Fear and Desire: The Challenge of Something New

Everyone knows that doing something totally new is a real challenge, right?

But then why does it seem like we’re always being encouraged to “just get out there and do it!” without acknowledgment of the stress involved? How do you handle the challenge of trying something new?

Maybe you’re one of those that greet the challenge of novelty with open arms – “Sure! I’ll try it!” you say. Your desire to do it outweighs any anxiety you might have, so you jump right in without worrying too much about it. If that’s you, congratulations! I have no idea how you do it, but I’m very happy for you (and more than a little jealous.) You probably have no need whatsoever to finish reading this.

If you’re like me, this response may sound more familiar: “What exactly do I need to know to do this right? What will happen if I do it wrong? Can I do it privately first, with no witnesses to my failure?” I believe, of course, that my failure is absolutely guaranteed. And that there will be dire repercussions, or at least serious embarrassment. If allowed to run riot, my fearful brain will take me on a ten-month detour to getting around to starting any project.

Working in a field where I am constantly asking my clients to try something they may never have tried before, I think I’ve observed most of the ways folks can respond to the challenge of doing something new. And it seems only fair that I should challenge myself in the same way!

 My current challenge – the video camera

I have had a difficult relationship with the camera (still or otherwise) for my whole life. I think my smile is weird, and I don’t even want to know what mannerisms come to light in video, where every eye-roll, unconscious scratch, and “um” gets immortalized, all ready to be sampled for a dreadful GIF. This might not feel like a big deal to anyone else, but for me, it pushes almost all my buttons.

But the thing is, I’ve seen people just being themselves on camera a lot lately (thank you Facebook) from family members to other coaches and therapists.  They look like they’re enjoying themselves. I’ve gradually decided that it’s something I not only “ought” to do, but might even have fun doing. The combination of my fear and my desire to be on camera has led me to really think about what’s going on when I ask other folks to dive into their own creative process with me in the studio.

When we really want to do something we’re afraid to do, we are confronted with one of the most basic realities of our human life. There’s a gap between how we want life to be, and how it is. The swimming pool looks so wonderful, but what if we don’t know how to swim? We’re curious, but we’re frightened. I think these two emotions are a major reality for anyone thinking of doing deep personal work. Choosing to do deep personal work with someone can bring both fear and desire right to the surface.

For you to decide to make art, especially if you don’t see yourself as an artist, might be a little bit like me pushing “record.” And to make art for the first time as a part of your deep inner work definitely counts as the highest degree of doing something new.

So why should we do it?

Quite apart from any benefits that a particular new experience might provide for us, there are some other things going on that I think make it even more wonderful. For one thing, we open to the possibility of seeing ourselves differently than before. Our ego-mind, with its eye on minimizing risk and maximizing comfort, often underestimates our capacity to meet a challenge. When we take one on, we get to experience ourselves as courageous, and that’s an incredibly empowering state, that can help us in every other thing we do.

Secondly, and probably most importantly, doing only what we already know how to do will take us exactly where we already are, and get us exactly what we already have. When we try new things and sit in the fear or discomfort of not knowing what it will be like, we have the chance to change. Indeed it’s the only way we can actually grow as people.

Having now made the jump a couple of times, and pushed “record” on a couple of short videos on my Facebook page and  I am beginning to see some results for myself. For the first one, I scripted myself and spent a good hour setting myself up to do just a couple minutes of filming. And I recorded it (much) more than once before finally I let it go and pushed “publish!” What fascinates and pleases me is that what I’m most proud of is that action of pushing that button (long delayed, overthought, and convoluted as it was.)  The videos themselves are secondary, and can pass away without regret even if they were good and without shame even if they were terrible.

And that is what I hope for everyone who chooses to step courageously into the action of their own creative lives. On the level of soul or personal growth, however you choose to see it, what you paint or sculpt doesn’t matter – but that you dared to confront your fear and embrace your desire to try something new – to paint or weave or write – matters immensely.



Prayer Beads: What “thoughts and prayers” can actually do

What do the words “prayer beads” make you think of?Prayer Beads in Tibet

If you had asked me what prayer beads were fifteen years ago my mind would have gone immediately to the Hindu and Buddhist mala beads popular among yoga practitioners. If you had asked me thirty years ago, I might have been aware of the Catholic Rosary, but not because I’d ever actually touched one.

When I think about it more deeply, however, I realize I’ve been engaged with prayer beads, or with things very much like them, for at least 25 years.

