Making Bricks in Guangdong Province

The patient and kind brickmaker taught every student how to make a brick.

Imagine standing in a waist-deep hole, muscling red clay into wooden forms to make bricks. That’s what the brickmaker in Guangdong Province was doing, in 90 degree heat, with 90% humidity, when we swooped in upon him, all ten of us in our bright-red t-shirts, Americans cycling around rural China.


Of the dozens of Chinese people we talked to perhaps the brickmaker moved me the most.  He beamed when we descended upon him. Snow, our twenty-six year old translator, explained that the students had come from America to learn about China and would like to speak to him.


He has been making bricks since he was 12, he told us. He is now 44. He does not own the clay pit; his job is to make 1,000 bricks a day.  He works 364 days a year, with time off for the Spring Festival.


These facts, on their face, appall. Yet the man contravened the facts.


He was dressed in a clean, attractive polo shirt and a gingham work apron. His bricks were stacked with an engineer’s precision, in perfectly straight, uniform rows. And he welcomed us with bright eyes and enthusiastic delight.


He invited each student to step down into the clay pit and taught them how to make bricks.  Sweep some red clay out from under the plastic tarp. Roll and shape it into a loaf-shaped bundle. Drop it into the wooden form and firmly press it into place. There must be no air bubbles, no unevenness.  As he demonstrated, the muscles on his ropey forearms stood out like gnarled tree roots.


He has a child, a fourteen year old daughter. She was at school, he told us proudly.


As the brickmaker worked with each student, the adult chaperones conferred on the sidelines. We were taking so much of his time! This generous man, so patient with our students, so calmly instructing them in his craft, what could we do for him? He had 1,000 bricks to make that day!


After he had spent almost an hour with us, we heartily thanked him and almost apologetically offered him some yuan, probably amounting to about $10.


He would not accept our money. It had been his pleasure to teach the American children how to make bricks.  But, he sheepishly said, he had never seen American money. Did we have a small bill?


We gave him $1. He studied it. He would show his family, he said. This was a treasure. He would keep it forever to remember the day the Americans visited him.


Fortunately, I also had some small gifts in my backpack, including a pencil case with a dozen new yellow pencils and an eraser and sharpener. “For your daughter,” I said, opening the case and showing him the contents before handing it to him. His eyes widened. He held the case in both hands, grinning.


“Thank you. Thank you,” we exclaimed. “Xie. Xie.” Waving, we headed back to our bicycles. Our next stop was the village school, where perhaps we encountered his daughter, one of hundreds of earnest children in aqua blue and white uniforms, studying as if their lives depended on it.





Posted by admin in Inspiration, travel, work

Heaven on Earth

threestudiesofwomenbloemart1620gettyA few hours ago I was in a slightly dark, slightly musty living room, with two old sofas lining the walls and a wobbly rocking chair bridging the gap. It felt like heaven on earth.


Of the five women there, two had just come from jail. One said it was the best thing that had ever happened to her. As a matter of fact, she had been on her knees, in a graveyard, praying to a statue of Jesus, telling Him she was at the very end of her rope and didn’t know what to do, when she had been picked up by the police, which had led to her 40 days of incarceration.  She beamed as she told this story, tossing her long, shining hair like a horse’s mane. She added that years ago she had been given the name Clear Soul at a pow wow, which was how she was feeling, now she was clean.


The other stories were equally powerful, though not as dramatic. One of the women had a three year old daughter with her in the house, and the women took turns caring for her. She had become the house darling, the substitute child on whom they could pour their pent up maternal affections. All the other women were distanced from their children, either by court order, chaotic circumstances, or the consequences of addiction.


I go to this house, or its sister house, every week for a group called Narratives in Recovery. I tell a folk tale and invite the women to find connections that are pertinent for their lives. Yesterday I told the story of a Japanese sun goddess who is driven into hiding, depriving the world of light. As she finds her way back into the world, she sees her reflection for the first time and realizes her beauty. This is a story with obvious parallels for women who are working hard on recovery.  And they latched on to it with enthusiasm.  The universal story of darkness to light.


I end this session with a mirror exercise where each woman listens as the others reflect to her what they see as her true beauty, her highest and best self. I take notes, scribing the comments into a mirror form, entitled My True Self.  Finally I read all the mirrors aloud, inviting the women to reflect on what it felt like to hear these words spoken, twice, about their inner beauty. It is always a moving and powerful experience.


