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Bloom in Grace

Many months ago, perusing garden supplies on some website, I came across copper words that are meant to be attached to a post or wall. They offered a large selection , but only a few seemed to fit our garden theme, so I bought the words “Bloom” , “In” and “Grace”.

When they arrived I enthusiastically showed them to David and told him I didn’t know if I should hang them to read “Bloom in Grace” or “Grace in Bloom.” Considering the fact that a Chakra Meditation Garden is designed to promote deeper reflection and a more enriching inner experience, both sentences would be appropriate.

David smiled and told me he had an idea so I wouldn’t have to choose. The words were stacked on the kitchen counter for a few weeks, getting in the way of our cooking, so I moved them outside to the porch where an ever growing stack of “to do” projects seemed to land. Eventually, I tucked them away in a box and one day, while cleaning the porch, they ended up being carted to the barn to be stored with all the other artsy things I plan to get to when I have time. I promptly forgot those garden décor pieces because life just got busy and something as lovely as playfully decorating the garden just doesn’t rise to the surface of my consciousness when the real life chores of weeding, mulching, pruning and making a living to support the garden is pulling at my brain.

But yesterday, David was cleaning the barn and organizing things and he must have stumbled upon those words, because at the end of the day, he invited  me to the garden to “see something he did for me…”

He recently made a  new arch to enhance one of the meditation benches that I felt seemed a bit plain and needing inspiration. I planted a beautiful orange trumpet vine at the two bases which is just now making its way up and towards the top. I suspect soon the vine covered  arch will be a gorgeous frame for this meditation spot. And there from the center point was a mobile he’d crafted with the words hanging from a piece of wood that rotates with the wind. The words are attached with rotating fixtures that allow them to twirl in place even while rotating as well.

IMG_0655IMG_0658Now, the words float in the wind and they read “Bloom in Grace” Or “Grace in Bloom”, depending on which way the wind is blowing . Sometimes the words are backwards or twirling too, which is a metaphor for how we find those moments of peace (fleeting even when we are present) too. You have to be patient and wait if you want to read the message lined up in a certain order.

It is spring and the garden is on the brink of exploding with flowers and new growth. Everything seems fresh, young and eager to emerge. I suppose soon I’ll be complaining about the heat and the dry conditions and the way certain plants threaten to take over my garden as they grow out of proportion and in whatever direction they wish. But now, everything seems to have just woken from a long sleep, and the plants are just stretching and yawning and waving good morning. I love the way the garden is never the same on any given day. Anything alive is destined to change, grow and someday fade – ourselves included. It’s important we all remember that and pause to appreciate how things are now – and even if our attempts to get in perfect alignment seems like aiming for a fleeting, moving target – to “ bloom in grace” – is always a possibility if we are patient and let the wind blow us where it will.

Creating the Labyrinth

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This week, David and I finally finished creating a labyrinth at Heartwood. We’ve been talking about building one ever since we bought this 7 ½ acre property two and a half years ago. We originally thought we’d make the path out of some kind of affordable landscaping, but after our wedding venue adventure collapsed and we dismantled our event tent, we found ourselves with a beautiful large slab just begging to be used for something special. I doubt we’d ever allocate so much in the way of resources to making a permanent labyrinth this size on such a beautiful surface were it not for the unexpected shift in our business plans, but somehow, this project was meant to be. A labyrinth is a metaphor for life with all the turns and unexpected shifts of direction you take on your path to get to your center – so the very creation of this project is an example of what the labyrinth is here to teach us. In our case, we built a retreat center with one expectation, then responded to innocent requests from a few students that somehow lead us to hosting weddings (a different expectation), and less than a year later, another twist demands we go a different direction yet again. Life is unpredictable and all you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and follow your life’s path trusting you will eventually be lead to the core of your existence.

I first got a hankering for a labyrinth from an image I saw on a monthly e-mail from a center for journal therapy that I very much admire. I was impressed by the picture and the attached message about the power of the labyrinth for personal awakening as an artist and writer. I thought, “Well, if that is what a labyrinth does, I gotta have one!” I sent the e-mail to David, and a two year discussion about how one might make such a thing began.

David and I started to read and research labyrinths – their history, use, and deeper purposes. We were not in a hurry to create one, but we hoped one day we’d get a chance to make some kind of labyrinth. Once we decided to act on this whimsical dream, serious planning was required. A labyrinth is complex, created through the use of “sacred geometry” and the design must be exact for the correct impact.

We looked at hundreds of different labyrinths and in the end decided to go with the most classic design – the 11 circuit famed “Chartres Labyrinth,’ built in the 13th century which is at Chartres Cathedral in France. Our labyrinth is just a few feet shy of the original, but the path has been painstakingly laid out to keep the integrity of the design intact in respect of the history and heritage of this renowned and beloved symbol of spiritual awakening. The perimeter is designed to hold 114 candles for inspirational evening walks, making the experience quite magnificent.  But choosing the design was the easy part. We had to figure out how to get the dang thing actually onto the slab in a way that keep the integrity of the design intact and would hold up to use.

David thought about how to go about things a long while and did some research to learn how others accomplished the task. Laying down a labyrinth without a kit or instructions was a complex project, but one he insisted he could handle. On the day he planned to begin marking the slab, I spied him on the back porch, just staring at a piece of paper for the longest time. His engineering mind was rolling over the challenge, coming up with the best way to go about recreating the intricate pattern. In the end, he established the exact center of the slab and used string and stencils made from plywood to get the labyrinth set. He plowed through a dozen magic markers, all quickly torn up on the concrete, to establish the outline. He spent so many hours hunched over that he could barely walk for two days. Then, Soraya (my yoga teaching assistant) and I spent days painting the design. We too were so sore we could barely move. We laughed about how people will no doubt see our labyrinth and think, “Ah, all they did was paint a design on a slab. No biggie…” But man, it’s been quite an undertaking to manifest this thing.

We still have to clean and then seal the slab, and we have plans to add bamboo landscaping, build entrances and exits, add lighting, and other detail to create an amazing sacred space that will feel inspirational to visitors, but the full spectrum will take time and money that we don’t have now. What we do have is a walk-able labyrinth and I am thrilled.

