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The Never Ending Work List

IMG_3435Recently, David and I recognized we are “shooting from the hip” in regards to the multitude of projects we need and want to do at the retreat center.  Each morning, we take a walk with our steaming cup of coffee to enjoy the grounds and bask in the glory of what we are building here….. only we don’t bask much. Mostly we wince and point out fallen branches that need to be removed, areas that need to be mulched, deteriorating arbors and places where the lights have gone out and need to be rewired. I sigh when I see my bottle garden has withered to look all but forgotten with bottles knocked into ferns from the dogs bounding through them after lizards. Other bottles get filled with algae from rainwater and frogs, even though I’ve tried to cap them  off several different ways over the last years.  The sun has bleached out the colors of my precious bottles, so they need to be stained and clearly, the overhaul I need to do to recreate a beautiful bottle garden will take many, many hours of work. Sigh.

So, recognizing we have way too much to do for two people to handle, and way too little time to devote to the business we love, and our scattered approach to fixing only what we run into first each day is a mistake, we made a to-do list and vowed we would work only from this list directly, so as not to get distracted from what we agree are the highest priority jobs.  We also have to stop getting all enthused and excited by new ideas, when there is so much grunt work demanding our energy. New projects are fun. Re-doing old projects is a drag. But the key to not getting buried by our own creation is to keep pace with the workload – or at least to try, and this means we have to stop adding unnecessary tasks to our list.

The list we made is four pages long, beginning with the most pressing and important projects (like finishing off the parking lot and cutting away a huge fallen tree branch behind the yoga center) to the projects that we really should do (re-mulch the garden and repaint the labyrinth) to those we want to do (close in the mudroom for storage and put a new pathway in by the yoga center), to those that are pretty much a wish list for dreamers. (Build a neat Zen tea house overlooking the creak behind the yoga center.)

The problem is, we don’t stick to the list. In fact, we can’t get to the list because every day, something new happens that requires our attention.  Someone drives into the fence so it needs to be repaired. The rain plummets an area and we find we have a leak in the roof. The water filter stops working.  The air conditioner breaks and David has to put in a new one. The door to the chicken house falls apart and the watering system breaks so I have to hand water the birds every day until . . . . Etc. etc. etc.

As soon as we made the list and made a pact to discipline ourselves to stick to the plan, a storm rolled in. The pelting wind and rain blew down one of our huge almond trees in the garden. This 18 foot blooming tree just toppled over onto the bridge. So engineer boy David tied the trunk to his truck to haul the tree upright, and staked the base hoping to give the tree a chance to re-root. The next day, another windstorm came with more rain. This time the tree topped the other direction, shading the blooming plants beyond the garden wall and starving them from the sun while pulling more root from the ground.  We couldn’t get to attending to the tree for several days due to other obligations. On the first day off, David tried tying the tree up again. More torrential rain came, as is customary in August in Florida, and of course the tree acted like a weeble that wobbles and doesn’t quite fall down, leaning over and pulling even more roots from the ground again, careening to the bridge and taking out a few more hanging air plants and a Buddha stationed there for inspiration. Now, I also have to worry about what people think as they visit the garden to meditate or relax, only to be faced with this eyesore issue of a downed tree.

I am sorry to see the tree struggling. I have pruned and nurtured this tree for four years. What began as an unruly small bush has been painstakingly groomed into this lovely smelling, wonderful shade tree by our Heart Chakra, matching 5 others situated to give balance to the garden.  But now the weak roots make the tree dangerous and unstable so saving it is not an option. Instead of handling anything on “our very important list”, David spent the weekend cutting down the tree, digging out the roots, then purchasing and staining wood to build an arbor in its place to protect the plants underneath, fill in the gap where the tree was, and provide ambiance and shade at that particular meditation bench.

New projects are always lovely and welcome, and frankly, it will be fun to do some redesigning in this area as the light and moisture shifts due to changes above. Always fun to make artistic choices in the garden and see something new emerge and bloom.  But another weekend got eaten away by a project we didn’t expect, which seems to happen over and over and over, so we never get to the pressing list.

People assume my job here is teaching yoga. Honestly, teaching yoga is the easiest thing I do work-wise, and only a fraction of what is required as the owner and director of a Yoga Retreat Center. I spend time on bookkeeping and management, grounds maintenance, designing and keeping up on 5 websites, scheduling and staffing, studying and developing new programs, and shopping to keep the yoga center stocked with toilet paper and tea. These things don’t even make the list but they are pressing too.

I am not complaining. I’ve made the conscientious decision to devote the last years of a lifetime of teaching and small business management to this remarkable project of building a place for people to learn, reground themselves, and find solace in a world that is too busy, too stressful and too diminishing of the spirit. Building a retreat center and teaching authentic yoga feels like right livelihood for someone my age who has seen a lot, experienced a lot, and done a great deal of living. I want to contribute a bit of wisdom to others before retiring from service to society and yoga is a remarkable platform to reach out to others and to make a difference. Helping individuals to be happier, balanced and more fulfilled ripples out to impact society in a positive way too.  If you believe all things are truly connected (and I do), you also believe small shifts and contributions do make a difference in the greater collective.

So it is time to practice what I preach and apply a bit of non-attachment to the situation. Yes there is a lot to do, and not enough time to do it. Yes, we make plans to knock things off our list, but life keeps throwing us curve balls. Yes, I get tired, and annoyed, and some days I swear the harder I work, the less gets accomplished. But yoga teaches me acceptance and surrender to the things you have no control over (like excessive rain) and to spend time being grateful for what is good rather than overly focused on what is not.  No one has forced me to build a retreat center. This was a choice. There are easier ways to spend your midlife for sure; easier lifestyles to pursue- probably better investments to assure a secure future. Most people my age are slowing down or retiring. Many forfeit the struggle of building something and invite ease into their existence due to risk factors and thinking time is running out. These are years to live a little and enjoy much earned leisure. But there is a reason I’m here. My spirit calls for work that is real, and I can’t forget how important it is to be engaged in life, busy with something that counts. I have to catch myself when I feel envious that others seem to have a calmer and cushier life at my age, and remind myself that having a purpose that is bigger than self-perseverance or self-interest is vital to feeling happy, at least for me.  So, while the work is endless, it won’t be an issue if I find joy in the effort.

Sunday night, as we took stock of what was accomplished this weekend, David and I expressed frustration that the unexpected disaster of a fallen tree ate away another weekend that we really wanted to allocate to other jobs. He hoped to at least finish this one project, but more rain stopped him from staining and completing the new arbor and getting it in the ground so he could plant new vines, so this chore will spill over into next week’s evenings, meaning the things he planned to do after work this week will be backed up as well. Our list is as big as ever.  But the tree didn’t take out the bridge when falling. No one got hurt when the tree toppled.  Removing the tree does pave the way for something new and lovely in that place. Most importantly, the tree provides us both with the opportunity and the choice to decide how to react. We can embrace a negative response  to what happened, complain and feel life sucks, or employ emotional discipline and not over react. We can’t use this unexpected problem as an opportunity to play a victim of circumstances and act all put out by our personal struggles or we can  just handle what comes our way with grace and an understanding that there is a lesson here to learn. Perhaps we need a reminder to revisit and strengthen the inner spirit and to use the tools of yoga to endure, accept, and find  beauty in life’s every struggle, big or small.

We still need to keep the list to prioritize and be organized. Eventually, we will need to address the problem of an overfull list if we really can’t knock off the important projects one way or another ourselves.  In the struggle to find the time and strength to attend to the never ending list lies important life lessons; opportunities to gain insight on who we are and why we make the choices we make.  We may not have wanted the rain to come and didn’t ever expect the tree to topple, but we must take ownership of the workload we have invited into our existence. After all, we planting this tree. In Florida. Where it rains. We thought creating a garden would enhance our life and the lives of others and proceeded eagerly to that end. We worked hard and took risks to become the caretakers of a retreat center.

In the end, we must remember that dozens and dozens of small decisions we make every day join together to make the foundation of our existence. Accepting this, we need to tend to the gardens we, ourselves, planted.



My Super Superstars

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Around 1991 (25 years ago!) while teaching a dance class, I stood in the doorway of the dance room and commented to a observing mother that I thought the kids were doing great. She leaned over and, with a tentative smile, said, “You are so good with these kids. I don’t suppose you would offer a class for my other daughter too.”

My initially reaction to such a comment  was always, “Of course, I can teach anybody to dance,” except, when I looked down, I saw that the younger child sitting in the doorway, had down syndrome.

I mumbled something about my not being qualified to work with special needs kids, and she said, “Shame. Rachel would love to take a dance class with her sister’s teacher. These kids are often mainstreamed into lessons, but a class specifically geared to them would certainly be special.  I network with other mothers and I could get a group together if you ever change your mind. . .”

I couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about the motto I so often boasted aloud. “Dance is for every body!” So why then did I feel so intimidated at the thought of this particular student? I believed I knew more about dance education than most teachers, thanks to years and years as a teacher in the most renowned studios in New York. I had been a master teacher on the Dance Masters of America circuit and an instructor at New York University and Vassar College. I suppose, filled with arrogance of my self-imposed importance, I considered myself an “advanced” teacher – meaning I was one of those sophisticated types of teachers who could relay advanced concepts to those with enough talent to process such information. It would be a waste of talent for someone like me to give up a precious hour to work with kids who wouldn’t really benefit from my experience considering how much the “regular students” needed me if they were ever going to improve.

But I also professed to my staff that a great teacher was someone who could to teach anyone. I made the case that only a fool thought they were good just because they could make advanced dancers look good on stage, because trained dancers were easy to teach. They already had a passion for dance and proficiency and discipline. But teach a clueless beginner to be good and heck, I’d be impressed. Knowing all this, did I really think a lessor teacher might be more suited  to take on the task of working with handicapped kids? Did I believe a therapist could teach dance anywhere near as well as someone like me who devoted their life to the art?  This made me ask a question that bothered me for years afterwards, “Is  great dance defined as mastery of the physical, or is it more about communicating a piece of your soul through movement? If the latter is true, then dance really IS for everyone,and physical coordination or processing and applying movement theory has nothing to do with it.

Asking this question challenged my artistic integrity and my entire belief system regarding dance as an art form rather than an after school enrichment activity.   I never did consider myself a cheesy local dance school owner, but someone whose life was devoted to an evolved art form yet who just happened to choose to open a studio in a local community due to the desire for a stable family life for her kids.

If dance was indeed a universal art form and a beautiful expression of the individual soul, then putting too much value on physical prowess was a disservice to the art. Kids with Down Syndrome were deeply soulful so they certainly could dance. They needed to dance. Wanting to live true to this, I felt compelled to take on the class. But I was scared to death. Might I harm one of them with inappropriate exercises or a demand for discipline when they couldn’t meet such requests.  I wasn’t sure how to talk to handicapped people without seeming  condescending. What if they lost control and got upset or angry? Might they hurt me or do damage to the room? Did I really want handicapped students hanging around  my “professional” dance facility in the making? How would customers feel if they had to hang out in a waiting room with ….. handicapped kids.

Clearly, I had some soul searching to do and research was in order. I read everything I could get my hands on that week, learning that children with Down Syndrome often have very loose joints and a weak connective tissue. They had weight control issues, and occasional heart issues.One vertebra in their neck had to be protected.  I knew dance might help them maintain health, but a teacher had to understand the risks and be careful not to push the body in a way that would cause injury. I paid particular attention to commonalities of behavior and was rather shamed to realize I had nothing to fear and was a fool for worrying. These kids were actually the most loving sort of individuals, generous of spirit and deeply compassionate. (Just goes to show, we fear what is different or what we don’t understand.)   With every paragraph I read I became convinced that a dance class for Rachel and her friends wasn’t something I could offer, but something I must offer. And if customers didn’t like it, they were ignorant, and I’d set them straight.

So, I set up a class for kids with Down Syndrome and any similar handicap that would keep the group at the same learning level. Needing to call the class something, but unsure what was politically correct, I asked the parents to help me name the class and we agreed to call the group the Superstars.  I began my first class with 6 students ranging from 6 – 10 years old.  I’m not kidding when I say I fell in love, and I don’t mean in love with teaching handicapped students. I fell in love with the students themselves. The children’s humor and the way they supported each other and greeted me ever single day with sincere joy touched me in profound ways.

In the beginning, I charged a reduced tuition for the class. I did so because my young business was struggling to the point of breaking, and if ever I had to pay others to help teach or sub, I needed to know there would be some income to balance out the obligation. But as soon as my business had a good footing, I made the class tuition free. It remained free from that point on.

For over 17 years I taught those 6 students and others that came and went over the years. As the students grew up, so too did the coursework. When the kids became teenagers we began doing more hip hop than jazz. They were a cool group, deserving of “cool” danced steps. They became very good at certain steps. Never learned to count music. But oh, they had style and personality that made them engaging to watch.

As each season brought more success, I grew extremely confident with my ability to work with this special population. I wrote and sold an article for Dance Teacher Magazine, a national publication, detailing the challenges and considerations of working with kids with Down Syndrome, encouraging other teachers nationwide to start similar classes for the joy such work would bring them as well as goodwill for their contribution to the community. I was still traveling as a featured master teacher for Dance Masters of America, and in those days people flew me out to conventions where I would work with with up to 300 studio owners in a class at a time, all seeking  new routines and techniques for jazz and children’s creative dance. I started offering  to teach an extra session for free to show others how to work with kids with disabilities and the convention committees couldn’t resist, so I taught this work at about a dozen conventions and connected with many other dance teachers who had similar classes or wanted to begin one. People would call or write to me with questions, and I enjoyed sharing what I knew.

During these years, the Sarasota Herald Tribune featured my Superstars in an article complete with pictures and information. We were stars for a day. The group was asked to dance at several special educator seminars as an example of the benefit of arts involvement. We even danced once for a Special Olympics event.  I took the kids to participate in dance competitions and local performances and they were always the biggest hit in my recitals.

The most difficult part of selling my business after 20 years of owning FLEX was leaving these students behind. I made the new owners promise the Superstar class would continue, and for a while they had lessons without me. Sadly, the business failed after only two years, and the teachers who had worked with the Superstars in the past dispersed to form new schools of their own. Unfortunately, they didn’t think about inviting my Superstars to their facilities to keep the group together.

Meanwhile, my life moved from dance to my new artistic fascination- writing. And don’t ya know, children with Down Syndrome crept into my writing as characters, as if a shadow of my former life just couldn’t be dismissed. Back then, I was a historical romance writer. I had written a book about 4 women who travel from England to San Francisco in 1847 and the entire plot ended up centered around the challenges of one woman raising a younger sister with Down Syndrome in a time when handicapped people were not afforded rights or respect (they didn’t have a term for Downs then…. Making the research to create an authentic rendition of circumstances difficult). This book won the Royal Palm Literary Award, so while it was basically a silly romance, the story still had some merit – I believe because of the powerful characters. Empowered by the positive feedback I received from winning contests for my romance writing, I applied to and was accepted into a Masters program for fiction at Lesley University, thinking that retirement from dance was the perfect time to get serious about writing. But breaking up with your art is hard to do, and my thesis turned out to be a book about a professional dancer getting older and retiring who was deeply bitter about her profession and aging… but she finds redemption by rediscovering the beauty of dance when she gets involved with teaching a group of kids with Down Syndrome. I didn’t notice how revealing the theme was at the time, but obviously, my years working with the superstars had profound and lasting impact, and my struggle to leave dance was a bigger heartbreak than I admitted as well.

Jump forward in time. My life crashed in a sad and deeply difficult way. I ended up coming back to Sarasota to open a yoga studio, but since I was destitute and deeply depressed, I decided I had to include some dance classes too– for survival more than because I wanted to reengage with the dance business. (I left dance studio ownership for a reason that I had not forgotten).

A few months after opening, my receptionist told me a former male student who had danced with me for years had stopped by to say hi.

I tried to figure out who it might be, thinking of all the male dancers I had trained who went on to work on Broadway or in Ballet companies etc.. wondering who was in town and might have heard I was teaching again. I asked questions about the visitor’s age and what he looked like, and her answers were vague and sort of embarrassed. All of a sudden, I said, “I don’t suppose he had Down Syndrome?”

“Well as a matter of fact, I believe he did,” she said.

Down Syndrome is a pretty defining characteristic in a person, so I laughed, finding  it funny she didn’t mention this first. “Why didn’t you tell me that right off the bat? Then I’d know which student had dropped by.“

“I didn’t want to seem judgmental or anything,” she said, trying to be politically correct by avoiding making any kind of comment that would prove she noticed  the visitor was different from others.

I laughed, remembering how, long ago, I too didn’t know how to act or what to call these students in my worry about potentially offending someone. Over time, I actually forgot the Superstars were in any way different from other students. They were no longer “students with Down Syndrome”, but just Tim, Rachel, Jacklyn, and others I adored teaching.

I once took the group to a dance competition and, giddy with delight over how they did, I nervously leaned over to my husband during the judging and said, “Do you think the judges will know these kids have special needs and judge accordingly? I don’t want them unfairly assessed because the audience doesn’t realize they have special challenges.”

He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Of course they know. It is obvious when you look at them.”

“Oh, yeah”. I said, realizing that their faces were so familiar to me now, I’d forgotten that, to others, their handicap would be obvious.

Anyway, days later I called Tim back to catch up and reestablish our friendship. Within a week, my Superstars had sent messages through the grapevine and our old class resumed. Five of the original students were back, and a few new faces joined us as well. The only difference is that now these dancers were in their mid to late 30’s and so I added yoga to the hip hop in respect to their evolving adult needs and interests. They were moving slower. Getting winded. Yoga was a perfect addition to our class. Students came back from ten years ago, fifteen or five. They knew they’d be welcome, and of course, they were.

The Sarasota Herald Tribune did another article about how the superstars were still dancing together 20 years later. They  performed in the year end show like the old days, and the warmth and camaraderie continued as before. Only now, the class took on a new, deeper  poignancy for me.

