Sunday, December 22, 2013

Perfectly Good Enough Holidays

It’s that time again—time to acknowledge our ambivalent relationships with the holidays, a real mine field of gray areas.  We’re supposed to be merry, and embraced in the bosom of our families, and we’re supposed to make the dreams of those around us come true, and make memories to last a lifetime, and give everyone a seat at the Norman Rockwell table, and if we’re not Martha Stewart then by god she’d better be on hire for the season decorating the house and cooking the Christmas dinner.  Talk about pressure! No wonder many of us are harboring a barely hidden layer of dread below our Ho-Ho-Hos!

I know intellectually that I am not responsible for making the holidays perfect for my son and for my mother, who lives nearby, but darned if I don’t feel that responsibility at some gut level and get sucked in year after year.  I used to feel absolutely pulled in two directions with their visions for how we celebrate (do I cook, do we go out, how far do we go with the decorating, do we have a live tree or an artificial one).  I finally took charge and we developed a rhythm—Thanksgiving I bought the turkey out but cooked the sides homemade, and Christmas we picked a country and made a themed feast (this made it feel more fun for me and no one complained at the Italian baked ziti, antipasti and chicken parmesan, or the chateaubriand and buche de Noel. The hard clench of my insides eased a bit with the advent of having taken control of the holidays, but there was still a lingering sense of dread as they approached.  Sort of a forced march.

Things have changed now with my 25-year old son a burgeoning foodie who serves as head chef, with me very happy to be relegated to sous chef.  My mom helps with chopping veggies or chats in the living room with any other guests we may have and the pressure (from the pressure cooker that was once me) is off.  But there is still this free-floating anxiety that overtakes me at this time of year.  No, it’s not just Seasonal Affective Disorder, where the shorter days and lack of sun can take some of the wind out of my sails.  I’ve attributed it to a sense that my son didn’t feel like it was a real family, just the three of us, or that my mom always mourned the holidays of her married past and more that were meant to be.  But as I had a conversation about this with a close friend, I suddenly wondered, was it just about them or was it about me, too?  Was I feeling like three at the table instead of four didn’t equal a real family, or was I mourning not only the holidays of my married days (or more accurately, my vision of what they could have been) but those of my childhood, to which I attribute retroactively a Norman Rockwell-esque glow?

Whatever the reasons, I’m my own worst enemy, and I know I’m not the only one who falls into the trap of expectations and perfectionism at the holidays.  I need to re-read columns and blogs I’ve written over the years about kicking Martha to the curb, and needing to breathe, and gratitude.  Let’s make a pact to make perfectionism a four-letter word, and understand that expectations are the enemy of a good time.  Let’s accept our families, and ourselves, for who we are, and realize that being together—whether with the families we were born with or ones we’ve created for ourselves—is a gift not to be taken for granted.   That the relentless push of consumerism to do bigger and better with presents and house decorations is corporate America doing its job—but that doesn’t mean we have to buy into it.  And that the impulse for giving this time of year is the one we should be listening to, not the voice of impossible extravagance and the pretense that families—or we ourselves—are perfect.

Letting go, I’m hoping to put a little more jingle in my step this year, and if the halls don’t get decked, well, I still know which list Santa’s got me on.  It’s The Good Enough List, dwelling place of good enough moms and dads, good enough grandparents, and mischievous children, all of whose hearts are in the right place. 

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


As Thanksgiving approaches I think about gratitude for the many blessings in my life.  One of my favorite Thanksgiving memories is my mother giving me a framed poem about the blessings of friendship and all the kinds of friends who enrich our lives.

Last night as my spiritual reading group discussed Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, we got to talking about how we sometimes think our lives are so terrible but in fact, a little perspective (a typhoon in the Philippines, tornados in Ilinois) is all it takes to make us count our blessings.  Brown’s book, which focuses on shame and how it keeps us from connecting with one another, reminded me of the blessings of belonging and relationship.

Today, cleaning out some files, I was confronted by blessings again, this time in an article reprinted from My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.  She has some beautiful and insightful things to say about blessings, and I thought I’d share them. 

Remen calls blessings “a moment of awakening in which one remembers the holy nature of the world… [and] heaven and earth meet and greet and recognize one another.”    Blessing one another can be as simple as a smile or an offer of help or compassionate listening. 

