Mary Pipher, A LIGHT IN LIFE: Meditations on Impermanence

Mary Pipher, A LIGHT IN LIFE: Meditations on Impermanence

Zibby is joined by renowned psychologist and New York Times bestselling author Mary Pipher to discuss her radiant memoir in essays A Life in Light: Meditations on Impermanence, which focuses on resilience and finding light in dark times. Mary Pipher shares details of her lonely childhood (and the library books that saved her), what it means to feel “squishy” in times of sadness, and her thoughts on the pandemic-related loss of personal connection. She also touches on each of her previous books and expresses how wonderful it has been to be an “activist on paper”.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mary. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and, in this case, moms don’t have time to drop off their kids at camp and be on time for podcast morning. Welcome.

Mary Pipher: Thank you very much. I’m really happy to be here, Zibby.

Zibby: I absolutely loved your book, A Life in Light: Meditations on Impermanence. The way you write is just absolutely gorgeous. It’s not just the way you write, in this very poetic way, but it’s the sentiments behind it and the way you talk about your life and your childhood and how you interpret everything. It’s really, really wonderful. I really, really enjoyed it.

Mary: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners a little about what this book is about?

Mary: I wrote this book during COVID. I actually needed to write this book. I hadn’t planned to write any more books, but I was lonesome during COVID and couldn’t see my friends, couldn’t exercise as much as usual because I couldn’t go in buildings. I also realized that if I had a project that I felt could be useful to the world and to me, I could make it through COVID however long it lasted. I decided that what I’d write about is something I’d really been concerned about my whole life as a child with a pretty traumatic family and then later as a therapist, which is how to find light in dark times, or resilience. As I struggled with those issues for myself, I wrote this book. I hope for the reader there’s some help or some teachings about resilience. The other thing, though, is just a really simple, happy thing, Zibby, which is, memory is encoded in light. Almost every scene in my childhood and my whole life can be explained, in part, by the light, a very light-focused person, solar-powered person.

The way the book is organized is around where light played a role in every scene. There’s a beautiful word, a Japanese word, komorebi, that I introduce early in the book. What it means is the interplay of light and shadow in dappled leaves. I actually have memory of that from when I was one or two years old before I encoded things verbally. I also have memories of the best time I ever had with my dad, the time I had with my grandmother encoded in light. Komorebi also means something different, which means a melancholy longing for a person or place or thing. Part of this book is about impermanence and just a sense that good times come and go. People come and go. Every minute is different. Especially at my point in the lifespan, I’m acutely aware of impermanence. Even my grandchildren are growing up now and moving into lives of their own. Of course, as an older person, I’m losing people. The great trick at this stage of life is learning to find light within myself. That’s the basic journey of the book.

Zibby: You give so many examples of when light has helped you and conversely, how detrimental it is when you’re in dark places. You refer to this feeling of squishiness when you find yourself in places like the trailer you lived in with your father for a period of time for the one year when your mother was off doing her medical degree and everything else and how that time, of course, was dark given your dad’s PTSD and everything that he was going through, but also the physical environment and how now you look to windows. You can’t be in confined spaces. I had never really thought about light as a measure on which to always be aware of. I don’t measure my life in light. I hadn’t even thought about it. Am I happier in places with lots of windows? Why does that happen? How important is this to me? How important is it to my husband, who needs much more light than I do, now that I think about it in your terms? It’s almost like you could give us a quiz on light sensitivity. Tell me about that squishy feeling.

Mary: I think that squishy feeling is a physiological sense. That’s why I use squishy as opposed to some word for emotions or thoughts. It’s an embodied, felt sense of vulnerability and fear and a deep loneliness. My childhood was particularly likely to generate that feeling because I think I was about eighteen months old when my dad left for the Korean War and just came home a very short time in the next four or five years. Then as you alluded to the trailer, when he did finally come home from the Korean War, he took my brother and I to the Ozarks to live in a trailer behind his sister’s house. My younger brother went to live with some grandparents. I went a year without seeing my mom. Then that continued. I was always with my mom after we reunited when I was a second grader. That continued with my father all of his life up until he died. He was with our family and then not with our family, worked away from home and came home the occasional weekend. My mom was also gone a lot.