Another 5 years has passed. I no longer worry about the kids. Now, I find myself worrying about the parents whom I respect so much. I see them aging and wonder about the stresses and burdens they carry as they enter new stages of life. They are retiring, yet still parenting,  a responsibility most others of us became free of when our children grew up and left home. I worry about them having to plan for long term arrangements for their children as age takes it’s toll and makes it harder for them to be caregivers, and I am humbled to witness them still giving their children rides to dance, still offering enthusiastic encouragement and patience and support after all these years. They are the most loving and devoted parents I’ve ever known, unfailing in their good intentions and positive attitudes.

We’ve been holding the Superstar class every Tuesday from 5:15-6:15 for the last 6 years. The class is still free and still a source of great inspiration to me.  It isn’t always easy to fit this hour into my overworked schedule. I’ve taught the Superstars through issues that most people would have used as an excuse to politely say “it’s not working for me anymore.”. I’ve faced a great deal of business strain the last few years, got married, and sometimes I had to admit that pulling my attention away from other work for this free class was an indulgence I could ill afford. I’ve suffered through Lyme disease and two painful foot surgeries, but kept teaching nevertheless. This season I was offered a writing gig that is more in line with my current life ambitions than dance will ever be again – but the class was offered on the same night as the superstar class, so I canceled it. Whatever comes along, I’ve long since decided, can’t and shouldn’t interfere with something so purely “right and good.”

Eighteen  months ago, I sold the dance studio portion of my business to my studio manager and great friend, Jackie. It would have been the perfect time to retire my Superstar volunteer work, considering I’ve put in my 20 years – enough to feel proud of. But after thinking a long time about what I wanted to do, my only provision to the sale was that Jackie had to promise to always offer me the space to continue this class as long as the students want to participate – and that the class had to remain free and the students must be welcome to perform in her recital every year.

Having been with me a long, long time, Jackie smiled and said, “The school would lose something very special without them….Shame on you for feeling you had to ask. I’d keep it going without you if necessary.”

I was moved to know the studio had been transferred to someone with equal appreciation for dance at its authentic best – as an art form meant for every body.

I’ve now been teaching dance to Rachel and her friends for 21 years with only a small break in the middle of the 26 year stretch since that first conversation in the doorway of my fledgling school .  My superstars have turned out to be one of the most consistent things in my life, despite many twists and turns and changes in career, life and friendships. My work with these kids isn’t about dance or art or even friendship anymore. It’s about commitment and karma and finding purpose in the nooks and crannies of life – something people miss when they are quick to make sensible choices due to situations that at first seem a bother.

I know nothing lasts forever, and one of these days the class will end due to my getting too old or broken to offer much of a good time, or the parents will become unable to continue their role as chauffeur, or maturity will create health or circumstance issues for the students themselves that tell us it is time to stop. Every time I teach the superstars I pause just a moment to recognize and appreciate the profound gift I gave myself when I made that decision many years ago to do something that seemed like a stretch for someone like me to do well.  We are all simply a collection of our experiences and the superstars made me “more” than I would have been had I thought teaching handicapped students was a waste of time or talent for an “advanced” teacher like me.

In retrospect I can say without pause that the limitation’s that had to be faced that day regarding dance had nothing to do with the student’s capabilities and everything to do with the limitations of my own mindset.

We all have the power of saying “yes” despite reluctance and should wield that choice more. You never know what gifts you are missing by avoiding what seems,only at first, awkward or hard .

Indie Reader Review

Today, my Indie Reader Book review was posted. (Indie Reader is the hub of the Independent Publishers – a huge segment of publishing today.) The site gave me 5 stars, which is as high a rating as they give. Looking at the other titles being reviewed, it appears that getting 5 stars is a rare and note-worthy accomplishment. I’m truly honored each and every time someone reacts positively to the book, so I was thrilled. Actually, today turned out a very positive day in regards to writing, because I also received a lovely note from the head of a book club who loved my book and is assigning My Million Dollar Donkey as the club’s January title. They’ve scheduled me to visit the Jan. meeting where I can address the readers and get real-life feedback. It is one thing to hear commentary from friends or students predisposed to like your work, another thing altogether to talk with people you’ve never met about their reading experience. Can’t wait.

Tomorrow, I begin teaching my writing classes at the Adult Community Enrichment center at Suncoast Technical College. I have only 5 students in my journaling class so far, but 14 are registered for my creative writing class. I spent the day working on my syllabus, creating handouts and carefully considering how I want the session to unfold. I take my role as teacher quite seriously, because I believe there is power in writing for self-knowing and creative expression. I want to do justice to the subject so others discover the magic I so deeply value. If there is one thing I believe about teaching, it’s that a mentor has a responsibility to introduce their subject in a way that will inspire, nurture and fuel a student’s interest. People are unlikely to develop talent unless they are willing to commit to the work involved, and loving the art and believing in personal potential is the first step to motivating students to make the sacrifices necessary to evolve. I am well aware that it is my job to make a student love the process, respect the art form, and willingly embrace the work required to progress.

I deeply appreciate the good teachers I’ve had over the years, and always felt so deeply disappointed by those who maybe knew a subject well, but just had no gift for getting the knowledge out of their head and into mine. Long ago I made a pact with myself that if I was ever to teach, I’d do whatever I could to assure a positive learning experience for others.

Hopefully, tomorrow, I’ll open new doors for students and make them excited about writing. To teach is to learn, and I know that the more I put into the process of sharing what I know with others, the more I myself will learn and grow –  as a writer and as a person. At least, that is the goal.


For those who don’t want to chase it down online – My Indie Reader Review!

***** My Million Dollar Donkey

Ginny East has no idea what she’s getting herself into when she trades a million-dollar business for a simpler and sustainable life style.

While family vacationing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, Ginny East recognizes that she and her husband are not truly on vacation since they’ve brought along their work. Ginny has a strange encounter with a donkey—of all things. The seemingly prophetic event only confirms that she and Mark have no idea how to relax and enjoy a simpler life. Selling their well-established Florida dance studio for a million dollars, Ginny and her family venture a dream life on fifty acres of Georgian land. Ginny delves into the world of organic gardening and husbandry while Mark determines to build the all-time perfect cabin. Neither are equipped with proper skills nor primed for the flurry of mishaps that unfold. A dream deferred, Ginny’s simpler lifestyle turns complex especially when her husband’s expenses goes awry.

East tells it as it is in her unique memoir. Focusing on a small but very significant aspect of her life, East’s portrayal of her shift from a city slicker to not quite a country bumpkin is nothing less than fascinating. East’s daring attempts to blend in with her bucolic surroundings is a fitting mix of hilarity and poignancy peppered with plenty of consternation. Certainly there is more behind the drastic move into the unknown, but to divulge plot details will produce spoilers. Needless to say, East’s narrative in many respects is a coming-of-age story. A constant flow of humbling situations, East’s experiences test her strengths and weaknesses to the max. One great example of this—indeed an outstanding and life-altering moment—is when East tutors reading to Kathy, a forty-year-old woman. Pertinent to East’s journey are the sagacious messages of Henry Thoreau. East introduces chapters with apt quotes that segue nicely with her chronicled plot, capturing “the lessons gained” that eventually fuel her happiness today.

An atypical yet inspiring story of new beginnings, MY MILLION-DOLLAR DONKEY will keep readers amused till the very end.

~Anita Lock for IndieReader


Bad Reviews and Good Karma

Today, I read my first negative review on Amazon, a searing attack on My Million Dollar Donkey, with only one measly star. At first I assumed the review was likely from my neighbor whom, in the past, has gone to great lengths to cause me harm and encouraged friends and others to give us negative reviews even if they have never visited our business…. Or perhaps it was written by my ex who may take exception to my telling the story. The review could even be a friend of either of those individuals posting a bad review as a show of support….. but this review came from Texas, and so it may just as well be a stranger who posted a legitimate review- someone who simply hated my book.

Either way, this review came on the heels of some very positive feedback – a marvelous professional review from the Midwest Book review (which goes to libraries and schools nationwide) and emails received from two different individuals who loved the book and asked to make it a featured reading assignment for their bookclubs, and both have invited me to speak at an upcoming meetings. I also have been asked to be the featured reader for “Wordier than Thou” in St. Pete, and a speaker at a woman’s group called Ages and Stages. So, my ego is not wounded to the point of no return by one angry reader’s rant. And yet….. the review did give me pause as I considered what such a response feels like and means to someone who puts their heart on the line for the world to see.

Writing does expose you in a very intimate way…. so much work goes into writing a book. that facing someone’s judgement is always painful. Writers of memoirs send their messages out into the world because they want their voice to be heard in hopes their story helps others learn and grow. When the response is “shut up- you suck” from the universe, your confidence or inspiration can’t help but take a hit. As a writer I just think you can’t please all the people all the time, but as a writing teacher, I take exception to that. Writing is hard enough without strangers belittling the process and I spend so much time teaching aspiring writers to dare to let their voice be heard that things like reviews that cause fear frustrate me to no end .

