A Celebration of Trees


I love trees of all colors, types, heights, widths, and kinds.  I have an entire bookshelf full of books about trees, and I used to teach a seminar on tree poems.  Today I share this photo along with an eloquent passage about trees:

“Trees have about them something beautiful and attractive even to the fancy, since they cannot change their places, are witnesses of all the changes that take place around them; and as some reach a great age, they become, as it were, historical monuments, and like ourselves they have a life, growing and passing away, –not being inanimate and unvarying like the fields and rivers.  One sees them passing through various stages, and at last step by step approaching death, which makes them look still more like ourselves.”
Wilhelm von Humboldt

Here’s to “the leaping greenly spirits of trees” (ee cummings)!

“Friends and Feelings”: The Fred Rogers Company’s new DVD to Help Children With Autism

As both a huge Mr Rogers fan and the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, I was thrilled to learn that The Fred Rogers Company had put together a new DVD called Friends and Feelings: Helping Children with Autism in Social and Emotional Learning. The DVD features four classic episodes of the show plus helpful introductions for parents and professionals. The episodes, “It’s Very Hard to Wait,” “Ups and Downs of Friendship,” “Learning About Sharing,” and “Learning Self-Control,” are each gems, and the DVD as a whole is both practically helpful and emotionally moving, a veritable treasure-house of tips and inspiration for children with autism and their families, teachers, and therapists. I was honored when Alan Friedman of the Fred Rogers Company agreed to answer my questions about the DVD and offer further encouragement and hope for autistic children and those who love and work with them.

1) How did the idea to do a Mister Rogers DVD focused on autism come about?

The Fred Rogers Company has long heard from parents and teachers of children with autism about the benefits of watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Then, friends of the company who work with children with autism began urging us to make the program available directly to children with autism and other special needs. We also were motivated by the growing body of research on the effectiveness of video modeling (i.e., observing appropriate behaviors and then practicing them in real-life situations) as a tool for helping children with autism learn social skills.

2) What challenges were involved in putting it together?

We wondered if we would find that young viewers who are new to the program today, whether or not they have autism, would find it too slow, too calm, or too otherwise old-fashioned to be interesting. But the project is confirming that children, particularly children with autism, continue connecting with it in powerful ways.

3) How did you select the episodes to include and the themes or topics to focus on?

We gathered input from numerous professionals and parents to determine where there is the greatest overlap between important but challenging skills for children with autism and themes that are central to Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Then, we developed a list of episodes in which Fred and his friends and puppets talk, sing, and play games about these skills in engaging and memorable ways. We chose a final four episodes that are longstanding favorites among all children: “It’s Very Hard to Wait,” “Ups and Downs of Friendship,” “Learning About Sharing,” and “Learning Self-Control.”

4) Tell us a little about the experts interviewed on the DVD and how they came to the project.

Pittsburgh is home to a wealth of eminent professionals dedicated to children with autism. Pittsburgh is also something of a small world. Mark Strauss, a developmental psychologist, is a friend of a few staff members at The Fred Rogers Company. With Martin Lubetsky, I recently served on a local disability services task-force. Through Martin, I met his wife, Michelle Lubetsky, a behavioral analyst and special education consultant. And I learned about the work of Stacy Porter Smith, a social skills therapist, and Terry Sheffey, a community outreach coordinator, at an autism conference at Slippery Rock University. I want to thank these commentators and the many other contributors to the project.

5) What has the reaction to the DVD been like?

Support from local foundations was intended to fund the distribution of 5,000 copies throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. We wound up distributing 12,300 copies through 20 very motivated partners, autism service organizations that are using and distributing the DVDs in their home visits, classrooms, social skills camps, and other programs. We haven’t yet collected a lot of feedback, but viewers seem to be responding very positively.

6) Did Mister Rogers ever speak or write about autism to your knowledge? Did he ever correspond or work with famed autism expert Stanley Greenspan?

Fred did not speak or write about autism. But he spent time with a great many children with autism who came to meet him and visit the TV studio. There is a wonderful article that first appeared in Esquire, in which Tom Junod writes about Fred visiting for 20 minutes with an autistic boy who had come, with his father, all the way to Pittsburgh from Boise, Idaho. The boy had never spoken, until one day he said, “X the Owl.” He had never looked his father in the eye until one day his father had said, “Let’s go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.” By the time he met Fred, the boy was speaking and reading.

7) Why are Mister Rogers’ approach and sensibility so valuable and helpful for children with autism and those who care for or teach them?

The program is valuable and helpful by virtue of what Fred has to say and how he says it, both of which correspond to the learning needs and styles of children with autism. Fred and his neighbors talk and sing all day every day about feelings, appropriate social behaviors, and thinking about others. They live in a world defined by very comforting routines. And unlike so many other producers of children’s media, Fred kept the pacing calm and the special effects to a minimum. He always made eye contact. He and his interactions with children are wonderful models for adults.

8) Are there plans to release more episodes presented and introduced in this way, on autism or other subjects?

We hope to continue re-purposing the Neighborhood in this way and learning from viewers about how to make the collection as useful as possible.

9) Can you think of a quotation from Mister Rogers that you think would especially help a child with autism? His or her parents? His or her peers in learning to accept their autistic classmate?

These words from Fred may be meaningful to a child with autism:

“You are a very special person. There is only one like you in the whole world. There’s never been anyone exactly like you before, and there never will be again. And people can like you exactly as you are.”

These words may be helpful to his or her parents:

“What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness. A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re much more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.

“If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then, I believe, we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what ‘good’ parenting means. It’s part of being human to fall short of that total acceptance—and often far short. But one of the most important gifts a parent can give a child is the gift of accepting that child’s uniqueness.”

And these thoughts may be helpful to his or her peers in learning to accept their autistic classmate:

“What is essential is invisible to the eye. When we see someone who looks or behaves differently from what’s familiar to us, it’s possible to feel a little shy, scared, curious, or awkward. I know how much I’ve struggled to look with my heart and not with just my eyes. One of life’s joys is discovering that we can be open to new experiences that at first seem strange or even scary. It’s exhilarating to find that the barriers that seem to separate us from other people begin to vanish when we take the time to get to know those people. That’s the way it is with real friends.”

If you are interested in “Friends and Feelings,” you can order a copy directly from the nonprofit Fred Rogers Company. All proceeds support work that advances and extends Fred Rogers’ philosophy and values.


