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keep the old

old friends

I have known Zoe and Sarah since I was thirteen years old. On my first day of boarding school, sitting high on the third floor of that ancient brick building and trying very hard not to cry, I saw someone turning cartwheels on the lawn.  It took every shred of my bravery to go out and introduce myself to that free spirit, but it turned out to be Sarah.  She made me laugh right away. She’s inspired infinite bravery and laughter since.

Zoe was a sophomore, impossibly beautiful in glittery ska pants and plastic butterfly rings. It took me longer to acquire the courage necessary to speak with Zoe (she was a SOPHOMORE) but soon we were writing poetry back and forth, dancing in cornfields and trying to reach each other in dreams from across the hall.

The three of us wrote letters, real ones, all the way through college and after.  Sarah’s letter to me from a farm she was working on in France saved my skin once when, hitchhiking through Scotland, I ran out of money and had no place to stay. I called my mother, as one does, and she told me there was a letter waiting for me from Sarah.  I asked her to read it to me over the phone, and soon I was herding goats with Sarah in France.

Another time Zoe, back in Pennsylvania from the life she’d found in Australia, walked with me through cow pastures and balanced on trees over the Brandywine.  I’d just returned from the Middle East and was brimful of self-righteous politics.  Zoe was sitting on a fence post as we watched the sun set over a field near her mother’s home.  She stretched languidly and said “Lissa, for a pacifist you sure fight yourself a lot.”

I held on to that beautiful bit of insight for a long, long time.  Old friends, the real ones who know you through and through—they say hard things some times.  At times it feels easier not to be around them.  When I was barely holding on in California, when my marriage was falling apart and my life felt so constricted that it was hard even to draw breath, I cut off my family and friends.  I stopped returning Sarah’s calls and Zoe’s letters.  But they never stopped calling and writing.  They each found ways to show up at my door, all the way across the country.  And they continued to hold a mirror up to my life, much as I did not want to look.

Four years ago we decided–I forget how, it must have been divine inspiration!–to gather at Sarah’s family property in upstate New York.  We built wood-fired saunas and cooked elaborate feasts and swam in the lakes and sunned along the rivers, drank wine and laughed and wrote and reunited.  I remembered how large life is.  We all wrote about that experience on Sarah’s wonderful blog The Perspective Project.

We’ve met each year since. Each year felt different–one year, we were hosted by a dear friend on Nantucket in a palatial guest house, taken for ornate dinners and given free run of a jaw-droppingly well-supplied art studio.  We were all knee-deep in our own painful crises that year. To be so well taken care of felt like a drink of cool water in the midst of a punishing marathon.

Another time we gathered at Zoe’s place in Boston.  We made paper and kombucha and body butter and lip balm. We sang karaoke in a tiny Japanese bar.  And we laughed.  There is always so much laughter.

This year, Sarah and Zoe came to Boone. We had all reached a place of relative equilibrium.  The arc of this friendship covers so much–at first you do not notice the changes, but then suddenly here is Zoe, the freespirited poet and world traveler, opening her own acupuncture and shiatsu practice.  And Sarah, artist/writer/wit/cartwheel turner, a college professor.  Both here, in my world, thickening the thin places, weaving the loose ends back in.



We have all changed.  But when we are together, the thirteen-year-olds are here too.  And the seventeen-year-olds. And, I think, the seventy-year-olds.  The past overflows into the present, and the present feels velvety with depth.

We sat on my sunny porch and did Johari Windows together, and enneagram tests.  One of the questions was this: does your life feel permeated by a sense of longing?  Unequivocally yes, we answered.  And thinking about this, it became clear to me:  this life has been so full.  Each of us has traveled so far, been so many things to so many people, tried on so many roles and languages and ways of being.  No one place can hold us anymore.  No matter where we are, there will be a longing for some aspect of our Self that cannot be held by that moment.

And yet, when we three are together, there is a broadness greater than the sum of our individual selves. When we are together, there is no part of me that is not fed.  We are big enough to hold it all.


I look at my changing friends—the laughter lines (so much laughter!), the odd gray hairs, the incremental and transcendently lovely beginnings of self-acceptance—and I see myself.  That mirror is held up yet again and, seeing my friends, I see myself.  I see how brokenness heals, how some things remain immutable and some shift endlessly.  I see how age brings rare joy and wisdom as well as heartbreak.  I see how large this life is.

