The Lost Art of Writing a Love Letter

A Notebook with roses sprinkled around it, perfect for a love letterI want to talk about the lost art of writing a love letter—not only the kind we might write to our beloved partner, but also the type we might write to our mother, our friend, our dying neighbor, or our own self.

These days we are trained to write either methodically and intentionally through structured essays designed to educate or inform (like this one) or informally through sound-bites or emojis—pithy one to ten-word phrases that we use liberally on social media or through texting. (You go girl! J) Also, popular these days, is a hybrid, the how-to or list essay: “Ten best hikes in San Diego” or “How to start a blog in 2019.”

Each of these is valuable. We need cogent well-ordered arguments to help us share new ideas. We also like simple sound-bite words of encouragement, especially when we are facing a big challenge.  And who isn’t drawn to a simplified list of the top ways to do something or the best places to go written by someone who has been there and done that before?

But, I want to talk about another method—one that has gotten a little lost in the hustle and bustle of life these days—one that is less “ordered thinking,” less “pithy response” and more unstructured flow.

This kind of writing comes from a different source.  It comes from slowing down and tuning in to our still center—from feeling our emotional connection to an issue, to a person, to our own self.  It comes from a place of vulnerability and flow.  Love letters escape the boundaries of the thinking mind, avoid the academic culture of structure and the word-limit boundaries of social media to meander through heartfelt territory fearlessly.

Writing a love letter is as much for the writer as it is for the reader. When we allow words from the heart to flow, we escape the inner critic who constantly compares and judges our writing.  We let go of perfection to write from the heart. A love letter is more than just stream of consciousness writing in our journal, though. A love letter has an intended recipient with whom we hope to communicate and connect.

All of this became apparent to me last Fall. I sat down to write one day and realized that I didn’t need to instruct or educate. I didn’t need to quip. I needed to tune in to a deeper place—to be awash with emotion without being swept away. I needed my words to both honor and connect and to serve as the long embrace that I could not give physically. In short, I needed to write two very different love letters:  one to my mother and the other to a neighbor.

My mother lives in another state and has had an increasingly difficult year taking on more and more responsibilities in caring for my mentally ailing father.  Also, she was facing the milestone of turning 80. I wanted to show her I saw how difficult this past year was, that I was proud of her, and that she still seemed so young and lively.

To my mother, a woman who lived in occupied Holland during World War II, who grew up to be passionate about reading survival stories, I wrote a letter that talked about her love of survival stories as a metaphor for her current difficulties.  Her mainsail husband was torn, and the ship of their life together was foundering.  She faced an endless sea with no guarantee they would find a safe shore together. She now relied on strict anti-Alzheimer’s protocols and supplements the way a lost sailor used bare hook lines-hoping for a nibble of hope. Her doldrum days were similarly marked by fatigue and despair. Like that lost sailor appreciating the company of dolphins, she too often managed to find something precious to focus on—a new recipe, a cup of tea, a simple walk. I told her in my love letter what I saw: that the stories of survival she so loved were a pure reflection of her own heart. She harbored little self-pity and instead drew from a feisty reservoir of inner strength and a deep conviction that could and would help her manage whatever was placed before her. She was not only a survivor but a lover of life, and I wanted her to know that I saw that in her. It was the most important thing I wrote last year.

Giving this letter to her that expressed my love and gratitude while acknowledging her difficult journey, also fulfilled me. I felt like I had shown up for her birthday, notwithstanding the distance.  Words bridged the gap. Later, she told me receiving the letter meant everything to her and was a turning point in being my dad’s caregiver.  She relaxed.  She was in the middle of a survival story, and she was doing a helluva job.

My neighbor was facing her own life passages.  Her husband had died earlier in the year.  Shortly after, she embarked on round-the-world travels, then arrived back home to our neighborhood feeling a little unwell to learn she had inoperable Stage IV pancreatic cancer with only months to live.

In the case of my neighbor, I felt helpless. Imminent death is hard—not something we, as a culture, are comfortable with.  I didn’t know what to do or say—even casseroles were not an option.  I ran headlong into not being able to “fix” this problem.  In facing these truths, I got to see that connecting and communicating with someone during difficult times must not require me to fix the problem.  Instead, it invited me to radically accept what was in front of me while staying kind, curious, open and loving. It required me to do my best to connect anyway. To simply try.

To my neighbor—a woman I did not know well—I sat down one day and gave all my attention to the space she had carved in my heart. I wrote to her about meeting her at yoga and what a deep comfort it was to know that a like-minded soul lived just across the street. I wrote that I appreciated her enthusiastic and engaged approach to life and loved the connection she had with the community and her extended family.  I thanked her for the time she went with our daughter to a Zen, Buddha and the Brain class, even though she was a Christian and the class was far away. I told her I saw her as someone who fit everywhere and made bridges as she went. I mailed it, even though she lived across the street, because her family had indicated she was not accepting visitors, and I appreciated they needed uninterrupted time with her. I wrote it by hand, and in writing it, I felt intimate and connected with her.

