Archive for the 'Personal Stories' Category

The Anatomy of Ecstasy

When my then five-year old nephew, Adam, who was an only child discovered that he had four cousins he said, “I feel so big. I’m bigger than a Giant!”

giantimage  Preparing to return from Atlanta after spending time with a group of amazing women and meeting many others in the larger community, I felt so full of excitement that I told a friend, “I feel like I could fly home without the airplane, though I do know that wouldn’t be a good idea.” 

 My friend and teacher, Cynthia Winton-Henry knows about this. She calls it “Flaps up, Flaps down.”  To demonstrate how to navigate between our Big self and our pedestrian, Little self, she directs her students to raise their arms high and out to the side as though they were a bird or a plane. This is “flaps up.” Then she instructs her students to put their arms down by their sides, “flaps down,” in order to return to their smaller individual selves.

womanspreadingwings Some activities require us to be in our Larger self. When I spoke with a numerologist friend of mine about what I needed to do to promote my book she said, “Last year was your completion year when you finished and published your book but this year is a number one year for you, a time of new beginnings. It isn’t a time to play small.”

  I knew what she meant. This isn’t a time to lead with my insecurities. When I experience that excited/scary feeling in the pit of my stomach just before I step onto a stage – that’s the call to step into my Bigger Self. When I am in this Larger Self, all that I know is available to me, and I am open to inspiration, which in theology is described as a “divine influence. ” I know that I’m likely to be there when I’m centered in myself from deep inside, standing tall without apologies, and fully present to the environment.

Some activities take us to our Larger Self. In Atlanta, when I was with a group of women who were each in their Larger Selves, it seemed easy to be all that I am and to appreciate the wonder and amazement of each of them. During our time together it seemed that magic happened and magic has continued to happen since as the universe seems to be cooperating with our shared goals.

Atlanta group-58 One of the women sent an email to the group members and told of an experience she had while driving home. She heard a voice that didn’t sound like her own. The voice said, “Prepare to be amazed,” and it seemed to her like the matter-of-fact sounding message delivered at Cape Canaveral – “Prepare for lift off.”  Later that same day when she got home she had a chance encounter with a woman who, when she told her a bit about our weekend, offered to partner with her to achieve our desired goals in their community.

In the days since, many of us have been experiencing similarly amazing chance happenings that are likely to help us achieve our individual pieces of the desired group goal. As I reflect on this experience of communal flaps up and its aftermath in my life, I remind myself to take special care of my Little Self. Our bodies aren’t built to live perpetually in flaps up and my bodyspirit need some flaps down time in order to be prepared for more amazement.


Home Sweet Home

On the road for ten days, half the time in Dallas/Fort Worth and at a ranch 100 miles north, I spent the remaining time in Atlanta, returning to Pittsburgh and temperatures in the teens. Each place I visited was having unusual weather, mostly colder than expected, but on the ranch we couldn’t visit the rocks because warm weather there had awakened the snakes. A wood fire in one Atlanta house did little to warm the downstairs, and the wind whistled through both houses where I stayed as I slept in borrowed long johns under my pajamas. Now I’m happy to be settling into my well-insulated Pittsburgh townhouse.

fireplace Sitting at home being warmed by the gas fireplace, and noticing the seagulls flying past my riverfront window I wonder, “What is it that makes a house feel like home?” Most people would answer, the people and pets that greet you there. But I’m alone for this homecoming, my husband’s out of town and our nine year-old dog, Clancy had to leave us a month ago. But still there is in me, a dropping down into a comfortable feeling of safety in the familiar surroundings.  

As I look around the room, everything here has a history. Every object contains a story, interwoven with events in my own life. Perhaps that’s what causes me to feel I belong here. The fireplace mantle holds two tall golden candlesticks I’d bought to match the living room lamps in my first home. I presume my first husband still has those lamps in his. Beside the candlesticks is a wooden clock, a gift handmade by him, and given as a gift to my present husband and myself many Christmases ago.  

The framed hand-drawn stock chart on the wall is from Rich’s stockbroker father’s chart book. Finding that remnant of his father’s life after his death, Rich had me take pages from it to the neighborhood framer. Now each of the heirs have their own memento, though I can’t say if the other charts occupy such a prominent place in their homes.

 The stained glass pieces hanging in the windows were removed from our 100 year-old Nebraska house over thirty years ago. They were windows in a closet where no one ever saw them, so at the suggestion of the repairman, we framed them and have carried them with us to live in five houses since.

French-Chairs-Pair-125x125 Looking at the pair of French chairs reminds me of the history of our color schemes and living spaces. I first saw them in the front window of the Goodwill in Detroit when I drove past there on my way to the university. We were renovating a dark 1928 house at the time, nicknamed by our four year old, the “Adam’s Family House.”

