Stories as blueprints

Chicago, Illinois. In the waiting room of the ...

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One of my favorite episodes of American Public Media‘s Speaking of Faith (now known as On Being) has been an episode entitled “Listening Generously.” The guest was Rachel Naomi Remen: a doctor, a pioneer of holistic western medicine, an author, and a sufferer of chronic illness.

I encourage you to listen to the episode, either the unedited interview or the produced radio hour, but I want to share something with you that I find deeply beautiful, and continuously meaningful. Krista Tippet, the radio host, asks Rachel Naomi Remen to tell a story from one of her books, which Rachel says was her third birthday present, the story of the Birthday of the world. (This is a transcript that I made, as accurately as possible to how Ms. Remen told the story in the podcast.)

The Story of the Birthday of the World

In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the source of life.  And then In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, this world emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident. And the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

According to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. This is very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkaum olam, the restoration of the world.

And this is of course a collective task, it involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born, we are all healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility, it is not about healing the world by making a huge difference, it’s about healing the world that touches you, that surrounds you. That’s where our power is. It’s a different way of looking at our power.

I suspect it has a key for us in our present situation, a very important key. […] I think that we all feel that we’re not enough to make a difference. That we need to be more, somehow. Either wealthier, or more educated, or somehow or other different from who we are. According to this story, we are exactly what’s needed. What if we were exactly what’s needed? How would you live if you were exactly what was needed to heal the world?

This is a story that I use to encourage myself when I can’t seem to go on. When everything seems too overwhelming, too impossible, that I am too small. This story, in many ways, is the basis of my blog. I think I have a gift for writing, a gift for telling stories — telling my story is exactly what is needed to heal the world, because someone out there needs to hear that they’re not alone. I just hope they find my blog so they can read my story.


#reverb11, April: What’s blossoming?

Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris) with variously col...

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The last date of frost for my area of Michigan is May 15. To plant swiss chard, spinach, and lettuce in my garden, I need to plant them soon — 6 to 8 weeks before that last frost. After the frost danger passes, I can plant tomatoes, peppers, herbs, flowers.  There’s a new challenge this year, with my garden being on the ground floor — squirrels and other animals will be able to get to my plants. Nothing is blossoming yet, but I have the necessary permissions to build a raised bed garden behind my condo.

Of course, I would be remiss if I said that my little girl was not blossoming. She is growing, and we are beginning to understand her wants and needs and what calms her. She will slowly grow out of premie clothes, and into all the clothes that well wishers have bought her. She is thriving, the word I chose to manifest for this year, and my little family is thriving too.

Finally, I am blossoming — as a mother, as a student. I am beginning to figure out the line between self-compassion and the self-denial that is necessary in motherhood. I am taking care of the details that are necessary for me to go to Grad School in the fall.

It’s good to know that April is spring in this way, a time of birth and renewal and growth. It is a good reminder as the month goes on.

#reverb10 — December 8, Beautifully Different

Vagina Monologues 2004

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Prompt: Beautifully different. Think about what makes you different and what you do that lights people up. Reflect on all the things that make you different – you’ll find they’re what make you beautiful. (Author: Karen Walrond,

Because I’ve made it my goal professionally to help people and fight injustice.
Because I don’t care about my weight, or my make up, and barely care about my hair.
Because I can tell a story, sometimes my story, and help people understand depths of injustice and systematic violence in this world.
Because I’m reassuring to everyone who is helping me, no matter how poor their service, and especially when they’re harried. I try to give them a moment of customer zen in the day.
Because my sense of awe and reverence, especially in terms of religion and faith, is ever evolving.
Because I defend people — their beliefs, their rights, their person-hood.
Because I believe in the right of every person to their own selves, even if I disagree with them.
Because I know that my place on this earth is to help heal it’s brokenness, even just a little bit.

#reverb10 Day 5: Let Go

Prompt: Let Go. What (or whom) did you let go of this year? Why? (Author: Alice Bradley;

In the early days of the new year, I had something akin to a panic attack — my anxiety spiked to near epic levels, and I was filled with dread and indecision for the new year. I hadn’t reflected and planned as #reverb10 seems to be allowing me to do, and so I was driving myself crazy trying to do everything, be everything, be independent and part of a community, to figure out how everything goes together.
I filled up the white board in our office with everything that was on my mind:

The pressure I was putting myself under ended up with me in counseling, talking to a woman I didn’t quite like, but was good enough. At one of the first meetings with her, she said to me, “It seems like you’re a perfectionist.”


You see, I had spent some time fighting perfectionism already — one of my personal philosophies was that perfect is the enemy of good, perfect is the enemy of done, and perfect was not something to be striving for. I didn’t want to perfect my writing in this sense, and I had given up being a perfect housekeeper, and forcing Tim to make it so that together we would be perfect housekeepers.

