Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unwrapping Deep-Gladness Gifts #1: The Voice

Trust me.

It was not noble.
It was not pretty.
It was, quite frankly, largely lust...

...the pens, pencils, and erasers (Ooh!)
...the stacks of scrap paper and occasional tablet of pristine new paper (M-m-m!)
...the box of brazen, color-shouting crayons (Yes-s-s!)
...the stacks of books, old and new, pages yearning to be read (Come to me, ba-by.)

...and the raw power of being She Who Must Be Obeyed. (Ah-h-h.)

Presenting: my first reasons for wanting to become a teacher. Really.

Back then, at age eight or nine, my “classroom” venue varied from the pink-walled bedroom I shared with my sister to my favorite “school” location: Grandma and Grandpa's third floor barn-turned-garage attic. Here among the alluring remnant goods of Grandpa's various entrepreneurial ventures, chomped evidence of squirrels and mice, and plenty of reasons to sneeze, I jumped at every chance to stand in front of “my class” (my older brother, younger sister, and sometimes my cousin, seated in a tidy row of makeshift “desks”). Of course, I gave them lots of “assignments”―involving plenty of pens, pencils, crayons, papers, and books.

Curiously, although we officially took turns being the teacher, my siblings and cousin often let me be the teacher. For some reason, they often followed my “teaching” instructions, until in later years they discovered the pleasures of being unruly―something none of us dared to be in “real school.”

Lucky for me (and my future real students), the siren call of irresistible teaching materials and authority morphed into something bigger...deeper...glad-er.

I remember the moment as a real teacher when I read Frederick Buechner's definition of vocation (from the same root word as “voice”) or calling as “that place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep hungers.” I shivered in recognition. In this elegant phrasing, he extracted from my memory something I had never learned but already knew.

“Playing school” handed me the first piece of my deep gladness puzzle.

What deep gladness puzzle piece(s) did you receive in your childhood? What happened?

Hundreds of workshops and Web sites and thousands of books and experts offer advice, inventories, and other personal/professional development tools. Want to identify your strengths, abilities, and skills to find a job, change careers, earn more income? Click here, please.

Or perhaps you're eager to locate life passion and purpose. A growing multitude of personal coaches are lined up, ready to assist. All of these resources can be helpful and even life changing―if, as I have personally experienced, the individual learner or client is receptive and ready to change.

But the sheer proliferation of these resources tells me something more than individual human development is happening. Something on a collective scale. Something that looks beyond a separate me in search of a we're-in-this-together we.

We is the address where deep gladness lives.

Knock on the door and deep gladness answers if we're willing to risk walking past something we're really good at―and often perform with little sense of contribution or joy―to remember the bliss we abandoned as "childish" play.

Deep gladness answers whenever we, waving at individualism (sitting alone in its favorite cafe, drinking lattes just the way it likes them), remember to return home to the little neighborhoods and big world that hold our shared hungers, hopes, and dreams.

Deep gladness answers when we're ready to fall in love―with our own lives, and where they ache to take us. From resumes to inborn gifts. From just-me to we.

Where does your life ache to take you?

I invite deep gladness to come closer―
I switch my looking
same-old scenes of faceless crowds
entering and exiting subway cars
to seeing
freckled faces of a redheaded family
―mom, dad, sister, brother― laughing
(and I just have to laugh, too).

I enter deep gladness when I (temporarily) park my anxious questions―
  • How much money can I make from this idea, project, book, blog?
  • Which people in this room will speak with me, like my ideas, send me potential clients?
―outside the welcome mat.

I speak from deep-gladness gift―
Suddenly, the thing I am saying to my students
flows through me
as if I am a pipeline to a river that is much larger
than my small stream.
At these times a knowing whooshes through:
I am in exactly the right place
at the ri
ght time
with the right people
doing the right thing.

I forget (momentarily) my limits inside deep gladness―
Instantly, a powerful conspiracy takes over:
everything I see, everyone I meet, shows me
possibility (what could be)
purpose (what needs to be)
passion (what wants to be)
potential (what is ready to be)
or promise (what intends to be)
in ways I've never, ever imagined.

I return to deep-gladness gift
(after getting disconnected for the umpteenth time)―
I halt my struggle to write the “right words” here
to watch mounds of blue-gray density dance
with streaks of radiant light
in eye-popping cloud performance
outside my eleventh story window.

What disconnects you from your deep gladness?

Once upon a time, my usual writing performance consisted of lots of crossing out, scads of paper ripping and throwing, and copious tears. Oh, I could write competently enough―with enough suffering. Writing was my tortuous un-gladness.

Once upon a time, I am rescued. My knights are Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and the enthusiastic support of a dear writer friend. I live happily ever after: scribbled-out, fast first drafts that are too wordy, too wandering, and maybe even just plain suck become my intimate, if unpolished, companions in discovering my voice.

