Author Archives: BTerao

About BTerao

Barbara Terao is a writer, psychologist, and breast cancer survivor who likes to be out in nature. See for her Of The Earth blog.

Vulnerabilities and Their Gifts

(Here’s my essay, “Four Varieties of Vulnerabilities and Their Gifts” for website.)

Cancer is a deep dive into vulnerability. Though we may have been healthy, strong, and independent in the past, we find ourselves in need of care. We face our frailty and mortality, whether we want to or not. 

As social science researcher Brené Brown wrote in her many books, vulnerability is universal. It’s a big part of being human and connecting with others. As I prepare my memoir, for publication, I have trepidation about sharing my personal story of medical and marital problems with the world. I know from writing for magazines and newspapers that readers often have complaints and criticisms, and some of the comments can be harsh. But writing is my creative path and, as Brown said in one of her TED Talks, “Without vulnerability, you cannot create.” With that in mind, I decided to explore types of vulnerabilities and the gifts they offer to us fragile mortals.

1. Physical vulnerability is a fact of life, making us dependent on loved ones, doctors, and others for protection and healing. The Latin root of “vulnerable” is “vulnus,” meaning to wound, either emotionally or physically. We prefer to avoid pain and injury, trying our best to do so as we become mature adults. We are born dependent on others, grow to be independent individuals, and eventually, if so inclined, we recognize our interdependence with all beings. 

I remember that after a bad fall off my bicycle, I had to limp my way through the halls of my middle school for a few days. I’d been taking my body for granted and didn’t like being slowed down. Fortunately, a friend gave me a ride home on his bicycle every day until I could walk properly again. I discovered that health and fitness are not guaranteed, and that accepting help from others is not so bad.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, I assumed I could handle treatments on my own. I usually prefer solitude when I’m healing. But when the side effects of chemotherapy knocked me flat, I changed my tune. My fatigue was so extreme, I could barely muster the energy to walk across the room, much less prepare food to nourish myself. I needed help. 

When people said I was brave in dealing with cancer, I didn’t feel brave; I was just doing what was required to survive. I think complimenting my courage was their way of acknowledging how illness makes us vulnerable—and how scary that can be.

2. Emotional vulnerability is a biggie! As Pastor Jordan Rice of Renaissance Church in Harlem said, “Vulnerability means intentionally putting yourself in a position that allows yourself to be hurt but for the purpose of gaining something better.” For instance, some people have mixed feelings about falling in love—euphoric on the one hand, and apprehensive of being hurt on the other. The risk of emotional exposure is real. 

The more we slow down and process our feelings, such as in a journal or with a trusted listener, the more we understand ourselves and can make proactive decisions moving forward. Give yourself a chance to be heard. We may as well get comfy with our faults, foibles, and quirks, or at least have a sense of humor about them! As we recognize our range of feelings, we expand our self-awareness and enhance our emotional intelligence. 

Those are the gifts of vulnerability. We realize we are neither perfect nor invincible. We can reach out for help, and life is often richer when we do. Several of my acquaintances became close friends during my cancer treatments. When they brought me food, I not only got to know them better, but I also found out what good cooks they are! We remain friends to this day.

For those of us going through cancer or other challenges, it helps to have patience and compassion for ourselves. Differentiating passive patience from active endurance, author Toni Bernhard wrote of her illness, “I include patient endurance on my list of compassion practices because it can help alleviate our suffering as we face the many difficulties that result from being chronically ill.” One of her mindful methods is simply taking three slow, conscious breaths, finding “when I exhale on that third breath, a feeling of peaceful calm comes over me,” and she can refocus on what she wants to do.

3. Interpersonal vulnerability is inescapable, unless we become hermits. Sometimes interactions with loved ones, coworkers, and doctors are difficult and even painful. Dare we remove our armor, lower our shields, and open ourselves to possibilities of better and deeper connections? When we feel safe enough to be open with people, we no longer need to numb or hide our emotions. Vulnerability is sometimes equated with weakness, yet acknowledging weakness strengthens the “empathy muscle,” increasing our compassion for others.

