Step into the flow and speak up

2009_8.26_Yosemite2_620w-2Instead of resolutions, each year I listen for the words or phrase that will guide me. Last year, the words were trust, magic, and play. I appreciated the guidance of these words, which reminded me to trust that everything is unfolding according to a secret order, and to appreciate the presence of magic in the ordinary. Instead of deadly seriousness, playful trickster energy helps to stay fresh and present, to navigate even the most challenging moments.

In the dark days of the winter solstice, I was guided to step into the flow, and recognized that this is my phrase for 2016. I love the fluidity of it, the invitation to get up off the bank and wade right in to the moving water of life. I have a lifelong habit of observing from the sidelines so this is an invitation to get into the game, engaging with the mystery of unknowable outcomes. Continue reading

A year of new stories, part 2

8.2.15_Hawk Cove_620wFrom lazy days of summer, watching sunsets and traveling to other places, to the wrenching events of the fall, one theme kept emerging. We have the power to tell our own stories. We can see the tumult and suffering of our times as an open invitation to reclaim that power.

In July, I speculated on why artists create, given how much work it is to make anything, whether it’s a building or a novel. We do what it takes to serve the muse.

“The act of writing is an act of optimism. You would not take the trouble to do it if you felt it didn’t matter.” ~ Edward Albee

In August, a sunset worked its magical way through my imagination and onto the page as a timeless reminder of the ephemeral. Continue reading

A year of new stories, part 1

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“A talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.” ~ Richard Rorty

This is the time of year for highlight lists. I thought about doing a best of Thriving on the Threshold list for about a minute. Instead, I’m offering a two-part look back on some of the themes that emerged this year. Visually, the site’s tag cloud indicates that the top themes are interdependence, mystery, wonder, humility, creativity, imagination, separation, uncertainty, magic, and beauty.

I use my writing to increase my awareness of the stories that we live by. This post presents a list of some of those stories, both the dominant ones and emerging alternatives. Cultivating that awareness involves “re-membering,” literally returning to the original home of the body, as in this post. And the way that appreciation, wonder, awe and gratitude arise from such re-connection. Continue reading

Time to set aside the cult of anguish and embrace the joy of creativity

2013_8.23_Maine view_cropWe always have the choice to choose joy and love over resentment and misery. I’ve had two great reminders of this recently. Michel Martin’s editorial on NPR makes the case for rejoicing rather than lamenting opportunities for activism. And Liz Gilbert, in Big Magic, echoes with her challenge to the cult of anguish that hangs over creativity. Martin asks why so many people who offer themselves up for leadership these days do it with an air of “Why me?” Then she holds up the example of inventors:

“When do you ever hear people say, ‘Why didn’t somebody else invent the airplane, the smart phone, solar panels, the tea infuser, for heaven’s sake, so I didn’t have to?’ We even have commercials featuring the tiny garages and attics where supposedly this inventing took place. We understand that discovery is a joy that can feel like a physical sensation.”

Under the tyranny of the Old Story of Separation, “No pain, no gain” is infused into everything we value most. War metaphors may be the currency of our culture, but I wonder if our allegiance to struggle and competitiveness is thinning what could be a much-needed flood of creativity into more of a trickle. Martin again: Continue reading

Creativity is my drug of choice


I self-medicate by making art. When I mentioned this recently to an artist friend, she responded that making art stresses her out. Her work isn’t up to her standards. And isn’t that the game we are all playing? My Muse inspires me, drives me to create. I try my best with the materials and skills at hand to give material form to that inner stirring, to share that non-material vision / impression / idea. Its only chance of being seen, of touching others, is to emerge through my hands into the light of day.

And it never—and I do mean never, ever—comes out the way it shimmers in my imagination. On rare occasions, it may surprise me with being far better. Or delight me in some unexpected way. It’s like doing Improv with myself: I make a move on the paper; I catch myself off guard; I respond with “yes-and,” and make my next move. Eventually, a scene evolves. Continue reading

In which I propose a broader definition of restorative action


As a resident for the last twenty-five years of Baltimore, I have spent many days on the Chesapeake, usually in a sailboat. Like many Marylanders, I am acutely aware of the state of our great estuary and her many tributaries. The Bay is a complex ecosystem, her watershed sprawling over parts of six states, including major urban areas and ports, intense suburban development, industry and farmland. Many organization, locally and regionally, have been toiling for decades to raise public awareness and do restoration projects. A recent report card gives the Bay a D+ and includes this language:

“All of us, including our elected officials, need to stay focused on the Blueprint, push harder, and keep moving forward.”

