Wednesday, May 12, 2021

How to live gracefully with the end in mind? Barbara Becker talks about her gorgeous book, Heartwood, making the most of every minute, writing about what matters, grappling with cancer and finding joy.



I had written a piece for Psychology Today on how grief is not what you think it is, that the "rules" people dole out are not helpful at all and we should all grieve in our own way.  Almost instantly, I started getting emails that said, "You have to read  Barbara Becker!" And so I did, and her book Heartwood meant so much to me that I sought her out to interview.

Barbara Becker is a writer and ordained interfaith minister who has dedicated more than twenty-five years to partnering with human-rights advocates around the world in pursuit of peace and interreligious understanding. She has worked with the United Nations, Human Rights First, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, and has participated in a delegation of Zen Peacemakers and Lakota elders in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota. She has sat with hundreds of people at the end of their lives and views each as a teacher. Barbara speaks on a wide range of topics, including deepening our sense of meaning & spirituality and mid-career pivots.  She lives in New York City with her interfaith family.

First the raves for her book!


Becker debuts with a stirring chronicle of the events, moments, and stories that led to her reconciliation with mortality…Becker’s eloquence is a salve for confronting a difficult topic…This will be a comfort for anyone contemplating their own mortality, or those in search of advice for others.”
Publishers Weekly Starred Review

A graceful meditation on divine deliverance. Once firmly entrenched in our “death-shy” contemporary culture, the author is now a reassuring advocate for peace and interreligious understanding, and she views dying as an opportunity to seek enlightenment and give thanks, regardless of one’s preferred spiritual path.”

“This insightful, quietly moving book is not just for the grieving or those who comfort them.”

“Life is an adventure of following our curiosity—that is, the voice of our true self—into the unknown world around us.  In Heartwood, Barbara Becker inspires us to follow our curiosity into a world of love and loss that is both universal and a source of our uniqueness. And what could be better than that?
Gloria Steinem, bestselling author and activist

“The global human family is interconnected, and a loss in one place affects us all. Barbara Becker’s words beautifully and compassionately reflect this truth. Heartwood is a gem.
Dr. Denis Mukwege, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, author of forthcoming The Power of Women: Learning from Resilience to Heal Our World


I always want to know what was the why now moment that you decided to write this book? I love your description of grief as an invitation and the message that we don’t get over things, and in a way, we shouldn’t have to, because grief is really a message about how well we have loved and been loved. Can you talk about this please?



When my earliest childhood friend Marisa was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, I went on a journey to explore the meaning of loss and love. While she was living out the last year of her life, I became completely absorbed by the question Can we live our lives more fully knowing some day we will die?


Marisa made the absolute most of her remaining time.  She was an incredible lover of life! She got married to her college sweetheart.  She travelled to Italy with her family. She spent deep, quality time with friends.


But I couldn’t help wonder about what happens to those of us who are still here, who are going about our day-to-day lives? Can we too live with a more heightened sense of what matters most by taking on death as a teacher?


I discovered that wise people throughout time have advised us to live with the end in mind, from the Dalai Lama to the Prophet Muhammed. So I tested whether this wisdom that they pointed to could would uphold within the context of a modern life.


Ultimately, Heartwood is a book about resilience and hope.  It’s a book about truly living, fully acknowledging that we will die. When I stepped back and looked at what I had done, I saw that I had written a love letter to life.




I love the metaphor of trees and I would love you to talk about it.


Sure! Heartwood is a metaphor found in nature and a central theme of the book. Imagine walking through an old growth forest. Inside every tree is a central pillar that is most prized by woodworkers, that gives the tree strength and stability. That core is called heartwood, and what most people don’t know is that it’s no longer living… it no longer transports water and nutrients.  The living growth rings of the tree expand out from this central core.


It turns out we’re a lot like the trees.  Those we’ve loved who have died form our heartwood, our enduring strength.


There is both pain and beauty on this journey. We make meaning through narrative and metaphor. With both of my parents now gone, I think of them as my heartwood. We don’t ‘get over’ our loved ones when they die.  Instead, we find an ongoing connection with them, even as we go about living.  It also helps me to recognize that someday, I’ll be someone’s heartwood too. 




I was really fascinated with the whole idea of being courageous about writing about or talking about death, because I wanted to know why? (As you wanted to know.) Isn’t it more authentic and more important to show our feelings, our questions, our everything?


