Big Magic!

This book is filled with food for the creative soul. I recommend it to anyone stepping into a lifestyle of creativity and will be sharing more about how it is affirming and shaping my own creative life.

This book is filled with food for the creative soul. I recommend it to anyone stepping into a lifestyle of creativity and will be sharing more about how it is affirming and shaping my own creative life.

Many years ago Roy and I led a marriage workshop for the church where he was a pastor.  We decided to show a scene from a movie that portrayed intense forgiveness as we tried (emphasis on tried, because we were barely beginning to explore this ourselves) to teach how intimacy flowed through relationship. 

It was from the 1993 movie Indecent Proposal. Perhaps you've seen it.  IMDB's summary is "A billionaire offers $1,000,000 to a young married couple for one night with the wife." Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson play the young couple who navigate the aftermath of their choice. One that they made together which eventually split them apart.

The scene we showed was the end, where they sat on a deserted beach on opposite sides of a bench with a tall wall.  One of them reached up over the wall and waited until....finally, the other hand came up and touched.


We had no idea what would happen and we certainly didn't anticipate what DID happen. The energy level in the room shifted so profoundly that we had to take a break. Women cried. Men fidgeted uncomfortably in their seats. We tried to ask a question, but nobody spoke. People were just stunned by the emotion.  

So we took a break, a very long break, and talked about how we were going to help people navigate this unexpected raw experience.

What Roy and I stumbled into was actually creativity in action. I have stumbled into it so many many times in my life and all too frequently been embarrassed or shamed by the emotion I have (inadvertently) evoked.

Until I just stopped doing it.  

Not coincidentally, I suppose, part of the weekend was a brief teaching I did on creativity. I had come to the epiphany that creativity is a survival instinct that we all have. So many times I hear people say "oh, I'm not really very creative" and I say, "Did you get dressed this morning? The very act of choosing what to wear, how you want to look on a given day is a creative act! You may not be doing it consciously, but you are doing it."

At the break, an engineer in the group approached  me and said "do you work in marketing?" I said I did.  "I thought so," he said, and walked away.  Hmmmmm.

So my journey into creativity taught me a few limiting lessons that weekend that I want to shed. I was shut down by fear. Other people's fear of intimacy, my fear of intimacy, and my fear about how my ideas and expressions made people very very uncomfortable.

Fast forward 14 years to reading Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic.  And in it she says..."Creativity is the hallmark of our species."

YES! YES!  I said.  And then I thought, hey, I said that years ago. That's what it took for my truth to find validity. It took someone else saying it. Someone on the best-seller list.

Damn, I thought.  I have to start listening to myself.


The Cruelest Month

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"Where does what go?" Gabri asked after a minute's silence.

Myrna whispered, 'Our sorrow. It has to go somewhere.'"

And with that statement Louise Penny invited me into the archetype of "home."

"Gamache knew people were like homes. Some were cheerful and bright, some gloomy. Some could look good on the outside but feel wretched on the interior.  And some of the least attractive homes, from the outside, were kindly and warm inside.

"He also knew the first few rooms were for public consumption. It was only in going deeper that he'd find the reality. And finally, inevitably, there was the last room, the one we keep locked and bolted and barred, even from ourselves. Especially from ourselves." 

In The Cruelest Month, the archetype was The Old Hadley House, that abandoned house, up on the hill, just outside of Three Pines, an allegory for the place I fear; that place in my spirit or my psyche where I store away what I don't want to see. That place that grows, over time, into something abandoned, unknown and terrifying. However, she says gently,  "Everything has it wonders, even darkness and silence."

One character described it simply, as the principle of balance.  'Nature is balance. Action and reaction. Life and death. Everything's in balance. It makes sense that the old Hadley house is close to Three Pines. They balance each other."  

Well, ok, that makes it a little less scary, right? Balance is a good thing, right? But let's just keep that old house up on the hill where we don't have to see it, and far enough away that we have no reason to go there.

That's fear talking. Everyone in Three Pines avoids the Old Hadley House, and fear is the reason. But there is a price to keeping the darkness at bay. Penny describes it beautifully when she says that fear is "an alchemist and could turn daylight into night, joy into despair.  Fear, once taken root, blocked the sun."

Fear of encountering certain aspects of my ego, my created self, gets in the way of my relationship with all that is Divine. I may not have to look at or enter that old house, but, buy gosh it is blocking my view. Those parts of me that need to be loved, explored, brought to the light of consciousness, and forgiven. Those parts of me that don't make me a bad person, they just cloud the sun. They make it hard for me to experience a connection to my creator and to all creation.

When Roy died I lost all of my defenses around those parts of me. My created self just couldn't bear the weight. I learned how great suffering can do that; strip us of the defenses that we have so carefully crafted in order to survive. I entered that terrifying house, against my will, and tumbled down into the basement, as she describes in this scene.

"He'd opened this same door in the middle of a fierce storm, in the dark...and he'd stepped into a void. It was like every nightmare coming true. He'd crossed a threshold into nothingness. No light, no stairs.

And he'd fallen. As had the others with him. Into a wounded and bloody heap on the floor below.

The old Hadley house protected itself. It seemed to tolerate, with ill grace, minor intrusions. But it grew more and more malevolent the deeper you went. Instinctively his hand went into his pants pocket, then came out again, empty.

But he remembered the BIble in his jacket and felt a little better. Though he didn't himself go to church, he knew the power of belief. And symbols."

My defenses do fiercely protect themselves. Layers of anger, fear, despair, outrage rear their ugly heads to protect from seeing what is in that basement.  

It was like that for me.  Like falling into an abyss. That place where my sorrow went. That place where all of the emotions that I didn't want to see live and breathe and yes, control my life.  So, it was a salvation of sorts.  Because once those places were encountered, they began to lose control. It doesn't happen overnight, of course.  It's a process.  Like Inspector Gamache's take on loss:

"You didn't just lose a loved one. You lost your heart, your memories, your laughter, your brain and it even took your bones.  Eventually it all came back, but different, rearranged."

