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!


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