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

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

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

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