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Tim Madigan

Tim Madigan is a University of North Dakota graduate, a former part-timer in the Grand Forks Herald sports department and a native of Crookston, Minn. After working on a small N.D. newspaper after graduating from UND, he covered the police beat at Odessa, Texas, later writing features for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he became of one the state's most recent decorated journalists (three times named the state's top reporter). He's also written several books including “See No Evil: Blind Devotion and Bloodshed in David Koresh's Holy War", “The Burning, Massacre, Destruction and Tulsa Race Riot in 1921” and “I'm Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — A Great Heart; A Great and Questioning Mind

One day recently, it occurred to me that I had not seen or spoken with my friend, Dick Lord, in more than a year. I found his number and planned to ring him up for a game of golf or another of our long breakfasts at Denny’s, but I heard the news before I could call. Dick had contracted the West Nile virus and was near death. On a hot July morning, hundreds filled University Christian Church in Fort Worth, Texas, to say goodbye.

Dick was 82, but his father was shooting his age in golf well into his 90s, and I assumed that my friend would be doing the same. His loss was a shock to so many, especially the utterly random way his fatal illness came about.

But something powerful keeps intruding on the sorrow I feel for Dick’s loss. That is gratitude. I had a chance to luxuriate in the grace of a great heart and a great and questioning mind, contained in one extraordinary human being.

Dick and Janice Lord.
Dick and Janice Lord.

Dick was founder and longtime pastor at Rush Creek Christian Church in Arlington, Texas, a congregation just down the street from the home where we lived for many years. It was a uniquely welcoming and progressive place. One example was the importance Dick and his wife, Janice, a nationally known victim’s rights advocate, placed on building relationships with Jewish and Muslim faith communities in Arlington.

When we joined the church in the early 1990s, Rush Creek became a sanctuary of love and support for my wife and I at a time when both of us needed it. From my book, “I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers,” some of you will recall the story of my young son’s singing performance at a Christmas pageant, which put me in touch with years of unshed tears. That was at Rush Creek. Dick was one of those who wept with me that night.

He was a shy man, very humble, but something came over Dick when he preached. Inspired is the only way I could describe it, taking the various strands of Scripture and Christian teaching and weaving them into a message that was always achingly relevant.

But he was more than my pastor. I used to kid Dick that it was very unseemly for a man of the cloth to cheat at golf. Not that he did. I’m sure it was just an accident, all those times he stepped on my ball in the fairway. He loved golf, and loved beating me at golf, without apology.

What I remember most now, however, are all those mornings when we sat across from each other at a booth at Denny’s. As I listened to the stories of his life at Dick’s memorial service, this dawned on me: It is a pretty good bet that we were the only two customers in Denny’s discussing the Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard.

But that’s what Dick and I talked about — what religion and the great thinkers had to say about good and evil, about suffering and redemption and the seeming randomness of it all. He was a person of profound faith, without doubt.

But Dick was never content with the pat answers of dogma. In book after book after book, in conversation after conversation after conversation, he insisted on exploring the mysteries of life, insisted on asking the great questions, knowing there wouldn’t be answers for most of them in this life.

A great heart. A great soul. A great mind.

The funeral was so Dick. The great hymns and blasting organ music, which he loved. A tinkle of a bell, followed by periods of silence. And readings from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Genesis and the Book of Kings, but also Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel; German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident, Detrick Bonhoeffer; the great Catholic writer, Richard Rohr.

That morning, as we said goodbye to Dick, a memory from one morning at Denny’s came back to me. I had stumbled across a quotation from Kierkegaard and shared it with him over eggs and coffee.

“There is no remembrance more blessed, and nothing more blessed to remember, than suffering overcome in solidarity with God,” Kierkegaard once wrote. “This is the mystery of suffering.”

That I should remember that on the day we said goodbye, after the great suffering of my friend, was Dick’s last gift to me.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — A Grieving Son Named Scott And An Unlikely Turning Point

By the mid-1980s, my friend and co-author, Patrick O’Malley, had started to suspect that the stages of grief were a harmful fallacy. But as a grieving father himself, and a therapist who worked with the bereaved, what would take their place?

An excerpt from our new book, “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss.”

The year was 1986. I had grave doubts about the stages of grief but had yet to turn my back on them completely. I had nothing else to fall back on, was groping around for a way to help my grieving clients, and was still trying to come to terms with my own lingering heartache. Scott was a turning point.

At the time, it was a rare guy courageous enough to consult a shrink, and Scott was a strapping, 35-year-old construction worker. He and his father had worked side by side in the family business for eighteen years; that partnership ended the day the older man suffered a fatal heart attack. Six months later, Scott came to see me at his wife’s urging.

