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Remembering Comfort and Joy

Image Credit: Mariotto Albertinelli, Visitation, Oil on Panel, 1503, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy, Creative Commons image from Wikimedia.

The following piece was created for an Advent Poetry and Prose roundtable discussion, December 17, 2017, at St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Cupertino, California as part of their community forum. 

I have forgotten everything I once knew about advent. I know there are candles and a wreath and pink and purple are the important colors in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but I’ve forgotten what those symbols mean—the greater significance of the season. These externalities are more ritual, stair steps to cue me. I must get to my candy making, and tree cutting, and Christmas-Eve crab wrangling. The house will get scoured so that it can be filled with people. Presents will get bought, and my wallet will grow thin and the days will grow short.

The darkness will set in.

These advent days seem more like pressure. As a writer, they say you should approach your subject matter, like a newborn—as if it is the first time you’ve encountered it. What does an apple really taste like? Describe it like your first bite.

My mother and I are sitting in the living room. It has changed little over the years. The carpet is the color of a golden, fall chrysanthemum, the velvet couch is rust and there is an entire wall of my mother’s art books behind her. Nearby is an upright piano I played as a child for thirteen years straight. The fireplace still burns wood.

She sits next to me in her large chair, leaning in and asking me questions about my life. It’s a dance. I keep the impression of engagement while my mind whirls with distractions, all those things I should be doing instead of sitting here, the ways I am failing, an urgency born of a litany of modern tasks. My mother is hungering for connection, and I want to run away, dive into my phone, escape in sound bites, anything else is complicated.

Mother presses.

“It’s advent,” I say finally, thinking of the upcoming roundtable talk I will participate in at my church. “I don’t know what it means.”

“It’s about expectation and preparation,” she says. She leans back in her chair.

“What about those?” I point at the wall of books behind her, looking for inspiration.

She braces herself against the arm of her chair as she stands. She walks toward the books, balancing against furniture as she moves, forgetting to take her cane in her excitement to talk about art. She reaches the wall of books and slides out a tome. I get up to help her and together we pull several volumes off the shelf. She points at the books and tells me which ones to pull.

We sit together, pouring through images, our hands often together on the page, pointing at whatever compels us—The annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth. The visitation, when pregnant Mary visited Elizabeth who was carrying John the Baptist. The adoration of the magi, the baby in the manger. I look through the northern Europeans, mom gravitates to Italians. The interpretations are varied. I smirk and try not to roll my eyes when I see one interpretation with church elders flanking Elizabeth and Mary in the visitation—two old white men in expensive robes and funny hats with official looking books in-scene.

“I don’t think they were there,” I say.

Our art discussion echoes younger times, going to the museum. My mother and I would sit for long stretches in front of paintings. We would describe to each other what we saw, how it must have felt to be the people in the story, and sometimes how it felt to be the story teller who painted it. We talked about the colors that we liked. Often, we made funny and silly associations to life in the present day. We would stand up close and walk way far back, and we would talk about how the paintings changed for us with distance and the feelings they engendered. Always at the end, we would finish with asking each other, “Which one was your favorite?”

No matter how these artists in my mother’s art books have interpreted the stories, the historical Elizabeth was very old for child bearing while Mary was likely only twelve, thirteen, or fourteen years old.

“They must have been really scared,” I say.

My mother’s pace is slower than mine these days. I’m running hard, afraid of a misstep. Life’s treadmill is just starting to edge me out, outstripping the mechanics of my legs.

Once in a while, I allow myself to be pulled into “mom time.” When I do this, we become a little like the women in my favorite visitation painting, with a scary joyous gift. The gift is always inside us, connecting us and animating us, it is a wholly intimate affaire. There are no church elders to interpret the truth here, we just know it. Turns out, I crave connection, too.

When I allow myself to get out of the whir and tumble of life’s distractions and step into the “is-ness” of the moment as I am on this night with my mother—time loses its linear quality. It opens up and expands. This evening sitting with my mother and her art books, I allow myself to forget about my candy making, and tree cutting, and Christmas eve crab wrangling, the house scouring, the present buying, the wallet thinning, the day shortening, the darkness without. I let go of it all and in that letting go, I remember.

It’s Raining Men—Nevertheless She Persists

Title Image credit: René Magritte, Golconda (Golconde), 1953. Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 39 1/2 in. (80 × 100.3 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston. © 2017 C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Originally published in Thrive Global on March 17, 2017.

The building was beige. The logo out front spoke with an architectural-fortitude, blocky and blue. It conveyed trust and solidity. The orderly cubicles contained the worker bees, every one of us in our allotment of the honeycomb. Directors had a double wide because they were special, but not too special. Vice Presidents and above were in an office. The meticulous grounds spoke with a forced fecundity rivaled only by the finest PGA golf courses and the poppies of Oz. There were lots of khaki pants, blue button-down shirts, and an army of gardeners scurrying about their business.

This was Silicon Valley.

Several times a day en route to the restroom, I passed a framed print on the wall that gave me pause. It was like a nudge or a poke, and I would avert my eyes.

The print is Golconda by René Magritte.

Magritte is famous for painting pictures of men in bowler hats and suits. If you don’t readily know him, you would probably recognize some of his paintings if you saw them. The men he paints are expressionless, their faces wiped out in ignominy. They are dressed alike, no individuality. The subject matter is stylized, architectural and rigid, utilizing straight lines and in this case a muted palette.

