Wild heart


Closing paragraph from Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone:

I’ll leave you with this. There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, “Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.” This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, “I am the wilderness.”

Get out now


GET OUT NOW. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run. Instead, pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike, and coast along a lot. Explore. Abandon, even momentarily, the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money now. Go outside and walk a bit, long enough to forget programming, long enough to take in and record new surroundings. Flex the mind, a little at first, then a lot. Savor something special. Enjoy the best-kept secret around–the ordinary, everyday landscape that rewards any explorer, that touches any explorer with magic…all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in. Take it. Take it in, take in more every weekend, every day, and quickly it becomes the theater that intrigues, relaxes, fascinates, seduces, and above all expands any mind focused on it. Outside lies utterly ordinary space open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies unprogrammed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity. Outside lies magic.”  ~ John Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic

Thanks, Austin, for this one.

Bright Field


I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

~ in Later Poems 1972-1982
by R.S. Thomas

Note: This poem was the June 16 entry in Almanac for the Soul: Anthology of Hope by Marv and Nancy Hiles. I so appreciate the generosity embedded in this self-published collection of life-giving poems and passages, providing my mornings for almost 10 years now with an anchor, a beacon and a beckoning for deeper reflection.

Refuge in troubled times


At a local cafe with tables too close for privacy, two women are deep in conversation, one sharing with the other her concerns about her husband since the election. “He’s angry all the time. Our dinner hour’s been overtaken by non-stop cable news. He goes to sleep angry and wakes up angry. I tell him I’m worried about him. He says, ‘Where IS your anger? What kind of American ARE you?’

“I love my country,” she continues. “I’m prepared to do all I can to be part of the solution. I just can’t live like that.”

Neither can the rest of us.

The acute stress response that seems to be engulfing our nation would be necessary and even desirable if we were four-legged creatures roaming the Serengeti in search of a meal (or refusing to become one). Within that framework, we’d be grateful for our central nervous system’s DEFCON 1 activation—accelerated heart rate, fuel-injected muscles, dilated pupils with laser-beam focus, adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol coursing through the veins, all in a miraculous choreography designed to ensure survival.

Here at home, though, acute stress reactions do the opposite. They threaten survival in scientifically-substantiated ways. Chronic stress can never be part of any solution for its corrosiveness to mind, body and spirit. Vitriolic fervor says more about our reptilian ancestry than it’ll ever say about our level of patriotism.

We’re hard-wired for the acute stress response by that 100-million-year-old part of the brain that sits like a clenched fist on top of the spine and knows exactly three songs—fight, flee or freeze. Fortunately, we’ve also been bequeathed a newer arrival, the 40,000-year-old neocortex, a veritable cerebral iPod capable of working in concert with other parts of the brain to offer countless songs, to say nothing of poems, paintings and performances.

This evolutionary cortical inheritance can provide a reliable refuge in these troubled times, but only when we invest in it, develop it and cultivate practices for harnessing the energy and power of the “lower” brain and all its percolating fear and fury in the service of effective action, problem-solving and creativity.

How can we do this? In his book, Just One Thing, neuropsychologist and mindfulness expert Rick Hanson, Ph.D. offers a collection of brain-training practices that promote resilience, effectiveness, and inner peace, predicated on the principle that the mind can be engaged in the service of changing the brain.

Practice #28 suggests that we Take Refuge:

Refuges include people, places, memories, and ideas—anyone or anything that provides reliable sanctuary and protection, that’s reassuring, comforting, and supportive, so you can let down your guard and gather strength and wisdom.

A refuge could be curling up in bed with a good book, having a meal with friends, or making a To Do list to organize your day. Or remembering your grandmother, feeling strength in your body, trusting the findings of science, talking with a trusted friend or counselor, having faith, or reminding yourself that although you’re not rich, you’re financially okay.

The world’s religions also have refuges that may speak to you, such as sacred settings, texts, individuals, teachings, rituals, objects and congregations.