 Originally in pristine condition, they were upholstered in pink and green silk plaid, and became the centerpiece of our white-carpeted living room in 1967. They later wore a floral print when we moved to Nebraska and tailored blue wool in Texas where they provided seating for my counseling office in our clinic. A do over in Pittsburgh has them now dressed in a blue and brown plaid. Admiring their flexibility, I’m not sure we’ve held up as well.

A Different Kind of Gypsy

In the musical comedy theaterTravellers_Decorated_Caravan_(6136023633) the dancers are called “gypsies.” I suppose it’s because the nature of their employment involves changing jobs and moving around the country often. The first year I was in New York, I lived in 11 different places around the city, including the times I arranged to sleep on a friend’s couch.

This week I’m falling back on those learned long ago gypsy skills – moving around the world with a spirit of adventure, and practicing the spiritual discipline of extreme flexibility. I’m been in North Texas on what might be termed “a book tour.” With the help of my sister who lives north of Denton, I organized one book event in Fort Worth and two in Dallas. Sandwiched in between I attended a women’s retreat at a ranch an hour and a half northwest of Fort Worth.highways

I lived in this area of the world for over 20 years but having left eight years ago, I’d forgotten the amount of time people here spend in their cars and how carefully they plan their trips to miss the rush hours and the logjams created by road construction projects.  As a visitor it strikes me that most every roadway is being worked on, or expanded to accommodate even more traffic. Toll roads are under construction to swoop people over the top of the current roadways and make money for the state and the construction companies.

I’m now at my next stop, Atlanta GA. doing a home stay with a friend as I prepare for a Warrior Mother Performing the Book event this evening at Charis Books and More, the nation’ s oldest independent feminist bookstore. If you’re in the area, please join me as I help Charis celebrate their 43rd year as one of the “must see” places in the Atlanta area.charis

Saying Goodbye to Our Best Friend

There’s a lot of empty, silent space in our house these days. Nobody’s sitting at the front window, guarding the perimeter from potential intruders. There’s no greeting as we return home and open the front door, no heralded announcement that guests we have not yet heard coming, are in fact arriving.  As friends and I I sit on high stools at the kitchen counter, no one begs to be lifted up so they too can become part of our conversation. And sitting on the sofa to watch some television after dinner, no furry ball jumps onto our laps and sits between us, behaving as if he too is watching the screen. 

watchdog Clancy has been an important member of our family and constant companion for nine and a half years. Yet I must admit, things didn’t start out particularly well. Besides the usual challenges in house training a puppy, this one had a propensity for chewing the edges of the dining room rug and, his specialty – chewing through each and every electric lamp chord in our house.

 Our daughter was very ill at the time, and I traveled often to be with her and assist with my three grandchildren. This situation may have contributed to my lack of patience with my incorrigible new charge, but we did start thinking it might be necessary to find a different permanent home for Clancy. We were rescued by one of my dear friends who offered to become his temporary “foster mother.” She had four older small dogs of her own and in a few weeks she, with the help of her dogs, civilized Clancy. We always gave her full credit for what a special companion he became.

tinyclancy Several years ago, Clancy developed a problem with his liver. As his body began retaining fluids we were told that he might not have more than a couple of months. Some adjustments were made in his medication and he rallied. He continued to have symptoms repeatedly, receive treatment, and return to his peppy, happy self. No one ever had any real understanding of why or how this kept occurring. This phase of our life together was difficult at times but, as happened in going through serious illnesses with our children, it caused us to appreciate most every moment we had with him.


 When the end came, it was a surprise. And it wasn’t. I’d taken Clancy to the vet in our neighborhood for one of his treatments and when he came out he seemed his usual peppy self, but he was shaking. By evening he was not doing well. He didn’t eat and lost control of his bowels several times. Suspecting this might be the end, we took him back to the clinic the following morning and left him for observation. We got the call at 10 am. His kidneys were failing. It was time to say goodbye. 

The Family Carries On

As our plane finally lifts from the ground in Palm Springs CA. we’re offered a panoramic view of the mountains and red tile rooftops on the valley floor. “Goodbye palm trees. Goodbye warm swimming pools and even warmer hot tubs. Goodbye dear family, till the next time we can arrange to be together from across the continent.” 


It’s said we don’t remember days or years, only moments. The moments that stand out from this year’s family Christmas vacation are:

- the clicking sounds of cue balls, hopefully hitting other balls into the side pockets, mixed with laughter and the lilt of college boys and adult men’s teasing challenges,

-       the sight of ten family members seated in a circle on the front patio, obeying  the unwrapping gift ritual of my long deceased father’s family – carefully opening one gift at a time in rotation from youngest (16) to eldest (85).