Priscilla Warner on Learning To Breathe

I first “met” Priscilla Warner when she friended me on Facebook in the fall of 2011 with the following message: “Hi Priscilla – Since your name comes up every time I start to type mine, and your book looks fascinating, I thought we should connect! Sound good?” I wrote her back: “Wonderful! and I just read about your new book, and ordered it- I am so excited- I’m a big meditator, and I love the sound of your book. So happy you reached out to me.” Thus a cyber friendship and a mutual admiration society were born. We met in person for the first time when Priscilla came to see me speak at a Child Care Council of Westchester event- we couldn’t stop hugging each other!-, and last March we hung out at the Books for a Better Life Awards where our books were both nominated. Priscilla is one of the warmest, most down-to-earth, unpretentiously smart, life-giving people I’ve ever met, and I was delighted when she agreed to answer questions for this blog. You’ll find a wealth of insight and practical tips in the answers she gave me. Thanks to Priscilla for gracing this blog with her spirit!

Priscilla Warner is a co-author of the New York Times bestselling memoir The Faith Club and the author of a new memoir, Learning To Breathe, which was nominated for a Books for a Better Life Award. Inspired by the impressive meditation practices of Tibetan monks, Priscilla set out to heal from a panic disorder that had plagued her for decades. On this winding path from panic to peace, with its hairpin emotional curves and breathtaking drops, she also delves into a wide range of spiritual and alternative health practices. Written with lively wit and humor, Learning to Breathe is a serious attempt to heal from a painful condition. It’s also a life raft of compassion and hope for people similarly adrift or secretly fearful, and an entertaining, inspiring guidebook for anyone facing daily challenges large and small, longing for a sense of peace, self-acceptance, and understanding.

1) Tell us about your yearlong quest to bring calm to your life: what inspired it, what it taught you, and how it concluded.

For years, I’d been reading stories about Tibetan monks who meditated so effectively that neuroscientists were studying their brains. I’d also been suffering from panic attacks so debilitating that they left me unable to breathe. My experience with a previous book I co-authored, The Faith Club, had left me exhausted but also exhilarated by what I’d learned from people of all religions. I was open to learning how to meditate, and eager to study with Buddhist teachers. One in particular – a young Tibetan monk who’d suffered panic attacks as a child and healed through meditation – became my first teacher. He taught me how to meditate in an open-minded way – eyes open or shut, sitting, lying down and walking, listening to music. My last communal meditation experience was at a zen center where I stared at a white wall for 30 minutes at a time. In between, I meditated every day for 20 minutes, and discovered effective therapies that grounded me and lessened my anxiety significantly. I achieved a kind of inner peace I could never have imagined.

2) What are some of the biggest roadblocks or obstacles that prevent us from achieving calm and truly breathing?

We think too much! Meditation allows us to let go of thoughts.

We over-react to things! Meditation changes our brains so that we can digest incoming information with less judgment.

We judge ourselves too harshly! As Tara Brach, one of my teachers, taught me, we all have a golden Buddha deep inside of us that we can learn how to access, a basic goodness that can guide and comfort us.

We want things to be different from they way they are! And that’s the definition of suffering, according to Buddhist teachings. Once we accept that we are all suffering humans, we can have compassion for each other and ourselves.

3) What are some of the best strategies you found for calming yourself and reducing your anxiety?

Meditating daily for 20 minutes has altered the way I react to stress. And I don’t always have to do it in a solitary way. I can listen to guided imagery and music in order to calm my mind.

Somatic Experiencing and EMDR Therapy, two very powerful therapies, helped me ground myself and release disturbing physical sensations brought on by trauma and buried emotions.

4) What would you say to people who dismiss meditation as fluffy, new-agey, or ineffective?

It’s not new agey in my mind, since it’s existed for thousands of years, as an important component of many different religions and cultures!

It’s not fluffy or ineffective, because it allows us to access a place deep inside of us that is strong, secure, safe and powerful.

5) How would you define resilience? What do you think are some good strategies for becoming more resilient in the face of life’s inevitable challenges, difficulties, and hurdles?

I define resilience as the ability to adapt to circumstances beyond our control. In order to do that, I think we need to be humble enough to seek help from others, and to be curious and dedicated enough to acquire skills that allow us to heal.

6) How were your marriage and your parenting affected by your intense anxiety and panic attacks? How did your husband and your children react to your quest for calm?

My husband was always patient and understanding when it came to my anxiety. He loved me because I was vulnerable, and valued the idea of being vulnerable along with me. Displaying that vulnerability is freeing, and it connects us to others powerfully.

As a parent, my biggest challenge was to appear calm to my children. For years I sought help from a therapist in order to do that. She taught me how to manage my own anxiety so that it wouldn’t cloud my judgment or spill over into the way I parented, increasing my children’s anxiety. That’s not to say that I was a serene Madonna. I wasn’t. But I tried my best to heal from my own anxiety so that I could help them face theirs. Although my fantasy was that they could lead lives free of suffering, that’s just not the case. Learning that my children need to face painful experiences on their own sometimes, to suffer disappointment and anxiety, then move forward on their own, was a very difficult thing for me to accept. Although they are young adults, they still come to me occasionally during stressful situations, and it’s always a challenge for me to stay grounded so that I can be helpful to them.

My husband and children have told me how proud they are of what I accomplished by writing this book, and they’re happy to see me happy!

7) What advice do you have for anxious parents? How can they learn to breathe and let go?

We can’t raise healthy, happy children if we aren’t doing our best to be happy, healthy people. We need to feel safe and secure so that we can provide safety and security to our children.

What I love about establishing a meditation practice (which I urge even the busiest parents to do – starting with just five minutes a day) is that it provides a safe haven, a port in a storm, a room of one’s own.

Parenting can be lonely, hectic, depressing, exciting, rewarding, confusing and disturbing. Meditation teaches us that all of those emotions come and go, along with the moments that trigger them. Once I developed a meditation practice, I became less reactive to events. I was able to step back and observe myself, my family, and my friends without jumping to conclusions or donning a superhero cape to try and fix everything heroically. Parents want to be superheroes, but we need to have our feet planted firmly on the ground, and meditation helps us do that.

8) What are some of your favorite books and authors?

I was deeply moved and inspired by Lucy Greely’s extraordinary, courageous book, Autobiography of a Face, as well as Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals and Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. Those raw, honest memoirs gave me the courage to write Learning to Breathe. I love fiction that grips me immediately with characters I care about deeply. A Fine Balance is the gold standard for me in that regard. I love anything Tom Wolfe writes. The last book I finished and really enjoyed was Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.

9) Who inspires you (public figures, writers, people in your personal life)?

People who share their stories about the painful experiences they’ve encountered in life – like you, Priscilla – inspire me. For so long, I thought I was the only person with a panic disorder, and I’ve received the most beautiful emails from readers who’ve shared their lives with me. Their courage, honesty and insights sustain me. And of course I am still inspired by Tibetan monks! And all of the teachers and healers I met in my book. I’m amazed at how many people there are in the world who want to help and heal others.

10) What quotation would you use to summarize you and/or your approach to Life?

I love this quote from Joseph Goldstein, a Buddhist teacher: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Life can be difficult and we can’t predict the ways in which we’ll be challenged. But my meditation practice has taught me how to surf the waves of sadness, fear and sorrow that we all encounter. I still get knocked over occasionally, but everything I learned through this experience has given me the strength and confidence to get up again and keep swimming.