Art-making is a refuge with an illustrious history. In The Three Marriages, David Whyte details the challenging, at-times deplorable conditions under which Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and others wrote their finest works. Marc Chagall survived two world wars, famine, antisemitism resulting in the complete destruction of his entire body of work in Berlin and the death of his beloved wife. His response was always the same—he painted. Mary Oliver’s Upstream highlights two refuges which, against the backdrop of a childhood marked by traumatic privation and abuse, were instrumental in setting the course of the future poet’s creative life:

In the first of these—the natural world—I felt at ease; nature was full of beauty and interest and mystery, also good and bad luck, but never misuse. The second world—the world of literature—offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy…and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything—other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.

Where is your refuge? Do you commit to spending time there? In these challenging times, are you managing to reserve enough time and attention for those people, places and things that buoy the human spirit, sustain you and make it possible for you to be part of the solution in meaningful and rewarding ways?



So you aren’t Tolstoy or St. Francis

or even a well-known singer

of popular songs and will never read Greek

or speak French fluently,

will never see something no one else

has seen before through a lens

or with the naked eye.
You’ve been given just the one life

in this world that matters

and upon which every other life

somehow depends as long as you live,

and also given the costly gifts of hunger,

choice, and pain with which to raise

a modest shrine to meaning.

                                                    ~Leonard Nathan
Wishing you celebrations that feel manageable and meaningful along with plenty of peace and quiet. And may your New Year and mine arrive with an abiding sense of purpose and possibility for what could be. Thank you so much for your support and readership.


Rolling in the deep


I just got back from a 10-day intuitive painting training workshop with Deb Purdy of Creative Wings Studio and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, though folks who’ve done this type of painting for any length of time will tell you that the head is one of the greatest impediments to true fulfillment. In other words, intuitive painting isn’t what you think.

The materials couldn’t be simpler—a large sheet of white paper and tempera paints, along with water containers for rinsing brushes. Prompted by clear instructions—Tape your paper to the wall, approach the paint and dip your brush into the color that seems to “call” you—the eight of us began.

“Keep the brush moving,” Deb suggests, and in time an image does indeed begin to appear, and then another, and another. Unlike traditional painting, where the artist begins with an idea for an image and then proceeds to paint, intuitive painting invites the participant to follow the lead of both the brush and the paint in order to, as Deb puts it, “bring forth the image that’s calling to be made.”

This raises a question: If the image doesn’t spring from the painter’s own head, from a process that involves thinking and planning, where does it come from? The unconscious? Maybe, but not in the way I’m used to thinking about the unconscious, that deep wellspring of material relegated for a host of good reasons to regions beyond one’s own conscious awareness. Intuitive painting seems to summon images that live 60,000 leagues under the unconscious.

Carl Jung was so convinced of the healing power of these images—archetypal images, as he termed them, embodying not the unconscious of one individual but the collective unconscious of all of human kind—that he broke away from his mentor, Sigmund Freud, in order to explore more deeply their fuller meanings and potentials. 

Seasoned intuitive painters suggest that we’re all perhaps a bit too enamored with “meaning” and that the painting process is a richer one when it’s free from shackling questions about what it all means. I myself tend to like meaning and can attest to the fact that those who find themselves without the capacity for meaning in life are individuals who suffer deeply. Meaning provides something undeniably vital for health and well-being. Survival itself is endangered, as Victor Frankl so influentially chronicled, without a sense of meaning. At the same time I can’t deny that I enjoyed a more profoundly gratifying experience over the course of the training when I managed to turn the meaning-making part of my thinking off. I felt energized and expanded, as if my own sense of myself, my life and my vision for what could be had now somehow enlarged, an awareness which has continued since my return home. I understand this to be yet another reminder that the mind is only so competent at comprehending the fullness of meaning, possibility and potential and that there’s value in moving the mind aside in order to access that deeper bounty.

Like the sea itself, the unconscious yields an endless and self-replenishing abundance of creatures, a wealth beyond our fathoming. ~ Carl Jung

Now more than ever I find myself needing experiences that offer deeper levels of restoration and replenishment. Whatever those may be for you, those portals and places that provide sorely-needed reprieve from the noise of life on land and an expanded sense of what could be, may you find yourself spending some quality time there, especially in the week ahead.

