Navigate / search

Light Leaks: Quest 2016 with Debbie Millman

Candle with no flame

The Visible Difference of Light and Dark


I am steeped in this growing darkness. I cannot resist it.

As a child the glare of tinsel and fat glowing Christmas lights on our tree drew me, but what I most loved was the way that blazing light stood out against the dark of our living room. My own kids used to get up very early to watch dawn happen while the Christmas tree stood in the dark morning. Now, they stay up late, watching it, reading near the tree. (That is- once we put the tree up. We are always the last people at the tree farm on Christmas Eve. We like to put our tree up on the 24th so it can last, you know, until the last day of Christmas, otherwise known as Valentine’s Day.)

What draws me to light is not the light itself, but how it stands against the dark. This may be overstating the obvious and if you have heard all you want to hear this season about light, then scroll on. But if you are game for a discussion of dark, then stay with me.

Last night was the second night of Hanukah. I am married to a Jewish man and in our 23 years together, we have burned many candles, for Advent, Hanukah, Solstice, Christmas, yahrzeit candles and birthday candles, candles when someone we love is in need, candles when we want to make a party and always at dinner, especially in winter. In our family, I am the maker of the holidays. He will roast and trim and gather materials for whatever gift, Solstice spiral or meal we decide to work on. But the actual making, and even the planning, starts with me. So it was quite normal for him to ask about our menorah. But when he said, “Thanks for keeping me Jewish,” I heard his mother chuckle in the ethers, and his Grandmother Fanny elbowing my Grandmother Elsie. I no more keep him Jewish than he keeps me Christian. We do honor our mutual faith heritage and cultivate the practices that make these celebrations meaningful for each other. He is the one who sets off for the tree on Christmas Eve while I am stirring up the gingerbread dough. I went to the basement to find the menorah, the one with Noah’s animals on the ark, each with a candle hole in their head. I picked up more candles at the coop and last night at dinner, we set them to light.

The second night
The second night



Barbara Mahany writes in her wonderful book, Slowing Time,

“I am waking up to the notion that to usher the season into my house is to awaken the sacred.”
-Barbara Mahany

Candles awaken the sacred. I study a candle flame as I meditate in the early morning dark. The flame dodges the wick, which nods back and forth, tiny dark stem with a touch of orange pollen at its tip. The candle draws my attention and lets me soften my gaze. I become receptively quiet. Candles are part of how I usher in our dark season. They stand against umbered space, like the Christmas tree, ablaze, in immediate proximity to dark. I cannot have the one without the other.

Which is why I spend so much time slathering black gesso on to my journal pages. I have to explore this dark time with the tools my hands crave. I knit with black yarn; I cover my journal pages with dark paints and write with lighter colored pens. This has become my habit and like the candles, it helps me usher in the season. I notice things differently when I write against a black background.

from my dark journal with a door from Catherine Anderson's book framing the center
from my dark journal with a door from Catherine Anderson’s book framing the center

In Tracking Wonder’s Quest 2016, our question this weekend was from Debbie Millman. Her impressive bio is below, but I have long enjoyed her books. They are works of literary and graphic expression and so inspiring to me as I write my book. Her question:

How would you do business as unusual in 2016 if you knew – no matter what you chose – you would not fail?

The work I have been doing for 21 years, which has sourced my current work, is that of mothering. While I did not enter the position as a job, I suppose you could say I interviewed for the role and accepted it when it was offered to me. And this work experience, which continues to this fresh second in which you read these words, has taught me much about the value of success and failure in a job that has few boundaries and no fiscal compensation. For what is failure than the inability to meet your responsibilities whether they be financial, emotional or practically, as in the soccer or immunization schedule, get them to church for choir practice or file their camp forms by this certain date? Failure can take catastrophic proportion in this job. Yes, there are many levels of failure in parenting, and I think we all touch some failure every single day in our quest to be just the perfect kind of parents we can never really be. So, if success was assured me in my business as a mother, knowing what I know about failure and the lessons it has taught me, I would continue parenting in the way I have been doing, constantly tweaking my delivery, listening more closely for cues to patterns that may solve puzzles of personality or passion, always looking to support the development of a human being with as much success in the soup as possible, seasoned with some failure to balance the flavor.

