keep watch for hummingbird joy

Photo of M.E. Sullivan by Michael Schmitt

Photo of M.E. Sullivan by Michael Schmitt

To all of Mary Ellen’s blog readers:

Most of you may already know that Mary Ellen passed away on March 13th, 2016. Our family is grateful for the outpouring of support and expressions of sympathy we have received since then. We wanted to share her beautifully written obituary on the blog, as it captures her essence and spirit so well. We hope that each of you will think of Mary Ellen as you continue to find joy in the world.

The Sullivan Family

Mary Ellen Sullivan, who wrote a blog on joy, dies at 56

Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

On the day she was wheeled into surgery for recently diagnosed ovarian cancer, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote words that would become her clarion call, words that ring with the insistent urgency of a prophet: “If you are sleepwalking through your life — wake up — before the universe does it for you.”

She posted the words on her blog, On the Wings of the Hummingbird, a compendium of wisdom and joy, under the title, “A rare piece of hummingbird advice.”

Sullivan, 56, who died of ovarian cancer Sunday at Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, wasn’t in the business of giving advice.

She was a writer and traveler, a diviner of joy — joy unexpected, unlikely and against the odds. “In a time of chaos (now righted),” she wrote in March 2012, “on a day in which joy seemed eclipsed by uncertainty, I committed to writing about joy every day. I figured that if I can find joy when I’m in the mud, then maybe I have something to say about joy.”

Sullivan, a longtime Chicago resident, was born in Harlingen, Texas, and, from the beginning, crisscrossed the continent and the globe.

“I grew up a nomad,” she once wrote, “living in 10 different places by the time I was 19 because my father’s corporate job took our family across the country and around the world. Some of it was glamorous — San Francisco in 1969, Europe for my college years — but other parts were, as you might imagine, difficult.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston College in 1981, majoring in English, with philosophy and art history minors. In 1982, she earned a master’s degree in magazine journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Upon graduation, she took a job as a magazine editor at General Learning Corp., a small educational publishing house in Highland Park, and five years later, she moved to Advocate Health Care, in Oak Brook, where she ran the publications department for another five years.

She was putting down roots, falling in love with Chicago, from the lakefront she biked by the mile to the backstreets and blues joints and countless holes in the wall. She explored the city with an adventurer’s eye and a journalist’s curiosity. After a decade, though, she was ready to travel the globe. All on her own.

“On the heels of a short marriage, a grueling divorce and some burning career questions, I took an extended leave of absence from my job to travel around the world by myself,” she once wrote. “I skied the mountains of New Zealand and biked through the Chinese countryside. I bargained for goods at the Bangkok night market, shopped the glittering stores of Hong Kong, touched the crumbling Berlin Wall, swam along the coast of Australia and holed up in Somerset Maugham’s former hotel room in Malaysia to write.

“Mine was nothing less than a spiritual journey in which I peeled off layers of cultural conditioning to get to the essence of my spirit,” she wrote.

Unwilling to return to the corporate world, Sullivan launched a freelance writing career that brought her bylines in the New York Times and various women’s magazines, as well as travel guides, a book about Chicago’s “Cows on Parade” public sculpture exhibit, and liner notes for a jazz record label.

She designed her life, she said, so that she could continue to travel, paradoxically deepening her roots the farther she roamed.

“I spent one winter in South America, another on Tahiti and Easter Island. Along the way I fell in love with Africa and returned to this land of my heart, time and time again. I began studying with the ancient medicine men and women around the world, and found a community here in Chicago of like-minded people who became my tribe.”

While in Chicago, Sullivan convened a writers’ group that influenced a memoir, a novel, a self-help volume and a historical text, “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

She might have found her deepest calling, though, as a keeper and chronicler of joy. Her blog, which she started in March 2012, was a reflection of the way she lived her life.

She began by putting a journalist’s sharp eye to the world around her:

“I noticed how unconscious most people were, blind to the joy all around them. They walked with their heads down and their defenses up. They saw without seeing, heard without hearing, spoke without thinking, remembering nothing. It actually hurt my heart to watch. And then, as the economy got worse and the natural disasters quickened, I saw fear, anger and incivility. Drivers became ruder, sales clerks surlier, tempers shorter.”