Photo credit courtesy of Dana G.F. Sterbens

Damn the electric fence.*

Years ago a friend told me about an event that happened one morning as he headed out his front door on his way to work. Getting into his car, he glanced across the street and noticed that the neighbor’s dog was sitting out on their front lawn. He’d been feeling a bit heavy-hearted for this pooch over the last several weeks, he told me, because his neighbor had installed an electric fence. Well-known in the subdivision for frequent wanderings that generated countless complaints, the dog now seemed subdued, maybe even depressed at his invisible confinement and my friend said he’d taken note of the changes in the dog’s disposition in the weeks since.

On this particular morning, though, he witnessed something altogether different. With fixed attention he watched as the dog suddenly stood up, almost as if responding to some sort of inaudible command. Then the dog began to walk in a circle, slowly at first but then with increasing momentum and velocity, spinning himself into a whirl, attempting, it seemed, to chase his tail at lightning speed. Is this what he’s doing, my friend asked himself? Is he chasing his tail?

And then it happened. My friend watched as the dog ran around and around, faster and faster and then, with an unexpected howl of emancipation and with sheer and unbridled delight he launched headlong, breaking thorough the electric fence. That pup bolted down the street, my friend described, running as if his life depended on it and never looking back.

There is no such thing beneath the heavens as conditions favorable to art. Art must crash through or perish.  ~ Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Many creative people come up against their own version of the electric fence—those elements in the artist’s life that create a forcefield which keeps the maker within familiar perimeters, commanding the creator to settle down, stay put. Sometimes the fence is invisible, but not always. This story has stayed with me over all these years, though, not because of the fence. I’m captivated by the image of the dog and the sheer force he brought to bear in readying himself to break through, to break free. I’m not sure we should expect it to be any easier or to require anything less as we move to respond to our own inaudible commands and I find it useful to remember that centrifugal force—that force that comes from one’s center—can often be an unstoppable propellant when it comes to breaking free and doing good work.
Some readers will be reminded of Cow Poetry, The Far Side® cartoon by Gary Larson. Larson asks fans to avoid using his work on the internet and so I can’t include it here… damn.

Color me calmer


My bookkeeper, Evi, caught the coloring book fever not all that long ago and she tells me life hasn’t been the same since. She’s shown me the progression of her work from the beginning, lovely pages depicting mostly springtime palettes and, more recently, intricate gradations and shadings. To see Evi’s exuberance and the sheer force of her presence as she talks about coloring is to know that art-making brings something vital to her life.

But can coloring be considered art? If you ask Evi’s adrenal glands, they’d tell you they couldn’t care less. Researchers at Drexel University studied the effects of art-making on cortisol levels in the body. Elevated levels of cortisol, a stress hormone released by the adrenals and referred to by Psychology Today as “public health enemy number one,” have been implicated in anxiety, depression and a number of other physical and mental health conditions. The study found a statistically significant decrease in levels of the stress hormone following 45 minutes of art-making. Interestingly, the findings further revealed that cortisol levels dropped regardless of the subject’s prior art-making experience or levels of sophistication of the materials used, meaning that both seasoned artists and novices enjoyed a similar decrease in cortisol, whether they used sculptural clay or student-grade markers.

Participants in the study reported feeling relaxed after art-making, saying that the experience reminded them of creating as a child. Some reported feeling free from constraints. Others described an experience of “flow,” of losing themselves in the work. As Evi describes it:

Coloring takes my focus off the daily routines and stresses. It redirects my mind into creating something from nothing. It gives me the satisfaction that I’ve brought a piece of work to life.  It’s calming and soothing, and sometimes it’s a positive mental challenge in that some pieces make me dig a little deeper. Coloring is like an open window—it lets in fresh air for the mind.

Evi introduced her California friend, Wendy, to coloring. Wendy says:

Coloring gives me a way to completely clear my mind of everyday stresses and worries.  When I’m working on a picture, I get so involved that I don’t think of anything else and time flies.  Because I’m a stay-at-home caregiver to two aging pets with health issues, working on art affords me a peaceful way to keep myself occupied while still being attentive to their needs.  Best of all, I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of making the pictures come to life and hope to continue for years to come.

Color has forever had this effect on me, and maybe you, too. I swear that just looking at freshly-squeezed dollops of paint on my palette decreases my cortisol level. I could spit in a petri dish, stare at my colored pencils for 15 minutes and then spit again and I bet my cortisol would be lower. Or maybe it just feels that way…

While the debate continues as to what constitutes “art,” I see merit in asking different questions. Like, What constitutes health and how does my making support it?

