Wow, Thanks, Sorry, Please

Wow, Thanks, Sorry, Please
Michael Gollin
November 2017

Wow. I have had a wonderful life, especially these recent years. I am not afraid of dying. My enormous daily and nightly struggles will end. I will die a peaceful death of complications from ALS surrounded by my family.

Thanks. To my nurses and aides. Thanks. For all the love I received from family, friends, and colleagues. I love my heroine Jill, my fantastic kids Natasha, Max, and Julia, my revered mom and dad, my great siblings Kathy and Jim, my beautiful in-laws, my talented nephews and nieces, cousins, and friends.

Sorry. For my many transgressions. Please forgive me. I forgive you.

Please. Remember me kindly but honestly when I am gone.

It is okay. Really.


Michael Gollin
November 2017

There is a complex snag down in the woods,
a dead tree, with seven limbs,
but I can only see it in winter with the leaves down.

Two winters ago,
I thought it was going to fall
before Max’s college graduation.
But it did not.

Last winter,
I thought it was going to fall
before Natasha’s grad school graduation.
But it did not.

I think it will last
until Julia’s college graduation next winter.
It will outlast me.


​Michael Gollin
July 2016

I am lost in a strange land between life and death.

My body rebels. 

My mind resists. 

I know the destination.

It is unavoidable.

The question I confront is how will I get there and when.

Most people don’t even recognize that this land exists.

But some admire me just for being here.

I am a pioneer.

I can’t use my hands or legs and I can’t talk or eat or breathe without a ventilator.

But I will find my way in the end.

Facing Death to Take Charge of Life

Facing Death to Take Charge of Life
Michael Gollin

What are the most important questions when we and loved ones face serious illness? The article below sums up the inquiries succinctly.

From The New York Times
Seeking a ‘Beautiful Death’
Before making an advance directive, talk with your doctor and your caregiver about just how far end-of-life care should go at the cost of comfort.

The kinds of questions doctors should be asking:

■ What gives your life meaning and joy?

■ What are your biggest fears and concerns?

■ What are you looking forward to?

■ What goals are most important to you now?

■ What trade-offs or sacrifices are you willing to make to achieve those goals?

Everyone can answer these questions although based on personal experience they become more directly relevant and therefore less frightening when you have a serious disease or are older.

The book Being Mortal, by excellent writer and surgeon, Atul Gawande, tackles these issues in a very personal and comprehensible way. Our late in life decisions should be driven by our humanity, not the health industry imperatives. Key questions include the following.
What do you understand about your disease?
What are your priorities for your remaining time?

There was a TV show about this book.

I found the book more helpful. For example, I have made it known that I don’t want 911, ambulance, and emergency room treatment. Maybe for a broken bone, but otherwise I can be treated at home for ALS and my ventilation better than at an ER, if treatment is viable, and avoid massive discomfort and dislocation. I have rushed to the doctor in my own wheelchair in our van and returned home the same way to live my life as best as I can. I’m fortunate in that sense.

Everyone will face their health fate however they can. But it helps if a loved one or doctor or nurse asks the right questions.


Galapagos Heptagram

Galapagos Heptagram
July 2013
Michael Gollin




Ruin and death rule the Galapagos.
Animal vegetable land surf and sky.
Life begets life as everything flows.
More will come, and all will die.



The Bishop’s ship drifted here
bound for Peru half a millennium ago.
Becalmed, dying of thirst, rowing away,
he reported to the Spanish King:
Abrupt, desolate, mysterious rocks
“as if God had rained stones.”
Raining stones is poetry.

At the beginning of time,
from void, star dust formed.
A molten ball then cooled and crusted.
Turbulent magma punched —
Punches —
holes to reach the sky,
volcanoes blast the earth’s inside out
hurling ash and lava,
gas and scoria, gargantuan amounts,
forming craggy masses above the sea,
not born, they explode,
cosmic stuff,
free of life and death.

But only for a moment.
Washed in restless currents of sea and wind,
the isles are immediately assaulted
in a slow concerted biological invasion,
begun a short five thousand millennia ago,
continuing today and on,



500 miles away, the continent swarms
with every phylum and order of life, survivors.
Reefs of fish swim here to feed and shelter
among the tumbled rocks,
Sea lions climb out to rest and mate.
Sea birds fly and find the fish,
with stowaway seeds concealed in their feathers.