My first set of prayer beads

was given to me by a circle of dear friends just before my daughter was born. Each of them had brought me a special bead to commemorate my impending motherhood. During a beautiful home-made ritual, they each held their bead, spoke to me about their hopes and prayers for us in our new life as a family, and then strung them together for me. It comforted me for many years, through worries and celebrations.

Later, I received a set of handmade glass beads lovingly created by another friend to accompany me on a solo journey – a pilgrimage of sorts. Each bead reminds me of a particular element of our shared island home, and holding it brings my friend’s love to me every time I touch it. The making of the beads themselves – spinning the glass rods into a round bead in torch fire – must have been a practice of deep attentiveness as well.

Prayer beads take a more central role in my life now.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been introduced to another particular prayer bead practice, called the Paidirean (Gaelic, pronounced PAH-jur-in) in my current studies. Like other prayer beads, it is based on repeating a prayer or mantra sentence or word, and using the beads to count. That might make it sound like a rote practice, with little meaning – adding up the rows like an accountant. The opposite is true. By engaging my body (my fingers moving the beads, my breath with each prayer) my attention is brought more fully to the prayer or the mantra words, and I can drop deeper into their meaning. I’m not looking at a clock because I’m trusting my fingers to tell me where I am in the process.

The “thoughts and prayers” that happen when I use my prayer beads take me to a place where I work to align myself with peace. I feel helpless when confronted with the realities of a dangerous and violent world, and while prayers alone will never accomplish the change that needs to happen “out there,” my actions will never accomplish peace unless they are grounded in a truer knowing of what peace feels like. This doesn’t mean squashing down or denying my fear and rage. It means allowing myself to feel these feelings and allowing them to move through me, to transform into the kind of energy that makes political action possible and sustainable. The letter I can write or the speaking up I can do from a place of compassion will have more effectiveness than hurling angry words rooted in deep fear.

Woman with Prayer BeadsDo you have a prayer bead practice?

Or do you have another way of connecting to Source (God, Spirit, or True Self, however you might name it)? How does it help you to ground yourself during times of fear or anger? How do you sustain your ability to act and move in the world? If you’re interested in this practice, or other mindfulness practices, you may find a workshop HERE that works for you.

Mentors and Memories


This past week I learned of the recent death of the first person I ever consciously identified as a mentor. His name was Don Evans. He was my professor of Philosophy and Religion, among other courses, at the University of Toronto in the mid-1980’s. He had been on my mind a lot this January. I didn’t really know why, except that I was feeling some regrets at losing touch with him in the late 90’s.  It has felt, over the past year or so, like I have circled around once again to encounter who I was when I first met him, with new layers of growth and understanding.

 I would have liked to share my journey with him, and to express my gratitude to him for what he gave me. Even more, I would have liked to get to know him again and to hear about his life over the past twenty years. When I knew him I was too young to have a mature relationship of reciprocal compassion. Instead I had the privilege of being a student, and later a mentee, to be a sponge that soaked up his offerings of information, values, compassion, spiritual guidance, and perspective.

It was bitter-sweet to read his obituary  and to learn how widely appreciated he was, and how blessed he was in his family. When I first met Don, he wasn’t Don to me, but Professor Evans. I was 18 years old (barely) and still completely unclear about my direction in university, or life for that matter.

 The first course I took with him was the Philosophy of Human Sexuality, which was a very clever title to get university students to voluntarily study ethical philosophy and some early psychology. Beyond the cleverness, however, he was kind and compassionate. I was taking this course with my boyfriend (naturally!) and Don remembered and took an interest in the evolution of our relationship through all the years I knew him. When I was 20, when we caught up with each other casually on campus one day, and I told him we were getting married, Don put on his pastoral hat and insisted that I recognize the deeper value of the ritual, and that I should expect the change from living together to mean something. My immature view of it was that a wedding was just something formal. I don’t know if he ever realized that his brief conversation that day held me to a vision of commitment and intimacy that I’m still figuring out. Perhaps he was just having a fatherly moment, and feeling as apprehensive as my parents were at our decision!

Mentors mean relationships                                                                                                                                                                                       

The biggest difference between a role model and a mentor is that you can have a role model that you never meet in person. A mentor knows you. I can look back now and see several important people who have been beautiful mentors to me. The best have been those who were quite conscious of their role. Teachers can be mentors, but aren’t always. A teacher can limit their sharing to the information they are trying to pass on. A mentor also includes an awareness of the social or emotional needs of their protégé. A mentor gives you a glimpse of what it’s like to do something with grace, with skill, responsibility, and with wisdom. Sometimes they are the ones to be honest or challenging with you when friends or family can only be encouraging. Mentors often hold us to a higher standard, or to a discipline that they know is necessary for our growth or development.