And I am finding that it's true, what I've been told. What's underneath all of that garbage that I have stored away in the house on the hill is love. That's all that's left, once it has all been brought to light. For me, it's not a one and done kind of thing. I expect I'll spend the rest of my life with perhaps daily episodes of heading down to the basement to shed light on something, to bring love and compassion to some anger or sorrow or fear.  But that seems to me a better way to be in the world. Safer, somehow, more authentic.

And I am seeing that the fear, ultimately, is a fear of love.  Because love makes me vulnerable.  I can neither predict or control the path of love and it's consequent joys and sorrows. But I can begin to trust it. Begin.


The Word Made Flesh


I have been following Dr. Joe's work, and practicing with his ideas for awhile now.  But when, in this TedX Talk he called it "the word made flesh" bells and whistles went off for me.  Now he's speaking my language...words and spirit.  I've always seen that expression in light of the traditional Christian interpretation that the word was made flesh in the embodiment of Jesus Christ.  And I believe that truth.  But also, here, we see the science of how this works in our own minds, bodies and spirits, as we are created in the image of God.

As I love words, and am always exploring their extraordinary power, I was especially struck by this eloquent explanation.

Edna St. Vincent Millay Got Grief...

"Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell."

It has been 19 months and that feeling creeps in ... you should be over it ... move on ...  and I see it and say ... but how deeply did we love. October 16th is our wedding anniversary.  A marriage far from perfect, filled with a host of challenges and heartaches.  But in the face of it all, October had always been our month to enjoy; the changing season, the beauty of Colorado in the fall, walking for coffee in the crisp morning air, the striking color of the leaves, sometimes even venturing up the canyon for a last fishing weekend with our fingerless gloves.  This year would be 35 years.  Roy always bought me flowers, often a rose for each year we were married. Sometimes I think the idea of purchasing three dozen roses was just too much for him.  A little grief humor.


And I hear these words from a character in the new TV series, This is Us:  "If you don't address your grief, it's like a big deep breath that you never exhale."  

For those of you who are not "over it" yet, who have not "moved on" ... I see you.  I am with you.

Dirge Without Music


I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.

So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned

With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.


Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.

Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.

A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,

A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.


The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—

They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled

Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve. 

More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.


Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave

Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.

I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.



EdnaSt. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music” from Collected Poems © 1928, 1955 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis.

Grief Is a Tricky Friend


When Roy died I found myself initiated into a special club.  A club that none of its members want to join, but we find each other nonetheless.  Those I meet from the club are kind and gentle, sensitively attuned to the pain they know I am enduring.  

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, became a sort of leader of the club when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack in 2015.  She has since written a book Option B, about her journey.  I read somewhere, maybe an excerpt of the book, or maybe a FB post, about her experience noticing women wearing necklaces with gold rings dangling from them.  Not just any gold rings, special gold rings.  Wedding rings.  A sign of membership.

 I purchased a ring when I was recently in Italy and I now call it my widow ring, a fitting contrast the that "other" ring that I chose to take off and now wear, from a gold chain, around my neck.  Both rings are symbols of how love shapes and shifts, an energy that never dies.  I wear my widow ring on the fourth finger of my right hand.  It's a hard symbolism to accept.  Yet each time I look at it I am gently invited to accept this reality, gently asked to explore the seeming opposites of letting go and holding on.  Gently invited to see my own life and Roy's life as part of a larger expression of love and suffering.  A larger expression of grieving as receiving, as transformative. 

Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, writes about this as a spiritual experience.

"The prophet Zechariah calls Israel to “Look upon the pierced one and to mourn over him as for an only son,” and “weep for him as for a firstborn child,” and then “from that mourning” (five times repeated) will flow “a spirit of kindness and prayer” (12:10) and “a fountain of water” (13:1; 14:8).

"From that mourning...will a flow a spirit of kindness and prayer, and a fountain of water." (My emphasis)

We would now call this “grief work”—holding the mystery of all suffering, looking honestly right at it, and learning from it, which typically leads to an uncanny and newfound compassion and understanding.

I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward suffering and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer.

Transformation means to change form, move across, or “shape-shift.” To be transformed is to look out at reality from a genuinely new source and center, seeing things in a larger and more holistic way.

Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, which is both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus—the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is a very dramatic image of what it takes to be a usable one for God."

I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward suffering and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer.  (My emphasis)

I believe this too, and I'm thankful that Richard Rohr expresses it so eloquently.  Who would choose to look honestly, right at suffering, if we didn't have to?  I know I didn't.  But as a result I have experienced deeply how God's heart has always been softened toward me.  And how she wishes for my heart to be softened toward the suffering of others.

A Fatal Grace


"I only became really happy after my family was killed.  Horrible to say."  Yet Louise Penny has the courage to say it.  Shocking as it was to hear, I find that there is some truth for me in her character's comment.  "Their deaths changed me," she says.  "At some point I was standing in my living room unable to move forward or back.  Frozen.  That's why I asked about the snowstorm.  That's what it had felt like, for months and months.  As though I was lost in a whiteout.  Everything was confused and howling.  I couldn't go on.  I was going to die.  I didn't know how, but I knew I couldn't support the loss any longer.  I'd staggered to a stop...lost, disoriented, at a dead my own living room.  Lost in the most familiar, the most comforting of places."

But she didn't die.  And neither did I.  For Penny's character, the turning point was a workman standing at her door with a sign that said "ice ahead."  He needed to use the phone.  For her, it was a message of hope, direct from God.  She describes how, in that moment,  her "despair disappeared.  The grief remained, of course, but I knew then that the world wasn't a dark and desperate place.  I was so relieved.  In that moment I found hope.  This stranger with the sign had given it to me.  It sounds ridiculous, I know, but suddenly the gloom was lifted.