I absolutely love her distinction between prayer and blessings: “[A] prayer is about our relationship to God; a blessing is about our relationship to the spark of God in one another…When we bless others, we offer them refuge from an indifferent world.”  But a blessing “is not something that one person gives another,” it is more reciprocal than that.  “A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in one another.” 

“When someone blesses you, it reminds you a little—untying the knots of belief and fear and self-doubt that have separated you from your own goodness.  Freeing you to bless and receive blessings from everything around you.”

Remen and I share a fondness for the Indian greeting of blessing, NAMASTE: The divine in me greets the divine in you.  We’d be doing well to remember this concept as we pass each other in our busy days, and we will all be enriched by the effort.  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

October Night

Magic moon
swollen goddess of the sky
white warm
childish wishes
grownups gazing

Bathing in your light
I am brave
I am calm
I am the wild woman
of the night
Silver and ice
your beams souls entice
Magic moon.

                              Karen Kullgren

Saturday, September 28, 2013


“And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

                                                            (Anaïs Nin)

Saturday, September 21, 2013


“It seems increasingly clear that the continued effort to build a society on a purely secular myth of perpetual progress will destroy us.”

                                                  Sam Keen 

Friday, August 16, 2013


"Your real job in the world is to be you."

                                            India Arie

Monday, July 29, 2013

Of Choices and Chases, Gifts and Prayers

  • ·        The Happiness Choice: The 5 decisions that will take you from where you are to where you want to be by Marilyn Tam
  • ·        Fierce with Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn by Carol Orsborn
  • ·        The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life) by Brené Brown
  • ·        Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott

It was only when I stacked up the books I wanted to review for this blog that I realized I might as well just have screamed, “I’m Reading My Way Through My (Most Recent/Ongoing) Existential Crisis!”  While none of these readings led to remarkable epiphanies that helped me figure out the meaning of life, I do find that the nuggets I pick up in the process of reading authors who are tackling life’s big questions can be like stepping stones thrown out on the path ahead of me.

The Happiness Choice benefits from not only the author’s own wisdom but that of thinkers from Joan Borysenko to Barbara Marx Hubbard.  The biggest takeaway for me was the author’s definition of balance, an item on nearly everyone’s wish list for the good life.  She speaks of what she calls dynamic balance:

At different times in our lives, our priorities vary.  Life is active and constantly changing, as do [sic] our needs at different stages. It is unrealistic and almost impossible, as well as unnecessary, to allocate the same amount of energy and resources to every aspect of your life.  Each person has individual wants and needs that ebb and flow over time.  Therefore, balance is dynamic.  What is right and comfortable for you at 25 is most probably radically different from what is suitable and comfortable for you when you are 45 or 50. You have to be aware and reassess and adjust your dynamic balance as your life situation changes.

Equally as critical,

Knowing your life purpose will help guide you in allocating the proper amount of energy and attention to each aspect of your life…We can make purposeful decisions and plans once we are conscious of our true values instead of reacting to outside events.

Fierce with Age, from the author of The Art of Resilience, is the story of a transition period in Orsborn’s life, encompassing everything from aging to geography to her identity as a writer.  She organizes the story by seasons and it is the dark winter of her soul that really spoke to me, as I struggle in winter too often.  Finally she experiences a shift, an awareness of God with her through the bad times and the good, and of love needing to be bigger than fear. 

The thing is that turning your attention towards the pain doesn’t make you feel any better.  But as I learned…your very willingness to feel everything, including uncomfortable emotions, is the only way to undercut the temptation to come to superficial resolution. It takes a different kind of courage to be able to encounter pain without needing to fix or do anything about it.  And it is this willingness to endure that turns out to be the cutting edge of spiritual growth.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown lays out 10 guideposts from self-compassion to gratitude and joy.  It’s her first guidepost, living authentically (a critical part of my spiritual journey but one of the most difficult) where she grabs me with her description of the risks of not living authentically:

Our unexpressed ideas, opinions, and contributions don’t just go away.  They are likely to fester and eat away at our worthiness.  I think we should be born with a warning label…Caution: If you trade in your authenticity for safety you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.