And so, she set out to right that, recording joy day after day. She named her blog after the hummingbird: “My favorite description of hummingbird magic comes from Ted Andrews, who wrote the seminal book on animal totems called ‘Animal Speak.’ He says, ‘There is something inside the soul of all of us that wants to soar through sunbeams, then dance midair in a delicate mist, then take a simple bath on a leaf. There is something in our souls that wants to hover at beautiful moments in our lives, making them freeze in time. There is something in us that wants to fly backwards and savor once more the beautiful past. Some of us are just hummingbird people.’”

“Guilty as charged,” Sullivan added.

And she ended one blog entry with this insistent instruction: “And if you love the life you have, please, please, practice gratitude. Wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world. Pay attention to it, honor it and keep your heart and your eyes wide open. You won’t regret it.”

Sullivan’s partner of 18 years, Michael Schmitt, died in 2014.

She is survived by her parents, Donal and Martha Sullivan; two brothers, Bill and John; and a sister, Sheila Zimmerman.

Memorial services are pending.

Barbara Mahany is a freelancer reporter.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

Sitting in Silence


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Empty room 3D rendering

When I had to go back to chemotherapy, I had this idea about myself: That I’d be the badass, powering through it as if nothing else in my life had changed. But here’s the thing about illness. It is in control. It dictates what you do no matter what your imagination latches onto. This time around, things quickly began to look very different. I found myself disinterested in distractions of movies and books. I found that I had little tolerance for many of the pleasures that could move me through the day.

Instead, I found myself sitting in silence. A lot. It was almost like a cosmic pull. I could sit for hours staring out the window. I watched the sun rise and the sky change colors every morning. I watched the evening shadows as the sun slowly sunk on the horizon. It wasn’t like I was consciously meditating, I just was. I was one with the day, with my surroundings, with looking out the window.

I spoke with my yoga and meditation teacher about this. Shouldn’t I be doing more focused meditations? Chanting? Micromanaging the universe the way I did the first time around, asking for very specific prayers and actions? Anything else but sitting in these quiet spaces? She reassured me that I was actually practicing meditation the way it should be—being connected to all that there was without trying to direct my mind one way or another. It felt strange, but it also felt right. This is what I seem to need to do in order to heal. And I can feel myself healing. That I know is true.

It’s a quiet existence, a little boring even, but I’m trying to have patience with it. Trying to understand what my body is telling me I need. Somehow, the quiet is opening up something inside of me, a way to understand my story in a different way. How I got here, and where I may need to go to next. It’s an odd sort of existence but if feels absolutely necessary.

How will I know when I’m done with the quiet sitting? I think I’ll just know. My body will direct me to the next thing I need to do to heal. Until then, I’m breathing, and meditating and looking out windows.

The Friday Five: Winter Comforts


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WATCH: Bridge of Spies  Nominated for a best picture Academy Award, this film by Steven Spielberg seems to have no chance of winning. It is too small, too linear. That said, it is a perfect Friday night movie when you don’t have the energy to follow complicated plots, convoluted camera angles and laser cut editing. It is the straightforward story of an insurance lawyer played by Tom Hanks who gets roped into defending an accused cold war spy in 1957. The scenario ultimately brings him to East Berlin to negotiate a trade for a captured US pilot. Tom Hanks, who I’ve never been a huge fan of, does a marvelous job of not overacting and the film has a satisfying conclusion, making it feel like a rather old-fashioned movie.

VISIT: The Driehaus Museum The exhibition Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times just opened at this hidden gem of a museum at 40 E. Erie, and what better time than in the grip of an arctic blast to have a little lighthearted fun with everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure Sunday night TV show? The exhibit features costumes from the first four seasons of Downton Abbey. It’s a shame there are none from this current season, which are truly spectacular, but I’m sure there is enough elegance and opulence from the earlier seasons to satisfy even the most die-hard Downton fan. To enhance the visit, the museum is also offering what they are calling “tea experiences” in which they offer a traditional English high tea beforehand. Note that both the viewing and the tea require separate tickets.

REVISIT: The People v O.J. Simpson For those of us who lived through the spectacle that was the OJ trial, this 10-part American Crime Stories mini series on FX brings it all back: the white bronco chase, the wacky cast of characters, the blurring of the lines between news, the law and entertainment. The series is just two episodes in, but I am finding it engaging, as it focuses as much on the legal side of the story as it does on the personal. It will be interesting to see how the passage of time affects the impact of the story, as well as the shadow of today’s current environment of the police’s handling of African American suspects. I’m not quite buying Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ, and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian just looks like Ross Geller with a skunk stripe in his hair, but overall the acting is good and the casting is interesting—John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, for example. The most intriguing character right now is, surprisingly, Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson, who got so vilified during the trial but shows all the right instincts about what the situation is really about. The script seems to have substance, so I have hopes that this show will be more than a walk down memory lane and will bring a new perspective on a well known and strange chapter of our collective history.