Being loved like this, by old friends, there is nothing like it.  Sometimes I wish they did not know me so well, it’s true, sometimes I feel called onto the carpet by issues I thought I’d resolved with puberty.  But until I am surrounded by old friends I forget how much energy I spend each day trying to be acceptable, trying to be liked.  With Sarah and Zoe, there is no question of being acceptable or liked–that question was settled long ago.  All of that energy is released outward, sizzling into art, and dance, and life, and laughter. Dear friends.  New friends teach me how much I can expand, the beautiful and haunting potential held by this life.  But the old ones—ahh, the old ones remember what I AM.  What WE ARE. What we have always been.  And that is big enough to hold everything.


this is a poem i wrote after the visit of another old friend (rob, your time is coming!!)–but it seems to fit here.

an old friend’s visit

continuing: remaining seen

there was a thread undone,

now woven in

and there is freedom here,

in being known

a freedom anonymity can’t own

continuing a thing!

o it is strange

that there is one who calls me by my name




November 20, 2013 · 2:37 am

insist on the sacred







Sometimes it will feel

As though every moment of

Every day is walled in behind

Heavy blocks of solid ugliness



No light, no spark,

No color or song within

Or without you—



Some moments will feel

So heavily pointless that

The sky itself shrinks to dulness

And birds fly mechanically, with dead eyes.



Don’t believe it for a second.

Hand on heart, search with everything in you

For a single softness



There is a crack somewhere—look!

A leaf is falling in singing spirals

The sunset lights a stranger’s hair from within.



Perhaps it is the way your breath catches on

An unsung sadness in your throat before

Falling finally to fill your heart.



Grasp now with both hands

And shoulder it open, this

Cracked, dull facade: it isn’t true.



Push through.



It’s always there, the sacred, in the legal brief,

The pinching shoes,

The smashed body of the young raccoon,

The crushed beer cans, the lost love—



Don’t be fooled.


Come alive.

Step through.


November 7, 2013 · 2:00 pm

permaculture, psychology, and cancer

photograph by lori fernald khamala

sugar maple on my street…photograph by lori fernald khamala

I began my studies in clinical mental health counseling this fall.  I’ve been learning dozens of theories, from Freudian psychodynamics to Rogerian person-centered therapy.  But long before I began my studies in counseling, I studied botany and ecology, herbal medicine and permaculture. I can’t help myself; my understanding of people as ecological beings filters through and colors everything I am learning.

Permaculture, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is the study of ecological systems and their application to human designs.  Many think of it as a gardening system, and it is: a wonderful design-based system for the creation of self-tending perennial food forests.  But permaculture principles, based as they are on years of studying ecology, apply to most of human behavior–from the way we grow our food to the way we build our cities and shape our lives.

I’ve found myself quietly ignoring psychological theory and applying permaculture principles to my studies instead.  It seems to me that there is only one system we know of that is entirely self-sustaining and functional under all conditions, only one that accounts for every life and death and galaxy and virus. Why not study that, instead of a man from Vienna, if I want to know how the mind works? Continue reading


November 2, 2013 · 3:25 am


Raking Leaves

I have had so many chances to observe myself lately.  Perhaps the most obvious was an assignment, recently completed for a counseling techniques class, in which I  ‘counseled’ a fellow student for a half-hour, videotaping the whole time. I was to use the session to demonstrate the skills I’ve been learning, making a certain number of responses from each of several prescribed categories.

Watching the video later, I was struck by how quickly I’d forgotten the prescribed responses, how immediately I’d been absorbed in my friend’s story.  The first few moments there’d been a struggle in my head between attentive listening and careful attention to the assignment.  Listening won, hands down.  I could not hold that tension in my mind between complete presence and detached focus. Continue reading


October 29, 2013 · 2:34 am

autumn on white oak road

what the oaks lose in beauty

they gain in flight–

though graceful maples self-immolate

hand by focused hand,

they cannot draw the sun back in.


yet each drab oak leaf, falling here,

is lifted–

humble icarus–

one last slow dance of dying

made of motion,

not of light.


all that’s lost in beauty

gained in flight.