I don’t think of myself as one who prays, but in her latest book one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, lets us in on a big secret—it doesn’t have to be hard, or complicated, and it doesn’t have to be one of the Greatest Hit prayers from organized religion.  For her, all prayer comes down to one of three words in her book’s title—Help, Thanks, Wow.  Her definition of prayer makes it infinitely accessible and meets you right where you are:

Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy--all at the same time. It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being physically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something.  Or maybe, miraculously, we just release our grip slightly. Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best conditions under which to pray.) Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.

So I am showing up now, and I pray I can be happy, be fierce with age, embrace my imperfection, and do it all with Lamott’s sense of humor and (most of the time) grace.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Today's Gem of Grace in the Gray Areas

"Resentment is like drinking poison 
 and then hoping it will kill your enemies." 

                            (Nelson Mandela)


Monday, June 10, 2013

Stroke of Luck

“Show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I want to go to bed…”  My mom heard someone singing in the hallway and chimed in on the subsequent verses, whereupon a delightful red-headed Irish woman came into her room and the two of them finished the song (one of my mom’s mother’s favorites) together in fine fettle, then chatted happily for a while longer.

That was three weeks ago.  My mother had been in the hospital for a week after suffering a stroke.

We were lucky in so many ways.  My niece in Massachusetts, up unusually early for a Saturday, had called her grandmother to say hello.  With both nursing and EMT training under her belt, when my mother started talking, Alyssa immediately realized something was wrong.  She told her to hang up and called the state police to have them get in touch with 911 down here.  She then called me.  And I, barely beginning to wake up, decided not to answer and to just call her back in a bit.  Seeing her name on my phone’s screen again several minutes later and even my sleepy brain realized I’d better pick up.  As I threw on my clothes and passed a toothbrush haphazardly across my teeth, my mom was already hurtling toward the emergency room in an ambulance.  At this point all I knew was what Alyssa had told me, which was that Mom was having trouble speaking and breathing. 

At the ER, I hurried back to my mom’s curtain.  She was conscious and undergoing tests.  As I arrived the doctor told us both what I had feared: she had had a stroke.  My heart fell, and then I numbed myself sufficiently to go into medical advocate/pillar of strength mode.  My brother—my only sibling--lives in Mass., which felt like a million miles away. 

As the hours rolled on, the doctor asked my mom if she’d ever been told she had a heart condition.  Except for a minor murmur, the answer was no.  But she did—her heart was in atrial fibrillation, meaning her heart was not pumping efficiently and this could allow blood to pool and clot.  It’s likely this is what caused the stroke, which could have happened much earlier even than the phone conversation I’d had with my mother the night before, when nothing unusual caught my attention.

When I’d arrived my mom had been slightly slurring her speech but was understandable, at least by me.  One side of her face was drooping ever so slightly.  As the day progressed, though, she became less easily comprehensible, resorting to writing things down on a pad of paper to communicate, thankfully having not been paralyzed from the neck down at all by the stroke.  But by nightfall even the writing failed her and she had become unable to make herself understood.  We were both terrified.

Amazingly, during a hurried conversation out in the hall later the doctor said her speech might improve.  I couldn’t believe it; I thought once you lost it, you lost it. 

What followed was a largely nightmarish stay for my mom in the hospital, shuttled to four different rooms, with what seems to me to be the systemic problems of hospitals, not enough nurses and techs, so patients left frustrated and fearful, waiting, waiting, waiting. 

Did I mention that my mom had just two weeks before the stroke finally been discharged from all of the physical and occupational therapy and wound care needed after a fall which broke her hip in December, and subsequent complications?  The poor woman has only been out once, aside from ambulance rides and doctors’ appointments, for Mother’s Day, just days before the stroke, since November!

The days were a blur of good news/bad news.  The day she was admitted the medical staff was anxiously trying to figure out how long ago she had had the stroke, so they could administer the magic bullet of tPA (a protein which could break down blood clots), which had to be given within five hours.   As the clock ticked on, that soon became a secondary point as they conferred with her and her regular doctor and learned that the next line of defense against another stroke on the wave of the first, the anticoagulant warfarin (Coumadin), was counter-indicated for my mom.  She had had a severe gastric bleed a number of years back and was at risk for more bleeds, including in her heart or brain. 

