March Daffodils

Mystery whispers truth into the seed of the soul of the universe.

Tucked under layers of winter-hardened soil, the earth’s children struggle to direct the terms of their emergence. How, when, where, why, wherefore.

I shall wear a yellow bonnet with satin tie.

I shall bow and dance gratitude to sun and rain.

I will smile at the moon.

With mother’s love, the universe sows her reminder in the form of late snow that rises in cold piles atop green sprouts.

Not yet, my children. It is not yours to choose.

Weighted in mourning, the seeds of potentiality retreat to the darkness of unknowing until the next season when they will be resurrected into the necessity of spring.

© 3/15/17




The first teacher arrived in gray-brown overcoat.  She fussed and flew in circles in the small classroom while I, her student, watched from the doorway.  The stripes on her shoulders glowed green against the afternoon sun.

What’s happening? I thought before saying aloud, “I don’t understand.  I didn’t expect you.”

The hummingbird rose higher toward the white ceiling of our back-porch classroom, running frantic laps around the static ceiling fan.  I watched her in clouded trance.

For eight years my screened door was kept latched.  The recent passing of my ancient blind dog changed routine and habit.  For the first time in a decade there’s no sightless or otherwise challenged dog needing my assistance to reach the yard.  Now I simply open the back door and send the current pesky duo out onto the screened porch, through the propped outer door and into the yard.

Keeping my porch closed to the world meant never learning what lurked in the yard during the day.  The shut portal kept life at bay.  The open door brought new challenges.  And so it goes opening oneself to living.

A Google search led to troubling facts.  A hummingbird will escalate in frantic motion, rising higher to escape, as instinct directs, until fatigue and lack of fuel ground her, permanently if she doesn’t soon receive nourishment.  As I read the grim report, she called out in fear while hitting the ceiling and the nearly invisible vertical screen.   The tiny bird cried for help as I exited our classroom.

Within minutes I was back, fishing net in tow.  It seemed the best choice after consulting with a Spanish-speaking shopper who shared my aisle at Wal-Mart.  Between languages and through rudimentary signs, he understood the basics: bird necesita ayudarBird needs help.  Without language we agreed on the best choice – a large fishing net made of a lightweight synthetic less likely to injure my captive.  The telescoping handle meant no ladder was needed.

At our second meeting, the creature sat alit on a ceiling-fan blade and wobbled front to back as I considered my options.  1) Climb a ladder to move her more gently by hand.  2) Place the newly bought feeder on the fan blade next to her for an energy boost.  3) Go for broke and use the net.

To expedite her release I chose Option 3.  The weary bird held the net with her tiny claws, allowing me to move her onto the hedge just off the porch.  Still shaky, she sat briefly before flying away at half speed.  Not sure she would live, I turned on an outside light and placed the new red feeder atop a fence post under the spotlight.

The plan was to return the $40 net after work the following evening.

One rising of the moon later, I returned to the back-porch classroom to fetch the large-mouthed fishing net.  As I spun to begin the return trip to Wal-Mart, I saw the next teacher, this time a shiny green dragonfly buzzing against the screen.

With patience in heart and net in hand, I released the critter to ride the currents between my house and the nearby pond.

For 10 days the story replayed.  All that changed with each telling was the exact bug in question, and the most effective way to free it.  There were damselflies, moths, a black swallowtail butterfly, an Eastern swallowtail, two carpenter bees, and one very persistent yellow jacket.  There was even a tree frog that came calling.  With a few gentle swoops of my net, I saved them all.

I’ve thought about it so much.  Why the repetition?  Why now and not in the first weeks the door was propped open?  What am I meant to learn?

Last Friday night I made notes under the heading “Patterns or Traps.”  The words flowed from pen to paper outlining a few, often repeated and not-so-effective behaviors.

The bottom line is life is an ongoing test, and my few long-standing patterns have each reappeared in the days since my recent lesson began.  What isn’t learned the first, second or fifth time in life will roll around again, until we finally get it right.  My winged visitors serve to remind me of something I already know if I’ll but release control and habit.

My first teacher alights my thoughts.  On some level, we are all she – the soft fragile soul trapped within feet of an open escape route.  Like our friend, we scurry higher and higher, led by instinct to escape when we’re cornered or at risk.  We cry and cry, using costly energy when the answer, the open threshold, is just behind us; we simply fail to look, or to listen.

We all do this.  We become trapped (or perceive that we are), struggle, find freedom, stabilize, and then do the same damned thing again.

Like my teachers, we panic, fight to be right, to be first, to be loved, or even to remain unseen.  Whatever our protective patterns, we do everything possible – reach for every distraction except the one thing that can save us.  We fail to humble ourselves, to come down from our high places and float through the open door.  Instead, like my small winged friends, we tire ourselves to the point that we put our well-being at risk.

Our situations change, and we change, too.  There were times when the open door held a different meaning for me.  Once it represented the flow of energy in my life – straight out the door and pointed in someone else’s direction.  Thankfully those days are behind me.  I no longer wish to close the door for my own protection.  Now I simply need an occasional reminder the portal is there.

Thresholds foster two-way motion.  The coming in is as important as the going out.  Our movement and our failure to move can be the curse or the blessing.  Each day it’s ours to decide.

Freedom lies within our reach.  The key is to pause and to listen as the wind whispers our unique truths.

Walking blind

It’s our evening routine, Clover and me.

Each night, after I return with the big dogs from our romp down the road, I gently wake my geriatric cockapoo who sleeps nestled in fleece blankets on my red Parisian sofa. She’s black with tuxedo markings and a single white paw. Clover is small and mighty, still the alpha of the pack after all these years.

Her white glove works like a hook, grasping my arm as I lift her. Soon she willingly settles into the crook of my left arm, her body gently shaped like the letter c across my chest. I kiss her right ear and softly tell her she’s perfect, my baby and the only dog I ever raised.

If she’s alert, she tilts her head to one side to receive the words, smiling with her tail. Most days she rests her warm head against me and lets the words roll across her, coughing along our path to the front door. Both content and aware, she sees what most can’t.

Three eye surgeries and a case of glaucoma left her blind. Her right eye is shrunken and white from a failed procedure. The left is as deep and dark as the day we met 15 Christmases ago, but it no longer sees. A glaucoma “correction,” an injection of a toxic drug, finally killed the cells creating painful pressure behind her lens, leaving her fully without sight.

Clover is remarkable. In ways she’s just a dog, an in-the-moment creature with no concern about her future, no regret or anger for the past. At the same time she’s unusual. She always saw straight to my soul, and blindness has made no difference. Clover is my little mama and my nurse, an all-knowing sage.

I had intense facial pain for 11 years, an early display of connective-tissue disease. My baby girl was my pain thermometer. When the heat reached the boiling point, she often hid under my bed. When it became lightning bolts across my right cheek and into my teeth or knives tearing my flesh, Clover panicked, pacing or seeking escape from the room. Because of her fear, I seldom advertised the pain, yet she knew. My Clover is a seer; she has vision beyond sight.

My pain is gone, and it is now she in need of a loyal nurse. Each evening, I walk outside with my warm, c-shaped blind dog wrapped in the right half of my sweater. We talk, Clover and I. She sniffs the air for clues and allows me to lead us downhill to the neighborhood green space.

Her willingness is a miracle. When I first met the small black bundle of soft curls at the age of five weeks, I chose her from a basket of puppies specifically because of her lack of trust, her unwillingness to be held. Being lifted above the ground prompted four legs to immediately, rigidly stretch in all directions. She feared loss of control, giving someone else the power to determine her elevation and her course.

Now Clover allows me to lead. She raises a single white paw so I can lift her as I whisper the words that it’s time. She is more than tolerant for my offer to lead, she is fully accepting and even grateful.

Walking with her last night, it occurred to me we’re not that different, my baby and I.

Like Clover, there’s a daily question of how I might feel when I wake in the morning. Like my tuxedo-marked sage, I have let go of the need to anticipate. The universe will present my day when the time comes; I no longer need advance notice. Like Clover, I walk blind, each step into the unknown an act of trust and full acceptance that I am not in charge.

I’m also not unique. Though our individual stories differ, this is true for all people. We share the universal experience of being non-fully-seeing creatures carried by circumstance from place to place. All we determine is how we respond to our shifts in elevation and direction. Generally the tighter we cling to control, the more difficult the walk. Most often this lesson is learned through pain and loss. After all, refinement by fire necessitates flames.

I know a family whose only son began losing his vision when he was six. Soon the football-playing, fishing boy with the memorable smile would receive a dire label. He was diagnosed with an uncommon and deadly disease that slowly steals children’s development because of a simple genetic mutation. There are several forms of the illness, and no child with his specific diagnosis has ever lived into adulthood. Instead, there is a slow and steady decline, an unfair anti-developmental process that leads backward to before.