I appreciate Magritte. He is wonderful. Hollywood even made the movie The Thomas Crown Affaire, which features Magritte’s Son of Man, depicting a single bowler-hatted man with an inviting green apple blocking out his face. I love this painting.

It wasn’t the print that was wrong. It was the context. It was how it spoke to me. It was what it told me about myself.

Runnymede Farm can be seen from highway 280 in Woodside, California. The Tudor-style horse stables and surrounding acreage have been in the Rosenkrans family for over 80 years. The family is heir to the Claus Spreckels beet-sugar empire and has a tradition of supporting the arts: Alma de Bretteville Spreckels gave The Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum to the city of San Francisco in 1924. In the 1980s, John and Dodie Rosenkrans continued the family tradition of supporting the arts by building a private outdoor sculpture garden on the property. It is art al fresco in the landscape of Steinbeck.

I had the privilege of strolling the golden hills one sunny Mother’s Day long ago. The Rosenkrans’s had opened the property to the public that day, and I took my mother to see the art.

I have a vague recollection that the event pamphlet acknowledged the importance of sculpture placement. Understanding this was also inherent in the experience. The surroundings of well-placed sculpture serve it. Conversely, poorly chosen surroundings diminish it. The surroundings help to tell the story. They help to evoke the emotions that touch our hearts.

Some of the Rosenrkans’s sculptures are as big as buildings. The landscape frames the sculpture and sometimes the sculpture also frames the landscape. It was apparent that the Rosenkrans’s understood that the interplay between form and environment is integral to art.

The company I worked for tested my personality a lot. Sometimes, it was at my request. I took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator test twice over the years and eventually did something called an MBTI Step II Instrument that delivers a deeper analysis than the original test. I took the Kiersey Temperament Sorter. I took the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument.

It was common knowledge at the company that out of the myriad of different types of personalities possible, that eighty percent of the company tested as a single personality type. I was not in the eighty percent, but rather my personality represented a thin sliver of the pie.

The tests were helpful. Because of the personality divide, working at my company was a little like working in a foreign country, although you don’t have the benefit of others recognizing you as a foreigner. They don’t give you the benefit of the doubt for your differences or your fish-out-of-water cultural gaffs.

The reason these tools were helpful was that they gave me an understanding of the great chasm of style between me (an artist’s sensibility) and eighty percent of the company (an engineer’s sensibility) and some tools on how to deal with this largely male group of engineers.

In short, the onus was on me to change my style in order to be effective with a dominant and formidable force. You could give the eighty percent all the correlated training to be effective with me also, but the reality is that nothing was compelling them to alter their style. Everything was compelling me to alter mine.

Sleepwalker by Tony Matelli, 2014 Wellesley College New Gravity exhibit. Image courtesy of Nikki A. Greene.

In 2014, The Davis Museum at Wellesley College held a temporary exhibit of artist Tony Matelli’s sculpture. Matelli specializes in lifelike figure sculpting. As part of the exhibit, his sculpture Sleepwalker was placed out of doors on the main road at the college. Sleepwalker depicts a man in nothing but his skivvies, arms outstretched, somnambulating. From a distance, he (or rather it) looks like a real, albeit very cold, man. Depending on the weather, he looked as if he were trudging through the snow. It made him appear creepy and frail and vulnerable. He was out of place at this women’s college.

The sculpture caused a ruckus. Sleepwalker was so lifelike that it triggered painful memories for some students who had endured sexual abuse and trauma. On the other end of the spectrum it was comedic, this nearly naked man in a woman’s world.

Students started a petition to remove the figure or at least get it inside the museum. Some argued that this statue was in exactly the wrong spot because of the emotions it brought up. It was after all, in an unavoidable public place on campus.

There was a great deal of discussion that ensued about this Sleepwalker and art in general among students, alumnae and the public at large. Creative freedom, social issues, and art itself were up for debate.

Per the New York Times:

“The reaction to the sculpture also surprised Mr. Matelli, who said he intended the sculpture to be a vulnerable depiction of a man, in contrast with the aggressive, monumental figures that are more typically wrought in statues of men.‘What they see in the sculpture, is not in the sculpture,’ said Mr. Matelli…”

The sculpture spoke to people in many different ways. It told a story and to each person who viewed it, the story it told was theirs. Instead of being in the exact wrong spot, it was in the exact right one.

It is not only sculpture where environment is important. It is also true with paintings.

The color of the paint on the wall of the museum: Important. Where the painting hangs on the wall and how much wall surrounds it: Important. The configuration of the paintings hanging together and the order in which they hang: Important. The overall feeling in the room and the flow of the wall space: Important.

Placement is important.

The more unhappy I became at work, the louder and more insistently Golconda spoke to me. It was as if a talking cricket had leapt onto my shoulder and whispered in my ear: “Pssst, they are turning you into a drone.”

It was in the wrong spot.

It struck a cord.

It did not let me ignore it.

Golconda depicts a raining sky of expressionless bowler-hatted men over a dreary city street in straight regular lines into infinity. All the tight neat buildings have tiny, regular windows. Everything is the same, no variety.

That painting was busting the bounds of its 2D frame. I was living in this painting, as far as I was concerned. My company was the 3D version of it. The common dress. The blank expressions. The calm, number focused talk. All that tidy efficiency, from the lined-up cubicles to the rules of order in meetings.

Windows like zeros and vertical men dropping from the sky like ones. Golconda was an echo of binary code. The imagery in the frame was amplified by the surroundings of my office.