Yoga has changed how I interact with the world, because rather than being hurt or angry by an insult, my thoughts are always somewhat removed – as if I am watching myself react to negativity when it is tossed at my feet. In the case of this review, I thought, “Wow, as a new author, this is uncomfortable.” And my next thought was, “ I wonder what possessed someone who doesn’t know me to take time from his busy life to pen a negative and deeply hurtful message out to the world. I started imagining him at his computer posting the review and wondered what is it about his personality that makes him believe his opinion really is important to others. The choice to review the work of others rather than pen work of your own strikes me as revealing itself.

A person who feels righteous about his feelings, thus acting in a way that causes emotional distress in others strikes me as someone who has never done something as bold or intimate as writing an honest book. I figure, if this man indeed did read my book carefully or with an open mind, he certainly must have formed opinions fast, rather than letting the story simmer and settle in regards to the bigger themes within.  (I do wonder why would some random guy living many states away chose to buy a book from an unknown author off Amazon, out of the hundreds of thousands of titles available to review– especially considering my book is in no way like others he has read in subject matter or genre – odd that. )The fact that he has only given one star reviews to all the books he has reviewed, with the exception of two books that got a whopping two stars, means he in inclined to dislike stories or feels that reviewing means picking apart a story or something. Can’t take to heart a bad review if you share the sentiment will all the other books he has come across I suppose..

Anyway, I feel he clearly was so swept up in his opinionated state, judging me as an animal owner or someone who had money for a short term and spent it in a way he did not agree with, that he didn’t see the overriding message. How could he when he made no comment about the much more important issues brought up in the story about education (teaching an illiterate woman to read) or consumerism and the other social issues the book is really about. He also didn’t note that the revenue of this book is given to a good cause, etc….  He just saw the book as a story about a woman and animals and he thought I was superficial and spoiled. Interesting.

My Million Dollar Donkey is a book about making mistakes. Big and small. It is about learning painful lessons and how heart wrenching life can be when you go down wrong paths. It is about loss – the loss of family, dreams, confidence, hope. I wrote about mistakes with humor – because that provides room for the poignancy of a story’s depth, but humor does not negate the guilt or frustration I suffered when things went south. This man seems to feel I shouldn’t have taken the journey at all if I was going to be such a horrible failure.  He took exception to the fact that we had money, but chose to build a house before we could build a barn. The implied message is – I shouldn’t own animals without a barn. Funny, because my animals were treated better than almost any country resident I knew – they had timely inoculations, the best of quality food, and an owner who tossed and turned at night worrying about them. I labored with grooming and building housing and gave them a remarkable amount of attention. My country friends stuck their animals in the pasture and never looked in on them – leaving them to nature’s whims for months at a time. Most didn’t have a barn, or if they did, the animals were in a building hazard that should have been condemned  Those animals, raised by the country people who were right at home with farming, went without their shots, or high quality food, or many other expensive treatments. Country people didn’t see their furry friends as pets – but as farm resources, and the moment those animals were trouble or expense, they got rid of them.  This reviewer is an animal rights advocate, clearly, and he felt I was abusive. But the jokes and commentary on my story shouldn’t send a message that I don’t love or care for animals – because anyone who knows me understands just how passionately I do care. In fact, I wouldn’t have spent my life savings on a dream build on relationships with animals if they were not deeply healing and important to my soul.

Clearly, my bad reviewer saw my attempts to live an organic country life as indulgent fool’s errand. I suppose he is of the opinion that we are all born to one life and are expected to know our place and stay there. Those who dare who step out of one life into another, quickly realize the learning curve is steep – another important message in the book. But I felt then, and feel now, that the more expansive our life experiences, the greater our understanding of ourselves and the world at large. I wouldn’t presume to pass judgement on anyone who attempts to embrace an entirely different world because they didn’t take to it like a fish to water. I understand intention and how difficult expanding our boundaries can be in a world that is lived vicariously thorugh books, movies or on-line for so many people, rather than sampling the world in reality. That was the greatest lesson of all – that what seems easy in theory can in fact, be very difficult, and all the assumptions in the world about what you would do if……..doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when you actually experience a different reality.

Anyway, this reader feels he can glimpse into a window and see a small snippet of someone’s life, and know and judge what is in their heart and mind. I read his understanding of the book and imagine a very presumptuous, arrogant person who has no clue of life beyond his own bubble – someone so quickly stopped by an animal story he didn’t see the human story that should have been much more important.

But that is only one reaction to the review. My second reaction was actually positive. The man doesn’t like me, yet he didn’t attack the writing. Frankly, the only element of a review that would have hurt from my standpoint is someone saying I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag and what he said was that I’m a good writer. In fact,  he said he gave me one star for that alone. I’m positively glowing from that small tossed out bone.

We all have stories to tell, and people may or may not like who we are and what we do, but the hard part of writing a book isn’t having a story (we all have one) – but in telling the story well – evoking feelings in others. I rather think that my getting this guy riled up shows my book had impact. If My Million Dollar Donkey was a horribly written book, he wouldn’t have made it through to the end, much less been talking about the plot and action. So I wrote a book he hated in a good enough way to keep him engaged for over 313 pages. He devoted a big chunk of his life to spending time with me and my words.  I take that as an honor.

Reviews aside – it occurs to me that half of my work teaching yoga, reiki and writing, is helping students to put aside judgement and see others as innocents – people who carry baggage and hurt through life. All people deserve patience and we must assume they are trying their best even when we don’t like how they behave. We must learn to listen to other’s stories, and see their behavior as the result of many layers of pain and living and conditioning by parents, society, school, religion, upbringing, etc.. – and remember we all start off the same, but life molds us in a multitude of ways. Compassion is the first step towards acceptance and loving all mankind.  Perhaps this one review will stop someone from wasting their money on a stupid book, and in that way this man has done a service to readers. Since my book is an unknown project with nothing in it for me (the money goes to the World Literary Foundation – and I’ll never even recoup the investment in the project.) I can take his opinion in stride.  I actually wonder about his story now, what some unknown reviewer far away has experienced in his life to feel so strongly about animals and money and wanting to point a finger to people he doesn’t know. Kinda makes me think of him as someone wresting with a lot in his own life to create such a prickly skin on his surface.

Ah well. For everyone’s entertainment – I thought I’d offer both of the reviews I received this week here – side by side. Just goes to remind everyone of my writing students that opinion is subjective. None of it matters . What matters is not opinions, but how you react to opinions. We must resist the urge to get defensive, act out, or be crushed. We can see hurtful comments as someone else’s issues rather than our own, and continue on, choosing to stop any cycle of negativity right here at home, rather than perpetuating it with our own emotionally charged up reactions. And keep writing. No one can or should silence your voice.

To my bad reviewer – Namaste. I wish you health, happiness and a life journey far less painful than the one I shared in my book .I am not being sarcastic when I say it is with absolute respect and appreciation for your time and attention that I accept your opinion about my book with a thoughtful smile. And may your animals feel loved – as do mine, now and always.


Midwest Book Review: (I’ll post this first to soften the blow)

My Million-Dollar Donkey: The Price I Paid for Wanting to Live Simply
Ginny East
Heartwood Press
ASIN: B01HHEXS82, $2.99 Kindle, $18.95 Paper,

Author Ginny East and her husband packed up kids and home and left a secure business to move back to the land in Georgia, choosing a simpler lifestyle over high-priced success. Their move mirrors many, and My Million-Dollar Donkey joins others in following this journey; but unlike any other stories, the sojourn isn’t without its emotional, spiritual, and lasting values impacts.

“When some people go through a midlife crisis, they buy a Porsche. Me? I bought a donkey. That probably says something about my personality, but I’d be afraid to find out exactly what. I suppose a girl should expect a touch of disillusionment if she’s foolish enough to choose an ass as her life mascot.”

Not everyone has a million dollars in the bank from ‘cashing out’ yet chooses an austere lifestyle; and while the theme of a midlife crisis prompting vast changes and previously-undisclosed dreams is a common one; the compelling piece of any story lies in how it’s carried out, presented, and spun – and My Million-Dollar Donkey is truly a donkey of another color.

Chapters are often hilarious and fun to read. They present the emotional seriousness of leaving a consumer-centric American middle class dream for the sake of realigning values with a tongue-in-cheek sense of joie de vivre that is punctuated by Donkey’s observations: “Donkey let out a loud bellow as if to add his pro-horse vote to the conversation.”

What at first feels like luck and inevitability as a series of efforts falls into place quickly comes to feel like something more darkly fateful as mistakes are made and the entire family struggles to fit into their new lifestyle and changing relationships.

The more one reads, the more one finds to relate to as Ginny and her kin face challenge after challenge and achieve their dream the hard way: through struggles that alter perceptions and reactions to life and question hard-won values systems. As ideals are examined and mirth punctuates the story line, readers might find themselves reconsidering their own ultimate dreams in life and the road to achieving them – and that’s the particularly wonderful aspect of My Million-Dollar Donkey.