To write these letters, I needed to draw from a different writing strength. My usual methods of communicating through structured essay or three-word lines of encouragement were inadequate. I needed to sit quietly, to let the words find me, to allow my writing to flow uninhibited and unstructured—awash in love, while mired in uncertainty.  These important moments were asking me—a writer—to write not about them so much as from them—to wade deep in acceptance of the profound difficulties that life sometimes offers.

Life is full and often sweet, but also precarious and fragile.  At any given moment it might be happy or sad, messy or clean, perfect or imperfect.  As writers we might not be sure how to capture it all—Novel? Memoir?  Non-fiction?

My advice: Practice by writing a love letter and let the word tears flow.


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Bubbling Up

bubbles with grass in backgroundSometimes we don’t know what to write even though we’ve made a commitment to write every day. What then?

 There are many writing prompt books, such as Judy Reeves’, A Writer’s Book of Days. These are helpful to get started, but if you can’t get your hands on one of these, don’t fret. There is a meditation trick you can try. By employing this trick, you will meet both your commitment to meditate and your commitment to write. Win win.

 Often on a meditation retreat, the facilitator will start by asking the group to do a short exercise to find our intention for the retreat. As we begin, the facilitator will guide us to the calm within. Then, without “thinking” about it, we are invited to allow our intention for the retreat to bubble up from within.  Like a cat watching a mouse hole, we watch and see what word or phrase spontaneously reveals itself from the unconscious. This word is the prime that we will work with, that we will refine, that we will spend the rest of the retreat investigating.

At my latest retreat, I heard the word “acceptance” come up. I took the word to my room and began writing about it. As I wrote, I discovered that the word “acceptance” carried some baggage with it.  It felt depressing to just “accept” life as it was. There was no juice in it. My pen kept moving, and I found myself writing that I was interested in something much broader than acceptance.  I didn’t want to accept life as it was, I wanted to “fall in love” with it, exactly as it was—messy chaos and all.  In a blink, I wrote my true intention and saw it also as the title of my next book: “Enlivenment: The Art of Living Imperfectly but with Great Delight.” I spent the rest of the retreat examining the concept of delight.

 And this, this is what a great writing prompt will do for you. It will free your mind and allow you to get to the heart of the matter.

 Below is a short guided audio clip you can listen to, to allow your own writing prompt to bubble up from within. Have a journal, pen, and timer handy. Allow for five minutes of sitting and five minutes of stream of consciousness writing.  What wants to be told? What themes are inviting your attention today? How might these themes inform whatever project you are working on?


Written guidelines:

  • Set a timer for five minutes. Have your pen and journal handy. Start by closing your eyes and taking a couple of long slow breaths through your nose to center yourself.
  • After a few breaths, start to count your breaths on the exhale deliberately until you get to ten. If you notice that you’ve gone off on a train of thought, gently bring your attention back to the breath and continue.
  • Once you’ve reached ten, let the focus on the breath go and bring your attention to your bodily sensations. Notice the feeling of the ground or chair beneath you; notice any discomfort anywhere.  Pay close attention to what it feels like: prickling, heavy, tight, etc.  Scan your body for tension.  Are your shoulders hunched?  Is your jaw tight? Gently relax any physical tensions and repeat silently to yourself, “I release any tension, any pressure, any thoughts, any desires.” Bring your attention back to the breath.
  • Now, allow a word or phrase—any word or phrase—to bubble up without effort.  Simply take notice of the first word or phrase that pops up, and then bring your attention back to your breath.  (Don’t pay attention to the voices saying that you need to find the “right” word or that you need to think of something related to what you’re already working on. If nothing bubbles up, use “nothingness” as your prompt.)
  • When the timer goes off, bring your hands into prayer position and bow, honoring yourself for keeping this commitment.
  • Jot down your word or phrase. Set a timer for five minutes and write down your stream of consciousness until the timer goes off.

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Listen Play Write: A Writer’s Recipe for Enlivenment.

a heart-shaped moon in the skyHave you heard the voices?

The voices of self-hate in the head I mean.  The ones that judge and analyze, compare and shame. The ones that tell stories of great woe. The ones that cause suffering.

When they arise, I despair. I want there to be a formula that I can turn to in times of distress.  I want someone else to tell me how to do it. Just tell me what to do I silently implore.  I notice, however, that when someone does, I judge and scoff thinking I know better.  

And so the conversation in the head goes on: one voice shameful and despairing, the other a righteously indignant know-it-all.

The voices are well-worn thought patterns that have been sculpted by my cultural surroundings, life experiences, gender, desires, aversions, beliefs. They can be triggered by words or events, and because they are very good at telling stories, they sound just like me.

But they are not.  

How do I know?

Because when I am most alive—when life and creativity flow from me unbidden, when I am playing or writing or making love, when the stillness of a moment fills me up with wonder and awe—those voices are not there and yet I still am.  And that “I” feels enlivened, pulsing with energy. That “I” participates fully in life without the help of the voices.