"My life's never been the same since that day I opened the door.  I'm happy now.  Content.  Funny isn't it?  I had to go to Hell to find happiness."

For me, it wasn't a single event that lifted the gloom and despair, but more a gentle dawning over time.  It felt like a trip I took with Sam, leaving at midnight and driving through sunrise.  We were driving West through Utah, so the dawn was behind us, and I kept looking in the rearview mirror waiting for more light.  The hint of light started to glow in the sky long before the sun came over the plateaus in my mirror.  I kept waiting to see that sun burst over the horizon, but it seemed to take hours.  That's how it was for me.  I kept looking to the horizon waiting for the sun to burst through, waiting for the day I would awake, as people described, and I would just feel better.  I was desperate to see the gloom lift, the light shine again, dawn to find me.  But it was not a sudden sunburst.  It was a slow moving aside of the clouds and fog.

Yes, dawn has found me.  I see it, not in the absence of grief, but in the ability to be in grief and sorrow and know that I have the strength to endure it as it slowly integrates into my experience.  Hope and comfort, peace and compassion are no longer abstract intellectual concepts, but felt experiences that I desperately need and desire to cultivate.

And there is truth in the phrase that after the loss of one deeply loved I understand happiness differently.  

 I have a new capacity for it.  Life takes on a precious beauty.  Things that seemed critical before fall to the background and I find myself looking each day for grace, beauty, joy, love.  I just feel more attuned to it. I see special moments that I never saw before. The grief is still there, yes, but happiness is equally present, and looks much, much different.

Still Life


The last book I read in the mystery genre was The Happy Hollisters.  Or maybe it was The Bobbsey Twins.  If you recognize those titles, you know what I mean.  I was 8, or 9 or maybe 10.  I discovered a wonderful new concept when my parents purchased a book subscription for me and each month in the mail I received a new one!  It was like Christmas every month.

So when Still Life, by Louise Penny, was recommended at my book group one evening, I listened politely and said to myself, well just because it's a book group choice doesn't mean I have to read it.  That's the thing about my book group.  You don't have to read the book.

Then one day, my mind short-circuited by grief, I decided to give "Still Life" a try.  Something light and entertaining, not too gruesome.  And then for awhile, Louise Penny was all that I could read.

Now I'm sure that an author's highest compliment is NOT that she got a grieving widow through her first year of anguish and turmoil.  But that is my testimony to Louise.  With much thanks.

There is so much to love about her mysteries.  One day as my mind became more able to focus I reflected on Three Pines, the small village in Quebec that is the setting for all of her Inspector Gamache mysteries.  Ahhh, I thought.  Such a great archetype for the safe place that I would love to call home.  A tiny remote village (mysterious in it's absence on the map); a small community of like-minded but quirky friends who all "get" and accept each others' faults and defaults, gifts and contributions.  A lovely B&B with a bistro that serves up the likes of "a mug of hot soup with a warm roll stuffed with ham, melting brie and a few leaves of arugula," while a fire crackles in the fireplace banked by cozy arm chairs.  Yes please.

And from that safe place Penny weaves, not only an engaging mystery, but also a story filled with so many things that I love:  literary references, psychological perspective, inspirational adages, spiritual perspective, humor, grace, humility, forgiveness.  Each story woven through with a special insight that I can take away and chew on.  She makes me see myself with humor and compassion.

Still Life, it seems to me, is an invitation to that safe place inside of us where we can begin to integrate aspects of our self, to take our own journeys of self-discovery. Perhaps that's because I am in that stage of life right now.  Her main character, Inspector Gamache, introduces his philosophy as a crime detective to his new recruits with the scripture from Matthew 10:36 "And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."

In one scene a new recruit happens upon a mirror with the a note attached that says "you're looking at the problem."  

At another point Gamache reflects on an "analogy someone told him years ago.  Living our lives was like living in a long house.  We entered as babies at one end, and we exited when your time came.  And in between we moved through this one, great, long room.  Everyone we ever met, and every thought and action lived in that room with us.  Until we made peace with the less agreeable parts of our past they'd continue to heckle us from way down the long house.  And sometimes the really loud, obnoxious ones told us what to do, directing our actions even years later."  That is Louise Penny's gift.  This invitation to make peace.

No sooner had I closed the back cover of Still Life and opened the introduction to Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel did I read an introduction by William Gay, author of The Long Home.  Coincidence?

The literary references, poetry, art, philosophy, spirituality, are all like little gems that delight me as I am reading.  The mystery carries me along.  The characters are lovely archetypes of aspects of self.  I don't want to ruin it for you.  If you read it you'll want to discover your own little treasures, as that is the delight of reading her books.  But here's a few archetypes I enjoyed.

Three Pines as a wonderful place of safety and security where a person could be themselves in a beloved community.  "Beyond that, there was no crime.  No break-ins, no vandalism, no assaults.  There weren't even any police in Three Pines.  Every now and then Robert Lemieux with the local Surete would drive around the Commons, just to show the colors, but there was no need...Three Pines wasn't on any tourist map, being too far off any main or even secondary road.  Like Narnia, it was generally found unexpectedly and with a degree of surprise that such an elderly village should have been hiding in this valley all along.  Anyone fortunate enough to find it once, usually found their way back."  And yet, the safety is breached by a murder that must be solved.  If we are going to do the work, we are going to find something frightening.

Inspector Gamache as the compassionate detective, leading the charge of discovery about that which makes us horrified.  About life, about our world, about others, and worst of all, about ourselves.  As Penney describes him, though, "His little secret was that in his mid-fifties, at the height of a long and now apparently stalled career, violent death still surprised him."  Keeping a tender heart is to not let the shock of truth make us jaded or cynical.  Such an important aspect of healing.  

Inspector Gamache, who also believes that "We choose our thoughts.  We choose our perceptions.  We choose our attitudes.  We may not think so.  We may not believe it, but we do.  I absolutely know we do.  I've seen enough evidence, time after time, tragedy after tragedy.  Triumph after triumph.  It's about choice."