This was a very well run company. Part of the reason it hummed along as well as it did was all of that imposed consistency.

Golconda. Not a woman in that raining sky. Not one.

I was a square peg in a round hole.

Women accounted for around twenty percent of the company at the time. Our ranks in the higher echelons were miniscule. There was only one woman on the executive staff. Even the human resources and marketing organizations, typically the bastion of female management, were run by men.

Once, a previous Executive Vice President of Human Resources held an ice cream social in the afternoon, Wednesday before Thanksgiving. While I believe his heart was in the right place, the gesture was myopic. I went to the event because I felt that it was important to be seen for my career, albeit I showed up only briefly. All I could think when the invitation arrived in my email was that this man was obviously not cooking the Thanksgiving turkey.

“It is so grey here, Susie-Q,” the cricket on my shoulder needled. “No room for individuality. No room for you.” I was turning grey and faceless like those people raining from the sky in the painting.

I worked very hard at using the tools and insights I learned from the personality tests to adjust my natural style to be effective and to be heard. I worked at it from the moment I entered that beige world in the morning to the moment I left in the evening, day after day, year after year.

The personality tests were helpful because they gave a common ground for analyzing style. They gave a method for getting your point across when your communications hit a roadblock.

One of the fundamental differences between my personality and a typical engineer is the methodology for solving problems. I would envision a solution and then map the steps to get there. The engineering personality typically looked at the situation as it stood and then figured out how far they could take it, given the constraints. They were notoriously risk averse. I was okay with taking responsible risks. They tended toward a linear argument while I was more associative in my thinking style.

At one point, I had a boss with a very similar thinking style to mine. It was wonderful. Our conversations were in shorthand and during staff we would get from A to Z very quickly, although often the rest of the staff members would be scratching their heads as to how we got there. We would then have to translate back through a different style so that we could all level set together.

Engineers start with the numbers and finish with the idea. My natural inclination is to start with the idea and then back it with the numbers. I got better at the language of engineer over time, but I never achieved fluency. In the beginning, they often looked at me as if I had ten heads and a cricket on my shoulder when I started to speak. I quickly learned that if I wasn’t vigilant in translating my ideas to engineer speak, my ideas would often be dismissed out of hand.

It was exhausting.

“You should practice lowering your voice as you drive to work in the morning,” one boss had coached me. “They have done studies and men don’t hear in the range of a typical woman.” This is the level of detail I had to consider in building my career. While I did not like this advice, I believed there might be something to it.

The reality is not that men have difficulty hearing. The study my boss referred to out of the University of Sheffield in England, indicates that a different area of the brain is activated when males listen to males versus females. According to a Discover Magazine article on the study, “Women’s voices stimulate an area of the brain used for processing complex sounds, like music. Male voices activate the ‘mind’s eye,’ a region of the brain used for conjuring imagery.” While the study is inconclusive in terms of how this plays out in the world of gender dynamics, it suggests that physiology may make a difference in how people pay attention.

Gender bias is an extremely complex topic, but in a world where women in power are routinely accused of being shrill and electronic office assistants are routinely assigned female voices, there is at least a correlation.

Watch the movie The Iron Lady. The movie portrays Margaret Thatcher going through all kinds of vocal gymnastics, training her voice into the lower decibels. You can also listen to a clip of Hillary Clinton giving her 1969 Wellesley College commencement speech. Compare Clinton’s voice as a young graduate to a clip of her 2016 presidential concession speech. I don’t know for sure, but based upon the evidence, I surmise that Clinton may have gone through voice training.

I appreciated that my boss was trying to help me. Yes, I actually did try to practice lowering my voice on my commute from time to time.

What I don’t understand: while I practiced changing my natural manner of speech, why aren’t men concurrently being coached to practice how to listen? If they don’t learn to pay better attention, they likely will miss something important.

I liked to imagine that Golconda hanging on the wall near the restroom was a corporate art curator’s passive-aggressive inside joke to my company as he or she let the door hit them on the way out.

I didn’t think it was funny.

The breaking point for me came in the form of a management decision that I was asked to carry out. I had solid objections to the decision, including the decision process. My objections fell on deaf ears, and I was told that I must carry out the directive.

“Hey, Sue,” the companion on my shoulder said. “Why are you working here anyway?”

I quit the next day.

I gave two weeks notice in the letter. I was free. I embodied a combination of unbridled joy and extreme terror at what I had done. My veins cranked on pure adrenalin, pushing those equal and opposite emotions through my heart at the same time. I didn’t regret it.

The following afternoon, the Executive Vice President called me to his office. He was a man I respected a great deal. I believed that he was someone who valued a diversity of gifts, and I believed that he valued my contribution. I told him why I quit. He told me I was too emotional. He told me that he was emotional too, but he knew how to hide it better. He told me that I should hide it better, too. I told him about the painting. He told me to take a two-week vacation.

“When you come back, you will have a new boss.”

We walked down the hall together after the meeting and before he forked toward the restrooms, I pointed out Golconda hanging on the wall.

“I have been working here all these years, and I never even noticed that painting before,” he said.

I went home. I researched Golconda. I researched Magritte. According to the University of Houston’s Dr. Sandra Zalmen in her book Consuming Surrealism in American Culture: Dissident Modernism, Magritte was highly critical of the bourgeois class, and his paintings were a commentary on it. Magritte did have to work, and so he started an advertising agency with his brother to support his wife and make ends meet. Thus, Magritte was part of the bourgeois class that he criticized. This prompted BBC filmmaker George Melly to state, “’he is a secret agent, his object to bring into disrepute the whole apparatus of bourgeois reality. Like all saboteurs, he avoids detection by dressing and behaving just like everybody else.’”