Ultimately, I work in spite of success and expecting some failure. I have been around the sun enough times to be familiar with the taste of both and happy to balance my days with them both in the recipe.

But the other work I do, if you want to call it business as unusual is just as familiar with failure. I have hosted classes that no one attends. The fact that I am working at all, that I have watered the little seedlings of my confidence and exercised my writing skills and visual art skills to the point there I am right now, is success. The only failure I could see is not doing the work at all. Giving up. Stepping away from my book, from this blog, from my classes, events and offerings.

My failures I accept as lessons and I carry on. I learn from failure.

What do I have to learn then, from the repeated request I make of my husband who has, for about 3 months, failed to call the plumber? We have a leaky and getting leakier faucet and this is his department. When we set up housekeeping there were divisions made about certain things like holidays and plumbing, so just as I tend to the candles and the menorahs, he tends, or usually tends, to leaky faucets and leafy gutters. Without tending to it, this becomes a failure. I am not successful in making a request that gets him to call the guy. He fails at tending to a household need. We mutually fail as householders because leaky things leak energy and this is one place we need shoring up.

To me, the more compelling question, applicable to my work-writing, book building, collage, teaching, speaking, producing events- as to our family dilemma about the leaky sink is:

Why wouldn’t you do the work now? Failure or not. Why wouldn’t you pick up your pen, light a small candle and write in the early morning quiet, before the kids are up, before you have to get to work, before life pulls you out in to the world? Why wouldn’t I write this book? Or propose classes at conferences and arts centers?

Feeling ready is one consideration and surely, diving in to a project requires the necessary tools, the wrench, the pen, the gesso. But, Debbie’s question, an assurance of no failure, suggests that moving forward could be inevitable if I take action and so I say, like I have said before, “Why wait?”

Why wait to call the plumber?
Why wait to start doing what you long to do, even in small ways with tiny steps?

I have tolerated the leaky sink because I don’t have the tools to fix it myself. Yes, I can call the guy. That it a possible move for me. I have tolerated years of not doing what I longed to do because of two very real children who did not so much assure my failure, but were just plain too fully demanding. I did not realize I had the tools to work from inside mothering until the day came when I began to invent them. I borrowed the tools from my newfound mentors and started. Which has brought me to where I am today.

So, to bring this long writing to a close, I suggest to you, in this dark season when candles help, and the dark can be a fertile place to dwell in, notice what is leaky around you. How do you approach the coming darkness? Where does light leak in? And where is your time or energy leaking away from you? What small moves can you take, what tools can you pick up to handle those leaks?

In her post about electricity, another household necessity, Vanessa J. Herald writes:

“Nothing’s wrong here. It is just time to slow down and match my insides to respect the slow and short days of approaching winter. To bundle up and take care. To take the time and effort, or call an electrician, to reconnect my inner ground wire. Or, to pound a grounding rod into the damp, still-not-frozen early December soil.

It’s time to slow down. It’s time to reconnect with rhythm. It’s time for silence and peace on the inside. It’s time to get grounded.”
-Vanessa J. Herald


the view from Monument
the view from Monument

An assurance of no failure is slim comfort. I work in spite of it. I work because I know my success may not be grand, but it will be mine. And I work because even now, when the days are short and the holidays press panic buttons in so many of us, my tools of writing and working in my journals, of teaching others to express from inside their life experience are tools I have come to count on to see the dark and the light, to watch the dance and to shore up the leaks.

If you would like to “Imagine your life richly” as Jeffrey Davis invites us with Quest 2016, please take a look here.

If you would like to pick up some tools for expressing from within your own life experience, please stay tuned. On the Solstice, I will be announcing my upcoming Powder Keg Sessions Online Writing Workshop where we will make the simple sacred and write together for a month of weekly writing sessions.

And if you, like me, find failure to be less of a threat than not doing the work, then please subscribe to this site. This rising forth of engaged women making sense of their lives through creative practice, however that looks for you, is my dream.

Thank you for reading me here.



Before you wander off to find your candles, take a look at some of my Questmates posts.

About dragons and failure, Brenna Layne.

Taking permission to new places, Leslie Watts.

The healing power of poetry, with Tania Pryputniewicz on Ginny Taylor’s Women of Wonder.

and, Surrendering to dark and light, Sally Drew.