When we lead with our hearts and let others know we love them, we may be rebuffed or disappointed in the outcome. Or we may be joyfully surprised! That’s what happens when we live wholeheartedly. As Brown observed, we connect by allowing ourselves to be seen. “Connection is why we’re here,” she said. We are worthy of love and belonging.

4. We have existential vulnerability, because life seems fleeting and death is inevitable. Learning we have cancer, we realize we could die from it. With our newly sharpened awareness, we savor our precious days—and our loved ones, who are also mortal—more than ever. We can make plans to optimize our time together, while we still can. When a dear one dies, as psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross observed, “You will be whole again, but you will never be the same.” When we feel ready, if we have the luxury of time, we can make plans for the end of our own lives. As long as we are alive, we have choices.

When we survive cancer, life is not the same. We are not the same. Is it fair or productive to compare our past selves with the present? Even if we’re not the same, we’re still growing. Even when we can’t control our circumstances, we find ways to control how we respond to them. Though vulnerable, we are alive.

Subalpine wildflowers

Beautiful Biophilia: Savoring Awe

Mount Rainier at sunrise

            Can we get high on alpenglow and aspen groves? Yes—and, doctor’s orders, we should, for our own happiness, let transcendent experiences enrich our lives. When psychologist Dacher Keltner studied high school students’ experiences of awe on a white-water rafting trip, he observed biophilia, love of the natural world, in action. The teens made deep connections to their environment. One student commented, “What’s cool about awe is that it literally blows your mind!”

            Keltner noted, “In various studies we’ve asked people, ‘What’s running through your mind when you feel awe?’ And they’ll say things like ‘I want to make the world better,’ or ‘I just feel like being quiet,’ or ‘I feel like purifying things.’ It makes you humble. It makes you curious about the world.” Awe, attention, and appreciation are good medicine for what ails us.

            The humbling emotion of awe is most often elicited by raw nature, elevating our well-being, and sometimes even revising our assessments of the world. It is an energized pleasure that seems almost on the brink of fear, touched by infinity or at least something beyond us. For instance, Scott Russell Sanders wrote in A Brief History of Awe, witnessing thunderstorms provokes the feelings of awe and wonder in him. 

            One of my most awe-filled moments was on a twenty-mile hike on New Zealand’s Hollyford Track. The fern-choked trail led us past waterfalls, rivers, and mossy rocks as rain pattered on our yellow slickers. The deluge let up as we walked further into the beech forests of Hollyford Valley, and we felt a world away from ordinary life. But it was when we approached a rocky shore that my husband and I stopped dead in our tracks. There were Fiordland crested penguins (known as tawaki in Maori) on the beach, sporting their extravagant, yellow eyebrow feathers as they hopped from rock to rock! It was a moment I will never forget because I knew how lucky we were to see such rare birds.

            My husband and I observed the penguins from afar and then continued on our way, transformed by the brief encounter. It was as if I’d seen charming creatures from a fairy tale, they were so magical. As Jonah Paquette wrote in Awestruck: How Embracing Wonder Can Make You Happier, Healthier, and More Connected, our vision expands in such moments. “By learning to see ourselves through this lens,” he wrote, “we allow ourselves to feel a sense of greater cosmic purpose, to see ourselves as a link in the chain of history, and perhaps experience a sense of awe.”

            When I turn my attention to small miracles of smooth stones on the beach, pine fragrance of trees, or pink clouds at sunrise, I have gratitude. I believe in greater possibilities—and in the value of my own life.  Whether or not I reach the worshipful level of awe, I take time to savor.  And in savoring, I believe, lies the salvation of the world, because we take care of what we love. It’s part of what makes life worth living.



Trying on outfits helps us know who we are—and who we are not. My mother bought me this satin, sequined crown and cape at a church bazaar in my hometown of Northfield, Minnesota. The hand-sewn costume was lovely and fit my five-year-old frame, but not my personality. As my father took my photo, I sat up straight, as regally as I could. But our Brittany Spaniel, Princess, had had puppies and I was more interested in playing with a wiggly pup than posing.