So, what is a labyrinth, exactly? Unlike a maze, which offers choices, decisions and challenges that engage the active mind, A Labyrinth is designed in a pattern which curves and slowly leads a visitor into the quiet center. There is only one path out of the labyrinth as well, offering a visitor time to reflect on life, see parables with existence, and to forge inner stillness and peace. Walking the exacting path of the labyrinth invites a visitor to turn off the intellect to quiet the mind as they experience the path as a metaphor of the winding path of our lives and the twisting journey we take to find our spiritual center. It represents our journey from birth to death. Each person experiences the labyrinth differently, carrying away individual insight, awareness and inspiration. Whether you walk the labyrinth to quiet the active mind, to unleash your creativity, or to reflect and better understand your life, you need only step on the path with an open heart and mind (and no judgement) to have an experience.

I’ve walked our new labyrinth about a dozen times already. Each time, I have brought a different question or focused on a different area of my life as I walk.   And dang, if I haven’t felt moved and been afforded new insight about my ongoing life journey. I can’t wait to incorporate our labyrinth into writing classes, trainings and retreats. But for now, I am delighted to have it here for me. Something very special seems to be happening at Heartwood in a slow, steady way, and I feel deeply honored with the right-purpose of my work here. With all the stress, disappointment and loss we’ve faced in regards to the wedding fiasco, this labyrinth represents our faith in the future of Heartwood and a reestablishment of our true purpose here.

No doubt, our labyrinth, which looks rather simple now, will evolve and become more beautiful, like the Chakra garden and all of the other special areas of Heartwood. But what is important is that something that wasn’t here a week ago now exists – ready to be cared for and embellished. This new meditative outlet will become a part of the grander scheme over time, and will offer solitude and personal growth to many people. Knowing others will benefit made the work of creating this labyrinth meaningful, rather than cumbersome.

I am never surprised, but always fascinated, with the synchronicity of events as they unfold in my life. On the very week we decided to build this labyrinth, that very same writing center that set the seed of the idea years ago sent me a solicitation for their first convention for therapeutic journaling and memoir writing at a retreat center in Ashville GA. Just about every author of every book on journaling and memoir that I have here in our library and that I use when teaching, is a featured guest speaker. I signed up immediately, deeply thrilled to have the opportunity to study this kind of writing with these kinds of teachers – and because I was an early registrant, I was given the opportunity to get first pick of what sessions to attend. And guess what the first seminar (limited to only a few lucky enrollees) will be. WALKING THE LABYRINTH! So, I’ll witness how they introduce the subject and learn even more about this process, and I’ll bring home that knowledge to share with others.

Like walking the labyrinth, I just keep following the path as a writer, teacher, and retreat center director. In the process, the direction I’m going often shifts and changes, sending me outward and then inward, then outward again, in a constant motion I don’t fully understand, until eventually I find I’ve moved ever closer to the core of my purpose. Reaching the center only demands that I keep on moving -trusting in the process, and finishing what I begin.

When others walk the labyrinth, perhaps they will see the value in this approach to life as well.






Dead Ends

Today, I was sent the back cover of my new book to approve. I’m always a little delighted and thrilled to see the manifestation of my art and how an editor envisions this project, so I couldn’t wait to see what the back of the book would look like.

When I opened the file, all alone at my desk, I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help but find their interpretation funny. Kinda awful . . .  but funny.

The front of the book features a hand drawn image – the first half of a donkey…. and I approved this and loved it. But the back of the book features the back half of said donkey with his feet in the air as if he was dead. Now, I get it. The book ends with a death of sorts – the death of a marriage and dreams etc…. and I certainly am guilty of using the donkey as a metaphor for our entire story. That is, after all, the point of the title and how the book was designed from the beginning. Nevertheless, seeing this silly image of a donkey’s feet in the air was so horrible it made me laugh. I wish the book was more of a comedy, because there is a certain wit to this choice. But I really don’t feel it will work for my back cover. Frankly, the humor sends the wrong message….. and in all good conscientiousness, I can’t kill off my beloved donkey, even to get a smile out of a reader.

So I am back at the drawing board, coming up with suggestions as I gracefully point out that this image isn’t the best representative of the story. Perhaps the back half of the donkey (right side up) is enough. An ass should be metaphor enough. Or perhaps I should pick another image from the story. Then again, maybe the upside down donkey’s back end will grow on me and I’ll keep it.  It’s an attention getter for sure!

Still, I love this first draft just for the fact that it makes me laugh out loud every time I see it. If there is one thing I believe, it’s that you really can’t take your self too seriously as an artist or you lose the best part of art’s great purpose….. writing (or any kind of art) exists as an honest reflection of  humanity and life. I’ve always recognized that life has a great sense of humor. Why not embrace that.




The Writing Mentor’s Benchmark

Today, I taught my memoir writing class. The class has grown in popularity, and is, without doubt , one of my favorite classes to teach. I see remarkable improvement in the writing of students who come regularly and I marvel at the power of release that comes when people begin probing the meaning and message of their past. Several students have asked me to work as their personal writing mentor or to give them more involved feedback on projects they have underway, so obviously, students feel I have something to offer. I’m always humbled by this kind of request, because writing is something that you can’t exactly teach. Of course, you can definitely share insight to help people find a more authentic voice and structure their stories in a way that makes them unfold more poignantly. So, I suppose what I do with my writers could be viewed as formal teaching…. and yet, with writing I always feel my making a difference is hit or miss. You have to have something good to work with to start if you hope to have an effective impact on a student’s compositions, and the student has to listen – really listen, to the feedback and not be defensive or arrogant regarding how their story has landed on the page. When the work you are critiquing is comprised of scenes sharing the intimate and strongest experiences of their lives, a student can easily feel you are judging them rather than judging the literary retelling of their experiences. Memoir writing is so very intimate, raw and shadowed, that talking about it academically seems slightly disrespectful to the meaning behind the message.