His parents found a doctor who would try an experimental procedure, an immune-system transplant. It might help or even cure, or the experiment might take his young life much sooner than the disease. This is the impossible choice they were given.

Knowing the outcome if they did nothing, they took the risk that could steal life immediately. They chose the only option with any hope for life, the transplant. Like their legally-blind son, they began an unknown journey across great mountains wearing blindfolds and improper shoes. There was simply no way to prepare.

The family’s decisive slogan became, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” I spoke with the boy’s dad one day about the impossible but clear choice to take the greater risk, the one offering the only ounce of hope for their son’s future. He spoke openly about their situation and also offered a universal perspective. “It’s what we’re all doing, walking blind with the faith there’s ground under the next footstep.”

They could never have imagined the dozens, sometimes daily setbacks, the life-threatening infections and unknown complications that awaited their boy. And because he was the trail-blazing patient, there was no benefit of the wisdom of history. Each step brought only baseline data. If they had known the difficult months that would follow, they might have made another choice. And that’s the thing – they weren’t meant to know.

We are all walking blind through a field of landmines or across rocky cliffs from which the bottom is a long way down. With any luck we might tread for a while along a wooded path leading to bright sunshine, but eventually there will be obstacles and storms. We simply cannot know in our imperfect humanity which lies next. This is true of both the short and the long term, down in the details and way up in the perspective of the big picture. We all walk blind.

The arena of health and life isn’t the only place it happens. The same is true in our relationships, our homes, our families and our jobs. It’s true of the people we hold close, the tangible stuff we collect as well as our bodies and our invisible but very real spirits.

We have no idea what awaits. Sometimes we don’t even recognize our subtle shifts while they’re happening.

It’s the lesson and the wisdom of Clover that’s the antidote for so much unknown. Let’s face it –blindness can be scary. The key to our well-being lies not in what we encounter in the dark, but in how we respond.

For years I, too, braced myself when lifted up and set in a new direction. I don’t know what’s ahead, so I fight for control. I rely on my own strength and wit to guarantee safe landing. I, Mitzi, will make it work out. This is a set-up for cosmic correction. Keep in mind it’s bracing during a fall that leads to broken bones. Leaning into the fall and releasing tension is the best way to come out without serious injury.

Like Clover, experience and the fire of refinement have lessened my need for control and reliance on my own smarts to get me out of a tough situation. Life teaches us lessons. One that most people struggle to receive is that of release and radical acceptance. Sometimes life is just hard, unfair, unkind. At some point, if we want to become more whole and to grow spiritually, we must accept that this is simply how it works. Life is unpredictable, and it can be unfair.

The acceptance of life’s imperfections – our diagnoses and tough diseases, break-ups, break-downs and pure failures – their acceptance brings the gift of the softening of control and release into the arms of something larger and wiser.

It’s tempting to end this piece on a positive note – see, it all ends well! However, that’s unrealistic, the intentional blindness of denial we all know too well. The fact is, we fail and fail again, many times in the same ways, giving way to well-known tricks and traps, stumbling blocks on our paths. Managing the obstacle course of life with human vision is difficult and complex. It isn’t simple.

Sometimes my Clover gets trapped behind the bathroom door. Once I closed her in the kitchen pantry for hours without knowing she was there. She’s constantly under foot and a danger for me given my own health and general state of affairs. A fall risk and a blind dog are a challenging pair.

The thing about Clover’s more embarrassing moments is they tend to happen in the same or similar ways. That bathroom-door trick, it’s an old one to us. In fact, when she goes missing, it’s the first place I look for my little lost black sheep. Time and again, there she stands, her black nose pressed against the lowest hinge on the back side of the door, as if her persistence will move the mountain.

I, too, can become lost in the same old ways. Even though I’ve taken wrong turns, often the same ones, I still find myself occasionally trapped in familiar corners, nose hard pressed against a metal hinge. You see, even with practice and the wisdom of time, I still sometimes get lost on the same path in the darkness of the human condition, even though I know better. Vision and sight, it seems, are not the same thing. The vision to steer clear of an old trap [or not] isn’t necessarily related to the ability to see it coming.

I once knew a woman who had MS who had an assistance dog, a golden retriever, aptly named Sunny. Sunny and her person came to an event where a colleague and I were putting up signs and banners. There was one difficult banner, the all-important first welcome our walkers would see at the finish line. In spite of our best efforts and tools, it wouldn’t cooperate and hung lop-sided and limp next to the road.

“Here, you take Sunny,” our volunteer said. “I’ll fix it.”

Two sighted women and one certified dog watched as a blind woman thoughtfully and accurately fixed our sideways effort. And when she was done correcting our mess, once again with Sunny’s leash in hand, our teacher looked toward us and said the greatest truth, “The whole problem is you have sight. Sometimes it gets in the way.”

Our sight, our sureness we could see and do better than a blind woman without her assistance dog, is the kind of pride that accompanies a fall, the result of which gets worse the harder we strive to control the landing. It’s a lesson I try to remember.

All we can do when we stumble or when life throws an undeserved curve ball is follow the example of my dear Clovie – put one paw in front of the other and move forward in a new direction until you find a clear path. She doesn’t worry or fuss, she simple tries again. She may never find the way out of her entrapment, but she persists in the faith there is a way.

All we can ever do is start exactly where we are, start with the trust that even though we can’t see where we’re going, there will be ground beneath our feet. If there isn’t, our trust lies in knowing we can’t control the outcome or the direction or altitude we ultimately take, even if we fall.

It is my newly humbled, tolerant and trusting dog that reminds me how I’m meant to receive life’s twists and turns, even and especially when I reach blind corners. There is a beautiful freedom in releasing control. There is freedom in handing oneself over to the great unknown in faith that greater wisdom will take us to the correct destination. We can, if we allow, rest in the crook of a bigger and wiser arm.

It is Clover who reminds me to lean into life without resistance and to receive each moment as it comes, whether the refinement that comes by fire or moments of unspeakable joy. All I can control is how I respond to what I find – and remain open to the grace to keep on walking, putting one foot in front of the other. Clover also teaches the lesson to hold your head high after a fall and lead with your striking white paw, even if you end up being wrong (or wronged) again.

It is 8:20 on a Saturday night. My baby lies sleeping in a pile of dirty sheets she sniffed out on my bedroom floor. She gets predictable points for smarts and wider vision. I don’t know how long my life-time baby will live. The dog I lovingly call Pokey is a little slower each day, her breathing more shallow and tired. She isn’t closer to death as much as she is closer to full sight.

It’s time to wake my teacher and lift her from the floor. She’ll raise her lone white paw to allow me to take charge, and I’ll wrap her in my sweater as I kiss her right ear and walk blind with her in the cool night air.

When we return, I will thank my teacher for the grace of another lesson, and I will put her to bed with no interest in directing how we awake tomorrow.

This is the gift of the practice of walking blind.


window view

Enjoying her window view.

smile for the camera

Posing for the camera.

The road home

Many roads fill my conscious and unconscious space.

Some are grand, others technical and congested. Still others are simple segments of that endless black ribbon of entrance and exit ramps punctuated by standard DOT overpasses that unites this land.

None is more natural or grounding than a dusty dirt road weaving through tall pines toward a patch of land I call home.

Back in the day before seat-belt laws, when seat-belt kits were sold as voluntarily upgrades, my big sister and I rode in the very back of our parents blue Chevy station wagon or the way back of our green Pinto toward it, our home base in the real-life game of tag.

Clouds of dust stirred by four worn tires bellowed in plump clouds that arose and swirled only to settle on the back window of our working-class chariot. Deep shifting rivers of Carolina dirt ran down the glass pane as the dust piled up and gravity took charge.

We laughed with glee as the dusty river ran freely down the car window, leaving behind our childhood woes as we headed toward our grandmother’s modest farm. There was anticipation of what awaited – the smell of fried chicken, a warm welcome, a place to be without the pretense and acting that suffocated our school lives.

We all have these places, our down-on-earth docking stations. While some are literal, others are figurative or only in our memories. The thing I have learned over the decades is the home bases that are most lasting are those we carry inside.

It’s seductive to chase dreams and norms.

As teenagers, my sister and I begged for the clothes our more wealthy friends wore. We fought over shared Chinos and babysat extra to earn precious coins to add to our clothing funds. Weejuns or penny loafers were the correct shoes. Purses were strictly Pappagallo. Oxford shirts and the appropriate hem roll of the pants made for our social success.

What life teaches, often through pain and loss, is that the trappings of the external world are just that, snares we succumb to over and over as we attempt to define ourselves and make lasting meaning.

When what we think matters is stripped away, we are left with only what’s real, ourselves, our imperfect bodies and mixed-up thoughts that coexist with undeserved inner divinity. Like my childhood travels over the river and through the woods to my grandmother’s humble home, it all comes down to basic substance, the earth from which we arose and which we travel, step by step, to return home.