 A couple years later, my mom signed me up for ballet class at Northfield Arts Guild. After three lessons, I convinced her to let me stay home and watch “The Lone Ranger” on TV instead. Rather than twirling on my toes, I wanted to ride Silver, the horse I saw on television.

 Some of my friends dressed up their dolls and I joined them for the fun of their company, but preferred playing frisbee tag in our cul-de-sac or exploring the college arboretum with my friend, Amy. Rather than aspiring to a throne, I liked sitting in trees. Perhaps that’s the influence of my Celtic roots.

 Thanks to a glass slipper, Cinderella attained royal status by catching the eye of a prince. The size and appearance of her hair, figure, and even her feet were the means of her success. What message does that send? Writer Sarah Showfety calls “beauty-based praise-baiting” a toxic message for girls, as if their looks are the basis of their self-worth. I’d rather melt down that glass shoe and make of it a new lens to see more facets of ourselves.

 I was never glamorous princess material. Though my nickname was Barbie, I lacked the fashion sense of the Mattel doll (and never owned one as a child). Rather than a tiara or tutu, I preferred a T-shirt and jeans. Yet we all have moments of glory when we deserve a sparkly crown in our lives. I think, in such moments, I’ll hold mine inside and let it shine from there.

Poetry of Witnessing

Eurasian milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum)

Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes. In truth, the state has more than 14,000 lakes of ten acres or more. I enjoyed many of them as I was growing up.

At the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference last month, I attended a workshop on poetry of witness, a way of writing that holds up hard truths so they are not forgotten. Dawn Pichon Barron of Evergreen State College led the workshop and asked us to write about a troubling societal issue. She gave us 16 minutes to compose a poem of witness. As we read our resulting poems, we experienced not only witnessing but also a “with-ness” (Mitsein) with each other.

Here is mine, inspired by my love of lakes and the need to protect them.

10,000 Lakes Minus One

You may remember

the Minnesota lake

where you stepped in clear

cool water on a hot day.

You may remember glittering minnows

skittering away in the shallows,

bass and pike as you went deeper.

You may remember the faint hint of algae

as you swam out among the fish.

Now when you visit you wonder—

What has happened to this place?

And WHAT is that smell?

When you wade in for a swim,

you’re blocked by invasive seaweed,

a thick mat of Eurasian milfoil grabbing your legs.

The smell is of a suffocating, overgrown lake

that is dying.

Yet, if you stand on the high bank

and look east

you’ll see a single pink water lily

and its wide green pad floating,

shining in the light.

Lotus photo by Barbara Terao

Seaweed problems are not only in lakes. ABC News reported “Record amount of seaweed is choking shores in the Caribbean.” More than 24 million tons of sargassum clogged the Atlantic in June.


Growing up in Minnesota, summer meant jumping in Bay Lake to play to my heart’s content. One day, my dad came home from the marina with a huge inner tube in our yellow speedboat. Probably made for a colossal tractor tire, I could stretch out on that inflated, rubbery ring and float for ages. Or I would bounce on it with a friend until one – or both of us – tumbled, laughing, into the water.

Steph and Barb on Crystal Lake a few years ago.

My other favorite activity was jumping with my friends on the trampoline on the beach of a nearby resort. Luckily, the resort owners knew my family and tolerated our frequent visits.

When I think back on those times, I wonder if I had an excess of nervous energy or was simply an active kid. I sure liked being in motion, particularly if there was a bounce involved. Maybe all that ricocheting around kept me in shape. I didn’t think of myself as athletic, but in fourth grade I was one of a handful of children at my school to be given the Presidential Fitness Award, a program promoted by President Kennedy. I sewed the patch they gave me on my jacket, not sure what to make of it.

No longer taking my health or energy for granted, I now appreciate that brief, unexpected recognition of what our bodies can do for us. And I still like to float on water, preferably with a cushy inner tube on which I can lean back and watch the sky.