When he sat down in my office, he looked like he would rather have a root canal. I’m sure he thought I would light incense and break into a chant.

“Dad would turn over in his grave,” he said. “My wife and pastor said I should come. It wasn’t my idea.” “Why do they think you need to be here?” I said. “My wife says I’m irritable and drinking too much,” he said. “They both say they’re worried about me.”

“Do they have reason to be?” I said.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “But I have been hitting the bottle a little too hard since Dad died. And I’m not very focused at work.”

“I get it,” I said. “But we won’t go forward if you don’t want to, unless you’re open to at least giving this a shot.”

“That’s fair enough, I guess,” he said.

Although I had serious doubts about the stages of grief, I thought there was a chance Scott might be able to relate to them, like a blueprint on a construction site. “People tend to go through stages when they’ve had a loss,” I said, listing them. “You might be dealing with some anger and depression. That’s pretty normal. We could try to figure out where you are with that.”

Scott didn’t bite.

“Sounds like mumbo jumbo,” he said.

“Come to think of it, maybe it is,” I said.

“So now what?”

“You said your dad would turn over in his grave,” I said. “Why is that?”

“He was one tough fella,” he said. “You should have known him.”

For the next 45 minutes, he spoke nonstop.

“He came from hard times. Nobody ever gave him anything,” Scott said. “But from the time he was a kid, he wanted to own a business — and sure enough, he built ours with his own sweat and blood.”

Scott’s dad was his Little League coach. He taught his son how to hunt and fish.

“In high school, I got caught stealing some beer,” Scott said. “My dad let me sit in jail that night. The next morning, he put me out with the guys unloading cement bags from a boxcar. For a month he made me sweep floors and clean the toilets at the office. He never said two words to me the whole time.

“Then one day he comes and says, ‘It’s about time you decide whether you’re going to be a man or a thug.’”

“So you chose,” I said.

“I chose,” he said. “The beer was never mentioned again.”

I was torn as I listened. I felt a little inadequate because I hadn’t persuaded him that the stages might be useful. I was still looking for clues about where Scott was with his grief. I was tempted to interrupt him, to guide him back to his “grief work.” It was my job, after all, to get him less impatient, less angry, and to curtail the alcohol. It occurred to me that Scott was trying to avoid his feelings by telling me his story, but he would not be deterred. I had no real choice but to sit back and let him talk. He was a natural storyteller and seemed to gather momentum as the minutes ticked by.

“I’m sorry,” I said finally. “We’re out of time.”

He seemed disappointed.

“We could finish the next time,” I said. “That is, if you want to come back.”

“I guess I could,” he said.

A week later Scott picked up where he left off. He remembered how after high school, he decided to go work for his dad.

“One day 10 years later, he called me into his office,” Scott said. “I wondered what I had done this time. Instead he said, ‘It’s about time you take your proper place here. From now on, you and I will be co-owners.’ He shook my hand and told me to get back to work. It was the proudest day of my life.”

Scott and his dad had their share of arguments but always resolved them.

“We were always competing,” Scott told me, a wistful smile on his face. “Shooting the deer with the biggest rack. Catching the biggest fish. Betting on football and basketball games. The loser had to buy the first beer the next time we were in the bar. But he never kept track. He always bought the first one.

“And I remember how he was always so patient with customers,” Scott said. “As tough as he was, he had really good people skills. The customer was always right, even though many times they were just plain wrong. He and I would argue about that. I wanted to charge more when people made unreasonable demands or changed their minds about a paint color. My dad reminded me that the next job might come from the last one. ‘A positive recommendation was more important than proving a customer wrong.’”

Then Scott paused, seeming to brace himself for what came next. The telephone call. The emergency room.

“He was gone by the time I got there,” Scott said. “He was laying there with these wires attached to him. His eyes were closed. But that wasn’t my dad. He was up with the sun every day and could outwork 10 men and now . . . nothing. I felt the room start to spin, but I had to snap out of it because my mother was holding onto my arm and she was a basket case. I had to keep it together for her. I’ve always had to keep it together.”

Finally, Scott couldn’t talk at all because of his weeping. I thought, “There are no theories or diagnoses needed here. Scott is doing exactly what he needs to do.”

Telling his story was his therapy.

While the official publication date is July 1, you can preorder on Amazon here and save more than five dollars on the paperback.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable —The Healing Power Of Music

Leonard Slatkin is one of the world’s most famous conductors, but for the last several weeks, he’s taken on a much different role in the music world, as jury chairman for the Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Leonard Slatkin
Leonard Slatkin

Part of his duties have been to announce which of the 30 pianists would advance from each round and which young musicians would not. Late on Monday afternoon, I sat down with the maestro at Bass Hall for a wide-ranging interview, parts of which will appear in the Star-Telegram on Saturday. But it’s the last thing we discussed that I wanted to share here.