It’s January 1 in a brand-new year.

I struggled for two days to remember my New-Year’s Facebook posts of years past. What is it I always say? People like it – maybe I’ll dig it up. Too lazy to scroll through the two dozen posts that constitute my not-so-exciting year to get back to January 1, I decided instead to rewrite the story.

Eschew resolutions. No. I’m not even sure I know what that means. Who am I trying to impress? Go with alliteration: resist resolutions.

Follow your path. That’s easy.

And my favorite starting, ending and in-between point: start where you are. Yes, that’s definitely the right ending.

Here’s how it looks on Facebook:

resist resolutions ~ follow your path ~ start where you are

It was only in seeing it posted like this that I realized this is in fact the same New-Year’s Facebook post I have used for several years.

It’s a sign of spiritual maturity, my grounded-ness in a true home, that I come back to the same words, even when starting from a blank slate. It’s a reflection of a real home of lasting substance I have found inside after nearly five decades of searching.

My hope for the year is to continue to travel my unique path toward my unique purpose.

For me this means using the gift of words, which I did not one thing to earn, to connect people and offer new ways of seeing things. To be given this ability says not one thing about me as a person; it isn’t of or about me. I’m meant to use it to bring union and resolution. For me this is about service and love, and I’ll keep doing it. I am just the messenger, after all.

That’s my path – at least at this point in time.

Yours is different and uniquely beautiful, anointed at a time and place beyond human understanding.

I hope to see you down the dirt road as we journey home. Perhaps we’ll meet at the one-lane bridge at Northeast Creek or share a ride in the very back of a now vintage blue Chevy wagon as rivers of primal dust roll down the back window and rise again in clouds of glory.

It’s a brand-new year. Make the most of it.

This is my intent, though I will surely at times fail. That’s what defines the human experience – going off the rails now and again and then bravely trying once more.

What matters most is what we do next, the very next step. It’s easy to go too far down the road in our heads with anxiety or to reach back to the past with anger or regret. I remind myself continually to remain in this miraculous moment right now. I find the more I try, the more natural it becomes.

My wish for you this year is the same as you move stepwise toward your true home.

When in doubt, start where you are.

Safe travels. See you there.

© Mitzi Viola, 1/1/15

[ll] Pause.

Patiently he awaited the end of winter and the coming of the little spiders.  Life is always a rich and steady time when you are waiting for something to happen or to hatch.

– E.B. White

This nugget came to me during the season of waiting some 25 years ago, the cover quote on an Advent chapel bulletin at my small Lutheran school.

At the time, my understanding of seasons was basic. Spring’s promise unfolds into the full bloom of summer glory in rich, varied colors until autumn ushers in crisp relief, slowing all movement for winter’s stillness that ends at last with the new buds of the eternal hope of spring.

Seasons were simple – quarterly visitors tied to the weather. I had lived enough to know references to the seasons of life, what it means to live in the August or November of one’s story. Yet I didn’t have experience to understand the figurative seasons of living, lessons we learn, often time and again, only through pain and loss or, if we are lucky, intense love or joy.

In my youth I fancied autumn the best of the seasons. Some years later I changed my position, declaring winter my preferred soul season.

Winter is a kind of wise friend who sits with you while you take in reflective silence and hard truths. She’s a cocoon, an embrace and safe space.

Simply put, winter’s gifts are the shedding of adornment and idle chatter, along with the necessity of a dormant and silent wait, before the renewal of life rolls around again.

We wait for. We wait until. We wait before. We wait on. We wait at and under and through.

All of this is well and good. It’s deep and thoughtful to remain open to the wait. However, this view, this language, keeps us looking into the future in hopeful or anxious anticipation for what is to come. Our sentences long for endings in prepositional phrases.

Waiting keeps us ironically tied to the future, a forward look that compels our attention away from the miracle of right now, this very second I write or that you read these words.

Right now I’m waiting for a few things.

Several weeks ago I started a new medication intended to calm the frightening inflammation that keeps my breathing and swallowing muscles in winter slumber. The wait they say is two or three months. In fact, it might not work at all, but this line of defense is the most effective and conservative next step to slow the production of destructive auto-antibodies.

The day is 12/13/14. I wait.

My companion on much of this 20-year medical journey and, at times, outright suffering is my #2 dog, Clover. She is 14, completely blind, happy and independent as the day we met. My little nurse, the only dog I ever chose, she attended my bedside for six years of intense neuralgic pain as I navigated a disease so painful it’s called the suicide disease. On countless nights, the sensitive pup lay close to me, trembling, at times even hiding, because she sensed the all-encompassing pain. Yet she stuck it out with me night after night in spite of her own fear, waiting for the stabbing pain to ease. Often my only escape was to gently press my burning face against her black soft curls and wait for the sweet relief of sleep.

My baby is now herself in the November of living. Two tired kidneys, failed eyes and a pair of useless knees slow her gait, though she still wags with each step.

The day is 12/13/14, and Clover awaits the call for her last long walk.

I find myself continually self-correcting, pulling my thoughts, hopes and fears back from the future direction we face together. The miracle is the breath itself. It is a miracle right now that I breathe and swallow without choking, that my voice is intact and my lungs open. My head travels 100 miles an hour toward the question of the medicine, the hope for which I wait. The sacred moment, however, is now. Each breath is a miracle and a gift.

The same is true of Clover – Miss Jean Louise Scout Finch, Miss Baby, Beans, little nugget of love. It’s easy to become obsessed with her kidney values, her age and even her courage in facing the world without sight and with muted hearing. The miracle of Clover is not the reach back to the gift of each night’s sleep she gave me during impossible pain, nor is it a prognosticating look forward to how many weeks or months might remain for her. The miracle of my lifetime baby is the breaths she takes right now, once again dutifully by my side, fully aware of and at peace with what is happening inside us both.

I want to press pause and hold this moment forever. That, of course, means I miss the next miracle, and the next, clinging in fear to hold on to something that has already passed.

Pause, at least in this moment, is a more helpful verb than wait.

We wait for this and that or the other. In pausing, we simply stop without any implied or implicit action or future hope. The pause simply is. And in each one lies a miracle if we but tune our attention to hear the symphony that surrounds us.

Two decades ago when I first struggled to understand an illness taking over my being, I encountered Buddhist monk and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. This excerpt from his work, The Miracle of Mindfulness, was shared with me by a mentor and coworker weeks before his own death. It was two decades before I came to understand it in any real way.

“I like to walk alone on country paths, rice plants and wild grasses on both sides, putting each foot down on the earth in mindfulness, knowing that I walk on the wondrous earth. In such moments, existence is a miraculous and mysterious reality.

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child – our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

The teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Thay, now lies in extended suspended animation in a French hospital where he has been in a coma since a severe brain hemorrhage November 11.

Just today Thay’s monastic community, Plum Village, issued an update.

Thay continues to surprise the doctors with his strong vital signs and steady, peaceful breathing. They are still amazed that Thay has been able to survive and even to show small signs of progress.

A few days ago, one of the doctors shared that “Thay is an enigma”, and another said they were “witnessing a miracle.” When a top neurosurgeon from the US visited last week, he was deeply impressed by the medical team’s commitment to giving Thay every possible chance of recovery.

In recent days Thay has been showing some indications of wakefulness, but he continues to remain in a deep coma. There have been times when Thay had his eyes open for more than two hours, and is responsive, but he is not yet showing clear signs of communication. The doctors remind us that it may be weeks or months before we can understand the damage caused by the hemorrhage and discover the extent of healing that may be possible.

The medical team has started to stimulate Thay to have more wakefulness.

The update closes with an invitation.

During the holiday season, please take some time off to take care of yourself, your loved ones, and friends. Find time to be with nature, to enjoy the stars, and the white clouds and to truly come home and be at home within ourselves, as Thay always encourages us to do. You may like to write love letters instead of spending money and consuming more. The New Year is a wonderful opportunity to begin anew with ourselves and let go of resentments and regret.

The beloved teacher of millions defies all odds by remaining present in each moment, albeit below the surface much of the time, each breath a feat thought nearly impossible for someone who has sustained such serious brain injury.  Students across the globe breathe with Thay, each sympathetic breath offered without intent to change the outcome.  With Thay, they simply accept what is right now, with gratitude and awareness of the awesomeness of life, the sacredness of death.

The day is 12/13/14. The teacher yet teaches.

A reach to a Zen teacher seems an odd tie to the Advent message. In other ways it makes perfect sense. The Christian contemplatives, the mystics, taught and teach Thay’s same message wrapped in slightly different gift wrap.

Consider that pepper is a spice that changes the flavor of food. Salt, on the other hand, is an element that enhances flavor, making more of the same experience and substance. Contemplation, mindfulness and life’s pauses are salt to our faith, whatever recipe constitutes our divine.