October 23, 2013 · 12:18 am

letting life speak

William Penn

I was raised Quaker.  Since I was very small I’ve practiced sitting in silence, listening for the ‘inner light’, the voice of God within.  I stared for so many hours at William Penn’s quote, framed on the wall of the building where I first learned to worship (and to read), that it still flickers over the inside of my eyelids when I am drowsy:

True godliness does not remove men from the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavors to mend it.

This was the spirituality I was steeped in: to listen for the voice of what is holy, and then to tirelessly live it in the world, to preach with my life.  To let my life speak.  There was no dogma, no preacher or minister or intermediary.  Just me and my conscience, and the several dozen Quaker political action committees that lobby endlessly the world over for an end to war, freedom for all, equality and a culture of nonviolence.  I grew up believing that religion is  listening to my own conscience and then working until the world around me matches what I feel on the inside.  I felt no inconsistency finding God in trees, bees, bee-balm flowers, chanting, poetry, dancing, mountains.  I did not realize until fairly recently how unusual this is. Continue reading


October 21, 2013 · 2:38 am


Acupuncture chart from the Ming Dynasty: The P...

Acupuncture chart from the Ming Dynasty: The Pericardium Meridian of Hand-Jueyin

This weekend I attended an illuminating workshop taught by Sarah Thomas of  Clarity Acupuncture. She described, from a Chinese Medical perspective, what happens to our bodies when we experience trauma.

Trauma, she explained, is so overwhelming that we simply cannot experience all of it in the moment.  As a result, the un-felt feelings get buried or frozen in the body.  How does this happen? Listen to this heartbreaking story:

The pericardium is the guardian of the heart.  Its job is to protect the spirit, the center of our ability to communicate and bring our light to the world.  The pericardium’s ability to open and close the gates of the heart is what allows us to love a friend deeply, yet take it in stride when she has a bad day and snaps at us.  It allows us to feel empathy for another’s tragedy, yet not cry at every cat food commercial.

But when there is trauma, something or someone attacks the pericardium with such might that it collapses and can no longer guard the heart. Continue reading


October 17, 2013 · 3:03 am

tooth of the gods

English: Black bear in the Canadian Rockies

Recently, at a mead-making workshop, someone related the story of a precious bottle of ancient honey wine, unearthed  and sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars. As the bottle was carried to its new owner, it slipped from the tray and shattered on the ground.

“Ah,” said my mead-making friend, “that’s the tooth of the gods.”

I had never heard this term before and asked for elaboration.

“The tooth of the gods is the sacrifice that  life demands,” he said.  “Bottles shattering, for instance.  Or a promising life ending too soon.  It’s the immensity of living on the knife’s edge, never knowing what might be taken from you.”

I listened, taken aback by this concept that loss could be a holy thing. And yet—walking home tonight from a late meeting, I was absorbed in thought, absentmindedly watching for oncoming cars on my dark, curving street.  Suddenly a sharp smell raised the hackles on my neck and set my heart pounding. Continue reading


October 8, 2013 · 4:02 am

desire lines

leavesThis study I am undertaking now, the study of how we construct the mental worlds in which we think and breathe and act, the study of how to listen, the study of being creative, the study of being human: it seems to unite all that I have learned before and cast that knowledge into a new light.  It seems to remind me why I have learned all that I have learned, how to braid it all together even.  Above all it asks me to stop and observe, to notice patterns. Continue reading


October 1, 2013 · 1:11 am

a rant.

"Reserved for Parents with Screaming Kids...

In class today, one of my professors related a story:  he was attending a psychological conference with a counselor from another country.  While there, she attended a forum on motherhood and was struck by its negative tone.

“Tell me,” she asked him over dinner, “why do American women hate motherhood so much?”

Please understand before you read the following rant why exactly this question hit me so hard.  I am living a double life, attending graduate school three days a week and returning home to my children for four.  I am trying to make all of it work: job, studies, motherhood, selfhood.  I am drowning in every area and yet I know—with every way I have of knowing!— that I am on the right path. I know that the worst possible thing I could do to my children would be to abandon myself.  And yet I have been accused of abandoning them.  It is an impossible, constant tightrope walk. Continue reading


September 25, 2013 · 4:07 am