… to explore the heart of what matters to us as women and as writers and to support one another on life’s creative journey.
I opened the Valentine from my husband this morning and read: "It is something--it can be everything--to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below, a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for, one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can't handle." (Wallace Stegner in The Spectator Bird)
This fellow bird may be a friend, a love, a parent, sibling, or a spouse. But if you have even one of these, a person who sees beyond your personality to the essence of your soul, you have something more precious than diamonds or gold. I am rich beyond measure because I can count three and I am so very grateful.
And remember, you can be that bird to someone else. Look deep, give from the heart, and love well.
Betsy Fletcher, a retreat participant, first suggested postcard poetry to me. She had learned the exercise at a workshop with Sarah Zale, a poet on the Olympic Peninsula. Betsy and a her friend, Kathy, had exchanged poems over miles and months and felt both challenged and excited by the process.
I invited everyone at a seven-day retreat to bring picture postcards from home. We paired up so each of us had a writing partner. Our task was to write a poem on the message portion of the postcard and give it to our partner, one a day during the retreat. Moans of “I can’t write poetry” arose from some until I suggested they think of a poem as an observation, something they experienced with the senses. It could be from a memory or something in the moment outside the window: The neighbor’s black cat sleeps in a circle of sun. Only his tail twitches when a squirrel runs by. Nothing fancy, just an image. That’s enough. A moment is noted and captured concisely. By the end of the week, everyone enjoyed the exchange of poems.
A month of so after the retreat, I decided I wanted a poetry book by Ted Kooser (US Poet Laureate, 2004-2006; Pulitzer Prize 2005 for Delights and Shadows). In making my choice I discovered a book entitled Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison. In the preface, Kooser explains that after completing treatment for cancer:"…I began taking a two-mile walk each morning. I’d been told by my radiation oncologist to stay out of the sun for a year because of skin sensitivity, so I exercised before dawn…. I’d all but given up on reading and writing. Then as autumn began to fade and winter came on, my health began to improve. One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day.” Kooser began pasting his morning poems on postcards and sending them to his friend, Jim Harrison.
The idea that there could be an entire book of postcard poems delighted me. I bought the book and suggest you might want to do the same.
The only sound against this stillness:
A crow flaps through our Norway pines,
its wingtips brushing snowflakes from the needles.
You don't need to match Kooser to do this exercise (remember, he has had years of practice!). You needn’t buy postcards or exchange poems with a friend, though doing so might keep you writing. I think I will send mine to you via Facebook. You can return the favor, it you like! Or, write them in the comment bar here.
First, of all Happy New Year! I have been writing this letter in my head for several days, but today I read my horoscope and that has made me go to the keyboard. It read: “Can you give yourself what you want? You would have to completely rearrange your priorities, putting yourself higher on the list.” That is the crux of this letter.
In 2013, you may remember, I supposedly took a sabbatical…except I didn’t. In April my grandson’s birth and in October my son’s surgery necessitated my spending more time in Durham than could have been foreseen. Interspersed with those trips, I was beset with back problems.
I didn’t listen to the message my body was giving and planned to go full throttle into 2014. The truth is, I cannot do that. I am not ill, but I do have a back issue that will require surgery. In addition, my intuition and spiritual guidance says that I must quit teaching in the way I have done in the past. This is difficult advice for me to follow because I love my work and feel it is a gift I’ve been given to pass on.
It’s clear to me that I will continue my work, but not in the same way. I do not know precisely what form it will take, although I suspect I will, at least in part, be doing some classes or coursework online. The first that has occurred to me is a training course for those who would like to learn my methodology for teaching. If you have ideas or interest in such classes, I would like to hear from you!
Meanwhile I have cancelled the four retreats planned for Montreat Conference Center in 2014. I will still lead the August 1-3 retreat at Great Tree Zen Temple (registration in not open yet). Last year’s Lake Logan 7-day retreat for alumni was cancelled because of a calendar error; I plan to offer this again only for those alumni of Lake Logan and Seabrook who registered last year. Please do not inquire about this retreat. If by any chance spaces open, I will send out a notice.
I intend to continue the writing prompts, and am asking for your support. I know from email I receive that the prompts and quotations support many of you in your writing practice. Sending the prompts out daily has costs and I am asking for contributions toward their continuation. When people pledge a set amount automatically sent in monthly through PayPal. This helps me with planning and also helps you to contribute regularly. You can stop your donation at any time.
The newsletter will continue bimonthly and my blog will soon reappear under a new name: A Woman’s Way with Words.
With these changes, I’ve moved myself to the top of my priority list. It is definitely a leap off the cliff into the void, waiting for the net to appear. I am looking forward to staying in touch and letting you know what I will be up to next.
Now, freewrite to this New Year's prompt: What would happen if I gave myself what I want?
"Birthday" was the prompt that day in the writing circle. I put my pen down on the lined paper and it moved, pulling out the truth from my cells. The words spoke to me and to all women of the process of reincarnation that I now believe is what we experience as aging.