Barbara Terao

Barbara Wolf Terao is from Northfield, Minnesota and now lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest. She’s written a memoir called Reconfigured and posts random observations on her Of the Earth blog. This piece was posted on on May 4, 2022.


Walt Whitman

The Glorious Awkwardness, in Which 26 Letters are Arranged in Praise of Being Ourselves

(A response to a prompt from Jon Batiste, who said as he accepted his Oscar, all musicians work with “the same twelve notes.”)

One evening in Evanston, Illinois, I went to a small gathering at my friend Linda’s place. I remembered what her elegant home looked like, so I didn’t bother to look at house numbers when I parked my car on the street. In fact, I was so sure I had the right house, I knocked lightly and walked right in the front door.

I called out “Hello! Linda?” and started looking around at the colorful art in the foyer. It didn’t look familiar. A petite, white woman appeared. My friend, Linda, is tall and Black. It turned out it wasn’t Linda’s house.

“Hello,” the stranger said warmly. “I’m Anya. Are you looking for Linda? She lives down the block.”

Embarrassed, I said, “Oh, my gosh, I just waltzed right into your house and it’s the wrong house. I’m so sorry!”

But you know what? Anya was so articulate and kind, I was soon introducing myself and having a lovely conversation with her. Such a gracious hostess to me, her unexpected guest, she even got my address in order to invite me to her annual winter party. Eventually, I left and found my way to Linda’s house, where we had a good laugh about my mix-up.

I attended Anya’s party in December and enjoyed getting to know her and her guests. One of the guests was Tony, who then invited me to his annual party, which involved sitting in his basement with our beverage-of-choice, taking turns reading Walt Whitman’s entire poem, “Song of Myself,” aloud. Which takes two hours. My kind of get-together! As Walt wrote in his poem, “In all people, I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,/And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them,” adding, “I exist as I am, that is enough.”

You never know where our awkwardness and curiosity will lead when we are being ourselves. Now that many of us are vaccinated against COVID, daring to show our bare faces, and venturing out to socialize again, it feels awkward at times. It’s an adjustment. But being awkward is not always a bad thing.

(With thanks to Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste for the topic suggestion.)

I can relate!



Who gets to marry whom? Should your skin color, genetic makeup, or country of origin matter? We’ve seen tremendous progress in legalizing gay marriage, but how far have we really come? I wonder about these things as we conclude a year in which we’ve struggled more than ever to understand each other. Many of our assumptions about our fellow human beings and our relationships are too flimsy to withstand such changing times. The 2002 World Book Encyclopedia (the edition I have on hand) has an entry on marriage that states, “if a man and woman are of a different age, nationality, religion, or background, their chances of a successful marriage drop significantly.” According to more recent research, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher found three particular capacities associated with happy partnerships: empathy, emotional self-control, and focusing on the positive (what you like about your spouse) rather than the negative. These could apply to anybody! Fisher’s subjects were in the United States and China, indicating that some measures of marital success are not culture bound.

I hardly considered limitations on whom I could marry, largely because of the systemic racism of white privilege whereby I didn’t have to think about such things. Where love and compatibility are not the main criteria in choosing a life partner, political and religious leaders have, historically, tried to intervene in people’s love lives, telling them whom they can and cannot marry. Until I was eleven years old, many states had laws banning interracial marriage. Then the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Virginia anti-miscegenation law, thereby making it illegal for any state to prohibit interracial marriage. The court decided that such laws violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  

Sixteen years after that court decision, I married my husband, who is among the third generation of his Japanese family to live in America. We’ve been married more than thirty-seven years. Are we mismatched? Yes, in many ways that have nothing to do with ethnicity or skin tone.  We have some cultural differences, for sure, but doesn’t everybody? We have two so called “mixed race” daughters and celebrate a mix of cultures. I like the old saying that variety is the spice of life. And, biologically speaking, variety makes for stronger communities, such as plant diversity in ecosystems.