Like me, Magritte transformed himself into the ignominious, bowler-hatted bourgeois mensch. Like me, he would have much rather been doing his art. But, maybe there was more to it.

I thought about Magritte and Golconda a lot on my vacation.

Magritte was a surrealist.

Could he be poking fun?

After all, men raining from the sky is inherently fun.

I returned to work after two weeks and a much needed break. After my research, the painting had palpably changed for me. Now, when I went to the restroom, I didn’t look away. It spoke to me differently.

“You’ve got this,” it said. “Like a secret agent.”

Similar to art, people impact environments and environments impact people. Placement is important. Sometimes it takes time to evolve the context, time to shape it with your presence and for it to shape you. Sometimes you need to know when your gifts would thrive better in a new place. Sometimes you need to change the story you tell yourself, reframe it to take back your power.

Disengaging from the cricket on your shoulder and those little whispers in your ear isn’t the answer. Usually that little guy (or gal) is telling you something important. Pay attention to it.

Golconda was in exactly the right spot.

I identified with Magritte who had to be a part of the bourgeois world in order to earn his keep. How delightfully playful this painting was that hung outside the restroom. How free René Magritte was, even as he drew within the lines.

Please follow Susan von Konsky at and on Twitter @susanvk_1

Why Not a Second Chance?

Originally published in Thrive Global on February 17, 2017.

It is the end of summer. I am away from the press of Silicon Valley on vacation in Alaska by myself. I am far from home — a distance that allows for my own thoughts, a distance that drains my mind of my daily myriad of shortfalls: should do, should be, should have. All those back breaking, mind electrifying shoulds. The get shit dones of life that are impacted by gridlock, overflowing email, and late-night Facebooking. These are in the rearview mirror, for now. Hour by hour the Boschian energy that has been sliming me back home is slipping away. A slice of the Inside Passage is framed perfectly through the oversized picture window in front of me. The enormity of nature is working its medicine.

I am thinking about the Fall, meaning the Fall from Grace — not the time of year that heralds fiery colored trees and back to school supplies. Looking on this view, I wonder how the Garden, the biblical Garden of Eden, could have ever possibly surpassed it.

I am thinking about second chances.

My first time to Alaska, my father brought me on a one-on-one excursion. He wanted to show me my heritage. He wanted to do a little fishing. My father passed away five years ago. Now, this place has become a place of connection for me.

My grandmother was born in 1898 on Unga Island, part of the Aleutian chain, the strand of islands that demarcates the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean. The island is 15 miles across and my great grandfather, a Dane, worked for the Apollo Mining Company. They came to Douglas Island by way of Kodiak Island when Grandma was still quite small. She moved to San Francisco in her late 20s. Today, Unga is a ghost town.

My dad loved Alaska. He visited Juneau and Douglas with his mother and baby sister once as a small child in 1935. He was six years old. He did not return again until late in life, after his mother died. I’d like to think one of the reasons he loved Alaska so much was that it enabled him to be close to his mother, even after she was gone.

Getting to know Juneau and Douglas was getting to know Grandma’s other dimensions. The parts of her before she became a wife. Before she became a mother. Before she lived in the big city of San Francisco.

Why not a second chance?

In Christianity, isn’t Jesus supposed to be the ultimate second chance? If you compare old and new testaments, God has chilled out quite a bit. So, why not?

It couldn’t hurt to ask.

On my second visit to Alaska, I arrived in mid-October for a whole month by myself. I was taking a year off of work. A year to heal from burnout. A year to heal from the pace and pressure — to restore what I had done to my body and mind as a result of that abuse and the depression it had caused. A year to process the significance of my father’s death, and this new reality without him. A year to pursue my passion of writing. Alaska kicked off this year.

Needless to say, the time off was not supported among some of my family and friends. There were the looks askance, the hushed murmurs about irresponsibility behind hands as well as straight to my face. The sheer worry in my mother’s eyes. What about your mortgage?

Thankfully, there were a few stalwart, “go get ‘em” supporters. They were the ones who had seen the strength of my spirit erode over time. “Don’t ever do that again,” a friend in my book club had said. I had sunk so far into depression that I knew that this time off was an imperative, not a choice.

I was in a scary and lonely place, striking out with no income, burning through savings to pay the mortgage and no guarantee that I would land on my feet on the other side of the year.

The devastation I had felt at my father’s passing coupled with a job that had not worked out after nine years, a distant divorce, no relationship or family of my own in the latter half of my forties, led me to a series of existential questions.

One of the most important questions in my turn around was about my dad.

How could I best honor him?

I was struck by the immediacy and force of the response.

“Be happy.”

Coming to Juneau for that month was my attempt to get back to the Garden. I had a very long journey ahead of me to climb out of my depression that would be marked by baby steps and small successes, some back sliding, and a lot of praying and meditating. I would eventually fully recover, but this “coming home” of sorts to Alaska was the first step. It was a major one.

There was another important question that I continue to ask but the answer is slower to come. I will perhaps always be working on this one.

What is true for me?