Inspector Gamache who also quotes John Donne "When thou hast done, thou has not done, for I have more." And Abby Hoffman, "We should all eat what we kill.  That would put an end to war."

Clara, the sensitive artist,  "found it easy to forgive most things in most people.  Too easy, her husband Peter often warned.  But Clara had her own little secret.  She didn't really let go of everything.  Most things, yes.  But some she secretly held and hugged and would visit in moments when she needed to be comforted by the unkindness of others."  What we hide from other's needn't be hidden from ourselves.  

Clara, who acts from her tender compassionate place when her friends suffered. "Clara rose with exaggerated calm.  She took Jane in her arms and felt the old body creak back into place.  Then she said a little prayer of thanks to the gods that give grace.  The grace to cry and the grace to watch."

Clara, who wanted to keep her loved one's safe, who we all want inside ourselves and in our lives.  "Most mornings Clara would wake up and watch while he slept, and want to crawl inside his skin and wrap herself around his heart and keep him safe.......Clara was his centre and all that was good and healthy and happy about him.  When he looked at her he didn't see the wild, untamable hair, the billowing frocks, the Dollar-rama store horn-rimmed spectacles.  No. He saw his safe harbor."

Ruth Zardo, the voice that we all want to use, but instead filter.  Ruth the crazy aging poet, unable to mask the stinging truth.

You were a moth

brushing against my cheek 

in the dark.

I killed you,

not knowing

you were only a moth,

with no sting.

Myrna, the retired psychologist, showing us the limits of analysis, and the power of comfort. Myrna, who quotes Oscar Wilde with " there's no sin except stupidity."

Myrna who weaves her observations into wisdom.  "His theory is that life is loss.  Loss of parents, loss of loves, loss of jobs.  So we have to find a higher meaning in our lives than these things and people.  Otherwise we'll lose ourselves."

"I lost sympathy with many of my patients.  After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped.  I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen.  Every week he'd come with the same complaints, "Someone hurt me.  Life is unfair.  It's not my fault."  For three years I'd been making suggestions and for three years he'd done nothing.  Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood.  He wasn't changing because he didn't want to.  He had no intention of changing.  For the next twenty years we would go through this charade.  And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him." 

Myrna, with whom I would take issue.  If only it were simply that people didn't change because they didn't want to.  I believe there are many people who desperately want to change and who struggle with a host of limits and road blocks.  Sometimes the only change possible is acceptance of what is.

And there's much more.  She packs an awful lot into these little gems.  I even feel a bit smug that maybe I know her references to books she invents for the story.  Loss, by Brother Albert Mailloux at LaPorte sounds a lot like Henri Nouwen and L'Arche.

If you've read this far, thanks.  I believe Louise Penny just finished the sixteenth book in the Inspector Gamache series, so I'll be exploring more of them.  Should you decide to embark on the adventure of self-discovery with her, I'd love to hear about the little gems that you find.




Getting Grief Right and The Truth According to Us

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In the year after Roy died I read probably around 100 books.  All I could do was read and knit.  Those books take up the better part of a tall bookshelf in my bedroom.  Some day I may review my grief reading as I now think of it, but it's still too soon.

However, there were two books I read during that time that provide sacred solace, comfort and healing in this journey.  I was reading them simultaneously, as I often do, fiction and nonfiction, without any intention of alignment between the two.  But reading these two at the same time was not a mistake.  Something divine brought this together to crystalize an experience critical to my path toward peace and well being.

The nonfiction book is Getting Grief Right by Patrick O'Malley.  For me, he's got it.  He unlocked the door that allows me to integrate the agony of grief.  Here he describes his own journey through grief when, as a young man, he lost his daughter.  O'Malley was a new therapist at the time, so his perspective was uniquely that of someone who thought he understand the grieving process.  He has gracefully identified the myth of closure and moving on for what it is.  A myth.  That's not how grief works for me.  And apparently, not for many people.

In the introduction he reflects on his own grief process.  

"Finally, I realized that all the analysis was competing for space with my love.  When I stopped judging my mourning so much love, intimacy and grace flowed back into my heart.  There was so much bittersweet joy in reconnecting to the love.

"This moment was almost always the turning point for my clients as well - the moment when they came to understand that their grief was a function of their love.  Who could argue with that?  How could there be shame in their sorrow?  How could their feelings be wrong?  How could their feelings do anything but connect them with the ones they missed.  The feelings, painful as they may be, were honoring.  They were affirming.  Grief could be something to be grateful for.

Once I had been haunted by these questions:  What's wrong with my clients?  What's wrong with me?  What a relief to realize that there was nothing wrong with any of us.  We were not crazy.  We were not wallowing.

Clients would ask, "How long will this take?"  and I would reply, "How deeply did you love?"

The gift that Annie Barrows gave me in her protagonist Jottie, was the gift of seeing this truth come to life.  The gift of all novels.  Here's an excerpt as Jottie, after 15 years, is finally able to see the truth of her first love, and loss and the mystery that had shrouded her grief.

"The pain was terrible, like something being pulled from her body.  Vause was gone; he was gone yesterday, and today, and tomorrow and next year and every day until she died, hundreds and thousands of days she was going to have to go through without him.  She put her hand over her mouth to hold back the sound she was about to make...

"...Between that moment and this, Jottie had time.  Hours.  She stared into the darkness and, diver on the precipice, looked down at the glittering blue. Now.  Now she could.  Carefully schooled in starvation, she allowed herself to conjure Vause. First the whole of him from a distance, then closer his shining eyes his golden hair, and now his beautiful hands against her face.  She dove and the water closed cool around her.  Oh, the luxury of the it, the greedy joy of assembling him rather than banishing him, oh and she was lost in it.  He smiled with one side of his mouth first, and he tucked his head like so when he ran...

