Can a blog fill a bucket?

I struggle with how to describe this project. I realize in midlife that writing helps me process the world and myself in it. It’s helpful to vent and follow my thoughts ‘out loud’ to avoid exorbitant therapy bills and to fully absorb the lessons of life. I view life as school, “To live is to slowly be born,” as the saying goes. Above all else, writing keeps me honest. Is it then a diary, a series of essays or a blog? A blog to me seems about self-promotion; a written selfie. This makes me cringe.

I worry that the rampant selfie culture is a little dangerous. One of my favorite thinkers, David Brooks, has written about how our world increasingly promotes a ‘resume self,’ over a ‘eulogy self.’ We all say that the most meaningful things in life are the profound, higher drivers: wisdom… grace… love.  A ‘eulogy self’ are the things we want to be remembered for, these BIG things. But we spend most of our time each day chasing ‘likes,’ applause, and material achievement. That’s a ‘resume self.’ The irony is that the more we strive to achieve for the purposes of outside recognition, the lonelier and emptier it can feel inside.

Last Sunday morning, a new friend, Jennifer, suggested we volunteer together to collect Thanksgiving donations. I loved the idea of getting to know this very cool chic better and doing some good. The week before I had been periodically grumpy and less than civil with Jack .  Shane had been travelling for work, Jack had a lot of commitments and I was dealing with the hangover of emotions leftover from this mammoth move. I figured ‘doing some good,’ would do me some good and help make-up for the fact that I yelled at my 9 year-old over something as minor as forgetting his homework.

Over the course of 3 hours, a group of volunteers collected hundreds of reusable shopping bags full of Stovetop, Del Monte green beans and Trader Joe’s cornbread mix. A handful of times, some donors asked to take pictures with their donations, presumably for Facebook, and such. Please understand, these people were clearly generous and self-less. They were doing something charitable by waking up at the crack of dawn to lug bags of food they’d bought for people they would never meet. But at the drop-off point, those selfie moments felt hollow. The pictures became distractions — recording transactions.

The majority of donors who brought bags full of food introduced themselves, smiled, shook hands — a few even gave hugs. They were happy to have help ferrying the goods from their cars and called out with glee to our volunteer group, ‘Happy Thanksgiving!’ Those exchanges were personal and heartwarming.   I think the selfie-takers missed out on that. (Or at least I missed out on that– maybe their social media ‘likes’ provided them love I didn’t witness.)

Jack has a book called, “Fill a Bucket.” The story is simple: all of us have ‘buckets’ (thinly veiled hearts) and when we fill other people’s buckets with love, appreciation, and kindness, our own buckets grow too.  When we tear down others, we are really dismantling our own buckets.

I have a terrible habit of over-reacting negatively to something in a split second, tearing down someone else’s bucket, then in my immediate remorse, I attempt to replace the guilt by overcompensating. I praise, lavish the victim with loving words or apologize excessively. While the apology is good, the net result is 0, at best. I dipped, then I re-filled but both buckets would have been fuller if I’d just not caused hurt in the first place. I am working on that here.

Journaling about my experiences helps keep me honest and reveal my bucket publically. But my goal is really not about my own bucket.  It’s about helping to form a world where all of us can look honestly at ourselves and our buckets. Are our everyday decisions mini-selfies or are they honest attempts to connect with others? I love this time of year and I think the generosity of the holidays can last if we chose every day to donate to others’ buckets. Who’s with me?


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All will be well Mr. Lincoln

Last week marked the one month deadline I gave myself to settle in. Pictures hung, lamps plugged in, there was no more work to do to get the house in order. I knew that the distractions of my ‘to do’ list had helped me to feel anchored, but I also knew that my efficiency would quicken a feeling of being lost. I was scared of feeling purposeless once the last box had been unpacked. Last Monday I woke up to a sunny day, hustled Shane to work and Jack to school, then thought, ‘Now what?’

Call it obsessiveness, but when in doubt, I walk. Walking calms me, exhausting my body so my mind won’t spin all day. Monday morning, I started out with the intention of making a long, 3-hour circle by walking through our new neighborhood, crossing the Potomac heading east then circling south along a Georgetown canal path, before veering back towards home. After crossing the river, though, I decided to head east farther into D.C. where I hadn’t been. I figured I could explore the neighborhood near Union Station, grab lunch and then hop the Metro back to Arlington. Enjoying the sun and distracted by a podcast binge, I realized about 45 minutes after crossing into D.C. that I was nowhere near the train station. You can’t exactly be lost in the age of the smart phone, but I certainly wasn’t where I intended.

If you check google maps on your phone, almost any birdseye view of D.C. shows an icon for the National Cathedral. You have to zoom out practically to New Jersey to get that icon to disappear. Looking at my phone, I realized my pulsing blue dot was very near the cathedral. I couldn’t see it through the web of fall foliage still on the trees, but a few quick steps and I was smacked by the 6th largest cathedral in the world.

If you know me, you know I studied church history in England, have lit candles in every church I’ve ever been to and have wept rainbow tears sitting in Sainte Chappelle. As I walked up to the gothic cathedral, I realized my morning ‘plans’ to wander were delusional. I had been heading to the cathedral all along.