After my time off, I was healthy and strong and centered and happy. I went back to the same line of work because it was financially expedient. Oh, how I wanted to fit in! But, in the patriarchal world of semiconductors, the cards are stacked against me. In that world, I am outnumbered. I feel deeply. I express freely. I am artistic. I am a woman. I care as much, or perhaps more, for the people that report to me as I do for my superiors. I am willing to question power as warranted.

Here is the real problem: I am becoming less willing to fake fitting in. In fact, I am becoming less and less willing over time to fake anything at all. I will no longer stuff myself into the constrained boxes of contrived acceptable behavior that is exclusive to women, and I am no longer apologetic about it.

This is true for me.

Once you uncover truth about yourself, there is no choice but to accept it, and also to honor it. Even if it doesn’t make sense. Even if it will put you on the outside looking in. Happiness isn’t about logic, a theoretic of a life well lived, or “shoulds.”

Happiness is about being in touch with your feelings. It’s about prioritizing your health and your relationships and being of service. Happiness is firmly rooted in being true to yourself. It’s about not conforming for the sake of conforming and letting your truth shine out loud. It’s about being fully present. It’s about the affirmation of life.

I paraphrase a point the late theologian Marcus Borg made in a talk of his I attended once: If loving your neighbor as yourself is the Golden Rule, then you must learn to love yourself well. Because without that, you will short change the others.

It is possible to “should” yourself to death. I was a pathological “shoulder.”

When I begin to waver on being true to myself, invariably I fall off course and the depression returns.

I am in another job now but the same line of work. Here I am again. A third trip to Alaska. A short trip this time but nevertheless, I am asking for another chance.

Here is to second chances. Here is to third and fourth chances, too. It is never too late to turn a ship around no matter the strength and force of the culture, upbringing, career, friends or any other swirl of momentum shoving you around.

I rent a small room in Juneau. It doesn’t have a full kitchen but it does have a full view which is what I care about most.

When my father brought me to Alaska. He wanted to show me this heritage of mine. He had a vivid memory of his uncle who took him for a walk into the deep forest packing a rifle. He had another memory of his grandmother teaching him to tie his shoelaces.

Getting to know Alaska is getting to know my father’s other dimensions. The small boy in the woods with his rifle-packing uncle, protecting him from the bears. The warm meeting of grandmother and grandson for the first and only time. The candies she kept for him in her pockets. Whether he was conscious of it or not, his grandmother remained with him throughout his life. He only had to tie his shoelaces.

In returning, I carry not only the special relationship I had with my father, but the special relationship my father had with his mother. His love of fishing. The dimensions of my ancestors who were pioneers here. The wild blend of Irish, Danish, Russian, and Aleut all mixed up together. They have always been with me, even when I couldn’t see it or didn’t know it. In returning, I am learning about my own facets, both apparent and hidden.

The silence and solitude, the landscape and heritage are all important pieces of the puzzle.

Getting to know Alaska is getting to know myself.

It is ancient, this feeling. Learning to discover and embody my heritage. Beyond my grandmother, I never knew these ancestors in a physical sense, but I do know them in a very real way. I feel them quite deeply. Especially when I am here.

I sit at the picture window in my small, rented room. Through the glass there are boats skittering across the water in front of me. The gentle currents are backed by rounded mountains and are intermittently interrupted by tiny islands in Auke Bay. The round softness of Douglas Island, the dark green plush of rainforest, the sun overhead, gives this land a feeling of gentleness, calling up the soft curves of a nurturing mother. This belies the reality. The mountains are at the same time, giving and unforgiving. The smoky blue crags in the distance are perhaps more honest than the rolling slopes of North Douglas.

The water looks inviting. The sun-dappled warmth is deceiving because the water this time of year is approximately 51 degrees Fahrenheit. For context, this temperature is roughly midpoint between a 69-degree recreation-center pool in Southern California and the killer 28-degree arctic water that unsinkable Molly Brown bobbed around in as the Titanic went down. While the summer water temperature in Juneau won’t immediately kill you, it is something to respect. The temperature could knock you unconscious in an hour.

I see a bald eagle above the water, coasting toward shore.

I was twenty-eight before I saw my first bald eagle, our nation’s symbol. I was living in Colorado and it was a thrill. In 1963, two years before I was born, the bald Eagle was down to only four hundred and eighty seven nesting pairs due to the pesticide DDT. DDT endangered bald eagles to near extinction.

Because of this outrage to our symbolic identity and wildlife in general, they banned the stuff. There are lots of bald eagles in Juneau now. In fact, I’ve seen several just today, and it is only my first full day here.

The bald eagle got a second chance.

My boss challenged some of us on his staff the other day to do twenty-two push ups. The number twenty-two is significant because roughly twenty-two US veterans take their own lives everyday. The challenge is to raise awareness of the suicide epidemic among those who have served.

I did my twenty-two in the office the other day.

Today, I decided I would do it again. I got down underneath the picture window with the spectacular view and did all twenty-two without stopping, making me conscious once again of the suicide problem, of depression, and how much these people need help.

When I stood up from my pushups, I was face-to-face with a hummingbird, hovering there, inches from the glass above a red flower. It was a weird thing, seeing that magical bird so close to my face at eye level in the garden. But for the glass, I could touch it.

Being booted from Eden wasn’t a physical act at a point before civilization. It is a wholly perceptual knife-edge that we walk every day. Our heritage is both Garden and banishment. We embody both possibilities. To be happy, you have to choose it. Sometimes that takes effort. When happiness comes to you, it is a blessing. The best thing you can do is to honor it by recognizing and appreciating it. Maybe then, it will want to return.