A trap for so many of us is stepping outside of our noise only during times of crisis – as we wait for a diagnosis, for healing, for the passing of a faithful friend. It takes the big stuff to get our attention. We stumble into wake-up calls instead of simply awakening.

The coming week brings new milestones for me as a favorite relative awaits a big diagnosis and a dear teacher from my small Lutheran school journeys toward his final breath in a hospice facility in Hickory.

What we miss in looking only at such big things philosophically or theologically is that each moment is a miracle, an equally valuable reflection of the sacred that permeates all being.

May we sit more often in the spirit of Thay and other great teachers to experience each singularly significant miracle, the gift that awaits if we but engage in each precious moment – a sound, a smell, the unfathomable miracle of the human brain, the structure of a single leaf or a blade of grass, the warmth of a glowing fireplace.

May we, like Thay, have more moments of wakefulness.  May we pause, listen and hear the eternal message.

It is 12/13/14 at 10:58 p.m. We breathe. This moment is the miracle.

All is a miracle.

© Mitzi Viola, 12/13/14

Old dogs, new tricks

When I was a child, I picked flowers for my grandmother from her yard.

Each spring when the buttercups arose from the Piedmont soil, I picked all the sunny blooms my kid hands could reach – enough to fill a 1960s-style green drinking glass.  Predictably I presented them with an eager and lasting hug.  If there were more stems than one glass could hold, I gifted the surplus to my mother or one of her sisters.  “I picked these for you.”

My grandmother’s response was equally predictable – “Thank you, Mit-zi,” with a shy smile.

At the time I imagined a dinner glass of flowers from a ringlet-clad girl to be better than the average Christmas gift.  It spoke louder than my soft demeanor, “You are loved!  I waited all year to pick these for you!”

It wasn’t until decades later that I saw my childhood floral benevolence differently.

Both the flowers and the fallen-down farmhouse around which they bloomed were, and still are, legend in our family.  The greatest kindness I might have offered our matriarch, who longed to see the buds emerge each year, was the presentation of a couple of smiling daffodils and the preservation of their bright cousins in the spots where they bloomed.  The most generous gesture was to leave the flowers in the ground where my grandmother transplanted them next to the simple wood-frame house her true love built for her in 1930-something.

Daffodils, or buttercups to my family, bloom once a year.  Each spring-time “gift” I offered robbed my grandmother and our kin of a lengthy viewing of the miraculous birth we waited a full year to see.

A visit yesterday to this sacred spot, the killing field of my youth, reinforced why this used-to-be farm in the far reaches of Chatham County still, two decades after my grandmother’s death, offers a direct line to feelings of safety, belonging and love for my family and me.  Simply seeing blooming bulbs of any variety or smelling fried chicken any place in the world takes me directly to that safe emotional space.

Last weekend, creeping through the present-day forest of wisteria, briars and poison oak to find the now hidden blooms, I imagined the distinct voices and accents of my Aunt Clara and Aunt Inez drifting above the crowded table as we ate a Sunday dinner or holiday meal.  The smell of country vegetables and the sounds of men laughing as they swapped stories on the back porch permeated the pine-dotted woods where forty years after the practice began, I once again picked buttercups, their faces bowed to resist the effects of a late-season frost.

On this run-down, overgrown patch of dirt, I am reminded how deeply my family is emotionally hard-wired to this place of love and home-full-ness and how little it takes to bring us into reunion with these safe, embracing feelings.

A simple memory will do.


My weekend return to the farm also instilled how strongly we humans are hard-wired to feelings of shame and the experience of fear against a lifetime of traumas large and small.

A Christmas bell with red velvet ribbon hangs on the back door to our home place.  This was a desperate warning system of my favorite uncle, meant to announce the arrival of witches and warlocks that swirled about him in the months after my grandmother’s death.  Developmentally disabled, he had always lived with her and, unknown to us, he spent decades medicated to fend off paranoid delusions.  With his mother and daily drugs gone, a host of voices and dark figures moved within and around him.

I stood in the doorway to Doug’s bedroom and took in the view of their small trailer from his perspective.  From wall to wall lay his entire world.  When Mama was alive to cook breakfast, dinner and supper and to attend as his number-one companion, this scene brought comfort.

With his lifeline gone, the view of the modest home from Doug’s bedroom was fraught with peril.  Once his life-giving universe, it became a dark solar system spinning with comets of fear and confusion.

The slam of the back-porch screen door no longer signaled the arrival of a beloved nephew or niece.  In his later state of grief and mental illness, that same familiar sound reinforced the hard-wired message, the perceived reality – his actual reality – that evil had come calling.  Danger, danger!

Hunting daffodils in the entangled canopy of a once-open yard, I was enticed by the comparison of our feelings and the sense of well-being he and I each received from our experiences on the farm at different times in our lives.

What a contrast between the images of a safe, happy girl and that of an adult child helpless against a rising tide of evil with not a single soul to help him.


The power of fear based in real-life experience trumps facts most any day.  Such conditioning is part of the natural order of things, a means of self-protection and the stuff of survival.

The reality is heavy in my home these days.

My nearly 5-year-old dog recently became terrified of the wood floor that covers much of our ranch-style square footage.  She’s like a flat rock skipped across a pond, catapulted from one island of carpet to another, often pausing to cry for rescue.

I don’t know what happened to condition the beast to fear our floor.

It’s likely in bounding down the entry hall and bouncing like Tigger into our living space, a hall runner slipped or went airborne, popping her on the back side.  Maybe a claw became stuck in the space between two boards.  She generalized this one injury onto a lifetime of potential incidents in spite of the four prior years she lived here without harm.

I do know approximately when it happened.  It’s also clear anxiety about hard surfaces permeates her entire being, resulting in a new phobia of walking into PetsMart, on nearby sidewalks and other places no scary thing has actually happened.

To her, like my Uncle Doug’s paranoid delusions, imaginary danger is all too real, and perhaps that’s what matters most.  The danger is real to Mischief.  These days just the sight of our cabin-grade cherry floor is enough to make her shake uncontrollably.  Like Doug, personal trauma has re-engineered her being.  She spends a lot of time under my bed.

Each time I ask, encourage or bribe her to walk from here to there, I reinforce the fear that keeps her paralyzed and isolated to my bedroom or stranded on one large area rug in our great room.

All other space is perilous ground.  It’s as though sharks inhabit the sea of wood surrounding the carpeted islands of safety.  We relive the trauma all day, every day.

I have tried everything.

Ignoring the issue and presenting life as usual is pointless; life is not “as usual” for her.  Addressing it and forcing exposure makes it worse.  Few distractions exceed her fear, and so it goes.

We’re working to master new skills and to get out of our house more to change our landscape.

On our daily walks I keep her on a short leash to put myself clearly in charge in hopes this will keep her anxiety in check.  You’re not the boss, my kid – you don’t have to have all the answers.  It’s not your job to protect and defend.  Let go and let me take the lead.

Although it hasn’t yet helped, there’s a new grounding routine in our home.

Holding her face firmly and looking into her big, brown eyes, I tell her each night, “There is nothing wrong with you.  In fact, there’s nothing you can do that’s wrong, nothing to keep you from being loved.  You’re trying so hard.  You’re doing such a good job, a really great job.  You’re a good girl.”

No progress so far.

The dog we call Mischief is not the same clown-like pup I knew a few months ago.  She and we are simply different.


I hold so much compassion for my Uncle Doug and my curly-haired pup.  I also have empathy for the pair.  What I mean is I understand their predicament.

Like all people, I, too, have been re-wired by select life events.  A few are so painful I avoid the human connections and situations that might make such pain possible once again, even though in all reality it’s very unlikely to happen.

Once I had a trauma-laden experience of betrayal by some of the people I loved most, those to whom I gave the most.  The betrayal consisted in part of slander about my character and abilities.  What was said was mostly untrue, and I didn’t have the opportunity to defend myself or offer any facts.

Many months down the road I had hints of the same experience.  There was backstage whisper of a failed fund-raising event, the projected results presented to me at the close of the night after one very long day and week.  The presumed negativity led to an e-mail meant to prepare us all for failed results and to remind us that (in spite of its importance to our careers!) the money isn’t everything.

The looming threat was thinly veiled and all too real for me.  Hints of judgment and blame, self-imposed and from without, danced around us like my Uncle Doug’s invisible demons.

After a long weekend of implicit defeat and related shame, the all-important facts were made known as the pledges were finally tallied.

Our failed event brought a significant increase in bottom-line funding compared to last year and all previous years.  We stood to boast a 28% increase in net funding over our all-time best year in which two “plant” gifts skewed the results to the positive.

In short, our event rocked.

Add to that the feedback from guests that they had their best experience with us and, to some, the best event experience they ever had anywhere.  Operationally it was our smoothest effort by far, although key improvements remain to be made.

