Tag Archives: women mentoring women

Life Lessons From the Forest

IMG_3222This city girl, just back from my yearly spring visit to the Piney Woods of East Texas and my women’s spirituality group retreat, has been re-reminded of the wisdom and life lessons inherent in connecting with nature and the natural world. It’s helpful to re-appreciate the larger forces; some might call them spiritual that are inherent in the cycles of life of which we are a part. 

The natives call them “teaching trees.” On walks in the woods, elders use them as exhibits and examples of the unfathomable resilience of nature. They encourage children to notice how a tree’s trunks and branches adapt to what the wind, weather, time, and neighboring plants and insects send their way.

A storm breaks off a major parallel branch and the tree’s life force sprouts a new one rising in an upward direction. Not the original intention, but it works out fine. Two trees consistently pushed together by wind and rain eventually intertwine, growing together to become a symbol of how much stronger individuals are when holding on to one another.

Insects borrow underneath the giant trunk’s bark, eventually pulverizing it to saw dust, yet her wounds do not define her. The grandmother tree stands tall, continuing to put out glorious new leaves to the very top of her crowning glory.

Even disasters have positive consequences. The lightning strike that started the fire that took the life of the pecan tree left it standing mute in the center of the evergreens. Now it provides a useful climbing pole for some ground cover as it continually reaches toward the sun. The stepping aside of the larger trees consumed by the flames now provide new seedlings their time to grow in the sun, an opportunity to become the adults in the next generation of full-bodied trees.IMG_3225

In the woods, edible and poison berries grow side-by side leaving birds, butterflies, and humans the task of deciphering and selecting what to ingest that could be helpful and what to leave well enough alone. Ah, how I wish I were better at making that judgment in my personal pedestrian life. Perhaps as I give my prayers feet on my daily morning walks I should be treading more lightly on an earthen trail rather than on the harsh cement sidewalks of the cityscape of my Pittsburgh neighborhood.

A Dance At Easter

Anticipation for Easter this year was enhanced by an invitation from Gail Ransom, a minister friend, to dance at her church’s Easter Service. Dancing as part of a worship service goes to the roots of dance itself, and sparks reminders of my past dancing career. Over 40 years ago, for a period of six years, I was a member of Festival Dancers, a dance company sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Detroit and directed by Harriet Berg, who is still holding forth as Ms Detroit Dance. We performed frequently during that period in churches and synagogues around Michigan.

IMG_1216The ministerial team at First United Methodist Church came up with inspiring music and ideas for my colleagues and I to play with as we developed our contributions for the Easter service.  Rather than choreographing a dance piece from movement phrases I knew or thought up, I decided to use InterPlay’s improvisational forms, and arrange them in a sequence and in formations that fit the music and this particular church space. This was a natural choice because InterPlay founders Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter created InterPlay over 30 years ago on the altars of churches in California as a way of creating dance sequences for worship services.

A week before Easter I met with three young girls, members of the church, and taught them the primary forms we’d be using – shape and stillness, side-by-side solos, and gesture choir. When the members of Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players joined me on Tuesday we worked out spacing and added a variation I’d call shape/travel/shape for each dancer to repeat until arriving at her assigned spot in the sanctuary. Inside these forms each of us created our own movement, connecting to the music and to one another.IMG_0332_2

The piece we were given to dance to was “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon. It had won the 1984 Oscar for best song in the movie “Working Girl.” The river referred to and celebrated in the song is a river of women, hundreds of thousands of women, taking their places as productive and fully contributing members of societies across the globe.

I was delighted and surprised by the synchronicity between one of my deepest lifetime longings and an opportunity to dance it.  Having the eager and dedicated young women join us added another layer of meaning to the piece since they are the future. As the choir lauded the coming of the “New Jerusalem,” we dancers of various ages leapt for joy, and my entire being tingled with what I could only describe as ecstasy.