Debbie Millman

Named “one of the most influential designers working today” by Graphic Design USA, Debbie is an author, educator, and brand strategist. As the founder and host of Design Matters, the first and longest running podcast about design, Debbie has interviewed more than 250 design luminaries and cultural commentators, including Massimo Vignelli, Milton Glaser, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, Barbara Kruger, Seth Godin and more. Debbie is the author of six books, including two collections of interviews that have extended the ethos and editorial vision of Design Matters to the printed page: How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (Allworth Press 2007) and Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (Allworth Press 2011).


The Village: Tools and Self-love

On #creativeretreat planning my #mappingmotherhood workshop for April 18 in Charlotte, NC, then in a six day format for @IWWG in July. Come explore the uncharted regions of motherhood with me. Exploring today with my mentor books and guides. XoxoS

When you feed your heart, you give your best self what it most deserves: encouragement.
And not only having creative courage but giving encouragement affords a deep joy that converts anxiety and that flat happiness often cannot touch.
Jeffrey Davis

I am sitting on my yoga ball at my desk, the western exposure behind this computer screen offering a haze of sunlight across my desk. Spring, no longer a concept, is arriving slowly in the Berkshires. Much like the slow-motion movie I took at a freight train the other day, but it made me too nauseous to share with you, spring’s slow encounter with time makes me ache with hunger for green, makes me woozy for blossoms, makes my head spin for thinking of rhubarb.

But we aren’t there yet. That train is still a ways off, though I can hear the horn. Under the lilacs off our back porch, where I stubbornly hang pillowcases and delicates on a rack all winter, soil is revealed by the exit of snow. In that place, soon, will be crocus. Oh, I could roll around in that soil like a happy dog. Spring, oh, the smells! The textures! The surprises left behind by the melting snow! Treasures to sniff and lay in.

This is not what I set out to write about though. I have been thinking about tools. This past Sunday, in blowing snow, Amy Hale Auker presented a writing workshop titled, “The Question of Dragonflies” for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.

She spoke eloquently about her daily writing practice. Yes, I was swooning. Readers of LLD know that I consider my daily practice devotional and it is at the core of my Powder Keg Sessions writing workshops.

But when Amy said,

Come see my hand bound journals at @sixdepot til March 31. Thank you @amyauker for a wonderful @berkshirewomenwriters event! XoS #BFWW

you can imagine my glee. Loving my tools! My tools becoming personal! Selecting the ones that support my practice! I was a happy dog with all those good smells.

People in my world often say things like this, “Oh, I’d love to write every day, but I don’t have time.” “I couldn’t write what I really feel in a journal, what if they read it?” (they being husband, kids, sisters, brothers, parents, the others in our lives) They lament the lack of time. But mostly, they say they lack “self-discipline.”

Now, I must tell you, when my dreams turn towards 5:45 AM and I feel my husband turn off the alarm, I am not thinking monk-like thoughts like, “Oh you self-disciplined widget, get your fine self out of this warm bed and on to your meditation cushion and get to work.”

No, I think, “oh just one more dream.” (last night, Bruce Springsteen and I were in love and you can see why I want to return to that dream. He really liked everything about me.) I think, “Oh, if I fold my hands and start praying, maybe I will wake up a little more, then I can start writing.” I think, “Oh mind, just stay in this quiet a little more. You love this time. Stay here. Then, your cushion, your pens and your journal await.”

…where we think we need more self-discipline, we usually need more self-love-not just self-love as an attitude, but self-love manifested through the routines and rituals that we set up to enable the changes we desire to happen naturally and with ease.
-Tara Mohr
Playing Big


Lily and skin food

I love morning. I love watching light fill the Copper Beech up on the ridge above our house. I love listening to the wind in the oak. I love hearing my family pad around the house without me.

Since J and I married, he has rolled out of bed early and gone for a swim. Then, he handles the kids til I get downstairs. These months, with no kids in the house, it is a free-range morning for me.

So in the early morning, I go to my cherished tools, my hand bound journals and my Sharpie fine line pens, my Daily Rumi and my We’Moon calendar, Barbara Rockman’s Sting and Nest and Eavan Boland’s A Journey with Two Maps. I might read a bit of Thoreau, Danielle LaPorte, Tania Pyryputniewicz, Lissa Rankin, Emerson, Christian McEwen, John O’Donohue, Lynda Barry or Mary Oliver. This early time is my study and writing time.