The good news was that the second morning as I was walking from the parking lot into the hospital, I got a phone call—astonishingly, from Mom, who I’d left the night before speaking gibberish, now slowly able to make me understand what she was saying.  My wonderful mother had already had a session of speech therapy early that morning and had been practicing constantly ever since.  For not the first time I felt blessed at her strength. Her speech and her brain power improved day by day, a miracle of the human body and human determination. We were lucky, lucky, lucky.  

I kept vigil at her bedside for four days and evenings, trying to help be her advocate (which sometimes meant as little as going down the hall to explain to the staff the urgency of a request for a bed pan, to as much as going to the hospital’s medical library and getting the saintly librarian to help me with research on what was happening to her and what to do next).  I experienced the frustration and fear with her as her environment continued to spin out of control (feeling a lack of control being something none of us is comfortable with but which very much does not agree with my mom).  I made and received a whirlwind of calls, especially to and from my brother and niece (the latter now rightfully anointed as having saved my mother’s life), updating them and concerned friends and family from Mass. to California. 

My brother came down five days in and gave me a much needed break from the stress of staying 12 hours a day at the hospital.  We both felt hopeless at the doctors’ inability to come to come to a decision about whether it was riskier to give my mom the needed anticoagulants (which could expose her to a chance of a bleed, including to her brain or heart, from a minor bump into something or even a heavy sneeze) or not to give them to her (which kept her, particularly with the atrial fibrillation, at a high risk for another stroke). At one point they were trying to push the decision back on us, for which we felt completely unqualified and told them emphatically so. Finally after more than a week they decided to give her the Coumadin. It’s something she’ll have to be on and be monitored for the rest of her life, and she’ll have to carefully monitor her eating for her vitamin K intake, too.

Mom’s in rehab now, just a few minutes from my apartment.  She changed from the place she’d gone for her post-hip-surgery rehab not because she didn’t like it but because she was “desperate for a change of scenery.”  It’s been overall a good experience so far as she continues her speech therapy in particular, loving her homework of crossword puzzles and word games and some exercises that seem hauntingly like taking the SAT day after day. She’s doing very well with them except for the occasional one that reminds her that her brain power still isn’t back to 100%, and she doesn’t let that get her down.  When I come to visit we often play rousing games of Upwords (her favorite board game, a variation on Scrabble).  I’ve beat her the last two games, but only by a few points.  We agree this counts as homework, too. I was there today and she was delighted that her new physical therapist was working her really hard, and Mom asked for more.

I have been under a lot of stress these past few weeks as all this unfolded.  My stomach has been in knots, and I’ve been on what I call the “oh, shit, my mom just had a stroke” diet, realizing it is time to get serious about my own health.  I have developed an obsessive relationship with Purell. I’ve been exhausted being the dutiful daughter, and am humbled knowing that so many more women (and men) out there have been caregivers at a much more intensive level and for much longer.  I don’t know how they do it.

Mom, as usual, I don’t know how you’ve gotten through all this with the strength and good spirits you’ve somehow held onto.  Yes, growing old isn’t for sissies.  But once again you are an inspiration.  

Friday, April 19, 2013

Living in Paradox

I became excited about Marc Lesser’s latest book, Know Yourself, Forget Yourself: Five Truths to Transform Your Work, Relationships, and Everyday Life when I realized how close to the heart of my “Grace in the Gray Areas” exploration his writing came.  We both talk about living in life’s paradoxes.

As I put it, living with faith, with intention and with compassion for ourselves and others, in the uncertainties, the paradoxes, the impermanence, the unknown—that’s Grace in the Gray Areas.

Lesser frames his exploration thusly: “Humans are inescapable storytellers, and we can hold many stories at the same time.  The elasticity of the human mind not only is capable of this but seems to welcome the chance.  This book seeks to help you name and embrace your life’s contradictory truths, its authentic paradoxes, as essential to creating an inspired, effective life.”

My fascination is with the gray areas of our lives—paradoxes where seeming opposites come into play, decisions we must make where there is no black and white (or where there is but we have to integrate the two), expectations of one way life will be when it turns out to be another, all of these things. I think when we are very young we believe in polar opposites and very clear delineations of black and white. Only with age and wisdom do we start to see the many shades of gray we must navigate throughout our personal lives, our work, our relationships.