A collective expectation of doom was projected onto an event that would turn out to be in nearly every way the best the organization has known.

None of this is what matters.

Just like my timid dog and my favorite uncle, the facts don’t hold as much power as the neural pathways burned deep with past messages of pain.  Danger, danger!  Next comes the scapegoating!

Doug understood cognitively what it meant to have schizophrenia.  When the voices came calling, however, the heightened frenzy of fear trumped reason every time.

I can’t claim my Mischief has the capacity of reason to help sort the facts of our flooring.  She does, however, rely heavily on conditioning and training, yet no box of treats or history of safety can undo the one experience, still unknown to me, that taught her that bare floors hurt.

Similarly, I know this second work experience did not happen in the same unsafe environment as the first – not the same players or toxic culture.  In fact, the two professional experiences are almost exactly opposite.  Yet just like my little mutt, I still anticipate the sucker punch.

History distorts reality.


For humans our conditioning to fear and other emotions is a daily and complex process.

We have the benefit of reason, our emotions and our own bodies to inform us of threats as well as love and pure, unrelenting joy.  We have the benefit of hindsight to teach us how to change, the gift of forgiveness for ourselves and others when we fall short.

Somehow, though, we don’t often use all the faculties we possess.

Instead of sticking to the facts of a situation or even considering how another person’s own scars or intent might play a role, we tell ourselves our own unique “stories” that explain why it all went down, what we lacked internally or in relation to others that made it happen, that we were doomed to be screwed.  We limit ourselves through emotional Calvinism, a predestination based on incomplete interpretation of present events based on past pain.  It always ends this way.

My unfortunate work event was in the end a non-event.  It was also a gift.  It serves as a reminder that even when we think we have self-reflection down, we’re always at risk of hitting symbolic speed bumps that rattle our security and throw us off course.  It’s also a powerful reminder of the application of fear to human behavior.

I’m fine.  We’re fine.  Our event hit the (positive) record books.  Nearly everyone holds us in the highest esteem.

More important than all that, I know after a time of reflection that what hit me hardest was not that prognostication of doom offered to me as a favor at the close of the event or the ensuing e-mail meant to soften the financial failure by praising the process.

What weighed most on my spirit was my interpretation, the supposed “knowing” that what was really going down was professional danger and personal betrayal, attempts to focus blame and hold others from embarrassment.  My heart raced with the same fear and helplessness of that other work experience as I was shown the results before they were made public, giving me a chance to know before our board was told.  The shame of a failed career had already set in.  I literally felt it.

My quick reaction was a strong need to reinforce my personal fortress.  If you don’t let people know you, if they can’t get in, they can’t hurt you.  Okay, fine – that’s how it’s going down.  I’ll take it, but I’m not letting anyone else go down with me.  Bring it.  I own it.  I’m not taking the committee or a new coordinator with me, and I won’t make you look bad.  Don’t worry.

All that is my “story.”

The reality is what happened and what I made of it are somewhat similar yet somewhat different.

In ways my interpretation is fair.  The timing of the disaster-preparedness talk was not sensitive, and a bottom-line conclusion was reached before the pledges were counted.  The e-mail seemed off with its parenthetical phrase about the importance of success to our careers.  Both were borne of fatigue and fueled by fear, though well intended.

At the same time the meaning I made of the actions is not real.  I falsely connected some dots in an exhausted and defeated attempt to protect myself from future pain – (soon to be) inflicted by people I let in, colleagues I allowed myself to care about.  In fact, I could feel the sting and my racing heart already.

Just like Mischief, I’ve been down this wood floor before.


Picking buttercups on my grandmother’s farm last weekend, I thought about my dear dog.  I am Mischief.  We are all at times that same strawberry-blonde cockapoo afraid to take the next step.

What we most need is a benevolent caregiver to hold us firmly by the face, look us in the eye and gently say, “There is nothing wrong with you.  In fact, there’s nothing you can do that’s wrong, nothing to keep you from being loved. You’re trying so hard.  You’re doing such a good job, a really great job.”

The kind caregiver may be someone else, but we are all destined to the experience in which the only person who can say these words resides inside.  In the end we sit alone in our pain and silence, and only we can dig up and fertilize the eternal message of love that is already planted within us.

Like Mischief, our conditioning from life’s pain can be greater than any set of facts or any future learning.  Sensing danger, we live with profound anxiety that keeps us land locked on our own plush islands of safety, isolated from other people and other options for living.  We limit our own possibilities.

Like my dear pup, there may be nothing except time to help us through the rough spots.  One deeply painful experience or relationship may only be undone by hundreds of nurturing moments.  Without proper attention, the wound may not heal at all.


The examples are as varied as we people. They may be more or less familiar to you.

Self-protection, like much of life, falls across a continuum.

On the more benign end lies avoidance in its myriad forms.  Most of us can quickly rattle off our avoidance inventories.  In order to elude pain, we [fill in the blank].

Experience teaches us not to touch a hot stove.  In the same way, we learn through being burned to avoid certain relationships or life events.  It’s the reason we find types of people or situations suspect or why we deny an obvious truth or difficult conversation, the elephants in our proverbial living rooms.

On the other end of the continuum lie the most difficult experiences of fear and pain.  Post-traumatic stress traps people in Groundhog-Day-type reliving brought on by the simplest of triggers – a noise, a smell, a lonely night-time walk.  In these cases it’s not as though it’s happening again; it is happening, and we continue to pay a real psychic and physiological price each time life takes us to that place where it all waits, fresh and raw.

Somewhere between these extremes lies much of life, specifically 96 percent if you accept the normal curve.  It’s the personal battlefield for nearly everyone.  Here are our masks, our puffed-up credentials, diversionary techniques, compensatory behaviors, perfectionism, judgment and our addictions.  Here we manipulate, act helpless, play dirty and strike preemptively.  I’ll get you before you get me.

Here hide the people who believe there’s nothing wrong with them, that they have no uncomfortable or unprocessed emotions, as they operate motor vehicles, projecting their fear and anger onto mere strangers also hurling fast in metal tubes down the interstate.  What’s wrong with you?  Idiot!

The real trouble with all of this is by avoiding or denying pain, we: a) don’t really avoid it, we simply hold it off in the short-term at the expense of ourselves and the people around us in the long run; and b) we fend off pain at the expense of love and joy.  That’s right – by blocking hurts and fear, we also cut off our capacity for joy and love and a host of other good feelings.

The real miss is not in protecting ourselves.  That’s only natural.  As survival instinct, it’s inevitable.

The problem is we generalize, using inductive reasoning to hijack one experience and classify all past and potential experiences under the same (unfortunate) label.  Scary.  Painful.  Shameful.

According to my Zen calendar and William Blake, “To generalize is to be an idiot.”  Let me be the first to call myself guilty.

My hairdresser puts it differently.  He tells me it’s a blessing and a gift we can generalize from one experience to our bigger lives in order to stay safe, but the problem is we sometimes mess up.

And how, Brad.


We do have some choices, even in the toughest of times.

First, we can always stop to listen.  Only when we quit talking and cease thinking can we hear our own truth.  You can’t fix what you don’t see, or hear in this case.  Stopping all action is required in order to know what old story we’re conjuring up or what (un)real or actual trauma is being relived.  It is wise to be mindful and give our pain the attention it seeks.

The next thing we can all do is offer compassion to the person who is stuck on the great-room rug, whether that’s you, your disabled and schizophrenic uncle or one very anxious mutt.  Sometimes the only soul who can offer you life-giving compassion is you.  While all others may fail us, we always have the choice to embrace ourselves in our most vulnerable, embarrassing or painful moments.

We’re called to do this without judgment.  It is one thing to judge a dog for her stupidity in fearing a cherry floor and quite another to recognize that although it’s inconvenient and doesn’t seem rational, she’s where she is for a reason, and only stepping into her fur coat will help us (and her) unravel the knot that has her trapped.  Accept and love her without any need to change her.  Likewise, accept yourself and your present circumstances without any need to judge, blame or change.  Start where you are, with awareness and without criticism for what got you there.  Accept yourself.  Harder yet, love yourself unconditionally in spite of it all.

Be a student.  Sometimes we’re taken to places one time or a dozen times for the simple gift of finally learning the lesson.  What does the experience teach? What can I learn, and how can I grow?  When I find myself in a familiar self-limiting situation, welcoming a new-old feeling, I sometimes say out loud, “You again.  I see you.  What’s the lesson you’re here to teach?”  By opening myself to learning, I short circuit the suffering that comes from resistance or shame.

Give yourself credit for small things.  My Mischief sometimes forgets to be scared, running freely through the house.  Other times she struggles for a minute or more before finally placing a single paw on the shiny floor.  But she does it.  She moves forward with courage in spite of gripping, all-consuming fear.  My goodness, Chiefy, you’re such a brave girl!