What rescues and reconnects you?

I scan the virtual horizon. My deep gladness monitor immediately shows me the face of Susan Boyle, who, one fine day in April 2009, stunned U.K. television viewers and, a few days later, the online world in the moment she opened her mouth to sing the first notes of I Dreamed a Dream from the musical
Les Mise

Her story statistics are nearly legendary by now: a 48-year old church volunteer with untamed hair from a small Scottish village. Oxygen deprived at birth causing some learning difficulties. Living alone with cat, Pebbles, after the death of her mother two years ago. Often taunted by village children and called “Susie Simple” by some village adults. Often described by the press as “frumpy,” “plain,” or other even less flattering descriptors. Instantly dismissed by rolling eyes and smirks from Britain's Got Talent judges who are about to rate her audition.

But Susan Boyle knows from the age of 12 that she is a singer, and all she needs is a chance to “make that audience rock....All my life I've striven to prove myself,” she said just before singing on the British talent show, “like I can be accepted that I'm not a worthless person people think I am, that I do have something to offer.”

“Something to offer”?

According to a Susan Boyle fan site, as of June 29, 2009, all YouTube videos of Susan's performances received an estimated 425,000,000 views―this, within ten weeks. Three months after her audition, Susan is recording her first CD, with millions already pre-ordered. 10,000,000 CDs will be sold in the U.S. alone, one of the judges is predicting.

Susan Boyle opens her mouth to sing―and her gift immediately pulls us to our feet in clapping joy and awestruck wonder.

Trust me.

Your deep-gladness gifts―which the world deeply needs―are calling.

With or without applause.

Just check your voice mail.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly
gnized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do....

(excerpt from “The Journey” by Mary Oliver)

Extra, Extra!
* Meredith Vieira recently (7/22/o9) interviewed Susan Boyle
* The full text of "The Journey" is in Dream Work by Mary Oliver, and the poem is also printed online.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Soulful Stories #1: Will It Be Okay?

I don't usually fall instantly in love. So I am speechless on this day in Toronto to find myself completely surrendering to a stranger, one that I can't not take home with me. An unexpected stranger with a voice that fearlessly speaks the whole truth—with simplicity, beauty, and brevity.

Like many love affair stories, this one occurs while I am doing something else. I had traveled to Canada from my home in Wisconsin to attend a weeklong workshop in story from a self-described “Itinerant Fool,” the late Ken Feit. I remember Ken as a complex, paradoxical man—gentle, yet fierce; joyful and angry—whose marriage of imagination and message in his teaching and performances both enchanted and provoked me. Ken included children's books within his storytelling tools—I recall Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books, endearing stories of friendship, and Hyemeyohst Storm's telling of a soaring American Indian “medicine” tale, Jumping Mouse, were among them. Listening to Ken, I gulped these down like a life-saving meal after prolonged hunger. No, I did not have children to read to, and I taught older kids, not younger ones. (And as for writing children's books1. twenty years later, I had no clue then.) It didn't matter: whatever else I took home from that workshop, children's books would have to be a part of my life.

I couldn't wait for my first rendezvous.

At Ken's suggestion, I find myself in a Toronto children's book store, wandering the aisles in search of the books he's already shared. Hugging these securely in my arms, I give in to the lure of enticing titles and jubilant colors of other children's books. I pick up one after another, scanning often turning into full reading, putting each book down again, sometimes in tears, sometimes shaking with giggles.

Then it happens...the encounter...when time and place blur while focus crystallizes on a single love object: Will It Be Okay?, an unassuming children's book written by the the fantastically named Crescent Dragonwagon.2. I open the cover and read the summary: “A mother comforts a child about her special fears concerning dogs, thunder, snakes, and other things.” I find much, much more.

Will It Be Okay? is a tender love story. Unconditional, neverending love between a mother and her little daughter, for sure, and depending on reader perspective and need, perhaps also that thick-or-thin love that persists between some committed lovers, within some families, and among some life-long friends.

Still, I sense another layer of love, another relationship is embedded in those pages. A relationship that joins you and me to the Source of Life with its many names—God, Mystery, All That Is. A relationship that the author herself confirms in her dedication: “To the One who's always with us, whispering 'It's okay!' this book is humbly and lovingly offered.”

Even so, falling in love with a children's book...?

Okay, perhaps you and I are no longer afraid of little things like big, barking dogs; thunder and lightning storms; snakes that might appear in the night; huge piles of snow; and cabbages that don't grow.

Perhaps trifling events such as getting a little soap in an eye or water splashed by a zealous parent trying to clean up a messy kid would not shake us, as it clearly did a little boy I heard yesterday in full-throttle meltdown in the bathroom of a favorite cafe.