I was doing twenty-two pushups for the twenty-two people who gave up, ostensibly because they did not have hope.

I lifted my head and hope slapped me in the face. Wings and heartbeat vibrated in upwards of 60 pulses a second or more before the hummingbird darted away. It had been right in front of me.

Follow Susan von Konsky on Twitter @susanvk_1

Photo credit: Photo via Unsplash Felipe Elioenay (

If You Really Want to Cure Cancer…

Originally published in The Huffington Post, September 20, 2016

The intuitive angel card reader told me to stay out of Target. Fortunately, I already knew this for myself. She was saying it because of the crowds and her meaning wasn’t limited specifically to Target but extended to all frenetic, modern superstores. She was saying it because she said, “you pick up the energy of other people like Pig Pen collects dust.”

I know that about myself too. I just don’t know how to control the hitchhiking energy and I am not good at clearing it.

For me, it is not only the crowds in Target that are disconcerting, but the smells. It is the sickly scent of the popcorn and sodas and dogs and whatever else they have going on masquerading as food. It is the electronics and furniture and household items and the toys.

Next time you are at a Target check it out. Wander around. Inhale good and long and focus on the smells. It smells like crazy. It is doubly creepy because there are no windows. You’re trapped. You wonder what horrible disease the workers might end up with after spending long hours in the invisible cloud of smells, days on end.

American people might like the smell at Target, if they even notice it. After all, the smell heralds new things. Our limbic brain has not gone much farther than Pavlov’s dog. Here is the smell that comes from a shiny new piece of plastic to give your baby to teeth on. Americans like the smell of new cars and new toys and new paint. Americans like anything new.

Americans like the smell of new cars and new toys and new paint. Americans like anything new.

My friend John doesn’t shop at Target. An overpowering vision came to him right smack dab in the center of the store and made him sick to his stomach, although I don’t think he actually vomited. In the vision, he saw the trappings of our lives that surrounded him on the shelves — the bright colors under the florescent lights — and then the scene in front of him fast forwarded a short distance. He saw these things for what they were then, a load of crap at the dump. Nothing but faded, broken down landfill in front of him at the Target. He was so disgusted he never went back.


Joe Biden says he wants to cure cancer, and I think he should start at Target. He should start with our drier sheets, and the coating on our cookware, the plastic in our clothing and the plastic in our oceans. I think he should start at Fukushima, still dumping radioactive waste with no end in site five years after the earthquake that caused the meltdown. You don’t think that stuff flies over the ocean and rains on our crops or slips on the current into the waters where our fish go to spawn? Think again. I think he should start with the fluoride in the water that is also hitting our thyroid, and I think he should start with the pesticides on top of and inside of our food and the ones that are blanketing the golf courses. He should start with mountain top removal and the fracking chemicals that are spoiling drinking water. He should start with the chemicals in our flame-retardant clothing, and that lake in inner Mongolia, toxic because of the West’s appetite for microelectronics. Think twice before you upgrade people. God bless Joe Biden. The man has his work cut out for him.

I think [Biden] should start at Fukushima, still dumping radioactive waste with no end in site five years after the earthquake that caused the meltdown.

Bob, Dad, Anna, Leslie, Debbie, Dennis, Janice, Phyllis, Grandpa, Grandma, Chuck, Jack, Howard, Virginia, Ann, Katherine, Jackie, Suki, Charlotte, Hannah, Loren, Judy, Lisa, Jim, Gary, Joan, Lisa, Loralee, Cindie, Kelly, Nora, Zippy, Mike, Aileen, Rich, Joy, Evelyn, Cindy, Fish, Michelle, Wilma. Ann’s dad and her brother, Steve’s mom, Laurie’s mom, Yvette’s mom, Stacy and Amy’s dad, Tim’s mom, Cary’s dad, Vicky’s mom, Jeff’s mom, Regan’s sister, Kimberly’s husband, Anne’s mom, Mike’s son, Frank’s wife, Lynn’s husband, and Doug and Evelyn’s daughter and son.

There are fifty-nine people on this list. These are people within my circle who have had cancer. The list is full of survivors and also those who did not make it. There are perhaps more out there who don’t talk about it. I believe the list is about as comprehensive as I can make it. I am sure that I missed people.

In rough numbers: Seventeen people on this list battled cancer within my first four decades. forty-two people on this list battled cancer in the decade between my fortieth and fiftieth birthday this year. Twenty-five people on this list have been battling cancer over the last year or two.

This is an astonishing ramp.

Is it statistically significant? No. Is there fault in the study? I’m sure of it. Has it been blessed by a peer reviewed journal? Oh, come on. It’s just me out here calling it as I see it, using my God-given right of observation.

Don’t take it as the whole story. This is obviously a very complex conversation. Take it as a data point. Then make your own study. Make your list as comprehensive as you can. Categorize the numbers in a timeline. See if you can see any patterns.

Something is very wrong.

Common sense is not so common. This truism is lethal when it concerns our current medical system and the corporate lobbies and our ability to hold them accountable.

We are experiencing a tyranny of corporate science. A new religion of sorts. Good science is critical in overcoming cancer, but science that has an agenda, a conflict of interest, or a financial stake in the outcome, is a problem.

According to a 2009 report by the President’s Cancer Panel to President Obama, research on environmental causes of cancer is a big hole in the conversation.

