The Beauty of Toni Morrison is a Gift from the Creator

The Nobel Prize Award winning author, Toni Morrison touched me with beauty.  Not the common image of beauty as physical attractiveness like a stunningly gorgeous person, but beauty manifested as vulnerability, strength, virtue, grandeur and magnificence.  Illustrating the depth of beauty in life was a major theme in her writing.  She showed us beauty in the stories she told and in relationships she described.   Ms. Morrison’s writings highlighted the Love in Beauty and the Beauty in Love.  

I met Toni Morrison once briefly when I boldly asked her to sign my copy of Beloved during a literary conference.  Whether in person or participating in an interview, Toni Morrison always carried the same grace and beauty that she wrote about.  I am so grateful for her presence in the world as a gifted human spirit and writer who affected my life and my spirit.

The language of The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Love among so many lovely novels Ms. Morrison wrote, evoked a sense of awe in me like a beautiful painting hanging in a museum would.  Toni Morrison taught me to observe the beauty in people, places, and objects beyond what we typically associate with exquisite paintings, sculptures, music and movies. 

My favorite pastime and contemplative activity as a young girl was to sit on some weathered leather or clean but old fabric couch and eat a green apple while reading a book.  Reading books took to me to other worlds that I couldn’t see from our all Black neighborhood in Pasadena, CA.  Books piqued my imagination and curiosity as I stepped into the lives of fantasy and children that I would never know in places I had never heard of.  

My memories are sketchy but I believe I was first introduced to the public library in first grade and cherished my library card as if it was a valuable gold coin.  I kept it in a special place in my dresser drawer so I would always know where to find it when it was time for a trip to the library.    For a few summers I participated in a children’s book reading club challenge. I loved to check off the list of the eight to ten books we were assigned to read, although I suspect I enjoyed the competition or sense of achievement more than some of the books.

Later I read different books mostly for school like Black Boy, The Great Gatsby, The Good Earth, and Invisible Man.  At the time, I was unaware of authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West and Paule Marshall and it didn’t occur to me that I read writings that were devoid of black female protagonists.  Such literature was not part of the AP curriculum in my high school in the late 1960’s and no internet existed to search for such things.

In 1970, the publication of the The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison changed everything for me.  Ms. Morrison made a little black girl yearning to be someone other than the radiant holy child of God that she was, the center of her novel.  Black girls mostly remained invisible or marginalized in mainstream American literature.   Inspired by all of the beauty Toni Morrison opened my eyes to, led me to think deeply.  I wondered.  I am not a writer nor musician, dancer, or visual artist.  How can I contribute beauty to the world? 

I believe I found the answer through the expression of my unique creative talents.  I love elegant fabric.  I bask in the joy of turning two dimensional pieces into wearable art, of creating personalized tea cozies and comfort blankets made of fleece with crocheted edging.  I am passionate about gorgeous flowers so I plant zinnias, dahlias, cosmos, and marigolds next to easy growing vegetables in my container garden.  Gardening also allows me to create simple beauty by preparing colorful and delicious meals for family and friends.  I also have a gift for writing but not like Toni Morrison.  I wasn’t called to create fine literature.  I am drawn to share practical spiritual stories.  I like to generate deep inquiries and invite folks to explore their inner lives.  I realize, though the inspiration for both of us emerges from the same Source.

Toni Morrison’s writings threw a life preserver to many people, black women in particular.  She followed her calling to write and perfect her craft.   In one of the many interviews airing recently, Ms. Morrison noted that there were two things that she needed to do or she would die.  One was to be a mother to her sons and the other was to write.  Again I pondered—what am I compelled to do or feel like I might die?   

Sometimes as artists, and we are all artists in some way,  we become unblocked and the beauty just flows right out of us like a gift from the Creator.  Usually, it is in moments of quiet, in the stillness, in the toil of revising, and revising, and revising or chopping vegetables and mixing ingredients that we are able to feel and capture the Beauty that surrounds us.  Often we translate these moments into words on the page or into delicious, healthy, edible feasts.

What kind of beauty are you called to share with the world?  What do you feel compelled to do or feel like you might die?  Would answering your calling to create more beauty in your life and the lives of others bring more peace and joy to your heart?