Life transitions often require mentors

After that first course, I also studied the Philosophy of Religion with Don, and eventually joined his meditation classes outside of the university curriculum. He was the first person who introduced me to practices that were truly self-nurturing. I first learned the power of metaphor and visual imagery in his meditations. What he taught me eventually meshed with what I learned in poetry and literature. Don helped me understand that imagery has power beyond and deeper than the “I like it “ or “I don’t like it” distinctions of skilled or unskilled poetry or art. It has power in our bones and in how we live our lives. The right image is able to draw us further forward, plunge us deeper into an experience, or inspire us when we are at our lowest.

 I lost touch with Don at just about the same time as I lost touch with myself. It wasn’t a sudden event or a rupture; I just drifted away – across the country, and into a new stage that required different things from me. My focus shifted into the rigours of intense parenting, and away from nurturing my own spirit. It has taken me a long time to find my way back. Other teachers, other paths, and even new mentors have found me and helped me, but there, back at the beginning, was Don. How sad and yet sweet it is to find him again now. May your rest be only as tranquil as you wish it, old friend. Ido hope that I will meet you again, in one form or another.

Who are your mentors?

Spend a little time this month with your mentors – those in memory or those who hold you now. What have they brought you? And what do you bring to those who follow after you?

100 Morning Walks

The Challenge

I took on a challenge a bit more than 60 days ago to go for 100 consecutive morning walks, and to post a picture from each one on my social media accounts facebook and Instagram. Initially the purpose of this challenge for me was to dip my toes into being more consistently visible in the online world, the introvert’s nightmare! I wanted to become more comfortable there, so that I could begin to be able to connect with, and hopefully help, more than just the few local folks who can come in for appointments.

Interestingly, and gratifyingly, it has grown into much more. What I notice happening is that it isn’t just the walking that has grown into a true “practice,” but the noticing has too. I would say that my intention and ability to see, to be aware, and to find some pleasure in the seeing and awareness, have grown exponentially over the past two months.

I’m not sure that I was aware of my need to find pleasure when I started,

but I can tell you, that to do anything every single day for that long (with more than a month yet to go) it’s absolutely vital to be genuinely interested in it!

It hasn’t been completely delightful every day. Some days it’s been cold and wet and I’ve been grumpy and tired, so “pleasure” wasn’t really part of the story. But even those days, there was something happening, or something to see, or focus on through the camera lens, that engaged me, and pulled me out from underneath my dripping hood.

I recently co-hosted a webinar with Jann Dodd, PhD, a psychologist from Houston, Texas, on the subject of Positive Psychology. Her community is still pulling itself back together after Hurricane Harvey, and before we talked, I wondered if it was a bit of a stretch that she could so wholeheartedly be coming from a place of positivity.

One of the things she really brought home to me during the webinar was that the real definition of “happiness” in the research and science of Positive Psychology, is NOT rainbows and fluffy kitten unicorns, but a combination of three factors.

Pleasure, Engagement and Meaning

Pleasure is the one we usually think of, and it’s certainly part of happiness, but only one facet. The other two, and far more predictive of a “happy” life, are engagement and meaning.

To consider ourselves happy, in other words, research has found that people need to be actively interested and engaged with life around them – friends, family, hobbies – whatever it is that keeps us attentive and involved. And that we need to be using our skills, strengths, and character for something that has meaning to us. Often that means a larger purpose. It doesn’t have to mean an earth-shattering Nobel Prize winning purpose, just something that has greater meaning to us, like giving our customer great service and a smile, to make their day better. Pleasure is part of the recipe too: we need to know how to feel it, but it needn’t be present in huge quantities or all the time, for us to live happy lives.

When I started it, I had no idea that my #100MorningWalks had anything to do with happiness – with pleasure or engagement or meaning. Yet two months into the process, I had the wonderful synchronistic experience of learning that what I was doing was something perfectly calculated to increase my happiness! Having a solid practice in place (my public promise to show up every day!) has given me engagement, meaning, and enough pleasure to make it a reasonable gamble to keep going outside for that walk every day.

I will keep you posted, but I think it’s working.

Even with the downpour, and even though I absolutely reserve the right to be cranky once in a while, I do feel lighter.