But still, as Laurie the not-so-great therapist pointed out to me, I was expecting a lot out of myself. I was expecting to get up the same time every day, despite being depressed. I was expecting myself to be perfectly efficient at work, despite the fact that I was getting good reviews and everyone goofs off a little, I was expecting myself to regiment my free time and never relax and always be achieving…

So, one thing that I have let go of is perfectionism in 2010. It isn’t a perfect process, but it is a process of doing exactly what I don’t want to do (overloading my schedule, thinking I have to do it all) and then slowly backing down from it (Promised to do a book drive, but don’t stress about writing a novel.) and providing self care (Buy yourself the clothes you want. Relax in the evening).

I don’t want to do it all, anymore, despite the fact that there is a lot that still is worth doing. I want to do what I can. One of my resolutions for 2010 was to declutter our home. Rather than do a half hour each day, I try to do one project in about a 4 hour block, from identifying the clutter to buying the containers to organize, to putting everything back together. It’s certainly not finished, but making it a goal, and continually persuing it — Tim and I have accomplished a lot this year. Perfectionism would demand I be angry or sad that I didn’t do it in the first three months of the year that I wanted, or that I haven’t finished by the end of the year, but when it comes down to it? I have done a lot.

I’ve tried, slowly, to get rid of perfectionism. It isn’t perfect — and if it were, it would defeat the point.

#reverb10 Day 3: Moments

December 3 – Moment. Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail (texture, smells, voices, noises, colors). (Author: Ali Edwards;

There are many moments in which I felt alive, moments that I have recorded elsewhere, in various states.

  • While commuting to work, observing the fall colors
  • Pondering the nature of a transcendent God
  • After practicing Yoga, dedicating it to compassion towards my husband, kissing him on the lips
  • At the Henry Ford/DSO Celebration of America outdoor concert, listening and watching the crowd
  • The morning I took the pregnancy test that confirmed this pregnancy
  • The ultrasound that showed me my well-formed baby, whom I feel in love with

I think what’s more important here is to reflect upon what I’ve learned about the moments that I’ve felt alive: I have been fully in the moment. I have been mindful. I have opened up my senses not to shutting out the world and all of it’s sensations instead of blocking them out to protect myself from them.

Like at the Concert/Fireworks show, we were having a picnic dinner, and I had brought my knitting to do while we waited for the show to start. I realized, after a bit, that I was using my knitting to focus, and thus to ignore the rest of the proceedings. After I made the conscious decision to look up, watch people, walk around and explore? Then, then I felt alive.

I am so glad I learned to be in the present, to be mindful, to experience the moments that end my list. To write them down, to keep them for future generations, or maybe just for my transient memory, so that I don’t have to grasp at the moment that just passed.

#reverb10: Day 2, Writing

girl, writing

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What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it? (Author: Leo Babauta;; @zen_habits;

I started thinking about this prompt the way I, unfortunately, usually think about my writing: I started beating myself up. I get up late, I commute so far, I don’t write every day. I didn’t win at NaNoWriMo this year, I don’t update my wordpress blog in a regular manner, my first novel is in plotless shambles, etc.

But my commute gives me time for reverie, to imagine what I’d like to write, to try out phrases in my head, and decide if something that occurs to me is something I want to say about the topic. I do write practically every day. I write when I talk to my friends online, which gives me some insight into myself. For example:

Jeffrey: i think it has something to do with the focus being in the right place? it’s not about you, it’s not about buying shit, it’s about the baby, and the anticipation of family
Katherine: Yeah, it’s about being part of a larger context.My womb isn’t the center of the universe, and for all I want to be a baby wearing slightly-crunchy parent, Rocketship isn’t going to be the center of the universe either.
Our marriage isn’t about us, completely, either. I’m not going to be the sole parent, we’re going to try to equally parent, but that’s going to be a lot of hard work and communication.

Sarah: that’s another reason why you work … you’re not all like “hit the road, Tim. You’ve done your part.”
me: Yup. We both have to have identities and goals outside the home, and we both have to be committed to parenting, too. and, furthermore, I’m also committed to everyone finding the lifestyle choices that work for them.

It’s developing ideas like this that is absolutely essential to so much of my writing. Being able to express myself and sort out my complex ideas about self, and identity, and community and how to navigate all the privilege and oppression out there.

I suppose what can be learned from this is that sometimes, telling myself stories about my writing is something I do that doesn’t contribute to my writing. And with some mindfulness and some right-thinking, I can realize that writing is a continuing act, one that doesn’t always require a keyboard or a pen, but one that is a life style, a way of being, a way of seeing and hearing.