Priscilla Warner grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and spent many years in Boston and New York as an advertising art director, shooting ads for everything from English muffins to diamond earrings. Priscilla co-authored the New York Times bestselling memoir The Faith Club, then toured the country for three years, hyperventilating her way through an extended book tour. Finally, in the skies over Oklahoma, she vowed to find her inner monk, and began meditating her way from panic to peace.

My Chicago Tribune review of Buzz Bissinger’s Father’s Day

I had never read a Buzz Bissinger book before I began his new memoir, Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son, but nothing could have prepared me for the detonation of its opening paragraph. Zach “has just come from work at the supermarket where he has bagged groceries for four hours with one fifteen-minute break,” Bissinger writes. “It shames me to think of him placing sweat-drenched jugs of milk into their proper place and learning, with the extensive help of a job coach, that the eggs must be placed separately in double plastic bags. . . . My son’s professional destiny is paper or plastic.”

I hadn’t expected a soft, gauzy “journey” from the author of Friday Night Lights, but this was more of a dizzying free fall into a pit of shame, anger, and despair. And things only get more intense from here. The three minutes that separated the birth of Buzz’s twins, Zach and Gerry, has resulted in a chasm between their life paths: Gerry is in graduate school at Penn studying to become a teacher; Zach will never go to college or live independently. Bissinger does more than refuse easy platitudes or misty romanticism about the gifts of disability; he dismisses hope, unmasks euphemism, and punctures cliche with a brutal force: “Why sugarcoat it? My son is mentally retarded. Because of three fucking minutes”. For “a father awash in ambition”, his son’s bagging groceries is the ultimate humiliation; for a man who “wanted bragging rights to my son”, having that son attend special schools populated by “broken children” and “freaks” is a deep source of shame.

Most of all Buzz hates the sense that there will never be progress, growth, or breakthrough, that Zach is stuck in a dead-end job and a small life, that he and Zach are locked into the same tiresome ways of relating to each other (he repeatedly compares his interactions with Zach to Waiting for Godot) and declares: “We are like the film Groundhog Day except nothing ever changes”). And so in part to break the “feeling of perpetual stasis”, Buzz decides to take his son on a ten day road trip across America. They will visit schools Zach attended, places Zach lived, and as many amusement parks (Zach’s special passion) as possible.

But the proposed terms of the road-relationship are both pointed and peculiar. “I vowed on this trip,” Buzz tells us, “to probe his mind, find what is there, what is not there, and what never can be”. He will try “to pry Zach open”. True to plan, Buzz is mercilessly direct and dissecting of Zach’s inner states: “do you know what brain damage is? Do you know your brain is not a little right?”.

As the inquisition continues, at often deeply uncomfortable length and invasiveness, the reader’s questions become insistent in response: what does Buzz want? What does Buzz need in this exchange? In comparison to Zach’s obvious needs, Buzz’s neediness and his insistent probing as an aggressive and wildly off-key form of communication—seem self-indulgent.

But a large point of the book is that Buzz is aware of this pattern. The book is about the weakness of this style of knowing his son, a style which is deeply associated with his identity as a man, as a thinker, and as a writer. When Buzz declares that he despises his own “negative narcissism and the constant fear of failure, the unquenchable neediness”, he is describing the very qualities that we as readers are likely to find repellent. He shares our horror, and his disgust turns inward: the same analytical gaze which probed Zach now probes the father.

The question that this reversal of focus brings to the surface is the point on which the book turns: to what extent Zach will be accommodated to his father’s need for understanding. Escaping this desire for mastery and control will require an abandoning of the author’s hyper-masculine (one almost wants to say “literary”) way of relating. He will need to replace (or at least to complement) the standards of “intellect and riches and status” with the rediscovery of “what was vital, fatherhood, the best part of me”.

This transformation is the true journey in the book, from a need to possess Zach like a text or a trophy to an ability to allow him to be his own man. And in this part of the story it is Zach rather than Buzz who dominates.

As the book and the road-trip progress, we discover that Zach’s mind is not only limited but also gifted: he is, in fact, a savant with an extraordinary memory and a remarkable facility with maps. He is also and more importantly gifted in less measurable or culturally validated ways: he is “kind and honest and true,” “his warmth . . . a balm to the most savage soul.”

Ultimately, much like Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother, Father’s Day contains within itself its author’s own come-uppance as the parent is humbled and enlightened by the child. Zach, in his gentle, kind way, stands up for himself, resists his father’s intrusions, and asserts himself in small but meaningful “statement[s] of his individuality and independence”. He signs his own name, he refuses toothpaste, goes off to his own room, buys a belt, asks to stay overnight with friends. Buzz comes to see what we have seen: “I am boring into my son like a lab rat by asking him intimate questions that make him sad or confused or nervous”. He can now appreciate the solid logic of Zach’s “idiosyncratic” world view, respect the integrity of Zach’s “interior life”, and accept the ineffability of Zach’s being. An exhilarating joint bungee jump and Zach’s “I love you Dad we had a fun trip” are simple gifts to be treasured.

The book’s last few pages had me weeping- overpowering in their naked tenderness and fervent affirmations- as Buzz expresses in soaring prose the radical shift in priorities being a father has brought about and declares his son “the most fearless man I have ever known, and the most admirable.” Fearless himself in his breathtaking honesty and admirable in his ardent love for his child, Buzz writes like Zach who gave the most touching eulogy at his grandmother’s funeral “in unfiltered words straight from the heart”. If, as Kafka once said, “writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender,” then Bissinger’s memoir is the quintessence of writing: an utmost act of self-revelation and surrender.

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy, which has just been published in paperback by Harper Perennial.

This review originally appeared in the May 13th 2012 issue of the Chicago Tribune.

A Q &A with National Book Award Winning Author Kathryn Erskine


In November 2010, my editor, Claire Wachtel, sent me an email that went something like this: “book about girl with aspergers just won Natl Book Award.  called Mockingbird.”  I immediately bought the book and read it through a haze of awe-struck tears.   I became a Mockingbird proselytizer, buying multiple copies and sending them as thank-you gifts to my literary agent and my editorial team at Harper, recommending it with fervor to every sensitive reader I know.  On a whim, I sent Kathryn Erskine a galley of my book and thought “there goes nothing; how many books must she receive?”   Then one day many months later, a friend emailed me :”did you see that Kathryn Erskine just gave your book 5 stars on GoodReads?!”   That was an amazing moment!  I contacted Kathy via Good Reads and thanked her for making my day;  she wrote back immediately and sent me a generous blurb, which appears inside the paperback version of The Anti-Romantic Child.  Kathy has since published a very different kind of YA novel, The Absolute Value of Mike, which my 13 year old Benj devoured, chuckling and laughing uproariously and nodding as he did so.   I’m honored that Kathy has agreed to answer my questions about her favorite books for people of all ages, and the music, visual art, movies, food, and places that inspire and nourish her.