It was, in some ways, a very lonely childhood. One of the things I believe is almost everything is both/and. For example, I can say it was both a very lonely childhood and a childhood where I had enormous amount of freedom to develop a self, to define how I spent my time, learn how to do things, to structure time with my brothers the way I wanted to. I was sort of a leader of the kids. I’m oldest, a family of, depending how you count, four or six. My parents adopted two Korean orphans after I left home. They’re my sisters, but I never lived with them. I still get squishy. For example, my daughter and her husband and my two young grandsons moved to Canada after they lived twenty blocks away. I felt that squishy feeling again. There’s a chapter in the book called Teardrops in the Snow where I write about that goodbye. The antidote to squishy — there’s two or three antidotes. One of them is love. One of them is work. Another is the natural world. Another is, for me, meditation. I find great comfort. There’s great calming in simply sitting down and breathing.

Zibby: I feel like your antidotes to squishiness are often the ones cited as coping mechanisms for depression. It’s just another way. It’s another way to reframe the feelings and the solutions or how to get through the harder times.

Mary: It’s interesting because I’m a therapist. I know all the technical language. When I was a therapist, I never used DMS-III diagnoses. I preferred to see people as individuals and as distinct. I also thought that labeling did most people a disservice because they thought they understood something when actually, there’s no understanding to come from a label, or very little understanding to come from a label. When I was a therapist and when I write, I tend to write in very ordinary language. I tend to pull for resilience. I don’t, for example, label my own experience depression very often. I label it sometimes struggle or journey. Even though I had a pretty difficult childhood, I don’t actually claim I’m any different than most people. Most people had a difficult childhood. Most people’s lives, if you look across a timeline, have very difficult times in them. The journey I like to explore is how all of us lead these lives of light and darkness. We have within us, the capacity to learn and grow from our struggles into people who are much more skillful at finding the light.

Zibby: I love that. You also have — maybe this is part of the natural world. You, from a young age, would spend hours and hours and hours in the pool. Is that still something you try to incorporate in your daily life?

Mary: Absolutely. In fact, right after this interview, I’m heading to a swimming pool.

Zibby: You are?

Mary: Yeah. That’s an interesting thing, Zibby, because essentially, I’ve liked the same things my whole life. I like swimming. I like being outdoors. I like animals. I like women friends, girlfriends. I like my own family. I like walks. I like looking at sunset and sunrise. I like reading. I liked it at ten years old. I like it at seventy-four years old. It’s just pretty much what I like. I also really like these basic things that people have enjoyed throughout history. I don’t watch TV, for example. I’m not very fond of technology as a general rule. I don’t have any Facebook. I don’t have these things that most people have. I don’t want to be, on my tombstone, remembered as, she answered all her emails. She kept us up to speed with everything that happened in her life. I’m not actually living too much differently than I lived as a little girl. The only thing really different is the first five or six decades of my life, I was a very heat-seeking mammal. I wanted to find people to love me. I loved to love people and be connected to them. I’ve put a lot of energy into my family, my aunts, my grandmother, who I just dearly loved, and also building friendships and having lots of women friends, lots of couple friends. My husband’s a musician. We have writer friends. I have music friends through him. Then we have, of course, counselor friends and neighbors. I’ve built big networks of people I love to be around. Plus, my children and grandchildren. That’s all changing now. That’s all really changing now. One of the things that I think the last decade, for many people that changes, is we need to not learn to attach, but learn to detach and move away from being dependent on relationships for our happiness and instead, building up what we need inside ourselves for happiness.

Zibby: Ah, yes, the elusive inner happiness. It’s a wonderful goal, though, for everybody to feel that without needing the connections. Speaking to your COVID experience, as we all can relate to, that’s why when you’re sort of robbed of that day-to-day interaction — you take it in your book all the way to making your first friend and how transformative that was in your life all the way to when you’re alone during COVID. We take for granted all these interactions and the day-to-day stuff. Even this summer, I’ve spent so much time on Zoom in my house away from the regular city that I’m like, okay, where are the people? I think we can convince ourselves — I saw Malcolm Gladwell actually just had some big thing come out about how working from home is destroying the social connections and the social fabric. People think it’s more convenient to be at home and do the things and save time, but really, we’re losing something so vast and important in making that decision.

