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A Day of Mindfulness with Thích Nhất Hạnh [Nov. 15th, 2013|09:17 am]
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The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.”
Thích Nhất Hạnh

The invitation went out on Facebook: A Day of Mindfulness, led by Thích Nht Hnh, will take place at the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California. I wasn’t feeling well, and my to-do list was long. But these kinds of opportunities don’t present themselves every day, so I cleared my calendar, downed some Tylenol and hit the road.

An early-bird by nature, I didn’t mind that I had to leave the house long before sunrise. I breathed deep the welcome silence, inhaled the salty mist along the Pacific Ocean until the GPS told me to turn inland. Black Tesla in my headlights, a rusted VW bus at my back bumper…I found myself in the midst of a miles-long caravan that inched its way up the narrow, steep road to the monastery.


I felt at ease among this diverse group of travelers: roughly 1400 smiling individuals, dressed in everything from yoga pants to monks’ robes, frayed cargo shorts to haute couture dresses. We sat elbow-to-elbow on folding chairs, knee-to-knee on meditation cushions. Latecomers huddled in the doorways or settled into the spillover areas that circled the rounded stucco building. The excitement was palpable, and multilingual. Headsets were made available for those who needed interpreters.

A gong sounded, and a hush fell over the crowd. A middle-aged monastic swept into the meditation hall, brown robes swishing as he walked. Young Brother—a reformed Catholic priest, formerly known as Father—led us through a sequence of acappella songs. Simple choruses with a shared message: mindfulness in every moment, precious gifts in every breath.

(I don’t have an actual transcript, so this next part is based on detailed notes and my best recollections.)

“Now that we’re all here,” said Little Brother, “we will walk together, up the hill. No talking, no thinking. Just breathing. Notice the flowers, the blue skies, the birds in flight. Enjoy the silence. Consider each step a gentle kiss for Mother Earth--an expression of gratitude for her gifts. Share this joyful experience with the animals and plants, and with each other. In…out…deep…slow. Breathe in the joy that comes of mindfulness.”


We hiked a dusty path together, following his instructions (to varying degrees) for about 45 minutes. Hipsters loped up the hill together, scrolling through text messages and snapping selfies. A grizzled couple veered from the trail, high-powered binoculars locked on a red-tail hawk that soared through the canyon. A toddler tugged on his mommy’s sleeve, just ahead of me. “Look, a lizard!” he squealed. Me, I stayed in the moment as best I could, given that I was surrounded by so many fascinating people in this beautiful environment. Yes, I stopped now and again to take in the view. And, of course, I snapped some quick photos.



Just beyond the chalk-white Buddha statue—where the ground leveled out and the morning sun was slanted just so—I finally caught my first glimpse of Thích Nht Hnh. He was sitting cross-legged in the dust, wizened face haloed by a simple bamboo hat. Was he looking inward, or into the distance?  I couldn't tell.

Thích Nhất Hạnh. Zen Buddhist monk, prolific writer, social activist, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who was exiled from his native Vietnam for more than 40 years. Martin Luther King Jr. called him "an apostle of peace and nonviolence." His students call him Thây,” the Vietnamese word for teacher.

He sat motionless for several long minutes, flanked on all sides by monastics in identical brown robes. I stood off to the side and behind the assembled crowd…sort of, sometimes. I snapped a few photos, jotted notes into my journal. Random thoughts popped into my head: Wonder how long we're going to stand here, baking in this heat? Sheesh, that winged insect sure is pesky! Oh hey, is that a security guard, hovering over Thích Nht Hnh? Sweat beads rolled down my cheeks and pooled at my collar--partly because of the blazing hot sun, but mostly due to a persistent fever. Fever, chills, fever, chills; jacket off, jacket on. Again and again, I had to call myself back to mindfulness, because yes, I’m human like that.


Slowly, methodically...Thích brought his palms together at the center of his chest, bowed to the singing bowl in front of him, and then raised it to the level of his heart. After a brief pause, he tapped the bowl with a mallet, thus inviting it to sing. And when the last notes echoed over the canyon, he clasped hands with two children, and led us back down the hill. Breathing in...breathing out...feet of clay in dusty brown clogs, mindful of every step.