Meditations of the Heart and When the Heart Speaks, Listen

One of my favorite Howard Thurman books is Meditations of the Heart.  It was the first of his more than 20 books that I purchased which I gave to my husband as a present.  But then I started reading it and knew that I wanted to know more about this profound man and his life.  The meditations spoke to the core of my being as Howard Thurman asks his readers to ponder more deeply what is at the heart of our daily living.  Are we willing to open our hearts and listen more deeply to the call of the Eternal?

As a spiritual director/companion and retreat leader I am often asked what drew me to the spiritual path after leading a life as a driven, tough, no nonsense professor and college administrator.  I’d been interested in spirituality since I was first introduced to meditation in college.  Like Howard Thurman,  I realized that I was enamored with silence, stillness and solitude and understood that my spirituality was flavored with a contemplative bent.

Despite my spiritual inclinations, my life was dominated by a strong, competitive, type A ego.  In the midst of my drive to achieve fame in the field of psychology, at age 40 I was catapulted into a physical and spiritual crisis.  The diagnosis that a lifelong heart condition had become a life-threatening cardiomyopathy and required a heart transplant triggered the terror which lies in every ego and sparked my spirit simultaneously.  What aided my survival was a re-focus toward inner listening.  This shift manifested as a series of conversations with my old and new hearts as I traversed the unknown and frightening world of a heart transplant recipient.

It all began when I sought therapy because the symptoms of heart failure—shortness of breath, fatigue, swollen ankles, weight loss began to permeate my life.  I could no longer deny that my body was deteriorating.  My therapist who specialized in clients with chronic health conditions and whose approach tended to be eclectic suggested that I utilize a Jungian technique labeled “active imagination” and talk with my heart.

What I imagined would be a solo conversation evolved into twenty-two months of conversations with my hearts—the old one that I lost and the new one that I gained with a transplant.  Their guidance was unparalleled as I rode a real life roller coaster. Despite the fact that I wrote these dialogues to maintain my own sanity, I shared them with a few friends who urged me to distribute them more widely by writing a book.  Perhaps others could benefit from my suffering as well as my triumphs.

The conversations in When the Heart Speaks, Listen-Discovering Inner Wisdom showed me how to uncover the peace and joy in my heart similar to the deep peace and joy I feel when reading Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart.  With both books, there is an invitation to engage in deep inner listening each pointing to a heart that is always available for solace, guidance, consolation and wisdom.  As Thurman writes, “In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.”  I hope both of these books will inspire you to listen and talk with your heart so you too can uncover more of the peace and joy that lies within.

When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom and Meditations of the Heart are available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million and can also be ordered through your favorite independent book seller. 

Escape from Fear—Part One

As human spirits, I believe it is our birthright to live in a state of peace and joy.  So each morning the first thing I ask myself is, “Am I feeling peace and joy right now?  If not, why not?”  Next I proceed to search my mind and heart for some thought or feeling that might be blocking my sense of serenity and jubilation.  Often the impediment is linked to some element of fear.

Lately, I have become aware of how I, and the individuals I meet with in spiritual direction, are held hostage by fear.  Easily and quickly I can enumerate a list of fears and how they puncture my peace and steal my joy.  As I reflect on my many apprehensions as well as those I hear in the sacred stories of others, I wonder how we all might lead lives of greater inner freedom.  In “Escape from Fear-Part One,” I will name and describe some fears and in Part Two, discuss potential antidotes.  The fears I address here include the fear to follow my heart’s desires, fear of rejection, fear of success/failure, fears associated with a psychological syndrome called “time urgency perfectionism”  and fears about the body.   Clearly, many people suffer with serious anxiety often requiring medication and therapy.  However, in the next two blogs, my focus is on the common fears that permeate daily living.

Many years ago, I started my career journey.  I knew I needed to take a year off after college but I was afraid I might never return to graduate school.  So despite my trepidations, I entered a PhD program.  I wasn’t particular happy studying social psychology because I had always been drawn to counseling.  I yearned to help people with everyday problems like loss of a job, divorce, or death of a loved one.  But I persevered because I had enrolled at Harvard University and I was afraid to disappoint my family or appear as if I lacked the intelligence or determination to finish their doctoral program.  As I prepared to graduate, I considered pursuing post-doctoral studies in counseling.  Completion of a few requisite courses and some internship hours would have led me to my dream.  Yet I was afraid to turn down the outstanding job offers I’d obtained at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Duke University, and UC San Diego.  I continued to walk this journey allowing fear to act as my oppressor.  I  permitted concerns about money, reputation, and living up to the perceived expectations of others pin me down onto a path of unhappiness.  It wasn’t that I lacked courage but I wanted certain and calculated outcomes.  I wasn’t a risk taker. 