Mary: I think he’s right about that. I’ve noticed that people are less extraverted and out there since COVID. Even right now, for example, we’re having a fundraiser this next week, which is really going to be a party with a band playing and food and wine and all this. I’m realizing as I get this organized, this is the first party I’ve had or been invited to in a long time. People just don’t tend to do that right now. They’re more, stay home, see a few close friends, not be out in the world so much. It’s a tremendous loss. We’re very, very connecting animals. It’s interesting because we’ve sponsored an Afghan family this year. Our family ended up being part of a big extended family of about seventy Afghans who moved to our town. The Afghans are so interconnected. They’ll end up ten people spending a night in an apartment because they all want to be together. On Sunday, all the men sit in one room and drink tea. All the women sit in the other room and drink tea. It’s just really lovely to see a people so connected and so connected to each other and so dependent on relationship to help — the women all help each other with the children. The men all help each other with everything. It’s really beautiful. It makes me mourn for a more connected world.

Of course, I always personally believed that there should be a law that nobody could live further from their family than one mile. It’s unenforceable in America. I do want to say something about happiness and inner happiness and peace. It’s much easier to find those things at seventy-four than in the stage of life you’re in. The stage of life you’re in, you’ve got to make a living. You’re very concerned with caring for kids. You’ve got a house to maintain and groceries to buy and cars to keep running, etc. At seventy-four, I have some of those things to do, but it’s for a very small population of two. We’ve got our house. We’re retired, except for my writing and Jim’s music. There’s more time to do things like take a morning walk at sunrise and take an evening walk at sunset and lay in a hammock all afternoon and read a good book and go to a sangha where I can meditate. You don’t have these luxuries. You’re busy all the time. We have some young parents in our sangha. They consistently are struggling more than the older people because they just have so many more disruptions. They’re happy. They love their kids. They’re engaged with the world. They just have so much more to deal with on a daily basis.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I visited my dad briefly yesterday. We were just together for about an hour. Of course, my kids FaceTimed me, two different kids. “I don’t want to be here. Why do I have to stay here?” and all this stuff. He just looked at me. He’s like, “Whoa. You have a lot coming at you all the time. You have a lot more going on than I do.” I’m like, “I don’t think so.” He’s still running a business and everything and has a lot going on. He’s like, “No, no, no, not compared to you. This is crazy, all the inputs.” I see your point. It does sound lovely, just waking up and sitting in a hammock and going on a walk and writing books. Oh, my gosh, that sounds amazing. Also, this period of time is deeply rewarding, watching kids grow. I am lucky personally — I guess I shouldn’t say lucky. I am divorced and remarried, so I do have these breaks every other weekend, which give me perspective and a time to just regroup and appreciate and miss and then get back into it. Before, I was constantly depleted, always, just no gas in the tank. Now we have your life to look forward to, which is wonderful.

I was trying to find this one beautiful — there were so many beautiful lines. In the book, you do such a great job of ending each chapter with, not a cliffhanger because it’s not that type of book, but a sentence that makes you totally want to keep reading. I like this. “I was a girl with a friend.” There was another one where — now I’m going to mess it up because I can’t find the quote. Anyway, you do a great job at the end of every chapter of leaving us wanting more. Also, you do such great a job of weaving in books, which is something I did. I just wrote a memoir myself, actually, called Bookends. I have books with every point of my life. You do something so similar but far better than me here, which is weaving in everything you’re reading. Maybe I could just read this one passage that you wrote, if that’s okay, about reading. You said, “With the librarian’s guidance, I eventually read novels by Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and a great many others including Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, and Les Misérables. These books helped me inhabit worlds very different from my own and increased my sense of the wide range of human experiences. I came to understand that many people suffered as children. I was not alone, but part of a community of sufferers that included much of the human race. That realization was oddly comforting. Over time, the library became my church, and reading became my way of understanding the world. I built myself from books. Reading offered me hope, soothed me in difficult moments, and gave me a sense of the immense complexity of the human spirit. There are all kinds of light in the world, from the sky during moments of bliss and awe and from the lemony circles on the tables of the Beaver City Library.”