But first, in the spirit of this blog’s ongoing theme of resilience, here’s one of my favorite quotations from Mockingbird:

“I don’t think I’m going to like it at all. I think it’s going to hurt. But after the hurt I think maybe something good and strong and beautiful will come out of it.”
Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird

Questions about Books:

What are some of your favorite books for

babies/toddlers (birth-3)?

I think reading babies and toddlers to sleep with any children’s books is wonderful, but for active engagement I’d want to include GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown, BROWN BEAR by Eric Carle (and any Eric Carle books), GOODNIGHT GORILLA, and anything with color and rhythm.

young children, ages 3-6?

Dr. Seuss and anything with rhyming, engaging language.  There’s a world of wonderful picture books out there.  Here are just some of my recent favorites:

MOUSE WAS MAD, Linda Urban


HALF PINT PETE THE PIRATE and PIRATE PRINCESS (and others), Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen



DUMPLING SOUP, Jama Kim Rattigan

ME…JANE, Patrick McDonnell



A TIME TO PRAY, Maha Addasi


ME WITH YOU and SURFER CHICK, Kristy Dempsey


FLY FREE, Roseanne Thong



young readers 6-10?

They tend to love series at the early elementary age, so books like THE MAGIC TREEHOUSE (Mary Pope Osborne), THE BUDDY FILES (Dori Hillestad Butler), and CLEMENTINE (Sara Pennypacker) are great for the younger set, as well as beautiful stand alones like THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM 1963 (Christopher Paul Curtis), HOUND DOG TRUE (Linda Urban), BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE (Kate DiCamillo), LOVE THAT DOG (Sharon Creech), and SAVVY (Ingrid Law).  As they get older, there’s the HARRY POTTER (J.K. Rowling) and INKHEART (Cornelia Funke) series, two of my favorite, and a whole wealth of wonderful novels … I could go on forever so I’d better stop now!
YA readers?

Here goes, to name just a few:

THE BOOK THIEF, Markus Zusak

BUCKING THE SARGE, Christopher Paul Curtis

CONVERTING KATE, Beckie Weinheimer

FEED, M.T. Anderson

SPUD, John van de Ruit




PURPLE HEART, Patricia McCormick


BAMBOO PEOPLE, Mitali Perkins

MILLIONS, Frank Cottrell Boyce




SEEDFOLKS, Paul Fleischman


Anything on the YA list and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  Some great reads include Alexander McCall Smith’s series, THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY, MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson, ROOM by Emma Donoghue, THE GOOD DAUGHTER by Jasmin Darznik, and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd.
What is the one book you think every writer should read?

It’s a toss up between Stephen King’s ON WRITING and Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD.  They’re both part memoir and part craft advice, and both excellent.

What is the one book you think every parent should read?

RAISING CHILDREN WHO THINK FOR THEMSELVES by Elisa Medhus, particularly today when we seem to have grown overprotective of our kids who are capable of so much more than we expect from them.

What is the one book you think every human should read?

MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl.  And, of course, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  (Sorry, I couldn’t help adding that.  I’m not very good at picking ONE book, am I?)

Questions about Music:

I love the Playlists section of your website, where you share the songs you listened to while working on your books.  Can you tell us a little more about how music inspires you and informs your writing?

Although I don’t listen to music while I write–I need silence–I always create playlists of songs that I associate with a novel in progress.  They’re songs that make me think of the characters, the time, the place, or somehow remind me of the story.  Then, I listen to that playlist while I’m driving or walking so I can keep the story present in my mind.  Often, I’ll come up with ideas or solutions to problems while listening to the playlist.  It’s kind of fun to post them on my blog (which reminds me, I’m behind in doing that) and also to hear what songs others come up with for my novel.  Sometimes book groups will send me their list of songs for the novel which I always find fascinating.

Do you play an instrument?  If not, what instrument would you most like to play?

I play flute a little bit.  I’m thinking of taking up the ukulele because guitar was a little difficult for me and I think the uke would be more manageable.  I love the violin, though, and if there weren’t such a learning curve that my family (and I) would have to suffer through, I would probably try it.
Who is your favorite singer/songwriter and why?

It’s so hard to pick one.  It depends heavily on my mood.  I like the Scottish twins, The Proclaimers, anything by Miriam Makeba, Motown, classic rock, and young start up bands like La Crosse, Wisconsin’s Neon.

Who is your favorite composer and why?

Again, it’s so hard to choose just one.  I love the security and predictability of Vivaldi, Boccherini and Bach, and any of the classical pieces transcribed or written by guitarists Andres Segovia, John Williams, or Julian Bream.

Questions about Other Forms of Nourishment:

I know that you are a chocoholic like me!  What are your favorite kinds, forms, and brands of chocolate?

There are so many!  I still enjoy my childhood favorites like Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut and Reese’s peanut butter cups, but I’ve matured to dark chocolate, particularly Ritter Sport with hazelnuts, anything Fair Trade (Divine, Dagoba, Green & Black’s) and best of all, Gearhart’s, my local chocolatier.

Who is your favorite visual artist?

My daughter.  :o)

What are your some of your favorite movies?

Mostly funny, but with heart, like The Princess Bride, The Full Monty, Galaxy Quest, classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, documentaries like Lost Boys of Sudan or small indies such as The Dish, The Station Agent, and Waking Ned Devine.

What are some of your favorite places in the world?

Scotland, Italy, Guam, Maritime Canada, Boyds Mills, PA, the woods near my house, my desk when the house is quiet and I can write.

Kathryn Erskine spent many years as a lawyer before realizing that she’d rather write things that people might actually enjoy reading.  She grew up mostly overseas and attended eight different schools, her favorite being the Hogwarts-type castle in Scotland.  The faculty, of course, did not consist of wizards, although . . . how did the headmistress know that it was “the wee redhead” who led the campaign to free the mice from the biology lab?  Erskine draws on her life stories to write her novels including Quaking, an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, Mockingbird, 2010 National Book Award winner, The Absolute Value of Mike, a Junior Library Guild selection, and the upcoming Facing Freedom (Fall 2013).


“Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare To Dream”: A Q &A with Dare Dream Do’s Whitney Johnson

A few months ago, I was sent a book by an amazing woman named Amy Jameson, who used to work with my mother and now has her own agency and editorial consulting firm.  A good friend of hers had published a book Amy thought I would love, and so on a chance, she sent it to me.  Dare, Dream, Do is my kind of book: filled with inspiring and poignant stories of real women facing real challenges and pursuing real dreams, uplifting and encouraging quotations (you know I ate those up!), and practical, detailed, compassionate advice about how to be effective and tenacious in realizing our dreams.   I was thrilled when Whitney agreed to answer questions I posed to her about the nature of dreams and how best to achieve them, work/life balance, challenge and resilience, her own strategies for maintaining optimism, and what people, books, and quotations inspire her.