We rearranged ourselves in the meditation hall, so as to better accommodate the influx of newcomers. Thích sat cross-legged on a cushion at the altar, with a bemused smile on his face. A devotee fell to his knees in the doorway, prayerful hands extended toward his teacher, forehead kissing the wooden floor. Friends stepped over his prostrate form, fingering mala beads and chanting.

Thích took a slow sip of water, and thus began his
Dharma talk:

"Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, we invite our ancestors to enjoy breathing with us. We inhale together, oxygen and thoughts. Our ancestors dwell in every cell of our bodies, and they enjoy breathing in with us. Together, we enjoy the exhale. Our smiles show the world that we are free spirits within our bodies.”
“We are in the habit of running," he said, "running away from the moments that are brought to us by our ancestors. We are afraid of going home to ourselves and to the suffering. But you don’t need to run anymore. You’ve been running all your life. Walk instead like the Buddha, enjoying every step. Every step brings us home to the here and now; every step is healing. No matter how short or long the distance, you nourish yourself with every step. Stop thinking. Breathe and enjoy. Walk like a free person. Release all expectations. Touch Mother Earth…let her nurture you. Let her teach you to walk in joy.”


The conversation turned serious, if only for a moment. “Be mindful of your sensory consumption,” Thích warned. “Everything is so accessible these days, but the messages are oftentimes toxic. This leads us to a state of anxiousness, fear and despair. Even with so many electronic devices, communication is more difficult now than ever before."

From d
eep in the bowels of a woman's purse, a ringtone sounded. Her cell phone vibrated again and again, until the woman finally stepped outside to take the call. Thích’s eyes crinkled, and the corners of his mouth lifted--a smiling acknowledgment of this teachable moment.

Thích's Dharma Talk lasted roughly 90 minutes—a quiet unfurling of loosely stitched thoughts. He spoke quietly, in measured tones. Although their Buddhism-inspired messages are very similar, I'd say his speaking style is more subdued than that of the Dalai Lama, whom I especially appreciated for his burbling exuberance. He wasn’t judgmental; nothing he said was prescriptive. Just a kindly man, offering seeds of wisdom. I couldn't help notice, however, that a handful of people took it upon themselves to stare pointedly at anything that violated their own, unspoken rules: whispered conversations, for instance, and restless children. At some point, the prostrate man rolled onto his side, fast asleep, and started snoring. Breathing in the humor...erupting in laughter. I stifled the giggles, dodged the dagger eyes they aimed at both of us.

During a lull in the conversation, I leaned toward the woman next to me and asked if she perhaps had a couple of Tylenol.  “Can’t seem to shake this fever,” I joked, “even with all this meditative breathing.” Well now! You would’ve thought I’d asked a vegan for a Big Mac. “Maybe,” she snapped, “you aren’t trying hard enough.” King James Version: Oh ye of little faith.

“Suffering is the first awareness, Thích continued, "the first Noble Truth. The noblest aspiration is to help people to suffer less. Some of us do not know how to handle pain, and so we have a tendency to run away from ourselves and seek forgetfulness. [But] when we return to ourselves and recognize our own suffering, we can more easily understand the suffering in others. When that happens, it is very easy to feel compassion, and to help people come home to themselves.”
Home. This seems to me a good place at which to end this post. No, I didn’t summarize all the ideas that Thích shared with us that morning. Even if I had the transcripts at my elbow, I don’t think I could give them their due justice. Too, there was more to the group dynamics than I was able to see through my own, limited lens. But these are the memories that carry me back to that Day of Mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery. Memories of my arrival, of my homecoming. Breathing in those moments as I write this; smiling even now.
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A slice of heaven [Aug. 3rd, 2013|10:27 am]
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Hers was the booth at the far corner of the Farmer's Market, in rural New England. My eyes gravitated toward her fruit pies--apple and berry, and a mixture of both--overlaid with the fanciest crusts I'd ever seen.