One of my students, who has worked with me for a year now and who has also taken my 200 & 500 yoga teacher training, as well as Reiki course, told me yesterday that I am a remarkably good teacher in just about every subject, and yet my truest calling is my guidance to authors. I was flattered, of course, but also sort of surprised and doubtful. My first thought was, “Well, you should see me teach dance. I have a lifetime of experience to share in that field…. And I’ve changed lives through my teaching of yoga so let’s not dismiss that . . and most of these stories would be great whether they had me to help in the process or not and . . . .” Somehow, I just can’t say “thank you.” I don’t trust that my observations and discussions on writing can possibly be more informative and inspirational than my other teaching, because writing can’t be measured in that way. The yogi in me can’t help but note how my first reaction was a bit defensive, as if putting my gift for writing instruction above the other work somehow lessons the worth of my many years of devotion to teaching other subjects.

I’ve been thinking about that – about whether or not I deserve the praise, and I’ve contemplated what my MFA education gave me to prepare me to teach writing in the way I do. Of course, my master’s degree taught me a great deal – that is the point of investing the time and money to attain a higher education, but I think earning an advanced degree in creative writing impacted my writing more than it impacted by ability to teach. Silly to think the piece of paper validates me as a teacher in any way.

Maybe what is going on here is that I’m considered a good writing teacher by default – perhaps I’m not so good, but others who hold memoir or creative nonfiction classes locally are actually bad (those who can’t, teach?) I know I’ve had a hard time in my life finding writing coaches or teachers who really helped me improve despite my taking tons of classes, workshops, courses, and earning a degree in the subject. Heck, half of the writing teachers I’ve met along my journey got me confused and off track of my story’s purpose as they focused on sentences rather than content or because they tried to influence my tale to be more in line with something they believe others wanted to read. At the same time, I can count off instantly the remarkably good dance and yoga teachers I’ve been blessed to work with who have helped me progress in those fields. All things are relative. Perhaps I’m a satisfactory writing teacher because of the law of scarcity and I’m really just “adequate enough”.

The hard fact is, writing is really a difficult subject to teach if you go beyond the surface and don’t turn the process into a lesson on the mechanics of writing (in other words, teaching English, sentence structure, plotting, how to use metaphor or kill your clichés is all surface stuff, and really good writing begins with figuring out the complexity of unfolding a tale in an engaging way.)

So after quite a bit of introspection, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am indeed a good writing teacher (ha, and humble too!)– but not because I’m a good writing teacher in the traditional sense. I think the combined experiences of teaching yoga, writing, and other artistic endeavors is what has prepared me to wade into the murky waters of memoir writing with some insight . Memoir is simply creative nonfiction, but the writing involves mining the insight and lessons of our never-ending quest to feel whole. And yoga teaches us the importance of doing this same thing honestly and without judgment. I believe the hours upon hours I have spent discussing yoga and how our relationship with our experiences and the intimate connections and mental constructs we embrace and which, in the end, collectively forms our personality, has been key to seeing my student’s stories as deeply valuable and needing to be told. And that makes getting those stories onto the page very important. When you believe in what you are teaching, your conviction makes the lesson more authentic, and I believe you strive harder to get the job done. Add to this the basic understanding of good writing taught to me in college, and I suppose I’m a good help to people who want to write memoir.

I certainly don’t teach memoir for monetary gain or ego stroking. I allow students to pay by donation, and tell them to leave money in the basket only if they feel inspired, and I put quite a bit of time into the classes, even during seasons when the attendance is low. I teach writing because I love listening to the stories of people’s lives. I love seeing their face when they make a sudden new connection between their past and present. I love the way they come to class and tell me that an assignment I gave opened up a can of worms emotionally and that suddenly they feel totally different about events that used to confuse and frustrate them. I love the beautiful, lyrical quality of so many of the passages read in class, and I love listening to the authentic voice of each student as they share their work. I love when the work is great, and I love when it isn’t, because even in the choppy, chaotic tales I know so much potential is there, waiting to be unearthed. Everyone DOES have a story to tell, and every one of them is fascinating because it is a cameo presentation of the human condition.

Perhaps loving what you do is all it takes to be good. That is what motivates us to go the extra mile and put forth that special effort that makes a difference. The power of intention is everything.

Merry Christmas!

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Christmas is wonderful, but at the same time, there seems to be this undercurrent of mild sadness. I can’t help but recognize what is missing, or WHO is missing at my holiday, and even when things are lovely I find myself triggered by past memories – longing for times past, or the innocence of the past when I felt confident that my life as it was would go on indefinitely. My mixed emotion is not a depression thing, but a recognition that life involves change, like it or not. My kids can be sitting on the couch a few feet away, and I’m missing them nevertheless- or at least the 7 year old version of them – back when their eyes were filled with excitement and the magic of the season and the holiday was celebrated in  a big way to meet their youthful expectations. I also miss my younger parents and the years when they were more involved in the holiday traditions, and I even miss myself back when I had more energy to go the distance to make every detail perfect.

Christmas reminds me to be thankful for all I have, and to appreciate the people in my life today, but still….. my mind wanders to people who have less, or who are struggling with family or personal problems. I die a little inside as I imagine people I do or do not know personally who are spending their first Christmas alone after the death of a loved one, or who spend Christmas feeling ostracized from a family or community, or for anyone’s whose life has taken a turn to make the holiday feel more empty than full. I think of horrible things I’ve heard happen in the news and imagine the parents of children who’ve been gunned down in school this year or orphans who are in war torn countries, and my mind considers what they are thinking or feeling on this day. The juxtaposition of the merry holiday against life’s bitter reality seems to make the meaning of the holiday poignantly sad while also being sweet.

My heart goes out to all those who feel a twinge of sadness at Christmas, . For those who feel nothing buy joy, I hope they know how important it is to savor and harbor the memories. Such memories are precious and dear . . . even if sometimes, they become the very memories that haunt you in later years.

My Christmas tree is filled with ornaments I’ve collected over the years and each have significant meaning for me.   I’m reminded of people who came and went in my life, experiences I’ve had, places I’ve gone. Two marriages, several careers, dozens of students, friends, trips and more are represented in those ornaments. Each sparkling keepsake is special, each packed with a nugget of joy from the past – but these small meaningful items make me feel the poignancy of faded history too.

I must remember that while honoring the past is important, I must not dwell on past Christmases or people I’ve lost contact with. My energy will be better spent taking the time to savor what I’ve experienced this year … I must store up my memories of this season, for tomorrow, I am likely to miss the people and heartfelt exchanges I’ve been afforded this Christmas just as I miss those that came and went over the years. My aging parents, my loving husband, having two of my three children with me…… these are beautiful holiday gifts, too precious to take for granted. I will miss the small pleasures of this Christmas when the moment is gone.

