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Friday, July 28, 2017

“The Beauty Way”

I’m working on an essay about my newest and most favorite place to write: a two-seater wooden bench that sits under the shade of a tall River Birch and looks out onto a small garden of blooming  yellow, red, and purple flowers.

Best of all, the bench and the Birch and the garden are, for the most part, all mine, and for most of the times I go there to sit and scribble away.  It is the solitude and the silence, but especially the natural beauty surrounding me that inspires much of what ends up on the page.

And so lately, I’ve been thinking—and scribbling—a lot about beauty, including why it puts me in such a calm, receptive, and creative frame of mind.

Part of that thinking and scribbling drew me back to my studies of American Indian literature during my grad school days, especially to the following Navajo traditional prayer. Personally, a prayer dedicated to beauty is just what I need some days, whether to walk in it or write about it.

The Beauty Way

In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me I walk.
With beauty behind me I walk.
With beauty above me I walk.
With beauty around me I walk.
It has become beauty again.
It has become beauty again.
It has become beauty again.
It has become beauty again.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Everything Changes

In Lewis Richmond’s book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser, Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki is quoted as saying that the “the essential teaching of Buddhism…[is] Everything changes.”

Richmond goes on to write, “he meant that everything changes in horizontal time. In vertical time, things are just as they are. We can’t compare them with how they were before or how they will be after.” (See June 22nd post for more about vertical time.)

I’ll wager that horizontal time is where most of us live: we go through the day mentally recalling the past, imagining the future, and also being present in the here and now. Sometimes, if we’re really focused, we are so present as to not be aware of time even passing. I experience this mostly when I’m writing.

As we age, and the past grows longer, the future shorter, we are aware of exactly how much has changed, especially in our personal lives: transitions we’ve experienced in relationships, work, finances, health, births, deaths, places we’ve lived and traveled, and in our attitudes and beliefs.

Some of the changes we manage seamlessly; others are disruptive, even disturbing and full of distress. Many probably fall somewhere in between. But what seems to be true about change is that we can never fully anticipate how we’ll respond.

Which makes transitions great journal writing exercises. Not only can we record the details, but also reflect on how these changes affect us, i.e., what we think and feel about them. This often will lead to clarity about how we’ve done it in the past and may want to do it in the future, especially those inevitable changes that occur as we age.

And so I encourage readers to try out a journal writing exercise about a meaningful transition in their own lives, then email me their experience of writing about it. I know I’ll be doing more posts about transitions. How could I not? After all, they will continue to pile up just as the years do.

And maybe I can use some of these personal experiences—anonymously, of course—in those posts. They would certainly enrich them.

For information about my journal writing workshops and personal coaching, please email me at

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Stories as Spiritual Practice

I started keeping a journal in the summer of 1987, during an ill-fated move half way across the country.  I arrived in Santa Fe alone—except for the bewildered dog and cat—without a job, without prospects for a job, without knowing anyone, and without knowing why this had seemed such a good idea 700 miles and six months earlier. 

One night, in a dimly-lit motel room on the outskirts of town, I sat feverishly writing, pouring out my fear and desperation onto the page, hoping to calm myself long enough to figure out what to do next.  It was hard to be there in that emotional truth, and I don’t believe I could have done it without the writing.  There was something both disquieting and comforting in seeing what I was saying.  No more denial, just relief. 

That process did ultimately set me free—and on a path I still travel today: teaching others how to use journal writing to better express and understand themselves. I returned home, and three years later left my post as a university writing teacher to begin conducting journal writing workshops for adults.  I designed one of these, Journaling as Spiritual Practice, in response to frequent requests from my students.  They wanted to focus their journal keeping on the spiritual dimension of their lives, however each defined that. 

The exercises I created were ecumenical in nature—my students and I represented all faith traditions and none—and reflected what is essential to both journal writing and the spiritual journey: authentic expression; emotional vulnerability; and the willingness to discover and tell the truth.  Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the writing techniques that help elicit these responses is narrative: the personal stories of our childhood, transitions, adventures, losses, and triumphs. 

Picture this: A room full of men and women, sitting quietly in a circle, bringing to life in their journals the significant people, places, and events in their lives.  In that silence, you can hear the urgency in the writing, the sudden understanding that stories can give us:  This is who I am, these are the people I come from, the events that shaped me.  And this is what I think my life is about now.

And while many of our stories may not be explicitly spiritual, the act of telling them—and of discovering what they tell us—surely is.  For stories fulfill our basic human need to make sense of our lives, to believe they have meaning and purpose. Stories also connect us to each other, bringing us out of isolation and into belongingness.
Which is what I experienced when I first began writing, then eventually telling my misguided New Mexico story.  Truth is, it took me awhile to share it; I felt embarrassed, reluctant.  But that’s the funny thing about stories: you tell your New Mexico story and then, sure enough, everyone has a similarly misguided tale to tell you.

For information on when I'm conducting the next Journaling as Spiritual Practice workshop, please email me at


Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Reinvention Continues: Ballet Conditioning

As if becoming unlapsed and joining the church choir weren’t enough, last Saturday I signed up for a Ballet Conditioning class at my local park—just minutes before it began at 9:30 am. (I suppose the fact that I was even up and out of the house at that hour is reinvention enough.)

I’d found out about the 10-week series a week earlier—right before the first class started in the park’s field house. I wander in there regularly to look at fliers for upcoming musical events and classes at the park. But never in my wildest have I ever considered a dance class.

Except that I guess I did.

And mostly because the instructor told me that only the first hour of the 2-hour session is the conditioning; the second is the ballet part. Well, except, as the class is described on the Park District’s website, the conditioning is based on ballet techniques. Here’s my favorite part of that description, with its grand promise of things to come: “This fitness class will help shape the body like a ballet dancer.”

OK, please hold that image in your head for a few minutes: my 73 year-old crinkly and shrinking body being transformed into that of a tall, taut, slender ballet dancer. Yee-haw. When that happens—only eight short weeks from now—I will run out and buy ballet slippers, maybe even a darn tutu.

For now, though, I’m hoping I’ll learn how to uncramp my quadriceps during some of the conditioning exercises. If not, the eagerly anticipated ballet dancer body may take a bit longer to materialize.