-       The stomping feet of sixteen-month-old Krya Joy as she turns her head from side to side saying an emphatic “no” up and down to say ‘yes’, followed by the show of smiling deep dimples when she gets her way.

Kyra.KevinThis was our tenth holiday season without her. Family’s carry on without a pivotal loved one, and we have done that. The first year we met at a water park in Kansas City. It was strange to be swimming indoors in the middle of winter, stranger yet doing it without their mother, his wife, our daughter. The first spring, we met in Fort Worth to take in the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, something promised before she died. Last year, we met in Colorado for a ski vacation. Some years in between we’ve missed getting everyone together during the holidays but most thanksgivings were spent at my son-in-law’s dinner table in Nebraska with his family; father, brothers, nieces, and cousins.

One summer we hosted the family at our house in Pittsburgh, (the U.S. Open Golf Tournament was being held nearby.) Another summer, the year the golf tournament was in Washington D.C. my brother-in-law hosted us in his home as the tournament was held at his home course. Some springs we’ve gathered to celebrate high school graduations, and soon, we’ll meet for a college one.

family2The photographs will show how the kids have grown into fine young adults, how parents, uncles and grandparents have been aging, the joy of new additions, and how fortunate we’ve been to be able to share such fun times together.

 What the images won’t show is what’s been missing at every family gathering throughout the years. There’s always a moment when I’m reminded, and this year’s moment came when we began passing out the ice cream for dessert. Sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Tori said, “What kind of ice cream is this? It says it’s whipped. Does that mean it’s less calories?” She doesn’t know that particular ice cream was selected because it was her mother’s favorite. She doesn’t know it’s her grandparents’ way of remembering.

The Anatomy of a Massage

They say you never forget your first, and that’s held true for me. I can still remember in much detail my first massage. Part of its memorable nature involved the striking beauty of the place where it occurred, a hot springs along the shores of the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur California. 

 hotsprings3I had dragged my luggable computer to Esalen Institute, to assist one of my teachers, Ilana Rubenfeld, with a writing project. Ilana was on the Esalen Institute faculty, having invented a hands-on therapy, integrating psychotherapy, intuition, and bodywork. While on the retreat center campus I was able to participate not only in Ilana’s classes but I was able to experience my first massage. 

hotsprings5An Esalen massage begins at the edge of the Pacific, with a soak in several tubs fed by water from the underground hot mineral springs. And yes, people did not wear bathing suits, but there was no need to feel self-conscious. The scenery the wildflower-filled cliffside, in one direction and a spectacular seascape of rocky coastline and navy blue sky in the other, commanded all the attention. The massage rooms sit along side the ocean, so that although there’s music, the predominant sounds are of waves lapping against the rocky shore and wind soothing the pine trees.

As I go back to that place now in memory, what stands out is the effort I kept making to stay aware and awake for each delicious bodily sensation initiated by the therapist’s touch. I remember thinking I didn’t know my body could be this relaxed. At some point the relaxation became so deep that it took my mind to a space I’d never visited, even in my dreams.   

 During my most recent massage at a spa in Desert Hot Springs, California, my body taught me something else I didn’t know. In the thirty years since my first massage, I’ve become a better collaborator – bringing my breath and my full awareness to the point of contact between my body and the therapist’s hands. The aroma of the lotions, the music, the faint light, all conspire to encourage a letting go of excess tension in the muscles but the state of relaxation depends on the communication between the practitioner’s hands and my breath and intention. Together we give each of body part permission to let go of whatever is in excess, whatever is no longer needed.

 massage.spaAs the massage begins I notice the temperature of the room, a bit cooler than I’m used to. I notice the music, its repetitious rhythm and non-descript phrases, purposely arranged so as not to call attention to itself. I notice the feel of the lotion on my skin and that, in the desert air, my skin seems especially thirsty and grateful for the moisture it’s receiving.

As the massage progressed, some muscles relaxed easily, others with a surprisingly spastic jerk, and occasionally a sharp reflected pain accompanied some releases, subsiding as quickly as it came. While my muscles were engaged in these various releases, my mind surprised me by recreating some violent scenes from a movie I’d seen recently, “Ten Years a Slave.”  As this internal visualization occurred I noticed it and then brought my attention back to the point of contact with the therapist’s hands. After this continued for some time I had the realization, (or the sensation) that these images were being released from my body, as though they had been stored in my muscles since I first saw them.  

