessary physical nightmare. Four days of IV needles, blood draw needles, and prep for endoscopy and colonoscopy, plus CT scan of the small intestine (and the explosive, continuous, unpredictable thirty-six hours of “fallout” from that prep), no food, fragments of sleep, nearly-naked skin, and chilled body.


But, despite my bodily discomforts, I have another angle on the story that I want to share with you. This angle brings me back to the construction workers in that building that I have now studied from a new and different vantage point.


In my post last month I described some of the construction people at their work, but more importantly I described a “bag lady” struggling up the steep sidewalk beside the building. For a few moments in the late afternoon she was immersed in a tide of headed-home construction workers; after they had rushed past her, she was again alone, an old homeless woman stumbling up the hill, lugging her possessions. Did one “hard-hat” stop to talk to her that day? Offer to carry her burden to the top of the hill? I’ll never know.


What I do know is that in the midst of feeling isolated here in the hospital, of being humbled and humiliated by my physical condition, I have also been surrounded by such skilled and compassionate help that I grow tearful just recalling the details. For example:


  • The island phlebotomist who initially took the “STAT” order to heart, and her colleague in the lab half an hour away who together bent some protocol to get the alarming numbers back to my doctor in less than two hours.


  • Sari, my Medical Advocate (Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare) who stayed at my side helping me understand the options the professionals were proposing, asking for clarifications, taking notes so we’d both remember what was said and done, comforting me.


  • My hospital Patient Care Technician (aide) Tyson, who when my bowel-cleansing process was under way, was not dismayed by the mess I left on my bed and the floor, but instead guided me toward the bathroom and advised me, “Just don’t look behind you,” then cheerfully cleaned up bed, floor, bathroom, and me, as if he were out picking daisies in a field somewhere. Nor did he falter when he had to repeat this process three more times during the very long night.


  • LaVonne, the anesthesiologist, full of confidence and compassion, whose eyes told me we were in this together, and together we’d get through these procedures.


•Dr. Venu, the gastroenterologist who oversaw the testing procedures, welcomed me back to consciousness, and explained what was done and what we now knew and didn’t know – complete with photographs from inside my guts.


  • Wonderfully cocky young Joshua, who provided in-hospital transport several times for me; he had a way of flipping his black hair back from his forehead that was both studied and charming, and he treated me as if I were the only person on his full list of transports.


  • Trisha, RN, who, when I was most exhausted, cold, afraid, vulnerable, and tearful, tucked me into my bed with a warmed blanket, ordered me to take a nap, and put a sign on my door saying that NO one was to enter my room for the next 75 minutes, not even a doctor, without speaking to her first.


All these people swirled around me like the construction workers who swirled around the old homeless woman three weeks ago – except that THESE workers did stop. They looked me in the eye and they SAW me, they cared for the scared, exhausted ME inside this human body that was doing such undignified things; they cared deeply for me while trying to discover what would lead to my healing.


Three weeks apart, two different views of the same building-under-construction. Three weeks apart, two different versions of me. Three weeks apart, two vastly different immersions in the paradox of human life and human connection. Deo gratias.

Last week Meeting in the Margins and I were welcomed to Ravenna Third Place Books in Seattle for a reading/discussion hour.

As I usually do, I began my presentation with stories of offering compassionate touch to the street people of San Francisco. Those are arguably the more compelling stories in the book; they catch the attention and imagination of the audience.

Those stories may also be the “safest” ones for listeners to hear, because homelessness and slums are more remote from the personal experience of many bookstore shoppers than some other margins such as hospitals and nursing homes, or people who are physically or addictively ill or dying.

Folks who hear the street-stories are convinced that they would/could never interact with the people on “skid row.” That may be so. But what about the other margins, the more familiar, less dramatic ones? What about our neighbors who reside in those margins?

A friend who attended last week’s reading suggested that “the margins are wherever the familiar is strange.” That’s an idea worth unpacking.

We are uncomfortable imagining being in the margins. It’s a matter of our inexperience combined with situations that are as yet unexperienced. We can’t know what we haven’t yet learned. We can’t be proficient in what we’ve never done before – we are inexperienced; we can’t understand what we’ve not ever encountered – it is unexperienced.