I guess it is important we all keep the Christmas cup half full – not half empty.

Nothing is etched in stone.

Nothing is etched in stone.

IMG_1206Years ago, when we were building our dream house in the mountains of Georgia, I came across an engraved stone for sale in an art booth at a fall festival. It read, “Nothing is etched in stone.”

I found the sentiment humorous, considering the words were indeed etched in stone, and I felt the find was very unique, so I bought the thing, and when we were cementing in the stone work on our impressive, grand fireplace, we had the stone permanently set into the dramatic rock façade. Within two years, we had lost that house, stone and all – in fact, we lost our life. Our marriage, our dreams, our security, our friends, our family unit, self-confidence and more was wiped away by a series of unexpected mishaps. It was like the stone foreshadowed what was to come.

Recently, I went to visit my daughter in Georgia, and we enjoyed visiting the very same yearly festival. Oddly, all the same booths were set up in the same configuration selling the same things. (Which revealed to me that what seemed such a remarkably unique find the first time around was in reality me naively assigning meaning to a tourist attraction that repeats itself over and over, and all in all, picking up the stone was not as special a treasure as I wanted to make of it. No doubt there are hundreds of people with similar stones also thinking they have something remarkably unique in hand. )

Anyway, on my recent repeat visit, don’t you know I see the same vendor and he is selling the same stones. I had been thinking about that purchase before going to the festival, remembering the day I bought the stone. I knew if I saw another like it, I’d buy it again. And I did.

My daughter lifted her eyebrows quizzically and said, “Are you sure you want that? Isn’t is a reminder of all you lost. Perhaps having that thing in a pace of honor in your home is a bad omen. Do you really want anything from the past as a reminder of that difficult time in your life? ”

I thought about the warning a moment, but decided the stone, while reminiscent of a failed former dream, carried a very important message that deserves contemplation and respect. I brought the stone home, and it rests on our fireplace now, a constant reminder that life doesn’t always unfold as planned. We must appreciate and honor each and every day, because what we have in the here and now is a gift. Everything is impermanent. Our health, our money, our loves, our careers, our homes … everything…. In the end, we will all age, things will drop away and everything we have and we are will be gone. I like this second stone even more than the original, because I have a deeper appreciation for the message now.

There is a story I use when teaching yoga students about impermanence.

Once upon a time, a student asked a wise guru how he could bare the loss and heartache that is part of the human condition. The guru held up a beautiful vase and answered, “Do you see this spectacular vase? It is made of the finest crystal and it was given to me by someone I cared very much about. This vase is one of a kind and very special. I know, one day, the vase will no doubt drop and break into a thousand pieces. When it does, I will not cry because my beautiful vase is broken. I won’t grieve and laminate about what the vase meant to me, or be concerned that I’ll never have such a beautiful vase again. I won’t stress about the lost value, or the empty space created because the vase is missing from the place of honor on my shelf. I will not distress on the day this vase is lost, because in my mind, this vase is already broken. But between now and when this vase is actually gone, I will enjoy the beauty and splendor of the vase every time I look at it, appreciating that this inevitably broken vase is here now, a gift to enjoy.”

I think the stone says the same thing. My life today is a gift, as is my home, my marriage, my career, my business, my health and my current state of heart and mind. Someday, I will lose all of these things – to sickness, or failure, or old age, or death. But between now and then, I hope to nurture and enjoy what I do have, and certainly not spend my energy concerning myself with what was lost from the past. When you see everything you have and are as “inevitably broken”,  there is a soft poignancy and deep appreciation for even the most common moments of life.

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I picked up a few other stones at that second visit to the festival and they rest about on the grounds of the retreat center as fun reminders not to take life too seriously. I hope they remind people that our mind determines our world. What a gift it is to have the power to control how we think and view our experiences. We each have the ability to keep negativity at bay and face every day with gratitude and the wisdom of lessons learned.

A good attitude is everything. That’s a rock solid fact, my friend.

Creative Landscaping

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When we purchased our property and began landscaping, I was constantly struck with awe that David allowed and encouraged me to express myself to my heart’s content. My former husband considered himself the artist of the family, and as such, he took charge in all things pertaining to the design of our home (inside and out). My creativity was not considered much of an important contribution to our world since a more gifted “artist” was making decisions. This doesn’t mean he purposely thwarted my ability to have a voice in our life , and I don’t’ believe he ever intended to dismiss my input, but the dynamic of our relationship definitely put my need for self expression and exploring or developing my artistic gifts second string to his. So, my creative energy, needing a place to go, was channeled into choreography or writing or developing a business –the kinds of pursuits that would not interfere with his joy of creating, step on his toes or rob him of the pleasure of manifesting his vision(s). When you love someone, sacrifice comes naturally, and we make choices to support the object of our affection’s happiness, so my decision to defer to him in artistic areas was never resented nor did it seem unfair. His self-identity and feelings of worth were more wrapped up in being an artist than mine, so he was afforded the role of interior designer of our home, the landscaper, the gardener, the Christmas decorator, etc. I did the laundry and strived to drive the business to keep resources flowing forhim t do his thing. That is just the way it was.

Life is different for me with a new marriage dynamic . My husband, David, is a highly creative man as well, but his interests seem more directed to the mechanics and structural design of things. He harbors a deep appreciation for my creativity and as such, nurtures and encourages it. In the beginning, I felt I had to seek his approval for anything I wanted to do, least he take offense. I didn’t want him to resent me or undo my work, changing anything I put labor into to make it something more his ideal. But over and over, he’d look at me and smile, making clear that he didn’t need or want to impart his own opinion or tamper with my ideas. If I wanted to buy a plant for the garden, and I’d ask his opinion. He’d smile and say, “If you like it, buy it. I can’t wait to see what you do with it.” If I wanted to create a landscape stilllife, he’d simply say, “Gorgeous!”.

Suddenly, my creativity was free to go whatever direction it wanted to go. My only problem now was, if something I did came out stupid or ugly, I’d be the one having to take ownership of it. Ha, a new level of creative concern.