An Author Visits A Book Club

I left the church where my book club had been discussing Pema Chadron’s When Things Fall Apart and drove north to a book club where I was to be the special guest. I was the author who would be meeting in person with ten women who had read my book, Warrior Mother: Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss and the Rituals that Heal.

booksFive million adults in the US, mostly women, are members of a book club, not counting the online book clubs. Researching book clubs I learned that women gathering together to discuss books began in the 19th century as a form of self-education when women were not commonly admitted to colleges and universities. Later educated women found the book club a way to extend the intellectual discussions and camaraderie they enjoyed as students.  By 1947 the book club population had grown to 3 million members, after such national programs as The Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild had fueled interest in both women and men for book discussions. In the proud tradition of literary salons of the mid-20’s, members of this particular book club had been meeting in one another’s homes for six or seven years. At the suggestion of my host, they had agreed to read my book.

women.wine Feeling a bit breathless after climbing a steep hill to the front door, I was greeted by my fashionably dressed hostess holding a stemmed glass of red wine.  She ushered me into the kitchen where club members were chatting around a counter spread with tempting snacks and a selection of wines. I could see immediately the advantage of in-person book clubs over on-line ones. Besides the socializing and night out, there’s the food. There’s even a Book Club Cookbook. But having barely recovered from an upset stomach I didn’t dare take advantage of the offerings. http://www.bookclubcookbook.com/

 After a few minutes of introductions and conversation we moved into the living room to begin our meeting. I’d put together questions inspired by a website on book clubs, http://classiclit.about.com/od/bookclubs/a/aa_bcquestions.htm and the hostess had added her own questions to my list. We used a couple to start but it didn’t take long for the conversation to take off on its own, giving me the opportunity to learn more about the women and their lives, and more about my book as they connected their stories to mine.

1392548_580159845383925_2052741260_n_2 I was the first author to visit the club in person, though other authors had visited via Skype. I wondered what kind of difference the in-person experience makes? Oprah’s book club has two million members and her selection of books can make or break an author but she encourages people to start their own clubs. http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/How-to-Start-Your-Own-Book-Club

I’m definitely up for visiting other clubs and they say the best way for that to happen is for book club members to recommend me to their own book club or to a friend’s club. Are you willing, dear reader, to recommend me?

The Medicine and Magic of Objects

 My friend placed the music box on a blanket in the center of the room, displaying it with reverence for all to see. Running the palm of her hand across its shiny surface, she told the story of how it came to her. According to a cousin, her grandmother gave it to her, a favorite grandchild, in her will.  She starts the music and it’s song transports us all to a time before any of us were born.

I noticed the familiar statue on the bookcase. Memories of the occasion when our friend Jyoti first brought it to this space, fill the room. An insipid disease has stolen her memories from her, but we stand together, remembering on her behalf. I see again her sly smile as she told us what she said to the shopkeeper where she first saw it, “I must have this warrior goddess for my women’s group. I hope it isn’t too expensive, but even if I have to refinance my car or house, this archetypal image of the courageous invincible woman must be there.”

One summer, when my daughter was being treated for breast cancer at a major medical center, she presented me with a special, now most treasured gift for my birthday. Knowing that butterflies were special to me,  she purchased a butterfly pin at the hospital gift shop. The piece had been produced by an artist from the drawing of a child being treated for cancer, a portion of the proceeds going to fund the hospital’s family support program.  Nine years later, as I wear the butterfly on a chain around my neck, I’m reminded that to secure the pin, she had walked nearly a mile through the corridors of the medical center while pushing the infusion therapy pole to which she was attached.

To Women and the Men Who Love Them

It was 1985 and a woman college professor and I needed to move some boxes from an office we shared to the Women and Work Research and Resource Center, which we founded. I had asked my 19 year-old son to help and we three went about our business, carrying boxes, books, and stacks of folders. All the while, two male faculty members were closely observing us. Rather than pitching in to help, or moving out of the way, they stationed themselves in the doorway through which we needed to continually pass. They amused themselves by wisecracking with one another about what we women were wearing as we struggled to balance our burdens and move the objects from one office to another.

My son, who was witnessing this rude behavior, told me later, “Mom, you can’t image the raunchy comments they made about you and Margie after you passed. They acted like they were in a singles bar, trying to impress a future sex partner. What’s the matter with those guys?

Seems a strange memory to emerge on this 102st International Women’s Day, something that happened over a quarter of a century ago. But recent events and conversations in the media have reminded me that the most tried and true method of disempowering women is to relate to women as sex objects. And there are still guys who use their power to put down, and keep down, half the members of the human race

Perhaps the role we older women need to play is to remind people how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go. As the African symbol, the Sankofa bird reminds us, it is often necessary to reclaim and remember our past in order to see clearly a way to put it behind us.