Amy inscribes her journals with this statement:

In this place I make no mistakes.

My pages, like Julia Cameron’s morning pages, are where I write my dreams, (BRUCE!), what I did the day before, my hallowed “first thoughts” of the day, and dabble with the ideas I glean in my morning reading. Christian McEwen taught me that this sort of reading is called, Lectio Divina. I dip in to my mentor texts for lines that inspire me, warm my intellect and engage my heart. This is sacred jet fuel for me.

I make no mistakes in my journals. They are my private studios. You might wonder then, that I have an exhibit of 18 of my journals. But I am determined this season to express just what a daily writing practice looks like. My books are hand-bound Coptic stitch journals filled with painted papers, vintage and found pages, gifts from friends and sketch paper. I started sewing my own books because the tools of my daily practice have become very personal to me. I fill them with my writing, illegible-mostly hand-writing, my attempts at poetry, ideas for blog posts, lists of #EBT, miles of gratitude lists, book ideas, small collages and watercolors, lists of what I have read and seen, lists of what I want to do on this day. I dance with my inner life and invite a soft interaction with my outer life on these pages.



The books are prayers for me. This practice is one of self-love. I may seem disciplined to the outside viewer, but I crave this daily communion with the Infinite, who I meet in poetry and prayer, on the page.

I hold this practice with devotion. Not discipline.

I burn a candle. Beeswax is my favorite. I close my bedroom door, even if there are kids or guests around, this time is my own. Once I leave that space, the commerce of family life begins and I merge with the flow of daylight and doing.

Next Wednesday, March 25, at 12:15 PM I will give an artist talk about my journals at No. Six Depot in West Stockbridge, MA. I will share some of my book binding tools and writing practices. If you are in the area, come, buy lunch and join the talk in the big gallery at No. Six.

What are your tools?
Do you have a daily practice? Maybe you dance? Maybe you take an early walk? Might you give yourself this bit of self-love?

When I dial back, past the pens, books and paper, past the mediation pillow and beeswax candles, there I find my most basic tools:

My hands.
My heart.
My intellect.
My spirit.
My curiosity.


Daily writing

My daily practice cherishes these tools and they in turn, make all of Laundry Line Divine possible. My writing, teaching, art making and community making are all sprouted in my daily pages. This practice allows me to explore how I relate in the world, in this nest of silence; I hatch new ideas and connections.

If you have yearning that just won’t quit, consider what your daily practice could be. See if you can carve 15 minutes of something that you love and do it for 21 days. Tell me what happens.

This spring I am teaching in a few places.
April 18, in Charlotte North Carolina at Catherine Anderson’s Studio, I will teach my Mapping Motherhood workshop. Here is information. Please share it with your friends in that area.

In May, I will offer a Permission Slip event at Lifeworks Studio here in Great Barrington, MA. Date is TBA. We will  view our short movie, The Permission Slip, do a bit of art making, write and share in sacred circle that evening.

In June, I will be teaching Rampant Sisterhood: Online Engagement in Your Authentic Voice at Women’s Voices, Women’s Visions at Skidmore College, June 4-7. Here is more information about that.

In July, I will teach six luxurious 90 minute sections of Mapping Motherhood at the International Women’s Writing Guild retreat in Litchfield, CT. Here is information about that.

On August 16, I will lead my day-long Slow Time Salon on Superior in Big Bay, Michigan.

Please leave me a comment if you want more information. Or subscribe to this site to keep up with the news.

I am devoted to supporting the expression of women’s voices, in particular the stories of mothers. I use writing and art techniques and the tools of deep listening in sacred circle to provide women with tools they can take home to build a sustainable daily practice. I have been that woman with my feet nailed to the floor, flustered, frustrated and longing for a connection to my inner life.

My daily practice has been the means for me to find a way through the chaos of family life and the dense forest of becoming a woman.
If any of this work calls to you, please leave me a comment. I truly love hearing from readers of Laundry Line Divine.

And, if nothing else, go stand in that spring sunlight and know that you are in the right spot, right now, to offer yourself the gift of self-love.

All my best,



PS More Out of the Mouths of Babes blog posts coming this week and through Mother’s Day in May. Two brand new ones join the queue, one from Julie Bond Genovese and another from Morgan Nichols. The submission guidelines are here.