It doesn’t just entertain or enlighten, but weaves both into a side-splitting and heart-sighing memoir that moves far beyond most “back to the land” sagas to closely examine the heart of what changes make a difference in lives and how they are instigated and absorbed in unexpected ways. If these ways ultimately lead to separation, they also open the door to new beginnings. So be forewarned: My Million-Dollar Donkey holds the potential to make readers cry, at different points, as much as laugh.

Happy endings aren’t always alike, and thus the story line becomes bittersweet, because dreams changed in a partnership or family structure don’t always result in unity and light. Readers who enjoy memoirs, stories of lifestyle changes and strife, and a healthy dose of humor to bind all together won’t just relish My Million-Dollar Donkey – they’ll see it as a standout in its genre and one which offers a simple message: “There are no limits in life, if you just believe.”

Diane C. Donovan, Senior Reviewer


And the unknown reviewer and Animal rights activist from Amazon

on September 9, 2016
Kindle purchase (he did’t spend much that means.)

If the cute cover leads you to think that this is a feel-good story about living with a donkey, it isn’t. This is mainly a memoir about complex family dynamics that play out after a move to the country. The animals are bit players, and tragic ones at that. As an animal person, more than a few parts of this story made me downright angry.

After buying the donkey, a pregnant horse is later added as a buddy, despite having basically no knowledge about how to keep equines. There is no shelter for any of them. No barn, not even a lean-to. The barn is last on a never-ending list of projects, “if the budget permits”. The only water source is a creek. Hubby has no interest in caring for the animals and hubby doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do. A more reasonable person might conclude that this is a good cue to go slowly in the animal acquisition department. Instead, she goes in the other direction. A barn is built some months later, but her animal-raising “hobby” is used as a distraction from a marriage that is seething with unresolved issues.

Two more horses are added as the “adults” can’t agree on one. One of the new horses is kicked in the leg by the original mare soon after arrival, resulting in a bloody, swollen wound and a horse in pain. A vet says x-rays are needed, but they go instead with the homegrown elixir brought by the horse seller. A $50,000 tractor? No problem. X-rays for an injured horse? Too expensive. Three or so chapters later, we learn that the horse is still injured and has lost so much weight that ribs are showing. And that is the last word in the book on the welfare of this horse. Uugh.

The family dog is lost to the woods after several injuries from tangling with the donkey, and while they make efforts to find him, his disappearance is seen as “merciful fate”, because the new puppy turns out to be a perfect country dog, unlike the former suburban Schnauzer.

There’s a goat, rabbits, chickens, ducks, bees and peacocks. Dismayed and surprised by all the work required to care for these animals on her own, what does she do? Hey, how about a llama? Wouldn’t that be fun? How about a second, pregnant llama? What could go wrong?

The author is a good writer and knows how to tell a story (thus the one star). Quotes from Thoreau, who she emulates, are sprinkled throughout. She has a real effect on an illiterate woman in town, and her kids get some good out of the move along with the bad. But in addition to the animal fiascos, the progression of other events and emotions is frustrating. She indulges her husband’s flights of fancy, irrational decisions and reckless spending to such an excruciating degree that you want to shake her and say, “Snap out of it!” A nest egg that the average person could only dream of withers due to hubby’s compulsion to build a near-mansion on their 50 acres, despite no experience in the trade. He comes off as little more than a spoiled child with multiple personalities and a serious case of narcissism. Her hope he will magically become a standup, loving partner inspires empathy, but is repeated endlessly.

So many animals are lost to nature, negligence and/or ineptitude, that the read became alternately depressing and infuriating. By the time the baby llama is found half-eaten by coyotes(the second llama to perish this way) and allowed to drown, it was really too much.

Yes, the author paid a high price for this experiment. The animals paid a higher one.

A memoir about a move towards simplicity ultimately becomes a tale of different forms of self-indulgence run amok. Thoreau would be aghast, as am I.


An Award Winning Garden!

An Award Winning Garden!

A year and a half after winning a gardening contest, (something I entered randomly just for fun with no real expectation that we’d be recognized), our chakra meditation garden is finally featured in Country Garden’s magazine (a Better Homes and GImageardens specialty publication.) And wow, it was worth the wait! We knew our garden would be in the publication, but we wondered if we’d just have a short mention or a page with a few pictures. Instead we opened the magazine to an  8 page spread, and one of the most beautifully written articles imaginable. My daughter read it with me and said, “Are you sure you didn’t write that yourself?”  Ha. I wouldn’t have the nerve to boast half as well as the kind author, Marty Ross, did – who visited and wrote about her garden impressions at Heartwood.We are humbled, delighted, and despite heat, bugs, mistakes, and sacrifices, all the work involved with designing and maintaining a garden feels absolutely worthwhile.



This fall issue of Country Gardens Magazine, 2016, features the 18th annual garden awards and will be on the newsstands for several months. I urge everyone to get a copy. Our garden is not the only beautiful place they have featured. I am amazed we were included among such talented landscape creations. The art and creativity is remarkable. I especially loved the work of a modern day sculptor named Patrick Dougherty from North Carolina, who makes gorgeous structures out of laurel, tree trunks and branches. Heck, my little grapevine arbors look like matchstick toys compared to his awe-inspiring work.  … I’m thinking I should try my hand at something  similar myself now.

The opening page of our article says “Cultivating Good Karma: Positive energy flows through a meditation garden designed to soothe the senses.” which really captures the ambiance we strive to create at Heartwood. Nice to know that what I imagined when I first wanted to create a meditation garden at Heartwood has actually manifested.   Many of us work hard at dreams, but it isn’t often we get to see the recognition for our attempts in such a defined way – kudos handed to you for the world to see right in hard copy print! We truly are honored, and tickled pink.

Since this publication is a garden magazine, a great deal is written about how we designed the garden and what plants are included. Three of my students, all very special individuals that have been important in my own yoga journey, are featured doing yoga in the garden, which makes the article even more special to me for my Heartwood adventure is about not just the place, but the people who share this journey with me. David and I have a picture there too, of course (But all I did when I saw it was complain that I’m getting old. Sigh.)

Since many people may not find the magazine or will see this post after it is no longer available, I thought I’d share the article. But really, you need to have the magazine in your hand to get the full scope of the beauty of this presentation, so pick up a copy and show it to everyone you know.

Thank you Marty Ross and photographer Bob Stefko and brilliant editors at the magazine for this honor!

Here is the shared article (so it is readable) The pictures are above – and my scanning doesn’t do them justice.

Cultivating Good Karma

“Turn off the country road into Heartwood Retreat Center and your focus shifts. The wind whispers in the canopy of majestic live oaks. Sunbeams sparkle on a lacy carpet of ferns. Take a deep breath. Exhale slowly. Relax.

Ginny and David Shaddock converted a 7 acre farm near Bradenton Florida into a yoga center and meditation garden. Strictly speaking, it’s 18 minutes from the bustling busy world of the city. In yoga time, distance isn’t relevant and minutes melt away. You’re in the moment, and the moment is what matters.

When Ginny and David found the place, it had plenty of spirit, and the trees were there, but there was no garden and no yoga studio. The couple had recently married, and this was their first project together, a collaboration both practical and creative. Together they made Heartwood into their home and into a place where Ginny’s yoga students can connect with nature. The chakra meditation garden, a quarter-acre space dedicated to the seven energy centers in the body, adds a powerful dimension to Ginny’s yoga teaching. But more than that, she says, because of the garden, “you feel a sense of peace on this property.” 

According to ancient Eastern philosophy, the energy in our bodies flows among seven chakras, which represent our ability to feel grounded and confident, to be loving and understanding, to focus and communicate, to accept others, and to experience joy and fulfillment. “People who embrace yoga have a predisposition to enjoy deeper understanding of the chakras,” Ginny says, and for them, the symbolism of a chakra meditation garden has great significance. For those not familiar with the chakras or meditation, the garden still resonates. Even novice yogis recognize “what a peaceful experience it is to sit in a beautiful garden,” Ginny says. 

Many hands contributed to the success of the meditation garden. Friends pitched in to work on the design and to strip the site of weeds – in exchange for yoga classes. David, an engineer and Master Gardener with a solid streak of inventiveness, designed the pond and built the bridge. Ginny interpreted the chakra themes in the garden, creating meditation areas and filling them with colors, fragrances, and other cues related o the body’s chakra energy centers.

There are several approaches to the garden, but the entrance from the yoga studio is perhaps the most important. It described a line, Ginny says, starting at the root chakra, symbolizing the earth and associated with the color red, and ending with the crown chakra associated with the top of the head and with the color violet. A garden gate opens into the area dedicated to the heart chakra, linked to love and compassion and represented by the pond in the center of the garden. A gently winding path maintains the flow through the garden. Although one area leads naturally to the next, yoga students do not have to pause at each spot or complete a circuit to be aware of the chakra energy.