Jottie marveled at this lost treasure, this wonder now restored to her.  Hers again, hers forever, never to be taken from her.  Faster and faster she pulled him to her, all of him hers again."

The greedy joy of assembling him instead of banishing him.  Yes.  That.

The Widow's War

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Yesterday I had an inspiring day at the Denver Botanic Gardens with my daughter and her husband and in-laws.  As we strolled toward the parking garage, drunk on the saturation of all things botanical, someone mentioned lunch.  Not to worry, I told myself.  I had already anticipated this and thought it through.

It was about the check, of course.  When I was married I wouldn't have given it a second thought.  The in-laws and my husband and I would split the check, treating the kids.  But now....geez.

Paying only for myself seemed a bit stingy to me, as that would likely leave the in-laws to pay for the kids.  Paying for everyone seemed a bit magnanimous.  Neither did I  want them to feel they had to treat the "poor widow."  So the check came and I took it and looked at Katie's mother-in-law and said, should we split it?  She looked relieved too.

Thus, the essence of a new widow's struggle.  Sally Gunning, in this story, helped me articulate this struggle so that I could make these strange and unfamiliar decisions with confidence.

Her story, of 18th century widow Lyddie, who lost her husband of 20 years to a whale boating accident has given me an honest and hopeful archetype of the widow's experience.  She crafted a story that mirrored for me some of my own conflicts in negotiating widowhood.  It also gave me much to be grateful for.

In 18th century America, it was assumed that a widow would move into the home of her eldest child, or the male heir since, legally, all of she and her husband's property now belonged to that heir.  Lyddie had just one daughter, so all of her property went to her son-in-law, on whom she became dependent for everything.

Gunning drew two traits in Lyddie, a character I grew to love and learn from.  They could, most simply be called strength and courage.  But these were much more nuanced. Self-reliance and emotional independence.

The detail of her circumstances that enraged me most was the sense of entitlement on the part of her son-in-law and other people who had business interests in her property.  As a 21st century woman, I escaped that. I have the financial independence and freedom that I always took for granted.  I no longer take it for granted.  I know many people fought hard and some gave their lives so that I could have this freedom.

But emotional independence?  Not so much.

That's why  Lyddie's story of emotional dependence and subsequent freedom is what most inspired me.

In the story, as you might expect, in rides the man on the white horse, a local attorney who had the knowledge and the means to make Lyddie's problems all go away, if she would just marry him.

Thank you Sally Gunning for creating a character in Lyddie who understood the price she would truly pay in order to live in the illusion of security.  It was clear to Lyddie, if not to everyone else, that marriage would not offer her any more independence than life with her daughter and son-in-law would offer.  Legally, her husband would own her property.

I kept thinking, Lyddie, just  marry the guy.  He's a decent guy!  He'll be good to you!  That's what we all say, right?  But, no, Lyddie discovered that she wanted to live life on her terms, regardless the cost.

Another aspect that I admired was Lyddie's fierce self-reliance.  She simply WOULD NOT accept anything from anyone that she had not worked for.  

I've always considered myself a pretty self-reliant person.  Now I realize that, in marriage, I had grown used the the give and take that living with a partner provides.  I was not self-reliant.  I got married when I was 23 years old, so I hadn't had many years in my life when I'd had to be.

When Roy died, I could feel this cloying neediness creeping in.  This terror that I couldn't handle life on my own.  Lyddie and I faced that head on. Yes we did.  And we both, one baby step at a time, learned about what self-reliance looked like for us.

It's always so fun when a plot line takes a twist that delights. In the end Lyddie ended up owning her home through a series of negotiations that she worked out.  And the 'knight on the white horse' attorney rented a room from her.

It's true, Lyddie didn't do this by herself.  While her community wasn't much support to her, there were a few critical people who understood what she was trying to do and lent a hand. 

That is God.  That is where I learned that my reliance has to be on me and God.  Like Lyddie, I have to believe in this world that I am worthy of provision and do not need to rely on others for my well-being.  And then, the others in my life, are a comfort and a joy.





The Risk of Love is Always Worth Taking

"Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain.  The greatest pain comes from leaving.  when the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved spouse departs to another country or dies...the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.

Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving.  and love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair.  We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.

Henri J.M. Nowen

I LOVE being a girl.  I am an emotional creature.  I can feel what you're feeling as you're feeling inside the feeling before.  Things do not come to me as intellectual theories or had-shaped ideas.  They pulse through my organs and legs and burn up my ears....I know when a storm is coming.  I can feel the invisible stirrings in the air.

...I am an emotional creature.  I love that I do not take things lightly.  Everything is intense to me.

...I am an emotional creature.  I am connected to everything and everyone.  I was born like that...

...I know that one kiss could take away all my decision-making ability and y'know what?  Sometimes it should!

This is not extreme.  It's a girl thing.  What we would all be if the big door inside us flew open.  Don't tell me NOT to cry.  To calm it down.  NOT to be so extreme.  To be reasonable.  I am an emotional creature.  It's how the earth got made.  How the wind continues to pollinate.  You don't tell the Atlantic Ocean to behave.

...I am an emotional, incandotional, devotional creature...and I LOVE, hear me...I LOVE LOVE LOVE being a girl!"

Doe, A Deer, A Female Deer

Love this post at Gather by Danielle Prohom Olson  Doe, A Deer, A Female Deer: The Spirit of Mother Christmas.

In the old nature religion (in which the divine was often perceived as feminine) it was the female horned reindeer who reigned supreme as the great goddess of the winter solstice. It was when we “Christianized” the pagan traditions of winter, that the white bearded man i.e. “Father Christmas” was born.

Today he chariots Rudolph and his steed of flying reindeer across our mythical skies and we have forgotten the power of the Deer Mother, the female horned Reindeer. Stronger and larger than the buck, it is she who leads the herds.

