Are you ready to live with an awakened heart?

If you are a woman and you are ready to treat yourself to a weekend of playful exploration, join me and Paula Jilanis for Living with an Awakened Heart. The retreat begins on Friday, July 26 at 5pm and closes at 11 am on Sunday, July 28, 2013. We will enjoy the beautiful facilities of the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secours, Marriottsville, Maryland as we embrace the warmth, joy and partnership of the summer season. Throughout the weekend we will use movement, discussion and personal reflections to renew, play and learn together. You will have an opportunity to examine your inner life and your relationships through individual reflection, movement and group discussion. You will leave the weekend with practices to apply at home, in the work world and out in the community. Bring comfortable clothes, a journal, an open mind and a playful spirit.

Investment: $225 includes two nights private lodging, five meals and all retreat activities

To register, contact the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secours at 410-442-1320.

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The Spiritual Practice of Saying “No”

“I became more successful in my forties, but that pales in comparison with the other gifts of my current decade – how kind to myself I have become, what a wonderful, tender wife I am to myself, what a loving companion. I prepare myself tubs of hot water at the end of the day, and soak my tired feet. I run interference for myself when I am working, like the wife of a great artist would – “No, I’m sorry, she can’t come. She’s working hard these days, and needs a lot of down time.” I live by the truth that “No” is a complete sentence. I rest as a spiritual act.”

– Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

I remembered this Anne Lamott quote as I read The Spiritual Practice of Saying “No” on the Shalem Institute blog. The author uses a metaphor that brought a smile to my face and a sense of ease in my body.

Weary of complaining that he had no time to deepen his spiritual practice, he had an “AHA” moment when he realized, “I didn’t have any empty pockets in my day.” 

Although the focus of the essay is on finding time for prayer, I see that the same “empty pockets” technique can apply to making time and reserving energy for anything that renews and restores me – taking a walk, cooking and savoring a nutritious meal, planting a vegetable garden, reading a good book…

When my pockets are too full with “to do’s” I can hardly breathe. Ironically, the antidote I have chosen is to add more things to my list: research exercise classes, find a personal trainer, schedule a day to weed, and make a list of the books I want to read before I die. The things that nourish me become just one more thing to stuff into the overflowing pockets of my life. 

If, as Anne Lamott suggests, “No” is a complete sentence, perhaps I can practice speaking in shorter sentences. Or better yet, not speaking at all for long stretches of time. This applies to email, phone calls, text messages as well as to conversations with others. 

So today, for just a few hours, I unplug. I want to experience the restlessness that comes with being disconnected from my devices. Alone, without the distractions of electronic and social interaction, I will listen to what feelings and thoughts bubble up when the waves of busyness subside.   

I will empty a few pockets and be curious about what treasures I may find buried among the clutter. 

empty pockets

Posted in practice, quiet | 4 Comments

Freedom and Fences

cow farm 0612I never thought much about cows. Then I witnessed the break out in Brasstown.

I was driving up a steep mountain lane on my way home from opening night of a writing workshop at the John C Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC.  In the dusky light I almost drove by the small black runaway, who was nibbling on a hedge of berries along the side of the road.

I stopped the car.

“How did you get out, Miss Cow?” I asked her.

She looked at me without much interest then returned to her hedge tasting.

I turned to look out the passenger side window of the car and saw that I wasn’t the only one watching the black cow. Brown, tan and white cows huddled together inside the wire fence that outlines the pasture were watching me and their prodigal herd mate.

Without cow wrangling skills I knew there was nothing I could do. Driving away, I puzzled:

Was the black cow free or was she lost?

Were the spectators envious or were they worried about their friend?

I wondered who had the better deal – the cow that got away or the ones keeping each other company in the confinement of home base?

I thought a lot about cows after that encounter with the runaway.

I admit that I’m a food hypocrite. I always refuse when my brother-in-law asks if I want to take a tour of the houses where he raises chickens for Perdue. I order my fish filleted and pork chops boneless. Knowing where my food comes from – giving it form and face – would ruin a good barbecue and limit my protein choices to tofu and beans.

A few nights before I met the black cow in the road I had savored every bite of an organically raised filet mignon from Brasstown Beef. I chewed each perfectly broiled mouthful without thinking that my meal had caused a loss in the cow herd family that I watch grazing in the early morning fog.

Beyond the ethics of the carnivore vs. vegetarian debate, I have been pondering questions about freedom and fences. There are many ways and reasons to be imprisoned. One creature’s escape is another’s nightmare.

Consider the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” One inmate was so driven to be free that he persevered through months in the “hole” of solitary confinement and dug his way through sewage with a stolen spoon to break out of jail. A fellow prisoner, who had lived more than 40 years in jail, put a rope around his neck on his first night of freedom.

Who is free? Who is imprisoned? How do I know which I am?

I saw the black cow again at the end of my week in Brasstown. She was crossing the road, leaving the berry hedge and heading back to the pasture.

I parked my car on the side of the road, got out and walked up to the cow pasture fence. Crouching down, I scanned the wire line, looking for a gap through which the cow could have made her getaway and return. I couldn’t find a break in the fence, only a dip in the ground that may have been where she lowered her small head and tucked herself back into the fold.