After her yoga classes, Ginny encourages yogis to meditate on their own in the garden ad to let themselves feel drawn to the chakra meditation spots that are most meaningful to them at the moment. There is no sense of urgency in the garden, only lush, layered plantings. Buddha statues are tucked amid the flowers. Water flows gently from a large earthenware urn into the pond. Gravel crunches underfoot. The garden stimulates the senses and encourages visitors to listen to the wind and the wind chimes, to breathe deeply and smell the fragrant flowers, to observe the nature all around them and become aware of the richness of the world. 

making the garden has been a deeply satisfying learning process, Ginny says. Now she and David share the wok of taking care of the plants, refreshing the garden decoration, and refining their interpretations of the chakras. “It is a metaphor for our life and what we are here to do – to grow and bloom” she says. Watching other people discover the beauty of the place has been especially gratifying, Ginny says, because it represents both giving and receiving, on many levels. Positive energy flows serenely though their garden, while the busy world churns outside its gates. 

  • End – then there is info on Heartwood on the resources page too.

You can follow Country Gardens on facebook where amazing garden ideas abound!

Now, I have to close. No time for writing. I have weeding to do!!!!!!! Can’t let my reputation slip now!






The honest book review.

IMG_2820I’ve been getting some beautiful messages in response to my book’s release. People I know – and people I don’t know – have read the story, been moved by the message, and taken the time to contact me to share feedback. I’ve received great reviews on Amazon and been positively featured in several book and/or reading blogs that reach thousands of people. I’ve been asked to be the featured author in a public open mic forum called “Wordier than Thou” in both St. Pete and Sarasota. I’m learning a great deal about writing, publishing, and myself as the process of writing a book and taking it to full fruition unfolds.

Almost every review mentions how honest the book is. “Brutally honest” they often remark. Odd, because when a section of the book won the New Southerner Award, the judge said that “honesty” is why this story stood out from many others. And the editor  at Hillcrest Media, who wrote the back jacket, used the same term. Of course, I hammer home how important writing honestly is in my memoir classes, and I endeavor to be as forthright as I can be, both on the page and in my life, but the fact that the most memorable element of my story seems to be brute honesty has me wondering about honesty in the bigger scheme.  Honesty is a great virtue, but “brutally” suggests a raw and possibly unkind version of a tale that leaves damage in the wake. That certainly is not my intent.

So, concerned, I asked a few readers if they felt the book was unkind, or the message stinging or unfair or TOO honest. So far, everyone has assured me that the honesty they are talking about is refreshing and forces a certain degree of truth from the recesses of their gut as they see parallels in their own life. They appreciate how I admit my own flaws or mistakes, and that I seem to be striving to recognize and overcome personal delusion rather than pointing fingers at others or acting the victim. Since self actualization is my intent when writing, I’m glad that comes across. In the end, it is not that I’m ultra sensitive about reviews or commentary, but I sure do want to listen to people openly to really hear what they think and feel, so I can consider if I am sending the message I’m trying to establish  with my words.

At the end of each month, I’m sent an accounting of how many of my books were sold on Amazon and I can’t help but wonder about the strangers who may live many miles away, that felt the urge to pay for and read my story for no reason other than being curious or because they find the subject matter appealing. Such a long literary reach reminds me how important it is to deliver a truly valuable reading experience to people who have so many choices for their precious leisure time nowadays. It is an honor to have someone devote hours of their life to consuming your words.

Suzanne Schoenholt hosts a well-known blog called “Serial Reader”. She is one of the professional readers who reviewed my book and posted a very positive review on Amazon. Before I witnessed her “official” commentary, she wrote me to let me know she had read half the story. I opened my phone message to the following:

I love it! I am working in Minnesota and at the end of my long days, I curl up in the air conditioned bedroom on the third floor of a house I am taking care of, with your book. 

I love it for all of the following:

  • Walden quotes
  • Education about what it means to eat a pig (I haven’t since 1978!)
  • Kathy
  • Your incredible understated humor
  • Your humility
  • Your great writing!!
  • Education about country life in Georgia
  • Half-backs

 I am not sure how far I am along. Have just witnessed chicken funeral and your great humor about your urge to grab your 7-year-old daughter’s hand-drawn tombstone for a scrapbook!

The rest of the message is not necessary to share, but I was  honored that she not only read and reviewed my book, but bothered to tell me what she enjoyed. Taking the time to contact me was an act of kindness to a writer, a woman, and a fellow literary aficionado.

The ability to connect and forge respectful friendships with people I’ve never met and may never meet is humbling. Writing can forge boundless connections between people, no matter where or how they live or how diverse their personal circumstances may be. While I’ve always know this intellectually, witnessing it experimentally is profound.

I’m also floored by how people find out I’ve written a book when I haven’t sent them notification or done anything to promote it. Students I haven’t spoken to in 15 years write to tell me they picked the memoir up with little expectation, buying it  out of some sense of loyalty, but then find they are moved by the story and my writing. Means a lot to hear that from people who are a part of your ongoing life story.

The other day I received a Facebook message from someone named Ben who wanted to congratulate me on writing a book. The moment I saw his name, I recognized it , but I just couldn’t place him. I assumed he was a writing student or perhaps a father of a former dance student.  I checked out his face on Facebook hoping this would trigger my memory, but I didn’t recognize his face  I showed his picture to David who also didn’t recognize him and we speculated a bit about what area of my past he might be from. But a second message from Ben came and suddenly memory clicked. Ben is the man who bought our house in Georgia and who owns it now! We’d had some communications many years ago over disruptive details regarding the sale and a few months after he moved in, he found something very dear to me, a handmade collage of every dance picture I ever had from my years in New York (and no copies) that Mark had tossed out by the barn. Recognizing that the item was very personal, he contacted me and put it aside so I could pick it up on my next trip to GA.   Even ruined as the collage was, I deeply appreciated that someone, even a stranger, cared enough to understand that such a thing would be important to someone who was so deeply connected to dance and her artistic past.

I checked Ben’s Facebook page to be sure my guess was accurate, and sure enough, spied many photos of a very happy Ben enjoying life with other upbeat people in what was my former dream home. We sold the place furnished, so the furniture, rugs, and general ambiance that sets the scene of his photos is exactly the same as photos of my past family Christmases etc…  only in this case, the faces standing before the mantle or in my kitchen are of strangers rather than my family. Weird, that.

The timing of Ben’s message seemed remarkable, because I had been thinking all day about who owned the house now- years later. Just that evening, David and I ducked under the gate and hiked up the winding road to put a copy of my  book on the porch. This was my very last visit ever to Blue Ridge and leaving my story behind was a part of my closure and  symbolic that, once and for all, I could leave the sad memories of that place in the past where they belong. I left a note with the book saying that I felt anyone living in this house should know the story behind it. My book is a part of the legacy of the house now, and I sincerely hope the ongoing narrative of every family who passes that threshold knows joy, appreciation and a collective appreciation for the beauty and good intention that were a part of the original foundation of the home. How odd that I was thinking of Ben all day, and he randomly  felt moved to contact me after 7 years of non-communication. I told him he didn’t have to buy the book, I’d left it as a gift on his doorstep. The energetic lives of people are so interwoven, through shared experience, history, or thoughts – they do seem to create our reality.We must always treat others with respect and care, for they are likely to reappear in our lives in one form or another.

Anyway, I deeply appreciate those who have read my book and taken the time to reach out to let me know about their reading experience. More than anything else, this has kept my creative fires burning. I write now with a sense of the sacred importance of my words, knowing someday, they may land in other person’s lap and might make a difference – to them or to me.

For readers past and present: thank you for being my muse, my support, and a testament to right intention .

A few blogger reviews to cut and paste if you are curious :

My Happy Hippie Husband

People often stop by Heartwood to see the beautiful grounds. They marvel at the brick walkways and the beautiful trellises filled with flowering vines. But inevitably, their eyes shift to these weird hanging bottles stuck in the oddest of places. They never comment, but I can feel the question they don’t feel comfortable giving voice to.

I always smile to myself and offer, “those are organic mosquito traps. My husband puts them all over.”

“Ah… I was wondering…..” they remark, too polite to ask why trash seems to be dangling from limbs in the midst of our well-orchestrated beauty.

When I met David, I found it remarkable that, even though he had never been exposed to yoga, he was so yogic…. He naturally lived by principals and ideals that I personally had to work hard to embrace. He is and always has been, at heart, a happy hippie. And yet, he is functional, responsible, and I never feel threatened by his non-conservative approach to life.  I love the complex combination that makes him such a “controlled free spirit” because our life is enhanced by his commitment to living naturally, rather than stagnating or being encumbered by his desire to live outside of rat race norms.

Our property includes a rushing stream that lies a 30 foot drop down on one side of our property, and we have two forested acres across the stream that serves as a buffer from homes – a bit of wild growing thicket that protects the sense of privacy and quiet.  Heartwood is loaded with ferns and lush oaks and garden spots. So, like it or not, we have mosquitos and other annoying Florida bugs that tend to drive our nature loving yoga students indoors during certain seasons. We can always spray the grounds, and sprinkle dust or grains of bug killer to keep the problem at bay, but when you want to garden organically and you are committed to avoiding chemicals that will seep into the ground water supply, or might harm bees, etc… you can get rather frustrated with the challenge of pest maintenance.