Perhaps our fears—wearing numerous clever costumes: anxiety, exhaustion, frustration, anger—are more...reasonable, or at least justified. Loss of homes and jobs, an unstable economy and family life, disposable values and relationships, crumbling trust in corporations and institutions certainly are worth worry, meltdown, and despair.

Certainly, believing that “everything is okay” is child's play. And as for adults like Trevor Romain3. whose blog bursts with such Pollyanna goodies as, “”Everything is all right in the end. If it's not all right, then it's not the end”...what planet is this guy living on?

Time to put the snarky thoughts (wearing yet another fear costume) aside and tell the real truth.

I bought Will It Be Okay that day because of the mother's answer to the child's—and my—final and painful question: “But what if you die?” (What if I am left completely alone in the world, powerless without love?) That will never happen, the mother says: “My loving doesn't die. It stays with you...When you remember you and me, you say: What can I do with so much love? I will have to give some away. So you love thunder and lightning, dogs, snakes, snow, and planting cabbages....”

Many years, cities, and work assignments have passed since I, a fully grown adult, fell heart-over-head in love with that children's book. It accompanies me to each new home, speaking the whole truth—with simplicity, beauty, and brevity—that I still need to hear:

So will it be okay?”

Yes, my love, it will.”

Hey, other children's book lovers:

  1. For a list of my own published children's books as well as several annotated lists of kids' books that I especially love, please visit my Web site:

  2. Crescent Dragonwagon (daughter of legendary children's book author and editor, Charlotte Zolotow) books are easily available...except Will It Be Okay?, which is (sadly) out of print. A few pricey used copies are available here, and the complete text of the book is online at Steve Krause's Stories for Free Children Web site.

  3. Fortunately, author/illustrator Trevor Romain is firmly living—and loving—on planet earth. See his blog for a moving narrative and graphic record of his work with terminally ill kids.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pay Awesome Attention #1: Bathroom or Bust (and Trust)


I've done it so many times, I cringe to count.

I need to go to the bathroom. (But I can wait.)

I should go to the bathroom. (Aw, I'm kinda busy right now. I'll go soon.)

Yikes...I gotta go to the bathroom now! (Whew, I just made it.)

How embarrassing.

But I am in good company.

My new little childcare friend, age 7, gets so involved with the book she is reading or making, or the design she is drawing or coloring, that only enough wiggling and jiggling send her flying into the bathroom in time.

My 5-year-old niece, engrossed in a new story she is making up or enthralled with the current episode of “The Amazing Misadventures of Pippie, the Naughtiest Teddy Bear in the Whole World” that I am spinning, suddenly clutches herself and says, “Ooh, I hafta go to the baffroom” and executes a dash worthy of a seasoned athlete.


Now, I am not 5 or 7 years old, nor recently potty trained. Yet often enough I am just as reluctant to break away from whatever I am doing to take care of nature's insistent call. Even “knowing better” doesn't prevent me from overlooking body signals like a full bladder or an empty, rumbling stomach.

Why do I do it? Because so many important things—tasks, desires, plans, thoughts—grab my attention. Like the little girls, I can easily become intensely absorbed by whomever or whatever is in front of me.

Lucky me, right? I mean, isn't this single-minded focus exactly what exasperated parents and teachers request (demand?) from fidgety or dreamy-eyed kids? What frustrated spouses and impatient employers expect from half-listening or time-frittering adults? Don't we want kids and adults to be fully focused on the story, task, or conversation at hand—and then move on to the next person or thing to be heard, done, nodded to?

Sure. Single-minded, checklist attention gets things done, and I will continue to use it.

But here's the sneaky double-pronged paradox for me:

Laser-beam attention on something external I am doing

while ignoring an essential inner signal

is not awesome attention.

And intense concentration on someone only to dismiss her or him

in my mind afterwards as no longer useful, entertaining, or valuable

is not awesome attention.

And more and more, I want to pay awesome attention

awesome attention that awakens me

at this fresh moment

to the goodness

in me, in you


Awesome attention is fed by our ancient instinct for awe, that open flow of wonder and gratitude that says, Wow, I have this body that knows exactly when to inhale and exhale, precisely when to shut down in sleep to repair itself, and to my relief, pointedly when it needs to remove excess liquids and solids.

And awesome attention is when I can notice your shadowed eyes, carrying fatigue, overwhelm, or sorrow...and silently hold you in my heart.


Awesome attention is strengthened when I tune into a flash of intuition (“inner knowing”)—without categorizing it as trivial, useful...or anything at all.

And awesome attention is when I hear you wistfully describe to me yet again a vague idea, a maybe-someday wish—without needing you to make it happen on my if-I-were-you timetable...or ever at all.