In a few hours, Slatkin said, he would announce the Cliburn’s six finalists.

“I thought about what I was going to say tonight when we announce these awards,” he said. “I never know in advance what I’m going to say but I kind of frame it out. Again, I’m trying to talk to the contestants. It will probably be something about taking us all out of the crap that is going on in the world.

“It’s not a political thing,” he said. “What was it Saturday, when we finished here about this time? We went to the hotel. I thought I was going to go to dinner and turned on the TV and there’s London. Yesterday, same thing. I go back and it’s Portland, Oregon. And then it’s Orlando.

“This society of hate and violence. But what happens. You come here (to Bass Hall and the competition.) And whether you advance or not, the pianists have brought people to a place in the world where we’d all like to be. And that, to me, is the importance of music in today’s society. It’s why we all need to advocate more for the culture. Culture is going to be one of the things that is going to help ease the tensions in the world.

Leonard Slatkin, conducting in the 2013 Cliburn finals.
Leonard Slatkin, conducting in the 2013 Cliburn finals.

“Everybody does it in a different way. But with all the arts, everybody gravitates to something. Last year when I went to Istanbul, I heard the call to prayer, and it’s sung. It’s about music. And look at the event in Manchester yesterday. All those people came to get over their grief through what? Through music. So it has this ability to do that.

“This hall the last couple of weeks, it becomes a safe haven. It’s a place where we preserve what is great. We don’t destroy it. If any pianist can get that message through, they’ve accomplished even more than winning this.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Therapist Grieves

As I’ve written here before, I think my collaboration with therapist Patrick O’Malley on his new book is as important as any work I’ve done in a 40-year career. It is our belief and fervent hope that the book, “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss,” will bring comfort to untold numbers of bereaved people, those whose pain is too often compounded by unreasonable expectations of society and —  often unwitting —  insensitivity. Patrick learned of this through his own tragic experience.

Here is the introduction to “Getting Grief Right.” 

WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?

When Mary first sat down in my office, six months after losing her daughter to sudden infant death syndrome, she had already hired and fired two other therapists. The bereaved mother was clearly trying to get her grief right.

A successful businesswoman in her 30s, she was unaccustomed to the weight of sorrow; she was an “up” person who could cheerfully handle almost anything that came her way. Mary was proud of that persona and worked hard to maintain it, even in the face of such a wrenching tragedy. Within a few days of her daughter’s death, Mary was back at work, seeming to function largely as before. She was gracious when co-workers offered condolences but quickly insisted on turning conversations back to the task at hand. She said she was “doing fine.” Indeed, she seemed to have “moved on,” so convincing was the mask that she put on for the world each day.

The truth was another matter, as became increasingly undeniable to her and those around her. The effort to maintain the positive veneer sapped more and more of her energy. She started making uncharacteristic mistakes at work and found herself being short and overly critical with her employees.

“I really need to get back to my old self,” she told me the day in the late 1990s when we met. “You would think I would be at least a little closer to that by now. I’m totally exhausted. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. I hope you can help me.”

Mary was by then fully acquainted with the five stages of grief — that famous gospel of mourning based on psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.” Like the typical grieving person (then and now), Mary expected that the pain of loss would proceed through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. The gospel also implied that an emotionally healthy person should grieve only so deeply and for only so long. For Mary, six months seemed like a reasonable amount of time.

But what if a person’s mourning doesn’t conform? When her sorrow lingered beyond the accepted norms, Mary felt that she had broken the rules somehow. That was why she and so many other clients had sought me out as a therapist — not only because of their heartbreak, but also because they felt they could not get their grief right.

In our first visit, Mary insisted that she was “stuck” in depression, which, in her mind, was keeping her from achieving acceptance and closure. Her questions were straight out of the Kübler-Ross theory: “Am I in denial? Am I angry enough?” A few years earlier, I would have wondered those things myself and reviewed the stages, as Mary clearly had, looking for the stage where her “grief work” remained incomplete. I also would have zeroed in on her suspected depression. Was there a family history? Had she been depressed before? Were the antidepressants helping? Did she suffer from a chronic mental illness, or was her depression temporary and situational?

But by the time we met, I had begun to approach grief in a much different way. I was a grieving person myself, and understood too well what Mary was going through. In the previous decade, I had traveled a dark road similar to hers: I had mourned the tragic loss of my own baby son. I had been a young therapist who had tried desperately to get my grief “right.” I had felt stuck in my mourning and had asked myself many of the same questions that Mary asked herself. I could relate to the confusion and the nagging sense of inadequacy when my suffering did not conform to the orthodoxy. I knew the exhaustion of pretending. I knew the loneliness and isolation when the support of others began to fade while my pain did not.