It’s all too easy to see only our shortcomings, as well as the flaws of others.  What’s harder and, frankly, more brave is to offer the benefit of the doubt.  Wow, Uncle Doug, you have a made-up family no one else can see, but you’re more loyal to them than many people are to their families.  You are less alone than some of us surrounded by people.

Another take is this: Doug, I can tell you’re afraid, and I want you to know I can’t imagine how you could feel anything else given your mother’s death and your isolation.  I can’t imagine how that feels.  I won’t tell you what is or is not real, but I will always tell you I love you.

Here’s a true story.  Doug asked me one time about his created family, “Mitzi Lou, is it true?  Do they exist?  Are they real?”  All I could say was, “I don’t know, Doug.  I don’t see them, but I can’t tell you they’re not real for you.”  He politely thanked me.

Imagine granting someone this grace.  Now can you imagine granting grace to yourself for your own madness, for being trapped on your figurative great-room rug?  You got there for a reason, you know.  Cut yourself some slack.


The neural pathways of pain can keep us stuck or limited in less effective ways of relating or being.  Our unique patterns become so commonplace we confuse them with truth.  We believe our wood floor really is inhabited by sharks, or, once again, by undermining and betraying “friends.”

The paradox is our freedom from the great-room rug, freedom from our own self-imposed delusions, lies in harnessing the power of the very pathways that sometimes hold us captive in our unique yet universal prison cells.

As a child, I learned early the science of memory through repetition.  Like many kids, I took piano lessons.  I practiced faithfully, and I learned the more times I played a piece, the easier it became to bang it out by memory, to play without trying, without having to think about it.

The trick with rote memorization is this: it’s all well and good if you’re practicing the correct notes and tempo.  If, like me, you make the same musical mistake time and again, you make it all the harder to unlearn your mistake.  In fact, there is no unlearning a tune you can play without thinking.  The only remedy is to re-learn in the correct way and practice 4001 times the right way if you practiced 4000 times in the wrong key.


The up side is there’s a way out.  Better said, there’s a way through.

It’s the way of spiritual practice, and it requires repeated and focused attention.  It’s called practice for a reason, after all.

With this tool, it is possible to become aware of the places we get off key, before ongoing mistakes and negative reinforcement are made.  Mindful practice allows us to create even the slightest pause of awareness between our feelings, our (false) assumptions and our actions.  That’s all it takes.  Add a little more practice, and the pause grows.  We no longer stumble headlong into old patterns of behavior based in false realities, our made-up illusions littered with emotional Calvinism that predestines us to future pain because of past experience.  It always ends like this.

New learning takes time, and we’re always at risk of slipping back into old ways of doing and thinking.  However, the more we travel a fresh, judgment-free path, the easier it is to rise up and get back on a life-promoting course.

Practice deepens neural pathways.  It’s up to us which paths we take.

Another paradoxical technique is the harnessing of distraction.

Just as we divert to avoid tough feelings, we can distract for the good.  We have the power to use the present moment to take us to safe places that reinforce our being.

About once a year I long to kick around on our used-to-be tobacco farm.  I go alone to see the pine needles that line the forest floor and to smell the nearby creek or the persistent scent of rose-smelling soap in my grandmother’s bathroom.

More often, when I need security or belonging, I close my eyes and mentally “go there” to the rust-colored velour sofa resting on rust-colored shag carpet in a modest if not sparse home that smells of pine-scented wood cleaner and day-old chicken grease.

The key once again is the tool of the neural pathway.  Harness the tool to establish security instead of fear.  Pick a safe, validating place and practice being there through the power of your own imagination and focus.

The farm is not the only place of comfort or respite I visit when a grounding reach is in order.  The Grand Canyon at sunset is always at my command as is the company of a few trusted friends who are now dead.  The judgment-free zone they each offer years after their deaths is always attainable.

Creating a neural pathway to a secure place happens in the same way our deceiving trenches of fear are dug from real-life experience.  The difference is the driving force, the fuel that makes it happen.  We are thrust forward either by fear or love.

When the gasoline is fear, we instinctively self-protect, shut down or attack.  Our (false) “stories” kick into high gear, and we limit our own possibilities, or those of others.

When the fuel is tolerance, acceptance or even love, the outcome is substantially different.

Pay attention.


Please hear this: I’m not suggesting a cold, hard reality, whether my wood floor or your own personal pain or injustice, does not exist.  I’m simply saying in addition to accepting the raw reality of where you are, reside also in another place.

The beauty of paradox is you can walk with one foot in each world.  Two truths are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  We can accept two or more seemingly conflicting realities at once.

You can hold yourself (or another) in love and sit with pain and simply receive it.  You can listen for what your experience teaches while accepting the whole awful lot.  Allow it to be without adding emotional accelerants yet also without denying how pain and injustice feel.  Resist leaning in either direction.  Just sit straight up and accept the whole reality of where you find yourself.

My Zen calendar offers two related nuggets:

Each of us must journey through the dots, beyond the dots, and to the truth alone.  (Russell Hoban)

The cure for pain is the pain.  (Rumi)

There is a powerful world of invisible sharks.  Some are the aftermath of real-life, hard truths.  Others are preemptive disasters generalized onto current or yet-to-be events to keep us safe from harm.  They are there to keep us from getting burned again.

At the same time there is whole universe of invisible embrace and acceptance, love that is freely available, not reliant on the validation of a single other soul.

We have within us the power to utter the most compassionate or hateful of unspoken messages in choosing the next step forward, fact-like assumptions that arise without our having to think about them.

When in doubt, go with compassion.  Keep it real, but also pick buttercups.

Remember to treat yourself as you would your best little dog, the kid with the blonde and red curls who tries so awfully hard to take one single step forward in spite of overwhelming fear.

Be aware of your hard truths and hurts.  Accept what’s real and release the rest, your interpretations and stories.  Ask yourself what the universe is trying to teach you; the answer is yours alone and necessarily correct.  Connect with a grounding place twice for every one time you find yourself down an old, shadowy path.  Embrace and love yourself in spite of it all as you would your own dear pup.

There is nothing wrong with you.  In fact, there’s nothing you can do that’s wrong, nothing to keep you from being loved.  You’re trying so hard.  You’re doing such a good job, a really great job.

I. Give and take

scissors and money{Part I in a series on re-envisioning philanthropy}


In my corner of the world, we have entered the season of giving.

I built a career on the art and science of offering people the chance to give.  Here are some of the buzzwords: opportunity, meaning, year-end and benefit.

If you have spent any time in a non-profit setting, you know what I mean.

The person they hire to write the irresistible fund-raising letter guaranteed to make you cry as you double your intended contribution – that’s me.  I was told once by a fund-raising consultant that long-time donors watch the mail during the holidays to see what I’m going to say this year.  They look forward to the letters, especially those of the Thanksgiving and Christmas variety that carry a certain air of warmth and belonging, along with a hint of cranberry or cinnamon.

With this credibility in mind, I’m going to surprise you.

This year I’m asking people to choose to not give.  In fact, I will never again encourage a person to give money.  After 23 years I have come to the conclusion that no one should give to charity.  Period.

There’s no trick here, no sleight of hand.  I believe that giving simply does not work.


The first problem with giving can be found in the data.  The bottom line is that very little giving is really happening.


Here’s a cursory look at the details.

  • The United States is the most generous nation in the world.  Americans give more money and volunteer more than any other people.  We are also most likely to help a stranger on the street.
  • An interesting component of our generosity is the relationship to religion.  People who attend religious services give more money as a percentage of income to charity than people who attend infrequently or don’t claim a religious affiliation.  As with all things there are exceptions.  As a rule, however, faith plays a pivotal role in members’ philanthropic giving, both to faith-based and secular organizations.
  • This relationship to faith helps explain American’s position as most generous nation.  It also explains the most generous of U.S. states – predominantly “red” states, most in the Bible belt.  My vision of generous giving is often progressive Northern cities, but the fact is Southern people of faith give the most as a percentage of income.  The exception among “top-5” states is Utah, whose church giving places it at the top of the list.
  • The distribution of giving is said to be U-shaped, although there are people who disagree.  Generally it’s true that people who have the least and the most give less than the people populating the middle of the curve.  The highest percentage of giving is among middle- and upper-income people whose giving is directed to religion and education as well as social causes.  The “ultra rich” do not give the most as a percentage of income.  In fact, the poorest Americans give more than those at the very top as a ratio of household income.
  • The bottom line on American generosity is high – some $316 billion in 2012 – yet this number is only 2 percent of our GDP.  American philanthropic giving has hovered at this level for decades.  Our recent market slump caused a noticeable decrease in charitable giving, and the last year has shown a clear rise.  But this increase is only a correction that takes us back to a place we have been stalled for many years.
  • Human need continues to grow with world population.  More nonprofits are launched into existence each year to address these needs.  At the same time, our collective response through giving remains static as a percentage of GDP.  Consequently, each and every day we are losing ground.

