Saturday, September 24, 2011


Some commitments are more important than others.

I know: duh.

But seriously. When you say, "I'm writing a novel," and then you don't, who do you hurt? Yourself, for sure, unless your own integrity demands that you don't write it, at least at this moment.

But what if you say "I'm writing a novel," and then just...don't, for no real reason except that it's hard, or something else was more fun? Make this kind of "commitment" often enough and sooner or later, you won't believe yourself when you make commitments, and then it's even harder to keep them.

"Oh, sure," your inner self says. "We'll see how long this lasts," whether you're committing to write a novel or run a 10K or just spend Saturday mornings with your kids. And then that inner critic claps with glee when you sleep in instead of putting in your page count or mileage, or heading off toward the playground.

You could also argue that when you don't write your novel, we all are hurt, because your voice isn't in the world, informing or inspiring or delighting us. But we don't know that. It's not an immediate hurt.

On the other hand, when you say, "Yes, I'll donate the stem cells in my blood to someone in need of a new immune system," and you don't, who do you hurt? Maybe yourself, in the same ways as above -- but you're also DESPERATELY hurting the patient and his or her entire family. You said you would, and now you're not following through.

Let me just say that my brother is fine. He has had some problems with donors, but he is on schedule for a transplant this fall (the spring transplant was a pipe dream). I can't really imagine the frustration and fear he and his wife and grown children have been dealing with during the donor issues, but I know my own frustration on his behalf, and I can multiply, and I also know about exponents. Therefore, I can guess their frustration and fear have been pretty big.

And I also know this: that just as any outsider doesn't know why someone doesn't write that novel or run that 10K, no one knows what makes a person not follow through with a commitment to donate.

This is important: There are any number of serious, vital reasons why a person might, in good faith, join a donor database and then not be able to follow through.

It's just...say so. When they contact you, say "Now is not a good time." Be upfront. Own the decision. Say "I thought I could, but I can't." That's what it is to act with integrity.

Of course, I've been talking to myself this whole time. Yes, I have continued to write the novel. I've also been revising short stories, working, and tending to other commitments. I recognize that as my brother's transplant nears, I may need to suspend work on my novel for a few months. And thanks to this rumination about commitment, I now know I need to do it with integrity: to make an explicit plan.

So thank you, anonymous donor who is enthusiastically participating in the transplant, and thank you also to the one who got cold feet. I have learned from this situation. I hope you have, too.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Loss has been on my mind lately. I've had the privilege of sitting in a memorial service for a family member. Canada lost one of its political leaders. And the U.S. observed the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Of course, I think about the stories. The stories people told. The stories that people didn't get to tell. The ones people wish they could forget. And the ones that are now lost, the stories unique to each of the individual souls no longer with us.

StoryCorps is working with family members of those who died on September 11 to record their stories. Unfortunately, it's too late to capture the stories from those killed -- how they would have described their lives, the things that were important to them. It's also too late for me to seek out my husband's cousin's memories of my husband as a young boy, of their fathers and mothers as they talked and laughed together.

Over the next few months, I'll have the opportunity to listen to many family stories. Some will be re-tellings of stories I have already heard or incidents I participated in. Some will be new to me.

And this time, when we have lost voices and remember those lost before, reminds me to listen -- really listen. No one can preserve every story, but listening shows respect for the story, the teller, and the subject. In some small way, listening helps keep that story alive.