Yes! The story I hesitated to tell in Heartwood but then pushed myself to include was about my two miscarriages. In the land of taboo infertility and miscarriage are among the most hidden losses. This silence is so prevalent in our society that it was only in dealing my own losses that I learned that my own mother had lost a pregnancy, as had both of my grandmothers, including a child who died a couple of days after birth.  And my great-grandmother died in childbirth when my grandmother was small. If this was the history of my family alone over just four generations, including me, how many countless millions shared in the world’s unwritten epic of hidden sorrow? If we are going to talk about interconnection through loss, it’s right there.  It’s a goal of mine to help change this and to acknowledge women and men who have been through pregnancy loss and the loss of a child.  Today I have two healthy sons, but I will never forget their siblings who were never born.



What was it like writing this book, revisiting grief and rethinking life?


At a certain point, I realized that the only way to write authentically about loved ones I have lost was to make the writing itself a sacred act.  Whenever I sat down at my desk, I would light a beautiful little candle and spend a moment remembering the person I was writing about that day. It helped me draw them near to my heart, and it made all the difference in the world in helping me feel like I was honoring them rather than “doing my work” for the day.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?


The elephant in the room for me right now is that just as my book on life and loss  is about to be launched, I have been unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer. What a ‘where the rubber meets the road’ moment this has been!  I have been reminded again and again in these past couple of weeks that the Heartwood story is about learning to face things as they are, not as we would like them to be.  The Taoists say this is a world of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, and both of these realities are true. Can I stay present to all of it? 


Having cancer is a radical lesson in surrender.  I’m learning to walk step-by-step, not writing chapter 21 when I’m only on chapter 4, so to speak.  First it is surgery, then the first week of treatment, the second, the third and so on.  It’s not possible sometimes to think beyond one day at time. That has its benefit too—there’s a simple grace that unfolds when we slow down in the midst of a culture that can move at warp speed.  All of the people in Heartwood who I was fortunate to learn from, and all of the wisdom I gleaned from their beliefs and traditions are such a source of strength to me now.



Any final words on what is obsessing you now and why?


Juxtaposed to my own health crisis, I am paying attention to a more joyful ending at the moment – my youngest son’s graduation from high school! In a year marked by the losses as well as the disappointments of Covid, this feels like a transition worth celebrating!


Friday, May 7, 2021

Maryanne O'Hara talks about her astounding memoir about love and loss and finding the light again, LITTLE MATCHES, mystical understanding from raw grief, our life stories, and so much more.








 First the praise:

 "Little Matches is gripping and true in all ways, and I am so glad to have spent time in the company of Maryanne and Caitlin. This is a fine, affecting memoir that will stay with me for a very long time."  - Meg Wolitzer, author of The Female Persuasion and The Interestings

“This luminous, harrowing memoir is a tale of a mother’s devotion and grief, yes, but when I closed Little Matches, tears standing still in my eyes, I was left with a sense that I had met not one but two remarkable spirits, my world enlarged.”  - Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance and Hourglass

“Here is love in ink, and you will feel it: a book about life, including death.  O’Hara’s great achievement is showing us that inside of human connection, everything has a home—despair, hope, fear, beauty, decay. It turns out that death poses no threat to love.” - B. J. Miller, author of A Beginner’s Guide to the End

"The bravest and most generous of memoirs, Little Matches is the diary of your dearest friend, intimate and universal, an exquisitely written poem of deepest love, grief, and devotion. This is a journey of the soul. I feel haunted by these pages and profoundly blessed to have read them.”  - Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice and Every Note Played

"Maryanne O’Hara has written an extraordinary book, beautiful, heartbreaking, and so full of life on every page that I was reminded that loving deeply is full of risk and the only way to live.  This is the most meaningful book I’ve read in a very long time." - Jane Bernstein, author of The Face Tells the Secret and Rachel in the World

“A raw yet comforting journal of grief, pain, and sparks of hope.”
- Kirkus

“In this vividly written memoir novelist O’Hara shares a painful but ultimately beautiful account of her daughter Caitlin’s life with cystic fibrosis. . . . Her compelling story will resonate with anyone seeking a light in the darkest depths of grief.” - Library Journal

“Bracingly honest and deeply comforting.” - A PEOPLE magazine Book of the Week

 Maryanne O'Hara is the author of the astonishing novel, CASCADE, about an artist who is trying to figure out what’s important in life, and it takes place in the 1930s in a town slated to be destroyed for a reservoir, and in the art world of pre-war New York City. It was the Boston Globe Book Club’s inaugural pick, a People magazine pick of the week, and a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award. Currently, it is the Massachusetts pick for the East Coast Centers for the Book “Route 1 Reads” program.  We could all love Maryanne for that alone.