Not to say that our conditioned thoughts are not helpful. Sure they are. They help me remember names and places, pay bills, plan trips, and acquire skills, but they don’t rightfully belong in the arena of making me happy. And, when they cross over into the direct realm of causing suffering, it’s time to turn my attention elsewhere.

Just the other day I stepped into my own private darkroom while collapsing under the weight of self-inflicted suffering. I had taken something someone said the wrong way, and a whole minefield thought storm followed. But today? Well, today, I saw the thoughts still brewing, but instead of revisiting that well-trodden path of despair, I gathered painting tools around me in bright luminescent colors and invite friends to come over for a painting party.

Wow, I thought. Did it last a bit shorter this time? Did I let go of suffering a tad bit faster?

“No!” the voices in my head screamed. “You’re still all screwed up.”

I dipped my toe out of the persistent suffering mind for a moment, testing the waters.

Hmm. Nope. No suffering here: just my chair and my fingers typing, breath in my chest, blue sky out the window, and painting designs swirling in the background.

“Yeah, but . . . remember how you felt just yesterday? How you were all closed down, and there was a big weight on your chest? What, you think that’s not still lurking in the shadows?” the voices taunt.

I consider their mean words and realize I don’t have to listen to them. They are not me. As I ponder this moment of clarity, the words of my good friend, who had heard enough of outward bemoaning one day, drop in:  Are you done yet?  Can we go play now?

So, like the Titanic making a 180-degree course correction, I intentionally move my attention away from them—leaving the tip of their iceberg behind, knowing beneath that tip is a mammoth structure that will take me down.

As I pull my attention away, the voices warn me about repressing my feelings, but I’ve got that number. I remember feelings are physical sensations in the body—energy moving, not voices telling a story about what those sensations mean.

I spend a few moments tuning in to my body. I feel my feet against the floor, the tightness in my back from sitting too long. I close my eyes and draw my attention to where my right hand is.  With my eyes closed, I can’t even be sure that my right hand exists, but I notice a pulsing aliveness there. I let a smile creep into my cheeks, just for the hell of it, and wonder at the warmth that spreads to my chest when I do so.   

I enjoy being still for a moment and genuinely listening to life, listening to everything but the conditioned voices in my head. I hear a bird call, the wind rustling, the sound of my own heartbeat, my husband puttering in the kitchen. A playful thought drops in about hugging my husband and giving him a coy smile of invitation. And then, I return to the computer and write because writing, like meditation, affords me the opportunity to pay attention to all the details of what is.

My journey to happiness is a moment-by-moment choice to navigate away from suffering back to that which helps me pay attention to now.

And then it comes to me: I do have my very own formula for enlivenment: Listen. Play. Write.

What’s your formula?


Photo Credit: https://1164739/


Back to the Source of Feistiness

Feistiness, a woman leaping into the airWhen I was a child, the greatest accolade my mother could give someone was to say they were “feisty.”  Of all other qualities, feistiness was most revered.

Those who others might describe as difficult, she termed “feisty,” an admirable quality that might allow one to forgive the snarky manner in which they expressed an action or opinion.

Feisty Origins

Perhaps her appreciation for feistiness stems from her childhood when she lived in occupied Holland during World World II. Her family hid Jews, and her mother worked for the underground. Survival itself took a particular brand of plucky courage in the face of despair and oppression. Or maybe it was because one of the Jews they hid ended up becoming her stepfather—a man who regularly tormented her. As she grew up, she daily faced the choice: be feisty in his face or wither on his overbearing unkind vine.

Whatever the reason, as I grew up I regularly witnessed an appreciation for “feistiness.” My mom and dad (who’ve been together over fifty years) were noisy arguers. My Dad, a brilliant engineer, would attempt to bowl my mother over with infallible logic.  But she would get feisty and hold her own.

Still as Feisty Today

This fiery spunk serves my mom well these days.  Somehow, at age 78, she has an abundance of determination, courage, and energy.  She has pulled from internal resources we never knew she had to take over everything in the household—things that for the previous 58 years of their marriage my father did—from finances to decision-making, to driving—while still maintaining all her other household duties, such as cooking and cleaning.  

She cheerfully (with periodic tearful albeit feisty breakdowns) does all this, while simultaneously taking on and putting them both on a rigorous anti-Alzheimer’s protocol, which includes following a completely new diet, ordering and keeping track of an abundance of brain supplements, dedication to regular exercise and a host of other guidelines.  

Her plucky determination is paying off. Instead of watching my dad steadily decline as is the wont with Alzheimer’s patients, in the five months since she started the Bredesen protocol, we have noticed a gradual improvement in my father with only occasional glitches, like when he tried to make toast in the Nespresso machine.

“Rick,” she’ll call out relentlessly. “Get up! Sitting is the new smoking. You must stay active!”  

My dad, despite their propensity to bicker, has always loved her spunk. “You’re beautiful,” he tells her all the time these days.

Etymology of Feisty

My feisty mom might quiver in her boots if she ever looked up the origin of “feisty.” Ironically, etymologically, feisty is related to the German word fyst or fist, which means breaking wind—i.e., farting, something she considers to be the most grievous social faux pas.