Yesterday, however, after the exercise, the women insisted on doing a mirror for me.  “It’s time to close,” I demurred. “No!” they shouted. “We want to do your mirror.”


I had to practice what I had been preaching. Be open. Breathe. This is a safe place, with trustworthy people.  Listen deeply. Trust what you hear. Practice believing this is true about you.


It was revelatory. It was beautiful. I was seen and cherished by women who had endured more pain in a day than I had in a lifetime, and they were so generous, so capable of seeing into my heart, of witnessing my essence. All this, though they knew no details about my personal history or current life.


It was paradise. To move beyond external facts and divisions and simply witness the truth of each others’ being.



The image above is Three studies of women, Bloemart, 1620, courtesy of the Getty Museum


PS  Also, dear friends and readers, in a few hours I’m departing for rural China where I’ll be chaperoning my nephew’s eighth grade class as we bicycle through southern villages. I’ll be on an electronic fast, so it will be a while before my next post, but I’ll be journaling, and I’m sure there’ll be at least one blog post that chronicles the adventure.



Posted by admin in Inspiration, spirituality

A Reverence Humming Within

gail picture 3

Many years ago a Rolling Stone interviewer asked Jane Fonda why she had taken up Christianity. “I feel a presence, a reverence humming within me, that was, and is, difficult to articulate,” she answered.


I’ve felt that reverence myself lately, in the presence of dear friends struggling with catastrophic health challenges. Gail has had nine strokes in the last year. Previously she was brilliant, accomplished, generous, kind, a completely marvelous person and friend. Now she fights to find words. Fights to get up from the recliner, knowing that her ability to remain at home, rather than a nursing home, depends on being able to get up. Depends on her knees being able to bend, her thighs to lift, her hands to grasp the walker.


And her husband Ben, previously a somewhat pre-occupied business executive, while still working heroically to keep them afloat financially, puts everything else aside to care for his wife.


In the midst of this sorrow, I feel a reverence humming within. A pulsing wonder. That Ben is so tenderly loving. So calmly sacrificial. That the words Gail most often says are “Thank you.”


To suffer—and to choose love.

To suffer—and to choose gratitude.

To suffer—and to continue to choose life.


What well does this goodness spring from?


When I’m with them, I get to taste and see, privileged to witness beauty rising from devastation, new life emerging from ashes.




Photo above is Gail’s drawing, entitled Yeah, which she made with stamps and markers on October 8, 2014 at her home.








Posted by admin in friendship, Inspiration, spirituality

Walking the Streets

Campania,Casecta, Capua, Image274getty


I walked through the Tenderloin in San Francisco this week from 10:00 PM until midnight. I saw several drug deals. A variety of sex workers were on the streets. A scuffle erupted beside me. Something to do with an unpaid debt.  Yet I felt completely safe. I was in the company of Lyell, a night minister. I felt like I was walking with a beloved saint.


Lyell walks the streets of San Francisco from 10PM until 4AM wearing his clerical collar. He’s been doing this for ten years. He does not proselytize. He does not judge. He does not give away money. He walks, offering only a listening ear and an open heart. If asked, he’ll pray with someone. Mostly he smiles, nods, and banters. Often he gets into a lengthy encounter when someone pours out their troubles.


Seven of us from my church were in San Francisco for a week of service projects. We helped serve breakfast and cook lunch at Glide Memorial; we toured a teen homeless shelter and served a spaghetti dinner in Berkeley; we packed boxes at the Food Bank; we priced, sorted, and cleaned furniture at Habitat for Humanity’s Re-Store.  And we walked the streets with two night ministers: Lyell and Megan.  Lyell strolled through the Tenderloin; Megan walked through the Castro.


San Francisco Night Ministry was founded in 1964 as an ecumenical response to the tsunami of homeless teens who’d made their way to San Francisco seeking sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll but ended up destitute on the streets. For fifty years, without missing a single night, at least one minister has strolled the streets of San Francisco, offering a compassionate presence during the darkest hours.


Lyell started our night’s walk by teaching us the Night Ministry saunter. “We’re not in a hurry. We’re not going anywhere. We’re just walking. Keep your head up. Look people in the eye.  Nod or smile. Many of these people aren’t used to being smiled at.”