Celebrating this day, which is a national holiday in many countries, can take many forms. Make a donation of time and money to an organization that supports the empowerment of women, (micro-lending, scholarships, internships,) mentor a younger woman, (through your local school, or internationally through one of my favorite programs, Infinite Family ) write an email to your congressperson about what you will no longer tolerate, make sure businesses that sponsor misogyny  know they will never have you as a customer. I’ll be playing with my InterPlay troupe, dancing on behalf of all the women in the world, and the men who love them.  Happy International Women’s Day! Let me know how you are celebrating.

From One Dancer To Another

“Mom was a dancer, and she loved to dance,” your son said at your eulogy. I’d forgotten you’d begun your public life as a dancer with Martha Graham. Looking back on your rich and rewarding life, I can see the marks of that first profession on the phases that followed. As any dancer would do, you fulfilled your given family roles with gratitude and grace; wife, mother, and grandmother. And having learned as a dancer the importance of each performer’s part in the larger production, you gave the role of first lady your all, and made it uniquely your own.

Resisting the pressures to behave with political correctness in that fishbowl, you lived openly with outspoken honesty and courage and became an inspiration to millions of women. Your causes were not popular at the time; women’s right to control their own bodies, the Equal Rights Amendment. But, as in my favorite picture of you dancing on top of the conference room table in the White House, your life was an impish reminder that women belonged at the tables where the important decisions were made.

Other subjects you spoke out about were only whispered in hushed tones in those day; being diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoing a mastectomy. But the grace and courage you displayed publically in facing such difficulties inspired a nation of women and their daughters.  When your time in the White House was complete you continued your outspoken honesty and “what-you-see-is-what-you-get manner, as you admitted to your difficulties with alcohol and pain medications and entered treatment.  Although the 70 year old self-help program, Alcoholics Anonymous demands that people be allowed their anonymity, you went public with your own difficulties sharing your strength, courage, and hope with millions of people affected by the diseases of addiction.

Then as the founder and benefactor of the Betty Ford Center you provided a world-class facility and resource for addiction treatment.  I add my appreciation to those of the many who have been applauding you on the occasion of your crossing.  Thank you, Ms. Betty Ford for dancing so  beautifully and boldly, with wisdom that was ahead of your time.

Mbali and Me

Mbali came into my life three years ago and we have meet for a half hour once a week, most weeks since then.  She lives in South Africa, which, according to Google is 8,272 miles, (as the crow flies), from my home in Pittsburgh. We refer to each other as “Net Buddies.” since we meet online, and were matched to talk with each other under the auspices of an organization called, Infinite Family. http://infinitefamily.org/

The organization was begun by two women who had gone to Africa to adopt babies. When they saw the extent of the need on a continent where one tenth of the people are infected with HIV and where, a whole generation is missing in many communities, they realized they could never adopt enough children to make a difference. Their vision became to use technology to bring together teens in Africa affected by HIV/AIDS with adults like me, willing to become a mentor and friend.

The adults and the teens filled out an application which included our interests. Being a grandmother of three sports-minded grandchildren, I hoped for a match with a girl who liked to dance, since, unlike sports, that is something I know quite a bit about. In the training program for adults we were told to temper our expectations since computers were new to the children and English was not their first language. But I never had trouble understanding Mbali’s English, and she far surpassed me in her abilities with the computer.

One day early on in our technological relationship, I became so distraught trying to get the sound on my computer to work I nearly give up on the whole project. But Mbali encouraged me. “It’s ok. We can just type.” And so we did. And we still do whenever my computer doesn’t recognize my headphones, or her headphones are missing, misplaced by the teenager that used them ahead of her.

When I first saw Mbali’s beautiful shimmering face, I fell in love with her. I felt immediately her respect and appreciation for the gift of my attention and interest in her. I loved having someone to share my love of dance with. And I knew what she did not, that in my country, most teens are not interested in having a relationship with an adult. It seems a rare teenager in the U.S. who even shows much respect to elders. So her relationship to me was at least as precious as mine was to her.

We came to speak of what her gifts might be, and how she might discover them, ways to avoid test anxiety and the best subjects to give a speech about for speech class. I shared my writing with her, my experiences doing InterPlay, and I taught her some InterPlay story forms. She’s met my grandkids, my husband, and our dog Clancy.

Sometimes we talk about politics; that they have a National Women’s Day holiday and we do not, why people criticize Obama so much, our mutual admiration for Nelson Mandela, and my appreciation for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which I see as a peace-building model for the entire world.