But soon after CASCADE’s paperback released, her daughter Caitlin's (radiantly pictured above) respiratory health rapidly worsened. She needed oxygen 24/7 and a lung transplant. For three years, the family lived in twilit limbo as she waited — far too long — for the call that seemed like it would never come. Caitlin got her transplant, finally, but it was too late. She’d had to wait too long. She died in December of 2016. She was 33.

 LITTLE MATCHES is about life during overwhelming grief, about finding meaning in what seems meaningless. Written in the same gorgeous prose O'Hara is known for, it is remarkable. I'm so honored to have Maryanne here Thank you, thank you, Maryanne.

I always want to know about the Why Now Moment. What made you want to, need to write this astonishing memoir?


I was rudderless in my grief. For months, all I could do was flop from one surface to another and cry. I cried so much that I had to see an eye doctor because my eyes kept forming raw blisters from all the salt. The only thing that made me feel barely alive was writing on my blog where I could grieve out loud and feel connected, for as long as it took to craft and publish a post, to my readers and to Caitlin herself. Early on, readers suggested I write a book, an impossible idea. But nine months after Caitlin’s passing, my husband and I were walking around Walden Pond. It was our wedding anniversary, and the fact of “nine months” felt significant. I made my decision there, on one of Thoreau’s woodland paths. I needed purpose in my life, and if writing our story was going to inspire and help people, I wanted to do it.


As soon as I made the decision, I knew it would be important to start right away, to write from inside real-time grief. Doing so allowed me to document the personal transformation that happened, also in real time, as I gave hard thought to who I was and what I believed in.


Little Matches is the perfect title for this book because it represents all those little lights in the darkness. What is more devastating than losing your child—and yet, you wrote about it with such brave grace. Can you talk about this please?


Ohhhh… thank you. You know, Caitlin lived with such brave grace. She set an example, and the least I could do was follow it. Also—since childhood I’ve been obsessed with the passage of time, with knowing that our human lifetimes are just a blink. A part of me might have always known what was coming for me, known I would have to write about it. The author self inside always stands apart, observing and preparing the words, doesn’t she?


The structure of the novel, emails, texts, drawings, is so intimate. Did you always know this would be the structure?


I initially pictured the project as a multi-media mosaic of images and words, many of them Caitlin’s. When I began to write inside the limitations of a physical book, I wanted to bring some of that mosaic feel into it. Little Matches is in many ways co-written. Caitlin’s voice, in the form of emails and texts, brought her into the narrative in a seamless, organic way.


What I loved so much about this fierce, moving memoir is that out of great, raw pain, comes a kind of almost mystical understanding.  Now that this amazing memoir is out in the world, what has changed for you?

Yes... I think that’s what I love, too. All of the questions that had idly preoccupied me in life, and in the fiction I had published, became critical. It wasn’t enough to ruminate anymore. I needed answers­­ to the big life questions. It was the only way I could think of to continue to exist. What changed for me was that I came to discover what it is I believe in, and to know that my path forward has a lot to do with those beliefs. The feedback I am getting from readers is incredibly heartening. The fact that this book could make a woman quit her dead-end job and fly out west to visit an old friend to “take time for what’s important?” That it could reconcile a mother and daughter? What’s better than that? 



What’s obsessing you now and why?


Hah. I’m really working at not obsessing about anything, especially Little Matches. This book is so important to me, and I want the world to know about it and yet, so much of publishing is out of our control in this noisy world, as you know. So I’m working at not making myself anxious over what I cannot control. I’ve been focusing on what do I truly want now? How do I want to live the rest of my life?  I do know one thing: that my focus word moving forward after writing this book has been tranquility.  


What question didn’t I ask that I should have?


I would love to encourage everyone to think about their own life stories and how they might be told. I will be doing some legacy workshops, listed on my website, where I offer tips on conducting a life interview with a loved one or with oneself. Self-reflection, thinking about purpose and what gives your life meaning––it’s all so important. Giving ruminative thought to the overall arc of one’s life, acknowledging that it will one day end, is a valuable way to figure out whether you’re on the life path that your inner self knows is right.