June is a balm for these trying times

After the 2020 election, I took a much-needed break from the news. But only a few months later, it once again dominated my daily brain diet. From the local to the global, there’s been a lot to consider.

During the school year, I can hear I Promise School students at recess from my house. It was on those same playgrounds that a Firestone High School student was beaten to death on the evening of June 2. 

My three oldest sons grew up in this neighborhood and graduated from Firestone. As a neighbor told me the next day, we see crime in our city neighborhood all the time, particularly sex workers and drug houses, but a kid getting beaten to death? 

I’ve spent most of my life in Ohio and for much of that time, it’s been a swing state with robust politics. But for a number of reasons, not least of which is gerrymandering, that is no longer the case. 

Republicans have controlled the Ohio legislature for over two decades. This year, the Republican majority on the Ohio Redistricting Commission played a game all too familiar to most parents: If you don’t get permission from Mom, slink off and try Dad. 

When Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, also a Republican, along with the three Democratic justices on the court, rightfully refused to accept the unconstitutional legislative district maps the commission submitted, Republican associates filed a lawsuit in federal court. Astonishingly and wrongfully, the two federal judges ordered one of the unconstitutional maps to be used in the next election cycle. 

Elected officials intentionally circumventing the Ohio Constitution, which they swore to uphold, is a cancer on our democracy. Every citizen should be concerned about it metastasizing. 

Rampant mass shootings make America a country in which going to school, religious services, grocery stores, hospitals, concerts and more a life-and-death gamble that was inconceivable in my childhood.  

The satirical online magazine The Onion runs a headline after each school shooting that best describes America’s ludicrous political coma on its gun problem: “No Way to Prevent This,” Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 

Meanwhile, 2022 is poised to be a banner year for rolling back constitutional rights, starting with Roe v. Wade, and quite likely thereafter many other so-called cultural issues. We need a better term than “cultural issues,” which implies that the legal recognition of equal rights for people who are women, Black or Brown, LGBTQ or non-Christian is as optional as going to a museum or listening to classical music. 

Globally, I feel like I’ve gone into a time machine to World War I and II. Reports from Europe of atrocities and war crimes perpetuated on civilians, often accompanied by graphic photos, pour in every day. Yes, we have not been as moved when other countries are war-torn, including when our nation, like Russia, was the unprovoked aggressor. But that does not justify apathy in the case of Ukraine. 

And then there are the more abstract concerns of climate change and inflation, which seem to have smashed into each other at the gas pump. Might sky-high gas prices spur a conversion to less driving and more electric vehicles? We’ll see. 

It’s a lot, but teaching university freshmen has taught me that not everyone reels from these paradigm-shifting times. In fact, many are blithefully unaware of the state of any affairs. 

Nearly half my freshmen this past semester could not tell me what country Vladimir Putin leads. And almost to a person, the same students did not know what country Adolf Hitler led. “Why should we know that?” asked one. 

Is there somewhere between the blissfulness of ignorance and the existential dread that accompanies an obsessive attention to dystopian headlines to find balance, and therefore sanity? 

Buddhism teaches that control is an illusion. As I’ve grown older, I take in the news more dispassionately, which is not to say I don’t care, I care deeply. But if I am constantly angry, how effective am I? 

A goal of meditation is to remain present in the moment, to keep your mind from galloping like an untrained stallion miles away from where you are sitting and breathing. 

There are other ways to cultivate mindfulness, including the month of June. For as poet James Russell Lowell wrote, “And what is so rare as a day in June?/Then, if ever, come perfect days.” 


The past few weeks, I’ve planted several flats of vivacious flowers, two dogwoods, two azaleas, two rose bushes and several herbs. The floor of my front porch, which I had rebuilt last summer, has a fresh coat of paint and new rugs. I sit out there with coffee most mornings and wine most evenings, listening to classic jazz and reading. 

Holly Christensen relaxes on her porch with her dog Otto.
Porch reading with my German shepherd, Otto.

On my porch loveseat, the beauty of summer flora surrounds me. Plants grow without worry of crime, legal rights and wars. I gauge the wind by looking at the leaves high up in the tall trees surrounding my house. I howdy-do my neighbors who sometimes join me on the porch for a visit. 

Before the Buddha attained enlightenment, he was tempted and tormented by the demon Mara, who represents death, rebirth and desire. Mara sent beautiful women and aggressive armies in an effort to thwart the Buddha’s imminent nirvana. In response, the Buddha touched the earth with his right hand and called on it as witness to his transformation. 

Spend as much of June outside as possible. Get your hands into the earth either by planting or weeding. Take in all that fills the natural world and will continue to do so when this time, as with all others, passes. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 12, 2022.