Lesser has brought the multitude of paradoxes down to what he calls the five core truths:
1.      Know yourself, forget yourself (which develops your attention)
2.      Be confident, question everything (which broadens your outlook)
3.      Fight for change, accept what is (which fosters more skillful action)
4.      Embrace emotion, embody equanimity (which increases your resilience)
5.      Benefit others, benefit yourself (which increases your effectiveness)

I don’t know about you, but I see a lot of Buddhist concepts encapsulated in that list? Not surprising considering that Lesser—now head of the nonprofit Search Inside Yourself Institute--lived in the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years, and was director of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.  Later in the book, Lesser notes, “[M]any spiritual traditions, including Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and the Desert Christian Fathers, have utilized paradox as a method for helping people to wake up, to be more alive, open, honest, creative.  They use paradox to solve one of our most essential problems: as a bridge from the mundane activities…to the world of the sacred. Birth and death, self and no-self, here and not here, pain and loss—all are basic paradoxes of being alive, being human.  We must walk a tightrope between them.”

One of the reasons it is imperative to learn to live in life’s gray areas is, as Lesser writes, “[W]hen we insist on order and clarity in the midst of complexity, the result is sometimes limited thinking and faulty conclusions about ourselves and the world.  It’s a negative example of how real clarity and confidence are often actually reached through embracing paradox, which can sometimes be more accurate and more clear than what we ordinarily think of as clarity.” He cites a brilliant quote from Daniel Kahneman from a 2011 New York Times story:

We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is, because our memory automatically and continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives.
And to suppress alternatives…” because people don’t want to believe that life isn’t really black and white and that it’s all about the grays. 

“[E]mbracing life’s paradoxes is a powerful skill; it is a path to increasing effectiveness, awakening joy, and discovering our true purpose, in this and each new moment,” says Lesser.  He captures beautifully the essence of the “grace” piece of living with Grace in the Gray Areas when he adds, “Our minds are the most engaged and vibrant when we honor complexity, learn stillness in turmoil, face doubt with confidence, and seek to know ourselves so that we may better serve others.”  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Today's Gem of Grace in the Gray Areas:

Turn your face to the sunshine, and all shadows fall behind.
                                    (Helen Keller)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Soul Food for Your Family

Do you often talk of your family life with words like “crazy busy”, “frantic”, and “juggling”; get sick of the sound of “ tappety tap” permeating your home; and wish you could spend more time looking at your kids’ faces rather than just their foreheads as they look down at their technology—and maybe they feel the same?  Nurturing the Soul of Your Family: 10 Ways to Reconnect and Find Peace in Everyday Life is a guidebook those till in the throes of parenting with children at home should run out and get, and those with kids who are grown will wish they had years earlier.  Any reader with or without children will find thoughtful discussion of living a slowed-down life in a speeded-up world. 

Author Renée Peterson Trudeau asks early in the book, establishing her own firm credentials as a mom, “Do you ever feel more like a police captain than a goddess?” Trudeau is a life balance coach/speaker, is on the faculty of Kripalu Center for Yoga & Wellness, and leads life balance workshops for Fortune 500 companies and other organizations worldwide.  There are also personal renewal retreats worldwide based on her first book, The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal.

This book ties together and goes beyond every spiritual parenting book I’ve ever read. It’s about how to help your family thrive in today’s always turned-on world.  It isn’t just a “how to unplug” how-to but rather leads the reader through what Trudeau calls ten paths of peace, which they can follow to nurture the soul of their family.

Her first chapter, The Transformative Power of Self-Care, espouses a ‘peace begins with me’ philosophy that takes ‘If mama isn’t happy, nobody’s happy’ to the next level—and includes papas, too. Self-care and creating peace are core values for Trudeau, recurring themes throughout the book. She builds a “pause for peace” into each chapter.

The chapter specifically on spiritual renewal is not about going to your place of worship on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday (though that can be part of it) but about a daily spiritual practice. Growing up her family meditated, so of course that is one option she suggests.  The six portals of spiritual renewal are:
·         Creating ritual
·         Cultivating stillness
·         Accepting what is
·         Service to others
·         Living in the present
·         Choosing happiness

Nurturing the Soul of Your Family is peppered with quotes from a range of moms and dads, but my favorite quote is one she gives from Richard Carlson, in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff—and It’s All Small Stuff, “something wonderful begins to happen with the simple realization that life, like an automobile, is driven from the inside out, not the other way around.”