Pushing harder is the mantra of the human-centered mindset that has been destroying the Bay since French and Spanish explorers came through in the 1500s, followed by Englishman Capt. Smith’s expeditions in 1607. It’s time to try something new. Or ancient. In this uncharted territory of climate change, species extinction and the general breakdown of our old cultural stories, imagining new pathways is a first step towards taking them. Continue reading

Truth, beauty, wild yeast and courting revelation

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When you are tuned in via a creative process that works for you, surprising things come through. Writing is one medium that does that for me. I start noodling some ideas around—often, two or three seemingly unrelated ones that have caught my attention. It helps to ask questions like What is this really about? and What am I trying to say? In the course of the writing, insight sneaks in.

I want to say revelation, but keep choosing the word insight for its modesty, its unwillingness to make demands. Maybe it’s like when bakers or brewers rely on wild yeast, rather than controlled addition of packaged yeast. I picture wild yeast as dust motes floating invisibly on currents of afternoon air warmed by low streaks of sunlight. Where does wild yeast even come from? Can bakers and brewers count on it being there in the air, waiting to dive into their dough or mash, to mate with their flour, rye or barley? Is that the appeal: the risk, the lack of control, the mystery? Continue reading

Challenging the Dreamers: Ta’Nehisi Coates on the deadly power of stories

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With the fiercely honest, gorgeous language storm that is Between the World and Me, Ta’Nehisi Coates offers no prescriptions, plans or programs. He simply holds up the chipped, tarnished mirror that we call “civilization” to show us what he calls “the dream.” I love this book. It has broken my heart in a way that few books have. It has cracked me open and turned me upside down. To say that it challenges my assumptions about the state of race relations in this country is as far off the mark as saying that Silent Spring is a book about songbirds.

It’s not a long book and yet it contains everything. Worlds, galaxies, histories, ancestors. Having lived for the past twenty-five years in Baltimore, I enjoyed listening to the recorded version, hearing his words in his Baltimore-tinged voice. Even though I’m well aware that his Baltimore was vastly different from mine, a tiny part of me feels connected. So many thoughts, reactions, fears, despairs, and hopes are swirling in my body in this moment—a sure sign that this is one of those books that changes everything. I will listen again and then read it too and insist that everyone I encounter read it. It’s that important. Continue reading

The Muse is my client: thoughts on writing and architecture


“Acknowledging that the first draft is the equivalent of a sculptor going down to the quarry to buy a big slab of marble, or a mason buying a skid of bricks and 100 pounds of mortar is a very difficult thing to do.” ~ Shawn Coyne

It takes longer to write a novel than to design and build a good-sized building. Something like a church might take three or four years, start to finish. Apartments or a university classroom building maybe two-and-a-half. A house is more like a novella in size, but can take just as long, depending on complexity and how decisive or demanding the client is. A kitchen addition is a short story. It can be done in eight or ten months, give or take.

What is the use of writing a book? A building shelters thousands of people for decades, if not generations. It touches lives. It affects people. Even a bad building—say, a Target or a WalMart—serves a useful purpose. The literary equivalent might be a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is maybe why you see racks of them at stores like that. A few great buildings rise above, delighting us with their artfulness and lasting for hundreds of years. These are lovingly restored from time to time, and contain deep cultural, social and political histories. Continue reading

Listening to the song of the Chesapeake


As a resident for the last 25 years of Baltimore, Maryland, I have spent many days on the Bay, usually in a sailboat. I, like many Marylanders, am acutely aware of the state of the Chesapeake Bay and her many tributaries. My son has been studying water quality in his 7th grade geography class, which included a trip to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s study center on Smith Island—a truly special place, one of only two inhabited islands in the Bay. Tom Horton’s wonderful book about his time living on Smith, An Island Out of Time, is aptly titled.

The recent Report Card issued in late 2014 by CBF gives the state of the Bay a D+, the same grade as in 2012. Hard-won improvements in water quality were offset by losses in other areas, the impression of no progress defying the efforts of thousands of people and the expense of millions of dollars. The Bay is a complex ecosystem, its watershed sprawling over parts of six states, including major urban areas, two shipping ports, intense suburban development, industry and farmland. As the Report Card says: Continue reading