In time, with more and more leeway and never a repercussion to dampen my joy, I gained both the confidence and a sense of value of my own “visions” and creative landscaping is one of my greatest joys.

First, my attention was directed to creating the Chakra garden. The garden was a big investment, so it took both of us brainstorming to envision just what we wanted (and could afford). Creating the garden became a very poignant mutual effort for David and I, with him building the koi pond and using his engineering to figure out and build the basic design, lighting, pathways, sprinkler system, arbors, flowing waterfall, etc… but when the big picture structure was done, I was invited to enjoy putting personal touches around through detail work. I planted flowers, set up colorful pots, hung air plants and orchids, strategically placed crystals, statues, birdbaths, and made mosaic tiles to delineate chakra areas. David’s big role was done when the key components of the garden were in place, but my role has been never-ending. Nature evolves seasonally and as such, I am forever moving plants, added new elements, retiring others, and shifting the placement of décor when the growth of nearby plants changes the juxtaposition of the whole. I often sit out on one of our meditation benches, just letting my eyes wander to the grand scheme, and inevitably, I begin tinkering, moving a statue to the left, noting the need for a new succulent pot to fill a hole, and reaching for my tools to cut back or remove overgrown plants.

When the basic garden design was complete, I moved on to landscaping the areas around the yoga center. The primary project then became the bottle garden. I love stain glass for reasons I won’t get into here, and I’ve addressed the bottle garden before in this blog, so I don’t feel I need to go into too much detail, but the project began with my hanging dozens of colorful bottles from a big oak branch alongside the studio. The bottles had been collected over years from flea markets when I was making cordials, which I have since moved into clear bottles. I delighted in the way the sun lit up the glass hanging from the trees outside. So I added big bottles in the ferns underneath and a few other glass items. We recently put lights on the tree branch to make the bottles show up at night, but I kept saying I just wish the would illuminate more. Just last night, 18 months after our first bottle found a home out here, David put landscape lighting under concrete blocks holding up my bottles. The bottles now light up magnificently at night. I am thrilled! It is perfect.

I added mosaic tiles on the walkway alongside the bottle garden, and hand made grapevine wreaths and bird houses on the yoga studio to further decorate this space. I asked David if he could make me arches to add drama to the gateways. He did, and I planted passion flower vines that quickly covered everything to add gorgeous flavor. It is like entering the secret garden.This area too, will be a work in progress forevermore. I have plans to make a big glass yogi out of bottles to position out in the ferns behind this living art. Will be a challenge, but with David’s help, we can do it, I’m sure.

With bottles a part of our theme now we addressed a particularly ugly area in front of the yoga center. We removed leaning trees and tons of grapevine and weeds to create a clearing. And David then cut up the trunks of those fallen trees and with the help of my son, we created a short log wall that seems almost like another outdoor meditation altar . I tucked in ferns in the crevices and scattered lights about, and loaded this too up with bottles, clear ones this time.

There is more of course. The pond next to the house that David created, covered with blue bottles and plants in blue pots. Just this morning David and I were brainstorming ways to light these bottles as dramatically as those near the yoga center. The curtain arbor to keep cars from parking near the yoga center, a peace pole added by Soraya, my trusted teaching assistant, and a remarkable artist by her own right.

I am busy putting mosaic tiles on birdhouses to cover a fence behind the yoga center in a whimsical way this week.  There are dozens of other projects, gates and small building and more that David has built, too many to mention, and I wish I’d been blogging to share the joy of each project. Ah well.

So now, with living art all around us, we are turning our attention to another very special project. A labyrinth. We’ve been researching, brainstorming, envisioning…..

I’ll write about that next time. Such a dream project deserves a post of its own. The point is, life unfolds in small steps – just as a garden or a retreat center does. The beauty is in the small details, and the extra efforts we make to bypass “good enough” and create a world that is “uniquely special.”

Our lives, and the environment that surrounds us each and every day, deserves our willingness to go the extra mile.

My Million Dollar Donkey gets put to bed.


The other day, I received three versions of book jackets to choose from for my pending publication of a memoir entitled, My Million Dollar Donkey. I chose the one most resembling the description I gave the editor of what I felt would be most appropriate. I’ve been rather excited about what’s to come ever since.

I began My Million Dollar Donkey nine years ago as a series of creative non-fiction essay assignments that I turned in to a professor at Lesley University while I was getting my MFA in fiction. He was the one who said, “These are really great. You should put them all together and write a book ….” Of course, this set the seed of the idea, and my mind started swirling with how I might go about turning those shorter pieces into one comprehensive memoir that explores the bigger themes of that period in my life. I sent one chapter in to a literary contest for New Southerner, a creative non-fiction literary magazine, and it won first place and was selected for their yearly anthology in 2008. If nothing else, this enhanced my feeling that the book concept had merit.

I finished the book hurriedly, and because my life was imploding and we were under extreme financial duress, I sent queries to agents immediately in a desperate hope something good might happen to balance out all the heartache of my life at the time. Out of 40 queries, 27 agents asked to see the book – an unprecedented positive result. Of those, 5 wanted the full manuscript. Of course, I felt all that earnest interest proved the subject matter of the memoir was timely and pertinent to others, but the book was not really polished, so each of those agents politely turned it down. Rightly so. More or less, I blew my wad because of impatience and my desperate desire to validate some element of my life (writing) when nothing else seemed to be working. Big mistake, that.

After life fell apart, I continued working on the book. Partially because that was the only project that seemed to have potential at the time, and I was in no condition to begin something new, but also because writing the book helped me better understand my life and what all the events I was experiencing meant in the bigger picture. Writing memoir is, beyond all else, an act of healing. In 2011 I sent the book in to The Royal Palm Literary Awards” competition and it won first place in the memoir category. . . another stoke that had me feeling the book was significant, but still, the project had a long way to go to be ready for publication.