The black cow stood just inside the fence. She stared at me like a teenager caught sneaking back in after curfew.

“I saw you out there, Miss Cow,” I said.

She swished her tail as if to say, “Prove it.”

She turned her broad back to me and walked into the pasture. Before I drove away, I searched for the black cow but I couldn’t pick her out from the crowd parading back to the barn.  And, I imagined, that was just the way she wanted it. Only she knew if she was back home or biding her time until the next break out at the Brasstown Cow Farm.

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Feed the Hungry

A few days before Thanksgiving, our church hosted its annual ecumenical service. Our pastor had invited the local rabbi to give the homily.

In his sermon, the rabbi questioned how we can possibly be thankful in a world tattered by economic downturns and heavy with the anxiety of war. He wondered how we can be expected to give thanks when so many confident, hard-working people are dealing with set backs they never expected to experience.

The rabbi called us all to action with this challenge: “The best way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to give.” Quoting Old and New Testament passages, he proposed specific ways to give: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick.

I left the service grateful that, in our community, there are many opportunities for me to follow the rabbi’s advice. With just a wee bit of smugness, I checked off the ways that I am already giving. I regularly donate money, food and clothing to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. I make gallons of soup for the Empty Bowls fundraiser for our local food pantries. Every winter I volunteer at a homeless shelter.

Still, I went to bed wondering, How else I can transform gratitude into giving?

The next morning, when I went outside to get the newspaper, I saw a squirrel perched on a fence post in the corner of my backyard. Staring me in the eye, he continued nibbling on something white and round. What the heck…Oh, no! The little beast was gnawing on one of the dozens of tulip bulbs I had planted the day before.

It had taken me hours to rake leaves to clear planting space, dig holes and place the bulbs, sprouting tips upward deep in the soil. As I worked I had imagined the spring blooming that would come, first with the appearance of the little crocuses, breaking through the hard dirt in yellow, purple and white boldness.  Weeks later, I would be rewarded with a variety of orange tinted daffodils and sunny yellow tulips.

The worst part was that this had not been a normal fall bulb planting. This had been a ritual. During a recent retreat, I had made a list of things I wanted to attract into my life – peace, contentment, fun… more than 25 items, each one recorded on a small piece of paper. I had tucked these slips of paper among the bulbs, saying a prayer that, by spring, all of these attributes and goals would be in full bloom in my life.

Instead of peace and compassion – two items on my wish list – I experienced horror to see  my newly planted bulb beds pockmarked with holes. I found one daffodil bulb lying on the ground, dug up but left uneaten.  I picked it up and carried it in my hand as I surveyed the extent of the squirrel’s destruction.

Next to an unearthed crocus bulb I saw a slip of paper. The writing was running with morning dew and caked with mud. Open mindedness. I looked over at the squirrel and laughed. I wondered, How can I be open-minded as my bulbs become a Thanksgiving feast for a pack of tree rodents?

The rabbi’s message gave me the answer: “The best way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to give.”

Feeding the insatiable squirrels wasn’t how I would have chosen to give. Flexibility – one of the traits still buried in the garden – tugged at me as I watched the squirrel dance down the fence, half-eaten bulb tucked between his front teeth.  I shook my head, wondering what else I might harvest from this experience.

Standing in my hole-y garden, I remembered that giving is also a companion to giving up. What might I need to let go of?

First, I had to let go of the regret that I my bulbs may have been easy prey because I had not planted them  deeply enough or protected them with a layer of mulch.

I traded in annoyance and disappointment for awe at the ingenuity of God’s creatures as they prepare for winter.

It took me a few deep breaths to give up the magical thinking that having a beautiful bed of bulbs would bring me more confidence and creativity. I accepted that I can still be peaceful and strong even if the squirrels have bellies full of my spring bounty.

With curiosity I watched a pair of squirrels chase each other around the fence that rings my yard. They ran up into a tree, flying and chattering as they climbed high among the bare branches. I wondered who they were feeding with the booty pilfered from my flower beds. Could they have planted the bulbs, like they do with nuts, storing them up for a time of need?

I like the possibility that my bulbs might rise up in another garden and that I might spy a single yellow tulip or a couple of “my” daffodils when I take my morning walk next spring. This reminds me that I never know how work done in one place might send out shoots of beauty and nourishment in someone else’s life.

Perhaps by feeding the squirrels this fall,  someone hungry for the sight of new growth after a long, dark winter will be fed … maybe even me.

What do you want more of in your life? What might you need to give – and give up – to get what it is you most want?

Posted in garden, gratitude, questions, squirrels, Thanksgiving, Uncategorized | 4 Comments


How I spent my summer vacation

I began drafting this post three weeks ago after completing “Write Like a Genius” at the John C Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC. My friend and teacher Maureen Ryan Griffin used Michael J. Gelb’s book How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day to shape our weeklong writing experience.

This draft sat idle – as I have, – since a freak accident interrupted plans I’d made for my second week in the NC mountains. I was going to fill my days with yoga, meditation and long walks.  I had packed piles of books to read and expected to have lots of time to write, inspired by Maureen and the hours of word play I had enjoyed with my Folk School classmates.