In the sky, a solid mist of aerodynamic seeds
wafts for days above the humid ocean,
then, wet with Garuá mist, rains on cool volcanic rock.

Most cannot grow. But one succeeds,
in moistened ash.
A plant appears, then more.
Moss, lichen, cactus, and shrub,
vegetable colonists.

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Insects, too, hitch rides and die,
but one and more find how to live in the new land.

Andes snow melts and runs down to the coast as rivers,
with logs and rafts of twigs stuck together,
floating out to sea.
The current, slow and steady,
delivers the load to Galapagos in weeks.
Few, but some, reptiles and insects survive
and join the colony.
An iguana here and there,
a tortoise but no hare.

What strange profusions these creatures seem.
and different on each volcanic isle.
Forced to fit this harsh mold,
by death’s inevitable
curse and blessing,
natural selection:
Those that fit breed more,
the rest breed less
and vanish from these shores.
And so pass millions of years.
Optimal not perfect.



Why do they come?
Restless and alive,
living, dying or dead
or simply doing their job,
feeding the predator and scavenger.
Reaching day’s end for one,
enabling another day for the other.
It’s all about dinner.

Drifting, en route somewhere else,
carried by the currents.
Searching for a new home.
Equatorial sun and days, polar currents,
South American roots, but a South Pacific home.

Why do they come?
Chance, bad luck,
instinct, survival.

No melting pot for immigrant survivors,
this hardened lava and ash.
Species diverge and become unique
until each island flaunts
its own finch and lava lizard,
marine iguana and tortoise.

A simple basic plan –
live, adapt, survive, breed,
pass down your genes.
Incremental steps on an endless road
towards: more road,
more traveling, or more settling down.

Death and ruin in Galapagos,
for some it’s yes, for others no,
creation and rebirth,
easy come and easy go.

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Floreana Island

The Baroness kept her lovers guessing,
As neighbors died in mystery, secret.
A deep lava tube dark and wet.
Above, rusty ruins of a fish canning experiment, failed
And a barrel for a post office –
put in your cards and take out those
for where you’re going.
It’s still in use.

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Espanola/Hood Island

Black marine iguanas, mottled red
in ghastly cuddle puddles
by the score, but there lies one alone,
a sort of peace, bloated,
with eyes and tongue plucked out by a hawk.
Another one lies on the rocky beach,
eviscerated by a male hawk bringing food to its babies,
mortal Prometheus,
punished for bringing this
species here.

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South Plaza

A sea lion mummy rests on the rocky shore
not forever. Something or someone will scatter the
skull and bundle of white ribs and vertebrae wrapped in sea lion leather
open on the side for a view into the private life and death of that pup.
Brown piles of lingering mothers nursing pups
and barking while males lumber over the lava rocks,
polishing them on the way to the sea.

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North Seymour

Blue-footed boobies enjoy their courtship dance,
Left, slow, right, slow,
whistle and chatter, beak clatter.
White guano ring defines the nest.
Abandoned, with pieces of broken shell.
Where’s the rest?
Hatched or eaten?

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Female boobies are bigger than male boobies
but male beachmaster sea lions are bigger and tougher
than their mates, who carry a series of fertilized eggs in their wombs,
in case the males don’t find them.
The pups playing on the volcanic beach try to be like them.

Bleached sea lion bones, ribs, fin, and tail,
every beach a graveyard and nursery,
orgy, boudoir, toilet, and living room all in one.
The tuff pups frolic in the waves,
rushing and twisting at our masks,
big brown eyes stare me down,
then woosh past, a whisker away.
Flopped on beach, or flopped on rock
10 meters down, they are at home.
Why do they not fear us?

2013-07 616 - Copy6.

Darwin came with FitzRoy’s Beagle,
In 1835.
He saw the variation and had a hunch
that natural selection could explain it all.
But he was busy chronicling barnacles and coral islands,
while Wallace wrote of evolution.
(I saw plant specimens Darwin collected.)
Then Darwin made his case
that fixed creation makes no sense.
Creation continues, today, right now.
Reproduction, variation, struggle for life,
natural selection, migration, isolation —
Life brings change,
change brings death and extinction
and new life.

Darwin expected a fight
from those who believe what they’re told,
he was right about that,
now the argument’s old.

