Ellen Blum Barish

Ellen Blum Barish

“If  you are sleepwalking through your life – wake up – before the universe does it for you.”

— Mary Ellen Sullivan, On the Winds of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief and Gratitude

If there’s something we desperately need right now, it’s the reminder that we are capable of great joy.

But we need help reteaching ourselves how to access it.

It has arrived, heartbreakingly, at great cost from the words from a priceless friend who was taken far too early in 2016. 

Mary Ellen began writing her blog, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” in 2012 in the hope that it might someday lead to a book. Two years later, her long-time partner died from suicide. Four months after that, she was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer.

If she had pushed the blog to the side or even let it go completely, we wouldn’t have given it a second thought. No one could have expected her to  write through such intense pain and grief.

But it was so like Mary Ellen to find the words where there were none. To make the space she occupied here on the planet more beautiful before taking her leave.

When she knew her time on earth was nearing its end, Mary Ellen made an exquisite decision in the midst of her deep agony. She appointed her dear friend Barbara Mahany, author of three books of spiritual essays, and longtime blogger at Pull Up a Chair, as custodian of her creative work.

Barb took her assignment to heart. She didn’t just cut and paste Mary Ellen’s blog posts together. Instead, she culled, sorted and weaved the most dazzling bits into an entirely new whole in which Mary Ellen is both narrator and protagonist. She brought Mary Ellen’s voice – her spirit –  to life on the page. Barb’s thoughtful stitching of this gorgeous word quilt was an act of deep friendship and love.

Which is how On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude was delivered to the world earlier this month, just days after Mary Ellen would have celebrated her  60thbirthday.

Barb describes the book as a “… a distillation of Mary Ellen’s profound wisdom, her unending gratitude, and her unrelenting search for and discovery of joys even amid the shadow of grief and fear as she traversed the uncharted landscape she’d never imagined. It’s slim and it’s elegant and it shimmers with a beauty that was hers alone.”

I don’t believe Mary Ellen knew it then, but long before she began her blog, she was a joy hunter. This is a woman who relished the good meal, a bottle of good wine, the latest book, a meandering conversation, a long nap and any opportunity to travel the world.

And she loved to share these joys.

In the 1990s, Mary Ellen persuaded my husband to register for the AIDS ride which converted him from a bike hobbyist to a committed cyclist.

In 2001, Mary Ellen introduced my eldest daughter to travel when she escorted her to Prague and Paris for a bat mitzvah gift. It not only cemented their relationship but sparked my daughter’s solo travels to South America and Thailand.

In the late 2000s, Mary Ellen urged my younger daughter to steer away from the more traditional junior year abroad locales (Do you really want to go where American college students will be partying?) which ultimately led her to her most transformative college months in Prague and surrounding countries.

Mary Ellen had already worked her magic on me many years prior. We met in the mid-1980s at a Chicago-area publishing company when she got me walk-running during our lunch hours. Though we were on different paths – me, newly married with children in my future, she, actively dating and choosing not to marry or become a mother – we connected in so many ways. We shared East coast childhoods, journalism degrees, the love of words, and a shared search for wisdom and spiritual meaning.

How many close friends can you say make an impact not only on your life but on your husbands’ and children?  In my family, she occupies a space somewhere between friend and family member, magician and fairy godmother and has made a lifelong impression.

Figuratively as well as literally.

A few months after she died, each of my daughters chose to have  hummingbirds tattooed on their arms. To carry the woman they knew their whole lives as their auntie-godmother at all times. I didn’t go for the ink, but there are hummingbirds in almost every room in my house.

Which brings me back to the book. 

“In many indigenous traditions,” Mary Ellen wrote,” the hummingbird is symbolic of joy – living on nectar and searching for the sweetness of life. Someone who carries hummingbird medicine loves life and its joys, and takes great pleasure in spreading it.”

She noted that no other bird can fly as the hummingbird does in all directions – up, down, backwards, forwards and even hover, motionless, in the air. “There is a bit of magic in that,” she wrote, “accomplishing what seems to be the impossible, but also an incredible flexibility.”

“Hummingbirds can switch directions on a dime. They are great teachers in that regard, particularly for these rapidly changing times.”

I know it as firmly as I sit in the red velvet chair that Mary Ellen bequeathed to me as I write: She is taking deep pleasure in her words that are now bound between two covers, as well as knowing (she just knows) that she has left behind a great gift.

Wherever she is, in whatever form, I believe that she is the embodiment of joy.

You can order Mary Ellen’s book here.

Coming next month:

“Truth in Memoir” at Story Studio Chicago on Tuesday, November 5, in Chicago.

Reading from my memoir on Sunday, November 10 at Fresh Meat at The Celtic Knot in Evanston.

If you haven’t seen my newly updated website, click on over!

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