Seen in this light, American giving doesn’t seem so impressive.

The second problem with giving has roots in a more fundamental social issue.  Giving feeds a Western social and economic worldview in which someone stands to lose and someone stands to gain.


The very nature of the word “give” is part of the black-and-white problem.

Take a look at the language:






Westerners are earners, seekers and consumers. The very process of “giving” works against its intent because it sets up a false dichotomy in which making a financial gift implies a loss for the giver and a gain for the recipient.

The underlying issue is not about giving at all.  It is the natural result of our black-and-white, all-or-nothing Western mindset.  In this case the basic dichotomy is gain vs. loss.

Recently in attempting to buy dinner for three close relatives, I was told by one, “You’re not buying mine.  There’s such a thing as being too generous.”

There’s a big score sheet in the sky and one in our inner recesses that triggers fear of loss, influencing how we see everything.

Until this foundational problem is addressed through the transformation of the individual, giving as a percentage of GDP is likely to remain static.

I’m more likely to walk on Mars than change our entire consumer culture.

What’s even more disturbing to me in the “black-and-white” arena is the positioning of the players on the field in the game of giving.  To be the benefactor places a person in a superior position to the beneficiary.  There is no partnership, no brother- or sisterhood in this view of philanthropy.

While there are non-profit organizations and donors who view the players differently, they are in my experience the minority, fighting an uphill battle of dignity and mutuality in the sport of giving.

The result of this is not merely a worldview that’s distasteful to me.  That’s also true.

This bottom line in the meaning department keeps us distant from one another.  It is an unintended wedge that keeps “the poor” and other disenfranchised people in their place, defending our place somewhere above.

Giving dehumanizes some, making heroes of others.  It makes the conditions of our world acceptable.  It reinforces the perspectives that keep us locked at 2 percent of GDP.

It’s also a really ugly theological position.

The third problem with giving reflects our tendency to live in our small egos and not our larger, more universal selves. It is a reflection of personal, theological and moral development.


This problem it most significant and, by nature, the most difficult to grasp.  It presents itself in at least two ways.

  1. We believe we deserve what we have.  The necessary corellary to this theorem is that other people deserve their lots in life, too.
  2. We believe the things that we possess actually belong to us.  This justifies or at the very least reinforces our tendency to hold on to our money, our possessions and our status.  We earned it after all; it’s ours.

These are weighty issues that are only changed through personal transformation of one individual, and then another.  In short, there’s very little that can be done from the the outside to influence these problems on the macro level.  All we can each change is ourselves.

Perhaps the most effective thinker I have encountered in this realm, the spiritual worldview, is Richard Rohr.  Thousands of pages have been written about the growth of the self from the small I, the ego.

Another beacon here is TED winner Karen Armstrong who writes compellingly about compassion and the rise from ego to spiritual enlightenment.

I’ll leave the details to the experts.  Their perspectives are worthy of attention.


So these are some of the problems with giving.  What next?

I assure you what I am not suggesting is that we do nothing in response to such insurmountable odds.  Quite the contrary.

There is, in fact, a way out of this conundrum.

Hang in there with me.


Join me in examining two assumptions that, when investigated, change everything.

I.  Our birthright is the product of chance.

About five years ago I had the chance to work with a thought leader in the world of philanthropy, the owner of a local B Corp with national influence.  If you haven’t heard the term, B Corps are, in their words, “a new type of company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.”

More specifically, it was my job to script this B Corp CEO in an event that would lead up to a fund-raising pitch we hoped would yield $300,000 or more in three-year pledges.

No pressure.

It was, in fact, a pleasure.  Writing for him was easy.  And for the most part, unlike many volunteers in these roles, he followed his script.  The exceptions were thrilling because they reinforced my work and strengthened our pitch.  He made our case better.  Here’s one of his invaluable contributions: the ovarian lottery.

He attributed the phrase to Bill Gates.  Just this week – Black Friday 2013 – I heard it attributed to Warren Buffet.  I haven’t done the research and don’t care as much about credit for the phrase as I do the consequences.

You see, how we are born in the world is sheer chance.  We are lucky, or not.  The circumstances into which we are born influence our outcomes as strongly as the choices we make along the way.

A kid born into the hell of addiction and poverty in a large city is more deeply influenced than we can imagine, and whatever happens in that child’s future, whatever more or less effective choices he makes, there is permanent damage – permanent loss in the form of missed opportunity and even brain functioning if you ask the neuroscientists.

The same is true of every-day suburban kids who are abused and neglected or who simply don’t receive all-important nurturing at the appropriate developmental stages or who never learn appropriate problem-solving skills.  Ditto for kids born into the massive garbage dump outside Guatemala’s capital city.

Some supporting research comes from the world of psychology.  I read recently that children born into poverty have statistically higher chances of poor mental and physical health in adulthood, even when they overcome the obstacles to become the “success story” we Americans so love.  Fear, scarcity and helplessness literally hard wire us into different people.  Fear permanently alters our brain functioning, and we pay the price forever.

The important nugget here is not how we do or don’t respond to our birth situations.  What’s most important is the indisputable fact that we all begin life as pawns in a universal game of chance.

Some win in relative terms; others lose.  Call it luck, chance or fortune, none of us deserves the circumstances into which we are born.  Good, bad and ugly, it is all one big crap shoot.

If we can agree here, follow me to another, related, point.

II.  There are enough resources in the world for every human need to be met.  The problem lies in the distribution.

Our district governor spoke at a Rotary meeting several years ago.  He offered mind-blowing statistics I have mainly forgotten and that I never actually researched to substantiate.

That aside, I remember one important figure.  The exactness of the numbers aside, here’s the heart of it.

  • The amount of money it would take to alleviate world hunger for a year and to immunize all people against every disease against which one can be immunized: $28 BILLION.
  • The amount of money Americans spent on their pets in the previous year: $31 BILLION.

Are you with me?

I was awestruck not only at the meaning of the math but at the fact that if you were to seek one person to hold up at the example of pet-loving extravagance, based on spending for life-extending healthcare alone, it’s me and two half-blind cockapoos, one of whom died just this year.

Between them they shared one good eye, two passable kidneys, one liver and zero good knees.  I sustained them for years through disease, unfortunate DNA and unintended poisonings to a degree that is almost unparalleled in human history.  An exaggeration?  Maybe,  or not.

It’s important to admit at this point that at least one of eight surgeries was funded by a credit card during a year of unemployment between non-profit gigs.  It seems I have no boundaries.

I am guilty.

Ten thousand children died today from hunger-related disease, and my dogs just got another chance at life – more lives than the average cat.  In the 13 years Button and Clover spent under the umbrella of my limitless love, 19,500,000 people died from hunger-related disease.  That’s ~4,110 deaths a day x 365 days x 13 years.

Here’s the other thing you need to know.  In our 13 years together, I spent more than $7,500 on surgeries alone, not taking into account hospitalizations, medication and the fallout from renal failure that was later diagnosed.  That gets me somewhere close to $10,000 before the kidneys started to slip.  While I haven’t calculated that ride, I know my most expensive month cost about $2,000, and there were several close to $1,000.  And most of this time I was unemployed.  Thank you, universe, for early retirement distribution.

So, let’s be conservative and say I spent $15,000 on emergency intervention and another $5,000 on general care in our 13 years together.

My $20,000 investment to honor my dogs’ souls could have purchased basics of living such as food, clean water and decent shelter for an untold number of people born less lucky.

While the result of such comparisons is often guilt, I don’t believe that’s an effective response.  Guilt and shoulds nor should-nots drive us into rabbit holes of shame and silence, encouraging us to do nothing at all.

The bottom line is there is enough of everything to meet the needs of all of us uniquely beautiful and equally valuable people in the world.  Every single one of us is God’s favorite kid.  We simply have fared differently in the crap shoot of life, and our resources are not even close to being evenly distributed.

We are all one.  When my brother or sister hurts, I, too, hurt.

The only response is to take daily steps to make things more just, to equalize the distribution.  When one small wrong is made right, I am healed.  We are all healed.


In summary I have proposed the following:

  • All humans are born into life circumstances by chance.
  • All people are uniquely beautiful and equally valuable.  There is no one worth less, or more, in a humanistic, philosophical or theological sense than anyone else.
  • For that reason, no person deserves the situation into which s/he is born – good, bad or ugly.
  • These early life circumstances hold great power in directing our futures, although they are not the only influencing factors.
  • While our outcomes vary widely in influencing the satisfaction of basic needs, there are enough resources in the world to offer safety and stability to all people.
  • The distribution of these resources is uneven.
  • Finally, giving as a means of addressing the resulting human need is stuck at best.  At worst, our philanthropic model is not only insufficient but also inefficient, losing ground against the rising tide of human suffering each and every day.