David is often online reading about natural remedies and tricks to make gardens comfortable without being toxic to people or the natural world. And every so often, he slaps on his inventor hat and tries different things. This year, he hung all these plastic bottles filled with rotting Georgia peaches from a batch I brought home after visiting my daughter. We didn’t finish the peaches off in time and they turned brown and David couldn’t hide the fact that he was thrilled. He couldn’t bring himself to spend good money on fresh fruit for a rot project, but now he had guilt free peaches! He combined the fruit with boric acid and other things that I’m afraid to ask about, punched little holes in the bottle and hung them in inconspicuous places. Apparently, the mosquitos crawl in but can’t get out, and the bottles are filling up with nary a whiff of DT or toxic fumes to offend the organic senses.  Just today, David came into the yoga training and put two big bottles of lemonade on the counter and said, “Please drink these.” I must have looked at him funny, because he then added, “I want to make an organic wasp trap and it didn’t work when I tried the apple juice container. I think these will be perfect. Ha! Yogis, ever accommodating, drank lemonade with lunch for a cause.


The other day the kitchen counter was filled with all manner of items that certainly didn’t look like something we were going to eat. Later I came home to find the counter covered in jars filled with beige cream. David explained that he had been making organic bug repellent. He’d read about it online, and the key ingredient was beauty berry, which we have growing on the property, so he took a hike to forge the leaves, then cooked them with beeswax, essential oils and a few other things to make this lovely body cream that actually repels bugs (while making the skin feel great.) Pots of this stuff now rest in our bug repellent basket for our guests, next to the deep woods off (a product that does work but is filled with all kinds of scary chemicals). I’m always interested to see who goes for the homemade stuff and who is more comfortable with a familiar spray that they “trust” will work. Embracing a natural lifestyle takes time for many of us, and I’m not judging anyone’s selection, but I’m pleased to see David’s supply diminishing quicker than the store bought stuff.


The other day I told David that our Hibiscus is growing out of control. This plant is 20 feet high and the branches grow haywire in every direction. The bush is situated on a corner of the house that blocks a walkway during growth seasons. I trim the bush drastically a few times a year, but I just haven’t gotten around to cutting the plant back lately. I asked David to chop it down, but the bush is in bloom and looks great. David can’t bare hacking away at a plant when it looks pretty (whereas I am ruthless when it comes to pruning because I’ve faced the issue of plants out of control that I’ve waited to handle because they look lovely, and the next thing you know, I have to replace them entirely. Trial and error has assured I’m no softy when it comes to gardening.) Anyway . . .

“You can eat hibiscus flowers, ya know.” David said. “Red zinger tea is made of hibiscus flowers”.

I was like, “Whatever. The plant is out of control and attacks me every time I walk through that section of the yard. It’s gotta go. Besides which, these flowers are not red. My red Hybiscus are not in bloom, and this flowering monster is blush colored.”

That night after I was done teaching yoga, David said, “You look thirsty. Here, try this.” He handed me a refreshing glass of homemade tea. When I remarked that the drink was wonderful, he pointed out that I was drinking our Hibiscus flowers simmered with some brown sugar and spices. This tea may have been made from a simple peach hibiscus, but the fresh, light and deeply satisfying flavor proved I shouldn’t judge a plant by its blooms.

Another case of David’s patience and gentle approach to life proving valuable.


Lately he’s been talking about the fact that Water hyacinths are eatable. We have multitudes growing in our pond, all from one little plant we brought home from a lazy canoe outing last spring. The plants double every month, and they bloom beautifully, but we have to wade into the pond to collect and toss a few dozen every couple of months or they would take over the little koi pond. I’ve listened to David share information about the plant’s nutrition value and how the hanging roots cleanse the water for the fish etc….. I know it is only a matter of time until one of these babies end up on my dinner plate as a “David experiment”.

At least I know  if we ever have to survive a total societal crash, David will be a partner that can figure out how to feed us – and keep us from betting bug bites in our little corner of the world.  In the meantime, I stand amused by the funny way people’s eyes shift to our hanging bottles with that unspoken look of “What the heck is that?”

That, my friend, is proof a happy hippie husband lives at Heartwood.


The Chicken Haven!

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The other day, David said he was finally ready to build us a chicken house. The weather in Florida this month is just too steamy and grueling hot for outdoor projects, but he has a window of time off from working and he wants to take advantage of it, so off to Home Depot he went. Hours later he came back with the truck laden with all kinds of odds and ends he would puzzle together with materials leftover from other projects to create a chicken house unlike any other.

I already have the chickens. We bought 5 baby chicks in the spring knowing they would quickly grow large enough to join my 4 chickens and a rooster. Those more mature birds were purchased on craigslist in Feb as a source of free range eggs and we housed them in a small but cute prefab chicken house that we picked up last winter because it was steeply on sale and, while small, too adorable to resist. Building a new chicken house has been in our long range plan since we bought this property, so all along the tiny hen house was considered temporary. The cookie cutter design is meant for 6 chickens at most and really doesn’t have room for any sort of healthy ranging. I’m a girl with big chicken fantasies. so a worthy chicken house seemed important for this lifestyle.

We bought the chicks thinking we had plenty of time to get around to building a more formal chicken house, but as is often the case with busy people, we blinked and suddenly faced a pressing need to get something built because our little house is smack dab in the way of a new parking lot that we are building. I love my free ranging chickens, but they make a mess of the grounds, and while a few fluffy birds pecking around the yogi’s feet is cute, upwards of a dozen free ranging chickens chasing people to their cars and a rooster that likes to crow whenever we are meditating is more than a little annoying- especially when those same birds uproot my mulch and eat my flowers. David and I both agree the time has come to keep the birds contained.

David is a research guy, and innovation is in his DNA, so of course he wouldn’t dream of building a clunky shed sort of thing with a pen attached. He read some chicken magazines began his contemplation. He asked me about what I liked least and best about my former chicken set ups (which wasn’t a very high set bar, I confess.) He looked at chicken houses on the internet. Eventually, he came up with a design incorporating a little of everything he thought would be important.

David’s chicken house not only had to be practical, but well built. He would use reclaimed materials to be environmentally conscientious and cost effective. This would also help us get rid of things building up behind the barn – a bonus! For foundation walls, he began with four big, reinforced stage units we built for the yoga festival three years ago. He decided to use the big rolls of fencing wire we have rolled up behind the barn, remnants of the old fence that we saved after putting up the new wood fence. He configured a nifty system where the pens pinwheel around the hen house so I can let the chickens range in one 12 foot area each week, then rotate the birds so the ground has 3 weeks to recover before the chickens revisit the area. My chickens will never be scratching around in hard packed dirt, which is often the case in chicken pens after they pick the ground clean. He arranged nifty doors in each side of the hen house that can open and close from outside with pulls.  I can direct the chickens to any area with a shift of the hand and don’t need to go inside unless I want to collect eggs.

David used the heavy rolling door he made for our barn a year ago, before he upgrading that building, and repainted a screen door rescued from an old house remodel to use as an entrance. Three other screen doors were made from scratch to provide a separate entry to each of the pen sections. We already had nifty chicken nesting boxes with removable (and cleanable) tile bottoms from when  we first moved here and built chicken housing in a stall in our barn. David’s new brilliant design includes a nifty air handler on the roof to keep the hen house aired out, as well as open space along the bottom of the building so the shavings never smell. He’s added lights for winter, and an automatic waterer, and hung a great big feeder so when we’re busy, we don’t have to worry about the birds going hungry. The food and water is protected by a slanted panel under roosts.  This chicken house even has a small hose rolled up so I can conveniently keep things clean, and a bin for food. There’s even a small box to keep whatever little keepsake might need to be tucked away . My former, little cute chicken house is now situated by the big pen as a housing area for any nesting chickens, or for times when I want to purchase new chicks.

When yogis go out to see David’s newest creation they all comment that the place is big enough and nice enough to put in a bunk for overnight lodging. They marvel at the spacious interior and the windows and the fact that it is cool inside despite the summer sun. We’d certainly love to build a few cute caravans for yogis someday, but for now, we are delighted to have finally created a chicken haven for our feathered friends.

I do love chickens. Not only do I love collecting free range eggs daily, but there is something calming and natural about a chicken-friendly lifestyle. I plan to situate a couple of comfy Adirondack chairs out there so people can hang out and watch the cute antics of the birds. I’ll be there with a cup of coffee more often than not, I suppose.

The only problem is, this new chicken house is so fantastic and so big and so user friendly, that my ten, humble chickens don’t do it justice. Having one measly rooster and a few uneventful brown hens out there in such a grand chicken haven seems like a poor use of resources.

So, I’m checking out Craigslist every day…. Looking for some fancies. I need a sportier robust flock as the final garnish for David’s fantastic chicken endeavor.   I’m thinking a few Frizzles, a Silky or two, some exotics…… And don’t ya know, the darn housing is big enough for peacocks or pheasants. Ah, the possibilities!

The house isn’t complete just yet. David has a few final touches and fencing to finish off. I bought a big metal chicken sign for the building and my metal chicken sculpture must find a place of honor. But soon, this chicken haven will be a part of Heartwood that feels familiar to everyone who visits, and in no time, it will seem as if the grand chicken house has always been here. That is how it goes. We work, change and evolve this property, and every addition feels like such a natural fit, we quickly forget the “before”.