Recently, I awoke panicked wondering if I was doing enough to promote the release of my new book, When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom.  Last summer, I anguished for several days about asking a prominent person for an endorsement.  I feared he would say no or worse yet, read my book and tell me he couldn’t endorse it.  I was experiencing the fear of rejection.  I prayed and finally summoned the inner strength to email him.  He was delighted to write a lovely endorsement. Later I realized what a senseless fear this was. 

Last month I spoke with a woman I hadn’t seen in years.  When Amelia heard that I was publishing a book, she shared her desire to write one as well.  After a recent speaking engagement Amelia was approached by a book editor about a potential book project.  Yet she never followed up.  I was shocked.  Writers send thousands of query letters each day seeking a literary agent or an editor.  I wondered about this bright professional woman—was it fear of success or fear of failure that was kept Amelia from pursuing her aspiration particularly when an editor had expressed interest in her work?

I find that fear of success and fear of failure are different sides of the same coin—fear.  Fear is the way in which the ego inhibits intelligent and competent people from expressing their deepest passions.  Fear of failure is often linked to concerns about making mistakes, being embarrassed or not living up to the expectations of others as I mentioned earlier.  Fear of success is frequently related to an underlying sense of unworthiness.  Sometimes we don’t think we deserve success and happiness because somewhere someone usually a parent, relative, teacher or supervisor, suggested we lacked some essential attribute; a skill, intelligence, physical attractiveness or other characteristic.

A close cousin to fear of success and failure is time urgency perfectionism.  I notice this fear seeping into my days and controlling my life.  Most people are familiar with the notion of perfectionism but perhaps not paired with a time component.   In Faster, Better Sicker, researchers identified a personality type associated with Time Urgency Perfectionism Stress (TUPS).  They write, “These are people who always like things to be perfect and therefore attempt to achieve perfectionism within a defined time frame.”  Such people constantly watch the clock, worry about deadlines and completing tasks perfectly.  The lives of time urgent perfectionists become encased in fear—they agitate over errors and fear there is never enough time.  Yet living from an inner world dominated by fear, experiences of peace and joy elude one’s grasp.  

Occasionally I feel heart palpitations.  In the past, my thoughts would immediately begin to race and descend into a downward spiral. I would tremble about what might be wrong with my body.  I’d wondered—did I need to go to the ER, urgent care or set up an appointment with my cardiologist.  Similarly, I hear about family members, friends of family members, and others who develop preventable health conditions.  Typically, an unwillingness to seek medical attention and then follow the doctor’s instructions is partially to blame.  Some people dig in with denial.  “Oh that pain in my arm—it’s nothing.  I was lifting heavy boxes.”  I cried as I read in Becoming, about Michele Obama losing her precious father.  He was afraid to see what was beyond his swollen feet, and nodule in his neck.  Her dad kept working until it was too late after which there was no possibility for recovery.  I have heard this story far too many times as I reflect on the losses of loved ones in my own life.  Perhaps underlying all of the apprehensions about the body is the fear of death.

Which fears are holding you hostage in your life right now?  When is the last time you felt some deep peace and how long did it last?  And what about joy?  Does joy feel absent in your life, more like an infrequent visit from a long lost love rather than being central to your life?  In “Escape from Fear-Part Two,” I will discuss how we might break the chains of fear.  Meanwhile, I hope you will take a moment to reflect on which fears keep you from feeling the peace and joy in your heart.

Antonio Rodriquez, Edward Wolff, Many Wolff, Faster, Better, Sicker-Time Urgency Perfectionism Stress, available on Amazon as a Kindle download.