It was in the course of that excruciating journey, and thanks largely to the unique privilege of spending thousands of hours with bereaved clients like Mary, that I came upon a new understanding of grief and grievers and learned the life-changing lessons that are the heart of this book.

I began to understand why grief defied categorization, and I saw the fallacy of thinking that grief occurs in a predictable, linear way, one stage after another, until resolution is achieved. I was steadily drawn to another way of understanding and even embracing the experience of mourning — through the narrative of grief. It might sound simplistic, but I discovered that our stories were indeed the pathway to living with loss.

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them,” author Isak Dinesen once said. This book is an invitation for you to do just that. In the pages to come, I will help you both create and more deeply explore your story of grief. To help guide and inspire you, I will share my story and the stories I’ve heard from clients over the years. In fact, as you read, try imagining yourself in Mary’s place, sitting across from me in my office.

In that safe and nonjudgmental space, you will be free not only to tell the story of the one you lost but also to feel whatever previously stifled emotions might arise. You will unearth memories and feelings that you might not have come across otherwise. You will stop analyzing your grief and begin to honor your story of loss and to live it.

Indeed, I want to make clear at the outset that this book offers no promise that grief will end. I understand as well as anyone why we would wish that to be true. Mourning is painful. But it’s unreasonable to think that parents who have lost a child or a person who has lost a loved one to suicide or a spouse who has lost a partner of fifty years won’t grieve, to one extent or another, for the rest of their lives.

The writer Anne Lamott said it beautifully: “If you haven’t already, you will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and you never completely get over the loss of a deeply beloved person. But this is also good news. The person lives forever, in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through, and you learn to dance with the banged-up heart.”

This book and your own narrative of grief will help you learn to dance — that is, to move beyond the cruel but pervasive misconceptions into a larger truth. In the process of remembering, embracing, and sharing your own story, you will be liberated from the expectations of society and your own self-diagnosis and self-criticism about whether you are grieving correctly.

This book will not help you “get over” your grief, but it will help you experience your sorrow in its purest form. Your narrative of grief will help you more deeply understand your relationship to the one you lost and will, in turn, help you understand the pain you feel now. Your narrative of grief might actually allow you to deepen your connection to the deceased.

This courageous exercise of feeling and remembering will help you become a more authentic, wise, and compassionate human being who will be better able to support others who mourn. “Getting Grief Right” is written not only for those who grieve but also for those who seek to better support bereaved people in their lives but who do not yet have the knowledge to do so. To that end, I offer specific guidance that will allow you to go beyond the painful awkwardness and empty clichés and to be with a grieving person in ways that truly make a difference.

Few things could be more important than learning how to live with our sorrow and to support others who are bereaved. One thing is certain: Grief is inevitable and inescapable. If we love, we will also grieve.

Preorder Getting “Grief Right” from Amazon here, and save more than $6 on the paperback.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — A Sacred Night In An Amazing Place

Few things gave Fred Rogers more pleasure than making connections between people. Somewhere on the other side of the thin veil that separates this life from what comes after it, (Fred’s words) he is very happy at the connections I have made at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas.

John McKellar
John McKellar

A few years ago, I heard that the memoir of my friendship with Fred had been mentioned from the pulpit at White’s Chapel, which was no small thing — the church is one of the largest in North Texas. I sent a note of thanks to Dr. John McKellar, the co-pastor, and asked if we could meet someday. John quickly agreed.

I was very curious about John, who in the 1990s had been sent by his denomination to White’s Chapel to essential shut down what was then a failing church. Instead, he turned it into one of our area’s most dynamic forces for good, a source of comfort and inspiration to its members in and around the affluent community of Southlake, and to suffering and impoverished people locally and around the world.

What sort of person could inspire such a transformation? A deeply humble one, it turns out. I sat down with John in his office one day last year for our first meeting, and within five minutes, it was like we had removed our skins and it was just two hearts talking. He was loath to accept any credit for White’s Chapel. Fred would have been in awe.

Todd Renner
Todd Renner

That day was the beginning of a deep friendship, which led to an evening at White’s Chapel a few weeks ago, when John had invited me to tell the story of my friendship with Fred. John couldn’t be there himself because of a recent surgery, but I luxuriated in the kindness and spirit of his co-pastor, Dr. Todd Renner, and longtime church worker Tracy Christensen, who attended to my every need.

Hundreds attended the traditional, Wednesday night, chicken dinner, then made their way into the beautiful sanctuary for my talk, which was live-streamed around the nation. (My mom in St. Paul liked that.) My wife, Catherine, was there, and from the altar, I could celebrate her healing after a very difficult year. Afterward, I was surprised to meet a close relative of Fred, who I look forward to speaking with again soon.