I paid the $12 entrance fee then turned to my immediate left to read the first plaque. The words were of Lincoln’s impromptu speech to his hometown of Springfield, IL when he was boarding the inaugural train leaving for D.C.

My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

Statue of Lincoln inside Washington National Cathedral
Plaque of Lincoln’s speech to Springfield










It is vain to suggest I felt Lincoln understood me, and yet…  150 years ago, this man facing the greatest crisis of our country, was describing identical emotions to my own. He talked about leaving his hometown, gratitude, parenting, grief, faith in the divine and ultimately hope. “Let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.”

His words tunneled to my deepest fears and dug them out. Leaving the Bay Area has been one of the hardest things for me, and yet it was a choice I fought for. The constellation of emotions I have been juggling include my struggles as a parent, grief over my dad’s death in March but also a fundamental faith that everything would work out.

I walked around the cathedral thinking about how I could turn Lincoln’s message into something lasting, something personal and purposeful. As I contemplated all of this, I noticed groups of people touring the cathedral.  The groups were led by docents describing the meaning of the iconography, pointing to particular stained glass images and connecting all of this to biblical and American history. It was suddenly so clear: I left home last month feeling sad, but hoping there was a purpose for me in Washington. Since I was 19, I have read historical tomes, studied in one of the great cathedral towns in all of Europe and always harbored a desire to teach.  When I left my graduate program, I gave up my aspirations to teach and at some fundamental level have felt like a failure ever since.  As I listened to the docents, I wondered: what if I don’t need a Ph.D. to in order to share stories of the past?

As giddy as that idea made me, I immediately began to doubt myself. These docents seemed wise and ancient (all 3 of the ones I saw were at least in their 70s). Their knowledge was clearly born out of decades of study and experience. Did they all have advanced degrees? How grueling were the qualifications? How rare were the openings?

I drummed up the courage to go to the visitor’s desk. “How does one become a docent?” With a gleam in his eye, the helpful man said, “Do you have a minute? Come with me.”  He led me to a back office hidden by the heavy stones. “Jenn, we have a live one!” he called out to the program director.

Within a few short minutes, I learned that they trained docents once a year. That the annual training was on Saturday, only 5 days away. 24 of 25 spots had been filled. They were looking for volunteers who could commit at least one weekday and most appreciated young-ish docents because so many of the tours were for student groups. Qualifications included a passion for history, art and architecture, but no Ph.D was required. I could self-study, pass a series of tests, lead qualifying tours and then be free to ‘craft my own tour.’

My mom has a saying, ‘When you’re going in the right direction, doors open before you.’ I believe deeply there is a purpose to life and a divine spirit most present when we act on love. That’s what I call faith. Without it, we cannot succeed. With it, we cannot fail. Let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. Will you come with me on a tour?


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Lemon icing and oreo crumbs

When I first thought about moving away from the Bay Area, I fantasized about food. What were the local delicacies? What were the favorites on Yelp? Where could I get an egg white omelette and diet soda at 6:55 a.m.? It was a way for me to feel connected to the area while waiting anxiously for the seismic shift ahead.

While I explore food by looking online at pictures and menus, I don’t actually taste them. Like a porn addict who never cheats on his spouse, I look, but I don’t touch. To celebrate one month in Virginia, however, I decided to treat my son to a sunrise breakfast at Duck Donuts, a local donut shop known for customization. The made-to-order donuts slip out of the fryer and are lacquered in any combination of icing, sprinkles and drizzles.

The line formed as soon as the shop opened as people placed complicated orders for boxes to take to work. The ordering process isn’t streamlined, but it gave Jack ample time to contemplate the options. He stared. For a kid who struggles with focus, I thought I was being helpful in calling out possible combinations I myself would have liked to try: Pumpkin icing, marshmallow drizzle and crushed graham crackers seemed fitting of the season. He shot me down. Again and again as I offered classic combinations, he dismissed my conservative suggestions.

Finally, “Mom, I want lemon icing, oreo crumbs and fudge.” I questioned him, “I am not sure you’re going to like that. Lemon and chocolate? Are you sure?”


We ordered then watched his special treat from dough to drizzle. Jack devoured it with glee. “This is the best thing I’ve ever had in my life. You’re the best Mom in the world.” I loved the praise, but I wasn’t convinced he wasn’t just swept up in the moment. Much like his Mom, Jack is prone to exaggeration.

As I watched him, though, I realized how much fear dictated my own choices and how kids can more easily take risks. Jack was driven by exploration, ‘What would lemon and oreos taste like?’ We tend to grow out of that. He know how rare a donut on a Wednesday might be and we make safe bets: vanilla icing or a dusting of powdered sugar..

Watching him, I saw once again how courage is a muscle. You flex it, it grows. You keep it bound, it atrophies and pretty soon you’re watching Wheel of Fortune every night eating Hostess.

Maybe I didn’t have to leave my hometown, all my family, friends and favorite hiking trails. Maybe I could have stayed and eaten more donuts. My tendency to live exaggeratedly got me to move across the country to remind myself I could take risks, live spontaneously, flex my courage muscle. You might not have to do that. You might choose to order a crazy donut concoction instead to remind yourself how brave we can all be.


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