So I kept working on the manuscript. I’ve been working on the dang book on and off for 9 years total. David read the book before our first date, and has often told me that seeing how I viewed the world was pivotal in his falling in love with me. Having insight into someone’s heart and mind when you are getting to know them offers a huge head start in feeling connected. He has since read the book over 9 times, and given me insightful feedback, done line editing and helped the book evolved from the rough first draft that I stupidly sent agents too soon, to the finished work it is today. I’ve had writing students read the book and give me feedback too, and their enthusiastic responses have fueled my sense that the book is a worthy effort. There is not much more tinkering left to do, and at long last, I could readily see the book was “finished.” So we’ve begun the publishing process – following a self publishing path since I jumped the gun and destroyed other opportunities earlier – and frankly, this is the most practical path now that the evolution of technology and communication has changed the face of traditional publishing forever.

Anyway, the book has been poked, prodded, examined, and reviewed so much I could recite each page by heart (David too) and I felt deeply relieved to send in the final manuscript, knowing that I’d have to forever hold my peace once I hit “send.”

Knowing the story is manifesting and will be available to the world soon is exciting. But I’m left with a feeling that now, I’m meant to begin something new. I certainly don’t plan to be a one shot wonder, and while I have 3 other historical fiction books I’ve written from the past that I could return to (one of which also won several awards and the Literary Palm too), none seem worthy of the time and attention I know is involved in completing a quality finished product. Getting my degree opened my eyes in so many ways. Formal education forever changed the kind of books I want to write. I miss my lost innocence regarding past writing projects that now seem indulgent and lacking quality, because frankly, writing romance was a great escape from my life, like watching an adventure movie where you enjoy two hours of thrilling drama for much needed entertainment after a long day of life’s daily grind. But as one professor often wrote on the margins of my paper – “You can do better.” I believe I’m meant to do better at this juncture of my life.

So, I am pondering the next project – letting the next book percolate in my heart and mind. I am never sure when I begin writing what the big picture will be when finished, but at least I have an idea of where I might begin. This will be book two in the ongoing adventure of my life- with the metaphor of planting a Chakra garden driving the story. This memoir will be about my adventures in yoga, healing, recovery from the circumstances of book one (Donkey) and about the manifesting of a retreat center. It will be about learning to love again, forgiveness, and gracefully living through the embarrassment of defeat. It will explore the complex web of entering a new stage of life when children leave home, careers change, and life moves on under the constant strain of a shorter risk horizon. How’s that for a mountain to climb?

They say to write is to live life twice. When you are writing memoir, that is not exactly an appealing thought, considering so much of life is a challenge and our greatest lessons often come wrapped in painful paper. Ah well. I’m excited to learn my own heart and mind regarding all that has transpired. And while putting Donkey to bed at long last is deeply satisfying, doing so reminds me that constant and never-ending growth as a person and an artist, means it is time to return to the introspective process of writing my life story once again……

Writing is hard. Time consuming. The return on your investment of time and effort, at least in monetary ways, is hard to justify when you have bills to pay and real life obligations. But I am meant to write, not just for myself, but for others. I truly believe that. So a new story must begin.

Neighbors and Enemies

The last year has been one of my most difficult. Not emotionally – I’ve survived far worse in regards to seasons of heartache and loss during times of transition – (divorce/moving/family squabbles, oh my!). This particular year was difficult because of the sheer effort I put out to achieve a goal that never quite manifested. Hard work can’t begin to describe the risk and sweat equity David and I heaped onto our plate as we followed opportunity and instinct to turn our retreat center into a wedding venue. It was never a conscientious choice, but rather something that unfolded piece by piece, beginning with our wedding a year ago, and escalating like a snowball rolling downhill as others came forward wanting to tie the knot on what has become a remarkable, beautiful and inspirational property. It wasn’t that we wanted a wedding venue, but we are still both recovering from our lives imploding through divorce and financial devastation a few short years ago, and when you are our age (56-62) you have to embrace opportunity when it comes if you ever hope to get on your feet again and/or retire.

We originally hoped to schedule a dozen weddings a year or so to support the retreat center and provide wiggle room financially to continue doing some of the free programs we feel are important to the community. But as more and more brides contacted us, we were seduced into making our little sideline activity into a full-fledged second business. Heartwood Weddings was born, and this vision demanded a full year of planning and hard work, because what we couldn’t afford to hire out we did ourselves. Inspired by a strong business plan and guarantees from the county that we would indeed be permitted to expand our retreat center to include weddings if we did everything they asked, we scrambled to raise funds. I sold my dance school at a loss, David sold his house at a loss, we took family loans and emptied his retirement account to invest 6 figures to upgrade the property, get permits, work with the SBA to arrange a loan, and hire designers and contractors to property design, expand and build a new building to house the weddings so as not to be intrusive to our neighbors. Meanwhile, my natural gift for marketing and managing a business led to our creating a new business model for a garden wedding venue that made weddings very affordable with all the elegand costly extras included, and I created films, a website, marketing plan to establish our place in the industry. It became a full time job in addition to my running the yoga center. David left his job and devoted a full year to his involvement in the project, and he became a wedding celebrant, writing original ceremonies for couples. He loves marrying people more than either of us every imagined he would.

But as luck would have it, a very nasty neighbor decided he wanted to put a stop to our activities, and he began a slanderous campaign designed to interfere with our permit process . It began with a forum he posted on a boating forum that grew to over a hundred pages of people discussing ways to take us down. A letter writing campaign to authorities and neighbors, and urging people to help him cause us distress worked. We were attacked personally and professionally, and not just in regards to weddings, but at my yoga studio in town. Since he offered personal information about me to his audience, people we didn’t even know began calling our home and my studio to leave nasty messages. My facebook pages were overrun with negative reviews, including my yoga center – all from people who never did business with us. I had personal e-mails and posts on my Facebook page calling me all kinds of horrible things with ugly accusations.

An example:

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Meanwhile, each time we met with county authorities to iron out the problems suddenly blowing up in our face, our representative told us that the neighbor, Chris, calls officials every single day and even they were getting angry that their words were being twisted on his forum. “There is something wrong with that man,” one official told me. “He really has a problem.”

No kidding.

I could go on and on about the financial and emotional damage done to us, and the unfairness of it all. I could go on and on about how the county gave us inaccurate information and suddenly back peddled due to this neighbor’s interference. I could go on and on about Florida cyber bullying statues and karma and payback and whatnot. I could rant about the neighbors lies that he posted and the way he twisted facts and subtly (and not so subtly) manipulated others to do his dirty work. I could go on and on about the history of this man that we learned as others contacted us to show support and disgust over his behavior, and how we learned he has done this to others, how he often uses the internet to bully others to get what he wants. Yes, I could go on and on . . . But really, what is the point, other than to vent? I rather not devote my private writing time to hashing over the gross misdeeds of a very sad neighbor.

