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.

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“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)


I have been walking through my Writing The Circle series with a small group of followers, and sharing a bit about a personal crisis that I’m dealing with at present–my husband is ill, diagnosed thus far with depression and anxiety–which has taken me and my family completely by surprise. It’s taken over a lot of the space I thought was going to be devoted in 2019 to my writing, and I have my moments of bitter resentment. I also have moments of great patience, kindness, and fortitude–and I hope that it is these moments that will prevail.

One of my readers from the small group challenged me to share on the blog at least some of what I’ve been dealing with. Her thinking (I think) was that the newsletters get lost in email-land pretty quickly, but the blogposts create a more permanent and retrievable record.

And…I sit with my fingers on the keyboard for a long while, considering whether or not I should…

Somehow–I’m just not ready. Not today.

I imagine the health crisis at my house has affected me at least a little like the great snowstorm of 2019 has affected all of us–this snowstorm that Cliff Mass says we’ll be telling our grandchildren about. We believe that we have control of our lives, and then life itself catches us by surprise, knocks us down, and dares us to get up again.

But I remember how I began this series, in Prompt #1–life does happen, terrible things happen. The only actual control we ever have is of our own response.

One response I’ve made, thus far, is to dig out my copy of Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. As much as anything else, this is a book about Palmer’s debilitating depression and how he came back from it. I found it on a shelf with books about teaching; I had forgotten it was about depression–well, entirely apt!

Here’s just one of the passages that, in previous readings, I’ve underlined and highlighted and annotated:

I pay a steep price when I live a divided life–feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am denying my own selfhood. The people around me pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness. How can I affirm another’s identity when I deny my own? How can I trust another’s integrity when I defy my own? A fault line runs down the middle of my life, and whenever it cracks open–divorcing my words and actions from the truth I hold within–things around me get shaky and start to fall apart. (5)

And here’s a passage I copied into my journal this morning:

“This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know,” says Mary Oliver, “that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.” But we live in a culture that discourages us from paying attention to the soul or the true self–and when we fail to pay attention, we end up living soulless lives.” (34-35)

I once heard the poet Chana Bloch say, in regards to her brush with cancer, “I am going to survive this, and I am going to write about it.”

That’s what I’m going to do, too.