Whitney Johnson is the president and co-founder of Clayton Christensen’s investment firm Rose Park Advisors, and author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream (Bibliomotion, 2012).  A former Institutional Investor-ranked sell-side analyst on Wall Street, Whitney is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, was recognized as a top ten blogger by Marcus Buckingham, and is one of Inc Magazine’s 12 People to Follow on Twitter in 2012.  She also serves as a senior advisor to the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards, and is the mother of two children.

Dare, Dream, Do provides a three-step model for personal advancement and happiness.  Whitney first encourages us to DARE: to boldly step out, to consider disrupting life as we know it. Then she teaches us how to DREAM, to give life to the many possibilities available, whether to start a business, run a marathon, or travel the world. She shows us how to “date” our dreams (no need to commit!) and how to make space for dreams. Finally, Whitney’s model brings out the businesswoman in her; she teaches us to DO, to execute our dreams. She showcases the importance of sharing dreams with others to give them life, creating your own “dream team.” Rich with real stories of women who have dared to dream, DARE, DREAM, DO offers a practical framework for making remarkable things happen.


1) Tell us how you came to write your book, Dare, Dream, Do, and what you hope to accomplish with it.

When I took a sabbatical from Wall Street in 2005, I was brimming with confidence at having risen from secretary to award-winning stock analyst.  Having discovered my dream could come true, I began to ask others, particularly women, about their own dreams.  While many of these well-educated, eminently capable women confessed to not really having a dream, often there was an unspoken, “I’m not sure it is my privilege to dream.”  Concerned, but mostly saddened, I knew I had to do something.  To build the case that dreaming is an inalienable right.  I began my Dare to Dream blog in 2006, which eventually became the inspiration for Dare, Dream, Do.

2) What are the greatest obstacles or roadblocks to doing what we dream?  How can we overcome them?

Whether you are plagued by perfectionism, or riddled by self-doubt, there are a number of derring-do hacks.  First, persuade yourself you have the right to dream.  Second, throw out conventional planning because dreaming is discovery-driven. Third, go ahead and date some dreams, lots of them – you don’t need to commit to every dream you date. Dare to disrupt yourself.  Dream your very own dream. Do.

3) What would you say to someone who insists he or she just doesn’t have the time or luxury to dream, let alone dare, or someone who claims dreaming is for impractical and self-indulgent romantics?

When we dream, we make meaning of our life, discover the essence of ourselves, truly grow up, and most importantly model for our children how to dream.  As we focus on our ‘to-be’ list, rather than our ‘to-do’ list, research indicates we’ll actually get more accomplished.  Dreaming then, is anything but a luxury or a lark for the romantic (though it is that too), but rather a productivity-maximizing tool for the pragmatist.

4) What personal dreams have you not yet realized?  are there some dreams better left unrealized?

The right dreams expand our hearts, binding us to those we love. They also enlighten our minds, as in ideas begin to flow.  If it feels right in both our heart and our head, the dream becomes delicious.  I love that word delicious:  delicious pineapple, strawberries, cherries, apricots. Delicious dreams.

As for my still to be realized dreams, I have the once-in-a-lifetime privilege of working with one of the world’s most innovative thinkers, Clayton Christensen:  he knows — and has encouraged me in my dream to one day have my own venture capital (VC) firm.  I also dream of producing a documentary.

5) What do you rely on in your daily life to help you stay focused and centered, to help you do what you dream of doing?  for example, meditation, a spiritual practice, special diet, support groups, etc?

We believe within the context of our deeply held beliefs:  I’m reminded of those beliefs when I pray either alone or with my family, read scriptures, go to church on Sunday, journal, walk/run outdoors alone or with friends.

6) Tell us about attending to multiple dreams, or multi-tasking.   How can we achieve a more sane and fulfilling work-life balance?  How can we pursue our individual dreams and still make time for our crucial relationships?

According to Jungian psychology, our psyche is made up both masculine (power) and feminine (capacity for love) components.  In order to dream, we need to develop both sides of the psyche, to handle power and to love, to learn to be a ship and a harbor.  To “have it all”.  The question, to me, is less about whether we can have it all, but rather what our definition of ‘all’ is.  If it is vital to be both ship and a harbor, it means we have to make choices. For women, the choices we face may feel Solomonic; we simultaneously feel the tug of our ship full of dreams while trying to keep one foot grounded on the dock of family life. But a choice we have to make, trusting that we’ll know which are the right dreams for us.   And only us.

7) How would you define resilience?  What do you think are some good strategies for becoming more resilient in the face of life’s inevitable challenges, difficulties, and hurdles?

When plagued by fear and perfectionism, resilience =  “never, never, never, never giving up” to paraphrase Winston Churchill.   It means when you come to a challenge, rather than sidestepping, you make meaning of that challenge, asking, what am I supposed to learn so that I can do what I’m supposed to do next.  Resilience is behaving as if the biggest lesson we can teach the next generation is to let them see us our mistakes, and gradually shorten our recovery time, such that every time we fail, we fail forward.

8) Who inspires you? (this can include public figures, writers, and people in your personal life)

In the public sphere, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Barbara Corcoran, Brene Brown, Gretchen Rubin, Joanne Wilson.  In my private life, I have a core group of girlfriends whom I adore, and with whom I find respite, and of course my husband, and my two children – they are my harborhaven advisors.

9) What are your favorite books and authors?

I started to think about my favorite books, but then I realized that if I start wracking my brain, for anything other than top-of-mind, then the book is probably not my favorite.  So here goes: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Enders’ Game by Orson Scott Card, The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, Personal History by Katharine Graham, and of course the myth of Psyche.

10) What quotation would you use to summarize you and/or your positive, inspiring outlook on life?

“You can bet your life, and that, and twice its double, God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed.” These lyrics from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, encapsulate what I believe about your life and mine.  Each of us is exactly where we are supposed to be.  So we can learn what we need to learn, accomplish what we are meant to accomplish, help who we are supposed to help.  Where we are, who we are, and what we do matters.


A Q &A with Sean Meshorer, spiritual teacher and author of The Bliss Experiment


One of the last projects I sold when I was working as a literary agent was a fantastic book called The Bliss Experiment by Sean Meshorer.   The book has just been published by Atria, and I’m delighted to share with you a Q &A I did with Sean via email recently.




28 Days to Personal Transformation


Sean Meshorer


A cross between The Power of Now and The Happiness Project, The Bliss Experiment reveals how to tap into the innate state of joy that resides in all of us: bliss.