Investment of time with oldest friends pays huge dividends

I don’t usually take phone calls when I’m in meetings or with friends, but there are exceptions. One, of course, is any call from one of my children’s schools. Also, from anyone over the age of 90.  

Elderly friends have been a mainstay in my life, possibly due to my long and close relationship with one of my grandmas. After my mother left my father and me when I was a toddler, my father’s mother, who was an elementary school teacher, kept me during the summer and picked me up from day care during the school year. 

Holly Christensen

Grandma was a talker, something my mother and stepfather churlishly joked about whenever they interacted with her. But I loved Grandma’s stories about people I’d never met (usually distant relatives) who lived in places I’d never been (usually Utah, or other parts of the West). 

More:Holly Christensen: Generational effects of COVID coming into view

As much as the elderly love to reminisce, I revel in their recounted pasts, for even stories told many times can offer new bits with each retelling. The oldest among us have witnessed and experienced a world most of us can only imagine. And when they die, they will take their memories with them. 

That’s the poignancy of having dear friends who are in their 90s or more. They have no terminal pathology other than mortality itself, a fact they intimately encounter each day. 

Several years ago, I received a letter from a Beacon Journal reader named Barbara Campbell. We corresponded regularly until January 2020 when she moved to be near her son and his wife in New Hampshire, fortuitously settling into her new apartment just before COVID-19 debuted in America. 

Barbara, who recently turned 97, still sends me encouraging notes, often filled with clippings of funny or warm-hearted stories she’s read, but now we call more than write. Like most of my older friends, she often starts by saying, “I won’t keep you long, I know you’re busy.” 

I’ve written before about my dear friend Bascom who will turn 100 in August. I tell him frequently that I can’t imagine my life without him in it. Like Barbara, age has not diminished Bascom cognitively. In fact, I don’t think anyone discusses all manner of things as well as Bascom does. 

If only it could stay this way. However, ignore it though we might, everything is transitory.  

I thought of Roger Angell as my friend the way many readers do of writers whose essays they regularly read. (David Sedaris and his siblings almost feel like my cousins having read his essays for 30 years.) 

I was introduced to Angell, perhaps best known for his books on baseball, in February 2014 when The New Yorker published his essay “This Old Man.” After reading it, I immediately sent it to a friend who teaches nonfiction writing courses, telling him the essay is about as perfect as it gets. 

“This Old Man” meanders through seemingly scattershot subjects but then Angell — as all philosophers and writers strive to but seldom succeed in doing — pulls together his observations on living, dying, loving, losing and remembering in such an approachable manner that you don’t see him sneaking up to make you suddenly chuckle or sob over a scene your mind momentarily inhabited. And for a few moments, while reading the essay, everything about being human makes sense. 

I went on to read many of Angell’s essays, in part because he kept publishing them. I’ve even found time for some of his pieces on baseball, which among all sports is the one I find the least dull (yeah, go figure). 

Virtuoso writers are not limited by a reader’s preexisting interest in a topic. No, they make the topic compelling by subtly tricking you into thinking you’re reading about X, when really you’re falling for the achingly familiar existential pang of aliveness.  

Besides, when Angell wrote about Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio, it was often from memory as, having been born in New York City in 1920, he’d watched them play in situ. 

Without minimizing the work involved in writing well, Angell came by his talent naturally. His mother, Katharine Sergeant Angell White, was the first fiction editor at The New Yorker, a position Angell himself held for many years, starting in 1956. His father was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and his stepfather was author E.B. White. 

In one of my writing courses at the University of Akron, students must pick one important event from their lives and write about it. Many choose to write about the death of a grandparent. I understand why. For most of them, it’s the first deeply felt loss they’ve experienced. 

But inexperienced writers tend to get stuck in superlative circles polished with grief — he was the best grandfather, she baked the best cookies, he gave the greatest gifts, and so on. Rather than approaching the story at the front door, I tell my students, try sneaking in a side window. Write about something less obvious, like your grandad teaching you how to change a car’s oil/tires/battery. 

Angell does exactly this in his essay “Over the Wall.” His wife of 48 years, Carol Rogge Angell, died in 2012, and in the piece, he describes all the things that she doesn’t know, from election outcomes to weather and sporting events to the lives of their children. And in so doing, Angell avoids sentimentality while showing the tugging vacuum created by Carol’s absence in his daily life. 

Angell, who would have been 102 this fall, died May 20. Do yourself a favor and read some of his essays today. Right now, in fact. Many are readily available online, given his recent departure. 

And if, like me, you are lucky to have friends in their 80s, 90s or even 100s, block the door against life’s myriad demands and schedule regular calls and visits with them. And while you’re at it, print out a copy of “This Old Man” and give it to your senior friend. I guarantee it’ll be a hit, if not a home run. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 29, 2022.