I oohed and aahed over the hand-crafted flowers, musical instruments and birds. I marveled at the glistening fruit, peeking out from that golden-baked crust. "You MADE these?" I finally asked.

The vendor nodded, eyes twinkling with a mixture of pride and amusement.

"They look too good to eat," I said.

A smile played at the corner of her mouth when she responded. "Shouldn't it always be that way?"

She didn't want her picture taken, but she humbly suggested I could take a photograph of her handiwork instead, so that I could share this pie with you. Mmmm, feast your eyes!

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Blue on Blue [Jul. 10th, 2013|03:14 pm]
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Three deaths in recent days. Three of our dearest loved ones, gone forever from this earthly plane. Hard as it is to comprehend, those are the cold hard facts of it. And so it is that I've been absent here of late. I'm burrowing deep into my reserves, looking inward.

I'm coming up for air every now and then, scanning the horizon for the narrowest sliver of sunlight, because I know in my heart of hearts that there are blue skies just ahead.

Joy in the morning.

I've taken that promise to heart for the whole of my life, and I've never once been disappointed. Dreams deferred, perhaps, but never denied.

Blue on blue...I'm peering through the camera lens, trying to see past the heartache.


Western Bluebird

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In the Author'sTent: The Bluebird Man, Part II [Jul. 2nd, 2013|07:14 am]
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As promised, here's Part II of my conversation with wildlife conservationist Neil Paprocki of Wild Lens, Inc. about his soon-to-be-released documentary, Bluebird Man. Quick, grab yourself an iced tea and chill with us awhile!

Pretend you’re responding to this next question via Twitter. In 130 characters, please introduce yourself and describe the work you do with Wild Lens, Inc.

I am a conservation biologist working for a non-profit focused on using film to educate people about wildlife conservation issues.

Bluebird Man, Neil Paprocki's latest project.

There seems to be a special bond between humans and bluebirds. Can you explain why that is, and how it came to be?

I care very deeply about the bonds and interactions between human and wildlife communities.  With over 7 billion people on earth, we have such a huge impact on wildlife communities that these interactions will be critically important to saving and preserving our precious wildlife.  We can’t help but affect the wildlife communities around us, and while this interaction is often negative, it can also be very positive for both humans and species like bluebirds.

Bluebird populations across North America, but especially on the east coast, declined dramatically from 1920 to 1970.  What happened next was something truly amazing.  Thanks in part to a 1970s National Geographic article, the North American Bluebird Society was formed and began providing bluebirds with additional nesting habitat by constructing nest boxes.  Some people took this business of creating more habitat for bluebirds very seriously.  As a consequence of this a deep bond was struck between humans and bluebirds.

Owyhees & JV-2593s
Bluebird Hatchling

One such person was Alfred Larson of Boise, Idaho [aka Bluebird Man]. After reading that National Geographic article, Al decided to help by putting up a few bluebird boxes around his house.  That was 1978.  Fast-forward 35 years to today and Al is still monitoring over 300 bluebird boxes all across southwest Idaho at the crisp young age of 91!  Over his 35-year bluebird career, he has banded and raised over 27,000 nestling bluebirds, an astonishing number.

What makes bluebird feathers so intensely blue?

Most bird feathers receive their color from pigments that are in part produced by the food they eat (i.e. carotenoids produce yellow/orange colors).  The blue in bluebird feathers however, is a rather rare color in nature and is not produced by pigments.  Instead, the blue color is a ‘structural’ color produced by light reflecting off small structures in the feathers creating the blue color we see with our eyes.

Male Western Bluebird wing showing his structural blue coloring
Male Western Bluebird wing shows his structural blue coloring

How can I identify North American bluebirds from other birds with blue feathers?