We have a higher standard of living and more ways to fulfill every desire than ever. Yet we remain unhappy because happiness isn’t what we truly want.   What we seek is bliss: a complete spiritual state where happiness, profound meaning, and enduring truth converge. With it come unshakeable joy, interconnectedness, and wisdom. It offers a solution to both personal and societal suffering. The book includes stories, over 300 scientific studies and exercises that have worked, time and again, for people from all walks of life.

Sean Meshorer is a spiritual teacher and New Thought minister based in Los Angeles. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in philosophy and religious studies. He spent fifteen years meditating, studying, practicing, and living in an ashram and spiritual community in Northern California. Sean lives with daily, chronic pain from a serious back injury and finds bliss nonetheless. 


1) Define bliss.  What does it mean to you and why do you see it as such an important goal for all of us?

Bliss is an inward experience of happiness. With it comes a complete feeling of inner peace, contentment, love, connectedness and joy that dwells inside each and every one of  us, no matter our background, religion, age, gender, genetics, or life experience. It exists entirely independent of our external circumstances, including negative ones. Once we discover bliss inside, it’s something that we can confidently know to be a permanent and positive inner resource that’s always with, no matter what’s happening around us.

2) What would you say to people who dismiss the possibility of bliss as fluffy, new-agey, or unrealistic? 

According to a recent study published by the Pew Research Center, almost half of all Americans have had a bliss experience and they come from every religion (and no religion) and background across the spectrum. So it has nothing to do with anything new age, or even unconventional. These kinds of experiences are happening all over the place and in all kinds of people but they’re not always well-understood and there’s a great reluctance to talk about them–and most people don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about it. And the 50% of people who haven’t had a bliss experience probably haven’t just because no one has ever told them they have that potential or how to realize it. Once you know, it’s not that hard to have at least a glimpse of taste of it. And even a moment of bliss can completely transform your life.

3) I’m a big fan of Gretchen Rubin and her Happiness Project, as are many of my readers and followers.  What is the relationship between happiness and bliss? 

Happiness is an important way-station on the way to bliss but by itself it’s incomplete. Happiness is based on external circumstances–whether lower-order pleasures or higher-order positive relationships–that is itself fleeting. Happiness ebbs and flows. For example, we might go out for a night of drinking with friends and a loved one and it’s all highly enjoyable but what happens the next morning? The hangover comes. Even the most optimistic positive psychologist will readily tell you that it’s impossible to be happy all of the time. Bliss is different: once we know it’s there and learn to access it, it can always be with us, no matter our external circumstances–even when bad things like unemployment, illness, or relationship problems are happening in our lives.

4) What are the greatest obstacles or roadblocks to experiencing bliss?  

There are three major obstacles. The biggest obstacle is not knowing that we have the potential to experience it. Awareness is truly half the battle. Second, we have to learn to stop looking for authentic joy outside of ourselves–especially in wealth, material objects, sex, romance, beauty, fame, or power. These outward things distract us from looking inward, which is the only place that genuine bliss dwells. Finally, we have to learn how to control and quiet our own minds, especially the myriad negative thoughts, feelings, and images that so many of us experience on a daily basis. These are like cloudy ripples on the surface of our mind, creating mental disturbances that prevent us from having the peace and clarity necessary for noticing the quiet reservoir of bliss that lurks beneath the surface of our agitated minds.

5) Is it possible to attain bliss if one is facing a major challenge like divorce, job loss, a cancer diagnosis, a child’s learning or developmental disorder, or a chronic health condition?  How have you achieved bliss despite your own struggles, losses, suffering, and challenges? 

Absolutely. In fact, not only is it possible but ultimately when life is going poorly, it’s the single best and most effective resource we can have to help ourselves rise above whatever outer challenges we’re facing. No one–and I mean no one–has a perfectly turbulent-free life. None of us can fully control our circumstances–some, yes, but never fully–but what we can learn to control is our internal response to difficult circumstances.

6) Give my readers 5 concrete strategies they can use to bring more bliss to their daily lives.

1. Don’t look for fulfillment in things like money, material objects, fame, beauty, sex, or power. It’s not that those things are bad, it’s that they’re neutral. Empty vessels. The only thing that gives them meaning is the inward meaning that we bring to them. The faster we understand that, the faster we can turn our attention inward.

2. Learn how to release the past, forgive others, and stop ruminating about the bad things that have happened to you. The more you dwell on that, the more miserable you make yourself.

3. Practice being aware of this present moment. Right now. Don’t live in the past or the future. The present moment is all there really is, it’s where everything happens, and it’s the doorway to bliss. If we pull ourselves too far out of this moment, not only do we stress ourselves out, we miss the positive opportunities in front of us.

4. Learn how to harness and control your mind. For most of us, our minds are seriously out of control. We have up to 50,000 thoughts per day and even someone who is just average and not severely depressed, at least half of those are needlessly negative. That’s a lot of negativity that courses through us all day, every day. If we can be aware of that and then learn how to reduce those needlessly negative thoughts, we can realize very fast gains in our happiness.

5. Practice giving something positive back into the world. Be nice to people, give them a smile, act selflessly whenever possible, practice compassion towards others. Happiness and unhappiness are highly contagious–we pass emotions back and forth in as little as a second–so be aware that what your’e doing and how you’re behaving is actually affecting others and quite literally changing the world. Studies show that the emotions we transmit directly to someone then end up transmitted by that person to complete strangers who didn’t come into contact with us. So if you want the world to be a better place, realize that it has to start with you.

7) As someone who’s kept a quote book since 7th grade and shares inspiring and motivating quotations daily on Facebook and Twitter, I especially liked the section of your book on the positive practice of affirmations.  At one point, you say “while often seen as excessively self-helpy, affirmations are anything but New Age . . . [but rather] are based on the neural operations inside our brain.”  Can you explain how and why you’ve overcome your distaste for affirmations and come to see them as crucially important to cultivating resilience, achieving success at work and in our relationships, and attaining bliss? 

I’m the first to admit that affirmations can sound embarrassingly new age. That’s certainly what I thought until I stumbled across more than a dozen scientific studies that prove they work, including one that showed inner-city, African-American schoolchildren could almost entirely close the test score gap with their white, middle-class peers solely by affirming their abilities and self-worth. There’s something scientists call Hebbian Theory which basically means, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” If we repeat affirmations in a certain way with repetition, it actually helps create new neural pathways in our brains that in turn give us the brain resources necessary to make whatever we’re affirming a reality, whether that’s workplace success, relationship improvement, or spiritual realization. That’s the key: most of the deepest and hardest personality changes also require our brain grooves to change–and it turns out that affirmations are one of the most effective techniques to enable this.

How would you apply the principles, attitudes, and actions of your work on bliss to the act of parenting?  