One chapter, Defining, Celebrating and Honoring Your Family Culture reminds the reader of the importance of being intentional, a helpful antidote to the constantly reactive position we find ourselves in as parents. In another I love the phrase Trudeau uses, “Do Less, Experience More.” The chapter People First, Things Second: The Digital Divide focuses on dealing with the trickiness of technology. Another, Time Together, suggests being in nature as great for family spiritual renewal.

Breaking Free: Making Hard Choices focuses on the tough decisions you have to make—about money, about technology, about work, even about food—to get the life you want for your family. The last section, on Finding Your Tribe, is about building your own and your family’s support network—and using it! As the author said in an interview about the book, “Learning to ask for and receive help can take years of practice; it’s like strengthening a muscle.”

There are journaling and other exercises for the whole family throughout the book. (I love the one on creating a family vision board! Even the most jaded teen or tween will get into this because it’s theirs, too.)

I tried so hard to be a good mom—but would have loved a guidebook like this to taking care of myself so I didn’t get so strung out sometimes (arguing with my child as though I were a child, too and letting him push all my buttons) and to support me as I took on the various challenges of nurturing my family in the midst of the daily storms of the world around us.  Fortunately the book also includes the concept of self-forgiveness—another muscle this parent could use some practice flexing. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Today’s Gem of Grace in the Gray Areas:

 “The moment a woman decides to be unafraid, she is transformed. When she recognizes the power and possibility of her own strength, and surrenders every fear to that power—she becomes the greatest version of herself.  Her character, her passion, her identity—they all come to life.”

(Diane von Furstenberg, designer & board member, Vital Voices, in the book Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change around the World)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Vital Voices

If you’re concerned about global poverty and war, about the situation of girls and women around the world, the book Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World is for you.  Vital Voices is an NGO which with partners worldwide supports the work of 12,000 women leaders in 144 countries.  It began as a government initiative in the Clinton Administration after the 1995 Beijing United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women.  The book’s author, Alyse Nelson, based here in DC, is co-founder, president, and CEO of the Vital Voices Global Partnership.  Hillary Clinton, who at the Beijing conference proclaimed that “women’s rights are human rights,” wrote the book’s foreword.

There are profiles of women whose names you have likely not heard before, but whose stories you will not forget, like Carmelita Gopez Nuqui, who for decades has fought human trafficking of Filipino women to Japan, and Panmela Castro, who uses her street art to advocate against domestic violence in Brazil. 

There are profiles of women like the three who who won the Nobel Peace Prize for their “nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace building work.” Leymah Gbowee won for her work to bring peace and democracy to Liberia, including fighting the use of rape as what she called a “toy of war.”   Sharing the prize was Tawakkul Karman, who led a revolution in Yemen against a repressive regime. The book quotes the third winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose acceptance remarks capture the spirit of this important book: “Be not afraid to denounce injustice, though you may be outnumbered.  Be not afraid to seek peace, even if your voice may be small…My sisters, my daughters, my friends---find your voices.” 

I can’t write about women around the world as forces for change without also putting in another plug for one of the most powerful books of our time, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which is a must-read. Don’t miss the subsequent four-hour TV series Half the Sky, which debuted last year and has been rerunning locally in the DC market on PBS this month (also on DVD). 

Check out these two important global movements and find out how you can get involved:

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Honoring Alice

Happy Birthday, Alice Walker!

Did you know there's a documentary coming out about the inimitable poet, author, civil rights activist, and feminist?  Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth, a film by Pratibha Parmar, premieres in London March 10.  

                          (photo courtesy of Kali Films Ltd.)

Walker was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,for her novel The Color Purple, but she did not spring unformed as a writer into the public eye in 1982 with that book (or the movie made of it several years later).  I have loved Alice Walker’s poetry and prose since I was a high school student reading Ms. magazine and she was an editor there. (She contributed to more than 30 issues and appeared on the magazine’s cover).  Among her wonderful books: You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (stories), The Temple of My Familiar, We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, and Possessing the Secret of Joy.  Often Walker’s writing tackles subjects hard to read about, but her unflinching eye and eloquent pen make the challenge worthwhile, because as the documentary title implies, her writing and her life embody beauty in truth.