It was clear that Lyell loved this neighborhood. Loved these neighbors. And the feeling was mutual. We were greeted on every block. “Hi Pastor.” “Hi Father.”  We stopped to talk with three men outside the Iriquois Hotel. Lyell got into deep conversation with an agitated man while we chatted with a man in a wheelchair and another who told us about his mother in Memphis. After about 20 minutes, we said goodbye. Lyell handed the agitated man a pen with the Crisis Line phone number and told him he’d swing back by later.


Lyell pointed out beautiful architectural details and historic plaques as we ambled down O’Farrell and around the Civic Center. It was a very quiet night Lyell told us as we ended our stroll around 12:30. We headed to our beds. Lyell headed back out into the streets.



Image above is Campania, Image 274, courtesy of the Getty Museum.

Posted by admin in Inspiration, religion

The Negativity Bias


Still Life With Jar, Cup, and Apples, Cezanne,


Good news. Things really aren’t as bad as we think they are.

I’ve been learning about neuro-plasticity lately—the study of how brains change.  Not just over millennia but in weeks, months or years depending on the stimulation given.

Apparently our brains have a built-in bias towards the negative. They’re like velcro for negative impressions but teflon for positive ones, according to Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness. The good just slides right on by, in and out of consciousness, while the negative sticks.

The negativity bias makes sense given that our ancestors needed to figure out where saber tooth tigers lurked, remember their telltale traces and communicate that information to the family. Our brains have dedicated significantly more storage space, neural wiring, and chemical transmitters for avoiding tigers than for appreciating butterflies.

Finally I understand why negative political ads are ubiquitous. Why headlines scream horrors. If it bleeds, it leads. And why parking lot conversations are so often downers.

I’m not advocating a Pollyannaish attitude to life. Just think positive! No.

Horror, suffering, and tragedy are real. But so are beauty, joy and love. Even though our brains would tell us otherwise.


I volunteer weekly with women in a court-mandated residential drug treatment program. They’re in very difficult situations, with many negative aspects to their lives. We’re going to spend the summer noticing the positive.

Yesterday I took them outdoors.  They called out everything positive they noticed: sunshine, breezes, how good it felt to get outside, the smell of mown grass, stretching, breathing, laughing.

Once they started talking, the words poured out. I was astonished at how much they noticed. How much they savored. And how much lighter they seemed afterwards.

Back in the musty house we acknowledged that the challenges have not gone away—their court dates remain on the calendar, Child Protective Services still control their children’s lives, jail is still a possibility—but they marveled at how much stronger  and calmer they felt.  As if the dark realities were storm clouds in a larger sky.

Do this daily, many times a day, I urged them, as I handed out logs to record small moments of goodness. In thirty seconds you can notice, savor and store a positive experience. Do it! When bad experiences come along, your brains will have pathways towards hope, antidotes to despair.

Still Life With Jar, Cup and Apples, Cezanne, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art




Posted by admin in Inspiration

Taste of Hope

R-20100106-0003.jpg  Hope

I certainly received it—a taste of hope—at The Ruin last weekend. The Ruin is a wondrously made outdoor environment built by Gabe and Sarah Acrich at their home in the Sierra foothills. Envision a very large living room, made of rock walls, minus the ceiling and fourth wall, so the space is open to the sky and fields. Now imagine that the walls slope downward, lined with tall glass votive holders, and pierced with niches, so the perimeter is dotted with candle light. Within this powerfully moving space, Sarah staged a play set in a Nazi concentration camp: Taste of Hope: A Play in Three Courses.

Hope and concentration camps might seem mutually exclusive. But the profound territory that this play explores is how hope was kept alive in a hopeless situation.

The Acrich’s have a personal connection to the Holocaust; Gabe’s grandfather survived Mauthjausen. When Sarah read In Memory’s Kitchen, A Legacy From the Women of Terezin, a nonfiction book based on recipes secretly collected in a Czech concentration camp, she was immediately inspired to work with that material, family material, and other Holocaust stories to create a play affirming the faith, strength, love, and courage of the women in the camps.