For those of you who have joined me visibly in the #100MorningWalks posts, thanks for the company! And I sincerely hope that it has begun to work its magic in you. If you haven’t tried it, you might find it “enlightening!”


Are you interested in using your creativity to heal, but don’t live in Victoria?

Are you more comfortable seeking help on-line?

Did you know that Frances offers her services on the web as well as at the studio?

If you’re a new client and would like to explore whether on-line sessions with Frances would fit for you, you can book a “Your Way Through Grief, Loss & Change” Free Consultation at

Mindfulness: Reflections on an Emerging Practice


Mindfulness has emerged over the past couple of years as a major buzzword in both mental health and spirituality. Various forms of meditation have existed for centuries as a vital element in just about every form of spiritual and religious life across all cultures. Jon Kabat-Zinn was probably the first westerner to introduce us to the physical and mental health benefits of attuning our attention to the present moment, without judgment. In his words:

 Mindfulness is never about doing something perfectly, because it is not about doing or accomplishing at all. It is about allowing things to be as they are, resting in awareness, and then, taking appropriate action when called for. Silence, deep listening, and non-doing are often very appropriate responses in particularly trying moments — not a turning away at all, but an opening toward things with clarity and good will, even toward ourselves. Out of that awareness, trustworthy skillful responses and actions can arise naturally, and surprise us with their creativity and clarity.  (From this website: https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/pages/faq)

Meditation and mindfulness have taken a greater and greater place in my life as I have matured. I first encountered meditation in my studies of world religions in university in the 80’s. I embraced it at the time as a way to reduce some of the stress of my perfectionism. It didn’t hurt that many of the guided meditations I participated in were also meant to evoke pleasant visions and experiences of spiritual connectedness.

My mindfulness practice began with curiosity.

Through the years I continued to explore. I have practiced the body-centered mindfulness of yoga, the centering prayer of the ancient Christian tradition, and attempted to empty my mind according to some branches of Buddhism. I was searching for a way to feel whole, free, and deeply connected.

As a young counsellor, I found myself teaching my clients meditation as a way to lessen their anxiety or stress. When I became a parent, mindfulness showed up in my preparations for childbirth and guided meditation became a part of bedtime rituals for my young children when they had a hard time falling asleep. I wasn’t disciplined in a daily way, but it was always there in the background.

 And then, somewhere along the way, my eclectic practice dried up completely. I can’t place exactly when it happened. I just find, looking back over the tapestry of my history, that there is a hole in the weave, a place where the mindfulness thread broke.

Suffering brought mindfulness back to me.

For a number of years my family went through a period of deep disconnection – from our own selves and from each other. Our marriage broke down. We, and our children, suffered the confusion, despair, and anxiety that such a rupture can create. In our individual and family healing work, each of their stories is their own. The story that is mine to tell is that my healing came largely from observing my son as he took on a dedicated practice of compassionate mindfulness.

 I sometimes say mindfulness saved his life.

While that over-simplifies the story, on a feeling-level, for me, it is absolutely true. I watched him gradually transform from someone I no longer recognized to a more peaceful, loving, and happy person as he went from learning the basics to studying the deeper philosophy of Zen Buddhism. That process reawakened my own desire to engage in the practice again, and in the process, brought me back to my life too.

 My longing for a deeper wholeness and connection to the true Self that lies behind and beyond my habits of personality has returned more strongly than ever. I am assured that this is an entirely “age-appropriate” development! In our second half of life we look beyond the concerns that preoccupied us during our 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Meaning eclipses success in our hierarchy of needs. And where else can we find meaning, joy, life, and connection other than in the present moment? Our past is gone and unchangeable. The future is not yet, and is far, far less controllable than we thought when we were younger.

 While I’ll probably never give up my eclectic tendency to explore the many avenues and traditions of mindfulness, I have seen first-hand how powerful a regular practice is, and this knowledge supports me in setting down roots in a morning routine of sitting meditation. Not to mention, it gives me lots to talk about with my kids!

 This winter I invite you to join me in an exploration of several mindfulness paths that intersect with the world of art. You never know, one of them might just fit you perfectly! On Saturday February 3rd I am offering Slow Threads, a workshop on meditative stitching. And on Monday, February 26th there will be an evening workshop on making and using prayer beads from several traditions: To Hold A Prayer In My Hand. See the Workshops page for information on all Open Hearth Studio group offerings. I hope also to have an online Basics of Mindfulness course up and running by the fall!