No one needs the inner experience of bliss more than parents! The more chaotic, stressful–and exhausting–our outward life, the more crucial it is that we cultivate the inner resources to deal with that. It’s really not the difficult or time consuming to practice some of the bliss techniques.As a parent, you might only have a few minutes here and there, bliss practices can help us go on an instant vacation, revitalizing and centering ourselves very quickly. Most importantly, bliss helps us stay centered in the moment, helping us rein in our fears, anxieties, and negative emotions. We can actually come to enjoy and appreciate our family time much more–plus feel confident that we have the inner resources to deal with whatever challenges our children throw our way!

9) How would you define the word resilience?  What is the relationship between resilience and bliss? 

In one sense, resilience is a sub-aspect of bliss. To be blissful is to be perfectly resilient, among other things. In another sense, bliss supersedes the need for resilience which implies that we’ve been knocked around but found a way to rebound. When we learn how to access and feel our full inner resources, we often don’t get shaken to begin with. As my own teacher said, “We learn to stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds.” But of course, that’s not always the case. Often, we are thrown for a loop by life circumstances but ultimately the only thing we can truly control is our own response to whatever is happening outside us. Bliss and its attendant practices give us the techniques and resources needed to bounce back from whatever negative is going on–and often very quickly.

10) Why do you think I chose to represent your book?  What values and aspirations do we share?  What similarities do you see between my experience and yours, my approach to life and yours?  Why will readers of The Anti-Romantic Child or followers of my Facebook page like your book? 

Priscilla, you are one of the most hopeful, joyful, and positively infectious people I know! You instinctively try to find the good in a situation which is one of the foundational mindsets necessary for finding bliss. Like many of us, you’ve also suffered greatly in your personal life but instead of it destroying you, you’ve found ways to learn and grow from it–and then share that with others. These are all aspects of the bliss process. I think, too, we have a shared background–private schools, high academic achievement combined with a certain kind of intellectual training and approach, and even similar types of families in which we’re raised. You get where I’m coming from and where I’m trying to go. In The Anti-Romantic Child there’s this kind of intersection between intellectual understanding and practical experience, that attempt to actually apply your love of poetry, Wordsworth, and the feelings and ideas represented by that to your daily life–and all woven into a compelling personal story. You merge together two worlds that often seem, or can be, separate. You insist on exploring how Wordsworth really does apply to the experiences and lessons of daily life. The Bliss Experiment shares this sensibility. I needed to merge together my intellectual background and rigorous scientific studies with my own practical experiences in these past 15 years, while telling not only my own story but those of dozens of interesting people that I met along the way.


“Blooming Where We’re Planted”: Resilience, Tenacity, and Community

A few months ago, I shared these photos on my Facebook page and tonight, with my mother in the intensive care unit after emergency surgery, they have even more uplifting and reassuring resonances for me.



I took this photo because the image of tiny, delicate, yellow flowers poking out around the edges of and in between large, solid, grey stones evoked for me the potential for hope and resilience in all of us when faced with obstacles, hurdles, challenges.  There is light . . .

Many on my Facebook page looked at the photo and wrote “weed!”, but others pointed out that dandelions are edible and medicinal too!  They are also quintessentially resilient.  One woman wrote: “I aspire to be a dandelion. If I can ever reach that level of tenacity for life, sunshine, air . . . Inspiring and true. The brilliance of what is commonly thought of as a weed . . .  that has found a way to overcome all odds and bloom where it is planted.  That’s beautiful. No matter what kind of weed you may have been born.”

This is a photo of a lovely little tulip garden in the middle of New York City:



I find this profusion of blooms planted by good citizens in the service of bringing beauty, freshness, color to a grey urban block a lovely example of a concerted and sustained effort to uplift others.  The world would be a richer place if we could all aspire to plant and grow and nourish tulips, both literal and figurative, for each other during difficult times.

Thanks to the many incredible doctors and nurses who are caring for my mother tonight . . .

Moving Through Challenge To “A Place of Peace and Resilience”


The original flap copy for THE ANTI-ROMANTIC CHILD described it as follows:

“Using Wordsworth’s poetry as a touchstone, Gilman speaks intimately of her poignant journey through crisis and disenchantment to a place of peace and resilience and shows how events and situations often perceived as setbacks can actually enrich us.”

In the past few months, many beloved people in my life have faced crisis and disenchantment, setbacks and challenges.  Friends and family members have been confronted with a cancer diagnosis, a father’s death, the loss of a dear friend and colleague, the news that cancer has spread, the break-up of a marriage, a serious illness, the loss of a job.   During this same time period, at bookstores, schools, and events, I’ve spoken to many parents who are in the first stretch of coming to terms with a child’s diagnosis of autism, ADHD, Down’s Syndrome, or other developmental/learning challenges.   When helping my friends and family members to cope with loss, sadness, and fear, when advising and offering compassion to parents terrified and disoriented by their child’s diagnosis or challenges,  I am often asked: how did I get to the place described above, “a place of peace and resilience,”  and come to view setbacks and difficulty as potentially enriching?

The first thing I say is that the “poignant journey” described above was not an easy or quick one, and it is one that I am still taking every single day!  By posting encouraging, uplifting, and hopeful quotations via Facebook and Twitter, I am both sharing the lessons I’ve learned from challenge and actively nurturing my own resilience in the face of the difficulties life continues to present me and my loved ones with.   We are all in this together, and a community effort of compassion and mutual support is one of the key elements in resilience.

Some synonyms of resilient: flexible, airy, buoyant, effervescent, elastic, expansive, hardy, irrepressible, pliable, quick to recover, rebounding, rolling with punches, snapping back, springy, strong, supple, tough, able to float and fly.   What makes us resilient and how can we all develop a greater resilience in the face of life’s daily stresses, inevitable challenges, and serious crises?  How can we remain optimistic in the face of apparently devastating news or deeply trying circumstances without succumbing to a Pollyannish blind faith or simple unconsidered denial?  How can we be both realistic and optimistic?  These are large questions that I’ll be exploring over the next few months on this blog, in interviews with inspiring people, via photographs and poems, and in my own musings and reflections.

On April 20th, I was privileged to appear on a panel called “Writing and The Art of Resilience” at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival.  Organized by Gail Straub, a brilliant advocate, spiritual teacher, and writer, I appeared alongside luminous Wellness Warrior Kris Carr (diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at the age of 31 and alive and thriving nine years later), priest and author of the wonderful spiritual self-help book Moving Through Fear Jeff Golliher, super (and super nice) literary agent Ned Leavitt, who’s represented numerous authors interested in helping us nourish resilience from Caroline Myss to Christiane Northrup, and editor Nan Satter, who’s worked on a wide range of projects about wellness, spiritual tenacity, and finding hope in difficult circumstances.  The discussion was  a thrilling tapestry of insight, inspiration, and wise counsel;  I hope to have a video to share at some point soon.  In the meantime, here’s a link to a piece about the Festival, with a photo of our amazing panel:


At many of the talks I give, I recite this line from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”   As I linger over the words, I can see the faces of my listeners relax and surrender to the incantatory beauty of Morrison’s prose and the deep wisdom of her idea.    I look forward to surrendering to and riding the air as we explore what it takes to face scary situations with relative serenity and find enrichment in challenge.