Some, like my brother and sister-in-law, laugh and bond over farting, but not my mom.  If she ever inadvertently does so, she quickly sucks in her breath with an audible “oh!” and, eyebrows raised, brings a dainty hand to her mouth, as a look of utter horror and embarrassment crosses her face.  

Feistiness, in her book, is within her personal control, in no way related to an involuntary breaking of wind.

I am not so sure.

I agree, however, that feistiness, like farting in public, has the potential to be offensive.  

For while being feisty can show an enviable courageous, independent spirit that inspires others, it can also come off as touchy or quarrelsome and evolve to a propensity to be overly opinionated and aggressive; in short, it can be empty posturing. These qualities can aggravate instead of alleviating suffering.


As an awareness practitioner (with a propensity for feistiness) in the polarizing climate of today’s culture, I have been trained to pay attention to my thoughts, words, and actions. I have been encouraged to consider my own conditioning and to ask myself from time to time whether my positively conditioned “go-getting sass” has inadvertently led me to become judgmental, close-minded and thin-skinned.  Have I staked out a position based on a presumption that I know something better than someone else? Have I left myself unwilling to see things from a different perspective—to hold my own line—rather than open my heart to someone else’s point of view? Have I failed to see that I am projecting what I fear most about myself onto others?

In other words, has my feistiness become nothing more than a series of unconscious and conditioned fear-based responses?

A Healthy Feistiness?

Checking in from time to time like this brings me back to the heart of feistiness. It makes me appreciate that feistiness at its best (and I think my mother would agree) is not calculated positioning. It is much less controlled and more alive than that. It’s a bold but natural and healthy response to the world—a kind of explosion of determined energy belying the efforts of others or circumstances to squash our spirit. It is, in fact (much to my mother’s chagrin) probably closer to farting than we might hope—an expression of something indomitable from within us that escapes outside of our control.  

Healthy feistiness is less like spouting hot air and more like breaking wind.

So, Feisty ones, do be mindful and check in with yourself from time to time to make sure your feistiness has not morphed into something empty or static and inflexible, but otherwise:

Go Forth. Be courageous and spunky in the face of oppression. And, if you inadvertently fart in public—if your words make a silent unpopular stink—take heart. That can’t always be helped and, in fact, is the very source of feistiness.

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Getting Present with Technology – Five Online Resources to Enliven and Inspire the Muse

A Tibetan singing bowl for meditationA while back an email came across my desk that transformed my day.  It was Marni Freedman’s San Diego Writers Newsletter and it invited her readers to reflect on writing for joy.

Just seeing the words “Writing for Joy (Just Joy)” made me smile. I read her post and remembered past years when the greatest self-care I could do for myself was to go out and get a new journal and get very present recording life around me. 

Writing as Meditation

So, I heated a cup of tea and spontaneously wrote about writing for joy. I wrote that writing has long been my spiritual compass, bringing me back to center, and encouraging me to investigate not only the external world but also my inner workings—that writing is a platform for deep spiritual inquiry.  I noted that writing, at its best, is about paying attention. It’s a meditation, of sorts, that enlivens my being and encourages me to look at the world with fresh eyes.

Yes. Writing can be all this for me. And Marni’s email got me there.

But writing, too, can easily end up on my “to do” list.  It can morph into stress about deadlines and worries about getting it right. When this happens, the writing doesn’t flow as easily. I think too much and write too little.

Inspire the Muse

This is when it’s time for an intervention. It’s time to stop and listen—to dip into the source and re-inspire the muse.

This might mean inviting a little unstructured time out in nature—such as going for a gentle walk or sitting under a tree.  Or doing something that nonsensically soothes my soul, like wandering through a thrift store.

But, equally often these days it means turning to my computer or smartphone. I know. It seems counter-intuitive to turn to a device instead of nature for solace, but in this day and age, it’s more than possible.  There are technology-driven resources that can enliven our soul—resources that bring us back in touch with the source, back in touch with Joy—like Marni’s emailed newsletter.

My Favorite Awareness Tools

So today, I thought I would share a handful of my favorite awareness tools—ones that take advantage of today’s technology, but instead of spinning me up, they help me stay centered. None of these require much time or any money.  They are free and available right now.

1.  The Insight Timer app:

 I have long appreciated and talked about the benefits of meditating with a timer. At its base, it is a simple app that allows you to set a timer when you meditate. A gentle gong signals the beginning and end of the meditation. It’s wonderful and you get a snapshot of all the other people across the world who are meditating with you at that moment.  “You have just meditated with 3,456 people.” It might say. It’s remarkably reassuring to feel that connection. And, Insight timer has so much more going on, if you dig a little deeper, including over 8,000 guided meditations! This is a jewel. I use it almost every day.