Handwork: Slow Art for a Busy Life

Handwork and Sewing

In my personal art, my favourite mediums are fibres, textiles, and embellishment, worked by hand. Occasionally basketry, weaving, embroidery, felting, and knitting can show up in my therapeutic work, although not very often.  Handwork techniques are slow, and don’t always fit well into the standard individual session length. But essentially they are simply another way of creating form or making marks, like clay sculpture or painting. Unlike working with clay or paint, however, it is much harder to create a complete image rapidly. The medium forces a pace that is nearly foreign to our compulsion for speed and efficiency. Patience and time themselves become our materials in this work.

Handwork created in community.

Recently I treated myself by attending an embroidery workshop, called “Talking Thread,” at the Makehouse  with Diana Weymar. Diana’s work speaks to many levels of experience, from the intimate and personal to the political place of women in society. You can see more about her HERE. One of the things I liked best about the project she shared with us (Interwoven Stories) and about the workshop, was the experience of community. Ten women gathered around a wooden table, to touch and see the handwork of people from far away, and to create our own. No one was expected to finish anything during our time together, just to spend the time with needle and thread and each other. We talked, laughed, and stitched. It was not hard to imagine a quilting bee taking place in just that way.

Handwork connects us to an eons-old lineage.

Women and artisans throughout time have shaped fibers and textiles into the forms of clothing, bedding, housewares, and even housing for their families and societies. The same movements of the hand create the most ornate royal embroidery and the simplest homespun shift or apron. The work today requires the same dexterity, the same attention to posture, and the same eye-hand coordination that it required in the medieval era in Europe or on this continent many thousands of years before that, in the construction of basketry, clothing, and regalia.

There is something about handwork that is deeply satisfying.

It always reminds me there are no fewer hours in a day now, than there were many thousands of years ago, when needlework began, or even longer ago when felting emerged. A needle moves in and out of the fabric; a breath moves in and out of my lungs. My heart beats. Sewing, beadwork, knitting: any of the handwork arts can have the quality of meditation if we allow them.  One therapeutic value of working this way is inherent in its mindful pace.

The products of handwork are also full of metaphor.

Therapeutically speaking, baskets can hold more than bread or apples – they can hold meaning, feelings like grief or joy, and experiences. We speak often of the need to have containment, or to be contained or held. Clothing can do more than cover us – it can be armour, define us as having a particular rank, or even allow us to be someone else. A relationship can be seen as a comforting blanket, or a binding rope. We speak of assuming a cloak of authority. Even the techniques of textile construction are metaphors themselves – “woven together,” “tangled,” “interlaced,” and “felt.” As we work with them, taking our time, we can spin the fibres of our lives into a thread with which we can create new beauty and new strength

What’s your personal history and connection with handwork?

Do you have memories of a family member sewing handmade clothing or knitting you a pair of socks? Do you keep items that have been passed down to you through generations of sewers, knitters, or weavers? What place does slow work have in your life?

 During the slow, dark days of winter, consider lighting the lamps and sitting with a cup of tea and ball of yarn, a spool of thread, knitting or sewing needles, and see what comes of it. This winter I will be offering a couple of opportunities to join me in mindful handwork workshops. See the Workshops page for more information.


‘Tis the Season for…..Holiday Stress?

It happens every year: the decorations go up, and so does the holiday stress.

Even if the decorations aren’t in your house, even if you don’t celebrate a particular holiday, it can happen. Lots of lists show up at this time of year, suggesting ways to handle the holiday stress. And I don’t disagree with most of them; it’s just that they rely on a “do’s and don’ts” formula, with a disclaimer to “do what feels right to you.” A big problem is that, for many folks, figuring out “what feels right” is hardest during times of stress and competing demands.

 Knowing our values is one thing that can help. We generally feel happiest and most fulfilled when we are acting in line with what is most important to us.

But sometimes our own values can be in competition with one another.

As an example, I value love, kindness, beauty, and self-care, among other things. They are important to me, and I get satisfaction from making them part of my life. Some holiday options that relate to these values are getting together with people I love, doing nice things for others, having pretty lights and a decorated tree, and spending a whole lot of time in my pajamas, asleep or reading on a couch (or, to be honest, sleeping on a couch with an unread book on my face.)

 Obviously it’s going to be hard to do all these things all at the same time. It won’t be safe for me to climb a tree and put up lights in my pajamas! And lying on the couch won’t be as fulfilling an experience without the glow of a decorated tree, or without the company of my family.

