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Writing The Friendship Trilogy

In 2015, I began a novel that would fictionalize the story of my struggles as a family caregiver and how that impacted my career. I wanted to share how the Satisfaction Skills that I taught to teen patients at Buffalo Children’s Hosptal had also improved my marriage;   and how the forgiving myself, others and God workshops my wife and I did for health care and faith-based groups  taught us to find peace.  Plus I wanted to shine a spotlight on what I loved about the United Methodist Church, as well as express my concern about their discrimination against gay ministers and their lack of respect for other faiths.

My starting point for the novel was a series of short stories about my mother and me.  I published it  as What I Wish I Knew: Stories and Strategies to Be Your Best at Any Age  and it was honored with AARP’s Social Impact Award as “a simple mind-body-spirit program for seniors, adults and  teens of any faith… or no faith.”

My writing went well for the first six months. Then I read that Pope Francis had visited the September 11th Museum at World Trade Center.  While there, he viewed a Bible found fused to molten metal in the rubble of the Twin Towers.  It was open to Christ’s “turn the other cheek” message of forgiveness.

“What?” I thought. “Forgive the terrorists who killed thousands that day?  No way!”  I was so shocked that just the thought of forgiving them made me sick. My characters in The Trilogy felt the same way.

Over the past six years, that jolt and some related soul-searching stimulated my story to grow into three novels: Friendship; Too Much Can  Kill and The Epidemics. Two of the characters that I met in storyland (Donna and Susan and their struggles with rape, deceit and homophobia) became so compelling that I didn’t get to the storyline about my mother and me until the third novel.

The Friendship Trilogy  focuses on two questions:  “How did that Bible get there?” and  “What does it mean to forgive yourself, others and God in an era marked by civil rights, the Vietnam War, same-sex marriage and terrorism?”

My characters search for a life of love on a journey that takes them to the Bahamas, the Holy Land, Athens, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, Vietnam,  Manhattan,  Buffalo, Grand Island and Niagara Falls.   Readers will go inside a storefront drug abuse clinic, the Buffalo Homicide squad, folk music venues, a faded ballroom where Islamic Sufi dancers are whirling and laughing;  the birthplace of Christ; the executive suite of a large managed care organization; Christian and Eastern retreat centers; the White House; and the Capitol during the January 6th insurrection.

Here are four tips about forgiveness that my characters and I learned during our journey.

  • Bad feelings lead to bad decisions  
    • What do you see when you’re afraid, depressed or angry at yourself or others?  The good stuff or the bad stuff?   When we’re stressed, most of us are blind to the good about ourselves, others and the world.  That’s stress blindness or, “stupid-vision,” as my characters begin calling it after meeting Melanie in the Bahamas. And if you just see the bad stuff, what kind of decision will you make?  A bad one!
    • How do you stop stress blindness?  – and replace it with “super-vision” so you can see both the bad and the good in all situations, as well as the connections we all share? You guessed it, forgiveness!
  • Be Aware   Our feelings and biases shape the facts you see, creating stupid-vision.  Try practicing mindfulness, or some other form of meditation, to get better at focusing your attention where you (not your stress hormones) want your attention to be.
  • Be Assertive   Forgiveness shouldn’t mean that you let people walk all over you.   Before you “turn the other cheek,” lead with assertiveness, and tell the other person what you want and expect.  It’s easier to let go once you’re on the record about what you need.  Defend yourself if necessary. Fight to create a just world, not for revenge.  Forgiveness  can empower you to create a better self and a better world.
  • Accept  This is tricky.  If your hurt is deep, you may be only able to muster five seconds or five minutes of feeling calm or neutral in the present moment, before that anger comes roaring back.  But it is in those fleeting moments of acceptance that your “super-vision” is available to direct your path and guide your decisition.

If you use all three skills,(i.e., awareness, assertiveness and acceptance) you’ll take a big step towards curing the stupid vision in your life – especially if you sprinkle on a little gratitude to affirm what’s good about you and your universe.

Try using all of them in all your relationships.  In my real life, as well as in The Trilogy, I began teaching them as “The Love Skills” to teen-age patients at Buffalo Children’s Hospital (see “Like Getting Stoned” in The Epidemics). Then my wife  (who was both an elementary school and a yoga teacher) and I began using these skills to deepen our communication.  It worked so well that our relationship went from good to great; and our arguments, which used to last days,  began ending in seconds.

And then one day while working at a Franciscan Retreat Center (after I renamed them as “the Satisfaction Skills” and had taught them for thirty years) I realized that they were also prayer skills that reflected the outline of the Lord’s Prayer.  I was thrilled that my instincts about teaching these skills were so powerfully confirmed!  …and appalled that it took me so long to realize it!! (as described in “The Prayer” a chapter in The Epidemics, the third novel in The Friendship Trilogy.)

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