In scientific terms, race is a social construct. Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum explains, “Despite myths to the contrary, biologists tell us that the only meaningful racial categorization is that of human.” Still, we persist in categorizing groups and highlighting supposed differences among those groups. Socially constructed boundaries defining my European ancestors broke down over the centuries. Partly due to intermarriage, the significance of identities, such as French or Dutch, diminished. It is easier, and widely acceptable, to say I am European American rather than list the half dozen countries from which I am derived.

Our daughter, Emily, and I both had our genes tested by 23 & Me, with predictable results. My ancestry was said to be 100% European and Emily’s was half European and half Asian. But one of the fascinating things about those tests is that, as they become more refined, they yield new and more specific results. I was notified the other day, for instance, that my genetic testing now shows that my ancestry is only 99.8% European, with a bit of “trace ancestry,” glimmers of unknown forebears outside Europe. (And, if you are wondering, I have a little Neanderthal, too.) Also, I can now say that I’m 22.4% British and Irish. My Irish ancestors likely came from County Donegal, County Dublin, County Cork, and County Kerry. That’s how precise the tests can be. (I’m not sure why my mother’s Manx roots were not similarly specified. I’d like to know more about my ancestors from Isle of Man.)

While genetic information is illuminating, it is not the whole story. I would never want to erase or even blur any of the ingredients that make up a person. In other words, I don’t want to be colorblind. How bleak that would be to overlook something as intrinsic and gorgeous as skin color! Lethal and divisive problems arise not from acknowledging differences, but from our attachments to what those differences mean. I am not saying we should ignore our identities or histories. Rather, I want to respect what identity means to each person, and honor loving, egalitarian relationships, regardless of gender, culture, or other human variations. Maybe the categories of people will continue to get broader and broader, as happened with European Americans, until I can simply say, “Me? I’m of the human race.” 

As for marriage, it’s about time for it to be about love, first and foremost. What other force is strong enough to hold us together through thick and thin? Along with humor, I suppose. Fisher calls laughter “the elixir of survival – it evolved to get us through hard times.”

May we be in good health, good spirits, and good humor in the coming year! All the best to each of you. (I felt obligated to find photos of couples for this post. If any of these are not okay to share, I will gladly remove them. Except the last one. That’s me and my husband!)

MANOOMIN: Giving Thanks for Indigenous Foods

Freshly harvested Zizania palustis, also known as wild rice.

I love wild rice. It’s delicious. I grew up eating it at Thanksgiving and for other special occasions, with turkey or made into soup or pilaf. I also like the fact that wild rice, called manoomin by the Ojibwe, is grown in the lakes and rivers of Minnesota where I grew up. We’d buy local wild rice at Mille Lacs Trading Post after it had been harvested by canoe and parched with wood smoke.

Manoomin and white rice are both seeds of aquatic grasses, yet wild rice is a different species of grain than white rice and has its own distinct, nutty flavor. It is just as easy to cook as rice, if not easier, and has more protein and other nutrients than “regular” rice.

Darkest rice on the right is farm cultivated. The raw, traditionally harvested manoomin is on the left and the fluffy, cooked version is at the top.

I bought my last wild rice from Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation in Minnesota, online at Bineshii Wild Rice & Goods. The White Earth Nation also sells their food and gifts online. It is easy to find black, shiny, commercial wild rice in grocery stores, cultivated on farms in California and Minnesota, but I prefer the hand harvested variety. Heid Erdrich quotes an Ojibwe (Anishinaabeg) statement about the sacredness of indigenous food in her book, Original Local: “As Anishinaabeg, we have a duty and responsibility to protect our manoomin. It is part of our interconnectedness to the Four Orders of Life and in accordance with the original instructions given to us by Gichi-Manidoo (the Creator).”

Preserving what is healthy, harmonious, and beautiful is to be celebrated on this day, October 12, which is Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Euro-Americans like me have a history of squandering the natural resources that were enhanced, honored, and protected by First Nations people for thousands of years before we got to North America. We benefited from Indigenous Peoples’ efforts, at great cost to them, displacing them from their homes. As I enjoy my hearty cornbread, spicy beans, and delicate wild rice today, I wonder how far the tables have turned.