The Village: Why is this so hard to write about?

The Crew on Long Pond

We do not exist in a vacuum.
But you knew that right?
You emerged from a place.
You arrived in a place.
And you are, where you are, right now, here with me.
Maybe you read this in a café, alone with many.
Maybe you read this in your home, with many, never truly alone.
Maybe you read this while nursing. Never ever alone.
Maybe you read this alone in your house, lights out, tea steaming, middle of the night wondering what could possibly be made of your life when the sun rises.

When I floated the theme for Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others, I had no idea how hard the topic would be. I asked women to write for my live event and for this blog series here on Laundry Line Divine on the topic of

the Village: Who else is here while you mother?

I addressed the question my self and began writing what seems rather tip-of-the-icebergish. I wrote on. I pondered. I have a running list of questions and topics that will easily keep me busy for a long while.
But it was hard to begin. And sad. And humbling. I remembered things I’d wished had stayed forgotten. I remembered people that I wish I hadn’t forgotten. And I begin to look at the world with new eyes.

Icy ice

Whenever a topic like this floats in to my life, a huge lens peers in to my world. I find myself in uninitiated conversations with surprising people, hearing them say things that answer questions I have not asked yet. The world around me starts serving me medicine, soul food-for-thought that urges my heart open a little wider, zooms my mind wider, and allows me to see how The Village is a concept and a desire, but also a standard that we let slip past us on our way to the bank. We step over ways of being for the sake of time and efficiency and avoid discomfort or eye contact and what do you know? Five years go by and you haven’t stopped over to see that friend who you know could use an in-person visit, but you are too darn busy with your life to manage that.

But you take chances, small chances and tiny steps which cause time to open up. My friend Julie Jordan-Scott describes this flowering of time in her post about synchronicity. She stepped up to granny-sit her toddler grandchild, endured the disassembling of her schedule and learned a new wonderful thing about the elasticity of time.

Being in a Village takes time. Being a solo-act is much quicker and more efficient. You don’t bake as many cookies because there are no drop-offs or love-notes or donations to the family with the flu down the street. I write all this not to admonish you. I write to admit it to you. I am as lousy a Villager as the worst among us. I do a lot. I do. But there are visits I haven’t gotten too. I find it enormously convenient that our home phone line is disabled so certain phone calls that might interrupt my evening don’t make it through. My Village is vivid and active, but after many years of being a vital part of my kid’s school community, I have stepped away from that neighborhood of my Village. I am relieved about that. Fewer pesky potlucks, picnics and food chains for families in need.

But, is that a good thing?

The scientific evidence in the past 10 years has mounted in favor of social interaction as an integral part of our health, happiness, and problem-solving capacity. Playing cards once a week with friends correlates with better health and longevity. Regular karaoke practice, too.
-Jeffrey Davis

I turn to my colleagues to listen.
I invite a friend in for tea.
I receive a fresh blog post from Tania Pryputniewicz that speaks to the cohesion she and I experience as both of our hearts get torn in to so much confetti while we raise young women in to this brave new world.

I think the Village has less and less memory the more our villagers plug into global stuff versus local stuff. The more mobile people are, the less plugged into their own village they are.

-Lydia Littlefield

What about you? Do you feel locally connected to a Village? Does Instagram know more about you than your brother? Is it easier to be friendly on Facebook, but you avoid eye contact with that person at the Big-Y?

Never ending shoveling
Heave-ho, snow snow snow.


Perhaps your Village has changed as your kids grow up? Maybe the elders have died. Maybe there is a vulnerable step ahead for you as you make new friends, set up a card game with new neighbors or invite someone to tea whom you haven’t spent time with before. I am so impressed with my online friend, Laurie Buchanan, who has relocated to a community states away from her home and how she is building her Village up again.

When I read the thread of comments on an OnBeing blog post covering the wickedly sad murders of three Muslim students in North Carolina this past week, I was struck by the vindictive things people said about where attention goes when hate crimes like this happen. A hate-crime like this draws our sympathy while there are thousands of crimes that occur daily, which rouse little sentiment in the wider Village of our world. I have been holding that story in my heart- three students dedicated to social change, to making a positive difference in the world, only to be brutally murdered by their neighbor. And yes, I am aware of the many murders that happen daily, if not in such detail, but I know that tragedy is a regular feature in this world.