Melville wrote of Las Encantadas in 1854,
the enchanted isles, bizarre even to him.
Sailors came from time to time,
some found water and wood.
Most exclaimed and left in disgust
at the inhospitable terrain.
They hoisted giant tortoises onto their ships,
livestock for later slaughter
200,000 over the centuries.

Settlers came again and more,
but most could not survive.
They died, or being crafty,
hitched a ride away again.

Convict, fisher, farmer, explorer —
To strangers’ eyes the sprawling land
might seem a paradise from afar.
But not when landed on the ashy shore.

The beginning of life
was in the Galapagos for many species.
Man, not so much.
Vonnegut had humans evolve into sea lions here
after the end of the world in war.
A fitting place to make a last stand.

People think it lacks creature comforts.
But there are comforts for the creatures.



25,000 Ecuadorans live on Santa Cruz.
At the fish market the sea lions and pelicans
enjoy the guts thrown their way.

2013-07-18 111

We live for seven days on a boat
that moves from island to island,
burning 250 gallons of diesel a day.
We refuel near the US Air Force base on Baltra,
as hundreds of boobies weave their way miles
around the harbor, plunging to seize the schooling fish.

We fortunate few come to see the famous place.
we are visitors,
but our captain said
“Make this boat your home this week.”
Why do we come? Curiosity, homage, adventure
by air, by sea but not by land.
I spotted over 50 species.

Why do we stay anywhere? Because we live.
We eat, play, nest, mate, rear young, explore. Survive.

Rome wasn’t built in a day
and neither was I.
The Galapagos wasn’t built in a week,
even a busy one.
But life begins anew each day
and ends again each night
until it doesn’t.
And so it goes for us all.
Rome was sacked
but took a long time to fall.
And it is still Rome,
the beautiful city of seven hills.

It’s all about dinner, said my friend,
all around the world.
Heinlein’s Stranger fed himself to his friends.
Al Capp’s Shmoos cooked themselves
to serve us a meal.
We raise animals and grains to feed ourselves.
We make the world our home.

Dillard wrote lyrically how soft life
and hard rocks shape each other in these islands.
So she understood the world:
“Everywhere freedom twines its way
around necessity.”

2013-07-20 088

Life brings change,
change brings death and new life.
We live we die
we leave our paths behind
and others walk beyond.

It all makes sense
if you dare
to go look at it all
and care.



June 2014
Michael Gollin


| – – |

Two posts hold a hammock
slung between them.
And we must swing.

Two tall pillars –
birth and death –
rock solid facts,
conglomerated cause and chance,
secure both ends of life.

[Your name here]
19XX – 20YY

Each was born one day
somewhere by a mother –
Each will die one day
somewhere somehow.
No one asked to be born,
and few will choose to die.
All we control is the hyphen in between.

A hyphen printed has more atoms of ink than I have days.
A digital hyphen’s electrons outnumber us all.
Every living day is a birthday –
and there’s only one deathday –
until then we are ageless.
There’s only one age – alive.
So have a happy hyphen!


New Year, New Day

New Year, New Day
Goodloe Memorial Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Michael Gollin
January 5, 2014

Today is a good day! That is my morning mantra. Some days it’s easy to say, and I become euphoric and grateful simply by raising the blinds and watching the spectacle of sunlight shining on the world. The simple act of blessing each new day helps me channel my spiritual power to overcome even my deepest worries and negative emotions as I face sickness and trouble. How could I remain upset when I see each day as a magical present, given to me by forces beyond my control or understanding?

Every day is my birthday, and I can unwrap this miraculous gift again and again. Sure, today will surely include some disappointments, like when the presents we get for our birthday and Christmas or Hannukah don’t live up to our highest hopes, but there are few joys that compare to receiving and accepting a present, and I can’t imagine any better present, or anything more precious than another day of life.

Many years ago, a colleague’s wife died in her 30s from cancer. At her funeral, the rabbi said something that went straight to my heart, where I’ve kept it ever since. He said: “Our days on earth are numbered, and whether the number is large or small is not so important as how we live each one.” His words were like a message from a distant society. At the time I felt immortal, with a new wife, a new home, a new baby, and so many decades ahead of me that it seemed like infinity. I mostly disregarded the spiritual spark within and hustled and bustled, busy building a life for me, my wife and kids, and working hard in my chosen career as a patent attorney.