But could we be willing simply to pay attention in those unpredictable times where the familiar turns out to be strange (a person sitting . . . not on a porch but on a curb; a child hurrying . . . not on a tricycle but in a wheelchair; an elegantly-dressed woman . . . not at a luncheon but wandering in traffic)?

Or can we allow for the opposite: a place or time where the “strange” turns out to be unremarkable and familiar (the corner panhandler has in his pocket a paperback book by your current favorite author, and the two of you have a brief conversation of appreciation not unlike the one you had yesterday with your friend in the coffee shop)?

Or could we welcome a moment when the taken-for-granted becomes mystical (a man dozing and drooling in his wheelchair in a nursing home corridor suddenly reaches for your hand, looks into your eyes, and begins praying for you in words that seem to embrace your soul)? Could we stay in the wonder of that moment and not flee?

If there is any “secret” to encountering the invisible people of the margins, it is saying “yes” to just a few of these opportunities, accumulating enough small experiences (I promise you that this is possible) that we actually want to go to the places where these little miracles can happen.

“Meeting in the margins” turns out to be a simple equation: one human Being unconditionally being with one other human Being for just a moment in time.

Meeting in the margins is the skill of being fascinated by the familiar and the strange, both at the same time.

For thirty years my attention has been focused on people who are marginalized in our culture. People who are physically, mentally, or addictively ill; people who have no home; people who are isolated in their homes; people who are dying.


I’m not a social activist, and I don’t know how to fix our social problems. I don’t know how to make our margins disappear. I don’t know what can be done for those huge numbers of marginalized people – EXCEPT for what I have done for thirty years: BE with them.

“Just-be-with” is a hard sell in our society. We prefer Nike’s “Just Do It.” We’d far rather DO something, anything, than feel helpless in the presence of another’s dysfunction, discomfort, or pain.

But scientific research is making a new case for being-with.

It also makes the case for the corollary  that an astute homeless woman said to me in a downtown San Francisco park: “It’s reciprocal, isn’t it.” Whatever positive emotions and human connection she had experienced as we were together, were returned to me through her eyes, and through her calloused hand touching my arm.

Psychologist Barbara Frederickson (interviewed by Angela Winter in the July 2014 issue of The Sun) says, “When we are really attuned to another person, we take part in this almost imperceptible dance. . . . this can bring a powerful sense of oneness,” what Frederickson has coined as “positivity resonance.” Like the vibrating of cello strings that are attuned to and amplify each other, this resonance is greater than its individual parts.

Frederickson’s research shows that whether we are sharing an intimate conversation with a friend or making brief eye contact and sharing a smile with a stranger, positivity resonance can improve the health of both people.

But the tricky part is, this sharing has to be done in person. Or at the very least in real time. Texting doesn’t create positivity resonance, but phone conversations do. Just being around a group of others isn’t enough, but connecting with someone in that group is. Most effective of all is making eye contact, and briefly and appropriately touching. In the few seconds at a stoplight, when you roll down the car window and give a dollar to a street beggar and grasp his hand briefly as the dollar is exchanged, a positivity resonance is created between you. Or, at that same stoplight, if you turn to the driver of the car next to you and offer a smile that is returned, the resonance happens.

So what can we do about the problems of our social margins?

By definition, social margins are where people are divided off from the rest of society, deprived of affirmation, kindness, unconditional being-with. But what if once a month each of us went to a hospital, or a hospice, or a homeless shelter, or any of the multitude of places where marginalized people are gathered at the edges of our society (or even to the house next door where that old woman lives alone)?

What if we went with empty hands, intending to give nothing but attention and a gentle touch, with no plan except to be-with; to offer – and allow – a “positivity resonance” to happen?

What if we believed – or at least hoped – that this is enough, and that by this simple act we, and those with whom we connect, will have helped to erase a few inches of a margin that divides us from each other?

Positivity resonance.


For decades I have known, and the homeless woman in the park knew, and now, it seems, science is learning: BEING-WITH IS HEALING.

When we feel empty, being-with can replenish us.

When we feel as if we have nothing, being-with is the gift we can give.

When we feel helpless, being-with is enough.

Frederickson, a scientist, is even bold enough to name this being-with, this positivity resonance, “love.”





A writer who is a poet tends to see things as metaphor.  I am a writer/poet, and sometimes I drive myself crazy noticing a thing and knowing there is a delicious but elusive metaphor there, just waiting to be penned.