In a comment on the another OnBeing post, Parker Palmer wrote this, which could be considered a prayer for a Village.

I’ve tried to develop the kind of X-ray vision that can see the invisible challenges so many people face — and then respond accordingly, from the heart.

-Parker Palmer

We are in this Village together here.
Global and local.
The Village that includes my neighbor down the street whom I haven’t seen in-person for over four months.
And it includes the families of the Muslim students.
It also includes the gunman, the flamethrowers, the bombers and the high-jackers.
It includes the mothers of the Chibok girls, the families in Syria, Turkey, Afghanistan and Somalia.

What is your heart ready for?

On our tiny spin round this green globe, we get to have and hold a whole lot of love. We get to decide where our attention goes and who gets the best of us. We get to make a difference, no matter how tiny. We get to see that batch of ginger molasses cookies as setting in motion a tiny ripple that may one day reach Chibok or reach the sister you haven’t spoken to in fifteen years.

Who is in your Village?
What defines your Village?
What is missing in your Village that you have in great supply?
How might you offer yourself to the greater good, to be a vital part of your Village?

I am going to be pondering these things, like Mary, in the Bible verse I love so much, about “taking these things in to her heart and pondering them.” I am going to be baking. And making. And writing.

I am hosting an event this coming Sunday that expands my Village. This Sunday at No. Six Depot in West Stockbridge, from 2 PM- 4 PM, 13 women from my two writing workshops will be sharing new writing that they have worked on in the Powder Keg Sessions. If you find it hard to believe that 13 women writing from their own life experience could have an impact on anything grand, please read my friend Jan Phillips’ Huffington Post piece here.

Though I have no singular solution, I would travel days to sit at the common table with citizens invested in a different future. We could admit together what is not working: a patriarchy where women’s voices and authority are devalued. There’s a start.

–Jan Phillips

I value women’s voices.
I welcome the difficulty of talking about the Village.
I willingly admit I could do better.

Beginning with this New Moon, which I learned ushers in the Year of the Sheep- an animal that can only move forward, I invite you– heck- consider this your permission slip to ponder your Village.

I hereby christen the Year of the Sheep on Laundry Line Divine as
the Year of Permission to Move Forward.


#fromwhereistand Sheep shearing with Janet and Bart. XoS

Tania’s post goes live here tomorrow.
More will arrive in the upcoming days from writers across the country.
If you want to join us for the March 7 live event, go here for details.
If you want to offer a blog post on this topic, here are the submission guidelines.

Out Blog Series Submission Guidelines 2015

Leave me a comment.
Do you have a regular in-person Village life?

Thankful that you are here, at the Laundry Line,



This poem offers a question or two.



The Upside of My Dark Side: Difficult Riches


Campo Bust

Day Six in the Quest2015 posts and it’s getting dark in here.

Is it just me or is it the holidays?

I crave the dark at this time of year, so this prompt fits right in.

Get a cup of tea. This is a long one.


What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.

Muriel Rukeyser




Which emotions do you feel most guilty about having?





We invite you to take a closer look. We think that you can gain more from accessing the full range of your emotions. You don’t have to avoid discomfort to live a meaningful and engaging life.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan & Robert Biswas-Diener from The Upside of Your Dark Side



I grew up in a home with an alcoholic father.

Story goes that on my parent’s wedding day, my Mimi told her new daughter-in-law, “Thank goodness someone else can take care of him now.”


This poisonous truth seeped in to what became my home long before I was conceived, but writing that sentence makes my belly ache.


This does not have to be a post about alcoholism does it?

Can I just give you the website for Al-Anon and be done with it?


The onus of caring for my father became one of my mother’s many responsibilities. I learned early to care for myself and to help with my three younger sisters. I learned that we did not speak about what was confusing or painful, that we just, “paddled our own canoe.” As a kid, I had no choice. We lived around and within my father’s illness, for that is what I now consider chronic alcoholism. The fragrance of beer was as familiar to me as the smell of the liquor store on Clark Street, a dank bouquet refrigeration, cardboard and vodka, mixed in with floor cleaner and matches.