So here I am, two decades later, a confirmed agnostic who never belonged to any congregation before Goodloe, leading a religious service. I am grateful for the opportunity, and I can now appreciate the hard work that goes into a service.

Things changed in August 2012. I knew something was wrong when I finished a running race much slower than I expected, and was suffering weakness in my hand. I spent about a month with a series of doctors and in October my neurologist confirmed my deepest fear, with the devastating diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. This motor neuron disease causes progressive muscle loss, has no cure, and is terminal. That knowledge forced me to turn a corner onto a dark and scary road through a neighborhood we all try to avoid for as long as we can. And at first I felt like I was walking alone. But very soon, I found myself being led by guiding insights that emanated from my spiritual core, a resource I’ve nurtured here with you. Three of these insights relate to the year, the day, and the moment.

First, years — I asked myself a difficult question that fall: What would you do if you had a year to walk, and two years to live? The answer came in a flash: I would walk for a year, and live for two. Elaborating the details to that simplistic response has led me to experience 2013 as the happiest of years spent with family and close friends, at home, at work, and trekking to some of our planet’s most amazing places, fulfilling shared dreams of adventure. I had an instant entourage of family and friends as I hiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, followed Darwin’s footsteps in the Galapagos, visited my ancestors’ home towns in Eastern Europe, and went on safari in South Africa. We are all grateful for these experiences together. We will have a good time even when my wandering days are over and I am stuck closer to home. So I don’t worry about how many years I have left. I concentrate on making life a wonderful journey all the way. Wherever the road leads this year, I will enjoy the journey.

Second, days — The morning after my diagnosis, I woke up to a beautiful autumn day and felt pure ecstasy just to be alive. I put on my running shoes and off I went down the trail. I experienced transcendent joy – and even though I broke down sobbing with grief after a half mile, I kept going. Soon I made a vow to have such experiences every day, and somehow I conditioned myself to expect a continuous flow of magic moments. Why wouldn’t I wake up happy?

Third, moments – As soon as I received my confirmed diagnosis, I realized how hard it would be for my family to hear what I had just heard and so I came up with a way to soften the blow. I told them that I had good news and bad news, the good news being that I am very good at self-diagnosis. They knew immediately what the bad news meant and that is how we began to live in the new world, together. In dozens and hundreds of encounters since then, I have dropped my grief bomb on relatives, friends, and colleagues and shared every kind of reaction, from shock, to grief, to disbelief, with some people comforting me, and others requiring me to reassure and comfort them. All this loving, sharing, and empathy forged a growing and deepening bond with many people. Even at my law firm, a formal workplace, soon I found myself surrounded by all the hugs I can handle. People tell me it’s inspiring to see how I find silver linings among the storm clouds. I think what they mean is that I give them some confidence that they too will be able to handle the challenge well when it is their turn to follow me.

So those were some guiding insights. Now let’s take a time travel trip together to further understand the Mantra of Today.

Billions of years ago, there were no days, or years. Matter and energy were still new, and I get confused about when time began, or even what it is, but for our purposes let’s just recognize that eventually our spinning Earth began orbiting around the Sun, and that’s when years and days began in the way that we can all understand. And for billions of years to come, it’s a safe bet that there will be day after day.

Millions of years ago, vast ecosystems of life had formed in every sea and on every land mass. Sunrise and sunset in the Jurassic period were about the same as now. The profusion and variability of microbes, plants, and animals was unstoppable, despite mass extinctions now and then – and humans rose up on their hind legs and began running around in social groups that could outwit even the baddest of predators and prey. Like us, and the rest of their neighbor species, they awoke each day and went about their business.

Tens of thousands of years ago, as agriculture began, chiefs and Pharaohs and ancient priests began to organize the solar year into lunar months and set aside certain days as sacred.

Over the centuries, countless societies continued to rise and fall. Thousands then millions and billions of babies were born on their birthdays, grew up in happiness, or misery, and lived each day as best they could until the day they died. Even in war or disaster, survivors woke up each day and found the will to go on.

My own family history began about 150 years ago, when Russia required Jews to select a family name, and the records from then on allowed me to find where they lived, their birth year and who made it safely to America and when. Like us, every family begins to celebrate its own special holidays, with anniversaries, and dates of birth and death. But in my view, we should respect our family heritage, our ancestors and societies and the whole brilliant bundle of everything in our past, present and future, every single day.

