Who’s in Your Circle?

Sometime late last fall, one of my daughters had a work crisis. It wasn’t the run-of-the-mill, ordinary crap that happens at work–it was huge and it threatened to crush her spirit.

If you have met my kids, then you know that they do not like taking advice from their mom. Usually, if I think it’s a good idea, they run skipping and laughing in the other direction. This time, however, my kiddo came to me and said, “What would you do?”

This is what I said.

Pay very very close attention to this. You are being taught something that you have to learn if you’re going to stick in this career. Learn all you can from this. Go in every day determined to learn all that you can.

Don’t defend yourself. Stay open.

Stop calling it a crisis, stop calling it horrible. Call it a challenge. Call it an opportunity.

Know that I absolutely believe in you. Know that I absolutely believe in your ability to grow from this.

The really cool thing? She did.

At the beginning of this episode, she was removed from her classroom assignment and told by the principal that maybe she shouldn’t be a teacher. One week in, the principal admitted, “We threw you into the deep end of the pool.” By the end of her half-year contract, the principal wrote a glowing recommendation letter.

This past week I have been a dark place. My husband is better, he’s reading books and doing crossword puzzles again, and he’s even made it back to the gym. He’s doing chores around the house. He’s cheerful! Meanwhile, I’m angry and defensive. I’ve felt all alone and embattled. I’ve given over precious writing time to watching television. I’ve raged and wept.

And I’ve reached out to friends, and I’ve shown up at Writing Lab. I’ve reread The Circle and reread Parker Palmer’s chapters on his circles of friends. I’ve read poetry. I’ve taken long walks in nature. I’ve called on God. I’ve thrown myself on God’s mercy. I’ve remembered my advice to my daughter last fall:

Stop calling it a crisis — learn all you can — keep your heart open — this is the way forward.

Someday, honey, you’re going to look back on this and see that it was where something wonderful began.


What I’m Reading Now

“Don’t be afraid to experiment and take risks. Yes, you will get knocked down. You will fail. But you just have to get up again and give it another go.” –Joanna Penn 

“Life can be perceived either as an inspiring challenge or a dispiriting struggle. When you perceive life as a struggle you are continually confronted with situations that overwhelm you and bring up your inner confusion and helplessness. When you allow life to be a challenge, each area of ignorance brings an opportunity for mastery.” –Laura Day

My mom had a couple of stories about my early childhood — one was that I didn’t walk until I was 13 months old. “I thought you were retarded,” she liked to say.

Another story was that I wouldn’t color in my coloring book until I figured out, at age three, how to do it perfectly, without going outside the lines.

I never had a spanking until I was three — around the time my next younger sister was born. “You never needed one until then,” Mom used to say.

So here I am, 59 years later, trying once again to finish a novel…and going back to the beginning, over and over, day after day, and trying to make it perfect.

So I’m hunkering down here, trying to understand this largely unconscious pattern and bring as much awareness as I can to it. That I’m seeing it is partly due to reading (and reading and rereading) Laura Day’s chapter on inner roadblocks in The Circle, and it’s partly due to this journey that I’m on with my husband. He has some very powerful issues around money, to be brief, and these stem from his childhood. Because of his health crisis, he’s had to talk with a number of mental health professionals, and each time money and his perceived lack of it comes up, he tells again the story of being a little boy and witnessing his mother’s behavior and fear around not having enough, and he’s been told again and again that he can let that go now, to which he responds, “I can’t.”

I can see how this impairs him, how it is crippling him and how it has been distorting his thinking not just lately but for many years. I can critique it — after all, his mother always put three meals on the table, they were always housed, he and his older brother were able to attend a private college on athletic scholarships. Yes, his mother was afraid and did a lot of hand-wringing, but 70 years is a long time to cling to that story and give it such importance.

What I can’t see so well is how my internalized stories have distorted and crippled my life. But here goes. I was a farm-girl. My mother also has a story about catching me around age two or three carrying a puppy with my teeth in its nape. My brother and I used to muck out the barn for a quarter, and I pretty much loved that work. I played in mud puddles and waded creeks and rode horses. I got dirty and tore my clothes and got my hair tangled in trees.