And it is her beloved image that adorns the Christmas cards and Yule decorations we are so familiar with today. Because, unlike the male who sheds his antlers in winter, it is the Deer Mother, who carries the life-giving sun safely through winter’s darkest, longest night in her horns.




I’m writing this in response to comments asking for sources for this post. First of all I do apologize for the lack of references, they were omitted because the first draft of this post was nearly 3000 words long!  So I decided to stay true to my original intention (which was not to write a thesis or academic paper) but to help us remember some of the forgotten feminine traditions of yule and winter solstice.

Right now the internet is awash with posts and articles examining the pagan and shamanic origins of Christmas. Much of the material emphasizes the masculine, i.e. investigating the pagan sources for Father Christmas. But what seems to be entirely omitted is the idea that there may have been a “Mother Christmas’ and a feminine aspect to these winter solstice traditions.

For example how many of us know that Christmas Eve was once known as “Mother’s-night “ across the Anglo-Saxon world and was the occasion of much feasting and celebration? According to Yule: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for the Winter Solstice “The Venerable Bede, writing about the customs of the pagan Anglo Saxons who he was trying to convert in 6th century England, mentions their practice of celebrating a holiday he called Modranicht or Modresnacht on the eve of Christmas. This “night of the Mothers” was evidently a sacred night devoted to a group of feminine divinities, like those pictured on carvings and statues all over Celtic France and Britain which show three women together, holding children and fruit, fish, grain and other bounties of the earth.” Who were these women? And how much unrecognized influence did Mothers-night have on what has become known as Christmas?

There is also a male-centric bias found in the plethora of articles depicting the red and white amanita mushroom toting shamans of Siberia as solely male. Yet how many mention that many antler wearing shamans in the northern regions were -and still are – female? In fact the leader of The Reindeer People, according to this source,  is a 96-year-old shaman known as Tsuyan.

And when it comes to the deer, well there is much talk of the stag, but little mention of what was once an important spiritual figure to our northern ancestors – the Deer Mother.  Much scholarship assumes that many of the northern goddesses (often depicted with horns and antlers ) were associated with the stag. Yet what is overlooked is that in the northern countries it is only the female reindeer who actually bore horns during winter.  And considering that there is a great deal of evidence for a deer goddess cult dating from the pre-historic I think it suggests that some of these stags are in fact – female. 

Many of ancient “religions” or spiritual belief systems across the ancient world venerated nature – which was often perceived as a female principle or a goddess. This is generally true across the world, including Europe, Russia India, China and Northern America. That this goddess was often personified as a deer or reindeer in northern climates or as shaman wearing antlers has been well documented.

The book “Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art “ makes the point that while the antlered god Cernunnos is well known in eastern Gaul there were also feminine counterparts found at Clearmont-Ferrand(Puy de Dome) and at Besancon (Doubs). These “bronze antlered goddesses were depicted sitting crosslegged with symbols of cornucopia” – another well known female associated symbol of fertility – i.e. the horn of plenty. The animal symbolism associated with goddesses reaches it apogee with horned female images, usually adorned with antlers…”

The book The Golden Deer of Eurasia published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is another wonderful exploration of the sacred significance of the female deer and reindeer in the shamanic traditions – which “was understood as essentially female” and associated with the tree of life, fertility, birth, rebirth of the sun (a large thematic part of winter solstice!)

From The Deer-Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians  by J.G. McKay “There are an immense number of traditions, references, notices of customs, and various minor matters, which show conclusively that there formerly existed in the Highlands of Scotland two cults, probably pre-Celtic, a deer-cult and a deer-goddess cult. The latter cult was administered by women only…”

The Deer Goddess Of Ancient Siberia: A Study In The Ecology Of Belief by Esther Jacobson is a study of the image of the deer within the iconography of the Early Nomads of South Siberia, tracing it back to rock carvings, paintings, and monolithic stelae of South Siberia and northern Central Asia, from the Neolithic period down through the early Iron Age.

According to this lovely article “Reindeer and the Sun are very common association in Siberian shamanism. Tattoos on buried shaman women also contain deer tattoos, featuring antlers embellished with small birds’ heads, and since the goddess cultures of female shaman is most associated with deer, serpent and birds, it is right that these deer stones were the sacred ritual grounds of women. This reindeer-sun-bird imagery can symbolize the female shaman’s soul transformation from human to deer, from earth of the middle world to higher gates of the middle world and even the lower world.”

Here is a quote from another interesting article “Their lives, as those of the Inuit, Athabascan and other Canadian and Alaskan hunters with the herds of caribou they follow, are completely intertwined with these antlered cohabitants. Everything they eat, wear, utilize as tools, create as shelter, design as art has come from Reindeer. Reindeer is not prey, or livestock, Reindeer is Life… Reindeer, like the creative Feminine, were considered most sacred. Artifacts and funerary practices identified from thousands of years ago from Sami and Siberian burial sites indicate that some of the most important spiritual guides were women.”

Many of these antlered images have origins in pre-history and it is often very difficult to say where they actually originate or whether these antlered motifs are of deer or reindeer. But what seems to be obvious is the further north you go, the more certain the image is of the reindeer.

Mary B. Kelly in her book “Goddess Women Cloth : A World Wide Tradition of Making and Using Ritual Textiles” and Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe provides an exhaustive, in-depth look at the ritual motifs of ceremonial weavings. From women’s tapestries in Scandinavia to the red felt headdresses worn by the shamanic priestesses of the Altai in Siberia , to a burial ship found near Oslo in Norway laden with tapestries featuring antlered female figures wearing wearing red clothing,  antlered female goddesses are a common motif – as are figures of the reindeer and deer.

“Winter embroideries were made to honor the feast of Rohanitsa, the Mother Goddess, held in late December. These cloths depict [her] together with her daughter goddess, or with children who may or may not be divine….[She] was often shown with deer horns sprouting from her head or headdress….The horns are a sign that–as tales and rock carvings confirm–in ancient times the Mother Goddess gave birth to deer as well as children. For her feast, small, white-iced cookies shaped like deer were given as presents or good luck tokens.”