I have many memories from my travels with this story over the years, none more cherished than those from that recent night. I’m delighted to be able to share excerpts in the video below. Hope you enjoy.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — A Coming Comfort To Those Who Grieve

Is there anyone out there who is grieving? Or maybe the better question is this: Is there anyone out there who is not — to some degree, about some loss? That’s why I believe my latest book might be the most impactful of my career.

The title is “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss,” to be published July 1. It has been my great privilege to collaborate with my friend, longtime Fort Worth, Texas, therapist Patrick O’Malley. The book is his gift to the world, his story. I helped him tell it.

It is also fair to say that Fred Rogers and the beloved Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, are spiritual godfathers of “Getting Grief Right.” They come up in the book frequently. Both urged us to embrace our pain, not be ashamed of it. “What is most personal is most universal,” Fred often used to say, quoting Henri. That personal pain is indeed what we have most in common.

But we can emerge from the shadows of our isolation. We need not suffer alone.  We can share our burdens with trusted others. “Getting Grief Right” is another beautiful and informative invitation to do just that.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Patrick O'Malley
Patrick O’Malley

Patrick was the office mate of my first therapist, truth be told. After we met some 30 years ago, he and I discovered a mutual admiration for Fred and Henri. Over long breakfasts and lunches, Patrick and I found a real kinship — could finish each other’s sentences about important things.

At lunch about a decade ago, Patrick first mentioned his idea for a book.

“That day, we wrote down on a napkin, ‘The Myth of Closure,’ as a possible title,” he remembered when we were speaking the other night.

A few years passed. He agreed to read a draft of my first novel and his insights helped me understand my characters much more deeply. He, in turn, asked me to look at an early outline of his grief book, which led to another lunch.

“I remember you said two things,” Patrick recalled. “One, you said this needed to be my story, not just the grief stories of others. And two, you said, ‘You can’t do this without me.’”

It was in his outline that I first learned that Patrick’s notions about grieving were not based on what he learned in graduate school but on his own tragic experience. In 1981, he and his wife lost their first child, an infant son named Ryan. Patrick was understandably devastated, but as a mental health professional, he had expected to mourn efficiently, to march through the stages of grief, achieve closure and move on with his life as before.

The reality of his experience was something altogether different. His grief endured, fit no theory.

“I had mourned the tragic loss of my own baby son,” Patrick would later write in the introduction to “Getting Grief Right.” “I had been a young therapist who had tried desperately to get my grief ‘right.’ I had felt stuck in my mourning and had asked myself many of the same questions that (Patrick’s grieving client) Mary asked herself. I could relate to the confusion and the nagging sense of inadequacy when my suffering did not conform to the orthodoxy. I knew the exhaustion of pretending. I knew the loneliness and isolation when the support of others began to fade while my pain did not.

“It was in the course of that excruciating journey, and thanks largely to the unique privilege of spending thousands of hours with bereaved clients like Mary, that I came upon a new understanding of grief and grievers and learned the life-changing lessons that are the heart of this book.

“I began to understand why grief defied categorization, and I saw the fallacy of thinking that grief occurs in a predictable, linear way, one stage after another, until resolution is achieved. I was steadily drawn to another way of understanding and even embracing the experience of mourning — through the narrative of grief. It might sound simplistic, but I discovered that our stories were indeed the pathway to living with loss. ‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them,’ author Isak Dinesen once said.

“This book is an invitation for you to do just that.”

– – – – – – – – – – –

Patrick and I developed a book proposal and submitted it to about 50 literary agents — with no takers. Traditional publishing is a tough business. Then, one day a few years ago, Patrick brought up a longshot idea. He would submit an essay on grieving to the New York Times, which had been publishing a weekly column on therapy. I helped him polish it, but given our slew of recent rejections, I secretly thought, “Good luck with that.”

He emailed it to the Times on a Wednesday. By Thursday he was told it would appear in Sunday’s paper, on January 10, 2015, beneath the headline, “Getting Grief Right.”

“I was in my second year of practice when (Ryan) died, and I subsequently had many grieving patients referred to me,” Patrick wrote in the Times. “The problem in those early days was that my grief training was not helping either my patients or me. When I was trained, in the late 1970s, the stages of grief were the standard by which a grieving person’s progress was assessed.

“That model is still deeply and rigidly embedded in our cultural consciousness and psychological language. It inspires much self-diagnosis and self-criticism among the aggrieved. This is compounded by the often subtle and well-meaning judgment of the surrounding community. A person is to grieve for only so long and with so much intensity.