There are three species of bluebirds in North America: Eastern, Western, and Mountain Bluebirds.  These are the only species of bluebirds found in the world, and they are unique to the North American continent.  Mountain Bluebirds are the easiest to identify, as they are a brilliant sky blue that deepens in color from the belly to the back.  Eastern and Western Bluebirds look very similar and are more of a royal blue with a rufous, or chestnut colored, chest.  The biggest difference between the two is that the chestnut colored chest of the Eastern Bluebird extends all the way up the chest to the neck of the bird, while the Western Bluebird has a royal blue neck.  Other species of North American birds with blue feathers include Jays, Buntings, Warblers, Swallows, Kingfishers, Grosbeaks, Kestrels, and Merlins.

Male Western Bluebird

Are Bluebirds a threatened or endangered species?

Even though bluebirds are not a threatened or endangered species they can still use our help.  Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, they don’t make holes in trees, but depend on other animals such as woodpeckers to create holes in which to nest.  During the mid-1900s, bluebird populations declined precipitously because of a decrease in nesting cavities, habitat loss, climatic events, and invasive species such as House Sparrows.  Conservation efforts helped reverse the declines, but these birds still need our help to maintain their current population levels.

I’ve noticed several Bluebird boxes in my own neighborhood, and many Bluebird organizations are encouraging people to buy or construct them.  Is this a fad, or…?

This is no fad.  People have been building bluebird boxes for a long time.  Things really picked up in the late 1970s after that amazingly popular National Geographic article discussed bluebird population declines and what people could do about it.  The solution: put out boxes with small holes in the front to encourage bluebirds to nest in them.  For almost 40 years people have been constructing these nest boxes and continue to do so today.  As long as people still have a love for these birds, then the monitoring of nest boxes will continue to aid bluebird populations.

Alfred Larson (aka Bluebird Man) checks a bluebird nest

If I place a bluebird box in my own backyard or neighborhood park, what responsibilities does that entail?

This is a very important question as placing a Bluebird box in your own yard entails A LOT of responsibility.  First and foremost, you must consider whether or not your yard is good bluebird habitat.  If it is not, then placing a box in your yard will likely result in an empty box, or use by other bird species.   Second, bluebirds have a variety of nest predators such as raccoons and snakes, and care must be taken to place and construct the nest box in such a way as to be inaccessible to nest predators.  Lastly, several non-native bird species such as House Sparrows and European Starlings are aggressive nest competitors to bluebirds.  However, boxes can be constructed in such a way as to minimize use by these invasive birds.
Once you have placed your nest box in a well thought out location, regular check-ins and maintenance are a must.  Nest boxes should be monitored weekly at the most, to watch for nesting progress and to make sure introduced species like House Sparrows are not using your box.  Also, bluebirds will not clean out old nests from the boxes themselves after a breeding season.  If you want your box to be used year-after-year, then you must clean out the box every fall or winter to make sure there is room for the bluebirds to nest in it the following year.  Much more information can be found about setting up your own bluebird nest box or bluebird trail on the North American Bluebird Society website.

Thank you so much for fielding my questions! I admire your conservation efforts, and appreciate your willingness to take time away from your Kickstarter Campaign to help educate us about these beautiful winged creatures.

Owyhees & JV-2659s
Female bluebird in flight

Want to know more about Neil Paprocki's work with WildLens, Inc.? Migrate over to Part One of our interview, check out his Facebook page and/or follow his blog.

NOTE: You can purchase a Bluebird Man DVD before the film is broadcast on television via the crowd-sourced funding website Kickstarter. Says Neil: "This will provide myself and fellow producer Matthew Podolsky the funds necessary to complete the film and make it look as beautiful as possible to help inspire others to continue helping these birds that are so near-and-dear to our hearts." There are various ‘backer levels’, but if you contribute $20 or more before July 31st, you will receive a copy of the DVD when the film is completed.

All photos ©Neil Paprocki of Wild Lens, Inc. Used with permission.

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In the Author's Tent: The Bluebird Man, Part I [Jul. 1st, 2013|06:58 am]
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The bluebird of happiness is perched on my shoulder this morning, singing his little heart out. Why? Because today's visitor to the Authors' Tent is wildlife conservation biologist Neil Paprocki, aka Director of the soon-to-be-released documentary, Bluebird Man.