Sarah is a woman of extraordinary vision, creativity and energy. Not only did she write the play, create The Ruin, recruit talented actors and musicians (drawn from friends, students and family), she also cooked latkes, matzo ball soup, carmels and honey cake—recipes which the women discussed fervently in the camp. After each act, the audience was served a hearty taste of these dishes, which were now soaked in meaning, significance and wonder.

I was seated next to a Jewish woman. Her husband did not attend; Holocaust events are too raw for him. She, however, was delighted with the play, and during each course shared with me how she had learned to cook that dish, family variations in recipes, and memories of the holidays. I was thus privileged to experience the continuity that the women in the camp desperately longed for and dedicated themselves to insuring.  

The play worked with the theme of continuity by having three areas always present on stage: a modern kitchen, with a contemporary mother and daughter cooking and occasionally  talking; a kitchen from the pre-war era with a grandmother instructing a granddaughter; and the main focus of the bunks, where four starving women prisoners engaged in intimate dialogue.  I would have found the concentration camp conversations almost too excruciating to bear, if not for the silent testimony of the past kitchen anchored in tradition and the modern kitchen witnessing  to ongoing life.  In this way, the play’s structure beautifully gave us a paradigm of time’s effect on suffering, evil, and healing.

In a further amplification of the themes of food, community, and hope, each performance was a fundraiser. There was no admission fee; all donations received went to hunger-relief organizations.  The performance I attended was an Empty Bowl Project in support of the Gathering Inn, a private nonprofit serving the county’s homeless. 

After the play, audience members lingered in the ruin, licking honey cake and carmels from our fingers. A slender moon hung overhead.  “Puts things in perspective,” someone said. “Made me think about hope,” another affirmed. And then there was mostly the crunch of gravel as we made our way down the driveway, our flashlights flickering in the dark.

The sketch above is Giacomo Cavedone’s Clasped Hands, 1612, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The photograph was taken during a performance.


Posted by admin in arts, community, Inspiration, religion

Doors and Windows

Tina Modotti, No. 3, 1925

Last Friday I went to a retirement dinner for a senior manager at BMD, a building materials distribution company. I didn’t expect to be moved or inspired, but I was.

BMD is located in Galt, California. They’re one of the major employers in town, which is significant, especially given the Central Valley’s current unemployment rate of 10-13%.

The retirement event was held at Brewsters, in a room with lovely old punched tin ceiling. Refreshments consisted of shrimp cocktail, cheese cubes, meatballs, carrot sticks, and pita bread with hummus. There was a cash bar. 

So the event was not glamorous. BMD is not glamorous. Mike, in fact, is not glamorous. He’s balding, with a professorial air, especially when he pushes his glasses up on his forehead and pulses his fingers together in his characteristic “spider dance.” 

And, to tell you the truth, at the beginning, before the speeches, I was wondering mostly about dinner; namely, should I fill up on meatballs and carrots or would we be going out to eat later.

But I was hooked once the stories started.  Mike’s letter requesting an interview was flashed on a screen. Chuckles erupted at the quaint sight of a letter written on a typewriter.  Then the CFO engaged the crowd in a How Well Do You Know Mike game, with categories including music, cars, sports, and trivia.

It was fun, but the emotion started to kick in with the next speaker, who clutched a fistful of blue index cards. She’d started with BMD at 17 as a very junior accounting clerk, counting pallets and boxes in the warehouse.  She trained Mike in windows, she said proudly.

Mike became her mentor and champion. She described her early days in sales, calling him after a “customer beat down,” and bawling her eyes out. “Never forget,” Mike said after hearing her out, “It’s just windows and doors.”  

Mike’s ability to listen, to connect, was legendary. A sales manager described his introduction to Mike 20 years earlier. He’d gotten off a roof at a construction site, shaken the dirt out of his hair, and raced to a job interview, hoping he didn’t smell too bad as he put on a white shirt in the BMD parking lot. The interviewer had liked his technical knowledge but doubted his people skills. As a concession, she’d asked Mike, then sales manager, to talk to the kid for ten minutes. “Mike spent more than an hour with me,” he said. “I drove away not knowing if I had a job, but at least knowing I’d had a great conversation with a great man.”

Another speaker described Mike’s wisdom as life-changing. “I was a Jersey kid, having a tough time, going through a divorce.  I needed a change. And Mike said he needed me on the West Coast.  Mike met me at the Oakland airport. He got me through the rough patches. I got a happy marriage now and four kids. I tell my kids they’re here because of Mike.”