2. Guided Meditations:

As I mentioned above, the insight timer has an amazing collection of guided meditations.  I have tried some of them, but I prefer to listen to guided meditations from some of my favorite teachers.  It isn’t hard at all to find these on YouTube through a simple search. Below, are links to a few short wonderful meditations by teachers I deeply respect and resonate with:

3. Virtual Meditation:

It is a powerful thing to meditate with a group of people. Sadly, it can be hard to do. My husband and I have begun participating in 30-minute virtual meditations through Cheri Huber’s Living Compassion. The process is simple and free. There are a lot of different time options. We participate in the 7 am PST calls Sunday through Thursday. You call into a number and sit on the line in silence with others until the bell rings.

At the start of the meditation a “Daily recollection” is read and participants are encouraged to say it aloud too. (You can download it from her website.) At the end of the sitting, there is a short invitation of something to reflect on for that day. So simple. So good. Cheri Huber is a Zen Buddhist Monk with a Zen Monastery Peace Center in Murphy’s, CA. But she is also a prolific writer. Check out her book as a starter “There is Nothing Wrong with You.” She also has mastered the art of using technology to benefit the Sangha at large.  Virtual Meditation is just one of such offerings. I will mention others below.

4. Daily Peace Quotes or Practice Everywhere Tweets 

Cheri Huber also has a mailing list where you can sign up for a daily peace quote.  I really love this! Every weekday morning there is a peace quote waiting for me. I get up make coffee, bring it back to the bedroom and then read it aloud to my hubby before joining the virtual meditation. It’s really sweet.

Cheri Huber also has a twitter program where you can receive daily practice reminder tweets through Twitter.

5. Facebook Groups 

Most everyone knows about Facebook, but I have newly discovered Facebook Groups.  These are especially great for writers who know their niche market. You can use targeted Facebook Groups to reach a larger audience and grow your platform.  A friend of mine recently wrote a little book called “Memories from My Log Book: A Bush Pilot’s Story.” He was new to Facebook but started a page to help promote his book. The author reached out to Facebook Groups around the world who were interested in piloting.

He was astonished to see his book skyrocket in mere weeks. He was getting contacted daily by hundreds of people! Of Equal importance, Facebook Groups help us play with like-minded people—to be part of targeted communities. Some of the groups I’ve joined recently have stimulated interesting conversations that have bled directly into my writing.

HootSuite has a nice blog on the subject:  

Please comment if you use any other apps enlivenment and inspiration. I’m always interested in hearing what works for my fellow writers.

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Harnessing the Power of Six-Word Memoirs

a lit fire in a fireplace with hearthSix years ago, I lost my job right around the same time I became an empty nester. Adrift without direction and needing inspiration, I decided to sign up for the TedX San Diego conference.  I was surprised to learn there was an application form to be turned in before being accepted as a participant.  Among the thought provoking questions was a requirement to write a six-word memoir. We would use these six-word memoirs as talking points with other participants. That gave me pause. It had been years since I had written and shared my writing with others. Could I even write a six-word memoir?

It turned out to be a powerful exercise, requiring me to discern what had been the most important and interesting theme or themes in my life thus far and pointing to what I knew best.  

After much debate, I settled on this:  Smoking-gun girl cooks from the hearth.

I hoped to stimulate conversation:  Why Smoking-gun girl? What’s important about cooking? Why the word “hearth?”

I had a reputation for being a “finder,” earning me the nickname, “Smoking-gun girl,” and I liked this about myself.  I was inherently tenacious and knew whether I was seeking a critical piece of evidence, the perfect family vacation, or enlightenment, I was going to keep at it, paying attention to patterns and ferreting out the keystone.  

I had also developed a passion for cooking—not gourmet cooking, mind you, but something closer to peasant cooking.  I made endless variations of stone soup and relished the sensual art of hand chopping ingredients and melding them together. To me the hearth was symbolic of gathering together and nourishing each other with good food and good stories.

This six-word memoir pleased me and, in fact, helped me shape the next phase of my life.  Most importantly, it got me writing again. At that TedX conference, as I was sharing my six-word memoir with others, my adrift and unfocused self suddenly saw a simple next step: I would start a cooking and storytelling blog. I wanted to use my favorite recipes as a springboard from which to tell stories.  My blog would be my cyber hearth.  

I revisit the idea of the six-word memoir from time to time. I still find it to be a powerful focusing exercise for my writing. A few years ago I was a “Zen Tantrika Witch Casting Writing Spells.” These days I am more of a “Devoted Rock-climbing Dakini Cooking Up Stories.”  

I hope you’ll track me down and ask me about it.  And if you do, I’m going to return the favor and ask you:  What is your six-word memoir?  Please, do tell!

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Journey to the Cottage–A Guided Meditation to Start the New Year

the word, breathe, in a bunch of leavesI’d like you to settle down on the edge of your chair and close your eyes. Begin to consciously relax . . . Relax the muscles of your face. Take a deep breath, in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth. Scan your body for any tension. Are your shoulders hunched?

Pay attention in this moment to the feeling of the ground beneath your feet, to the feeling of your buttocks on the edge of the chair. Take another couple deep breaths, feeling the rise of your belly in and out as you breathe . . .

Now take a moment to bring to mind a word or phrase that evokes within you the feeling of awe. It could be something like Truth or Love or God or Sunsets. The only precaution is to not choose a word that has any negative baggage associated with it.