I applaud Joe Biden and his Cancer Moonshot. I am deeply sorry for the loss of his son, Beau that has inspired it. I am grateful that he is using his power and influence to highlight the issue.

But he cannot cure cancer alone.

Fundraising is great but where the money gets spent counts. The key is prevention. According to a 2009 report by the President’s Cancer Panel to President Obama, research on environmental causes of cancer is a big hole in the conversation.

“The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”

In addition, The World Health Organization (WHO) says that today global cancer rates can be cut approximately forty percent through prevention strategies.

New drugs may extend life by days, weeks, or months at a time, perhaps more, but they are available only to those who can afford them. Why not put the lion’s share of funding in uncovering the causes of cancer and creating a culture of prevention?

Instead of waging war on cancer itself, maybe the real war is with the causes of cancer.

This is the Moonshot.

It is going to take every one of us.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that today global cancer rates can be cut approximately forty percent through prevention strategies.

Companies will never undergo a chemotherapy treatment. Companies will never hold the hand of a loved one as they lay dying. They will never hear that gut-wrenching last breath, nor witness the flight of a soul. They will never see that held hand grow oh-so white, moments after death. They will never kiss the forehead of their father in his casket. They will never feel the cold, hard flesh under their lips. They will never watch as the lid slowly closes shut.

Companies will never have the empathy, passion, or dreams of a human being. They will never bear a child. They will never have the capacity of human consciousness.

Target and all the rest of the corporations are not human. What appears on the shelves is a reflection of our value system. Our value system is killing us.

You are culpable for this big, sick mess. So am I.

While this is troubling, it is likewise empowering. As much as we broke things, we can also fix them, making better choices in our purchases, demanding corporate responsibility, demanding that corporations stop poisoning us. We can remember that science sourced through agenda and a conflict of interest is not credible and insist our legislature protect us through the law.

We can make small changes, baby steps in our lives every day that can help. Focus on relationships and getting along. Reduce anxiety. Increase exercise. Take better care of our bodies overall by feeding them well. Don’t waste, not ever. Turn our back on the disposable society we’ve become. Work a forty-hour week, no more. Get good sleep. Move slower. Improve the environment. Temper consumerism and greed. Use fewer chemicals. Drink less alcohol. While these steps may not be full proof, they will fortify us. They will allow our bodies to do what they were designed to do naturally. Heal.

Instead of waging war on cancer itself, maybe the real war is with the causes of cancer.

On a macro scale, vote responsibly. Complain at your workplace, complain to corporate powerhouses and to your politicians when you see something that might be a contributing factor. Ask your neighbor to stop using Roundup. Stop using it yourself, as a start. Spend very, very wisely. Donate wisely, too.

Next time you’re in Target or a store like it, I encourage you to be conscious of all those smells. Be conscious of everything, always. The taste and the feel. Open your eyes. Look. Use all of your senses. Let them inform your instincts and trust them. Slow down enough to notice everything.

The toys are the worst. It is the stink of god knows what that is off-gassing into the atmosphere. And, that shit can’t be good for you.

But, don’t let that Pig Pen dust get you down. Learn to shake it off. I work at it every day even though there are days it nearly suffocates me.

Appreciate the scent of your licorice tea. The warmth of the sun on your face. The sound of a rainstorm while you are snug indoors with your cat purring on your lap. How tight are you gripping that steering wheel? Loosen it up. Just a little. Flip the switch on the radio. Sing at the top of your lungs.

It is because life is so good and abundant that it is important to make it uncomfortable for the people and organizations that erode our health and well-being and our environment. Make it very uncomfortable. Intolerable. Every moment, demand the answer to this question:


Because if you want to cure cancer, the solution is never letting it get a foothold in the first place.

Follow Susan von Konsky on Twitter @susanvk_1

Photo credit: Feature photo via Unsplash Christopher Sardegna
In-store photo credit: Susan von Konsky
Sources for this article documented through links.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Originally Published in The Huffington Post on August 8, 2016.

It is near the end of July, 2016, and we are gathering for my father’s birthday. It’s been a good day at work, and I look forward to some family time with my brother Brian who is flying to San Francisco from Perth, Western Australia tonight. He comes this time of year as much as he can. It is comforting for us all to be together, enjoying each other and remembering my dad in a happy way, when our family was still whole.

I hum as I walk to my car and turn on my Dixie Chicks CD and pull out of the parking garage.

On the street, the auto dealerships all fly American flags. One after the other, I drive past these flags. All of them are at half mast. Driving by them is like being in a small funeral procession. It has been this way in and out of work for more than a month. This time, it is for the Nice, France terror attacks, 85 dead, 305 wounded.

I am looking forward to the day when the dealerships will raise those flags again. I think about how long it has been since they were flying high. Lately, it has been one tragedy after another. I stop my humming. My jovial mood subsides.

There has been a whole river of tragedy weighing down American hearts these last months in the shape of mass shootings here and abroad.

The headwaters of this river go back a long time though. When you look at the timeline of some of the most publicized mass murders, the river is gaining volume and velocity in the Western world:

  • April 19, 1995: Oklahoma bombing, 168-169 dead, 680+ wounded
  • April 20, 1999: Columbine High School massacre, 15 dead, 24 wounded
  • September 11, 2001: World Trade Center attacks, 2,996 dead, 6,000+ wounded
  • April 16, 2007: Virginia Tech shooting, 33 dead, 23 wounded
  • December 14, 2012: Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, 28 dead
  • November 13-14, 2015: Paris attacks, 137 dead, 368 wounded
  • June 12, 2016, Pulse Orlando nightclub shooting, 50 dead, 53 wounded
  • July 7-8, 2016: Dallas police officer shooting, 6 dead, 11 wounded
  • July 14, 2016: Nice attack, 85 dead, 308 wounded

Some might object to conflating the terror of Muslim extremists with our own home-grown variety, but the reality is, whether it is by our own hand or the acts of others, terror is terror.