#reverb10 Day 1: One Word

Prompt: One Word. Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you? (Author: Gwen Bell)

My word for 2010: Ground

I chose the word “ground” in the sense of “earth,” in the sense of a “ground wire,” and maybe a little in the sense of “grinding” because 2010 was about growth, but more importantly, about building the groundwork for an ordinary life lived extraordinarily. Tim and I got the help we needed personally to make sure we were ready to support one another, and we’ve begun moving towards improving our communication and teamwork as an ongoing, growing project. In my professional life, I went back to basics, and was able to find some fulfillment and productivity that works for me. We worked on decluttering a lot of our life, worked on adding processes so that we can communicate better, especially our schedules. In my life as an activist, I was able to think deep thoughts and make a difference, at least in getting a story out there. In my personal, spiritual life, I have gained a lot of insight from yoga, and meditation, and mindfulness, and an Emergent Christian theology. Our community is growing, our support network is solidifying, and life seems like it’s on a pretty steady set of circumstances.

Word for 2011: Thrive

I want our baby to thrive. I want to become ever more connected to our community, and church, and support network — and do some of the supporting ourselves. I want the next big thing in my career (be it grad school or a job) be something I can embrace whole heartedly. I want my marriage to become better than ever. I want to continue to be living vibrantly.

You can join the reflection and manifestation too:

Book of Love

When I first began to date Tim in college, I took to emailing my younger sister to get her advice. (You see, she is the emotional one, and I am the logical one. We’re better balanced now, but four years ago, less so.) In discussing our respective love lives, it was that word exactly that came up — love. What is love?

I just finished a book called Talk of Love by Ann Swidler. I found out about it from a post on Sociological Images. Ann Swidler conducted a study about the way that a narrow population of white, suburban, heterosexual California couples and how they talked about love. She took their comments and framed two cultural models of love.

Mythic Love

  1. Love is a clear, all-or-nothing choice.
  2. The person you love is unique, and idealized.
  3. Your choice to love is made in defiance of social forces.
  4. The choice to love permanently resolves an individual’s destiny.

In other words: “They met, and it was love at first sight. There would never be another girl (boy) for him (her). No one could come between them. They overcame obstacles and lived happily ever after.” (113) This is easily identified as the mythic love that appears in books and movies, the kind of love that people like to scoff at.


  1. Real love is not sudden or certain. It grows slowly and is often ambivalent and confused. Love does not require a dramatic choice but may result from circumstance, accident, or inertia.
  2. There is no “one true love.” One can love many people in a variety of different ways.
  3. The kind of love that leads to marriage should not depend on irrational feeling in defiance of social convention, but on compatibility and on practical trains that make persons good life partners. The fewer obstacles that people have to overcome, the happier they are likely to be.
  4. Love does not necessarily last forever. Love and marriage do not settle either personal identity or social destiny. Rather ‘than guaranteeing that one will live ‘happily ever after,’ love requires continuing hard work, compromise, and change.

This is the kind of love that, as the Sociological Images post states, drives both the psychological and religious self-help industries. It is the kind of love that I identify in the day to day struggles of being married.

So What?

Swidler goes on to argue that the two concepts of love are used differently by the same people, that both are coherent cultural constructs that help us navigate our confusing  world.

What I mean to say (and Swidler argues) is that people use the “realistic” view of love to manage and interpret ongoing relationships, and struggle with the day to day realities of being married.

However, the mythic formula is used to formulate arguments on whether or not to marry or stay married. The mainstays of a “decisive choice” and a “unique other” are available because one is either married or they’re not, and one is only married to one person at a time. The institution of marriage is governed by this mythic understanding. The mythic understanding upholds the instution of marriage, and the institution of marriage upholds the mythic understanding.

For me, this has all sorts of implications.

As a writer, it means that romances in the modern sense has to have several dimensions to be realistic — one where there is a lot of certainty, and one where there is potentially a lot of ambivalence. If characters want to get married, it means that they will convince each other and their families of the certainty of their love. If they don’t want to get married, they will probably be a lot less certain, and conflicts with their friends and family may arise.

As an LGTBQ Ally (As an ally, I am always in training. Feel free to correct me, those who self-identify), it puts a whole new spin on the fight for equal marriage rights. For one, there is a school of thought within the movement that marriage is not radical enough. On the other hand, there is a school of thought that says that without marriage, love relationships will never be legitimate in the mainstream heterosexual understanding of love relationships.

As a married person, I recognize that the growing uncertainty of marriage in our society contributes to the need to understand love differently. (Oh, the books that I have read and will continue to read on the self-help marriage subject!) But, as Ann Swidler says, as long as people want to believe that love lasts forever, the mythic love ideal will last.

What do you think?

What is love? Do the visions of love that Ann Swidler put forth make sense to you? Are there other understandings that you would propose? (Ha, pun unintended!) Continue reading