Feed the Birds

Feed the Birds mom in meadow


My 85 year old mother is staying with me. Her two month visit has been extended to four months, owing in part to health challenges. Her cognition is erratic. Porpoising. Sometimes up and sometimes diving down.


During this volatile period, I’ve found myself without guideposts or markers. I wake up not knowing what to expect.  One day last week I couldn’t locate Mom. After searching the house and the neighborhood, I found her in the guest apartment, hiding from a nightmare.


The next day she cheerfully announced she needed a daily chore list. I complied. Sweep the driveway. Empty the dishwasher. Brush the dog. Refill the bird bath. Water the plants. Now she gets up and goes to her chores. She is much happier.


In this time of unknowing I’m finally driven to practice some of the mindfulness stances I’ve read about for years: be open, stay awake, connect, be present, surrender.


The most helpful practices are totally ordinary.  We watch classic movies (Mary Poppins last night) read Dave Barry columns aloud, walk, cook, do chores, and feed birds.  These are my main spiritual practices now. They’re teaching me gratitude, acceptance and trust– trust in the present moment. That it is enough.


Another kind of practices are teaching me about surrender.. These include paying attention to blood pressure and medications.  And encouraging reminiscences, which take a lot of time. And letting go of what I thought I had to be doing, my routine ways of working and being which feel less pressing now.


We have only a month left together before she returns to the East Coast. A month to watch the birds, to write down every one we see.  A month to marvel at the splashing and chirping, the beads of water glinting in tiny beaks, the drops rainbowing from ordinary brown wings.


robin note







Posted by admin in family, personal reflection, spirituality

After the Fall

joan xray 2Conscience makes cowards of us all, the Bard observed. And after a fall and consequent wrist surgery and three days of hospitalization, I would add that that pain makes cowards of us too.

There was a point when a chasm opened, and I was a helpless crawling worm. Forget all my noble Buddhist thoughts about the difference between pain and suffering. Forget my prayers, my devotion to the 23rd Psalm, yogic breathing, meditation or mindfulness.  There was nothing I could do or think or imagine. No self to ravel up the loosening parts. No one home.

Except there was. My husband. Who came with tea and the next dose of pain meds.

We do need each other. Absolutely. Undeniably.

In my fitful meanderings yesterday I looked up the origins of the phrase “apple of your eye”. This mysterious phrase first appears in Hebrew Scripture, including a description of God’s care for Jacob. “He found him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste. He encircled him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye.”

Apparently this phrase was also translated as little man of the eye– the reflection of yourself that you see in another’s pupil if you are gazing deeply into each other’s eyes. I’m still pondering the depth and wonder of this metaphor of relationship. A sacramental image of intimate knowing.

Last night in a dream I was instructed to start writing. So I have. With one finger of my left hand.

I think there will be many more reflections to come.


Posted by admin in personal reflection, religion, spirituality

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

An Open Letter to the Prowler At My Gate


We were both surprised. Me—driving fast, fifteen minutes late for my yoga class. You– at my gate with your bag over your shoulder, expecting an empty house.

I have to hand it to you though. You were smooth. As I rolled down my window, preparing an icy, “May I help you?” you were ready with an offensive move.

“Excuse me, ma’am” in a voice as smooth as butter, “do you have a light?”

“No,” I spluttered, and drove off.


In the time it took to get to the end of the long driveway and drive back home, you were gone. My German shepherd was panting. My mini dachshund was barking frantically, his snout quivering over the side of the canyon, where you’d undoubtedly fled.


The sheriff told me you’d been casing the house, noting my schedule. He said crime was way up, mostly due to prisoners being released from the county jail because of over-crowding.


You didn’t look like a recently released prisoner, with your tidy dark clothes, your well-tended appearance.  Neither did you seem like a homeless person, not desperate, lost or despairing. In fact, you seemed to have it all together.


Which is what made me feel calm later. Surely such an intentional person would henceforth decide to leave my house alone—with its large German shepherd and gate. Surely it is my neighbors in this small canyon neighborhood, the ones without gates or dogs, who have the most to fear from you.


What I really want to say though is that our brief encounter brought me a gift. And I didn’t realize it until this morning, almost three weeks later.


I’ve been wondering why my heart is broken, why I can’t shake off the news. Why pictures of men, women and children herded up by Isis haunt my thoughts. Why photos of the exploded airplane in the Ukraine and the deadly rockets in Gaza settle like a gray fog in my chest. And this morning I realized why.