“To be sure, some people who come to see me exhibit serious, diagnosable symptoms that require treatment. Many, however, seek help only because they and the people around them believe that time is up on their grief. The truth is that grief is as unique as a fingerprint, conforms to no timetable or societal expectation.”

The essay inspired a remarkable outpouring among its readers. Patrick’s editor said, “I’ve never seen so many (reader) comments that began with the words, ‘Thank you.'”

Needless to say, we had a wonderful agent, Linda Konnor of New York, within a week. Linda found us the perfect publishing home, Sounds True books in Colorado.

I will share much more to come on “Getting Grief Right” in future blogs. For now, let me say that I can’t wait for this book to be out in the world. It will bring comfort to so many, not just those who grieve the loss of a loved one but those who carry burdens of any sort. As I asked at the beginning, is there anyone who isn’t grieving, at some level?

Preorder “Getting Grief Right” from Amazon here, and save more than $6 on the paperback.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Purple Flower And The Laundromat

Last Saturday around noon, I turned onto a narrow street near my home in Fort Worth, Texas, but had to pull over almost immediately. I had happened onto the beginning of the March for Science that was headed down the same street in the other direction.

But it was hardly an imposition because I had in fact been curious about the size and makeup of the crowd. People walked past for the next 10 minutes, about a thousand of them, by later estimates. They were young and old, of all races, carrying signs and pushing baby strollers. The throng was peaceful, happy, joyful seeming. Many smiled and said hello to me through my open car window.

Then one woman took a beautiful, fragrant purple flower from a bouquet she carried and handed it to me through the window.

“Something for your trouble,” she said.

The gift.
The gift.

The next day, a beautiful Sunday morning, I headed for the laundromat. Our dryer at home has been on the fritz, so for a few weeks, I’ve taken our clothes to the Quick Wash on Vickery Street. In my first few trips, I had been preoccupied and maybe feeling a little imposed upon. I prepared an explanation for why I was hanging out at Quick Wash, in case I ran into someone I knew.

But Sunday, I was in a more reflective mood, I guess. Instead of feeling embarrassed or imposed upon, I made a point of noticing others who were quietly doing their laundry with me.

  • The middle-aged Hispanic man in the crisp straw cowboy hat.
  • The young African American couple, he in a skull cap, she in a do-rag.
  • The younger Hispanic guy in a Cubs ballcap.
  • The young white woman with a red-haired boy about 3.
  • The young white guy with a little girl about the same age.

The young mother cleaned up after herself, carefully wiping down the washing machine and folding table when she was done. The young father stepped outside with his daughter to smoke. His eyes were troubled.

Why were those people there on that Sunday morning? Did any of them wonder the same about me? Were they happy?

Quick Wash laudromat.
Quick Wash laudromat.

And though not a word passed among us, I was glad to be one of them as we plugged in our quarters into the washers and tossed sheets of fabric softener with our clothes in the dryers. There was something true about the experience of that place, people from all walks of life coming together to celebrate a ritual of renewal — making clothes clean again. For that hour on Vickery Street, we were all equal, all one.

As I hauled my dry clothes back to my car, it occurred to me that joining the ritual at the laundromat on a beautiful Sunday morning was, in fact, a privilege.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Astringent Healing Power Of That Light

Thank you for the warm welcome in my return to the blogosphere a week or two ago. The first blog in more than a year was a bit difficult to put out there because it largely concerned my own dark side, and who wants to go around publicizing that. (Click here if you missed it.) But I think most of us have come to realize that we all have them, dark sides, that is, and the more we can acknowledge that, the better.

I was particularly touched by two replies to what I wrote. One was from a person who makes her living by helping other people laugh.

“This last one made me realize something about understanding the inner shadows,” she wrote. “I have a lot of people that tell me, ‘Thank you for reminding me not to take life so seriously.’ I even had a family member once tell me, ‘You need to take life more seriously.’ It was that point when I realized I fooled a lot of people. In reality, I am the one who needs to lighten up.”

The blog was also beautifully referenced in the Palm Sunday sermon of my friend, Rev. Charles Valenti-Hein at his Presbyterian church in Storm Lake, Iowa.

“Here’s the hard part,” Charles told his congregation that day. “There is nothing in the Easter proclamation that we will shout out next week that can be understood unless you walk with Jesus into that terrifying, humiliating, shameful valley of the shadow of death. To find your way in to the mind of Christ, you have to follow him. And that path is not just a yellow brick road with poppies and sunflowers and chirping birds. If so, it really could not save us because really, who needs to be saved from that? It’s only as we face the darkness — the darkness in our world, in our midst, maybe most especially in ourselves, that we can begin to see the light.

“There’s a man I met 10 years ago. He’s a writer whose life was changed by a more or less chance encounter with Mister Rogers. Tim Madigan is his name, and he came to Appleton and shared a worship service with us, and now and then, he drifts back on to my radar screen.