Because for me the best of Alice Walker is her individual poems, articles, essays, and speeches, an early collection of them is my favorite of her books: In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose.  The title references an article I still remember vividly reading, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South" in a 1974 issue of Ms. The writer speaks of the black women who came before her, and of her mother and the “legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She had handed down respect for the possibilities - and the will to grasp them.”

                          (photo by Scott Campbell)

Today’s Gem of Grace in the Gray Areas:

Look closely at the present you are constructing:
it should look like the future you are dreaming.

                                    (Alice Walker)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Today's Gem of Grace in the Gray Areas: More Listening

Following on my review of the Mark Nepo book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen in my last post, I just found this glorious quote from a favorite author from my childhood who I'm rediscovering in a new light in adulthood:

Part of doing something is listening.
We are listening. To the sun. To the stars. To the wind. 
                                       (Madeleine L'Engle, Swiftly Tilting Planet)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Listening for Grace

Are you a good listener?  I used to think I was, but as part of my spiritual journey have come to realize I’ve got a way to go yet.  That’s because my definition of listening has expanded from a very rudimentary one—trying to hear and processing what I hear—to one much more complex.  I know now that listening has many layers, that we listen from many places that block the connection to our most authentic selves and the authenticity of others, and that we listen but do not really listen deeply, from a still place inside.  I know that even when we think we are listening from our heart and spirit, we may still be listening from our ego. And most importantly, I know that we must listen particularly closely to the universe, whose messages we often blithely ignore (at our own peril).

I was, of course, attracted by the title of Mark Nepo’s latest book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred.  The book is itself an exercise in deep listening.  Nepo shares early on that he lives in a world of metaphor, and since I happily inhabit that paradise, too (is there anything more delicious than a really good metaphor?) I think the book is at its best when he brings the reader into that world.  For long stretches I read and wait impatiently and then suddenly am hit with a nugget of wisdom, a sentence, a poem, a turn of phrase of such spiritual and linguistic elegance that it takes my breath away.

Central to the book is the author’s belief that listening opens us up to our oneness.

[T]he physics of deep listening is that we stumble beautifully into the spaces between our sufferings.  This is why we dare to listen, so we might drop together into the truth that holds us all. 

Nepo reminds us that listening from the deepest place within us is a risk but ultimately a reward: 

This lifelong conversation with love, wonder, and truth in counterpoint with pain, loss, and obstacles is how we dilate and constrict our way into the essence of our aliveness.

I like how he uses the phrase “lifelong conversation,” for listening is not just a one-way act.  It is also a conversation that takes time, and patience.  And like one of its deepest forms, meditation, it requires not only having to tune out the outside noise, but the inside clamor.

Besides the transformative beauty of Nepo’s language and the divine essence he shares with us through it, we are gifted in this volume with tools in the form of “Reflective Pauses” he builds into the chapters with meditations, journaling prompts, and topics for conversation.

At the core of deep listening is a sort of letting go.  Nepo, a cancer survivor, talks about how he got to his letting go, his acceptance. 

It had been a difficult time in my fifty-ninth year--loss, pain, demanding transitions--when a good friend asked, ‘Are you feeling as much impermanence and fluidity as it sounds like you are?’ I loved her for asking such a question, for not only seeing me, but the larger landscape…And I thought, yes, that and more. I had grown weary from trying to sort my lot of catastrophes, from trying to make sense of events and turns, from imagining plans and backup plans. Out of exhaustion, I finally just opened myself up to everything…This seems a better way to meet experience.  Not with ignorance or denial but with a felt acceptance that this too will shape me.

This shaping comes, in part, with the listening and absorbing. If we let go of expectations, there is room for magic in what is, rather what was supposed to be.  If we don’t listen but insist on predictability (or the desire for it) life will surely give us the lessons we need to learn over and over again til we wake up.   

Nepo talks about how we need to listen below our identity, from a core of universal humanness:

This bareness of being is opened to each of us when we are forced or willing to remove our filters and feel what we hear and meet. 

He adds later:

Often, when opened to our own experience, we find at the bottom the rich moist earth of everyone’s experience.  

Having stripped to this core, sifting through the both messy and nutritive soil of our common existence, we can truly connect with the sacred.