Don’t get the idea that Mike was a feel-good, softie though. The work mattered. We’re not just selling windows and doors, he frequently said, we’re helping build people’s homes. He had high expectations. His constant refrains. Make the customer happy. Do it right. If you don’t do it right, make it right.

You didn’t want to get called into his office and see him leaning back, fingers doing the spider dance, a sales rep said. And then if he said, “What? No letters? No cards?” you knew you were in trouble. Probably you’d had some kind of problem you hadn’t taken care of.

Mike did not single-handedly create a work culture based on integrity and respect. He was hired into a company where those values were already in place. Over the past 30 years, BMD has been carefully bought out from the original family owners and is now an employee-owned company, where every single employee has a stake in the business.

Three generations of management showed up at the retirement dinner. One of the most startling stories of the evening was told by the recently retired company president. During a serious down turn in the building industry, BMD was facing a financial crisis. It was at a pivot point and needed a loan, but the bank required more collateral than the company possessed. Three key players, including Mike, put up their personal homes as collateral. BMD got the loan, survived the crisis, and is now thriving.

I’m sure Mike will thrive too, in his next career as a walnut farmer. He’ll also continue to be part of  BMD since he’s been invited to join the board.

The image above is Tina Modotti’s, No. 3, 1925, courtesy of the Getty Museum’s Open Content program.


Posted by admin in Inspiration, work

Tell Me About Your Shoes



Lani Peterson, a psychologist and storyteller, posted this story on the Healing Story Alliance listserv. It was told to her at the Women’s Lunch Place, a soup kitchen in downtown Boston, after Lani had offered the prompt, “Tell me about your shoes.” Lani passed the story along in honor of the woman who shared it.



You see these beautiful white sneakers? I didn’t always have them. My last pair of shoes was pretty sad. After many winters of walking through snow and slush, I was holding them together with cardboard and masking tape.  So I decided to go to the mall to get a new pair. There’s a Payless Shoes store there that often has sneakers I can afford.


Walking through the mall I knew everyone was looking at me. They didn’t like me being there. I wanted to get my new shoes quick and leave. Walking down the aisle, I saw a really nice pair of white sneakers. There was only this one pair in my size left. I put them on and couldn’t believe how good they felt. I walked all around the store in them, thinking how nice it would be if they were mine.  I knew I didn’t have the money to get them that day but I also knew that if I waited, they’d be gone. I brought them up to the front of the store and asked the guy behind the counter if he would hold them for me. He said it was against store policy. I promised him I would come back as soon as I could to buy them, but he just kept shaking his head and saying no, he couldn’t. I put my masking tape sneakers back on and left the mall as fast as I could.


For the next two weeks, I scraped by until I had enough money to go back for my shoes. Funny how I kept calling them mine, as if somehow I could protect them from going home with anyone else. The day I had enough money, I ran all the way to the mall, and ignored all those people staring at my masking tape shoes. I went to the shelf where I left them, with my eyes half shut afraid to look.  Sure enough they were gone. I looked at every pair of shoes in the aisle that had my size, but there were no shoes left like them. They were gone.


I started for the door. I wasn’t ready to try on anything else that day. I just felt too worn down to look any more. That’s when the manager yelled at me. I started to walk faster to get away, but he ran after me, still yelling. “I have your shoes”.  It took me a few times of hearing it to get what he meant.  ‘I HAVE YOUR SHOES.’

“OK”, I said. “I’ve got the money now to pay for them.”

“No. No”, he said. “They’ve been paid for. That’s why I’ve got them. They’re all yours.”


I can’t tell you fully what went on in my head in that moment. I only remember leaving my old shoes in the trash bin and walking out into the mall wearing my new white sneakers with money still in my pocket. I took my time leaving that day. As I walked past each stranger, I looked them in the eye and smiled. I felt so good.  It wasn’t that I thought that they were looking at me differently because of my new sneakers. It was more that I was seeing them differently. I used to think no one was on my side.  But that day I knew that any person I walked by could be the one who gave me my new shoes.  Whoever they were, I wanted them to know I was saying “Thank you”.