“He posted a link to his blog on Facebook last week, and it was a riff on a piece written by Parker Palmer. Palmer wrote, ‘Coming to terms with the soul-truth of who I am — of my complex and often confusing mix of darkness and light — has required my ego to shrivel up.’ And what Tim helped me to see this week, as I thought of the blinding flashes of light and dark that mark the journey of this week of our Lord’s Passion, is that both have something to teach us.

“Yeah, it’s messy, and sometimes ugly, and it can really hurt, but if we just stay on the sunny side of the street, the astringent healing power of that light can never get where it needs to get in our souls. It’s maybe a little long, but for me it was a good reminder, as I prepare to walk this way of the cross — this scandalous path — once more this year.”

Then Charles quoted this from my blog.

“I’ve … spent a good bit of time these last several months — with the companionship of many trusted others — getting better acquainted with my dark side. It’s broader and deeper than I had previously known. The anger, the fear, the self-centeredness, the arrogance and judgment of others. Yet such self-reckoning is an exercise I strongly recommend, painful as it might be. I think our lives make a little more sense when we better understand the shadows we all carry within. We’re less likely to be blindsided by them, for one thing. And understanding the universal shadow might inspire deeper compassion for others in our seething world.

“So I’m no longer so ashamed of or frightened by my own inner darkness. Fred Rogers once told me, ‘There is a loving mystery at the heart of the universe that yearns to be expressed.’ I’ve come to believe that the Loving Mystery to which he refers lives in both the darkness and the light. In fact, I believe that the Loving Mystery IS both the darkness and the light.”

Charles again.

“Maybe that’s what this whole confusing journey from Palm Sunday, through the Upper room, to cross and tomb is all about — humbling ourselves to that Loving Mystery, composed of darkness and light. Don’t diminish the difficulty. Step into it! What you will find, I believe, is that God is there, too.

“Let us pray.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Eyes of Fred Rogers

This portrait of Fred Rogers hangs at the top of the stairs entering our living room, which means I see it, and make eye contact with Fred, many times each day. Having Fred hanging there changes the molecules in the air of the place where we live.

One of my most cherished possessions.
One of my most cherished possessions.

The artist who created it is another reason why that picture is one of my most cherished possessions. Bob Stuth-Wade is one of the Southwest’s most accomplished painters — and a man who rivals Fred himself in terms of human goodness. Bob and I met in 2014, when I was writing about his son, singer-songwriter Luke Wade, who was then electrifying American audiences on television’s “The Voice.” Fred came up in my first conversation with Bob, and we immediately agreed that the late icon of children’s television was a secular saint.

A year later, at a Thai restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, with wife, Wanda, and sons Luke and David, Bob unveiled his gift. For the first time, I saw Fred looking back at me from the canvas. Something about his eyes.

Which caused me recently wonder — how do you paint the eyes of Fred Rogers? I called Bob to find out.

* * * *

It turns out that Fred was not the first. For years, part of Bob’s spiritual practice (in addition to two hours of daily meditation and tai chi) was something he called “paint a saint.” He used his brush to try and capture the essence of human greatness on canvas. He painted Jesus and St. Therese of Lisieux, The Little Flower. He painted Gandhi and the Indian sage Ramana Maharsi. He sketched Lincoln.

Three admirers of Fred Rogers, Tim, Luke and Bob (from left).
Three admirers of Fred Rogers, Tim, Luke and Bob (from left).

“On the internet, I would look up saints and enlightened people, and go through the images until something resonated with me, and touched my heart,” Bob said. “It’s that look in their eyes, something so subtle. It’s like they see how things really are. They “are” the love that the world is, and when I look at them, I feel they are seeing me as that same love. That’s the reason I painted them. That spark of life is what I was looking for.

“As social animals, we need eye contact. That’s what kids miss a lot. When I look into the eyes of a saint or Fred Rogers, he’s seeing me and seeing me all the way through to the best of me. After ‘I see you,’ it’s ‘I see I.’ I see myself as I really am because they see me as I really am. From ‘I see you’ to ‘I see I.’”

* * * *

As I said, I met Luke in 2014. We talked about his star turn on “The Voice,” but I also found him to be a very thoughtful and soulful young man, and another admirer of Fred Rogers. I told Luke that I had known Fred well, and written a book about our friendship. A short time later, Luke shared our conversation with his dad.

Bob and wife, Wanda, with a certain book.
Bob and wife, Wanda, with a certain book.

“So, I was doing this practice, paint a saint,” Bob said. “One day, Luke and I were talking and he said, ‘There is a guy out there, Tim Madigan. You’re going to have a bromance when you meet him.’ By then, Luke had heard me say that I thought Fred Rogers was an American saint. This was before I knew anything about you or your book. Then we met, and I really liked you, and I was already doing that practice so I thought, ‘I’m going to do Fred Rogers.’”

