Don't Should on Yourself

The quest continues: my attempt to be a prose writer. In a recent profile of essayist Donald Hall the article claimed that the advice of writer Robert Graves made all the difference to Hall 50 years ago. Graves said all that writing requires is a 20-minute nap and a bit of mercenary energy. All that’s required is to use everything one has – to use all of one’s life experiences.

I liked this. The statement made writing less intimidating, more approachable. And I am a big fan of naps.

Hey, I am super happy right now because later this week comes the GREATEST HOLIDAY IN THE WORLD. I wish I could write that even BIGGER.


(I remembered that I am in control of font size.)

You need mercenary energy at my family’s Thanksgiving.

Every year brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and adopted family (college buddy Patrick, master of the couch) and current love interests take on the airlines and highways and dire weather forecasts to succumb, undaunted, by a giant gravitational pull to my mom. She is literally over-the-river and through-the-woods. Near the Mississippi River bluffs, her home is close to the farmed fields of central Illinois. And while her residence has changed over the years and we may trade hosting dinners at different households, it is always a great clamoring, intense crazy gathering.

 We have some good cookin’ goin’ on. At Thanksgiving Mom’s velvety mashed potatoes are especially legendary. But for me the crumbs of Thanksgiving memory tend to have the mental aroma of pie: pumpkin, apple, peach, cherry, peanut butter, lemon meringue, chocolate.

When I was bringing my newly-minted husband home for the first time (we eloped – another story) it was at Thanksgiving. I’d assured him on the plane, “They’ll like you. It’ll be easy,” I coaxed. “My grandmother will have tea and she’ll serve pie.” Anything but mincemeat pie, he grumbled. So when we’d arrived and exclaimed and met the gauntlet of family, and kissed and hugged, and then finally all paraded into my grandmother’s dining room, there her lovely rose-and-white Spode fine china shone. Arranged on the dining table in neat, etiquette-correct gracious rows the formal china gloriously arranged around the table’s crowning center:  Three flaky 10-inch, crisscross lattice-crust, aromatic pies…of mincemeat.

OK that was not my husband’s favorite party. And this was a decade of good times for we lived in New Jersey where we threw some great hoopla’s. My stay-at-home-mom girlfriends and I had that tight love of raising babies together and group counseling at playdates. Living just outside NYC most of us had traded corporate intrigue for babyville. And we knew we were lucky to have a choice. So when it came to our parties, exchanging our jeans for a pretty cocktail dress and heels felt like a vacation.

New Jersey baby playgroup

New Jersey baby playgroup

I didn’t know then that the New Jersey chapter was a shiny bubble. I didn’t know how special it was until it was over, and I had irretrievably moved on.

 Don’t Should on Yourself

Have you done that too? Not recognizing the specialness of a time until it is past? My husband has a favorite expression, “don’t should on yourself.” Beating yourself up about the past --”I should have… I shouldn’t have…” -- gets you nowhere forward.

But what if the “should or should not” is extreme? And not special at all but, in fact, a nightmare.

I have an extraordinary example. One of my friends started an organization called Catalyst for Peace. Its flagship project is called Fambul Tok: Community Healing is Sierra Leone. (“Fambul Tok” is Krio for “family talk”.) It’s a community-based project that has brought together perpetrators and victims of Sierra Leone’s savagely violent civil war for reconciliation and healing. The 11-year conflict on the west coast of Africa reset a hellish low for warfare cruelty: 10,000+ child soldiers, 10,000+ amputated limbs, 10,000+ women raped, 50,000+ people killed. Neighbor fought neighbor fought neighbor.

For more than a decade.

But as co-founder and president Libby Hoffman said in her TED talk, “Resources were inherent in those communities. Even though war devastated [them] in many ways – physically, emotionally and spiritually. [We believed] there are resources there.”

And so, in this desolate aftermath (and with a long process of preparation) in 2009 Fambul Tok began holding face-to-face, community-based gatherings. Face-to-face, individual by individual, these fireside family talks ultimately brought those emotional and spiritual resources to the surface and fostered extraordinary instances of individual forgiveness and reconciliation.

Fambul Tok’s bonfire ceremonies provide a space to begin to address unhealed wounds of war

Fambul Tok’s bonfire ceremonies provide a space to begin to address unhealed wounds of war

As Libby says when individuals are healed, the community begins to heal. And when the community heals, the individual can heal. Reknitting the fabric of a broken community takes a long-term commitment. But with each hand pushing the flywheel of forgiveness, it begins to gradually pick up pace and build its own momentum. (During this past year’s ebola crisis the strength of those communities enabled them to weather that challenging wave too.)

I can’t give justice in this short newsletter of the dedicated long-term reconciliation that the Sierra Leone people have brought about through Fambul Tok. Yet, surely it’s an inspiring testament to the healing that’s possible right where the circumstances seem so intractable.


We have deep resources within us. You have a wellspring. I think sometimes the first step out of a nightmare is this acknowledgement, even if you can’t see it. For me, there have been times in my life when I know it was the support of others that helped bring out resources of resilience I’d been sure were completely depleted. That’s part of this “anti self-help truth” theme – we need each other! And can coax each other back when we’re tempted to listen too long to an endless “should or should not” track.

Should my grandmother not have made mincemeat pie? Should she have made apple pie? Or even key lime (my husband’s favorite). Later my husband scored major points when the truth came out and others recalled how he manfully forked hunks of mincemeat into his mouth, and even hid his grimace when my grandmother happily slid a second pie slab onto his plate.

May your “shoulds” or “should nots” be this innocent.

Should I attempt to bake a pie this year at Thanksgiving? An easy pumpkin pie? A more complicated lattice-crust apple pie? Or… mincemeat?

Find out next newsletter whether I didn’t or did!

I am grateful for YOU.