 In an ordinary year, I usually find a way to fit most of these things into my life so that there is a balance. (I admit it, the balance leans more towards pajamas and couch time. I’m ok with it.)

But some years it’s been nearly impossible.

When I’ve been out of my mind with worry about a family member’s health, suddenly my patience – with other people’s needs, or with other people’s opinions about how to put up the tree – has gone way down.

 If you’re in the middle of a time of stress that comes from more than the season itself, like dealing with a death, financial worries, or a big change, I’m sure you will have noticed similar changes. The hard part is that usually our values themselves don’t change. We still want to be kind, generous, comfortable, and surrounded by beauty. We still want to make choices that reflect our value for homemade instead of bought, our care for the environment or our commitment to social justice. And we still want our holiday preparations or activities to reflect those values.

And that’s where the holiday stress multiplies, and guilt has a chance to creep in.

So what’s possible in that kind of situation? I think a bottom-line, first principle to follow is the same rule the flight attendants quote before the airplane takes off: “Put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping the person next to you.” It’s important to remember that you cannot accomplish anything for someone else if you’re exhausted. If authenticity or honesty is important to you, being clear with others about how you’re really doing will be an action in line with your values.

Here’s where “just do what feels right” isn’t as helpful as it sounds.

Because it might not feel right to look after yourself. You’ll probably feel wrong about neglecting what you see as your duties. You’ll feel bad or sad about missing out on some of what you usually really enjoy. This sounds like bad news right? Like a no-win situation. But I truly don’t see it that way. Sometimes knowing what’s right (what’s in line with our deeper values) can give us the strength and grace to tolerate the harder feelings.

If we can bring the value of compassion to this question, then I think the whole picture changes.

Softening our hearts toward ourselves, leaning into what hurts about where we’re at, softens our hearts all around. We gain perspective and grow compassion for other people’s suffering too.

If I can accept that I’m exhausted, grieving, sick, or stressed, and that I’m going to feel short-changed and sad about letting go of some of the more stressful holiday preparations in order to take care of myself, then I’m at a lower risk of throwing a tantrum while trying to make things perfect for the kids.

 If I can see, accept, and take care of my own stress, sadness, and anxiety, I can help the kids to accept theirs. We can learn together how to soothe what hurts. And it’s not just kids – the same thing goes for partners, aging parents, and anyone else we share our lives with.

 Beginning the honest conversation about what’s really going on for us can be the most valuable holiday gift of all.

 I’d love to hear what values guide you in your holiday decisions. Do you struggle with some of them conflicting with each other when you’re feeling low or under stress? You can comment below, or on my Facebook page, or drop me a line! And of course, if you need some help clarifying what’s most important to you, or managing the realities of bereavement, caregiving, or major life transitions, I’m here to help. You can contact me HERE.

The Geology of My Spirit

Have you ever felt like certain landscapes nourished your spirit?

Sixteen years ago I took a road trip all by myself for about six weeks. Sometimes it still feels like yesterday. During that trip I spent about two weeks exploring a string of National Parks in Southern Utah from Arches near Moab through Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion, and some of the surrounding country. I was immersed in a landscape of otherworldly rock formations and a warm red colour palette completely foreign to the “50 shades of green” of the Pacific Northwest that I was accustomed to.

Somewhere in my spirit there was a desert rat just waiting to run free.                                                                                         

I listened with awe to Park Ranger lectures on desert plants, animals, and the history of the original human inhabitants of those lands. I went on that trip during a time of personal distress, when I felt worn out, lost and not at home in my own life. My spirit felt as dry as sandstone. I hoped to find myself again by getting a little lost out in the world. Coyotes, lizards, eagles, ravens, and a surprisingly beautiful tarantula let me see what belonging looks like to them. The tang of juniper and the burnt caramel scent of Ponderosa pines, and the prickling dry heat of the sun drying my skin after swimming in a cold river brought my spirit back home to my own body and senses.

Who knew my biggest learning would be from a Ranger talking about rocks?

I don’t honestly remember which park I was at for that lecture – but the impact has remained. The words themselves, “sedimentation, lithification, uplift, erosion,” still echo in my spirit like a drum, a poem, a call. The cyclical process of growing and forming, then being undone in some way, to reform in a new shape, is so universal that even rocks go through it. You could think of this as just psychology, but for me it touches on something essential enough that I choose to call it spirituality.