What next then?

That’s Part II.

A healing

A heart-shaped scar is a pretty neat Valentine. xo

Lost Corner Letters


The open highway is an incubator for soul journeys.

Most days we use life’s roadways for travel – the practical act of moving from here to there.  Other times we use that endless black ribbon to run from fear or discomfort.  When we’re willing, however, the precious time spent driving can serve to deliver us from one place to another in the spiritual sense.  We start out one way and end up a different creature altogether.

Removed from the daily grind, under appropriate conditions we may sift through the layers of hopes, dreams and even hurts we have tucked away for future reference.  Among fresh sights and sounds, we travelers discover anew who we are and what we seek.

The act of trans-portation offers the promise of trans-mission of meaning or the trans-formation of our own beings, if we but allow it.

The mid-century farmer, preacher and unlikely social…

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Derailed {Where the railroad ends}

derailedThere’s this place nearby where the railroad ends.

It’s four miles from my house as the crow flies.

If you take this rural road due west toward another, then a sharp right on Swing Road to a hard left on a long, winding stretch of farm-dotted blacktop, it reveals itself just before Catsburg.  You can’t miss it.

On approach it looks like any bucolic spot where tracks cross pavement.  It could be any place you know.

To the left at this timeless crossing lie familiar iron bars.  No longer in use, they are crowded by pine arches and adorned by mounding wildflowers.

You have likely seen it.

The mystery lies not west of the road but within the magical patch to the right.  You see, the tracks are no longer there – not in the narrow open rectangle or its adjacent treeline.

acrossI have ridden car and bicycle over this exact piece of pavement a hundred times.

A recent weekend outing led me back.  Filled with anticipation for the expected rise in the road where the tracks cross, I was surprised and even disappointed to find no lift of my car at all.

I had never noticed before – the anti-climactic lack of any sign of railroad at the railroad crossing.

I know what you’re thinking.  It’s likely the tracks are right where they were laid.  After decades of added blacktop, the road has leveled out at the point of intersection with the tracks.  You’re probably right.

What struck me wasn’t the literal explanation of the perceived absence of tracks but the interruption of my expectation.

Imagine it.

I’m moving along at country-road pace.  The car window is 1/3 down to take in the last of Indian summer.

Boom-chugga-chugga-chugga, boom-chugga-chugga-chugga

A favorite CD is spinning, and I am singing.

Boom-chugga-chugga-chugga, boom-chugga-chugga-chugga

I am pumping on all cylinders.  As we say in the South, I am cooking with grease.  I’m comfortably in the zone when out of nowhere – BOOM!

Just like that, I’m derailed.

Expectation interrupted.


When was the last time you were traveling along at lightning speed, wind at your back, all cylinders firing?

Close your eyes and recall.  You are a virtual machine.  Sure of your destination and your means, nothing can stop you.  You whistle in the wind, and the sun shines on your back.

Boom-chugga-chugga-chugga, boom-chugga-chugga-chugga

When suddenly, BOOM!

Expectation interrupted.

Eventually we all share the experience.  It’s one of life’s equalizing forces.

When we look back, we can often see the signs of impending disaster, but in the moment it’s a complete surprise.  We find ourselves reeling, flying off our rails, unable to reach our intended destinations.

At best, life winds to a screeching halt.  At worst, we are derailed, tossed into a mud puddle in an unknown field, our luggage or baggage and life experience tossed to the wind.


Just last year I met a woman, a grandmother, who was twice derailed.

Fifteen years before our meeting, she learned her daughter would soon die of a rare cancer.  The girl, just entering her second decade, had an infant son.

At the daughter’s death, the grandmother defined herself and harnessed incomprehensible grief by taking charge of the boy, raising him with all the love and care with which she had raised her girl.  She had renewed purpose.

After 14 years, the boy fell ill with the same rare cancer.  Within a year he, too, was gone.

The grandmother’s story sets up the second question we all at some point ask as we sit by the tracks and gather our gumption to go on.

The first natural question is why?  The answer we ultimately reach is that pain is inevitable.  Life isn’t fair.  We aren’t always meant to know.

The second, harder, question is this: what next?

What next when your second child faces the same painful, unfair and untimely death?

What next when your last 15 years have defined you as the caregiver, steward of life?

What next when no child remains to define your purpose?

Who are you?  Why are you here?  How will you ever go on?

What next?  What next?  What next?


Derailment knows no color or status.  It’s like the rain.

Carl Sandburg makes note of life’s universality in his poem “The Fence.”  Passing through the bars and over the steel points will go nothing but Death and the Rain and To-morrow.

Derailment is life’s rain.  It’s coming to everyone at some point, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.  No self-imposed division, protection or self-definition holds muster in the end.

The context of your screeching halt – your rain – may be health, wealth, relationship, identity, career, purpose or anything in between.

All that’s sure is that it’s guaranteed.


A friend summed it up at lunch last week.

“There is a natural order to life,” he said.  “There’s nothing we can do to stop it.”

I have long claimed that the universe has a way of working things out.  She has her own justice along with a unique set of checks and balances.  Leaning too far one way requires a universal correction in the opposite direction.

List too heavily toward service and love of others that you neglect yourself?  BOOM!  The universe will work it out.  It’s only natural.

(I know her, for the record.)

Avoid conflict at the expense of conversation?  BOOM!  The universe will light the spark that brings it all out in the open.  The universe clears the air.

Stuck in a relationship that doesn’t serve you or your ‘other’?  Never fear – your correction is coming, too.

These examples imply we are participants in our derailments.  Often that’s the case.  We make the choices that steer our directions, after all.

It’s also true at times we don’t call for our derailments at all.  Life is full of forest fires and other natural acts that don’t require our participation.  They happen with or without us.

The forest fire is, in fact, a great illustration.  When our homes and other man-made structures succumb to fire, they are destroyed.

When Mother Nature lights a forest ablaze, she starts a chain of action necessary for life to continue.  By burning creation, she creates the conditions that promote life.  Fires in nature make room for life to revive and continue.  Destruction, unintended and unearned, is necessary for the survival of the planet.

It makes sense, then, to relate derailment to Sandburg’s rain.  Like fire, water can destroy.  It’s the strongest force on Earth.  And like the forest’s fire, it is both natural and absolutely necessary to sustain life.

Derailments, the universe’s corrections, are equally natural and necessary.


What next?

It remains the perennial question.

The best answer of what to do when life hits you hard may be to not do.  Don’t undo, redo or do something else.  In fact, don’t do anything at all.

When life takes the time and care to kick us off course, the most respectful response may be to stop all doing and simply sit still in that open field, surrounded by the remnants of life before.

Our job is to stop talking, certainly stop thinking and cease all forms of action.

The universe has something to say; it behooves us to listen.

Wisdom and truth, even hard truth, are found in silence and lack of motion.

Put your mind on pause and open yourself to what’s there.  The possibilities are as unique as we people.

  • Relief that you’re no longer fighting or grasping for something that wasn’t yours
  • Permission to change direction
  • Acceptance that you aren’t in control, that’s there’s nothing to fix
  • Perhaps acceptance that life is not fair
  • The still small voice of hope that we don’t have to know today
  • Peace with the reality that we may never know or understand

Your unique path and experience will bring the answers you seek – and if you weren’t seeking, a whisper from the universe that she’s at the wheel and there’s going to be another direction.

Sit.  Open yourself.  Stop reaching and directing.  Be quiet and still.  Turn off your brain.  Feel what’s there that you were so busy you couldn’t sense.  Hear what isn’t spoken.

Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional and comes from failing to let all be as it is, even (and especially) when it’s unfair or unjust.

Your only job is to be attentive, to receive and to accept, without judgment and without question.


Today I took my own advice and drove to the railroad crossing at Catsburg.  I observed and listened for what’s there for me.

around 3I felt the cold winter wind cutting through my soft red overcoat.

I saw deep pools of rainwater gathered along the roadside next to the railroad tracks.

I smelled the previous day’s rain and heard the rustling of dry winter weeds.

Right there before me was a brand-new universe I would never have experienced if I hadn’t come flying off my rails to be at that place in that unique time.

I saw something else.  Sharing this is an admission of sorts.

Hidden beneath a canopy of trees on the east side of the rural road, is something unexpected.  Just steps from the road in winter’s sparse decoration lie the once hidden tracks emerging from the crossing to continue onward into life past the spot of my derailment.

Once again, expectation interrupted.

The tracks, just like nature and life, continue on their way.

The greatest gift in this ongoing process of refinement – the stripping away of what doesn’t work or perhaps an unexpected and impossible loss – is having another opportunity to rise after falling, to correct after listing too heavily one direction, to forgive others and especially oneself, to remain grateful and to take one step closer toward your purpose.

Thank you, universe.

around 1