Perhaps this video mentoring program is a model for the entire world. It seems to me to have changed both our lives. Mbali and I were interviewed about our relationship and it was featured on the BBC’s OUTLOOK radio program. Take a few minutes to listen and hear Mbali’s side of the story. When you click on the link, go to the top of the page and click on Listen Now. From there scroll ahead to 18:40 minutes to Infinite Family’s part of the program. Here is the link:


God Helps Those

“God helps those who help themselves,” my father used to say, with disdain in his voice for those who sat on their own hands, praying and waiting for miracles. Growing up in a Midwestern farm family, he had learned that, for the harvest, the work of tilling and planting were necessary. And though I grew up far from the corn fields and livestock of his youth, I did internalize his message. If you want something in life, you must work for it, doing your part before even daring to petition the gods. This has caused me to being a most reliable worker bee, creating my to-do lists and cheerfully checking off each action as I muster the energy to complete it. But it has also created many disappointments as my visions and the work I’ve done to ground them in reality frequently seem to come to no avail.

Recently returned from the woods of East Texas and my women’s spirituality group, I’m reminded there are others whose spiritual perspective operates in a very different way than mine. I view with envy the simplicity of my women friends’ childlike faith. As they loll and lounge in the visions of their heart’s desire, they assume the universe, like an indulgent grandparent, waits expectantly to respond to their every whim. And as I hear them tell it, this does in fact occur.

A woman, having hurt her back, needs a close in parking place in the pouring rain, and she whispers a simple prayer. In the crowded lot, one opens up in front of her just as she arrives at her destination. Another tells of a trip to a flea market, and finding the fireplace anvils she needed for her new apartment, in spite of the fact it was the middle of summer. A gas-saving low mileage used car, at the right price and with a low interest rate loan comes to another friend through a sequence of remarkable synergistic events and efforts. (For this outcome, there were many people praying, tilling, and toiling on her behalf.)

As someone whose prayers have quite frequently been answered with a firm and unrelenting “No,” I wish for the ability to trust my longings to the forces that bring all things into being. But until then, I will help myself by offering a singular prayer for clarity of vision and the patience to wait for instructions as to what I should be doing next.

Cycles and Circles in Women’s Lives

Just back from a wonderful trip to Texas. I attended a Women’s Retreat at Glenda Taylor’s Earthsprings http://www.earthsprings.net/index.html in East Texas. The Piney Woods got some much needed rain while we were there, but the sun didn’t desert us, and felt all the more welcome after the clearing storms.

So many lessons and memories in the connections with friends of over twenty years. And having the amazing college age daughter of one of the women present was a special gift. Great to see how women’s wisdom gets passed down to the next generation through the vehicle of women’s circles. And she mentored us, encouraging we elders not to “take to our beds” but to stay connected to members of her generation, sharing and supporting them.

As happens at the later stages of life, one of our members is in a nursing home and I visited her as I nearly always do when I come to Fort Worth. She has been given one of life’s most dramatic challenges to dance with, but I was inspired with how she is doing just that. Here is a prose poem I wrote about some of what I learned from her.

Sylvia Jean

Our bodies embrace in a full-bodied hug, confirming

our deeply connected 25 year sisterhood. Seated at the

café table, as in the long ago, we tell each other our

dreams. She speaks of a woman who tells her what’s

going on, and scolds her for not getting it right. I

refrain from admitting, even to myself, that her

dreams seem dreadful nightmares to me.

“I’m noticing my head,” she tells me and I see the

familiar sheepish smile. “You might think it’s silly

to be noticing my head,” she says and she chuckles,

knowing she can trust me with this information.

I remind her she always was aware of her body and

marvel at how she has kept her curiosity and wonder

at what’s happening in the Now. And her disease is

taking from her all but the Now.

I remind her we’ve been best friends through thick and thin.

“I know and I feel like I’m going to cry.”

“Me too,” I say.

She creates a poem in the moment, a gift to her husband

at his leaving. Some words are incomprehensible, but the

phrases are complete with a song-like rhythm and rhyme.

In the bittersweet moment of my leaving, she constructs

another poem, a gift to me, accompanied by a youthful

smile which takes pride in this accomplishment. We

both seem to know we must keep on keeping on, practicing

letting go, allowing her to become again the child she always was.