Monthly Archives: June 2012

Guidance in Small Doses


Most of our lives are spent wondering what to do, when.

As ancient peoples might have looked to the sky for portents, or consulted an oracle before going to war or building a city in a certain spot—we often wish there was a simple answer to guidance in our modern world.

We long for a way to fit the best bits of advice “out there” (and there is more than we can handle thrown at us every day) to our specific needs and questions.

I have had friends who would open a Bible in front of them to a random page, glance down, and expect their eye to fall on just the right verse that would tell them what to do in a given situation. I can’t say that it didn’t work for them. I just never felt this was the route for me, as much as I revere biblical wisdom.

When we go to our local Chinese restaurant we dutifully crack open our fortune cookies, and sometimes trade with each other when ours seems to suit the other better. They are all happy and encouraging affirmations that we’d love to have come true. But usually they don’t speak specifically to what we’d most like to know, from an authority higher than our own hopes and dreams!

Proverbs, maxims, famous quotations on any topic can be found with a click nowadays—many more than we can digest or assimilate. Wisdom is out there—but we’re often still at sea when we try to apply it.

And, in a post-modern age, it is increasingly difficult to believe in a one-size-fits-all answer for anything. Yet it is also undoubtedly true that from time to time a string of instructive words will seem to cast a beam of light directly on our personal situation.

In the lovely observation of author-filmmaker Phil Cousineau: “As if on wings from heaven, the right words can appear and change our lives.” Sometimes a title for a book just “comes to us.” Or a line of poetry or a wise proverb tells our hearts what we already know but couldn’t put our finger on.

[Note: Phil Cousineau and I have the connection of having both written books titled Soul Moments (since our publishers didn’t know of each other’s use of it). We offer quite different takes on the phrase, and I recommend reading his book as well as mine! Phil and I follow each other on Twitter now, an example of how separate worlds can converge in unexpected ways, through shared language.]

The more carefully we choose our words, attend to our diction, the greater the invitation to see what we are composing as something extending beyond our individual situation and maybe having some resonance for the reader in his or her unique world. But as soon as we hammer out a verbal command (other than helping our kids survive in the moment)—pounding out a “you really should” or “everyone ought to”—the weaker our wordstream becomes. Often our insistence is easily refuted by facts and circumstances we didn’t have access to.

Everyone is a special case.

And herein lies the problem.

How can WE find guidance for everyday living—in small doses that can actually be taken in and absorbed for good and for gain?

It surely takes eyes and ears that are open, as Jesus often said. And discernment—a developed trait.

I propose not only biblical wisdom verses in this diet, but phrases of insight from many sources that often seem to shine off of a page of prose and encapsulate the gist of a piece.

I often tweet compelling summary sentences (condensing the ideas into 140 characters), along with a link to the full article, when it moves me.

Just my contribution to the perennial search for guidance in small doses.

What words of wisdom have influenced your choices or given your life new direction?



Finding Time, Gaining Time


“Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness … If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come,” wrote Franz Kafka.

For many of us, the right words are “work tirelessly at what you love.”

In Spinning Straw, Weaving Gold, my second collection of “uncommon” mother-daughter dialogues, I focus on the wisdom to be derived specifically from women’s work—which is, by definition, any work done by women.

As in Becoming Flame, I write of woman’s way in the world: the particular process through which she gains experience … sifts and filters it through her stages of development … and finally gains a confident voice in the world. But it is never an accomplishment only for herself—the splendor is to be had in the sharing.

Such breakthroughs ought to be greatly celebrated, and often are: displaying a work of art, publishing a book, commemorating an anniversary or remembering the origin of a fruitful idea.

But sadly, often a mature woman’s “emerging” as a star, a center of expertise and wisdom in the world after years of hard work, is completely ignored.

If she’s not perceived as “hot,” who wants to listen to her, anyway?

Yet, by this sidelining and downgrading of women’s multifaceted gifts to the world, we all are the poorer. Never, it seems, has a polarized world needed women’s wisdom and balance (through participation) more desperately.

So I try in my books simply to give space and attention to some of women’s unique transforming experiences: small scenarios—but often with wider implications.

What I have crafted are little cameos of a mother and daughter—twisting and pulling on truth as they encounter it; some have called them “miniature parables” of life.

Spinning and weaving are excellent metaphors for this process that women naturally experience in their lives, which can sometimes produce different shades and forms of result than those commonly valued by men.

One of the tasks that women especially struggle with is the quest for time—more of it, and a better quality of experience.