These incredible canyons, cliffs, and stone arches were formed when mud, sand, stone, and gravel were eroded from other mountains, swept downstream, and deposited in new layers (sedimentation.) Over time, with the pressure of its own weight, and with the help of minerals in the water, those materials became stone again (lithification.) More time passed, and forces from deep within the earth forced the layers upward (uplift.) And the cycle begins again as wind and water cut through the rock, eroding it and exposing the layers to view (erosion.)

All at once I could see myself at every place in that picture.

At that time I felt scraped thin, with all my layers, good and bad, exposed. I think that’s how it is for most of us at one time or another. Wherever we land in life, we build up layers of what works: thoughts, beliefs, habits – all the stuff that we end up thinking is “us.” We can turn into a kind of stone: brittle, unbending.

 Sooner or later though, a bigger force comes along, like a change or a loss, or even just the passing of time. But it acts on us like an earthquake, to shake us up. Maybe it lifts us up, maybe cracks us open. Then all those layers of habits and old beliefs, all the things good and bad that make us tick, are out there for everyone to see. We’ve been trying to bring the skills and the story of who we were before, along with us as we grow up or change circumstances, and it just doesn’t work. Hopefully seeing leads to learning, maybe a little loosening, but for sure it leads to change.

 And so we’re swept down another river again, until we can settle again into stillness and a new shape, until that no longer serves us, and we get to ride the whole process again.

Want to see the actual geology? Check out this site: https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/geology.htm




A Threshold Time

What is a threshold?

The first definition that comes to mind is a doorway or entrance – a line or step you cross over to move into another space. Fall is a threshold season. It lies between summer and winter. Halloween, or the Celtic Samhain, is a threshold day, roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, marking the end of harvest activities and the beginning of a fallow time of rest. Some believe it is a thin place in time too, when the threshold between the visible and invisible worlds is easily crossed. Another definition of threshold is the amount or magnitude of something that is required for something new to happen, such as the temperature water must reach to turn to steam, or the amount of money you must earn to move into a different tax bracket, or the  knowledge you must attain to move to another grade in school. You  might want to think of both senses of the word when you think about what threshold you are crossing (or what state you are moving into) this coming winter.

 Honouring the past, crossing the threshold

One of the issues that I frequently work with clients on is how to honour and cope with transition. In traditional societies, human beings were supported through changes by many different rituals marking various threshold times, such as puberty, marriage, and death. In most rituals you will find a dynamic of “Yes – No – Yes.” We say the first “yes” by celebrating what was true or of value in the past phase, and then we say “no,” where we turn away from the past and say, “I’m ready to be done with that time of my life.” We then turn towards something new – that’s our second “yes.”  Here is a “yes – no – yes” art exercise I’ve given myself this fall to help me embrace this particular threshold season. It’s as much (or more) about the process than about putting it together into a finished piece, so feel free to omit the last step if you like!

Autumn into Winter: A Threshold Project


Magazines, scraps of coloured paper, beads, feathers, or other natural and found items, glue, scissors, poster board or a shoe box or other box with lid.

 The first “Yes” The harvest

Sort through your materials. Choose a whole bunch of images and pieces to reflect your life over the last three months or so. Include everything, good and bad, that you can think of.

The “No” The garden clean up                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Sort through your collection from the first step. What images, or parts of the images you chose, could be trimmed down or cut out? Metaphorically speaking, is there anything that needs to be put in the burn pile? Can some of it be composted, or used as mulch to cover the tender earth through the winter? Put these images and pieces aside for now. We’ll call this the compost pile.

The second “Yes” – Embracing the fallow season

Take another look through the pile again. This time you’ll be looking for images or parts of images that feel new, tender, or in need of protection from the winter ahead. Is there any growth in your life that is still quite young and fragile? New thoughts, plans, or ideas on the horizon that you are ready to to turn towards? You can set these elements aside in their own pile too. These are the things in your life that can use the winter season as a time to rest and gather strength. They will benefit from being quietly nurtured until the next growing season. This is the tender new growth pile.

Putting it all together

You will now have three different groups of images now: a compost pile, a tender new growth pile, and what’s left is a pile of elements that are full grown and can be celebrated. You could stop here and journal about the process, or you might already have an inspiration for how you want to work them all into a collage on the poster board. If not, here’s an idea to try using a box:

Using a shoe box or other lidded box, glue the “compost pile” elements to the outside of the box (not including the lid). You might want to creatively cut or tear these images up, since you don’t necessarily want to see them anymore. These elements will act as mulch to protect the inside of the box.