Awesome attention is sustained when I recognize Life itself is calling me right now to

slow down

be still

notice my fingers moving on this keyboard

look up and see the sun making shadows with the leafy tree branches

—all without expecting an inspired flow of words to pour out as my reward.

And awesome attention is when I can see you rushing around, stressed out—and neither scold you nor try to fix you (because, of course, I know how).


Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls awesome attention presence and the power of now. Others name it mindfulness, which mediation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “awarenessing...befriending this deep capacity of the heart and stand in how things are now.”

I can only do this “standing in how things are now”—this being a witness without tinkering, this being-with without interpreting—one moment at a time. Lucky me: despite years of thinking tomorrow won't give me what I want unless I plan, that's all that Life ever gives us: one moment at a time.

Do I, once upon a time a fierce devotee of making-it-happen (or for sure it wouldn't happen at all), trust that this gift of moment by moment is enough?

Do I trust that I am enough—just as I am, in my current work-in-progress version of Kathy—to receive and open this gift ?

Right now, I will say yes to both.

Even as I notice I need to go to the bathroom again.

Isn't that awesome?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

I Seem to Be The Linking Verb

I only mean it to be a mindless escape. Bored and frustrated in my business writing job, I furtively doodle on a scrap pad I keep hidden, before someone walks into my office again to hand me the next pages for editing. Just harmless random scribblings. That's all. Nothing like concocting a future, for goodness sake.

And certainly not getting a new name.

But the future and the name this....

One day, I am sitting in my office, drumming my pen against a stack of printouts. Sigh. Yet another revision of a sales and marketing curriculum I am cranking out for my boss. What am I doing here? Sure, I know how to do this job. But what am I going to do about the me—underutilized, disconnected, barely caring—who is ready to climb out the window and escape to the cafe across the street for croissants, coffee, and my book? How am I going to keep me—who needs this paycheck, oh yes—in this chair, ceaselessly editing and reediting umpteen pages, eight hours a day, five days a week...?

Me, a business writer? Ugh.

In stark contrast, I love being an educator and a “language architect,” someone who plays with and builds with language as naturally as she breathes. But numerous years of unlivable salaries had pushed me out the classroom door and yanked me through the business turnstile.

In heart-tugging contrast, I know my true job as an educator is to be a “learning midwife” who leads out (the root meaning of “educate”) possibility (what could be), purpose (what needs to be), passion (what wants to be), potential (what is ready to be), and promise (what intends to be) in my students—and myself—to create futures we dearly desire.

In frustrated contrast, I also know that our language choices—especially those embedded within images and stories, whether conscious or not—are the power tools that create futures, both those deeply desired and those desperately unwanted.

On the other hand, many companies—especially those that operate under a single bottom line: profit—use images and stories to persuade people to buy more and more to create desirable financial futures...for business.

On this day in my office, doodling my escape instead of climbing out the window, the “True Kathy equation” is clear:

K = teacher/educator + language architect

K business writer + marketer

I look at the neatly typed curriculum pages. What good am I doing here?

I look at my messy handwritten scrawls. What am I supposed to be doing instead?


My pen scribbles, “The Linking Verb.” Huh? Where did that come from—and what does it mean? Wait. I remember. English grammar, 6th or 7th grade. Something to do with “verbs of being--to be, to appear, to seem, to feel, to become, etc.—rather than doing.

I grab a dictionary. Yeah, a linking verb connects the subject of a sentence to information about the subject. For instance, “I am hungry” and “You seem happy” are observations of my/your state of being. Likewise, “The ice cream tasted good” describes an inner condition—of someone blissed out on Ben and Jerry's—in contrast to the same verb showing action (with possible consequences): “You tasted my ice cream—and now it's gone!”

Linking verbs. Okay, I get it. What next? Am I supposed to join the Language Police, spending day after day chasing down grammatical errors and the miscreants who dare to commit them? No. Way. Just thinking about it makes me want to escape to the nearest croissant.

So how can I be The Linking Verb?

Twenty-five years later, I may have an answer.

Or at least a bunch of new questions that make my heart somersault.

What if this Linking Verb could connect us—you, me—to the biggest, deepest, truest state of our who we really are?

What if—from the inside out—we really are:

  • Unwrapped packages of possibility, purpose, passion, potential, and promise that “get opened” most powerfully in the stories we tell about ourselves and each other

  • Fully present and compassionate gifts to the world that, when shared, changes it—for good

  • A “deep gladness” that is most fully alive when meeting “the world's deepest needs”

What if being The Linking Verb is my deep gladness, my way to be a fully present and compassionate gift to the world...starting with this very blog?

What if...?

I seem to be The Linking Verb, ready at last to:
  1. Pay awesome attention

  2. Tell soulful stories

  3. Unwrap deep-gladness gifts

  4. Nourish this awakening world.

Ready for the opening?