As you might expect from someone who loves his work, Neil's got lots to say about the subject. And as a newbie bluebird watcher (witness) I'm all ears!  So I'm splitting this into a two-part interview. Be sure to come back tomorrow for more Q & A's--accompanied by photos!

Neil, I think most of us have heard the expression, “The bluebird of happiness.”  Do you know anything about its origins? Or if not, can you hazard a guess?

I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I have heard the expression, “the bluebird of happiness.”  While I know nothing of its origins, I would think it has something to do with the feeling of joy and happiness people get when they see a bright bluebird.  I know I get this feeling every time I see a bluebird.

Female Mountain Bluebird takes flight

What inspired you to make a movie about bluebirds?

The story of one man inspired me to make this film: Alfred Larson.  His singular 35-year commitment to this one group of birds shows what a powerful role they can play in shaping peoples lives.  Bluebirds are indeed powerful symbols, and the evidence is in the four different states that call bluebirds their State Bird.  For Idaho and Nevada it is the Mountain Bluebird, while for New York and Missouri it is the Eastern Bluebird.  Maybe someone in the west can contact their state legislature and convince them to change their state bird to the Western Bluebird so we have all three species represented!

The other inspiration for making this film about bluebirds is to give hope to other wildlife conservation projects.  We hear so much in the news about species declining and being on the verge of extinction, and there doesn’t seem to be much that we can do about it.  Bluebird populations declined dramatically in the mid-20th century, but have since moved towards recovery thanks in large part to the role played by hundreds of citizen scientists.  This is a story that other conservation projects can draw inspiration from: there is hope out there!

Alfred Larson and Bluebird Man director Neil Paprocki
What’s it like to be a Bluebird Man? (Describe your typical day in the field, including equipment and attire.)

When I head out to monitor bluebirds with 91-year old Idaho legend Alfred Larson, I make sure to bring two things: my camera and my binoculars.  I might also bring some food and water, but only because my body requires it of me.  I’m usually dressed in my field clothes consisting of Chaco flip-flops, nylon zip-off pants to kick aside those rough shrubs, and a t-shirt.  We usually leave Boise, Idaho around 8am to make the hour and a half drive out to the remote Owyhee Mountains of southwest Idaho.  Once we arrive at the first bluebird box, the day really begins.

Male Mountain Bluebird delivers food to a female inside a nest box
Male Mountain Bluebird delivers food to a female inside a nest box
It is here that we being to peer in on the day-to-day life of these beautiful birds, and learn more about how they survive in the harsh mountainous conditions of the Great Basin desert.  We are monitoring mainly Mountain Bluebirds that acquired their name from the rugged terrain they inhabit.  Why live in the mountains where harsh weather conditions can sometimes persist for days on end?  They do so to take advantage of the insect boom that occurs every June.  Insects carry the precious protein and fat necessary to maintain rapidly growing nestlings that sport a voracious appetite.  Our day is spent checking nest boxes for eggs, nestlings, signs of predation, and the occasional adult bluebird that we catch inside a box.  The curious and sometimes aggressive adult bluebirds often perch nearby while we check their box, conveniently posing for the occasional photograph.

How can people get involved in bluebird preservation projects and activities such as yours?

You can get involved in bluebird preservation projects by contacting your local Audubon or Bluebird Society chapter.  You can visit the Audubon Society and North American Bluebird Society websites for your local affiliates contact information.  Go and check out another person’s bluebird project before deciding if this is something you really want to do.  But I will warn you, it is very easy to get hooked and addicted to watching bluebirds! [NOTE: I can attest to that!]

Mountain Bluebird nestlings

When can we expect to see your movie in our area?

I expect to complete Bluebird Man by late December 2013.  We have received a letter of support from Idaho Public Television to broadcast the half-hour film, and we are hoping for an early 2014 broadcast in Idaho.  I will also be pursuing a regional Pacific Northwest and national Public Television broadcast.  I’m hopeful this film will resonate with enough people that we can attract a wide audience!