Mentally see that word resting in the center of your chest, warming you, protecting you, inspiring you as we go on this journey.

And now, I’d like you to imagine that you are standing on the sidewalk of a busy city street. It’s full of shops and businesses, and you can see crowds of people hurrying from one place to another, wearing suits, carrying briefcases. You hear the sounds of high heels and polished boots clicking on the pavement. In the distance a child is crying, a dog barking. Traffic is rushing by. Someone is honking his or her horn. And while you are standing on the street in all of the rush and energy, amidst the cacophony of a busy city, of life, you decide to take a walk away from the hustle and bustle.

You begin walking down a side street and slowly the sounds of the downtown area begin to recede somewhat. You notice for a moment that you feel slightly more relaxed. You feel your shoulders drop and you breathe a little deeper, a little easier.

You keep walking until you reach the edge of town. At the edge of town you notice there is small dirt road to one side, a country lane of sorts, lined with Jacaranda trees. You admire for a moment their beautiful purple flowers.

You set off down this country lane and as the sounds of the city continue to fade, you begin to notice other sights and sounds. You hear birds chirping nearby and trees rustling in the slight breeze; you notice the sound of a river rushing nearby. You see a rabbit scamper across the road and squirrel dash up a tree. A hawk circles overhead.

You keep walking down the lane a little slower now. At the end, the lane opens up into a beautiful grassy field. In the center of the field is small stone cottage. To the left of the cottage is a towering Oak tree offering a bit of shade. And to the right is a trellis covered in climbing fragrant jasmine. Not too far away from the trellis a stream meanders by.  You stop for a moment and look at the cottage. It evokes something deep within you.  A feeling of curiosity, of anticipation creeps in. It looks so enticing sitting there. You wonder what is inside. You wonder what it would be like to live there. You approach the door with some reverence. The wooden door is beautifully carved with intricate floral scrolls, but you notice it doesn’t appear to have a handle or knob. Instead there is an odd contraption that you don’t recognize, and the word “Release” appears on the door. You are not sure what to make of that, but there does not appear to be an obvious way to open that door.

Your attention is drawn to the side where a bench sits next to the little stream. You make your way over to the bench and sit in the warm sun and light breeze, listening for a moment to the sounds of the babbling brook next to you, taking in the scenery all about. You take off your shoes and wriggle your toes in the fresh grass.

At your feet is a basket filled with twigs and leaves. There is a note pinned to the basket. You pick up the note and read, “Release these into the stream; accept all that is, and a Way will open.” You pick up the first leaf and notice it is inscribed with the word “Shoulds.” You think of all the “shoulds” you carry with you daily. “I should be doing the laundry.” “I should be nicer to so and so.” “I should eat less and exercise more.” “I should meditate.” And with a sudden appreciation of the burden of all your shoulds, you toss the leaf into the river and watch it flow away.

You pick up another leaf and on it is written “Shouldn’t.” “I shouldn’t be wasting my day here doing nothing,” you might think. “I shouldn’t put off writing.” But you feel the weight of the shouldn’ts too, and you toss the leaf in. You pick up a twig and on it is written “Worry.” You think about all the different worries that inadvertently consume you. You might be worried there is not enough time to do what you want to do. You might be worried that you have let someone down. You might be worried about hurting somebody. You take a deep breath and toss that twig into the stream too. Right now, in this moment, there is nothing you need to worry about. Worry is only a distraction.

Another twig bears the words “wants and needs” and you think about all the things you want or think you need to do or have in order to be content and you realize that you can be content right here, right now with no further embellishment. So you toss that into the creek too.  At the bottom of the basket is a small forked branch bearing on one limb the word “Fear” and on the other the word “Shame.” You understand that fear and shame also hold you back. Maybe you fear that you are not good enough, or that you are unworthy or incapable or inadequate.  Maybe you fear failure or perhaps success. Perhaps you carry some inescapable feeling of shame. Whatever you feel ashamed about, whatever you feel, in this moment with a touch of childlike abandon, you take a chance and release the last branch into the river.

As you let it go and watch it drift down the moving water, you feel a kind of lightness in your being. You are free for the moment of the voices of self-hate and self-doubt.  You feel a hint of curiosity—what’s next? You wonder. Then a sound captures your attention, and you turn to see that the contraption on the door of the cottage is swirling.  The door swings open. A warm light glows from inside. A hint of a smile crosses your face. You get up from the bench and step inside the cottage.

The cottage is a beautiful little candlelit library with soft chairs to each side and a writing desk in the middle. On the desk is a steaming mug of tea. As you move toward the desk you see a book lying there as well. A sense of anticipation and happiness spreads from within, and you smile as you see it is your favorite kind of book. There is something just right about it. The kind of book you can curl up with. Is it by my favorite author you wonder? I like that writer. I trust that writer. You pick it up feeling for a moment the weight of it in your hands, caressing it a little. You open up the book and you find all the pages are blank except for one word on the top of the first page.  That word is your word—your awe word. In the stillness of that cottage, all shoulds and shouldn’ts, worries, needs, fear and shame released, book in hand, you experience a profound feeling of appreciation and acceptance of your own life, your own journey. You feel your own essence alive in that space and in a moment of brilliant clarity reflect: I am a writer. I have something to say that no one else can say in quite the same way. My voice is unique.