So what is it about 70 that stands up, shrieks out, spins around, and falls down not laughing? What is it that started at 69 and shook me up? Till then I was looking ahead, marching on, ready for more, then slowly an ebbing tide. Stop. Look. This is your life. Where has it gone and for what? Stop. Breathe.
I’ve talked to other women experiencing this and it seems to happen between 65 and 75, if my limited statistics are valid. I don’t want to collapse into Leisure World or spend my days on cruises to avoid watching the calendar.
I want to go into the forest, become the Forest Dweller*, the last phase of life described in Hindu philosophy , to go deeper more honest, more investigative than ever before.
I want to dwell in silence that is deep and still, still as the lily pond that holds in its depths the golden mud of knowledge and wisdom.
I want to be still as still and sit on the porch counting goldfinches and Be.
This is an interesting turn I didn’t expect. No one spoke to me of it, this place where doing seems to hold little attraction. And yet I need to earn a living (do I really?), cannot rest on my laurels (then what are laurels for?).
Birthdays. Yes. This is a birthday of sorts, one of transition, of birthing a new life, one that fits the new person held in this old skin.
What is the birth process open to me now, one that takes courage, daring and all the intelligence of surrender I can muster?
This birthday shouts renewal — renewal and not knowing, and not knowing and trusting, and trusting and surrendering, and surrendering and being open, and receiving without question and above all, facing the future unafraid.
*Hindu philosophy delineates four stages of life, although not all people go through all stages: Student, Householder, Forest Retirement, and the Forest Dweller.
The Forest Dweller or Ascetic Stage--(begins by leaving home and carrying out a spiritual existence in the country).
1. The man and his wife together (if she wants to go) move to the forest to begin in earnest the path of self-discovery.
2. Most men defer the Forest Dweller Stage to another future life.
3. The forest dweller works out a philosophy of sannyasin--one who neither hates nor loves anything. A sannyasin is completely independent and is beyond dharma (the structure of moral and social obligations) and so in a sense is "beyond good and evil."
a. There are no social pretensions--things simply are what they are (cf., Vasudeva in Hesse's Siddhartha).
b. Once detachment, mental and economic independence, is achieved, the sannyasin can return to the town or city.
c. This stage of life is a necessary condition for the attainment of salvation; once achieved that soul will never individually return to this world.
For another exploration of aging, read Joan Dideon's latest book, Blue Nights. My favorite passage in that book is her recounting of her physician's comment to her that she was experiencing "an inadequate adjustment to aging" and her unspoken response that his assessment was not true because she was not willing to make any adjustment at all! A marvelous honest book.
What is your experience of significant birthdays after 50? I'd love to hear from you. And I promise you will be hearing from me more regularly.
An email exchange—
How do I trust the process in terms of developing a story? Or can I trust it? In other words, I've spent time on a scene and it's just flowing--but that's all I have--a scene from this story in my head. Can I stop and start this? Or do I link scenes and pieces together as they come to me? Or--is this just about the individual way each of us writes--and I will have to stumble blindly until I find what works for me? I know it's probably the last answer but I don't have to like it!
Does this make any sense?
(signed) Groping My Way
Dear Groping My Way,
As long as there is "juice"/energy to your writing of this scene keep going, it may continue until the story/book is complete.
Most importantly, don't start editing the story until you have it all down.
If something occurs to you that needs to be changed in what you wrote, make a margin note.
The writing of the note may turn into another scene and if so, follow the energy.
So you may have a contiguous story or you may end up with disconnected scenes that you piece together later.
So yes, you will have to stumble some to find what works for you. But notice that I left out the word "blindly" -- remember that a blind person employs other senses for guidance; all women have or can develop what I call in my book, the Muse Collective (Imagination, Intuition, and Inspiration), as guides. This Collective leads us into the dark depths. The less we resist going there, the more likely we are to emerge with inspired prose.
I'd suggest having some visual image or object or a mantra as a touchstone to remind you that you are not blind. You have a light inside shining on the path. This does not mean that you won't stumble or that the way will be easy (the light usually shines on the next step, not on the whole journey), but YOU CAN TRUST IT. We are called to surrender what we think our writing (and our life) should be and open to what is revealed.
Honoring your words,
Thank you so much for such a thoughtful (and encouraging) response. I will take your suggestions to heart and continue to "feel my way" (both literally and figuratively) along the path. I'll also be interested to hear if others struggle with this same question--it was very difficult for me to even articulate the problem. This "trust the process and yourself" stuff is not for sissies!
Groping My Way
Dear Groping My Way,
You are right. It's a spiritual journey; one I suspect that is all about surrender.
The great thing is it radiates out into all aspects of your life in a beautiful way.
My correspondent made this request: I'll also be interested to hear if others struggle with this same question. Post your responses to her on the blog so she can engage in the conversation.
I really enjoy responding to your questions. Please send me more via the blog or email. I'll answer questions posted on Facebook directly on Facebook.
Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be happy by filling in the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth. If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have no rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner of them with action and experience, God will seem silently to withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty.
Silence Is A Place Within Us
I love the silence of this morning’s rain. From my sofa, the color of spring grass, I imagine the raindrops whispering to each other as they leap from the clouds and slide through the air with a steady shush shush.
By removing ourselves as much as possible from man-made sounds we limit distractions. This endeavor results in a shocking discovery: the mind fills this silence with noisy thoughts. Every meditator, no matter how practiced, experiences this when she sits on the cushion. The point of meditation is not to become a better meditator, but to find the silence within and from that place to watch how the mind plays.
Not everyone is drawn to sitting meditation. Practicing silence provides an alternative. After my last blog on this subject, friends offered some resources. Poet and musician Jo Balistreri recommended Listening Below the Noise by novelist Anne LeClaire. Following LeClaire’s example, Jo has taken every other Wednesday in silence for the last six months. “I find it necessary at this point,” she writes, “— not easy, sometimes frustrating when I want to quip back about something, or check something out, etc. … But persevering is worth it.”
For her silent day, Jo listens to her body and spirit and engages only in activities they (not her mind) call her to. I did the same on my silent retreat and found myself present to the most ordinary tasks. This practice led me to truly experience the difference between washing the dishes to wash the dishes rather than washing the dishes to get clean dishes, an example of mindfulness given by Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.
We practice being in outer silence so we can internalize it. We learn to carry the silence within so it becomes a place we can retreat to at any time and in any place.
Fitting Silence Into Your Time Budget
Can’t find a full day to feed your soul? Create a way that fits into your time budget.
My artist friend Penny Sandonato, discovered the "Monk Manifesto" and the “Monk in the World Seven Day Course” on AbbeyoftheArts.com. The Abbey is an “online global monastery without walls offering retreats, classes, books, and resources to nurture contemplative practice and creative expression” led by Christine Valters Painter, a Benedictine oblate and author.
The first day’s lesson focuses on Silence and Solitude. The suggested practice is to “Just for today claim a window of time – even ten minutes is enough to begin – and rest into an experience of stillness…. The invitation is toward both an outer and inner silence.”
When I include meditation and periods of silence in my day, I experience time expanding. Since my self-imposed silent retreat a few weeks ago, I have recommitted to practicing silence during the day, usually beginning with a morning meditation. During the day, I find moments while walking, gardening, or sitting with a cup of tea. Being silent during activity requires stilling the mind so I can be present to “being in” the activity rather than focused on “getting it done.”
Writing and Silence
Consider fitting in silence as part of writing practice. Even three deep breaths before confronting the page can take us to the focus we need for writing. As with practicing silence, we don’t not need an extended period of time to practice writing. Start with ten minutes. Women with full time jobs, whether at an office or at home with children, often discover their alone time in the bathroom. I recently read of a man who wrote a novel during half hour sessions sitting on the bathroom floor before his family arose.
Some people like to write in cafés or other public places. Rather than being a distraction, the noise of the café can become a barrier keeping the outer world at bay while we focus on the page.
I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences on silence and writing. I sense a growing dissatisfaction with the "noise" of our lives, even if it's soundless. Am I the only one I feeling barraged by demands to brand, hype, and otherwise sell-sell- sell myself? I think there's another way, a feminine way. What do you think?
"Silent solitude makes true speech possible and personal. If I am not in touch with my own belovedness, then I cannot touch the sacredness of others. If I am estranged from myself, I am likewise a stranger to others."
In my just-released July newsletter, I wrote about using my absent friends' home as a silent retreat. While this retreat was not for the purpose of writing, it is for me a necessary part of my writing regimen, as important as sitting down with my notebook.
Alone in the quiet, I am present to myself; the outside world with its lists vanish from my head. I come into myself and the world comes right. I can do nothing meaningful except from this inner place, my creative center, my soul. Too often I forget to feed this part of myself, my own "belovedness" and my creativity dries up.
Silence and solitude provide the basic elements of nurturing the soul. First off, we need to find a place. In part II of Wendell Berry's poem "How To Be a Poet," he describes the basics:
Breathe with unconditional breath/the unconditioned air./Shun electric wire./ Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensional life;/stay away from screens./ Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in./ There are no unsacred places;/ there are only sacred places/ and desecrated places.
No Internet, email, cellphones, television. These things were in my friends' home, but I did not have access to them or I chose not to use them. The house was clean, uncluttered, light-filled, and surrounded by nature. It was also free.
Other places I have found similar settings, not free but for minimal cost are religious/spiritual retreat centers. In particular Buddhist, Catholic, and Episcopal retreat centers, monasteries, and convents around the world offer opportunities for individual personal retreats.
At most of these centers, it is not necessary to be a member of a related congregation or to participate in any of their programs. Usually you pay a modest fee for room and board.
These settings are especially helpful for early ventures into silence and solitude. Structure and a minimal amount of social interaction alleviate some of the disorientation and anxiety that can arise when we enter a world without distraction and find ourselves alone with ourselves.