So I will not address any of these emotional issues here. It is 6 days before Christmas, and we have not had any wedding activity for over a month at Heartwood, and my neighbor has no clue of what we are doing or why, yet he continues to write on his forum, telling tales, acting out, drawing out the issue as if he would be lost without this to talk about. It is sad. My neighbor may have nothing to do with his time other than talk on and on to strangers in a forum as if they were friends, making up stories and portraying a different image of himself to feel connected or important, but others of us have real connections and real issues to deal with. And our time is much better spent doing things that are positive and productive rather than stir up discord for entertainment.

Life is hard enough. If you have to make up drama to amuse yourself, it is time to rethink your life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the time Chris has spent on the internet, writing on the forum. Since he achieved what he set out to achieve in the beginning, why is he still there every day ? Habit? Boredom? Loneliness? Fear that we might survive his attack and be awarded the permit in the end – which would really leave him with egg on his face after all the tales he spun. As a writer who has blogged for over 10 years, I understand that people, when feeling isolated or lonely, often turn to an imaginary community online in a desperate need to find an audience for his or her voice. The more our world becomes once removed from intimate, personal relationships, the more we live vicariously through made up identities on Facebook or forums. Chris is a big man on his forum. Important. And he has lots of friends there. Otherwise, his house is rather set apart from the world and he is there often alone. No wonder he can’t seem to let things go in the other world he created.

I pondered his motivation for continuing his forum a great deal, until I could no longer think of my neighbor as a villain, but as a very lonely, sad individual whose life lacks substance, or he certainly wouldn’t have hours and hours available each week to hash about an issue that has long since dissolved (for him, not for us, of course, since we are the ones reeling from the damage he created.) I now watch his surly wife come and go, never smiling, always complaining that she can’t get enough sleep because she works long hours as a nurse. I’m told she has shared her measure of nasty commentary on the forum too (I actually don’t’ read the forum and never have, but my employee and friends tell me what transpires when they are too furious to keep it to themselves). Meanwhile, I watch Chris amuse himself shooting guns and puttering with his boat, taking it out on weekends without his tired wife. He goes about his life, and she hers, and that too seems really sad to me. So, instead of anger, I feel sorry for my neighbors. Granted, I don’t savor living next door to people like this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel empathy for them too.

The interesting thing is, David and I had been soul searching our wedding endeavor before this happened. We’d begun a series of long talks about our quality of life and our age and if this was the right path, because the weddings were so successful that it was pushing yoga out of our lives. And we feared something very special about our life was being lost. But we were in too far financially to reconsider the choice and as we wrestled with that reality we discussed selling our beloved retreat center and moving. Perhaps Chris’s horrible campaign was in a way a gift – a painful gift to be sure, but a gift nevertheless because it realigns our path. But I will never get over the ugliness turned toward us and the smallness of his methods.

Frankly if he took one thing from me, it isn’t weddings, but my belief that people are inherently good. I’m left with an awful feeling every time I think of the lengths one person will go, and the underhanded ways a man like him will behave to get what he wants. I don’t like bullies. I especially have a distaste for short, unremarkable men who act out in a desperate need to feel powerful.

The other day one of our brides, (we found another venue to move brides to but we still help with these weddings and David marries the couples as a friend, so we have a good relationship with most of them.) said to us “We are not done with that neighbor of yours yet!” And she went on to tell me about actions she planned to take to give a little back at him. Yes, we have been inundated with people plotting revenge because we seem unwilling to do so ourselves. But in every case, while it is fun to hear them postulate about ways to take karma into their own hands and make him sorry, I leave feeling unsettled.

Life is short. Each of us has enough enemies to face in a lifetime – cancer, disease, abuse, loved ones dying or leaving, financial woes, natural disasters, war, famine, etc…. etc… We certainly don’t need to make enemies out of neighbors.

The artist unleashed

I’ve always been a creative person – dance, writing, crafting…. even the way I run my business has been more creative than most. For many years, I lived with someone who was the self-proclaimed artist of the family, which meant I was supposed to choose a different role and leave the act of decorating to him. If I dared purchase a throw pillow for our home, it would be taken back to the store with a little shrug and the comment that the color just wasn’t quite right. A different pillow would take its place, one that was not much unlike what I had picked, but this one was supposedly more a better choice “artistically.” Eventually, I just gave up having a voice in the decor of my home. It wasn’t that I disliked my environment, because my partner shared a very similar style to mine and we had  common artistic sensibilities so our homes were lovely. He was a talented designer. I just missed the fun of being able to express myself or putting my stamp on our home too. Creativity is like a muscle. The more you flex you artistic eye, the better it gets.

One of the biggest shocks (and thrills) of becoming single again was my freedom and untethered right to unleash my subdued artistic gifts.  I was afforded this blank slate of a new life upon which to paint whatever kind of style I wanted – with very limited resources, of course.  My first apartment was lovely despite my having no money and nothing to work with. I built my own shelves, purchased wall hangings on e-bay to cover the white walls, and decorated with things that had deep meaning to me from my former (missed) life. It turned out very warm and inviting.

My little house that I moved to after the apartment was decorated and remodeled as best we could with limited resources, but took on a lovely zen quality that defined me and what I wanted from my new life. My daughter commented over and over that none of her friends had as “pulled together homes” as we had. Funny, considering I was shopping at Goodwill, and did what I could with repainted furniture and some specialty lighting. Apparently, if you’ve got a flair for the artistic, you don’t need money – you just need space and a chance to experiment a bit and something unique will be the outcome.

Meanwhile it is fair to say my studios, all designed by me, turned out as nice as any we owned when we were spending a fortune to build them, even though I had to put them together on a shoestring this time around, with most of the contents coming from goodwill or  Craigslist.

Two years later, I moved into a place called Heartwood with David. The home and land needed LOTS of repair, but had more potential than any home I’ve ever lived in. We both fell head over heels in love with the place, and I can honestly say, I’ve never lived anywhere prettier or more “me”. David feels the same.