Kelly’s book discusses how in North America (where indigenous peoples revered the deer as graceful and patient mother) and even in Mexico embroideries featuring horned goddesses are common. These motifs are mostly likely of deer – not reindeer. It seems the Deer Mother was either a reindeer or a deer, depending on how far north you go, but there is little doubt she was a real “goddess” or spiritual principle that was very important to early ‘pagan’ peoples – especially women.

The image of a deer with a light between its horns (as popularized by Jaegermeister bottle) may well be the vision of Saint Hubertus, a 7th century Christian and patron saint of hunters – but perhaps this imagery was christianized from earlier mythologies?

According to the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids (who spend a great deal of time expounding on folkloric legends of stags on their website) this image can also be found in Hungary, Mongolia, Russian Steppes and China,  where the symbol of the cosmos and the mother of the sun was symbolized as a large horned female doe. “The great horned doe often was shown carrying the sun in her horns.”

There is also great wealth of sacred and magical imagery surrounding the female reindeer and deer in Celtic mythology which often feature tales of white hinds (doe) which are associated with the goddess (who often gives birth to a sun child in the form of a white hind) and the fairy world. 

The association with the reindeer, the sun and the solstice has been documented by Dr. Piers Vitebsky, Ph.D, who is the Head of Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute and he has written that the tribal elders of the Eveny and Evenki indigenous people of the Nordic countries believed that reindeer were created “to lift their souls up to the Sun. Every winter, they performed a ritual that symbolized the ascension of people on the back of a flying winged reindeer”.

And while Wikipedia cannot always be considered a credible source it states that Beaivi is the Sami name for the Sun “who is mostly depicted as female” and “is associated with fertility of plants and animals and in particular reindeer.”

“At Winter solstice a white female reindeer was sacrificed in honour of Beivve, to ensure that she returned to the world and put an end to the long winter season. At the time of the year when the Sun was returning, butter (which melts in the sunshine) was smeared on the doorposts, as a sacrifice to Beivve, so that she could gain strength during her convalescence and go higher and higher in the sky…Beivve was often accompanied by her daughter, Beaivi-nieida (the sun maiden) in an enclosure of reindeer antlers.”

Beivve was believed to bring the sun and fertility back to the land, making plants grow, so that the reindeer flourished and reproduced, and in this way she also brought wealth and prosperity to her people.

So based on these sources (and I could go on! ) it seems quite certain that there once an ancient deer mother goddess and that she was associated with winter solstice. And I believe that the image of a female reindeer with the sun in her horns was once part of this feminine solstice mythology.

Obviously the reindeer pulling a flying sleigh at solstice or yule were female and they were clearly associated with goddesses (as in the Slavic goddess Saule who took to sky at winter solstice with her herd of female reindeer).

And there is also plenty of evidence suggesting that northern female shamans wearing antlered headdresses took flight to other worlds with her reindeer.

And I for one, would like to know why we don’t more about this forgotten history.


The Signature of All Things

"I will tell you why we have these extraordinary minds and souls, Miss Whittaker," he continued, as though he had not heard her.  "We have them because there is a supreme intelligence in the universe, which wishes for communion with us.  This supreme intelligence longs to be known.  It calls out to us.  It draws us close to its mystery, and it grants us these remarkable minds, in order that we try to reach for it.  It wants us to find it.  It wants union with us, more than anything."

I would call this love.

Ah, Elizabeth, I am enthralled at the beauty of this book.  I felt so smug having come to the same conclusion as Alma, before you presented in the book!  But then I thought, hmmm, was this indeed some brilliant writing that, like a mystery writer, was giving me clues all throughout the narrative so that I would, indeed, draw this conclusion before it was presented to me on paper?

Was this some magical alchemy of writing and spirit that led me, opened me to this realization of truth, and then presented it to me in crystal clear prose that I could embrace and welcome, for I had already been predisposed to do so?

Regardless, the experience enriched my life, and it was fun!

Beauty in the Burn

River Valley Papoose Fire by Stephen Quiller from his Beauty and the Burn collection

I heard some beautiful words this week.  I have a friend who lives on 50 acres of beautiful forest land that was destroyed several years ago by the famous Hyde Park fire here in Northern Colorado.  When the fire was burning, she said, she feared that the intensity of the heat would render her land infertile.

I guess I didn't even know that could happen.  In that summer of 2012 when it seemed that our entire state was burning, I remember concern about lives, buildings, animals, precious keepsakes.  But I don't remember hearing that a fire could actually create such desolation that the land could no longer support life.  That is an entirely different fear.  Especially for a caretaker of that precious life.

As we talked, she told me about planting 500 new trees on her land and hundreds of pounds of grass seed.  That is faith.  She did not know whether any of it would find the essence of life still in that ground.  But plant it she did.

Now, she says, as she walks her land, she is ever vigilant to look beyond the desolation.  Beyond the acres of black towers, doomed to lean, then break, then fall to the ground.  Beyond the char and scorch on the ground.  And, ah, there it was.  The green.  Poking it's way through.

So much beauty and truth here.  The burn, for her, devastatingly painful.  The trust to plant,  fragile and hopeful.  The new life, delicate and hearty at the same time.  Yes, she was telling me her story, but she was also addressing my story and everyone's story of loss.  That we must not focus on what is burned, scorched, gone.  In finding the courage to face the scars and tend to the pain, we trust, and are rewarded with the delicate green shoots, the resilient young saplings finding that when they sink their roots into this ground they are met with life-giving energy.

That is death and rebirth.  Beauty in the burn.

P.S. Stephen Quiller has a gallery in Creede, Colorado where our family has vacationed every summer for over 20 years.  That valley also suffered a devastating wild fire in the summer of 2013.  His collection is his reflection on that experience.  It is beautiful.  You can see the entire collection here.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane


"I liked myths.  They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories.  They just were."