Mary: Thank you. That’s a nice paragraph.

Zibby: I love that.

Mary: It’s so true. It’s very interesting because I have a lot of friends, women friends, who are writers, and they all could’ve written the same thing. There’s a lot of children who find, in their salvation, the library. If you’re lucky enough to have a good librarian who senses who you are and so will guide you towards certain books — an interesting thing about the books I read as a child — the books are very different now. In our library, almost all the books were biographies of heroes. We had the books on Helen Keller and Dr. Tom Dooley and Eleanor Roosevelt. I think the average child grew up thinking it was important to be heroic in some way. I sort of wish we had a line of those biographies now for children because for me at least, they were very inspirational. I was very lucky. I got the message early that it was important to be good. I don’t know if I’m good or not. I wouldn’t knock you that. I did end up spending a life where I took pleasure in being good. That’s really what I want to say. The Plato line of education is “teaching children to take pleasure in the right things.” It’s wonderful if children learn to take pleasure in being good. , isn’t it?

Zibby: I love that. Were you surprised by the massive success of Women Rowing North?

Mary: You know, I’m always surprised because I’m pretty humble. I generally think, well, I don’t know if this book is good enough to publish. In every book I’ve ever written, there’s a moment of crisis where I call my agent and go, “Maybe I should just abandon this book. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” Usually, when I turn over a book to the publishers is at a moment where I’m not sure if it’s good or not, but I’m absolutely sure I can’t make it better. Then I’ll just hand it to her. I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of great women publishers. I’ll just hand it to her and say, “You evaluate this. Decide if it’s good enough. Then we’ll work on it together.” I’m always surprised. Starting out with Reviving Ophelia, I expected it would be a very small book. So did my publisher. Everybody was shocked by that book. Women Rowing North, I knew it would find some women readers my age, but I was very surprised how many women wrote me and engaged with that book. I love it. This has happened with multiple books of mine. Readers start groups where they read the book and talk about it. It becomes a book club book. That is so great when something I write inspires people to think and talk and maybe change their behavior in some ways. It’s a way to be an activist on paper. I really like that. I really like that feeling of, I may be helping create positive change in the world through writing.

Zibby: I love that, being an activist on paper. That’s beautiful. I also think there’s not enough written for women getting older. I know I’m in my forties, but I view myself as much older than I am. I feel a world-weary old soul. I’m always contemplating end of life and all of that. When you write for a group of people who have been underserved, it’s very rewarding. I think women in their sixties, seventies, eighties, have the best stories around, and so much potential. I feel like there needs to be a rebrand on that time of life, total rebrand.

Mary: If people happen to have read all my books, I doubt anyone has read them in order. They would have a pretty good sense for my life from the time I was in my forties up until now because I write what’s important to me. I always write what I’m trying to figure out. With Reviving Ophelia, it was my teenage daughter, my teenage clients. With Another Country, it was dealing with my ill mother who just conceptualized the world so differently than me, the medical situation, the communications between us around medical. She was, like many people of her generation, very passive and compliant with doctors and uninclined to complain. I remember one time a doctor goes, “How are you today, Avis?” First name, Avis. She goes, “I’m better.” I go, “What do you mean you’re better, Mom?” She goes, “Yesterday, my back just hurt so badly, but it’s better.” She didn’t tell anyone when it hurt badly. She let us know when she started feeling better. That kind of thing, I wrote the metaphor in that of, the older generation was the Queen Elizabeths. The younger generation was the Princess Dianas. We wanted to emote. We wanted to be more assertive about medical care. We wanted things to be a little different. I wrote about that at the point my mother died.

Zibby: I have to say, I am such a fan, not just of how you write, but just how you get life, your whole take on it. I’m such a fan of the way you really distill it down to its essence and communicate it so well. It’s very, very comforting. It’s very wise and comforting. Now I have to go back. I have Women Rowing North. I have to go dig into that. I’m going to go through your whole list backwards because I’m just the biggest fan. I loved A Life in Light so much. Thank you.

Mary: Thank you, Zibby. Thanks for having me on your show. I enjoyed it very much.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day.

Mary: Bye-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

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