Some might object to conflating the terror of Muslim extremists with our own home-grown variety, but the reality is, whether it is by our own hand or the acts of others, terror is terror. 

The enemy is ISIS, of course, or the enemy is Iraq. Sometimes, the enemy is social media bullying or guns, the Russians, Al-Qaeda, the police, the 1%, and our rape culture. The enemy is Republicans, Democrats, the pro-choice lobby, the anti-abortion lobby, Mexicans, blacks, Jews, Muslims, Christians, LGBTQs, whites, CEOs, police, oil companies, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, entitlements, NAFTA and the TPP, protectionism, environmentalism, climate change deniers, Wall Street, liberals, Monsanto, the Koch brothers, global warming, over population, immigration, refugees, human trafficking, GMOs, CNN, Fox News, drug companies, street drugs, cancer, drought, women, men, Canadians, you name it.

There is continual finger pointing at someone or something to explain the state of humanity, and it is not the pointer finger that is doing the pointing.

There is so much out of our control. There is so much information. Bits of it, abstract and untouchable, are pulsing through the airwaves in sound bites and alerts, straight into our living rooms and offices, our cars, our bedrooms and schools. Because of this encroachment on our private space, it is personal. It is served up to us in ways that could never give us the full story or context. We check tiny devices for it while still tucked under down comforters in bed on a dark winter night, or fresh from dreaming before walking out the door for our morning run.

Who gets to decide what information gets seen and what is held back? Who is that person, company, organization? News, heavily influenced by pay for play advertising. Information, so important, largely not actionable, abstract and foreign. What can you do, save a vote at election time, becoming an activist, choosing a career that might make a difference?

All that information served up in a way to tell us how to think, how to behave, what to do, where to spend.

All that information scaring the shit out of us.



With all that finger pointing the whole point is missed.

The point is this: the enemy is fear.

It is driving us into shackles.

“Can’t we all just get along?” my very right-wing, conservative, Trump-supporting, evangelist Christian cousin posted online.


So, maybe we can’t. But what then?

The point is this: the enemy is fear. It is driving us into shackles.

I drive to the airport. I wait for my brother and watch all the people arriving in San Francisco. People watching is fascinating, especially in San Francisco, don’t you think? It is colorful and vibrant.

Thirty years ago, I would not have had to sit behind the security exit and could have met him directly at his gate. Thirty years ago, I could have waited for him at the curb and not have had to drive in a continuous loop, never stopping, because security is afraid of car bombs. Thirty years ago, most of the people at the airport would have looked a lot like me, and dressed a lot like me, too. Our customs and acts of courtesy would have been of the same brand.

Today, I sit behind the wall, watching passengers exit through a small door. They are diverse in their appearance and costume, but similar too, because they are weary and beleaguered. You can tell mostly by their eyes that this is so. They have that same look as I believe I do.

All these people, trying as hard as they can to do the right thing, holding down a job, keeping up with the pace of modern society, holding it together for the sake of everyone else and the good of all. Not dwelling on what is. Not looking it in the eye. Not staring it down good. Instead somehow, people are still fighting the good fight, are trying to give reality a facelift.

It is not that these incoming passengers don’t look presentable or lack smiles. Some of them look quite glamorous. Some of them are vibrant and they bear wide smiles as they burst through the security wall and find their greeters.

This vibrancy is skin deep though. They are trying too hard somehow. Working to accumulate the trappings of a stylized lifestyle from magazines and TV shows. Because if you look happy, doesn’t that make it so?

I wonder how they can be as happy as they appear when just last week Nice underwent such a horrific attack. How can they appear so secure when the auto row flags will be hoisted down once again, when in only two more days, July 22, 2016, the Munich shootings will happen?

10 dead this time, 35 wounded.

Their eyes and the tension in their tendons, especially through the neck and the strain in their smile betray them. I see it.

Yes, despite the diversity in front of me, I recognize myself in them. They are my mirror. We are the same.

All but one.

It is a small child. She is running ahead of her parents in shoes that make noise. They squeak and flash tiny lights with each step. Her pigtails are flying. Her parents struggle to keep up, encumbered with their heavy bags and a brother, asleep in the stroller. They call her to stop. Her cheeks are rosy and fat and she is laughing, excited to be free. As she cuts through the crowd, not stopping for anything, there is a wave of smiles, turning the dreary passengers bright again for only a moment. She is unafraid. As her parents chase her through the airport, she is a current of joy in this dismal river.

“Can’t we all just get along?”… So, maybe we can’t. But what then?

My brother comes at last. He is lean and healthy, and has travelled from a point as far on the earth from me as possible, as far from the rest of the western world as possible, with opposite seasons, and opposite stars, floating in the same firmament. He is here now like magic. He puts down his bag. The point is this. I am glad that he is home. Glad for his warm breath brushing the hair above my ear. Glad for an antidote, solid in the weight of arms that encircle me.

Follow Susan von Konsky on Twitter @susanvk_1

Photo credit: Susan von Konsky