In the newsletter I wrote, "Some find solitude and silence frightening: the idea of what voices might speak if the daily tapes of the mind are shut off. I understand... And, I also know that the voice wanting to be heard is your own belovedness, your own true self that waits to embrace you and to lead you to the highest expression of your gifts. To be writers, to speak our truth, I believe we must be willing to enter this place."
(Photos (c) 2010, Peggy Tabor Millin. Please do not use without permission.)
A conference of any type is a "meeting for consultation or discussion" which can be held in a public place such as a hotel and have any number of teachers, often well known authors, and a wide variety of topics.
Writing conferences feature informational workshops by published authors, agents, and publishers. You can learn about different genres, receive tips on getting published, and learn techniques for improving your writing. These events usually provide opportunities to network with other writers and to to talk to an agent about your work (for an additional fee). Conferences are sponsored by state writers' associations and other large organizations such as Writers' Digest. Conferences are a great place for new writers to join the writing world.
A workshop is an "educational seminar in a specified area." At writing workshops, a group of people, usually 20 or fewer meet with a published author as instructor over 5 or more days. Most commonly, the individuals submit written work prior to the beginning of the class; sometimes submissions are requested as part of a selection process. The purpose of the workshop is to provide each writer with feedback or critique from each member of the group and the instructor. The critique process is called "workshopping."
When the rules for workshopping are clear and the instructor enforces the boundaries, a workshop can be instructive and encouraging. Too often, however, egos take over and at least some participants leave feeling inadequate and discouraged. Workshops maybe offered as classes at your community college or be part of a larger program such as the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. Workshops require having work that can be critiqued, but the level of expertise required depends on the workshop.
To retreat is to withdraw from the fray to a "place affording peace, solitude or security." Writing retreats are usually held in retreat centers that provide room, board, and meeting facilities and have no more than two facilitators. They vary widely is what they offer. Some provide space and time to write and offer no structured group interaction. Others combine time to write with sightseeing in exotic locations. Still others offer yoga along with writing.Here are some things I believe a writing retreat should offer:
- Silence. To write we must be able to sit in silence and listen with an inner ear.
- Solitude. Writing is done in isolation. As a result, the group's size and gender mix is important. What boundaries are in place to protect your solitude?
- Safety. Good leadership and clear boundaries provide the safety in which each member and the group can find inspiration and challenge.
- Support. At a retreat, the leader's ability to facilitate group process, maintain boundaries, and provide emotional safety and support is probably more important than his or her writing and publishing resume.
A writing retreat can accommodate people of varying levels of ability. The benefits you might expect from a retreat: Rest. Renewal. Re-creation. Community.
The Work, The Custodian, and Forward to 2011
I listened, I felt guided, but the writing itself came from study and hard work. Weekends at home, I also wrote, alternating between a notebook and an Apple II-e, the first computer I owned. I wrote to the accompaniment of medieval and Hindu chants. I read other authors’ accounts of the apparitions and researched almost ten years of compiled messages and interlocutions.
Periodically Joanne would call to share the latest story of Mary’s Way at work within Celestial Arts. Among the team working on the book, relationships healed. Light and energy filled the rooms, dissipating dissension and discord and replacing them with laughter.
I was experiencing changes in my work life too. To be transformational, a spiritual experience must be reflected in the person's perspective, attitudes, and actions in daily life. Before the pilgrimage, I was challenged by the poverty and despair I saw on the reservation. Fortunately much has changed in the past two decades, but in the late '80s I had little hope that I could make a difference. After the pilgrimage I began seeing my work as an opportunity to focus on finding peace in my inner world instead of on changing my outer world. In the process I learned that when I change I also change the world. This shift remains the great gift of the pilgrimage.
In writing Mary's Way, I knew I had taken on an assignment not entirely of my own making. I’d stepped on a path, the stones of which were revealing themselves one by one. I had to follow it. I completed the content of the outline but knew something was missing. I waited. Within weeks, I received a package from a fellow pilgrim. The package contained "A Man Named Father Jozo", a documentary of an interview with the Franciscan priest of Medjugorje Parish who first helped the visionaries hide from the police.
The Holy Mother's teaching was that prayer is deep communion with God and forgiveness is the release of resentment against others and a return to loving one another. In the film, Father Jozo tells how Mary taught him and his congregants that without forgiveness, one cannot truly pray. Upon hearing this story, I recognized forgiveness as the missing topic and set to work.
Once finished and printed on my dot matrix printer, I mailed the manuscript to Joanne and waited. She acknowledged receipt, saying she liked it—high praise to my anxious ears. She also said she was giving it to a content editor. I’d read about the multiple revisions editors demanded and waited for my orders.
When Joanne called again, she said the editor had no changes.
“No changes?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “How common is that?”
“Not very,” she said and laughed.
We were still not accustomed to the grace that surrounded this process. Still challenges existed. I wasn’t happy with the cover design, feeling it was too Catholic, but I had to surrender my preference. I did insist on the subtitle of A Universal Story of Spiritual Growth from the Message of Medjugorje to convey that the content transcended Catholicism.
