My Material Life

The Art of Disappointment

Blessed be those who have crossed your life

With dark gifts of hurt and loss

That have helped to school your mind

In the art of disappointment.

John O’Donohue

Are you familiar with John O’Donohue? I learned about him several years ago when I found him on a public television show. What a poet. I mean, the art of disappointment? That’s magic. At least to someone like me (who sadly finds many things disappointing). I was even disappointed by Mr. O’Donohue himself during one of those public TV pledge breaks they had during the show. Was I mistaken or did I hear someone refer to him in the past tense? Here I was so excited to discover this gentle Irish man, this teacher of spiritual wisdom grounded in Celtic tradition, this poet – who seemed to be in perfect health on his TV show by the way – and they’re talking about him like he’s gone … already?

Indeed, John O’Donohue died in his sleep at the age of 52 while on holiday in France in 2008. I couldn’t believe it. But he did leave us his books. The last was a book of blessings published in the U.S. as To Bless the Space Between Us. It’s filled with poetic blessings for all occasions and situations or the crucial thresholds of our lives as John O’Donohue called them. The sections of poetry at both the top and bottom of this post come from page 51 of the book, For Your Birthday.

517-jyukmblMy birthday comes with the start of fall and I rediscovered John O’Donohue’s poetry around that time this year. I was so ready for my personal new year to begin. The last one was, well, disappointing. There were too many changes that did not seem for the better along with year two of my daughter’s clinical trial for food allergy that went from being merely difficult to downright scary as well as events in our neighborhood that upset my sense of security. Definitely a lot of fear. In fact, I got in a fight with a young guy from across the street on Mother’s Day and you know, I think I got stuck in that fight or flight response and ended up staying there for far too long. That kind of thing wounds your spirit and your body. Not good, not good at all.

What do you think John O’Donohue meant by the phrase, schooling your mind in the art of disappointment? I’ve always tried to use disappointments as a springboard for some kind of action to make things better. That Mother’s Day fight was definitely a call to action. The very next morning I received a marketing email from a ballet studio where I’d taken a few classes the year before. I’d been intending to go back, but I figured I should lose ten pounds and maybe brush up in a beginning ballet class first. After what I’d been through the night before though, spare tire or no, I was going back to ballet the next day. I needed the grace – was craving it even.

IMG_1545aGoing back to ballet in my fifties has been a tremendous gift. (I’ll tell you more about it in a separate post because studying ballet has so many benefits for adults.) It was an action I’m grateful I took when I did, but it wasn’t all I needed to get back my sense of well-being. When a friend who is like the heart of our neighborhood was struck by a family tragedy, I became a sidewalk chalk fairy. Doing things for others can take us out of ourselves and our own problems of course, but those things often end up being good for us too because they give us a chance to express our own values and bring them out into the world. Never underestimate what feeling useful can do for your or someone else’s health.


For me, I think the chalk messages were a way to protect my space and put good energy out into my neighborhood. About this time I found a comforting routine in starting my day with a visit to the Gardenista website. Do you know Gardenista? It’s like Remodelista, but instead of interior space, it’s about exterior space, gardens mostly. And these days, I dream of gardens. For their beauty, for their serenity and now I know too, for their protection. Through Gardenista I discovered the Irish gardener Mary Reynolds and her book, the Garden Awakening. Yes, another Irish person. I’ve never been to Ireland, but I do sense some kind of inner pagan (maybe even a Druid?) deep inside me. The mix of the pagan and Christian has always fascinated me. And then I get Mary Reynold’s book with her talk of restoring wellness and things like intention and protection and the next thing you know I’m sitting with my back to my nearest mature tree, feeling both supported and protected. One day soon you may find me sprinkling holy water around the perimeter of my yard as I incorporate some of these old and new Irish ideas into the small bit of land around me. But that’s going to take some time …



I read a lot of other things too and some of them were very helpful (especially reading about the animal brain I was operating from), but I still didn’t feel quite myself and by September and my birthday I actually felt worse. You see there was something else I needed to do, but I was scared about it and uncertain how to move forward. Then one morning I found the support and encouragement I needed from two friends who also happen to be neighbors (one of them the inspiration for the sidewalk chalk fairy). What they did was this – they offered to stand with me. It’s hard to explain and I know it’s all very vague, but there was a sense of protection in their encouragement and support. And it was just what I needed.

When desolation surrounded you,

Blessed be those who looked for you

And found you, their kind hands

Urgent to open a blue window

In the gray wall formed around you.

John O’Donohue

With gratitude to Anne and Joy


  1. This is stunning. Beautiful. I need a tissue! You are so talented Miss C and so amazing and so loved! You have such a gift! Thank you for sharing yourself and your gifts with the world. We love you! 🙂 I’m passing this one on and keeping it forever! xo 🙂

  2. Dear Colleen,

    This was jaw-dropping amazing. I cannot tell you how wonderfully naturally talented you are in the fine art of writing. That is a true gift. Your words and wisdom brought me to tears, tears of love and happiness and connection. I am so glad you shared about these Irish people! I love love love it all. Sharing this with my dearest of people as it’s just SO GOOD, and keeping it forever.

    You might enjoy the NetFlix series “The Last Kingdom”…check it out! Takes 1 or 2 episodes, but we were hooked. A little bit of sex in it, so may not want to watch it with Samantha. 😉

    And, check out NetFlix’s “Stranger Things” if you haven’t already. :))) I loved the characters and the character development! :))

    And, tonight, on either ABC or NBC is a funny sitcom, “American Housewife” and a great TV drama, similar to Parenthood, called “This Is Us”.

    Love you Miss Colleen! xo xo So honored to call you friend! xo xo

    A xo xo “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Andy and Anne


    • Ah honey, I’m so glad you liked it! Gotta love those good Irish people 🙂 And thanks for the tv tips, now we have something besides Miranda Sings (Haters Back Off) to watch on Netflix! Although we do love our Miranda! And you know I feel the same way about you 🙂

  3. Kathie

    Colleen, this is so beautifully written and I agree with your friends-you do have a gift! I know mom is beaming from above! You know how to take some scary situations and turn them into poetry yourself. You know I rediscovered my Irish roots on our trip back East, would love to go to Ireland someday with you. In the meantime, I’d love to borrow that book… Love to S and D

  4. Jo Ann Will

    Colleen, This was a beautifully written piece. To be able to write about your journey and to allow others to see your vulnerability is a true gift. As I read your blog I found myself thinking about a book by Sue Monk Kidd called “When the Heart Waits” which is a memoir about her spiritual crisis and how she learned the art of “active waiting”. She used the symbol of a chrysalis and it’s unfolding as a guide for her own inner growth process. You can read a small excerpt at It is a book I’ve read several times and still turn to occasionally. I checked out the Mary Reynolds’ link and loved the beautiful gardens. I understand when you talk about being more “supported and protected” by your tree. Love, Jo Ann

    • Thank you so much JoAnn. I love the concept of “actively waiting”. It’s so hard to wait some times, but so necessary – our actions aren’t always the answer. Did you see that the story about Mary Reynold’s Chelsea Flower Show garden from the early 2000’s was turned into a movie? I hope it comes to the U.S. I read a little bit about the filmmaker (a woman, Vivienne something) and I loved how she wanted to make a movie that was not some dystopian view of the future.

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