David is the  idea man. If I dream it, he can create it. So his creative stamp on our life is huge, and I can not in any way take credit for the lovely environment we’ve created in our home  because without him, nothing would manifest. He fixes what doesn’t work, and thinks through problems to find better solutions. He has built ponds, gardens, arbors, shelves, and hung lights, and more.  I have had the luxury of being “the designer” – and his encouragement and appreciation for my ideas and efforts has been probably the greatest gift I’ve ever received. Back when my creative acts were swept aside and innocently treated as less than adequate (NOT inadequate, mind you, just “less” than what someone else could do)  I couldn’t help but lose confidence. And then, I lost heart. In order to not be corrected or to have my work disposed of or pushed aside, I stopped trying and found other outlets for my creativity, channeling my artistic drives into writing books or making up dances or in creatively running the business. Now, I’m not complaining because I could have put my foot down and complained mightily anytime I felt as if I was not afforded my rights to decorate my own home – but the right to buy a throw pillow just wasn’t worth the battle. The freedom to shop and to make choices to express oneself was more important to him than it was to me, so I was OK with silencing my interior designer voice. But I missed being able to see something inspirational on a store shelf and feeling free to bring it home to be a part of my beloved environment.

Years later, I find myself on 5 plus acres with a new partner who is creative, generous and deeply appreciative of my creativity. And he has no burning desire to be the interior decorator of our life.  Suddenly I had a fantastic house, yoga studio and land that needed to be “decorated” and I was given liberty to do so any way I wished.  But damn, for all this was exciting, being all creative and forming a masterpiece is not as easy as I’d hoped now that I was working with very little money. So it was back to goodwill and Craigslist  for me. But you know something. I really liked (and still like)  the challenge. Your artistic instincts are more taxed when creativity extends beyond the project to figuring out how to use worn out resources and make do with what’s on hand, or knowing you have to hunt treasures in unexpected places.And I like the idea of reclaimed items for many reasons- not the least is the good intention of saving the planet.

David makes things from scratch with old tools and scraps from other projects. I put together things from recycled objects. We manage. And the result is not only lovely, but different and worthy of conversation. Mostly I love the feeling of competence and pride (yes, ego too) that comes with creating something lovely out of nothing.

So, here is our living room.

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You can’t see everything up close, and I’m too lazy to take pictures of a zillion items to brag about, but two stone table lamps are a goodwill find, as are all the silk plants, a gorgeous vase on the fireplace, and some of the art on the walls. A beautiful large iron hanging light fixture hanging over my dining room set (something my sister was throwing out, so I took it gratefully) was discovered at Goodwill.

I saw it and said, “David, this would have been great in my home in Georgia.”

He said, “It will be great in a home here. Let’s buy it.”

So we spent 39.00 on a dismantled hand made blacksmith’s light fixture (we know because David’s brother is a blacksmith and he specializes in antique light fixtures that he repairs and sells on e-bay.) The find had paint and other marks on it, so it was pretty rough but for 39 bucks, it was worth the risk. The moment we got home from Goodwill,  I went to work, and when I got home 3 hours later, David had cleaned and polished the light, and hung it too. I was amazed at how beautiful the piece turned out.  When we sold that little house, the only thing we refused to let go of was our 39 dollar goodwill fixture, It was priceless to us!

Our furniture has been mostly purchased on Craigslist. Wine racks, Chinese break fronts, end tables, tall art lamps, etc..David does repairs. I find new uses for things – nothing we have is of “rooms to go” normalcy. We have items we really love in our home, his musical instruments, my collection of vintage bottles filled with homemade cordials, art painted by my mom, knick knacks that have meaning for me.

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But what I love most of all is that I had (have) free rein to be the interior designer, and anytime I stroll through goodwill or run across something on Craigslist, I can drag it home and experiment with it. Decorating, even when you are broke, is a deeply satisfying experience and I feel so grateful to have this door open to me once again!

My clearance, yard sale and goodwill items have spilled out to our gardens too.It began with my bottle garden – a place where many of my vintage bottles, collected for 50 cents each at a flea market in Georgia, came from.

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I love how the light catches the bottles at different times of day. Mostly I love the memories I have of finding each and every bottle. Lovely days of browsing a flea market, being happy, and finding “treasures” for 50 cents.  I plan to make a fence of bottles in the back of the “bottle garden” soon.  Might try my hand at a glass structure. Been leaning that way. Damn Pintrest and how it fuels your artistic fire even when you have no time to play.

My bottles became a theme at Heartwood (we have stained glass windows in the home, so glass outside seemed a perfect extension of the house. So when we built a second pond right by the front door, I suggested we decorate with all blue bottles and blue ceramic potted plants. David was in charge of back lighting them (And I suppose he should get official credit here because he made the entire pond, an artistic feat well beyond my little decorating of one edge of it. ) But in the end, our pond is natural, beautiful and artistic.

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Meanwhile, my goodwill frog planter found a better home (OK, that was one item I dragged home that David almost didn’t approve of. I had to paint it (since it was a crazy deglo pink formerly) but once that was done, he reluctantly congratulated me on my super cheap acquisition and I admit it, my frog borders on looking queer rather than cute some days depending on my mood… but I like it anyway.)

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My next super goodwill find for outside was 4 huge white Indian outdoor metal (rusted) lamps at 10.00 each. We stuck them in the ferns, but recently moved them to a hillside by the yoga center with a buddha statue and a few big chunks of white stone that we purchased on Craigslist for a song when we were getting materials for the pond. This little artistic grotto has a way to go, but we have high hopes for planting some moss, succulents and other growing things in between the rocks to make this area striking too. At night it lights up in a beautiful way. David gets credit for this one.

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Today, I stuck some succulents in a birdbath my dad was getting rid of. I think it turned out pretty.

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Another trash turned to treasure.

I could go on and on, but my point is, I feel deeply grateful that my life has room for design and creativity now. My work has always been creative – I teach, make up dances, make brochures, write, do costuming etc… etc.. You can’t  run the kind of businesses I run and NOT be creative… but it is nice to do things just for the fun of it. It is nice to feel your home is a work of art. It makes you feel like your LIFE is a work of art.