Yes, I had a perfectionist streak and going to college and graduate school kind of fine-tuned that in me. But I also had an anti-perfectionist streak, a messy, get-your-hands-dirty streak, and raising three daughters (who are decidedly not interested in being perceived anywhere near “perfect”) and being an indifferent housekeeper and a pretty slovenly dog-owner — haven’t these “perfected” something else entirely?

My husband is, by the way, much better. He’s on some serious meds and he’s reclaiming his life. He still sees the glass as half-empty, but it doesn’t seem to be drained dry, the way it has been for two months. We’ll have to wait and see (which is a hugely imperfect process) what happens next.

And while being an imperfect wife and mother, I can choose to finish this novel and send it out on schedule (by March 14!!!). Of course I can. It just won’t be perfect.

“The soul is generous: it takes in the needs of the world. The soul is wise: it suffers without shutting down. The soul is hopeful: it engages the world in ways that keep opening our hearts. The soul is creative: it finds a path between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes. All we need to do is to bring down the wall that separates us from our own souls and deprives the world of the soul’s regenerative powers.” –Parker Palmer

Surviving and Thriving…

In my journal each morning I write down my goals, big and small. I draw my circle and put my number-one focus inside it. Then the day unfolds–or (as it seems lately) unravels. What’s the nature of this message for me? What’s my assignment in the face of this?

Even on those mornings when I lose faith in my ability to handle any of it, Parker Palmer continues to inspire and nudge me along a path of compassion and understanding. For the people around me. And for myself.

In The Circle the sixth element is Coherence. One correspondent gave me a call, and told me all she was doing to work on congruence. Ah, I said.

Laura Day writes about finding ways to make your outer life look like your inner life–that’s congruence. And congruence is something Parker Palmer writes about in A Hidden Wholeness, too.

image from

“We can survive, and even thrive, amid the complexities of adulthood by deepening our awareness of the endless inner-outer exchanges that shape us and our world and of the power we have to make choices about them. If we are to do so, we need spaces within us and between us that welcome the wisdom of the soul–which knows how to negotiate life on the Möbius strip [our inner and outer life at once] with agility and grace.” (A Hidden Wholeness 49)

Both Day and Palmer are encouraging their readers to make a journey of awareness and choice. When I falter, they encourage me to keep becoming aware, to keep making small, good choices.

“The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings.” Palmer, 83)

The gift of Coherence, Laura Day explains, is “Right Action.”

What do you need to do? If it’s huge and overwhelming, what one thing do you need to do next?

What needs to be healed, Parker Palmer asks, before you can go forward, before you can go deeper?

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before — ”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)

(May Sarton, qtd. in Palmer, 90-91)

Writing the Circle: Prompt #3

“Your ability to make a choice and stick to it—your will—is your most powerful inner resource.” –Laura Day

Whether you used the last prompt as encouragement to generate 8 of your top writing wishes or 100, today’s prompt is all about choosing just one of these, for now, to focus on.

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around this prompt for awhile, and I think part of the difficulty for me lies in a reluctance to encourage anyone to have pie-in-the-sky dreams about their writing career.  Two books that have helped me with this are Rachel Ballon’s The Writer’s Portable Therapist and Robert Maurer’s One Small Step Can Change Your Life. 

In short, Ballon showed me how “unrealistic expectations [can] block your creativity and prevent you from ever realizing your writing dreams,” and Maurer taught me to take on the big stuff one small–really small–step at a time.

There’s (still) nothing wrong with your desires, by the way, no matter how large, but I want to give you a lesson now in imagining the smaller, moving parts to your desire. (Because before you can have a novel hit the best-seller list, you have to write a novel. Before you can write a novel, you have to develop a habit of writing that will sustain a long-term project.)

Even the “baby steps” can turn out to have smaller moving parts. If you need to learn how to write dialog, you’ll have to figure out the steps for how to learn to write dialog. (Buy a book? Take a class? Study authors who have killer dialog? Join a writing group and practice? All of the above?)

I learned this the hard way. If you look at my 10-year planner (or the one before that) you’ll see that I’ve been writing “Take a walk every day,” or “Be a person who walks every day” (and other variations) ever since my kids were small. For a short time I was able to muscle my way through this and actually do it, but then I missed a few days, and soon I was back to almost never taking an intentional walk.