That is how the best of dreams unfold, I’m thinking.




Book Release Party

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The other day, I had a book release party for my new Memoir, My Million Dollar Donkey. June is probably the worst possible month and Wednesday evening the worst possible time for such an event because people are traveling and working and such,  but due to the date of the book’s publication and my crazy busy summer teaching schedule, a mid week night in mid summer seemed the only option to launch the book.

About eighty people showed up, and oddly, not the people I expected. I have certain students, friends and family members I thought would fill the ranks out of obligation or a sense of friendship, but few of them bothered to make the trip out for the event. Yet, many others came to voice heartfelt congratulations and enthusiasm, and I felt deeply honored that so many people paused their busy summer to show me respect, interest, and support. I learned a great deal about who cares about me on a certain “respect” level, and will be forever grateful to those who made the night successful for me.  David worked so hard to make the evening wonderful, even giving me an introduction worthy of a star.

I wasn’t sure what to plan for such an occasion, but David, Soraya, and I set up the evening for a variety of activities and despite a threatening weather report, the evening went off smoothly in every way. I did a reading out by our gazebo which got great feedback, and people wandered out to the labyrinth and to see our new Before I Die board. Refreshments were served in the yoga studio where we played the book trailer. I signed about 50 books. David later asked what it felt like to sit at a table with so many people in line waiting to get your autograph. “Humbling” was all I could answer. We gave away some prize baskets filled with my homemade wine and items that are reflective of the book’s themes, and had some great conversations about writing and living off the grid.  When the evening was finished, David and I had a glass of wine and talked about writing, life, and how the little moments such as this make hard work worthwhile.

Years ago, I decided to shift gears in my life with a dream of  writing full time. I changed careers, went to school to be formally trained and relocated all with an eye towards setting up a writing life. While I had a perfect plan in place, life threw me a curve ball and instead of opening space for my writing, life took a direction that all but killed every morsel of opportunity for me to continue that journey. It’s hard when you make great personal sacrifice for something you deeply care about, and end up, despite the best of intentions, losing it all together. But that is life.  It’s taken 6 years to reclaim even a sliver of the opportunity to attend to writing again, but at long last, I’m able to revisit my latent dreams.

The book release was just a start. I am teaching classes and writing retreats at Heartwood now and have a great student body of about 350 people in the Heartwood Writers collective.. This fall I begin 10 classes per term (3 weekly) at ACE – which is the Adult Community Education program at Vo-tech college in Sarasota. I’m teaching journaling, memoir, fiction and Writing Spiritual Wills. The best thing about teaching is that it keeps me deeply involved in the creative process, so I write more myself.

I’m working on three book projects now. A craft book about writing memoir with yoga sensibilities directing your flow and purpose to make the process kinder to self and to the world. A second memoir about building Heartwood  – a continuation of my recently released book where I pick up the pieces of my life and build something out of nothing. And I’m revisiting the first book I ever wrote, a historical romance that had great promise but never really hit it’s stride. The story is still intriguing, however I admit, I’ve evolved so much as a writer in the last fifteen years since I first penned that manuscript that I’m having to rewrite the entire story to do it justice. Still, I assign special meaning to getting the book right after all this time. I’m someone who doesn’t give up easily on anything she starts, so seeing this project to a good conclusion feels like a nagging need.

My book is selling, steadily but surely. A few book bloggers are reviewing it on some big book sites. It is fun to get messages from friends and people I don’t even know, telling me how much they loved the story. Many people relate to the themes of the book, and I’m proud I’ve captured that universality. But as is the case with most art endeavors, I can’t help but think that, while I’m proud of this first publication, I can do better next time. Perhaps that is all a part of the process. Hitting one’s stride is never an obvious, linear thing. Mining your gifts happens like a labyrinth, with curves and turns taking you closer and further from the goal. You just have to keep putting one step in front of the other on the path, and trust the process. Eventually, by continually moving forward, you’ll come to the center.










Farmer Ginny Lives!

Farmer Ginny Lives!

The other day, a student who recently read my memoir commented that they could barely imagine me going through that “farmer” stage. I smiled, wondering if I should tell them that it wasn’t exactly a stage (that implies I moved on to something else)– but more like a part of my personality was unearthed, and once you expand who you are and what you know, you can never go back. In other words, the farmer in me is still very much alive.

The one thing I learned from my failed life reinvention  was that the quality of your life isn’t dependent upon where you live. Your lifestyle is defined by HOW you live. I tell yogis all the time that if they want to be serious about living their yoga, they don’t have to run off to Tibet to meditate on a mountain top for a year as the culmination of their education as they strive to be truly authentic. We don’t need the artificial trappings of environment or extremism to define us. A serious yogi needs to learn how to be kind while standing in line at the supermarket  if they want to practice advanced yoga.  If you can take any concept of ideal living and maintain your commitment, attitude and efforts towards that end, and apply your beliefs to your existence as you are deeply engaged in the real world then you are truly authentic. It is easy to remove yourself from society and stay on the path of simplicity because nothing is challenging you to be otherwise. Try to maintain a personal commitment to a simple or naturalistic lifestyle when you are working and raising kids, and dealing with neighbors and bosses and traffic and bills. If you can do that, you are the real deal, not romanticizing who and what you are because you thrust yourself into a situation where you have no choice but live a certain way because you’ve isolated yourself from society and withdrawn your options.  I left the mountains worried that  I had lost my opportunity to live an organic or artistic life, but in truth, I live more in tune with my ideal now than I did when I was buried in the mountains. Even Thoreau left the woods. Carrying what I learned during that time back into a vibrant, active community of Florida is what made my time in the country truly expansive to me as a person.

So, in regards to living an organic, natural, farm-oriented life . . . it didn’t take me long to embrace all those priorities into my new life in busy Sarasota. My first little home had a garden on the side of the house with tomatoes and herbs.  I did some canning, and shopped at the local farms feeling this was a lifeline to the world I had lost. When I moved to Heartwood, the first thing we did was plant a garden and get some chickens. Without going crazy, I continue to move towards my ideal lifestyle, which included living in tune with the environment and respecting food sources. Now, I grow what I can, and each season I do a little home canning to provide preservative-free, fresh bounty to our off-season meals. David and I shop at Obrien Family Farms, right around the corner from us for most of our produce.  Someday, we hope to extend our own growing capabilities at home.


Obrien Farms is an extremely efficient and unique hydroponic garden business that changes seasonally, but offers “you pick” opportunities and homemade goodies and a farmers market shop and more.  This farm is very much like a place in Blue Ridge that was all the rage (Merciers) only here, we don’t have the crowds or the commercialism that made the other place seem more a tourist attraction than an authentic farm. David and I love stopping by Obriens (and we visit other local farms too), partially to shop, but also to learn. The hydroponic systems are remarkable and very inspiration if you believe in preserving resources and the environment. Someday, we dream of putting in a greenhouse and hydroponic systems at Heartwood – not on the scale of Obrien, but just for our family and the yoga community who visit Heartwood. We’d love our gardens to be a resource to teach others about how to grow healthy food at home, no matter how much space you have.

Despite sandy soil and hotter weather, gardening isn’t harder in Florida – simply different.It is more challenging to farm productively here since success involves more than putting a few seeds in the ground and waiting for nature to do the work, but the growing season is long and filled with the same level of deep harmony with the land that I felt in Georgia.

I have ten chickens now that free range around Heartwood providing us with farm fresh eggs. David plans to build us a new bigger chicken coup this month to keep my bold birds from creating havoc in our gardens. My beehives went bust when my two slowly building hives swarmed … dang bees just took off and landed in a hole in one of our oaks behind the yoga center, so now I can watch them high up overhead busily creating a new home, but I can’t collect honey from them. I will need to have them removed eventually, I suppose, rather than let them live there, laughing at me.  I’ll try setting up new hives in all my bee boxes again next season – and remove the wild bees so they won’t raid the formal hives. We are too busy with the construction of a new septic and parking lot now to play with honey issues, but that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it as any farmer up against the elements and nature’s fickle personality would.

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I recently made homemade veggie marinara sauce  and this week I’m due to make more fresh berry jam because my last batches finally ran out. I’m still making homemade wine and cordials, and a cute tower garden outside my kitchen window is always exploding with herbs. It is getting so hot, I’ve cut away the lettuce and only basil and parsley seem to last. Soon it will be time to plant beans and fall veggies. (The seasons are very different in Florida than in Georgia)   Yes, things are growing all around us with nutritious healthy veggies on our property or from the many farms and fresh farmer’s markets nearby that fill in the blanks of what I don’t have time or inclination to attempt to grow myself. Sarasota has a huge organic and naturalistic community, and I can’t imagine anyplace being more supportive of a healthy, wholesome lifestyle than here.  All you have to do is care enough to expand your shopping habits beyond the local Publix or franchise restaurants, get a little dirt under your nails, and decide that fast food will never hold a candle to slow, slow, slow food you grow, harvest, and prepare yourself.

Yes, the farmer in me is alive and kickin’. If only I had space to keep another donkey!