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

Heroic Journeys


For nearly 10 years I’ve led a weekly group for women whose children have been taken by CPS. (Child Protective Services) The women are in recovery, most of them ordered by a judge to attend this program. The group format is unusual in that I tell the women a myth or story which they apply to their lives. While this might sound frivolous, it can have profound impact.

This week as I strode into the musty living room, I was greeted with, “It’s the storyteller!” A voluptuous blonde in flannel pajamas beamed at me. “Remember me?”

                “No,” I confessed.

                “I was here in 2010.”

                “What brings you back?” This is my standard question, and it usually leads to an involved story and often tears. This was no exception.  The blonde, I’ll call her Deb, relapsed after two years, when her ex left her, and she went back to the guy who first hooked her up with meth. She knew she shouldn’t have. She wished she hadn’t. But she couldn’t help herself. At this point she wept copiously, berating herself because her three year old is now enmeshed in the foster care system.

A similar story could have been told by most of the women in the program. 

My work, as I see it, is to help the women re-frame their narratives, so instead of seeing themselves as helpless victims, condemned to perpetually screw up, they see themselves as the heroes of their own lives. I point out that traditional stories often start with bad situations: Hansel and Gretel are left in the woods; Cinderella is abandoned by her father and mistreated by her stepmother; simple Jack has to face down the ferocious giant. But the hero always sets forth, willingly or unwillingly; receives unexpected help; perseveres through the obstacles; and gains the prize. This is the classic model of the hero’s journey, and it’s a pattern that has endured for millennia.   

When I introduced this week’s story, Deb shrieked. “I wanted to hear that story again! It’s about the goddess who hid in the cave but came out!”

                “Yes. Amaterasu.”

                “I went to the tattoo parlor to get her tattooed right here. The goddess coming out of the cave.” She pointed to her forearm. “But I didn’t have enough money.”

I sat open-mouthed, floored by her attempt to have the story tattooed on her body.  And later, when I explained the exercise of reflecting back each other’s positive qualities, Deb rattled off the list of positive qualities she’d been told four  years earlier. “I taped it on my door,” she said sheepishly, “and read it every time I left my room.”

As I drove away this week, I was flooded with the familiar ambivalence and paradox. Yes, the session had been powerful and beautiful. Yes, there had been tears, insights, vows to change. But the odds were against lasting change.  Almost all these women had been raised in foster care or by mothers who were addicts. The cycle is deeply entrenched and difficult  (in dark moments I think impossible) to break. I do this work as a volunteer, and I frequently ask myself if it’s the best use of my time.

Recently, I took a four month break from the program. I wasn’t sure I’d go back. But I kept thinking of the women, and not out of guilt or obligation. I missed the vitality I felt while with them.  The women in the house are fighting a life-and-death battle. It’s just so real. Their courage and tenacity are an inspiration, and their challenges are humbling. It’s a privilege to be given intimate glimpses into their lives and to offer sustenance for their journeys, which are radically harder than my own.

See my website for more information and articles about healing story.

The painting above is Travelers on A Wooded Path by Henri Joseph Harpignes, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.


Posted by admin in story

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