HangingSneakerjms Hanging Sneakers, JMS,

 newpairofshoesjs10053 New Pair of Shoes, js10053,



Posted by admin in Inspiration, story

Life From Death

Recently I encountered Kate Munger at a conference. Kate founded the Threshold Choir, which sings at bedsides for the dying.  I told Kate about about a life-changing experience with the choir.

It began in tragedy, when a young man drove into a tree, and 3 passengers were killed, including his brother.

This tragedy rocked our small community. So much death. So much loss of life, of youth. And the fate of the driver, who agonized in jail, completely bereft, perplexed us all. Three lives had been lost. Was a fourth life, that of the driver, to be lost as well?

The driver’s mother sang in the local Threshold Choir. His father sang in a performing choir.  The parents of one of the deceased sang in the same performing choir. The four parents had volunteered at a local school; they’d sung together; they’d been friends. How were they to encounter each other now?

Song was part of the answer.

Several weeks after the crash, mutual friends invited the couples to come to their home for their first face to face meeting after the tragedy. The driver’s mother asked the Threshold Choir to come and surround them with song. The choir’s music is spiritual but not explicitly religious and sung without accompaniment. The music is lullaby-like, archetypal in its evocation of love.

I was one of the four or five singers who gathered at the bottom of the driveway that Sunday afternoon. We rehearsed a few songs quietly. At the appointed time, we started up the driveway, singing Ubi Caritas, our voices blending in a soothing chant. We opened the back door, still singing, and filed slowly through the kitchen, into the living room. One couple sat on a couch under the window. The other couple sat on chairs opposite.  The hosts were in between.

We never stopped singing, moving seamlessly from one harmony to the next, creating a surround of song. The music filled the space, weaving a connection. The parents sat with eyes closed. Tears ran down their faces. Their hands reached out for each other.

We sang for about ten minutes, then walked out and continued singing all the way down the driveway. We didn’t talk much once we reached our cars. I was overwhelmed by the courage of the parents and their decision to work towards forgiveness and healing.

This took place several years ago.  Last December, at the performing choir’s annual concert, I saw all four parents embrace. The young driver was miraculously given a merciful sentence, in large part due to the request of all the parents of the deceased.  He now works with high school students, sharing his story as part of recovery programs and prevention efforts.  Life has come from death. I know of nothing more inspirational.


Lilies, Eugene Atget, 1916-19, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Posted by admin in arts, community, Inspiration, spirituality

That Which Persists

oak tree winter photo

Yesterday I walked a half mile to Starbucks with my dear friend Gail. It was an immense journey. Gail has had 6 strokes in the last 9 months. She lives in a constant present moment, which may be a spiritual ideal but presents  challenges when you cannot remember your address or how to turn on your computer. Let alone what year it is or who is president. 

But this blog is not about loss or suffering.  Or about her husband’s nobility as he rises to this new situation with dignity and compassion. This blog is about what has not changed: Gail’s luminous spirit.

During her long hospital stays, she was unfailingly gracious, thanking everyone who entered her room: aids, doctors, friends, family, therapists. Not knowing who anyone was, she smiled and said welcome.

Lying in that hospital bed, she was no longer an Executive Director, Academic or Philanthropist; she was bereft of all personas, stripped of  every identity. Helpless. And in that radical exposure, her deepest self was revealed: a self that is open, gracious and grateful.

It is a current mantra that we should live in the moment. But what if that moment is filled with terror? If every moment is a succession of fear, anguish, loss? For Gail, this is not so, although it certainly could be so, given that the strokes seem unpredictable and largely inexplicable.

Gail remains herself because she continues to say Yes. A deep and profound Yes that is not intellectual and not egotistical.  It is a Yes that comes from a deep core of goodness that is the signature of her being.

As we walked to Starbucks yesterday, I told her of my daughter’s recent engagement. Gail clapped her hands with delight, asking question after question. She was unable to see the photos on my phone, but she asked for detailed descriptions. Her face glowed. “This is so good,” she said. “I’m so happy. Nothing could be better than this. Thank you for this wonderful news. For this perfect day.”


An Oak Tree in Winter, Fox Talbot, 1842, Getty An Oak Tree in Winter, Fox Talbot, 1842, courtesy of  Getty Museum

After the Sixth Stroke, a poem about Gail

Bedside, a poem about Gail

Posted by admin in Inspiration