The story of Penelope, wife of Odysseus in Homer’s epic The Odyssey, is an instance of this. It shows how weaving—of actual materials and of experiences, including those of the spirit—allows women time. They can, in solitary or shared labor, begin to evaluate, choose, and reflect, while creating in a slow but steady way the necessary conditions for their lives.

Spinning and weaving can also symbolize a process through which to proceed to another stage in life.

Penelope, in the absence of her husband on his travels, was besieged by many suitors. But she managed to put off choosing who would replace Odysseus in the event of his not coming back. She did this by asserting that she would not decide until she had finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law Laertes.

But for three years she would weave during the day and then unravel her work at night, so that no progress ensued. And thus she “gained” time, the most precious commodity to the wise woman in learning how to live her life. Her task: to arrange for good the pieces of reality to which she has access.

In my mother-daughter dialogues I envision a timeless feminine context in which not only carding, spinning, and weaving could occur, but in which two women (the daughter has grown and now works side-by-side with her mother) can actively participate in mining the wisdom that comes through their shared experience.

“How will I know what Work I am to do in the world when

I leave our Home?” the Daughter asked aloud.

“The strands of your adult life are being gathered

together day by day,” her Mother assured her. “Over time

you will be able to discern a distinct configuration that

reveals itself, more and more, to be a Pattern.”


“Father has built our house of many types of materials,”

the Daughter noted, “beam and brick, board-and-batten,

stone and shingle.”

“Just so,” her Mother noted, “a wise woman builds her

‘house’ from the substances of discipline and purpose, joy

and love, tears and hard work.”

“I want to live here with you and Father for as long as I

need to learn from you,” the Daughter said.

“And from these thoughts and intents … the

house of your Soul grows also. Eventually it will ‘house’

you well, when you have gone into the world.”

“But that will not be for quite a long time!” the Daughter

said, hugging her Mother.

G Is for Good


I probably should title this blog in my alphabetical series: “G Is for THE Good,” because this familiar and pleasant word becomes only a weak description or moderate recommendation as an adjective.

So, something is good. For whom? Under what conditions? For how long? we might ask.

But “THE Good” as noun—as a universal quality—implies that there is an ultimate standard toward which to aim, stopping just short of “God” as a G-word.

THE Good is something we all ought to love and celebrate and take our cues for living from—if only we knew what it was!

In Plato, the image of the sun conveys something of the nature of The Good to humans: “The sun … not only furnishes to those that see the power of visibility but it also provides for their generation and growth and nurture.”

Still, even though we live literally in the light and heat of this metaphor, and could not exist without the good of the sun, the concept of The Good remains elusive and difficult even (or especially) for philosophers.

Is there any practical way to approach this difficult subject?

I am fascinated by what English theologian Don Cupitt calls “solar ethics”—committing ourselves to live as the sun shines: that is, to do what we were created to do without concern for recognition, permanence, or reward. 

There is something total and satisfying about contemplating the sun being the sun even as it burns itself out in the process of its fulfillment. Isn’t that also the essence of being fully alive?

Theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson writes, in the spirit of this insight: “We have old lessons to learn from the sun, earth, and sky: how the sun gives so much away and does not ask the earth for repayment.”

If there is a way to know The Good, as humans, it will certainly be by being exactly what we are and ever consciously choosing to move in the direction of what we perceive to be that ultimate Source—whatever we call it (Good or God).

Yet—perhaps we should be less concerned about what we do and look more at what we’ve neglected of the good through indecision and doubt.

Shakespeare wrote: “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”

And George Bernard Shaw said: “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent in doing nothing.”

Taking SOME step in SOME direction in our life seems to participate in The Good merely through our intent to live fully.

Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “He who wants to do good, knocks at the gate; he who loves finds the gates open.”

As I have gotten older, I think less (hardly at all) about parsing every human act to judge it “sin” or “virtue” (as my tradition taught we should do).

Surely “moving toward the Good” as a goal—and enabling others to do the same—is a better focus for us than a judgmental spirit. And it will require us to bring all of our humanness and failure along with us—we have no other options.

William Saroyan wrote: “Good people are good because they’ve come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know.”

But we need a richer language for our journey, and traveling toward The Good in our thinking and in our hearts can be a beginning.

How we define our lives and our goals truly matters. We are laying out blueprints in the cosmos as places to build, spiritually speaking.

Harold Whitman wrote: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

And the wonderful John O’Donohue wrote in Anam Cara: “Love is the light in which we see light. … If we could look at the world in a loving way, then the world would rise up before us full of invitation, possibility, and depth.”

I’d say it’s hard to get any closer to understanding The Good than that.

“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
 when it is in your power to do it” (Proverbs 3:27).

“A single sunbeam is enough to drive away many shadows.”

—St. Francis of Assisi.