JAMIE: I think you started with us in 2012, not long after initiating your blog, scillagrace. Your life at that time was very much in transition and you had quite specific goals for yourself and your blog. Where do you find yourself after the passage of almost four years?
PRISCILLA: My blog began as a sort of online journal of self-discovery. I had been widowed in 2008 and began a new relationship within the year. By 2011, my four children had moved out of the suburban home I’d kept for 19 years, and I moved in with Steve. I took more than a year off from any kind of employment as I worked through my grief in writing, reading, walking and talking with Steve. My goal in this transition was to learn to live gracefully, to face and accept life as it is. Now, four years later, I find myself still practicing that way of life, but with far fewer tears and fears. I feel more compassion, understanding and respect for myself and more eagerness to engage with the broader world.
JAMIE:You write the most remarkable essays, always well-considered. Logical! Always perfectly edited. What in life – education, teachers, friends, inclination – prepared you for this? I know you don’t do it for a living at this time, but writing certainly appears to be a natural endeavor for you, a kind of home-place.
PRISCILLA: I have to say that my writing style was probably most influenced by my parents. My father was a Harvard man of science, math, and letters and became an educational project director for SRA (a subsidiary of IBM before McGraw/Hill bought it out) and a technical writer for IBM. He helped develop national standardized tests for high school students and volunteered as a computer tutor later on. He was on a minor mission to teach young people how to think and write clearly. My mother was a Radcliffe English major and the volunteer editor of church newsletters and such. They probably had a critical hand in everything I wrote for school. When I was 15, I fell in love with the man who became my husband, and suddenly, I wrote poems and love letters in alarming abundance…and didn’t show them to my parents. I am still far more confident in prose and essay than in poetry and fiction, but learning to value my emotions and communicate them with greater facility and expression has become increasingly important to me. I am a sort of “recovering perfectionist” who is learning to love her feelings.
JAMIE: Since we are concerned in this issue with parents and parenting: I know that your parents – especially your mom – were quite accomplished. How did they encourage your moral and intellectual grown? How did you in turn foster good qualities in your children?
PRISCILLA: Moral and intellectual growth can be encouraged from the top down and from the bottom up. I have learned, however, that the “top down” style can lead to resentment and rebellion in spirited children! I was a compliant kind of kid, eager to please my parents because I was afraid of them to some degree. They espoused some rigorous moral and intellectual standards, and I did my best to meet them. As this was my model, I attempted to repeat it in the next generation. I discovered that neither my 3 daughters nor my son was interested in being that compliant, especially as teenagers! So, I have modified my approach. My mother is my enduring inspiration for “bottom up” encouragement and growth. She lives her values – positively, joyously, and with diminishing criticism and anxiety as she ages. This is much easier once your children aren’t living with you, though. I find that celebrating how we are maturing as equals is a lot more rewarding than policing behavior! Their good qualities continue to emerge and develop, as do most people’s, and my estimation of a “good quality” also is evolving. I had pride in the fact that they were quite accomplished as children, but now I know that they were not at ease with themselves and they developed some serious anxieties. My hope now is not that they will be “successful” in conventional ways. I hope that they will be happy, at peace, and continually growing in awareness and responsibility.
JAMIE: Over the past few years, you’ve been to several wilderness events and you are a great supporter of wilderness protections. What is/are you major concern/s and what are you doing to address your concern/s?
PRISCILLA: My major concerns for the health of the planet and its inhabitants revolve around the attitudes of human beings. We are way too arrogant and detached from the rest of the tree of Life, in my opinion. We have a penchant for “doing things” in the world instead of granting autonomy to other creatures and natural systems. We impose our will without compassion or understanding far too often. And this is especially dangerous because there are more of us than ever, demanding more resources for our growing technology. Our domination is reaching critical proportions; I don’t believe it can be absorbed much longer. This is why I think it’s of paramount importance that we preserve and protect wild land, places where we are not dominant, where we are merely visitors, places that can teach us humility.
What am I doing to address this? Trying to live an ethic of humility and harmony with the rest of the world and communicate that at every opportunity. So far this includes visiting wilderness areas, working for a conservation foundation, making political choices that support the environmental movement and becoming more mindful of habit and practice – like what I eat, what I buy and what I throw away. Steve and I are also operating a used book store online that is his only source of income, so we are in the salvage and recycling business. Steve is also researching a book on wilderness management philosophy and operation and developing his own blog, http://www.forthelastwolverine.com. This is sort of the way we are “parenting” together: modeling our values and putting our energy and resources into projects that can effect the future. But we may be poised at the brink of some radical changes in how the planet responds to our footprints, and we need to be ready to act differently!
JAMIE: You’ve had to deal with a lot of grief: the premature death of your relatively young husband and the tragically early death of your sister in a car accident. What have you learned about dealing with grief?
PRISCILLA: I am learning about suffering from the Buddhist perspective now. It’s a vastly different vantage point than the Western one. When my sister and I were in that car accident, I was not yet 17. Grief was something I wanted to “fix”. I wanted a remedy as quickly as possible. I was raised in a devoutly Christian family, and I plunged myself deeper into that doctrine. It was about having an answer, undoing the spell, reversing the consequences. My sister was in heaven; her death was somehow made “okay” at the end of the story. By the time I was 45, I’d been studying and teaching that story at higher and higher levels, but I was still afraid of death. My husband died at the age of 47. My life changed overnight, and I was terrified. The Christian story was played out in epic pageantry at his funeral, but I still had fears, anxiety, and suffering that I needed to deal with in real life. When I met Steve, he began to tell me about Buddhist philosophy and consciousness. It looks at grief and suffering head on. There’s no “fix”, no story. It’s part of the fabric of life: painful things happen. There’s no aberration; nothing’s gone horribly wrong. You have experiences, and you think about them, but you can decide how to think about them. It was like a veil lifted then. I had been told all my life what was the “right” thing to think, and it all had to do with that story. And now I realize it is just that, a story I decided to believe. So, I made a new decision to try to think in a different way. I think about suffering and grief as part of being alive. I’m not singled out in it or exempt from it. It just is what it is. A lot of added anxiety has unraveled since I started making conscious decisions about how to think. I have befriended grief and life, in a way. Grief has taught me that I practice attachment and aversion: I loved my husband fiercely and hated the idea of living without him. That kind of thinking caused me a lot of suffering. So now I try to practice appreciation and awareness. I still love my husband and appreciate the time I spent with him, and I know that life is lived in the moment and death is inevitable.