After reading The Anansi Boys I had decided that Neil Gaiman was a bit out of my point of reference.  I just didn't connect with that story, and I didn't get the imagery.  So when I walked past the "staff picks" section at the library and saw this book I was drawn by the title.  I didn't even notice the author's name in 36 point type.  How did I immediately know that there couldn't be a real ocean at the end of a lane?  I knew that it had to be something different, maybe magical?  I was hooked. Then I saw the author. Oh well, I'll give him an other try.

So glad that I did. Once again, I didn't get it at first.  I started, as I think Gaiman wanted us to, in a reality, sad and tragic in many ways, finding wounds within me that are still surprisingly raw; connecting in ways I wasn't sure that I wanted to.

And then, like Madeleine L'Engle and L. Frank Baum he picked me up and set me down in a fanciful world that I did not recognize and wasn't sure I wanted to visit.  But I could not turn back.  I stood in the field with the nameless little boy and his friend Lettie and I let the childhood terror of the unknown and paralysis of doubt wash over me.  I remember those feelings, yes I do.  Or are they not really a memory, but an experience still with me that was triggered as I walked into the story of these two children?

Danger was confusing and capricious....monsters posing as nannies, hunger birds who could tear your heart out, ponds with the depths of oceans. But, there was also a circle of safety, the protection of fairies, the wisdom of a woman who remembered when the moon was made.  And there was epiphany.

Such a beautifully terrifying and true landscape of a childhood experience.  The more I read, the less I wanted to keep going, I knew it would be difficult, and yet the stronger was my refusal to turn back.  

And then I was rewarded ... at the end of the story, the boy, now an adult, is talking with the mother of his dear friend Lettie....

"Lettie did a very big thing for you," said Ginnie.  "I think she mostly wants to find out what happened next, and whether it was worth everything she did."

"And did I pass?"

"You don't pass or fail at being a person, dear."


Maleficent's Feminist Rewrite

The Young Maleficent

Thank you, Linda Woolverton for this beautifully crafted extension of the traditional Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.  You have given us a new mythology with new archetypes woven with the riches of feminine energy.  Here's a bit of the symbolism I experienced while watching the movie and what the symbols brought up for me.

Archetype:  Stolen wings.  Ah, the nasty temptation to say that any man or male has actually stolen my power in order to enhance his own.  It is great and strong, yet I resist.  Yes, I had a very strong and overbearing father.  Yes, I have had struggles with my husband, male bosses and coworkers that have sent me into frustrating tears or rages.  But I am trying to separate, a bit, the experience in my personal relationships from the universal impact of patriarchy.  Yes, I have participated in relationships for a variety of personal reasons, healthy and unhealthy.  Yes, I feel that my power has been stolen or usurped by men.  But I see that as a dynamic playing out in a larger consciousness.  The archetype of stolen wings, stolen freedoms is much larger and more universal.  The same could be said about women stealing power from men, or from me.  But that's not what this story is about, so I don't want to digress.  To me, it is about patriarchy and all of it's negative and oppressive practices engaged by both men and women, not least of all myself, that has stolen women's power and my own power.

For that loss I, like Maleficent, grieve.  For the loss of trust in that system.  The grief when the realization strikes that the trust I had placed in a childhood belief system has robbed me of what is most freeing and empowering in my life; my own strength, power and ability.

Did you mean to say that to us all, Linda? Perhaps not, but that is what I saw.

Archetype:  Return to the inner child.  Maleficent takes it on herself to care for the infant princess, but really what choice does she have?  She sees the fairies assigned to her care for what they are; well meaning, but incompetent.  It seems to be with a heavy sigh of resignation that Maleficent finds herself returning to the infant, secretly overseeing her care and protection.  And I, too, reluctantly and with a heaving sigh at times have returned to my inner child.  Frustrated that there is no external source to care for her.  Convinced that the external source I have entrusted to care for her is SO incompetent.

It must be me.  There is really no other choice.  I must be the one to return to that inner child and watch over and protect her, love her innocence and vulnerability, gently coax her into the truth of the world upon which she will eventually be forced to embark.

Archetype:  Debunking the prince charming myth. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I was probably in my 30's revisiting the story of Cinderella with my young children when I had the aha moment, "oh, this is what they mean by fairy tale.  There is no prince charming."  Embarrassed now to admit I was that old before I got it, I have to see it for what it is.  Maybe it's a nice thing that I was able to believe as long as I did.

Thank you, again, Linda, for debunking that myth.  It is not, in fact, prince charming who is going to wake me from whatever sleep I have chosen instead of stepping into the realities of adult-hood.

Archetype:  The awakening of the feminine.  Ah, no, not the true love of a prince charming, but the true love of the feminine, in all of its confusing and mysterious manifestations, provides the princess what she needs in order to awake and move into her maturity as a woman in the world. Interesting to me that Linda did not provide for us the "mother love" interpretation. Maleficent wasn't the princess' mother.  Oh wait.  Did I miss something?  No, I don't think so.  Interesting that the mother figure is in the background.  it's so easy to get this confused with "mother love" but I believe that is an entirely different thing.  Because it is, to me, just simply feminine love.  Period.  You get to define the mode in which you best receive it.

Don't get me wrong.  Masculine love has it's place in the world as well.  Most of us understand now how masculine love is an entirely different thing than patriarchy. There is a lot to be given and received through masculine love.  And I could take this even further to collapse the dichotomy altogether and just call it love.  But I am not ready to do that.  I need the dichotomy to help me better understand my feminine nature, to give it voice in this still patriarchal world.  

Perhaps the reason this resonated with me so strongly, is that my own experience of growing empowerment and place in the world, in the universe, is not being ushered in through masculine love.  I need the feminine to help me awaken to my power, place and purpose.