But Fred was not an easy subject, as saints go.

“I was frustrated because he has those sort of simple, all American features,” Bob said. “It’s not like he’s a gnarled old guru. And in most of the pictures I found of Fred, there wasn’t much drama in the light. He was a normal, regular guy with the normal haircut and the sweater. It was difficult.”

He worked on the portrait in fits and starts, turning the painting toward the wall, setting it aside for several months at a time.

“Finally, the last time I worked on it, I just dove in,” Bob said.

In the end, of course, it was about the eyes.

“Technically, there are all sorts of the things about the eyes that I understand, about the way light goes through them and comes out the other side of the iris,” Bob said. “How the wetness of the eyes creates a little highlight. The way the skin folds around the eyes. I understand a lot of that pretty thoroughly.”

Not that it would help Bob finish Fred’s portrait.

“Capturing the subtlety of that expression is beyond conscious control,” he said. “I have to open my heart by looking at that person, looking into those eyes, really try to become that, feel that presence of the person I’m painting. It’s a letting go, rather than a calculated thing.”

So as he studied photographs, Bob opened his heart to the eyes of Mister Rogers. Then came that sacred moment in his studio, after a few final dabs of his brush.

“I felt him looking back at me,” Bob said.

Finally. I see you. I see I.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Composted By Life

My friend, Leslye Rood, was kind enough to pass along a recent essay by Parker J. Palmer, who many know from his seminal book of several years ago, “Courage to Teach.” The essay was written on the eve of Palmer’s 78th birthday, and though I’m quite a few years younger myself, much of what I read really hit home — were things I had been thinking about a lot lately.

Parker Palmer
Parker Palmer

“Coming to terms with the soul-truth of who I am — of my complex and often confusing mix of darkness and light — has required my ego to shrivel up,” Palmer wrote. “Nothing shrivels a person better than age … Whatever truthfulness I’ve achieved on this score comes not from a spiritual practice, but from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that eventually I had to yield and say, ‘OK, I get it. I’m way less than perfect.’ I envy folks who come to personal truth via spiritual discipline: I call them ‘contemplatives by intention.’ Me, I’m a contemplative by catastrophe.”

I’m also a contemplative by catastrophe, I guess. I also would like to be rid of my ego, but like Palmer, I’ve come to accept that only time will truly move me along that road. I have my halting attempts to pray and meditate, but the truth is that my flaws and self-centered delusions will only be “broken down and composted by life.” To that end, life is certainly an effective and persistent teacher.

* * * *

In the last several months, I’ve posted some thoughts here and there on Facebook, but this my first blog in more than a year. It’s been a difficult time for our family because of a serious illness. (Much good news and healing on that score.) There was also a ton of writing work that needed finishing.

But I also made a conscious decision to go quiet for a while, to turn inward. The last several years have been a quite public and gratifying time for me — continuing to share the story of my friendship with Fred Rogers and publishing a novel. But something was telling me to take a pause and examine my motives. Was my public life an attempt to satiate my ego or an expression of an inner truth? This seems to be the answer: It was a combination of the two. Always has been. Probably always will be.

I’ve also spent a good bit of time these last several months — with the companionship of many trusted others — getting better acquainted with my dark side. It’s broader and deeper than I had previously known. The anger, the fear, the self-centeredness, the arrogance and judgment of others. Yet such self-reckoning is an exercise I strongly recommend, painful as it might be. I think our lives make a little more sense when we better understand the shadows we all carry within. We’re less likely to be blindsided by them, for one thing. And understanding the universal shadow might inspire deeper compassion for others in our seething world.

So I’m no longer so ashamed of or frightened by my own inner darkness. Fred Rogers once told me, “There is a loving mystery at the heart of the universe that yearns to be expressed.” I’ve come to believe that the Loving Mystery to which he refers lives in both the darkness and the light. In fact, I believe that the Loving Mystery “is” both the darkness and the light.

I now plan on taking up the blog on a regular basis. Several will concern a new book, coming in July that I think will be as impactful and meaningful as “I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers.” It is a groundbreaking work on grieving and authentic living from my therapist friend and brother, Patrick O’Malley. I was honored to serve as Patrick’s co-author.

I will also write about music and my musician friends, hockey, Mister Rogers, other books, wise people that I know, hockey again and whatever else comes to mind. As Fred said, “anything mentionable is manageable.”

But let me apologize in advance. My words will be the product of both my stubborn ego and my inner truth. Until I am wiser, more fully “composted” by life, I’m afraid that’s the best I can do.