Can’t wait until then to watch Bluebird Man?  You can purchase a DVD before the film is broadcast on television by contributing to our film through the crowd-sourced funding website Kickstarter.  This will provide myself, and fellow producer Matthew Podolsky, the funds necessary to complete the film and make it look as beautiful as possible to help inspire others to continue helping these birds that are so near-and-dear to our hearts.  There are various ‘backer levels’, but if you contribute $20 or more before July 31st, you will receive a copy of the DVD when the film is completed.

Wings or fins?
Wings.  I wouldn’t be much of a ‘bird guy’ if I said fins.

Snow or sun?
Snow.  I have always been a cold weather person and while I enjoy summer, winter is probably my favorite season.

Chicken or the Egg?
Egg.  My favorite meal of the day is breakfast and eggs are the best part of that meal.

Computer or Camera?
Wow, that is a tough one.  How about a computer with a built in camera, or a camera with a built in computer!  Okay, okay.  Two years ago a might have said computer, but now that I have entered the photography and film world I think my answer has switched to camera.

Tweetie Bird or Road Runner?
Road Runner.  This is an ode to my days of working in the desert southwest with the endangered California condor.

Want to know more about Neil Paprocki's work with WildLens, Inc.? Check out his Facebook page and follow his blog. And...if you're inspired to create your own "bluebird trail," come back for Part II of our interview tomorrow. [Update: Part II is posted here .)

All photos ©Neil Paprocki of Wild Lens, Inc. Used with permission.

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Tending the garden, gathering its blooms [Jun. 25th, 2013|07:22 am]
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Yves Piaget, first of the season
For two solid years, I've babied this rose, from bare root plant to blossom. Thorns emerged, and it was prone to bugs and disease. A puny bud emerged at one point, but the stem was too fragile to support its weight. I almost yanked it from the flowerbed, right then and there. But at the last minute, I granted it a stay of execution.

If it doesn't thrive this season, I told myself, I'll replace it with something else. And wouldn't you just know it: The bush burst forth with three gorgeous flowers, earlier this week!

I've heard this in a religious context, and maybe you've encountered it elsewhere. But it occurred to me just this morning that writing memoir is not unlike the blossoming of this beautiful rose. With each chapter I write (revise or write again), the bud begins to flower. New petals reveal themselves--tiny hints of understanding; of honesty, unfurled--until one day the Truth spills forth, releasing with it the sweet, sweet fragrance of Freedom. The shadow on the right side--I try not to see that as a flaw. It represents the Unknowable, which is part of memoir, too
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A garden parable [May. 25th, 2013|07:25 am]
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My hydrangeas are coming into bloom--neither blue nor pink, but a paler shade of each, and the leaves are getting crispy at the edges. That's what comes of being planted in hard-packed soil, of seeking shade but being subjected, instead, to harsh sunlight.

There's a lesson in this for me. Barbara Kingsolver says it well: "“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.”
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Oklahoma in my heart, on my mind [May. 21st, 2013|05:24 am]
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Oklahoma state flower, via

Tragedies bring us closer together, it's said, and I believe that's true. Riveted to our TV screens and Twitter at first, we climb through the rubble until our hearts crack open and our minds shut down, so wholly unequipped are we to comprehend the things we've witnessed. So we seek refuge, here and elsewhere, bound together by the braided cords of anguish and hope. It is on this precarious ledge that we tell our stories, turn over in our hands like treasures the things we've salvaged, mourn the depth of our losses and celebrate the legacies that endure.

Oklahoma in my thoughts and prayers...
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Wordless Wednesday:What's in a Name? [May. 15th, 2013|06:42 am]
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One more for Wordless Wednesday [May. 8th, 2013|08:06 am]
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Wordless Wednesday: A mama's work is never done [May. 8th, 2013|07:45 am]
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Bluebirds of Happiness: A Story in Pictures [May. 3rd, 2013|08:50 pm]
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To be continued...