Vintage postcard


The culture of my family was one of isolation. We belonged to each other and the ship was always in danger of sinking. (Boat metaphors are a constant in my life. I grew up on the Great Lakes. We nearly lost our lives on a boat. Story to follow.) In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown describes culture as “the way we do things around here.” I learned that the way we did things at home was to bear up no matter what. And what could take some pretty drastic proportions.


There are many difficult riches in the shadow side.

John O’Donohue


I learned valuable lessons as a result of growing up with alcoholism.

  • First, I learned that Al-Anon is an absolute lifesaver and if the holidays are activating your emotions about your behavior or of your family members, then please get to a 12-Step meeting.
  • The second thing I learned is that I always have a choice to do things differently.


If I am to answer this prompt honestly, I feel guilty about loathing having to stop my life to take care of other people, particularly people who are sick. The stories I have to tell about my growing up are many. But the overriding emotion of resentment I have had about caring for others is something I have dealt with in Al-Anon and therapy and many other healing modalities. During my children’s young years, I had little conflict with them and illness. They were so lushly dependent on my husband and me, even when they did silly things like jumping off radiators and landing on their heads, I did not get triggered. But as they have grown and my devotion to my creative work has increased, this resentment has paid me a visit.



Afraid that others might find out?


You’d think I’d be over all of this, right? This is what I fear you might know about me. I still wrestle with the weight of having to care for others, even my own kids. This isn’t an all the time thing. But, the weight catches me, poisons a moment when I might reach out in care, but instead resent the responsibility. And then, I have a chance for change.


Yesterday, real life served me a cocktail stuck with two swizzle sticks of inspiration that made me know that I still have room to grow.

Yesterday, my 17 year old was laid up with a lapful of homework and menstrual cramps, normal run-of-the-mill physical symptoms that most overwhelmed young women have today. My foray in to resentment did not last long after I read this post from Matt Licata:



When you sit with a friend in pain,
when their world no longer makes sense;
when confusion rages and
no rest is to be found.

Just for a moment,
will you resist the temptation
to make things better,
to reassure them,
to provide answers,
even to heal them?

Will you offer your stillness, your listening,
your presence, and the warmth
of your immediacy?

Will you hold them in your heart,
with the same tenderness
of a mother holding her little one?

Will you embrace them where they are,
without needing them to change or transform
according to your own needs and schedule?

Will you stay close,
holding your own impatience
and discomfort near?
Will you look into their eyes
and see yourself?

Will you stay in the inferno of healing
with them, trusting in disintegration,
knowing that you are only witnessing
the falling away of an old dream?

Sometimes in doing nothing
everything is undone,
and love is revealed to be
the only true medicine.

– Matt Licata and Jeff Foster

I took Matt and Jeff’s words as tickets to the possibility.


“Will you embrace them where they are,
without needing them to change or transform
according to your own needs and schedule?
I let her be. I inquired. What I gave to her in time and juices and tea and ideas were offered with a loving heart. And she asked me for nothing more. We talked a little about cramps. My husband went out for Midol and gave her a heating pad before he left for yoga class. He made sure we had soup set up for lunch.

As I sat on my mediation pillow listening to him pad around the house a memory appeared like a livery insides of a lake trout. My father on such a December day before the holidays, I am 13. I have my first menstrual cycle and am supposed to go swimming at a pool with my Lutheran youth group tomorrow. I am sewing a red poplin dress for Christmas on my treadle sewing machine in my bedroom, which is plastered with Monkees posters. I walk to the corner store to get tampons having never purchased such exotic items before. They are far out of my reach. I stand with my nose stuck to the display of paperback romances, edging my eyes over the tops of the thick lascivious looking novels wondering if I have the courage to ask the kid behind the counter for help.

I don’t.

So later, my Dad went out for them. He brought the box of tampons in to my room, where he touched my shoulder. I stayed bent over the sewing machine, not yielding to acknowledge his blessing on the day. I went swimming after church on Sunday.

This is perhaps my only memory of my father giving direct attention to my actions when not perfumed with beer and wine. Brené Brown says, “We cannot give people what we don’t have.” During my childhood, my parents did not have a sense of faith or belonging to give me. The safety I felt was won from desperation. The belonging I felt was just this side of isolation, of hiding in plain sight.