READ: A God in Ruins   I don’t even know how to describe this complicated, marvelous book by the always wonderful Kate Atkinson. At its heart, it is about World War II, a companion piece to her Life After Life novel that was my favorite book a couple of years ago. While Life After Life told the story of World War II England from the point of view of Ursula, who worked in London during the blitz, this companion piece tells the story of the war from the point of view of her brother Teddy, who was an RAF pilot of Halifax planes. But there is so much more than just the fighting or the nightly sorties. There is the red thread of war that informs every part of Teddy’s life. There is the quiet heroism of men like him who managed to survive against unfathomable odds. There is the way the war affects all his life choices—pushing him to want a life of kindness after all he has seen and experienced. Then there is Kate Atkinson’s unorthodox storytelling where chapters are so wildly out of order that you know what happens before it happens. It’s a challenging read, but well worth it.

EAT: Chicken Pot Pies from Whole Foods   During the dead of winter, there is nothing better than comfort food, and chicken pot pies tend to be right at the top that list. To my surprise, Whole Foods has a wonderful little chicken pot pie in its prepared food section—meaty, delicately spiced and filling. They also make a version with turkey that is just as good. So on these cold days, (and with a Whole Foods at the end of my block) it is reassuring that comfort food is at my fingertips.



Words for a Wednesday: Life Is Amazing…


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photoearth from Hubble

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and the awful it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.”

~L. R. Knost

And how amazing is this photo? It’s Earth shrouded in clouds as taken by the Hubble telescope.

The Friday Five: What to Do This Week


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for friday five

READ: Fates and Furies.  I’m only a little more than halfway through this book, but I’m already recommending it to everyone. This tour de force, written beautifully by Lauren Groff, tells the story of a 24-year-old marriage of a golden couple from the perspective of both husband and wife. It’s a well-used device, but the key lies entirely in the writing: the characters are fully drawn, the story itself is interesting, and the telling of it is lyrical and engaging. Groff plays with perception, and uses plot twists organically to shift perspectives. Oh, and by the way, this reportedly was President Obama’s favorite book of the year (I love that he reads fiction!).

EAT: Nookies Edgewater.  Those Chicagoans who came of age in Lincoln Park and Old Town during the ‘80s probably have fond memories of the original Nookies—the place for Saturday or Sunday breakfast after an over-indulgent night on the town. It was always packed, and there were a fair amount of people still wearing their clothes from the previous evening. Nookies was less about the food and more about the ritual. Fast forward to the 21st Century, and we have a relatively new Nookies on Bryn Mawr off of Broadway that couldn’t be more different. This Nookies, big, modern and spiffy, offers a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu with emphasis on quality. Breakfast still features spillover crowds, but the real secret of this restaurant is to go for dinner. You’ll get home-cooked specialties like pot roast and beef stroganoff, along with more modern concoctions like grilled salmon with curried quinoa. There is also an extensive all-day diner menu of sandwiches, soups and salads. What makes this new Nookies so good, however, is the ambiance: service that is attentive without being obsequious, tables set far enough apart that you can have a real conversation with your dinner mates and the luxury of time because no one is trying to hurry you out the door. Nookies is all grown up now, and that’s a good thing.

WATCH: 45 Years.  Full disclosure: I didn’t set out to see “45 Years,” but by the time I got to the movie theater, “Brooklyn” was sold out and this film was running at approximately the same time. That said, I’m glad I saw it, for Charlotte Rampling’s Oscar-nominated performance alone. It’s a slow, quiet movie about a long marriage that faces some unexpected news from the past the same week of the big 45th anniversary party the couple has planned. It’s a subtle juxtaposition between the resilience of a long marriage and the forces that can undermine it in the blink of an eye. Acclaimed British actor Tom Courtenay plays the husband with the right blend of stubbornness and cluelessness, but it is Rampling’s film all the way. It’s a highly nuanced performance in a movie that is all but based on nuance.