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Wordless Wednesday: May Flowers [May. 1st, 2013|09:14 am]
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Mindfulness and Imagination: a Yoga and Writing Retreat [Apr. 25th, 2013|09:55 am]
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I’ve done lots of event planning in my day. I've given speeches to large audiences, led seminars in closet-sized classrooms. But during a brainstorming session at Mother’s Market one day, I asked my long-time yoga instructor, Megan McCarver, to consider teaming up with me on something entirely different—a fun challenge for both of us, each in our own way.

Megan said yes! Over the next few months, we explored several areas of mutual interest—yoga and writing, art and photography
—and linked them a common theme. We reserved space at a Tibetan retreat facility in Soquel, California, and then we reached out to others: "Please join us for a weekend of Mindfulness and Imagination..."

Word spread, and our reserved spots went fast!  People joined us from as far away as New York and Texas, and from cities all over California. Twenty people, all told.  And no wonder—nestled into the mountains and surrounded by giant redwoods, Land of Medicine Buddha is at once peaceful and transformative. It’s an ideal spot in which to meet kindred spirits, and  to explore new possibilities.

Beginners unfurled their mats alongside long-time practitioners. Megan encouraged us to become aware of our comfort levels, to stretch the boundaries of our self-imposed limitations as we moved through a sequence of yoga poses. “Focus on the breath,” she said, “Let it give you an opening.”  

California Lavendar

We hiked in the forest, ears attuned to the peaceful sounds of nature. Leaves fluttered in the cool morning breeze. Bees hummed in the afternoon sun. Birds sang lullabies to their hatchlings, tucked safe in their nests, and an owl called out, “Whooo? Who goes there?” 

Prayer flags in a stand of redwoods

During silent meditation, we listened to own inner voices. That carried over into our Creative Art Journaling Workshop, where we explored new ways of translating our thoughts into words and images.

Creative art journal and inspiration

We faced our doubts, banished our inner critics. And with hearts wide open, we poured ourselves onto the page.

Margaret Avritt facilitates a writing session

The kitchen staff nourished us with delicious vegetarian meals, prepared in a way that promotes ethical practices and eco-sustainability. After an especially yummy lunch on Saturday, Stace Dumoski took us on a photography walk. "Taking pictures is very much like getting the first draft ideas down on the page," she said. “You won't really know what you have until you review the pictures later, so just focus on the experience for now. See what happens when you change your perspective . Use your zoom lens, switch positions. Tilt your head or turn your camera.”

Stace Dumoski pauses for a brief orientation on our photography walk

On Saturday evening, Venerable Nordzin spoke with us about compassion, as seen through the lens of Buddhist teachings. She spoke openly about the challenges that come of recognizing our own inner light, much less sharing it with others. “Soften your gaze,” she said. “Greet one another –your own selves—with kindness.”

Venerable Nordzin and Megan McCarver

Tears of gratitude, joyful smiles—I witnessed both at the prayer wheel when we said our final goodbyes. We swapped email addresses and phone numbers, packed our belongings, and carried with us a treasure-trove of shared memories. And…on the way home, this happy couple got engaged!

Lori Nobel and Keith Spielman at Carmel Beach

The feedback from our retreat was at once heart-warming and affirming. Given the popularity of this event, Megan and I are pleased to announce two additional retreats at Land of Medicine Buddha!

Candles in the Window: A Yoga and Writing Retreat (with chocolate), June 6-8, 2014. This one’s my baby. As with the 2013 retreat, we’ll enjoy creative art journaling, yoga, photography walks, writing sessions, nature hikes, etc. Lynae Palmer (aka "Lusty Chocolate Shaman," of Earthhoney Chocolates) is bringing special treats for all of us, and--drum roll, please--author Jeannine Atkins is our featured presenter!! More information to follow, here and on Facebook, but if you have any questions/want to be added to our email list, just drop me a note. It’s going to be an amazing experience, and you won’t want to miss it!

Megan will host a retreat during the weekend of April 4-6, 2014. Her theme is in the works, so stay tuned! In the meantime, please mark those dates on your calendars.