Last week I travelled from my home island to the mainland, to visit a friend in the hospital. A newly-launched 144-car ferry is in service now – the Tokitae (“TOH-kit-TAY”), a Salish greeting meaning “nice day, pretty colors.” This is a state-of-the-art motor vessel, 360 feet of shiny paint, new signage, up-to-the-minute radar and bristles of communications antennae, with diesel engines deep inside that purr so quietly you don’t know you’ve cast off until you notice the dock receding in your rearview mirror.

When the Tokitae reached the mainland and nosed into its berth, I watched two crewmen reach out for the mooring lines and loop them around the huge anvil-shaped cleats on the vessel. “Isn’t that interesting,” I thought. “Everything totally new, except for the ropes.” What was securing the vessel to the berth was old-fashioned weathered hemp rope, slightly frayed in places from hard work.

I stared at the rope and its many layers: natural hemp strands wound into cord, cords twined together into thumb-sized ropes, then double strands of that rope braided into a round, unbreakable cable as thick as my wrist. I could feel one of those annoying metaphors nudging at my mind. Ah well, let it go – it was time to negotiate the ramp off the ferry, and head for the hospital.

My friend was in the Intensive Care Unit, a state-of-the-art unit in a brand-new 13-story hospital. We were surrounded by technology, from the machines monitoring Mark and keeping him pain-free, to the cellphone that his wife, Effie, was reluctantly learning to navigate, and the WiFi computers in the family room that kept the two of them connected to email from well-wishers.

Effie is one of my dearest friends. We speak the same language of the heart. Her eyes glistened with tears of gratitude as she said, “You know, the phone calls and the emails are nice, but what really amazes me is how I can FEEL my connection to my friends. It’s a spiritual connection, but almost physical, like an energy network of support. THAT’S what’s keeping me going. And Mark feels it too. Each strand of love weaving into a connection that’s holding us.”

And THERE was my metaphor: the mooring rope of sacred love connecting two people to the interwoven compassion of many others, strong enough to hold them tenderly in difficult moments from which they’d rather drift away.

On a newly-minted Olympic class ferry, an ancient method still secures us to the shore of a home island.

Amid all the newest and shiniest technology in a hospital ICU, it is still a most ancient skill that binds us to each other.





ON A BEASTLY HOT/HUMID JUNE DAY in Ervine, Kentucky, we were devouring sandwiches and iced drinks at a small air-conditioned coffee shop. Sitting across from me was my niece, Vicky; many years ago she picked this area as the perfect place to live, work, and create community, nestled in a “holler” (a small valley between two mountains). My nephew, David, sitting to my right, settled in southern California nearly 20 years ago and has never looked back. Both of them are sophisticated, savvy, and successful. Their mom, my sister Nancy, sitting to my left, recently retired from university life to a cottage just a stone’s throw from Vicky’s family.


Nancy and I were smiling, listening to animated descriptions of some of the more “interesting personalities” who had attended the past three days of a wedding celebration hosted on the large parcel of land where Vicky and her husband and children homestead.


There was lots of laughter and some fun-poking and head-shaking as first David and then Vicky and then David again added a new detail to the verbal caricatures that emerged like holograms hovering over our table.


Then came the moment when Vicky said it: “Ya gotta love ‘em.”


To which I replied, in an irreverent tone, “Or not.” Given the momentum of the conversation I had thought my comment would be picked up and run with and followed by more amusing details.


Instead, my comment had the effect of puncturing the hologram. It lay, deflated, on the table between us. Vicky’s brown eyes, deep and dark as the folds of the valleys in which she has chosen to live, held my blue eyes until I said, “You’re serious, aren’t you.”


Vicky said, “That’s the code by which we live here: you gotta love the people in front of you. You may not like them, but you have to love them.”


The message was: Despite your own disapproval and annoyance at the personality traits, the neediness, the political differences, the selfishness, the brokenness of those people who cross your path, no matter how you’re tempted to marginalize them, “Ya gotta love ‘em.”




Never have I heard the gospel – the good news of human relationships – preached so succinctly and so profoundly.


If I can believe that this is not the only place; if I can believe that there are other pockets of our culture, hidden away like Kentucky hollers, where this gospel is embedded in the community conscience and lived out daily this dynamically, I can allow myself to have hope for the people of our world.


Ya gotta love ‘em.