LISTEN: Real Crime Profile podcast.  My cousin Paul Sullivan—a veteran podcaster with his daily “Sully Baseball” podcast—has joined forces with his wife Lisa Zambetti (a casting agent for the TV series “Criminal Minds”) to produce a new podcast series that discusses real crime and the minds that solve them. They are working with former FBI agent Jim Clemente and former New Scotland Yard and FBI-trained profiler Laura Richards. On their debut podcast, they take on the runaway hit “Making of a Murderer” and bring their own perspective to it. The podcast is available on

SEE: Camerado Suite.  Friend and friend of the blog musician Michael Miles—banjo player extraordinaire—is putting on a unique performance Wednesday, February 3 at the Poetry Foundation downtown that sets the poetry of Walt Whitman in a concerto for banjo, orchestra and jazz choir. “Camerado Suite” premiered last month at Niles North High School in Skokie to rave reviews from those who saw it, and will play at the Poetry Foundation on a slightly smaller scale. The performance, which starts at 7 pm, is free, so there is no reason not to check out this innovative and heartfelt interpretation of one of America’s greatest poets.

Words for a Wednesday: Perspective on Winter


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a light in winter

In order for us to know light, we must know the dark; in order for us to know pleasure, we must know pain; in order for us to know creation, we must know destruction. In these final dogged days of winter, it is time to cut away the death bramble that clings to the soles of your spirit.

~Brieanna Lewis

Words for a Wednesday: The Weird and the Wonderful


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My friend Nancy lend me a little book called Weird and Wonderful Words by Erin McKean with illustrations by the always great Roz Chast, which is catnip for a word person like me. It features all kinds of outdated expressions and little known words for things we recognize but cannot quite express. Here are some of my favorites.


Xenization: a rare word meaning ‘the fact of traveling as a stranger. It comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to entertain strangers’ or ‘to be a stranger.’

Ubiation: the act of occupying a new place.

Tegestology: the collecting of beer mats.

Squintifego: a person who squints too much.

Pandiculation: the stretching of the body that often accompanies yawning. It can sometimes refer to yawning itself. Comes from a Latin word meaning ‘to stretch oneself.

Langsuir: a female vampire who preys on newborn children. This comes from the Malayasian tradition.

Kenspeckle: a Scottish word meaning ‘conspicuous,’ easily recognizable.

Jiffle: to fidget or shuffle. This is just one of several words that can mean ’fidget’ and end in an –le: figgle, fissle, nestle, sessle, tiddle and trifle.

Gammerstang: a tall awkward woman.

Gonggoozler: a person who stares at activity on a canal. This highly specific word has since been broadened to mean any kind of idler or rubbernecker.

Feuillemorte: an adjective meaning ‘having the color of a dead or faded leaf. From the French.

Flexanimous: an adjective meaning ‘having the power to influence;’ moving, affecting. It comes from the Latin words meaning ‘bend’ and ‘mind.’

Criticaster: a minor or incompetent critic.

Calllipygian: an adjective meaning ‘having shapely buttocks.’ The term comes from the Greek word meaning ‘beauty’ and ‘buttocks.’ A related word is steatopygia, used to refer to the accumulation of large amounts of fat on the buttocks.

Blaguer: a person who talks pretentiously. From a French word, blague, meaning ‘pretentious falsehood,’ self-aggrandizing stories knowing no borders.

Autophoby: the fear of referring to yourself, usually manifested by the reluctance to use the pronouns I or me.

Aristotle. Australian rhyming slang for ‘bottle.’ Other examples of Australian rhyming slang include Joe Blake for ‘a snake,’ jimmygrant, ‘an immigrant,’ and molly the monk, ‘a drunk.’

A Shot of Joy to Start the Week


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Temps are subzero here in Chicago today, so I thought I’d add a little sunshine and joy into the mix. Who can resist blue skies, sunflowers and a determined little hummingbird?


Big thanks to Bring Design of Chicago for permission to use this fabulous photo.

The Friday Five: Feisty Women, Quirky Musicians and a True Artist


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READ  Girl Waits with Gun. Three sisters in 1915 take on the Black Hand in Paterson New Jersey — and win. It’s a smart, funny novel, based on true events, with unlikely heroines who by sheer dint of circumstances manage to create some serious street cred. The story is fun and fact-paced, the book is charming, and the writing is deceptively well done, peppered with astute observations and straightforward but lyrical language helmed by a sure hand by the writer, Amy Stewart (who had a NYT bestselling book in The Drunken Botanist). An all around good read—and totally ripe for a sequel, if not a series.