In Loving Memory of My Father, Richard Gilman, 1923-2006 (from The Anti-Romantic Child)


My dreams of romantic childhood were primarily formed, inspired, and fostered by my father.  Almost 50 when I was born, with a failed conversion from Judaism to Catholicism and a failed first marriage behind him, and with a strained relationship to his son from that first marriage, I think he saw in this second marriage and especially in his second chance at fatherhood an opportunity for redemption, for finding that place of transcendence and bliss, uncomplicated and pure happiness, that had proved so elusive.  And he committed himself to fatherhood with fervor and joy.

My very first memory is a kind of Wordsworthian scene, but one in which my father, the nominal adult, helped me, the young child, to see as a child ideally should.   It was a summer night in Spain, I was a little over three, and an especially dramatic thunderstorm woke me, terrified, in the middle of the night. The memory begins with my father’s voice in my ear and the two of us gazing out into the night.  Framed by the large window, the scene before us was like a little theatre: the familiar garden strangely unfamiliar, the sky an indigo blue lit periodically by silvery flashes.  Narrating the scene, my father sounded like a madcap sportscaster: “there’s a big lightning!  there’s a little one .  . . oh a big one again!” he exclaimed as he held me firmly with one hand and gesticulated skyward with the other.   I remember something disorienting becoming something glorious.   I remember feeling so safe not because he protected me from fear but because he helped me to confront it.  He didn’t tuck me back into bed; he took me to the window.   I remembered asking him: “when is the thunder going to come again, Daddy?” and him telling me “I don’t know, Sidda (my family nickname), but that’s part of the excitement, isn’t it?”  My father reassured me that it was all right not to know, to remain in a state of awe and mystery.  He gave what could have been a nightmare “the glory and the freshness of a dream.”

That same enthusiasm, energy, zaniness, and plunging into life he exhibited on the night of the storm in Spain informed his larger approach to parenting.  My father was dedicated to giving me and my younger sister Claire a childhood characterized by transformations of the common into the extraordinary, freshness of perception, spiritual intensity, and ardent dreaminess.  He participated fully in our imaginative life and shared our passions.  He looked forward to watching Sesame Street as much if not more than we did, and could have read to us from The Wizard of Oz series into the late hours of the night if my mother had allowed it.  He not only respected, he also almost seemed to share our belief that our Paddington Bears were not just well-loved stuffed animals but living, breathing members of our family; he asked them questions (which Claire and I answered in squeaky little boy voices), brought our baby clothes out of storage and gave us his old glasses and ties for us to dress them in, and offered them bites of his toast or sips of his juice.  He immersed himself in the world of our imaginary friends Tommy and Harry Tealock- “what did Tommy Tealock do at school today?” he’d ask, and once at the beach he cried: “there goes Harry Tealock!” while gesturing to no one in particular across the waves.  When I began to devour Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books after he introduced me to them, he and I would compare notes on which plots were the twistiest, which titles were the spookiest (What Happened at Midnight and While the Clock Ticked) and which denouements the most satisfying.  He’d drive us to the library every weekend and help us pick books, read them to us over and over again, and engage in animated discussions about them with us.  He’d plan expeditions to a dollhouse store and share our rapture at the tiny Life magazines and miniature Coke bottles.  As the Reverend Gilman, he officiated at the numerous weddings of our stuffed penguins and bears to our Mme Alexander dolls (humorous because Protestant is the one denomination he never was).  As Director Gilman he visited the auditions Claire and I held for all-stuffed animal/doll productions of West Side Story and Oklahoma; he’d assess the vocal talent of Kanga and agreed that Horsie was perfect for the role of Judd Fry.  And as Maestro Ricardo Gilman, he conceived, directed, and served as ringmaster of a circus my sister, our dear friend Sebastian, and I put on in Sienna, Italy the summer I was seven.  Our best “trick” was the “clown car;” in a snaking rotation, we would all cycle through the back seat of our tiny Italian car and on the last go-round my father, who had lain unseen on the back floor the entire time with me, Claire, and Sebastian scampering over him, would rise from the floor and emerge, grinning triumphantly, from the impossibly small space.

My sister once aptly described what fatherhood meant to Daddy:

Fatherhood spoke to the core of who Daddy was as a person.  It resonated with his basic faith in creativity.  His love for the life of the mind.  His deep imagination. And his quest for spiritual enlightenment and beauty.  My father BELIEVED in childhood. And he infected my sister and me with this belief, leading us to develop the rich, imaginative life that we had as children . . . My father understood that imaginative creations were not secondary to real life but fundamental to a rich and fulfilling existence. Throughout his life, my father sought something higher, something beyond the dross of the everyday . . .  My brother, sister, and I provided him with that. We were more than just his children. We represented all that was good in the world.

My father’s magical combination of solidity and ebullience, fierce protectiveness and playful charm, made him both the most exciting and the most reassuring parent imaginable.   He was known in our family as the Great Finder, who could elevate a mundane search for a lost bus-pass or library book into a thrilling hunt complete with clues, retracing steps, and suspects, with my father in the role of the wise, witty, and unflappable Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, or Perry Mason (all great heroes of his).  On a nursery school outing to the Bronx Zoo, my father scooped up a young rapscallion who’d been bothering me, held him above his head, and said with a mischievous grin:   “I think it’s feeding time, and if you don’t stop pestering my daughter, it’s into the lion’s den for you!” But as anyone who knew my father well would attest, he was a person who himself needed a good deal of reassurance; he was an extraordinarily sensitive and vulnerable man.   Perhaps it was for that very reason that he knew especially well how to recognize and honor vulnerability in others, and that children and animals universally adored him.

Retaining that childlike intensity of feeling and capacity for wonder, that acute sensitivity as it blended into vulnerability, however, had attendant with it certain risks- for my father and for the daughters who learned to love as he did: with the entirety of our beings.   When you love like that, you can get your heart broken, even by a football team. My father frequently told the story of how, the day after he and I sat through a devastating Giants loss, I saw a photo in the New York Times of the linebacker Harry Carson sitting in dejection on the bench, and wrote him a consoling letter.  “You mustn’t be sad.  You’re a great player and a wonderful man,” I wrote.  “We’ll all be happy again. I love you. Priscilla Gilman, age 9.”  Just one year after I sent the letter to Harry Carson, I found myself uttering much the same words to my father as he was faced with the devastating loss of our family in the wake of my mother’s decision to end their marriage . . .

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,

Though nothing can bring back the hour,

Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower,

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind.

“Intimations Ode”


(from The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy, pp. 5-9)

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