Story of the Book Part III

In the present topsy-turvy literary world, getting a book out into the world has become a major career in itself. For well-known authors, the first months after their books’ released, there are television interviews on shows like Jon Stewart or Good Morning America and radio shows like Terry Gross’s Fresh Air on NPR. Print reviews of their books are featured in national newspapers and magazines and their book tours include book signings and speeches to regional and national audiences.sheila at bookstore

But for regular writers like me, the publicity path is quite different. Publishers don’t have budgets to promote unknowns.  Most books now are sold through some type of word-of-mouth, and the word may travel through on-line connections as well as in-person conversations. I hired a professional literary publicist, Stephanie Barko, who arranged a virtual tour, which was something new to me. In addition to arranging professional reviews of the book, Stephanie arranged on-line written interviews, guest blog spots, and online blog radio interviews for me to spread the word about Warrior Mother. Most of these events took place during the first thirty days after the book’s release and we used social media to promote them, along with the book giveaways that occurred on sites like Goodreads. SheilaAsylum2 2013

I’m finding the radio shows especially enjoyable. Recently I had a wonderful interview with Marianna Cacciatore on her organization’s show, Bread for the Journey  and another interview with mother/daughter team Lisa Smith and Nancy Reid on their Happy Hour Radio Show  Somehow they made room to discuss my book as they toured another one of the 401 national parks they plan to visit in the next couple of years.

Bookstores used to help with getting the word out by hosting author book signings, but most have given up the practice. Many people buy their books on line now and don’t frequent neighborhood bookstores as they once did. But authors are borrowing from musicians the practice of house parties, hosted by friends in their homes. When the structures of the music industry toppled a few years ago and musicians had to become entrepreneurs, the house party became a great place for performing and selling CDs. Authors are now discovering it can work well for books too.

I had my first book house party in Atlanta last week, hosted by a dear friend, and it was delightful. Though they weren’t in my demographic, the three teenagers and their family dog added much fun to the evening as we attempted to improv the book’s themes in a method I call, “Performing the Book.”

book-club-2I’m also exploring another place to find book lovers – book clubs. I’ve been asking people to put me in touch with any book clubs they know about, and in a couple of weeks I’ll be meeting here in Pittsburgh with the first book club I’ve become aware of whose members have read my book.

Taking Warrior Mother on the Road

 “How’s your new book doing?” people ask, and I don’t know quite what to say. The official reviews have been wonderful, most of them thoughtful and articulate, better than I could have hoped for. I have felt blessed by such intelligent and crafted responses as different reviewers have picked up on and emphasized, different themes from the book, rather like turning a prism to refract the light into the various colors contained therein.Sheila Performing Book

Friends and acquaintances who have spoken to me or sent me an email after reading the book have had very good things to say. Of course there may be people who read it and didn’t like it, but they’ve failed to contact me. No one so far has demanded their money back. One woman friend I ran into in the grocery store detained me for quite a while with wonderful comments and complements, followed by a pledge to bring several friends to my next book reading. And she did just that.

Amazon rankings have been all over the place, but today the book is number 51 of the top 100 books in the category of parent and adult child relationships. I had a big disappointment when one of the top reviewing companies that had spoken highly of the quality of the book, and had promised to review it, declined to do so at the last minute.  I learned they were concerned it “wouldn’t have wide enough appeal.” (I think that’s code for “it won’t sell enough books to make it worth our while.”) But in the two and a half months the book has been out, this has not been my experience.

There’s the man I gave a promotional post card to, who read the synopsis on the back quickly as we stood together on the street corner. “I’m gonna buy one of these and give it to my daughter-in-law,” he said. When I asked why he said, “She’s been having a rough time. Our nine year old grandson was killed last year in a boating accident.”  Several people have told me they were buying the book for a friend or family member going through grief, or stuck in an old grief, having trouble moving on.

Wing & Prayer Book Performance

Wing & Prayer Book Performance


I’ve become very cognoscente of the universal themes contained in Warrior Mother through a system I’ve developed for book readings. In place of a traditional reading, I connect with people in the community where I will be presenting who do InterPlay, (the system of movement, song, and storytelling that I use) and have them join me in “Performing the Book.”  We select themes that emerge from the snippets I read, and link them to an InterPlay form. The improvisational artists then add their own stories and experiences to mine.

At Performing the Book events we’ve explored relating to adult children (or being one), accompanying a friend or loved one through medical diagnosis, treatments, and death, and rituals that heal grief and loss of whatever variety. Feedback from these presentations has given me a realization that Warrior Mother is about finding ways to authentically communicate about, and honor, the human condition. And that condition is that everyone dies. Once we face that reality, we can enthusiastically choose life for whatever moments that we, and our loved ones, are allowed.