Follow the Joy: An Autumn Musing

I recently finished a lovely book, How the Light Gets in—Writing as Spiritual Practice, by Pat Schneider.  As you can see from the picture pasted below, I underlined and tagged many pages.  How the Light Gets In earned a place on my favorite books shelf.  I love books that are part memoir and part instructional manual.  Schneider takes readers on a journey of her life and highlights the links between writing, spirituality, and healing.  In the final chapter, she makes several poignant statements about vocation or calling.  Schneider suggests that each person, no matter what the social category; age, gender, race, or social status possesses a calling.  

Similarly, I would argue even more passionately that each of us is constantly being called.  But most people appear confused about what a vocation or calling is.  My former students believed that vocation or calling are terms only applicable to the ministry.  As I tried to disavow them of this misnomer, I wondered what would happen if educational institutions took the discernment of a vocational or calling as serious as seminaries do.  As an academic adviser, I hoped a structured discernment process existed for students interested in all occupations.  Moreover, the issue of calling arises many times over the course of a lifetime.  Currently, questions about calling dominate my conversations with adults of varying ages, even some I perceive as elders in spiritual direction/companioning.   Pat Schneider maintains one method of discovering a calling is to pay attention to what brings you joy. 

This idea is very similar to Howard Thurman’s famous quote:  “Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who can come alive” or Joseph Campbell’s admonition “Follow your bliss.”  What would the world be like if every person could listen for and become engaged in work or activities that brought them joy.  Yet the quotes by Thurman and Campbell allude to a different term; passion.  Are they the same or interchangeable experiences?  Synonyms of passion include fervor, enthusiasm, zeal or an intense desire while descriptions of joy include delight, pleasure, happiness, and jubilation.  Is there something special about the feeling of joy that is different from passion?   

I see this contrast playing out in my life.  I held a passion for teaching but now I know deeper joy.  It almost feels oxymoronic for me to declare the delight I feel when I arise to work.  Eagerly I sit down to my desk to write or to greet those who walk through my front door for spiritual direction/companioning.  I look forward to the retreats I lead and talking with spiritual seekers.  What characterizes my present work that seemed absent in my past labors?

Since retiring, I have carved out a set of activities instead of adapting to the tasks associated with my job.  For example, I noted earlier one of my favorite aspects of my profession was advising students.  I could have advised students all day, every day.  I felt especially jubilant when I witnessed a student discover a calling.  What helped me to determine if a students had unearthed a hidden occupational delight?  Often I posed a series of questions and observed their behavior.  I would inquire,  “What would you do if you lacked any constraints, if you had all the time and money in the world?”  “What kind of work would you do for free?” “Which activities bring you joy?”

I noticed as students, seated across from me on a couch or chair, talked about a variety of possible careers, there was a moment in the conversation when they lit up like a Christmas tree.  The light in their eyes and the joy in their voices provided the mighty clues that we had stumbled upon a calling.   

A few students would note their own inner excitement, and pursue that path.  Unfortunately, I also encountered students who could or would not follow their dreams.  Many chose careers that their parents wanted for them or fields of study that might generate the most income.  I would remind them that whatever vocation they chose, it would need to get them out of bed for the next 30 or more years.  I counseled further that some occupational choices would be more difficult to undo than others.  Becoming a doctor for example, involves a deep investment of time, energy, and money.  Further, once students start families and begin to purchase cars and homes, changing careers becomes far more challenging, if not impossible.  What is most remarkable is that my advice was quite similar to Patricia Schneider’s or Howard Thurman’s even though I neither knew of or had read anything by either author at that time.

The experience of joy is important for daily life balance as well.  The frenetic world we live in, burdened with overactivity, overstimulation, and relentless distractions requires counterbalancing.  Joy helps to uncover the counterbalancing activities.  What is most joyful—watching a movie, sitting outside in nature, listening to music, dancing in the living room, or reading a book?  Regardless of the activity selected, it is essential to surround ourselves with our delights.  Otherwise if we become stuck on the treadmill of life, the endless tasks will wear us down.  We must get off for some rest and fun.

Where is joy beckoning you?   Following it whether it leads you to the kitchen to bake cookies or brownies, to the swings in a park, to a sporting event is what gives you vitality.  Perhaps taking a moment to observe the changing colors of autumn leaves or watch hummingbirds and butterflies, will provide the joy that is the perfect antidote to what might ail you.  Following your joy will definitely lead you to feel more of the peace and joy in your heart.

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