When you appeared outside my gate, my sense of security cracked. I felt vulnerable.  For the first time, I knew someone had been watching me as a predator observes it prey. You were waiting to take something from me.  And though I am well protected and realistically quite safe, I felt the anxiety of being the focus of another’s targeted desire.


And the ordinary people of the Middle East, the Ukraine, the Gaza strip– they are completely caught in the maelstrom of others’ violent desires. Unlike me, they have no defenses. Unlike me, they are not protected. They are not safe.  They are helpless as the ruthless advance their aims.


So your unwelcome appearance at my gate cracked me open to a deeper level of awareness, and I thank  you. I trust that you will not return.  I hope my deepened compassion abides.




Boyd, Iron Fence and Gate, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Posted by admin in Current Events, spirituality

The Not-So-Near Death of A Mini Dachshund and Events in Ferguson

R-20110118-0006.jpgLast week I was anxious and sad. Although I kept going with ordinary life, I feared our old dog was dying. Mysterious yelps, sudden bulges, listlessness and clouded eyes reminded me of every dog I’ve had that died from cancer. I held off going to the vet, avoiding bad news. Finally when a tennis-ball-sized swelling appeared overnight, I took him in. The vet lanced the abscess, gave him antibiotics, and today he’s skittering around like a puppy.


I should have known better. I’ve worked for years on facing fear. But I’m taking the episode as another lesson in assumptions.  Because I assumed he was dying, I delayed going to the vet, causing him extra pain and jeopardizing his health. Assumptions cloud our judgment. They blind us to truth. They get in the way.


I’ve learned this lesson before. In addition to experiencing it in life, I was trained to notice assumptions during my spiritual direction internship program at Bread of Life. Walk down the ladder of inference, we were told repeatedly. Try to get to the level of concrete details.  Do this not only for yourself, but with your directees.


What did you notice? What did you see? What feelings did it trigger in you? What did you say or do in response? From this foundational level, grounded in observable experience, one can carefully create a safe container within which to search for truth.


As I’ve watched events unfold in Ferguson since the shooting of 18 year old Michael Brown, I’ve grieved for the absence of such a container. Many factors are at work in the tragedy being played out, but I believe the destruction has been magnified by the speed of people’s unconsidered responses.


The facts about what actually happened are unknown at this point. Conflicting stories are being told. Information is being released in small, disconnected bits.


Into this factual vacuum, emotion, assumption, judgment, and fear have rushed. Using strategic and partial bits of information, all sides have made pronouncements, presenting their points of view as if they were facts.


Around the country, on city streets and at kitchen tables, the violence continues, as we square off against each other, not even knowing, exactly, what we are fighting about.


Into this maelstrom stepped Captain Ron Johnson, now overseeing security in Ferguson.  Johnson, a commander in the Missouri Highway Patrol, grew up in the area. His first step was to walk with the protestors through the streets. “We are going to have a different approach and that approach is that we are in this together. I am here to protect and serve everybody.”


Johnson removed the heavy riot armour and SWAT trucks that had so enraged the citizens. He met with residents on the streets. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” he told a young man with a red neckerchief. “Just like you and me are doing.  We’re talking. We gotta start with me. And we gotta start with you. We’re gonna be alright. We’re going to continue to talk.”


Unfortunately, violence has continued to escalate in Ferguson.  Peaceful protests have turned violent. Riot armor has returned to the streets. A curfew has been imposed.  Looting continues. Last night the police command center was attacked. The governor has called out the National Guard.


On Sunday morning Captain Johnson attended Greater Grace Church and spoke to Mr. Brown’s family and the congregation. “My heart goes out to you, and I say that I’m sorry. We need to pray. We need to thank Michael for his life. And we need to thank him for all the changes he is going to make.”


I’m following Captain Johnson’s advice. I’m praying for the people of Ferguson, for Captain Johnson, and for all of us, praying that we will open our eyes, ears and hearts, listening for truth, listening for wisdom, listening for guidance about how to heal our brokenness and live in peace.



Burial, Walter Gramatte, 1914, Germany courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Posted by admin in community, Current Events, spirituality

In A Philosophical Moment

R-20091211-0001.tifWalking out of the Mercy Center labyrinth this morning, I saw a squirrel furling and unfurling its tail, making a series of question marks that dissolved and re-formed.