Instead, two days into the second week of my retreat, I took a walk, slipped on a rain-slicked black-topped road, and broke my right wrist. Yes, that’s my “write” wrist, too.

I have re-played this scene many times for people who see my cast and hear about my mishap. When they ask, “What happened?” I recite the facts in a dejected monotone, wishing that I had a more dramatic story to tell – a run-in with a hungry brown bear, water skiing jumps or pole dancing gone bad.

The truth is I was doing something I do every day – taking a walk – and I fell. I reached back with my right arm to break my fall. That split second reflex sent me to the ER in Murphy, NC, and into the OR when I got home to Maryland.

With many quiet days in which to recuperate, I am practicing acceptance of life’s random happenings, mostly resisting the urge to look for hidden messages from the Universe. Yet I can’t help wonder what lessons might emerge from these weeks of one-armed dependence during which I must move more slowly, rest often, and rely on family and friends to feed me, help me shower and get me where I need to go.

These musings remind me of “curiosita,” one the seven principles in Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci.  Curiosita – Italian for curiosity – invites us to adopt “an insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.”

Early in the “Write Like a Genius” workshop, Maureen offered this exercise to explore curiosita:

Write  the question “How do I…”  at the top of a blank sheet of paper.

For five minutes, let your pen move across the paper without stopping.

Maureen set a timer, and we let the phrase “How do I…” incite our curiosity. I was surprised to see the poem that arrived.


How do I

sing a song without words or music

mute, alone, dancing without feet?

How do I

lift up the world without muscles or bones

and let it go

with the freedom of a butterfly

that has pushed away memory

of how to get home?

How do I

ask questions and care not about

who is listening

or if there is an answer

that makes sense of what the question

directs me to wonder?

How do I

do anything and care enough to let it go

then do what it takes to reel it back in?

How do I

even know what to ask?

How do I

even want what I cannot imagine?

How do I – can I –

ask “How do I?”

and relax into the repetition

of that same question

as my only answer?

I don’t know how to do so many things

so I stay stuck doing what

I think I know how to do.

I wander in a maze, bouncing off

the hedged walls, scratched by the sharp edges,

bloodied by the game of being stuck.

How do I

find the hedge clippers

and cut a hole

in the wall of thickets

and climb

into a new question?


Sitting here, unsure of how long I will be dependent and dis-armed, this poem surprises and consoles me. I went to the mountains with questions about what’s next in many areas of my life. Instead of answers, I came home with broken bones and a realization that I may need some new questions.

I have heard that there are no coincidences and I believe that wisdom is accepting that shit does happen.

I trust that I will recover from this injury ready to jump back into a busy life filled with work, adventures and an insatiable curiosity for learning. I think I finally get that my plans – and a sometimes myopic need to know – are just one way of looking at the world. I want to remember that being still, with an ear attuned to questions that broaden possibility, is often the best prelude to any action.

How do I tap into whatever insights arrive as I heal?  Curiosita is a good place to start…over and over again.

PS – Take your calcium and be careful – and curious – out there!

Posted in John C Campbell Folk School, questions, writing | 14 Comments

More than just child’s play

Have you heard about Caine Monroy? I hadn’t until a friend emailed me a link to a video about him with this subject line: “Take 10 minutes. This made me cry! (w/glee)”

Caine is a stubbornly creative little boy who built an arcade in the store front of his father’s auto parts shop in East Los Angeles. You could conclude that he is a crazy kid with way too much time on his hands. I left this 10-minute visit with Caine reassured that it only takes one belief – and one believer – to change the world.

I dare you not to smile as you visit Caine’s Arcade!

What’s one thing you love so much that you are willing to give it your all even if no one seems to care? 

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Pitching Sober Intentions

New Year’s Eve – a time to celebrate a year gone by and to begin making plans for another year. On the eve of what might be my last year or the gateway to 30 more, I plan to pop the cork on a bottle of chilled Korbel, then early to bed to dream new dreams and to resurrect dreams covered in cobwebs.

In the spirit of living without goals, I am intent on lightening up – discarding clutter, laughing more often, maybe even dropping a few pounds. Pondering this guiding principle, I remembered a poem I wrote at the John C. Campbell Folk School in October when I was “spinning words into gold” with Maureen Ryan Griffin and a band of inspiring writers. It seems like the perfect anthem for a year – and a life – lived wide awake.

Happy New Year…make it count!

Pitching Sober Intentions

Inspired by “Niagara” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Spring cleaning and summer planting over

Now it’s fall, harvest complete, a time to let go

Into winter’s frozen landscape.


In a blaze of falling leaves

I am surrounded by lists of sober intentions

They surge up –

Perennial regrets and recriminations

Old blames, not owned or rented

But inherited from a baptismal promise

To always be good, just never good enough.


To be wrong so many times

Prepares me to finally be right.

The season leads me where I need to go –

Deep inside, through the mist of obligation.


Blind to what lies ahead, my fingers trace a map

scratched into the stone walls of my heart.


Quickening with possibility

I am giddy, sober no more,

No less intent on living my one precious life.

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