(HT to Liz for news of the Drexel study)

Carrying the past

We were in Colorado recently visiting family and while there we checked out the Pikes Peak Gem and Mineral Show. Within minutes of entering the main hall, I’m stopped in my tracks by a magnificent site—a fossil of a chambered nautilus.


The chambered nautilus is a “living fossil” that predates dinosaurs by about 265 million years. What’s captivated me ever since I learned about this ancient sea creature is its relationship to its past as reflected in its shell. The chambered nautilus begins its existence in a teeny space, or chamber. As it grows, it builds larger and larger chambers to inhabit, walling off the earlier space it has since outgrown in a design that allows only forward growth and movement. But these formerly-occupied chambers aren’t discarded. Instead they’re carried along and put to use, operating somewhat like an inflatable raft that allows the nautilus to remain buoyed as it navigates its present and heads toward its future.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to carry the past in this way? To feel buoyed by it rather than weighted?

There was a time in my life when I went through a very difficult period of constant retrospective thinking about my shortcomings, my sins and misdeeds in the past. A friend of mine, a follower of existential philosophy, told me that I practiced what in the Middle Ages was called delectatio morosa, a term used to describe the way in which monks used to think about their past misdeeds and sins, meditating on them for days instead of doing what was necessary at the present. She said that our past is not static and that it constantly changes according to our deeds at the present. The things that we do at the present throw a light backward upon our previous shortcomings and deeds; every act of ours presently performed transforms the past. If we make use of them as a motoric force, for instance, that pushes us to do good things, we redeem our past and give a new meaning and a new sense to our past actions. ~ Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations (2006)

One final stroke of wisdom: While the nautilus roots itself in the outermost chamber of its shell, it spends most of its waking life protruding well beyond its perimeter. Living, as it were, outside the box.

P.S. If you find that your past is more of a weight than a buoy, check out Bouncing Back by Linda Graham. Combining mindfulness, relational psychology and neuroscience, I’ve found Linda’s book to be a resourceful work with many easy-to-implement strategies for building resilience.

The animating force


I met my friend, Mary, for dinner the other night and she gave me a bottle of wine to mark the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris. The Judgment of Paris? I’m thinking World War II but the math isn’t quite right and so I ask.

I should note here that Mary’s “a wine person,” a connoisseur who sold fine wines to upscale restaurants in Chicago for years. Mary explains that she’s not so much into wine for the science or the stats. She’s into it for the stories, like the one about the Judgment of Paris.

In 1976, Mary tells me, a British fella living in Paris was hoping to drum up business for his flagging wine shop and came up with the idea of hosting a wine-tasting competition between the best wines of France and the mostly-unknown wines of California. He knew, of course, what the outcome would be, as did the townsfolk, so much so that aside from two young men who wandered in off the street and a reporter from Time magazine who grumbled about the assignment, the joint was empty. The competition went on in any event with nine revered French sommeliers and restauranteurs serving as judges. The results?  The California wines, both red and white, triumphed over the French.

To hear Mary tell it, I would’ve sworn she was there. And this is my point. Her eyes lit as she described the animating force that began with one man’s idea to have a contest, rocking the wine-making world not only in France but around the globe as vintners from Oregon to Australia now saw the possibility that they, too, could have a chair at the table. Captivated by the story when she’d first heard it, Mary says she picked up the book, a first-person account penned by that grumbling Time magazine reporter who’d gotten the scoop of his life, to learn more. In that book, she came across the names of the two young men who wandered in off the street to watch. One of the names was identical to the name of one of her Chicago restauranteurs. Could it be? She called the restaurant and asked him directly. Yes, he said, it’s me.

Which in turn prompted my friend to invite him to come and speak to her wine club, which he graciously accepted. She said the evening was sheer delight, history brought to life.

The animating force that prompted a British wine shop owner to have a contest. That prompted a couple of young passersby to stop in. That prompted a grumbling reporter to stay. That prompted vintners around the world to ask, “Why not?” That prompted the writing of the book. That prompted the invitation to speak.

That prompted my friend to tell me this story, and me to tell you. And speaking of you, what’s your animating force? And how do you honor it?