By the time Mary’s Way was published, Father Frank had been diagnosed with cancer. He read the book and bought a copy for his niece. I recall his saying that he wanted her to read it so she might understand what he and his ministry were about.
I was confused by the fact that I never felt called to promote the book. Over the years following its publication, the book seemed to find its readers. I heard that a Catholic church in Florida recommended it to people who wanted to understand Mary. I received calls from people with questions and notes from those wanting to share their own stories of encounters with Mary. Over the years, response ebbed. I let it be. I sensed a time would come for the message to reappear; I felt the Divine Feminine rising.
Then Byron Kirkwood, husband of the Annie Kirkwood, author of Mary’s Message to the World, called to ask me why Mary’s Way was out of print. He sold the books through his business and hadn't been able to reorder. Surprised that I hadn't been informed, I called Joanne and asked about reprinting. Sales had not met expectations, demand for pilgrimage tours had dwindled with the Bosnian War, and reprinting the book was expensive because of the color pictures. Would I consider omitting the photographs? I said no.
I heard no more.
Months later, I was writing in my home office when I decided I to sever my relationship with Celestial Arts. I checked my contract and saw that enough time had passed without a commitment from them since my initial request for republication for me to legally reclaim the book.
I walked into the kitchen where my teenage son sat eating a sandwich and reading a novel and announced my decision. He said, “That’s great, Mom,” without looking up.
At that moment the phone rang. It was Joanne. “Hi Peggy, I’ve good news.” We’ve decided to republish Mary’s Way.”
I marveled at the synchronicity of her call, telling her I’d had been ready to call to take back the rights of publication.
“Don’t you want to know why we changed our minds?”
“Of course,” I answered.This is what she told me. In May 1994, the western part of the United States experienced a huge colorful aura around the sun. “You can imagine the Bay Area,” Joanne said, “half the people thought the world was ending and half expected an immediate transformation of consciousness in which peace would reign." (Click on image for larger view. Notes on image and sun halos, etc., at end of blog. Photo by Mark Trusz used with permission.)
She went on to explain that in actuality the aura was caused by ice crystals in the stratosphere. The world didn’t end and world peace did not descend. However, the event brought the staff of Celestial Arts into the parking lot.
The publisher, a bottom-line businessman, drove up to find his employees gazing upward at the sky. He glanced upward and then at the crowd and said, “So what does this mean?” in parody of their tendency to apply metaphysical interpretations to everything from running out of toilet paper to earthquakes.
The newly hired custodian, a Buddhist who had been driving around for a week or more with Mary’s Way perched on the dashboard of his pickup, said, “It means Mother wants you to republish Mary’s Way.”
The chief editor said with some sarcasm, “So does she want the pictures?”
Without hesitation the custodian said, “Of course she wants the pictures! The only change she wants is that the color of the title be blue instead of red.”
The second printing with the blue title came out in 1995.
Forward to 2011
The timing of the newest reprint of Mary's Way during the 30th anniversary year—the decision was made in 2011 although the publication date is 2012— was purely "coincidental." I did not stop to subtract the dates until after I'd decided to move ahead.
Once I knew the time had come to republish, I procrastinated because of the expense. Then, as if the Mary knew what would get me moving, the printer offered a sale with a deadline two months out. Talk about a God having a sense of humor!
Note on sun halos and other unusual sun-related occurrences: I could not find an image of the halo seen in 1994. This one by Mark Trusz is used with permission. The iridescent "handles" on the halo are called sundogs. The blue and orange circles and the hexagonal shape around the sun are products of lens flare and camera aperture. William Hartmann, astronomer at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, told me, "The ice crystal ring-shaped halo phenomenon is common all the time and caused only by diffraction in H20 ice crystals. It creates a fairly well defined ring around the sun, with sundogs and other odd shapes if it is really well developed."
The Friend, the Editor, and the Priest
Synchronicity: the coincidental occurrence of events and especially psychic events (as similar thoughts in widely separated persons or a mental image of an unexpected event before it happens) that seem related but are not explained by conventional mechanisms of causality — used especially in the psychology of C. G. Jung (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Susan Trout hired me when I left graduate school in 1968 and over time we became friends. She introduced me to dream work, Edgar Cayce, and eventually to A Course in Miracles. Susan’s hand provided guidance as I took the first steps on my spiritual journey. In my job, with Susan's encouragement, I discoverd a passion for teaching adults which I later combined with my interest in writing.I was working on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina when Susan introduced me to Medjugorje after she had returned from a pilgrimage to the site. Her experience motivated me to read what I could about apparitions of the Virgin Mary in general and the apparitions at Medjugorje in particular.
The more I learned the history of Marian apparitions, including those in Medjugorje, the more determined I became to go to the site myself. My motivation was two-fold: the apparitions were occurring in present time and, most important for me, Mary had told the visionaries that God accepted all religions and that the divisions among religions were man-made, not God-determined. This statement was absolutely essential for me, a non-Catholic, to hear.
My budget could not accommodate flying to Yugoslavia, so I asked Susan if I could write an article about her experience. She agreed. Three weeks later she called back with the question, “Could you do a better job if you went to Medjugorje yourself?”
“Good. You have a ticket if you agree to be the scribe on the pilgrimage I’m leading in March. As scribe I'd like you to publish an article. I happen to know the editor of New Realities magazine. I suspect he will publish what you write."
And he did. “Medjugorje: One Pilgrim’s Perspective” was published in the March-April, 1990, issue.
Hello, this is Joanne Deck calling from Berkeley, California,” a woman's voice said when I answered the phone at work one day. “This is Joanne Deck calling from Berkeley, California. I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the article you have in New Realities about your pilgrimage.”
“Oh,” a monosyllabic expression of my complete surprise. The bi-monthly magazine had only been out a week or so. “Thank you.”
“I don’t know if you realize,” Joanne continued, “but that article is transforming people’s lives. I mean they are literally having transformational experiences because of your article.”
“They are?” I had lived in Northern California between 1960 and 1980. I’d walked the streets of Berkeley and San Francisco and the trails of Marin County through the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. I was skeptical of people’s “transformative” experiences whether by way of magazine article or the latest guru. I failed to see the irony behind this skepticism: after all, my article detailed my own transformation by way of apparitions of the Blessed Mother. I’m sure I made some polite response before thanking her for her call.
“Wait,” she said. “I’m really calling to see if you’d like to write a book. I work at Celestial Arts, an imprint of Ten Speed Press.”
“A book?” I’m sure my voice squeaked. A publisher was asking me to write a book. I, an unknown, an author of only a few articles, no particular credentials or curriculum vitae, had been singled out and invited to write a book. I knew this was not how publishing usually happened.
“Yes, a book,” she continued. “Our only requirement is that you keep the article as the first chapter. We’d like to have an outline in a month. Can you do that?”
For years I’d wanted to write. Of course I could do that, couldn’t I? That question floated for about a millisecond before I said, “Yes, of course I can.” I hung up after Joanne’s promise of a contract in the mail.
I wanted to call my husband and Susan, but couldn’t make long distance calls from work. Telling them where Susan’s gift had led me had to wait until I made the eighty-minute drive home to Asheville.
I don’t recall how long it took for reality to set in. I was certain I did not know how to write an outline for a book, much less the book itself. But, I had a contract obligating me to write. Joanne supported me, but gave no specific direction. I sent in an outline that incorporated goddess imagery popular at the time. I wasn't at all attracted to the goddess movement, but something Joanne had said led me to believe that's what Celestial Arts wanted.
In the meantime, some co-workers suggested I give a talk about the pilgrimage. I contacted the local priest for permission to use the Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Catholic church on the reservation. Father Frank was amenable once he met and talked to me one-on-one.
After the presentation to a small audience which included my co-workers and two nuns, one nun accompanied me to my car, sharing appreciation for my information.
“I was concerned that because I’m not Catholic, I would offend those who were,” I told her.
“I didn’t know you weren’t Catholic," she said. "It obviously doesn’t matter.”
Subsequently I discovered that Father Frank lived in a house that neighbored the basement apartment I'd rented to enable me to avoid the long commute and have evenings to write. He invited me over for tea and cookies one evening. I offered him the early draft of my book to read.
A week later, his comment was, “You stop just short of making her a goddess.” It was a statement, not a criticism. And it was true. I hadn’t heard back from Joanne on my initial outline, but I knew I was on the wrong track. I wasn’t allowing my own truth to guide me. Perhaps it was this realization that opened space for the title of the book to come to me in the middle of the night: Mary’s Way.
Under the guidance of this title, I developed a new outline and one night as I tried to fall asleep in the creaky bed, an inner voice said, “This is a book for ordinary people. Get a pen.”
I’d been struggling with the introduction and had asked for guidance. It arrived at ten o’clock at night. Exhausted, I countered with, “I’ll remember that,” and turned over to go back to sleep.
Once again, “This is a book for ordinary people. Get a pen.” I pulled the pillow over my head, but of course the voice was internal and not deterred by a mere pillow.
“This is a book for ordinary people. Get a pen.” I dragged a pen and notebook into bed where, propped up on pillows, I took dictation. The introduction still stands today as I wrote it that night.
After the publication of Mary’s Way, I was frequently asked if it was channeled, channeling being in vogue in the New Age movement that was making Asheville a second Sedona, Arizona. Other than the introduction, I never experienced content being dictated. I listened, I felt guided, but the writing itself came from study and hard work.
Joanne approved the new outline, calling to tell me I could revise it as I developed the book. She never mentioned the first outline and I didn't ask. Relief. I told Joanne I was firm on the title. I didn’t want anyone changing it. She accepted that as well.
Father Frank and I continued meeting occasionally. He affirmed the choice of title and my new approach to the book. He told me that a couple in his Bryson City congregation had been to Medjugorje the previous year. They gave a talk at the church filled with warnings of hellfire, the wages of sin, and the visitation of tribulation on the earth. The congregation was greatly disturbed by the message. Father Frank believed people responded to love, not chastisement. He said he had been relieved when he heard that my experience of the messages of Medjugorje focused on the positive messages of integrating prayer, love, and forgiveness into our daily lives. Otherwise he would not have agreed for the church to host my presentation.
Father Frank became a friend and mentor, a brief encounter that graced both our lives. His acceptance validated my experience and allowed me to release my concern about being a non-Catholic writing on what at that time I perceived as a Catholic topic.
I attended his mass one evening and experienced, if not the transubstantiation itself, then his absolute joy and belief in it. In his quiet, reverent, and attentive manner, he raised the host and became so afire with God’s love, his peace radiated throughout the small church.
By the time Mary’s Way was published, Father Frank had been diagnosed with cancer. He read the book and bought a copy for his niece. I recall his saying that he wanted her to read it so she might better understand his life and his ministry. Shortly after the book's publication, Father Frank died.
Sitting under the stained glass window of Our Lady of Guadalupe as she appeared in Mexico in 1531 to Juan Diego, an Aztec peasant, those gathered to remember Father Frank were told the story of how he found his vocation. As a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II, he was confined to a cage so small he couldn’t sit up straight. Each day he was taken out by the guard and beaten with a wooden bat. When the war ended, the guard opened the door of the cage, helped him out, bowed, and handed him the bat. The bat, his call to God, was one of his treasured belongings, lay near the altar at the memorial service. This story deeply impacted my understanding of forgiveness and why Mary said that one cannot truly pray unless one truly forgives. The peace I'd felt radiating from Father Frank during the mass exemplified the gift of forgiveness.
(to be continued in Part II: The Work, the Custodian, and Fast Forward to 2011)
I am re-publishing Mary’s Way, my first book, something I’ve wanted to do since its first day on the shelf. Here is the story to answer "Why now?"
In 1989, my friend Susan Trout gave me a ticket to accompany her and a group of non-Catholics on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Yugoslavia (now Bosnia-Hercegovina). In exchange she asked me to write an article about my experiences at this site where the Virgin Mary, “the blessed mother” or the “Gospa” as she was called by the six young people to whom she’d appeared for the past eight years.
Susan then introduced me to the editor of New Realities, a widely respected new age magazine, who was interested in the story even before it was written. In other words, publication of the article was pretty much a done deal before I even set foot in the village — writer’s dream.
I was new to publishing and didn’t immediately recognize the synchronicity set in motion when I had responded to Susan’s experiences on her first pilgrimage in 1988 by reading widely on apparitions and suggesting that I write about her experience. I didn’t consider myself a writer although I had harbored that dream since adolescence and had written grants, PR releases, and even a few articles, mostly related to my work in the field of communication disorders.
Amazed is an inadequate word for how I felt when the phone rang in my office at the school where I worked for the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina, and a woman identified herself as Joanne Deck, an editor at Celestial Arts publishing in Berkeley. She proceeded to tell me how reading my article had evoked spiritual awakenings for people she knew. She continued to say that Celestial Arts wanted me to write a book. I named it Mary’s Way.
Obstacle or Necessary Detour?
The editors’ only restriction was that the magazine article be the first chapter. Other than that they did not make suggestions on the content. One obstacle did appear however. When it came time for the cover, I, like many authors before me, found myself at odds with the editors.
For me, the message was bigger than Mary as messenger and beyond a specific location. The editors, in the business of selling books, wanted to capitalize on the tremendous press attention being given to the apparitions and the thousands of pilgrims swarming to the site. They insisted on a cover of Mary as an icon of the Catholic Church and on “Medjugorje” being in the subtitle.
From my first introduction to “Mary” through Susan, I have seen her as the universal mother, the heart of compassion, one of many symbols of the divine feminine acknowledged in diverse spiritual teachings. I could not sway the editors toward a more inclusive cover design. They did, however, agree to a subtitle more aligned with what I felt was true: A Universal Story of Spiritual Growth Inspired by the Messages of Medjugorje.
Shortly after publication in 1990 the Bosnian War began, negatively impacting travel and pilgrimage groups. After one reprinting, Celestial Arts pulled the book from its list; in publishing terms, it was remaindered.
My easy acceptance of the publisher’s decision surprised me. So far, every step with this book had been led by grace. I had learned to trust that. I felt certain Mary’s Way would be reborn. I had to write it when I did, close to the time of my experience, but its time had not yet come.
Opening to the Divine Feminine
Mary had introduced the divine feminine into my life. When I began teaching writing classes in 2000, I heard a yearning among the women for a safe place from which to speak. Mixed gender classes restricted women’s voices and perhaps men’s as well so I began offering classes only to women. Soon my mission became clear: through programs in the written word to facilitate women in developing their voice so they can stand in their power and inspire positive change in their world.
To serve local women, I teach classes in my house in a room that eventually, through no intent on my part, became home to images of the sacred feminine, including Mary. Women come to write in circle, where they speak their truth and weave their tales, truth and fiction, and where they dive deep into themselves. In 2009, when I published my book on women and the writing process I titled it Women, Writing, and Soul-Making: Creativity and the Sacred Feminine. The Mary I met in Medjugorje has shown her many faces and become the center of my life’s work.
In 2011, I began to feel a nudge toward republishing Mary’s Way. The nudge turned into a push, the push into an insistent inner voice. I removed the Catholic icon from the cover and replaced it with one of a road filled with light. I meditated long and hard on a subtitle. The symbol of the garden came to mind. The word “nurturing” came forth, but didn’t seem quite right. Soon I had the word “cultivating.” To cultivate the soil is the first step in preparing it for growth. We can’t grow healthy plants in poor, uncultivated soil.
In Mary’s Way, I provide two quotes that have always intrigued me. In a message to the Medjugorje visionaries, she says, “Do not think that Jesus is going to manifest Himself again in the manger, friends, He is born again in your hearts.” The second, from message to the Marian Movement of Priests, reads, “These are the times of the great return. Yes, after the time of the great suffering, there will be the time of the great rebirth and all will blossom again.”
Many of us experience time speeding up, change occurring so rapidly we can scarcely blink. Because of global climate change, there is an increasing sense that we are moving toward a disruption that will force a major shift in direction. Climate affects food supply and distribution. Famine and decreasing water supply cause border disputes and war. Catastrophic weather events like tsunamis, hurricanes and cyclones, tornadoes, and floods disrupt energy sources and transportation and communication systems, take thousands of lives, and destroy natural resources. Survivors are left deeply wounded spiritually and emotionally as well as physically and financially.
Our experience of the intensity of a calamity is proportionate to the size of our fear. We prepare ourselves for disruption by developing spiritual and psychological practices for befriending fear. Fear leads us to chaos and conflict, separating us from one another. In his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, identifies the one choice that remains when all else is taken away: we can always choose our attitude in any set of circumstances. To do this, we cultivate the soil of our hearts and sow the seeds of inner peace. From this practice evolves the solid ground we need to stand on in whatever circumstances present. Firmly rooted, we can transcend fear and reach out to one another. Thus, the subtitle to the new Mary’s Way is Cultivating a Peaceful Heart in Trying Times.
Mary’s Way is a 90-page companion for the spiritual path. I’ve been told it provides gentle inspiration and encouragement for putting our feet on that path every day. I re-issued it because it seems particularly relevant today.
All Writing Is Life, All Life Is WritingIn this space I want to take risks, to dive deep and to be frivolous, to surprise, soothe, inspire, and to sometimes provoke, to plant seeds of growth and uproot weedy beliefs.
In my book, Women, Writing, and Soul-Making, I say “all writing is life and all life is writing” to emphasize that writing is more than the action we take when we form words on the page. Our writing is an expression of our gathered experiences, our lives. Words allow us to explore, understand, and share what we think and feel and who we are.
While I share about the writing process on these pages, I will also share my observations about the world I experience and the way I view it. The topics may include gardening, spiritual growth, cooking, and hiking as well as the journey of writing my first novel and lessons learned leading retreats and classes for women writers.
I experience life as a process, moving like a river. I cause myself grief when I build dams in the attempt to control the flow. I want to share this process with you because I trust you to accept the honesty of the process, even if you disagree with my perspective.
As writers we must describe the world as we see it; that is the only story we have to tell. Our story may create discomfort for some, but in my experience, discomfort is a sure sign that I’ve stumbled onto something worthy of exploration.
Laura Cyphers, retreat participant, beautifully describes women's potential for transforming discomfort:
I realize the warrior of woman. It is not that we see the roughest of things and still make it and still move on; I attribute that to most women. We warrior women open our hearts still, are strong enough to also open our eyes and feel the pain, and then hold a sacred space for others’ pain as well....
I have never felt more proud to be myself, to be myself in such a room with women such as these. Their being, their walk, plants in me this seeded garden of courage and luster.
What's on the Horizon
Three of the initial blogs will be about the republication of my first book, Mary’s Way that resulted from a pilgrimage I took in 1989 to Medjugorje, Yugoslavia (now Bosnia-Hercegovina) where the Virgin Mary appeared to six young people. I will interweave whatever else wants to be written.
In the blog that follows this, I share why I changed the subtitle to Cultivating a Peaceful Heart in Trying Times and why I am republishing the book now. In the second installment I share the story of the often-amusing synchronicity of the first publication, and in the third, I explore where I am now in relation to the impact of my pilgrimage experience. After that who knows? There are as many topics to dwell on as leaves in the forest.
I hope you will become part of this blog community and also enjoy the free writing prompts and quotes, the ClarityWorks newsletter, and the website. Did I mention that I look forward to your comments and suggestions for topics? I do!