Glue the items in your “tender new growth” pile to the inside of the box. These elements need to be protected through the cold months, nurtured beneath the soil.

Finally, those images that portray the elements from the past season that you want to celebrate can be glued onto the lid of the box. These parts of your life can weather the winter out in the open, and can give you a lift or boost your confidence whenever you need it.

As always, writing about your experience and any insights you get while working (playing!) this way can deepen the benefits of the project. I’d love to hear what you think of it! Enjoy the harvest!


Listening to nature; Listening to myself

Moving through nature, transitioning with nature

As some of you know, I make an effort to go on some kind of retreat annually. My preference is for that to include at least some time when I can be alone with myself, out in nature, in addition to time for intensive learning. This year (and last year too, actually) I found myself in Central Oregon, in the “high desert” region near Bend. I drove down there this time, and the experience of moving through several different types of forest, of climate, and geology was profound, especially during fall – itself a transitional season, moving from the light and warmth of summer to the cold and dark of winter.

From darkness into light…

I navigated Highway 101 from Port Angeles down to Olympia, Washington in the dark and nearly in the rain. My shoulders stood perpetually on guard, around the altitude of my ears, and I questioned my judgement many times as I squinted against the bright lights of oncoming cars and the constant, unfamiliar curves in the road. On the other hand, at that hour there was little traffic behind me wanting to go faster than I was comfortable with – a small but important blessing!

After a short and poor sleep at a cheap and noisy motel, and a lot of urban sprawl past Portland, my mood matched the sky as I finally entered the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. It was grey with rain-heavy clouds, and the scent of smoke from wildfires was strong. I knew the mountain was there – in fact the map told me I was driving right on the southern slope of it – but my senses didn’t reflect that reality at all. Where was the nature I was so desperately seeking? Where was the view I expected? Was I stuck with a narrow view of dripping aspens (still green, no interesting fall colour yet) and mind-numbing asphalt? Where were the poetic vistas I remembered from my last trip this way?

How many times do we not see the change until it’s already happened?

Suddenly, Highway 26 dropped out of the clouds and I found myself driving along widening canyons more tan and red than green and wet. The sky seemed to lift up and it was as if the rainy morning had never been. The road was the same, the curves were as scary, and yet … now it felt like the road would get me somewhere, the curves revealed a new potential photograph every second. And there were my beloved rock formations, undulating along the roadside where only seconds earlier I had seen nothing worth noting.

It prompted me to wonder, “What changes might be happening underneath the surface, underneath my current mood or mindstate? What is acting as cloud-cover in my life right now?” Luckily for me, the very next day I got to take these questions into my Anamcara training community* and the three-day study retreat that brought me to Oregon. It’s so valuable to me to have a place (and people) who can help me to ask this kind of question in a spirit of mindful curiosity rather than judgement. It’s good to be accompanied and held while we look into the depths.

The metaphor of landscape – nature as mirror

It’s useful to ask myself sometimes, “What’s my inner landscape like today?” I can ask this question from the comfort of my desk or my bed. Sometimes the picture is dramatic: cliffs and canyons, or wild rivers. Sometimes it’s a more placid or domestic scene with meadow or lawn.

When I travel into a specific landscape, like the uniqueness of the high desert, I like to turn the question around a little. “How am I like this landscape? Where is my life dry? What is hardy or tough in me, growing despite the climate, like these junipers? Where am I like the Ponderosa pines, who thrive after forest fires? What makes up my layers, like these layers of rock that have weathered and become exposed over time? Where am I surprised by nourishment, like I was by that river at the bottom of a dry canyon?”

My hope is that these questions will bear fruit in both my work and home life. I would like to reflect some of the peace, strength, and power that I find in the desert. I would like to recognize and nurture the vulnerability in myself and others that is reflected in a landscape where it can take one hundred years to grow a layer of lichen, and where the layers built up over aeons can be suddenly upended by an earthquake, and then eroded again over more aeons back into sand.

 If you feel drawn to working on some of these deeper questions yourself, in an atmosphere of acceptance and creative exploration, I’d like to invite you to contact me for a conversation. You can contact me by e-mail here: openhearthstudio.com  or phone me at 250-595-0405. I am pleased to support people in person at my studio in Victoria BC, Canada, as well as by video conference call for those who live elsewhere.

*The Anamcara Project is a program of The Sacred Art of Living Center in Bend, Oregon. I am in my second year of apprenticeship.  https://sacredartofliving.org/