I am inherently perfect just the way I am, you realize.

You sit for a moment in gratitude, feeling your breath move easily through your body. In through your nose, down your throat, filling your belly and out again. Breathe in . . . breathe out.  You place your hands on your chest and breathe in again deeply and then exhale, and with the exhale you feel your awe word; you feel your own unencumbered Self resonate in the center of your chest.


Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

No More Partridges in Pear Trees . . . Priming our Writing Pump During the Holidays

A woman in a Santa hat and beard holding breakfastAs our family stood huddled in sweat pants before a karaoke program as it played synthesized Christmas songs over our home computer, it occurred to me that this was not the family Christmas caroling scene it once might have been.  Before my thoughts launched into despair over the commercialism, glitz and high technology of Christmas in the new millennium, I took heart instead with another thought.

I was thinking of a tradition we started the year we were married. It involves the twelve days before Christmas and a grown-up version of an advent calendar.  Each day, starting on December 12th, my husband and I alternate opening windows labelled one through twelve to discover a secret message bestowing a special gift.  We flip a coin to see who starts first. At the end of the year, we rearrange the order and occasionally replace an idea to keep the surprises fresh and appropriate. It’s true, we get no milking maids, no turtle doves and no partridge in a pear tree, but we think we have improved upon the theme of yore. You be the judge.

Borrowing the tune from The Twelve Days of Christmas, I have summarized our yearly tradition below. Keeping our fast-paced culture in mind, I’ve cut straight to the Twelfth Day. I think you’ll get the picture:

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me:

An early Christmas present

A half hour of pleasure

Two tickets to the movies

A lunch out for sushi

A night out dancing

A bouquet of flowers

Three hours of babysitting

SLAVE     FOR    A     DAY

Champagne and chocolate

Head to toe massage

Gourmet dinner

And breakfast and coffee in bed


We have not lost the meaning of Christmas. We have only packaged it differently to suit the times.

And best of all, fellow writers, the process of observing a disturbing trend ended up stimulating a new and endearing holiday writing tradition.  Now, each year when we give gifts, we get to re-write a Christmas song with new words and give that along with the present. It adds great fun to gift giving and keeps my pen moving, even during the busy holiday season.


Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

The Greatest Writing Opportunity of the Year is Here!

a stack of holiday cardsWriters take heed: The time is upon us.  After a busy year of great excuses for why we haven’t been writing much, at last, the mother lode writing opportunity (including a captive audience) presents itself—clear, unpretentious, a ghost of past, present and future reaching out a scrawny finger, beckoning:  Come. It’s time.

Perhaps you are squirming in your seat right now because you know what is being requested.  And, deep down in your soul, despite the Scrooge-like withholding of writing this year, you know you are up for the task: the thematic weaving of this year’s good and bad, the drawing from events of the past year to arrive at the present, the happy messages of goodwill for the future—in other words: the annual holiday letter.

Yes. That’s right. The dreaded annual holiday letter, my writing friends, is in fact an optimal opportunity to practice your writing skills.

Think of it as a writing prompt that starts with “This was a year of . . .“

And then use it to hone your skills, to search for a theme for the year, to synthesize disparate events, and to show rather than tell your family and friends what your life has been like by including little scenes from the year.  Practice finding your voice.  Is your letter snarky, self-deprecating, or philosophical?

Allow your holiday letter to be the forum by which you communicate what you have discovered this year, what lessons you have learned, and what you wish for others.

So, throw off the chains holding you back.  See that your future writing self is in fact generous with words and loves to use them to reach out and connect—to lift up and inspire the Tiny Tims among us.

Friends, it’s time.  As we end one year and begin another, go forth and cast your writing spells.

I’ll leave you with the opening line of my own holiday letter:

This was a year of climbing up formidable rock walls and leaping off metaphorical cliffs, of ending, beginnings, challenges and some notable peak experiences.


Photo Credit: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Going to the soul spa with bulletproof coffee . . . or mining your dream content

a dreamcatcherThree of us were on our way to play paintball. My husband suggested that instead of playing with paint we play with rubber bullets. We were about to head into a room, which I understood would take us to the paintball field.  Just before entering the room, my husband turned to me and said, “We go to steam.”  I grabbed my yellow water bottle, and we walked into a sauna that held three stationary bikes.  We each climbed aboard and began pedaling furiously, sweating profusely.


At first we may think of them as being only a mishmash of nonsensical scenes from our daily lives, but in fact, they can be powerful messengers, making sense of things our awakened mind has trouble assimilating.  They can offer teachings and be a bridge to a different state of consciousness, such as in lucid dreaming, where dreamers find themselves fully “awake” within a dream and able to manipulate it.

Fact is, dreams, speaking in a language all their own, are invaluable sources to a deeper understanding of one’s life.