Then I decided to make my goal of walking more specific and way, way smaller. I committed to taking a 5-minute walk each day (click on the link to read my blogpost about this), and just like Maurer promises in his book, accomplishing that small goal led me to increasing my minutes until now it’s a rare day that I don’t walk 30 or 40 minutes.

This achievement made me wonder if I couldn’t use the same strategy to move closer to one of my big writing goals, which was to write a mystery novel. (Something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid!)

Unlike earlier attempts at writing novels, this project was not going to be open-ended. I set myself up for failure to start with by saying I’d write my mystery in a month. I had to regroup at the end of the month, but it worked to an extent–I had something tangible by the end of 40 days of writing, a working premise, a cast of characters, and about 100 pages. It was enough to give me forward momentum. Despite being a rather slow writer (and my mom…and teaching fall quarter…) I kept the project inching forward and by December 31 I had a complete if very rough draft. And on January 1, I turned my sights toward revision. I am still working on the steps: I enlisted another wannabe novelist to revise with, creating our own very small mastermind/encouragement group, and I set some interim goals (submit to PNWA in February) to motivate me.

So, to return to Laura Day, she gives very clear advice about how to word your desire in positive, present-tense, specific language, and why that’s important.

1) To start with, narrow your focus to a single wish. Yes, you can take on more, but for now you’re practicing focusing–and focus requires us to, well, focus.

Distinguish, too, between the things you can control, and the things that are better given over to God or the universe. You have no control over the whims and moods of the editors at _______ poetry journal, but you do have control over how many submissions you make this year. You have no control over whether your book will be a best-seller, but you do have control over writing the best book you are able to write.

“One of the most profound traits that distinguishes you from other animals is your ability to imagine things that do not yet exist; your ability to envision future possibilities and to choose among them; in short, your ability to create.” -Laura Day

2) State your wish in positive, present-tense language. Not, I will no longer suck at dialogue, but I write AMAZING dialogue!

Stating your wish positively simply means saying what you want, not what you don’t want. While you’re at it, you also need to give up the word “wanting.” There’s a little psychological roadblock here (think of it this way, want = lack), and I think it also has to do with our deeply engrained language patterns. In essence, I’ve come to feel that a “want” list is often a “can’t list” in disguise. I want a new car, but I can’t have one. I want to get my novel published, but it can’t…. I want to have a better marriage, but there are all these reasons that I can’t. (Wah, wah, wah!)

Of course you want it, but let’s try putting it into different language. Not I want to write a mystery novel or I want to walk every day, but–

I am writing a mystery novel.

I walk every day. 

3) Finally, be specific! I’ve already addressed this above, but I want to emphasize the power of breaking your wish into smaller parts, and making it visible. Even “write a novel” is on the vague side (and so large it is more the universe’s job than yours). But you can write an outline of a novel, and then a paragraph and a page and a chapter. You can decide what sort of novel it is, who your readers are, and how long you want it to be. All of these things are specific and they’re 100% in your control.

I am revising my first chapter so I can read it aloud to my Wednesday writing group. 

I’ve used this strategy, by the way, on poems, too. This summer I was invited to write a poem for an Orca anthology, and–given that my mother was dying–I just couldn’t seem to do it. But I knew that writing a single poem wasn’t an unrealistic desire, and I truly wanted to write it. So I began drawing my circle in my journal each morning and writing inside it: I am writing a poem for Tahlequah and her calf. I built that poem image by image and line by line, but I managed to workshop it with an amazing group at Litfuse, and I submitted it to the anthology editors five days prior to the deadline–and three days before my mother died. I didn’t know if they would accept it or not, but they did. The poem, as it turned out, is as much an elegy for her, as it is for the orcas, and I’m grateful that I made time for it.

Here’s your assignment:

I’m a little worried that all my qualifiers in this prompt will be discouraging. They’re not meant that way. What I wish for you is traction for your writing dreams.

Whatever you’ve come up with–this wish that you know you can turn into reality, given the focus–your job right now is to draw a circle in your journal (the bottom of a coffee cup or a lid or a round coaster work great for this), then to write your wish in that space (in positive, present-tense, specific language!). You may want to write it on another sheet of paper to post above your writing desk.

I’d love it if you’d take a picture of your circle and send it to me!

On this first time through The Circle, this is a free series, and I plan to continue with emails to a small group of subscribers, so comment below or email me at — I’d love to have you on the journey with me.