Neither of my parents spoke to me about my menstrual cycle. Yesterday at my house stands in stark contrast to my upbringing. In my parent’s home, we did not talk about things like near-miss tragedies or grave mistakes; we did not talk about adventures that turned out to be dangerous and stupid endeavors. One might say my parents were brave, leaving the society of their combined 14 siblings in the Chicago area in 1968 and finding a home for us in a new, very small town where there were no people of color and only 3 Jewish families. They took big risks. On our first Memorial Day weekend in the U.P. my father piloted his fishing boat with his newly won operator’s license around the entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan. His only crew was my not nautical mother and three girls under 10 years old. It was a trip that nearly cost us all of our lives.

And it was something we never, ever spoke of, even after surviving a gale off Whitefish Point in the same waters where the Edmund Fitzgerald went down. When we arrived at the fishery where we sought safe harbor, the people there were surprised to meet us alive.

I grew up with silence around every important event. I learned to skulk around the house to eavesdrop on my mother’s phone conversations with her sisters. Long distance, so they were short calls, but potent. 190 proof. I learned things by standing quietly behind closed doors. I read the emotional weather of our family and dressed accordingly.

I held that memory as I heard my husband leave the house. Then I asked myself, what is different in my life today that provides this reality for my daughter? What has changed in my life?

The culture of our family is, “We belong to one another. We show up. We are in this together. And we will make time for each other, even if that looks different from what other people do. We may do things differently than other people, but we’ve thought about it and this is how we roll here.” And most often, that is together.

Later yesterday, after the Midol and heating pad had done the trick, we had dinner together. Without any baiting on my part, the conversation turned to the question of how technology has impacted real life. The discussion bears telling, but not here, not right now. What does bear repeating is that as we asked how texting has changed our lives directly, we got to share how different it is for my husband and me to talk with our children, to have a sense of who they are and when we are needed. The conversation led to our daughter understanding in a historical context how we have crafted a life with conscious choice about the culture of our family.

“Our stories define us. They affect our well being, our relationships, our present and our future. They are vehicles of energy, vessels of possibility. They contain infinite potential and we can harness light and power from the experiences of our lives. Every ordeal we have suffered holds some treasure for us. Every catastrophe has stripped us of something and given us something. The nakedness, we know. The gifts are yet to be unearthed. According to Hannah Arnedt, the story reveals the meaning of what would otherwise be an intolerable event.”

from Jan Phillips on Huffington Post


Housatonic Cross Collage by Suzi Banks Baum


How could you spend this year trying to be open to the emotional window that allows you to be courageous?


I will be open to the emotional window that owns my childhood, grieves the toxic silence that still resides in me, but finds tonic in the way I live today, tonic in my open heart.

It is the window that allows for the hassle of parenting, of living in close proximity to others who get sick, who have cramps, who need lunches made or doctors appointments, who need college tuition paid and tires rotated and prayers and petitions for safe passage lit onto one thousand sacred candles and traffic lights.

I live this close to my kids because I know the emotional wasteland that exists for some. I live this wary of alcoholism because I know the rampage it lays waste to in the very best lives. I live this openly because I know you have stories too.

Mary Oliver’s poem arrived in my lap today. This line speaks to me of memory and of what we learn from asking hard questions like these and making room for the answers, no matter how uncomfortable those might be.


believing in a thousand
fragile and unprovable things,


~Mary Oliver


I believe in the value of real life.

I believe it is fragile and irrefutable.

I believe that we get to make different choices than our parents made and often, those choices are a result of our own hard work and willingness to heal.

I am thankful for taking this long look at my darker side. Thank you Todd Kashdan. (Click to tweet this if you like.)

Thankful for you letting yourself in for this long read.

My Quest mates have been brewing some brave posts.


Tania’s is here. Saundra’s is here. Ginny’s is here.

And Stan provides the soundtrack.



What about your dark side? I always appreciate your comments and sharing.




You can learn more about Quest 2015 here. Here is more about Todd Kashdan, who stopped me in my tracks with this prompt. And so glad he did!

A central figure in positive psychology, Todd Kashdan is author of The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self – not just your good self – drives success and fulfillment (Hudson Street Press) with Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener as well as Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life (Harper Collins). He heads up the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena at George Mason University and travels the globe to speak to business executives, organizations, schools, and health professionals. He also adores his two little girls.






%d bloggers like this: