Fist to the heart–Five Months Later

It has been five months since a midnight phone call pulled us into the emergency of our 33-year-old son’s dying. We were on our way to the airport by 3:00 AM, and by 6:00 AM I had sent an email to extended family and friends asking for prayers and articulating what was happening as it unfolded. We flew to Denver. His sister arrived. His father arrived. Friends surrounded him. He hung onto the thread of life with a ventilator, and after this day of being loved by many who knew him, his heart stopped at 8:07 PM, all his organs in failure due to prescription drug interactions and post-surgical complications.

For the next two weeks I continued to send emails that communicated the complex information and heartfulness of these first days. Exactly a week after his death I had four hours alone on a plane and I wrote in my journal, “The story shatters…” I then documented moment by moment that 24-hour passage from the phone call to the strange, exhausted slumber in a Denver motel. I have hardly written since.

The story really did shatter—and the hardest question of the whole winter has been people’s inquiry, “How are you doing?”

How should we know how we’re doing? By what measurement does one respond?

In my book, Storycatcher, I say, “Words are how we think, story is how we link.” Life story is developed by attaching a new experience to an old one, like putting two children in line together and saying, “Hold hands. Don’t let go. Help each other cross the street.” A previous experience, which we have already transformed through the narrative function of the mind into meaning , serves as a tutor to help us absorb a new experience and begin to integrate it.

But when the new experience is extreme in some way—we can’t link it. This is called shock. The world right now is full of shocks. And what observers call “news”—a missing jetliner, a deadly mudslide, a sinking ferry with hundreds of teenagers on-board, Sherpas carrying their dead off Everest, etc. etc.—is individual, familial, and community survivors experiencing breakdowns in their capacity to integrate what just happened into what has happened before: shock on a massive scale.

Narrative is our life-line. The psyche goes into free-fall when our attachment to meaning is broken. I had my hand on Brian’s chest when I saw the heart monitor go flat. For most of the past five months, when people ask, “How are you?” I have internally re-experienced that moment, and realized that in many ways “I” am still in that room where we took an emotional fist to the heart that will influence our lives forever.

I have started to blog a dozen times these months, and not had the energy to complete my thought process. This entry signals me that linkage is starting: I am beginning to hold hands with Brian’s death in words as well as in raw experience. Because restoring narrative is essential for wholeness and well-being, I will write more about this as I learn my way into language.

Brian and his nephew Jaden

Brian and his nephew Jaden

Meanwhile, I pray for all those I see grieving on the news, and for patience from the rest of us who do not understand why they are so fixated on the downed plane, the mudslide, the tipped ferry, and millions more private traumas. How are they? They don’t know. Just don’t abandon us—however you come across people in the aftermath of sorrow, trauma, and travail—hold our hands until we can hold the hand of story.

Writing excuse: I’m too busy writing!

This blog is something I think about–either late at night waking to the moon and communing a while, but not moving from under the comforter (there’s a reason it’s called that… ahhh, downy delight!); or about 9:00 in the morning when I have an hour before Debbie comes to work and we all show up in the PeerSpirit office to check in and start a different kind of business day… And I won’t let myself derail into blogging when I have so many other demands of my time.

At the moment, this is a legitimate excuse: I am writing my first e-course, consisting of 12 carefully crafted emails and once the course activates an hour+ a day in an on-line writing community practice circle where we all get to share our reaction to the suggestions and exercises embedded in the e-mails.


I’m having fun doing this–and several hundred people are signed up so far… And the blog will continue once I get this loaded and into the world. There is the creative practice of making a point and coming up with a fun exercise in less than 1000 words… and then there is the fun of being in the Practice Circle with people, engaged with all of us reStorying our lives together.

I’ll let you know, next month, how it’s going, and if you read this in a timely fashion: sign up here:…

Still on the trail… and the trail is still here.

As I turn the calendar to September, I realize that Ann and I have celebrated summer in six countries this year.  Celebrated is the right word—for we love the long light and barefoot days, the sense that at the end of the “work day” there are still hours and hours of daylight to play in.

This year that has meant, walking the Medicine Wheel with twilight prayers for the questers on the mountain during our annual vision fast in Eastern Washington; strolling through the woods of the Taunus next to our conference center near Frankfurt, Germany; hiking all day and then watching hours of alpine glow on the snow covered peaks of the Eiger, the Munch, and the Jungfrau in Murren, Switzerland; getting up early to hike to the view over the Slovenia hill country northeast of Ljubljana; bicycling through vineyards in the slanted light of day’s end along the Croatian coast; a week with our children and grandchildren in coastal British Columbia… and finally, home again to the gardens, the beach, weeks of  tending to this little plot of earth we get to love. Dirty fingernails and old clothes, catching up with a few friends, the late summer Circle Practicum and culminating with an Advanced Circle Practices group that will gather on Whidbey mid-month—bringing us right to the Autumn Equinox.

Chain of Lakes trail, columnar basalt

Chain of Lakes trail, columnar basalt

Quite a trail…and while hiking the latest stretch—a 6+ mile tree-line ramble in the Mount Baker wilderness area on last week’s camping trip, I found myself reminiscing about the pace of life I find myself attempting at 67 years old.

A friend says, “A lot of people your age are retired, you know…”

I laugh and say, “I’m not the retiring type.”

Under the banter I’m seeking words to explain what I mean. I feel my aging, and celebrate that I am able to hike over rockslides with a view at the top of the Cascades Mountains. I let go of tracking certain aspects of pop culture while struggling to discern what I need to keep tracking. I accept leadership younger than myself. I practice focusing around the question: what is mine to do now? I seek to complete the task I said “yes” to: to plant the circle firmly into the world, to carry the story, to love the Earth. My goal remains to enable myself and others to live somehow differently in the midst of unraveling circumstances. My work is to inspire us to be our best selves, and then to act our best selves. And to use our full capacities to stand for what we believe.

This is the trail I’m on. This is the never-ending trail. It offers the long-view, and the hope of spiritual replenishment along the way. I am honored to be hiking–and in great company.

A startling question

Story circle in Slovenia

Life is rushing me on when I want to yell—“Hey, slow down, I’m still in Europe in my heart!” So many dear people, doing amazing work using circle. Ann and I were so happy to sit in the training councils in Germany and Slovenia, to participate in the development of widespread circle practice in consulting, community leadership, organizational development, European Commission agencies, coaching, and business ownership…  Let me share one story that exemplifies the spirit of these circles.

In Slovenia, in a three-day training on Circle and Story as Leadership, there were 32 people participating from 14 countries. We were meeting in a retreat hotel north of in the hill country north of Ljubljana. The second day morning we were ready to dive into a story council that would help us explore shadow. To more readily hear one another we divided the group into two circles of 16 people each, with one American and one Slovenian co-host. The invitation to story was: Please share a story of a time when you felt unable to respond to the needs in the group; you didn’t know what to do, or you felt incapable in some way… what did you learn?

It was a question that required we really live the four agreements: trust in confidentiality, listening with curiosity and compassion, asking for what we need and offering what we can, and willingness to pause and let silence be a witness as well as words. The circles went on for 3.5 hours—all the morning. Each one had its own flavor. What I know about my circle is that by listening to each of us go to this place of vulnerability and speak about how hard this work can be, how relentless the learning field, the more we shared that moment of feeling at a loss, the more I saw each one’s strength. I developed a much greater sense of the capabilities of each storyteller.

By showing one another the learning process inside what we might have called a failure, the whole group had an experience of success that moved me profoundly. I have never asked this question in a circle before, and this group was comprised of people already skilled at hosting… I will look for opportunities to do this again and see what richness occurs and if you have experiences to share, let me know.

…And what did we learn?

The eighth whisper

About 10 years ago I wrote a lovely little book called The Seven Whispers, Spiritual Practice for Times Like These.  It’s a little gem: a hundred pages long, seven essays on the common sense spiritual wisdom that guides my life. The book hasn’t yet reached its full audience, is kind of an orphan out there since it doesn’t espouse any particular religion, but instead invites people to discover their own daily patterns for staying connected to guidance. I’ve never met anybody who didn’t love it. I reread it the other day, and I love it, too.

  • Maintain peace of mind.
  • Move at the pace of guidance.
  • Practice certainty of purpose.
  • Surrender to surprise.
  • Ask for what you need and offer what you can.
  • Love the folks in front of you.
  • Return to the world.

When nearing the finish line of writing, I remember calling my editor and saying, “Hey Jason… funny thing happened at the end of the book… there’s another whisper coming… what do you think?”

He discouraged me from adding to the list. “Seven is kind of a spiritual number,” he said, “It has a ring to it that “The Eight Whispers” just doesn’t have.” I let it go. From a marketing standpoint, he was probably correct. But I snuck the phrase in the book, even without naming it, and it has been a profound practice of mine ever since.

The eighth whisper is: Notice how help comes.

I’ve written that phrase in my journal dozens of times to remind myself to keep looking about for the ways that the world is trying to help me carry this strenuous and usual work forward in the world—stewarding the increasing emergence of The Circle Way; creating space for storytelling and storycatching, holding onto the foundational values of my life while negotiating a wildly chaordic environment. (Chaordic, the creative space where chaos and order swirl together and make something new.)

Notice how help comes… a tiny email that opens a large opportunity or relationship.

Notice how help comes… a phone call that leads to needed work.

Notice how help comes… a meeting that leads to support beyond expectation.

I need all the Seven Whispers, and as the world moves crazily on this year I am more and more attuned to the need for noticing how help comes, and for how I can offer help to others. On an intimate scale, help is how we make place for one another, how we experience being seen and belonging. It’s a great daily practice of giving and receiving.


Blogging on a Friday night

It’s a glorious sunset after a cloudy day. I lower the window blinds and try to settle into my thoughts. One week in April: I paid my taxes, had a birthday, walked the dog, got my hair cut, went to the athletic club, trucked through a hundred business details and uncounted emails … and tracked two young men through the suburbs of Boston in a multi-million dollar manhunt. Middle-class life in America: one life undisturbed, a bunch of lives profoundly disturbed, some changed forever, some lives lost.

I can hardly discern what I think and feel about all this because the media is so busy telling me what I think and feel.

The bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon a terrible tragedy for the people who died and all those who now grieve them. It’s a catastrophe for those who were injured and now face a long recovery and perhaps life on artificial limbs. It’s a trauma for those in the vicinity who witnessed these events, who’ve been through the lock-down of an American metropolitan area, who’ve been witness to shoot-outs and explosions in neighborhoods where such violence does not occur at this scale. It’s a confusion for me because–

I cannot stand to watch young Bostonians flipping me thumbs up on the CNN videos like they are walking out of the parking lot after a football match.  And to know that cheering erupted on the streets, along with superficial analysis that “justice has been done… everything is all right now… it’s safe to return to life as usual…”

I cannot listen to NPR reporters milking the idea of how shocking it is that American suburbs should be disturbed by gunfire—as though this isn’t happening all around the world to people whose lives are just as precious to them as our lives are to us.

In an article in the on-line version of The Guardian, Kim Gamel of Associated Press, reports that on April 6th, a NATO airstrike called into a scene of heavy gunfire, killed 11 children who were in the same house as a suspected Taliban insurgent. Also killed that same day were 3 civilians  whose vehicle was hit by a suicide bomber while they were traveling to deliver books to a school.

Perhaps in light of this week’s news out of Boston we can see these people more clearly and imagine their pain, and the grief of their families and friends more distinctly. Perhaps we can imagine the hopeful grin on the face of one of those Afghani children drawing doves in a time of war. Perhaps we can see behind the burka to the face of a young mother. Or travel the idealism of a young foreign service officer trying to make a gesture of goodwill.

Martin Richard, age 8: killed at the finish line.

Martin Richard, age 8: killed at the finish line.

Let’s have a moment of silence, not dancing in the streets. Then let’s talk more deeply about these issues than we did a week ago.

Talking with strangers

I was raised by two gregarious parents who felt entirely comfortable engaging total strangers in conversation, thereby changing them from strangers into acquaintances, and sometimes, into friends. I have no particular memory of this as a child, no moments of great embarrassment, no squirming in agony wishing they would just “come on…” I assume this social pattern was deeply engrained in my childhood into a sense of normalcy, because I am often in the company of these two vibrant people, now aged 92, and they are still talking with strangers. And there are very few “strangers” within earshot of wherever they are.

Their social ease gave me a sense that I could create an engaged and friendly environment around myself. As a girl, despite a certain shyness, I also had enough confidence to reach out to someone I didn’t know, ascertain their basic friendliness or not and ask for help navigating my world—getting to piano lessons and back on the city bus, finding my way to a new classroom, etc. This is a skill that has carried me in good stead for many years, and around the world. As we travel and work, Ann Linnea often remarks to me, “You only know a bit of German and French, but you are so willing to just get in there and try to communicate… and people respond to you favorably because you are so genuinely interested in communicating.”

“Thank you, yes,” I say, “I am interested. And I’m willing to play, to be the fool, to mispronounce and muck up the grammar and let myself be corrected… just to keep the story going until I figure out what we’re saying to each other.”

Ann and I are just home from our latest working trip—three weeks in eastern Australia: Melbourne, Port Arlington, and Warrambool, in Victoria, Townsville, in Queensland, Cradle Mountain, in Tasmania. And it occurs to me that Ozzie society is like my family: constantly playing with one another in public. People tending verbally to one another in public space is the social norm.

Here are some benefits as I see them:

Much less social offense: people are more likely to break into a grin when interrupted by someone else, instead of scowling or walking away. Curiosity replaces judgment.

Children, elders, and unescorted women seem to move about with greater sense of safety: chatting with one another, chatting with others around them, inquiring: Where are you from? How is your hike? Do you understand which train to get on? Would you like a coffee? Need a bit of help, there?

(Even their usual greeting relates to this casual tending of the social field: “How going?”—they ask one another, and so everyone has the chance to say over and over throughout the day, “Going good…”)

A consistent compilation of stories emerges from this gregariousness that reminds me of decades ago when people chatted over the back fence and on the front porch rather than spending time texting, Facebooking, blogging, and wired into our private sound systems. And instead of being chuffed to have this private techno-isolation intruded on, they constantly reassured me, “No worries.”

Even a wombat comes up to say "g'day..."

Even a wombat comes up to say “g’day…”

Hand-held technology is happening in Australia’s cities and towns, but they have not lost their cultural extravagance for public check-in. I hope they can retain it because it offers them, and we who visit, an experience that feels supportive, a bit watched over, noticed. And it was a delight, American accent and all, to reach out and offer all this back.

In the coming weeks, I will continue to hear the lilt of the Ozzie accent in my head and to see an array of faces in my mind’s eye: people we walked with, talked with, called into circle, and passed along the Overland Track.

I put this out to remind us that talking with strangers is perhaps a really good thing—especially when we pause long enough to listen to strangers.  That having social radar for one another is a skill we don’t want to lose. That we can all take little social risks that re-knit the safety net inside which we wish to conduct our days.

“How going with you today, mate?”

Maybe it’s not just vernacular: maybe it’s an admittance of interdependence that we’d all be wise to tend to.

Hosting team in Queensville--all good mates

Hosting team in Queensville–all good mates


A tango of methodologies

We have a handout we often use when introducing Circle to new folks: it shows a tree whose roots are marked “Circle” and whose branches illustrate the modern adaptations of this ancient social form. We are more and more making sure in our training and consulting work that we introduce people to several of these circle-based methodologies, and we speak with excitement and hope about the uprising of “a global culture of conversation.”

Welcoming sign

Welcoming sign

In our recent time with Eileen Fisher company in NY, we used World Café with 70+ people to gather ideas between the company and the newly developing Eileen Fisher Community Foundation which focuses on leadership development for women and girls and promotes the understanding of ethical and collaborative business practices as a movement for social good. A great afternoon… and it prompts me to write a bit about the adaptations we are experimenting with to enhance the harvest of the Café form.

We offered 3 rounds of conversation and two questions. In a World Café round, a table group of four participants addresses the question for (in this case) 25 minutes. Then one person volunteers to stay at the table and host the space, the others leave and look for a new match to seed the conversation widely throughout the room.  In October, I had done this with 120+ people at the Sage-ing International Conference and had the joy of having Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, designers of the World Café, in the room doing it with us. Early on, I overheard Juanita make a comment  about looking at aging from a multi-generational perspective. Ninety minutes later, when we harvested the insights of the café, a variation of her comment showed up at 9 out of 24 tables. Discovering both diversity and cross-pollination is the genius of World Café.

Excited participants taking a break between rounds 2 & 3

Excited participants taking a break between rounds 2 & 3

You can also imagine that clearly capturing essential, statements can be a challenge. People are talking, doodling, listening, and moving on with their excitement or interest… How to  build something coherent from the rounds and each table? Our current experiment is to place blank sheets at each table asking for three essence statements from each round. So before a group disbands they spend the last 5 minutes in a circle check-out process deciding what was most significant for them and writing it down. Then when 3 new people cluster for the next round, the host has talking points, so do all the new voices at the table.

This seems such a little adjustment, but we have found it immensely helpful in focusing the harvest of the conversation. The bigger the group, the more this is needed.

Rest Stop

Grey winter’s day, driving down the Interstate between Seattle and Portland, on our way to a consulting job. Temperature hanging in the low-40’s F, (about 6-7 Centigrade), yet a high sky, so we were catching glimpses of big mountains running along the eastern horizon. After a few hours driving and a latte, we needed a stop near Vancouver, WA at the Columbia River Rest Stop. Pulled off the road into the parking area. A young woman, maybe early-30’s was sitting on the hood of her car holding a sign, “Family in need. Any help gratefully accepted.” As we were parking I saw a man hand her a folded dollar. She smiled wanly, thanked him, and started to cry just as I was walking by. “Would you like a hug?” Oh the privilege of being a graying 60-something year old woman who can offer such a gesture to a person in hurt.

Nodded yes. I took her in my arms and she started to sob. “This is not what God has in mind for me and my children,” she said… “I just don’t know what else to do.” Out tumbles the story that she was laid off, and has applied for every job she can think of and while she’s waiting for her pay-by-the-minute cell-phone to ring in response to these applications, while her 3 boys are in school, released from their one small room at Motel Six, she has come to the rest stop to beg in the rain. “It’s hard,” she says. “This isn’t how I was raised… but my unemployment insurance just doesn’t give us enough to both sleep somewhere and eat.”

I hand her all the food we’ve got along in the car—almonds, apples, and some cheddar cheese. I give her $20.00, “Are you sure?” she says. “Yes, I’m sure… It takes courage to do what you are doing. How are you inside?”

The more that pieces of her story come pouring forth, the more I am sure she is the real deal: really who she says she is, really trying to take care of herself and her children, really capable of doing a good job for somebody, somewhere…and really brave.

She is practicing one of the basic PeerSpirit Circle agreements, and one of The Seven Whispers, to Ask for what you need and offer what you can. She is practicing it with strangers, in public, without protection or community around her. She is learning, she says, how much her need makes people uncomfortable, and how many people are kind to her anyway.

I say to her, “America is in a huge learning curve… more and more people are getting dropped into the cracks, and we all as a collective are being asked to get creative in our responses to one another and to change our ideas of what we can offer in these times. You are having this hard time now… next year it could be me. It’s hard to be the point person. I wish I lived closer. Tell me your name…”

“Leia,” she says.

“Like the Princess in Star Wars?” She nods shyly. Obi Wan Kenobi is not coming to this rest stop along the Interstate… There is only us—two strangers asking for what we need and offering what we can. I pray it is enough.

She is not there when we head north a few days later.

A little love goes a long way

My friend Harriet is 86 the end of this month. She’s a member of a group of women friends who support one another’s spiritual journeys, stay in various levels of connection during busy schedules, and meet once a year for a week of council, informal conversation, great eating, hiking, and late night videos. We are women at camp in a large shared house, reflecting on where we’ve been and setting intention for the coming months.

That’s where I am this week, tucked into Willow Pond Lodge with this sisterhood. The first day is always consumed with hours of checking-in… one by one choosing what to say about how we are. As what is said in circle is confidential, I have Harriet’s permission to share this moment and her story and thoughts.

One woman had finished and self-published a novel, another had completed a first draft of her memoir; some women were busy at work, busy traveling, busy mothering and grandmothering. Harriet checked-in near the end of the round. “I don’t work anymore,” she said with a tone of contrition, “I don’t know what good I’m doing. I go down to Coffee Talk every day and just try to be friendly, make sure everyone gets a welcome as they come in the door.

“There was this young mother with a crying baby, came in for coffee. I could see she was at her wit’s end. We have a rocking chair by the fire and after a bit I convinced her it was safe to hand over the fussing child and she could just sit down and sip. Little Henry and I rocked and rocked and soon he was asleep in my arms. … She still comes in, bringing Henry, finding community.

“You know, people just need to be seen. Just need someone to look up and say hi; glad you walked into the room. Mother Teresa said the greatest disease in the world is loneliness, that if she could heal anything about being human, it would be to cure loneliness with love. I try to be like that, to bring a little love into the space around me. But I feel old. I don’t have the hearing, the energy, or the big ideas I used to. That’s all I got to say.” She passed the talking piece; we rang a chime to signify a space in the speaking.

Harriet is white-haired, vigorous, and humble. She was raised on a farm in Minnesota, worked for 3M in its early years, did graphic design and rode the wave from the drafting table to the computer, had a successful real estate career. She is the gentle matriarch to 3 children, 10 grandchildren, and 5 great-grandchildren, including a 3 year-old spitfire girl named Harriet junior. The deepest formation of Harriet senior’s character and the source of her stories, values, and wisdom remains her childhood grounding on the earth and how it helped her tap into spirituality. She carries a personal blend of Lutheranism, Catholicism, practicality and mysticism leading to the motherhood of God. And here she sat at the edge of the circle looking disappointed in herself, seemingly unsure how to take her place among other, mostly younger women, whom she assumed were doing more than she to earn their space in the scheme of things.

I asked permission to comment on her check-in and she nodded. “Harriet, you are doing exactly what the elder in the village is supposed to do! You are tending what’s right in front of you. This is the fulfillment of your days—the capacity to slow down, to see what needs to happen next, right here, right now—with the young mother, with the baby, with the barrista, with the regulars from town, with us in the circle.”

Christina and Harriet

Christina and Harriet

“Through these gestures of kindly attention offered into your daily surroundings you are a messenger of your deepest values. Every one of us who is moving faster, who is busy beyond managing, who is hooked into the necessities of technology, is counting on you being here amongst us moving at the pace of guidance and paying attention in the ways that you do.” We rang the chimes again—sat in the reverberating stillness.

In this moment Harriet saw her elder place validated and took it into her heart, and I saw my own elder place being prepared for me by Harriet and took it into my heart. Gift and magic. Sweetness among friends.