Louise Erdrich, who is Anishinaabe, wrote, “Every Native American is a survivor, an anomaly, a surprise on earth. We were all slated for extinction before the march of progress. But, surprise, we are progress.” Sometimes looking back is the best way to move forward. We may have missed some lessons along the way. We thought we invited the First Nations to our tables, but, in truth, we’ve been dining from theirs since first contact. It may be too late to recover the bounty of the land and the water, but it is never too late to learn from others and from the land itself. For instance, I can savor indigenous foods with appreciation and awareness of their origins, and treat the foods and their sources with respect.

Potawatomi scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” It is a relationship to be fostered.

Manoomin in the wild.



“It’s morning, swan, wake up, climb in the air, follow me!” Kabir


“Will the highs ever be as high as the lows are low?” asked a woman who had been dragged under the waves once too often.  

There are many reasons to feel down and out lately. The lows can feel very low indeed. Yet, is it our goal to always be riding a wave? When I reframe the question from ease and pleasure to one of learning, I see value in whatever I experience, because I can learn from just about anything. For instance, I like sweets, but I don’t eat pie and pudding all day long. It may be pleasant for a while, but sometimes I need garlic, broccoli, and wild rice. It’s a matter of nutrition. I choose what nourishes me in the long run and allows me to grow.

In a similar way, suffering can help me grow, as it carves out space in my heart for more compassion. I’m not always in a place of light and peace. My friend sent me a beautiful essay she’d written about her aunt. Then she sent me a note, regretting it. She worried I’d be troubled by the account of her aunt’s brutal cancer treatments. Yes, the story evoked emotions and yes, it did remind me of how weak and ill chemotherapy made me feel when I had treatment. But I assured my friend that she need not hold back in sharing such things. These stories are about my people; they are where I find fellowship with those who know what I’ve been through. It is not a morbid interest; it is a kinship. And it’s not just cancer. We’re all struggling with something.

I’ve read that the densest clumps of matter in the Eagle Nebula become stars. The cloudy bits become bright, shedding light that will reach the Earth in a millennium or so. I’m learning through all the highs and lows, days and nights. They can all be useful to me. The black pumice stone of sorrow polishes my rough spots until I glow once again – softer this time, with ears to listen and tears for your pain.

When I’m feeling cloudy, I know it’s time to call on my Better Self. Her resources are fresh air, loved ones, and prayers. Sunshine, when available. Naps help, too. I recharge both my super and subtle powers. How do I reactivate my hope muscle? Sometimes with quiet breath and sometimes with noisy dancing. And by visiting the trees. You come, too. The morning star is up.

Eagle Nebula, a star nursery


Here’s something I wrote for Storied Stuff about the west coast fires and smoke. As all the Storied Stuff pieces do, mine was inspired by a treasured object that brings back memories.


            Huge swaths of the West coast are on fire. It’s that time of year in the Pacific Northwest when we are advised not to breathe the smoky air. The sun hides its face and ferries leaving Whidbey Island blow their foghorns over and over so as not to collide with each other in the haze. Stuck inside, I feel like clutching my Smokey Bear teddy bear and going straight to bed. To live in a beautiful place and not be able to go outside seems like a hardship, until I think of those who are battling the fires or trying to save their homes and loved ones from the flames.

            WWSD? What would Smokey do? As a child, I was touched by the story of Smokey, a cub orphaned in a forest fire, so my parents gave me a stuffed Smokey Bear. I’ve kept him to this day. I also kept a U.S. Forest Service coloring book about Smokey, the honorary forest ranger who helps prevent wildfires. “Protect our forest and friends!” Smokey implores. He used to ask children to “never play with matches,” because even small sparks can start wildfires. He still does, but now he adds a modern message, “Watch your campfire, NOT your phone!”

            I’ve internalized his message to protect nature and try to prevent problems before they get out of control. He has deputized each one of us: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” And he’ll give you a hug whenever you need it.

Barbara Terao grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, raised a family in Evanston, Illinois, and is now writing a cancer memoir and other nonfiction on Whidbey Island in Washington.