WATCH   Mozart in the Jungle.  After winning two Golden Globe Awards, including best TV series (comedy or musical) and best actor in a TV series (comedy or musical), this Amazon-produced show piqued my interest. It has a good title, but it made me think it was about brilliant homeless musicians, so it somehow stayed off my radar. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Mozart is about the ensemble that makes up the New York Orchestra, including the quirky maestro played by the wonderful Gael Garcia Bernal, the patron of the arts played by Bernadette Peters, and a colorful cast of characters that includes Saffron Burrows, Gretchen Mol, Malcolm McDowell and newcomer Lola Kirke as an up-and-coming oboist. It’s not about music nerds, but the real life of real people who just happen to be world class musicians, all executed with a decidedly urban edge. Part drama, part comedy, this half hour series is really engaging. It also has some heavy hitters behind it, as it was created by Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. Check it out. It’s now on my must watch list.

DRINK  The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel Lobby Bar. Cozy beyond cozy, clubby beyond clubby, this is the ideal place for a drink post symphony or any time you are on Michigan Avenue for that matter. Stick to the drinks and don’t order the food—mediocre at best and not such attentive service—and revel in the atmosphere of this beautifully renovated hotel that brings you back to a another era entirely in the best possible way.

TRY  Happy Light. My friend Greg was having trouble sleeping after an extended trip to Australia, so he went out and bought one of those light boxes designed to combat seasonal affective disorder. And while he was at it, he bought one for me, too. I can’t exactly tell if it is helping, but it certainly feels good to bathe in the “happy light” daily, especially on these dark days. If you tend toward seasonal depression, this might be something to check out. Or if you just want to get a little happier during the seemingly endless gray winter — what could it hurt? You can pick one up where he got ours: Bed, Bath and Beyond.

LISTEN   Blackstar.  I feel like we all owe it to the late great David Bowie to buy and listen to his earthly swan song. My copy is on back order, so I have not listened to the whole album yet, but from what I’ve heard on the radio it is quite good. But more than that, it’s about what the album stands for: A man who make his entire life a work of art, shapeshifting time and time again to profoundly and everlastingly influence our cultural zeitgeist. Here, he shows courage and vision in chronicling that great unknown journey—and that he was and still is a star is so many ways.



Words for a Wednesday: The Risk of Love


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I discovered the words below in my widespread and rambling reading one day, and earmarked them to use on the blog at a later date. I found them to be profoundly insightful and radically challenging. My problem: I don’t know who wrote them — somehow they got separated from the author — so I can’t give proper credit where it is due. I feel terrible about that, so if anyone has seen this before and knows who wrote it, please let me know so I can amend this post. Otherwise, enjoy this provocative excerpt. 

Update: Several astute readers found the source of this moving piece. Thank you for that. Here is the link:


What if love never feels safe? What if it was never meant to provide you with consistent feelings of comfort, certainty, and security? What if it comes spinning out of the stars offering something much more radical, creative, and transformative than ‘safety’ could ever deliver?

Perhaps it wasn’t safety you were seeking after all, but wholeness and an untamed, erupting sort of aliveness?

No matter how many profound insights you have, how many amazingly powerful awakening experiences you collect, or how convinced you become that you have it all together, you will always be at risk for the beloved to step in and pull the rug out from underneath you. He or she will do whatever it takes to reveal your true nature as open, naked, and outside the realm of the conceptual altogether.

No, it will likely never turn out quite like you thought it would. You can be grateful for that. Perhaps the creative and destructive activity of love will never ask that you ‘transcend’ your vulnerability, cover over your sensitivity, ‘heal’ your tenderness, or wiggle into some pre-conditioned, second-hand ‘state’ of ‘high’ vibration. But rather to give everything in service of the most radical vow of all: to remain embodied to and intimate with the full-spectrum explosion of what it means to be an alive human being in a world that has forgotten.

Perhaps love will always seed your world with the emissaries of reorganizing deflation, come to scatter its sacred nectar and fragrances throughout the four directions. Before you turn from this activity and abandon it as an ‘obstacle’ to your path, renew your vow to stay close and to no longer abandon the wildness within you. For this deflation is holy, unbearably creative, and is forming the crystalline substance of the path in every moment.

When you are totally unclothed – of all of your spiritual concepts and certain, safe knowing – love will show you what you are. When the known crumbles away, all that remains is your burning heart. There is nothing more alive than that. There is nothing more sacred than that.