Egg cure oil, I thought. Ecureil. That’s French for squirrel.

I’d engraved the word on my brain the day I arrived in Montreal, a provincial girl from Massachusetts. I’d anxiously fled the dorm, walked up the slopes of Mount Royal, encountered a golden-tailed squirrel and begun the laborious work of learning a new language.

Today I wonder what connects that coltish girl to the fifty-eight year old woman sitting in a blue chair beside the labyrinth?

It’s tempting, but too easy, to use the metaphor right in front of me. The labyrinthine path of life connects the girl of eighteen to the woman of fifty-eight. Yuk.

In my more philosophical moments I’ve thought—I am a metaphor.

This physical being sitting in a blue folding chair and sipping coffee is a metaphor. I stand for something else. I am a form that makes the invisible visible.

Not a stand-in or a stunt double. Not a placeholder for someone else.

I am a concretization, an embodiment, of essence. Spirit, if you will.

That’s what connects the vibrant young woman quivering with fear and joy to this tranquil woman scribbling in a notebook. Still trying to learn the language of being human. Of being at home in this beautiful, paradoxical world.


Hoffman, Red Squirrel, courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Open Access program



Posted by admin in spirituality


The Pont Neuf, Eugene Atget, 1923, Getty Museum


Yesterday I flew back from my nephew’s wedding. It was a beautiful wedding, celebrated in the same little stone church where I’d been married 36 years earlier. And the reception was very festive, with the dance floor crowded all night.


I’ve been thinking about ceremony, how important it is, and how hard it is to do well.  Last week, before flying to the wedding, I’d attended a funeral. It was a particularly sad funeral, for a young man who’d drowned while on a solo sailing voyage.


His parents are our friends. My husband was the first to hear the news after the Coast Guard called, and we waited it out with them during the terrible hours and days of the search, until finally his body was recovered.


What can anyone do during such tragedy? The answer is not much. Nothing to change the outcome or affect the flow of events.


Yet, the little we can do is of great worth. We can listen. We can cry. We can just sit with. We can walk the dog, order pizza, make sure cell phones get charged, do some laundry. We can pray. If you ever doubt whether you could make a difference to someone in crisis, ask yourself what their experience would be like if they were alone or if you were not there. The answer is immediately clear.


Our friends asked for help to create some kind of meaningful ceremony to honor his death. They are not a religious family, although Andy was very spiritual, a quality his mother shares. But they don’t have a faith practice or a community to help structure a funeral or memorial service. There was just a huge hole. A gaping void.


It was at this throbbing edge of emptiness that they found some solace in a ceremony that

1. honored the sea that Andy had loved

2. included powerful music, poetry and appeals to a greater source of meaning

3. invited people to share stories and memories of Andy, and

4. provided abundant, delicious food (Andy loved good food) and drink.


Aboard a boat, as the family scattered ashes, they felt they were releasing his physical remains to the greater currents. Back at the house, with almost 100 people gathered, they felt his spirit was still present in his impact on others and the memories shared. And the ceremony became an uplifting celebration, buoyed by love, kindness, laughter and connection. The memory of that day will be a light in dark times ahead.


I’m starting to think that ceremony—whether joyful or sorrowful—rests primarily on community, a community that is intentionally gathered for a shared purpose. We become one for a time.  We come together hoping that the old truism holds.  A joy shared is doubled.  A sorrow shared is halved.


Posted by admin in community, spirituality, story

I See Y

xbranchI take walks with my friend Sandy, a visual artist. About 9 months ago, she stopped mid stride, pulled out her phone and photographed some branches. I couldn’t see the appeal. “It’s a Y,” she explained, as if that meant something.

Turns out she’d been keeping track of all the Y’s she saw wherever she went. Sandy is Jewish and most closely aligned with the kabbalistic tradition where certain letters have mystical meanings. For Sandy, adapting this tradition, Y  was associated with Yahweh, one of the names of the Divine. We had fun for months, seeing Ys everywhere. And Ys started showing up very subtly in her work, which is abstract and beautiful, full of color and organic movement.

Last week on the trail she stopped again. This time it was an X. As in an X on a treasure map, where X marks the spot. The spot of the present moment, where she is fully alive and engaged.

Try it yourself. Discover a letter that for you is full of meaning. Then look for it everywhere.

You can see some of Sandy’s work at http://www.sondraart.com/


Posted by admin in friendship, spirituality

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