Psychologists and spiritual teachers alike encourage not only paying attention to our dreams but cultivating an active night practice, keeping a dream journal and learning to work with your dreams to find clarity and open doors. Mystics advise awareness practitioners to practice day and night, cultivating the possibility of lucid dreaming and paying close attention to the transition between sleeping and waking. For it is there, they say, that a gap might open, pulling back the veil of ordinary consciousness to allow for “self-realization” or “enlightenment.”

We writers, too, need to pay attention to our dreams and allow them not only to inform our lives but to appear in our writing as well, and, sometimes, to speak for us.

If you have not worked with your dreams before, here are a couple of simple tricks:

  • Set aside a period (perhaps a week or a month) where you actively try to remember your dreams.
  • Keep a dream journal and pen by your bedside. It might help to have a little flashlight or soft light you can turn on to be less jarring in the middle of the night.
  • When you wake from a dream, quickly jot some notes about it in your journal. You can even make a list of the things that appeared rather than trying to write the whole narrative. In the end, the story is less important than the symbolism.
  • Pay attention to objects, colors, numbers, and particular people who show up.
  • Give the dream a title. We writers may appreciate the importance of the title. Somehow giving a dream a title helps lock in the most salient feature of the dream and helps us recall it later.

At a later time, you can mine your dream.  Our dreams have a way of using shortcuts to give us messages.  For each important thing you note, jot down the first things it makes you think of—kind of like an inkblot test.

For colors or numbers, think of them separately from the object. For instance, I once had a dream I titled “100 orange balloons.”  In it, I was in a field and had let go of hundreds of orange helium balloons. I was calmly watching them all float away.  At first glance, I had no idea what this dream symbolized, but I did the work. I wrote down “orange,” and the first thing that came to mind, surprisingly, with the word orange was “Halloween.”  All of a sudden I intuitively understood the meaning of the dream.  I had just decided to give up sugar in my diet.  I wasn’t sure I was ready to give it up, but this dream underscored that I was.  Halloween—the harbinger of sugar indulgence—was calmly floating away.

Recently my husband and I attended a nine-day silent meditation retreat called “Practicing Emotional Alchemy.”  This was a powerful experience, and as a writer, I am moved to share it.  It’s not easy, however, to capture something otherworldly and transformational, without boring the reader. That’s why I appreciated the synopsis that my dream-self came up with.

The dream happened on the third morning of the retreat before we had gotten into the meat of the practices we would learn on transforming afflicted emotions. It proved prophetic to the impact of the remainder of the retreat.

Before I dive into the dream symbolism, you should be aware of a few things:

First, it is never easy to start a nine-day silent meditation retreat—just before going, the mind will feel desperate to do anything except sit still and quiet. My husband had quipped on our way there, “We’re going to the soul spa!”  That sounded more fun.

Second, we had just started a special “anti-inflammation” diet that included drinking “bulletproof coffee.”  At the retreat, I used my bright yellow hydroflask to contain my bulletproof coffee.

Third, the ultimate goal of a spiritual journey is to be free of suffering.  Our teacher called this path “The Way of Selflessness.” This retreat was going to have us looking at afflicted emotions, such as anger, fear, jealousy, and pride, which are all ultimately fueled by the small self being perpetually motivated by one of three things: desire, aversion and indifference.

Fourth, on the second day of the retreat, I decided that we humans should think of ourselves as “ADVs”—Attention Directing Vehicles.

Finally, bicycles kept recurring on this retreat. I had multiple dreams featuring bicycles, which I referred to as “self-powered vehicles,” and then oddly some random person arrived at the retreat center and donated a whole bunch of bicycles in the middle of the retreat.

On to the dream.

The dream scene: Three of us decided to play paintball. My husband suggested we play with rubber bullets instead. We head into a room that was supposed to take us there, and I heard the words: “We go to steam.” The room appeared to be a sauna at a spa with three stationary bikes. I grabbed my yellow hydroflask water bottle. We climbed on the bikes and began to pedal furiously. I woke up.

When I unpacked all the symbolism, I discovered it was the perfect description of this retreat:

We entered into a warm and nourishing environment designed to both help us relax and release toxins (i.e., afflicted emotions.) We fueled ourselves with bullet-proof precepts (i.e., vows, such as self-discipline and harmlessness, that all the participants take together, so we all feel safe to explore difficult emotions.) We got on three (desire, aversion, indifference) self-powered attention directing stationary vehicles, where we expended significant effort, even though repeatedly warned that on a spiritual journey there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. We nonetheless set the goal of arriving at a mental playground where we could dramatize and re-enact battles fought with emotional bullets to release the wisdom energies inherent within them and be free from suffering.

My teacher may have called this retreat “Practicing Emotional Alchemy,” but my dream self nailed it: “Going to the Soul Spa with Bulletproof Coffee.”  I highly recommend it!

And writers, take heed. Pay attention to your dreams. Mine their content. Your dream-self may be a powerful communicator and perhaps even a creative marketing agent for good.


Photo by Dyaa Eldin on Unsplash