Dancing on the Fringe

The streets of Edinburgh Scotland were filled, as they are every August, with performing artists and the tourists and locals who had come to see them. Rich and I, along with 22 other InterPlayers from around the world were among them. RichCatapillerphoto-16Pushing our way through the hordes of mostly young performers on the cobblestone street which is the Royal Mile, we observed the ritual of performers dressed as caterpillars and clowns, giving out flyers, barking as circus midway callers do, to draw attention to the free samples of their art on the makeshift stages of High Street. Though a little less flamboyant, and a good deal older than most of them, we too had came to perform on the Fringe.

Edinburgh Fringe

Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe Festival, the largest open access arts festival in the world began in 1947 when eight theatre companies showed up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Arts Festival.  The juried arts festival is still in business but the Fringe, officially organized in 1951, has grown way bigger that that one. In fact it’s bigger than anyone could imagine an arts festival becoming. By 1959 there were 494 companies and by this year, 2013, the festival had over 40,000 performers in 359 venues. Unlike those original participants, we did have an invitation from Mairi Campbell, a well-known Scottish folk singer,

Meeting up with a dozen members of our US InterPlay community, and joining another dozen InterPlayers from Germany, Finland, England, Australia and Scotland, we formed an improv troupe. After practicing together for several days (which was a big part of the fun of it all, along with time spent with fabulous local home stay hosts), we came together at Venue #127, St. John’s Church in the center of the city. Our performance of the Unbelievable Beauty of Being Human was part of the Just Festival, a subset of the Fringe that focused on social justice, spirituality, and peace.mairiUBBH-17

Our well-attended performance was a fitting tribute to the festival’s themes as we danced, sang and told our stories in the moment and on the spot, highlighting what’s wonderful about being human and what’s not so great about it. As one of the elders in the group, this was my 9th performance of Unbelievable Beauty, having participated in the first series of performances in San Francisco CA in 1997, in Sydney, Australia in 2004, and in Seattle and Chicago in the years in between.  Each improvisational performance followed a similar format yet each was a unique and never-to-be-repeated experience for participants and audiences.

In the 50-page program for the Just Festival, which was a subset of the 390 page program for the Fringe, the program description read: “Re-igniting hope for human kind, passionate, funny, honest, affirming of real people and real living. Performers elevate both the miracles and struggles of every day folk in a daring, spontaneous, fresh way.  Directed by InterPlay founders, the program features InterPlayers from around the world. UK debut”.UBBH.Edinburgh1

And so it was, a never-to-be forgotten, Unbelievably Beautiful Experience!

My Excitement’s Dancing Me

It’s twenty-one days till my book Warrior Mother’s official launch, but there’s plenty to get excited about in the meantime. And excited I am. I can tell because my insides feel like I’ve left my motor running and my body is going faster than my brain. I keep reminding myself to breathe slowly, fully. Since these are not new sensations to me, I know there is only a thin line between excitement and anxiety. And oxygen is what makes the difference.


The endocrinologist, Hans Selye defined this kind of stress as eustress. It’s stress that comes from a positive situation like moving into a new house, preparing for a wedding, or bringing a new baby home. Birthing a book into the larger world seems like some combination of these types of situations. Though positive stress is a sign of well-being, it’s stress nonetheless. And through many positive events in my long life, I’ve learned that it can be exhausting.

Two weeks ago at the Iowa Writing Festival I tried to blame the caffeinated coffee I’d had at breakfast for the difficulty I was having sitting still in my classroom seat. But when my cell phone vibrated and I saw that a long awaited review of the book was in, and I read it on my break – (five stars YAA!) – no hyperactive elementary school age child had anything on me. 

Last Monday I hosted a group of people in Pittsburgh who had supported me through the five plus years of writing the book, and the Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players helped me to “Perform the Book” for them. Seeing so many dear people all in the same room was stimulating and exciting. I found I couldn’t stop smiling, a sensation I remember from both my wedding days.  

Today the need for extra deep breaths was due to the emails I was receiving from members of the InterPlay community that I will be meeting up with in Edinburgh Scotland next week. I’m doing a Warrior Mother Performing the Book event August 15th at 2:15 pm at Word Power Books, the leading independent bookseller in the UK. So far, I’ve heard from InterPlayers in Finland, Scotland, Virginia, and North Carolina who will be joining me at the bookstore to improvise themes that emerge when I read excerpts from the book.

shopfront cropped 2

As I get ready to turn in for the evening, I’m hoping that this hyper-excited state will calm down, like stage fright always does, once Warrior Mother and I step out and into action on the world’s stage.