This article first appeared in On The Issues Magazine.

Breaking the Silence (or How I Met the President’s Mom)

I’ve just returned from 240 hours of silence.  No coffee.  No chocolate. No NPR.  No Facebook.

It was amazing!

It will sound like a case of the dog ate my homework.  But here I am, jumping into a week of work which will involve speaking a lot — sometimes even in Spanish.  Life is funny that way.

So I thought I’d share with you something I wrote that was published in On the Issues Magazine while I was gone.

It’s really not about death.   It’s a personal story about travel and life.  There’s a short section on how I came to know President Obama’s mother.  It still saddens me that Obama said of her final days:

She was 52 years old when she died of ovarian cancer, and you know what she was thinking about in the last months of her life? She wasn’t thinking about getting well. She wasn’t thinking about coming to terms with her own mortality. She had been diagnosed just as she was transitioning between jobs. And she wasn’t sure whether insurance was going to cover the medical expenses because they might consider this a preexisting condition. I remember just being heartbroken, seeing her struggle through the paperwork and the medical bills and the insurance forms.

My blog isn’t about debating the health care system, to be sure!  But it’s sad for me to think of Ann — or anyone — in this way.

You can read my story here.  I promise I’ll be back to you soon about what I really gleaned from my meditation retreat!

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6 responses to “Breaking the Silence (or How I Met the President’s Mom)”

  1. Gail Beck says:

    I am so enjoying your blog and inspired by your effort to fully live each day. thank you for allowing a glimpse of Ann Durham as a person, wouldn’t she be pleased at her son’s work to increase our humanity and respect for others.

    • Barbara says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Gail. Sometimes I like to imagine what Ann would have said all those years ago if someone told her, “Someday your son will be President of the US.” She would have laughed uproariously. But she was so proud of both of her children that I think she would have understood it deep down.

  2. Katie says:


    Fabulous story about your connection with Ann Durham, and wonderful to learn more about both of you.

    And your story about the woman you spent time with on the Dogu Express has me thinking about how we connect we others. We are involved with an Iraqi refugee family that have now been in the States for a year . . . in the beginning, we struggled for words to understand each other, and relied on smiles and other non-verbal communication as a way to interact and work together. Sometimes, this non-verbal communication was enough. And for the young children (ages 2-7), it was all they needed . . . play is the universal language.

  3. Barbara says:

    That’s great re your involvement with the Iraqi refugee family. I’m on the lookout for a program to volunteer with the kids to help with newly arrived families. Showing them around, helping them navigate New York. Did you become involved through a particular program? Wonderful!

    You are so right about communications. If we think that verbal communication is the whole story — or even most of the story — we miss out on hundreds of other useful or telling cues. All there for the noticing!

  4. laura simms says:

    i am reading your meandering essay in the middle of the night after being thrown out of the much needed comfort of sleep by an intense dream. A dream far unfriendlier than the train ride through Turkey. I loved reading about you and your sons, about Obama’s mother and having such a strong taste of your life and work in intention all wrapped up in one interconnection. stations. direct experience. being over joyed at a conversation where the literal content hardly mattered and the connection much deeper. lovely. If you have to live the days each day to its fullest this is a wonderful offering. everyone came alive through your eyes. And the scout message heightened by the stories. totally enjoyable even if not about silence.. but without the ever presence of silence, would these words have meaning that reaches out.. perhaps silence is what all communication is actually based on.. the magic carpet itself.. xx

  5. Barbara says:

    That’s very interesting about silence, Laura. Sometimes I feel that my ideal experience of communication is far too slow for everyday life. At times, it feels like it takes forever and a day to go through the cycle of truly listening to what someone is saying, digesting it, processing it and then responding — far too long a response time in our hectic world.

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