So the years and seasons come and go, and the months and weeks form nice and convenient cycles of days. It’s great if we can celebrate the Sabbath, birthdays, anniversaries, and national holidays. But why stop there? Why not celebrate our family heritage, our societies and the whole brilliant bundle of everything in our past, present and future, every single morning?

And is it enough to greet each morning with joy? A family friend told me her story of surviving the Holocaust by leaving Lithuania days before the Nazis arrived. Every night since then, she gives thanks for the day she had just been fortunate enough to experience. So I added that to my mantra: in the morning, I say today is a good day. At night, I recall some positive events – hopefully I shared some love and made the world a bit better somehow — and then I say that was a great day, thank you. And this evening mantra made me even prouder of my spiritual achievements.

But wait, there’s more – one morning I listened to Krista Tippet interview Buddhist monk Thich Nat Han, and it dawned on me that he strives to be fully present, grateful, and aware in every waking moment. Few of us could meet that high standard. As for me, I am pleased to be able to enjoy each day a few times – but I realize there are infinite moments in every day that I could better appreciate.
Try it now. Close your eyes for a moment and try to experience gratitude just for being alive here today.


With that mindset, I can explain how living every day with gratitude can help us fulfill not one or two, but all Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism.

1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
The sun rises and sets for all of us, together. All people live their lives day by day, but each of us experiences our daily lives differently, with joy or sorrow, love or grief, comfort or privation. My day is neither more nor less valuable than yours.

2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Nelson Mandela was stuck in his cell for 27 years, about 10,000 days, and he used this time to prepare for liberation from apartheid, and to cultivate compassion toward his captors while insisting that they treat him with decency, day by day.

3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
Each day brings a new opportunity for spiritual growth. My membership in this congregation has helped me cultivate my spiritual garden with help and encouragement from all of you, and I hope I am returning the favor today.

4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
Even if I faced physical sickness, or troubled relationships yesterday, today I can search for higher truth and deeper meaning and transform negative experiences into positive lessons.

5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; and 6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
We are defined by the accumulation of choices we make every day. When you decide that every day is precious, you make your decisions count. You speak out and support causes that matter.

7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Each day of my life is also a day in the life of the trees and grass, the birds and squirrels, the ants and crickets and the flow of wind and water around me and around the world, from before recorded history began, and on until who knows when. As I savor today’s precious gift, really what I am experiencing is gratitude and responsibility for being a part of such an astoundingly beautiful and complex world.

You may also notice an analogy to another principled day by day approach. Alcoholics Anonymous urges daily recitation of the serenity prayer. My version is:
Grant me the strength to change the things I can, the patience to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know which is which.
Strength, patience, and wisdom can be restored every day.

As Morrie Schwartz was quoted in Tuesdays With Morrie, if you learn how to die, you learn how to live. I have learned how to love living every day, and to paraphrase Bob Dylan, I’m too busy being born to be afraid of dying.

Life is uncertain and no one really knows what will happen and when it will end, for ourselves or those we love. But I know a few things for sure. Each of us was conceived by our mother and father, we were born, we live, and we will die. We come and then we go. The seasons return each year, as our great blue and green earth circles the sun again and again. And as our planet spins, the sun rises in the east every morning and sets in the west every evening. The world will keep going no matter what we do, long after we are gone. All we have to do is get up every morning with a smile and try to appreciate that we are along for the ride. Then we can realize that today is surely a very fine day.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori
Michael Gollin

Dead —

No longer alive.

The dead —

All the people who once lived.

Remember the dead –

How the living relate to their origin and destiny.

We remember the dead —

A communion with family, friends, colleagues and compatriots.

Do we remember the dead?

A challenge that keeps us centered and humble.

How do we remember the dead?

The way they asked.
Celebrating the lives they led, their work, spouses, children.
Kind words, spiritual practices, grief, graves, and graveyards.
Laughter and forgetting what’s best forgotten.
Stories told, pictures taken.
Transmuting memories into new relationships and shared experience.
Homes built, wealth achieved and heirlooms passed on.
Struggles and troubles survived.
Battles waged, achievements won, institutions that live on.
Good deeds done, works published, songs sung, art displayed and athletic triumphs.
Mementos, monuments, and memorials.
The way they would want.
The way you would want when you are gone.