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Wordless Wednesday: Expressive Hands [Apr. 10th, 2013|12:44 pm]
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[mood |blah]

CIMG9638 CIMG9638 CIMG9641
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Wordless Wednesday: I've got a Secret [Apr. 3rd, 2013|07:19 am]
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Dancing With The Stars [Apr. 1st, 2013|05:40 pm]
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17 million people watched Dancing With the Stars on TV last week. Maybe you were part of the home audience--lounging on your couch in comfy clothes, popcorn at the ready. I saw it, too, but from a different vantage point. Two years after throwing my name in the hat, I scored two tickets to a live performance!


The accompanying email laid out all the how-to’s and don’t-you-dares: A limited number of people will be granted admission. Arrive by 3:00 p.m. to increase your odds of entrance. Security is tight, and parking is restricted. If you get turned away, you’ll get vouchers for another day. “This is an upscale, elegant event,” the message said, “and the following attire is MANDATORY; men must wear a button-up shirt and slacks (coat and tie optional) and women must wear upscale/formal attire (pant suits are fine). Do not wear jeans. You will be on camera so it is very important that you dress nicely. When you look great, the show looks great!”

SoCal girl that I am, I like to dress casual. Flip-flops are my shoe of choice, and jeans are my go-to favorites. But with stars in my eyes and spring in my step, I slipped into a pair stilettos and a long, flowing skirt. I climbed into my roadster before noon, with my sister Sheryll riding shotgun. Hollywood, here we come!


The skies were cloudless, the freeways, unobstructed. When I pulled into the parking structure, it was only 1:30. Whew, plenty of time to spare! I hoofed it past several long blocks of production trailers, as fast as my high-heeled feet could carry me. You know: just in case.


Good thing, because when we rounded the corner to Beverly Boulevard, the line was long and deep. We tucked ourselves into position, and a crowd formed behind us. I leaned against the bougainvillea-draped fence, as if to hide my wobbly ankles. It was only then that I heard about the VIP line, cloaked in anonymity on the other side of the studio. Didn’t matter that we were 88th and 89th in line: People corralled inside the red velvet, roped-off area? They always get cuts. It’s an unspoken rule.

A couple of entrepreneurial hipsters rolled up in a beat-up Nissan. They taped a cardboard sign to the street lamp. “Chairs for rent: $5.00 apiece.” We declined the offer. “Thanks, but I think we’ll stretch our legs. We’ll be sitting soon enough” It was only retrospect that I realized my mistake...

A security guard paced the length of the sidewalk, opaque sunglasses a foil for watchful eyes. Sometimes he’d tug on his earpiece or speak into a mic, beefy arms straining against the seams of his custom-fit suit. He chatted up the ticket-holders…keeping us in line, keeping us safe. He was an off-duty member of the LAPD, I heard him say--a transplant from Littlerock, California; Mexico, before that. ( Only later did I learn that Littlerock is a tiny town in the Antelope Valley--so small, in fact, that they smoosh the two words together .)

When he left that conversation, I called him over. “Hey, aren’t you from Littlerock?” I asked.

His eyebrows lifted, just slightly, and he tipped his sunglasses onto his forehead. “Oh hey! How are you...?” He acted as if he recognized me, but the puzzled look on his face suggested otherwise.

“I’m just playin’,” I said with a laugh. “I heard you talkin’ about that with someone else.”

He laughed long and hard, wiped his sunglasses on the hem of his jacket. “Ha! You got me good!” he finally said.

From that point on, I called him Littlerock. Translation: Friend.
I wasn't looking for special treatment, but our budding friendship had its advantages, as you'll soon see…

At 3:00 precisely, we were shepherded into a secure area.  “You’ve got guaranteed admission,” someone said. Take a seat on these cement benches. We'll be bringing you inside shortly." None too soon, they allowed us a quick visit to the Star Waggons.


Shortly after I took this picture, we had to relinquish our cell phones. It’s a real shame, because Derek came out the stage door soon afterward. Here’s where I go all fan grrrl on you: Derek hugged me, people! I’ve got no physical evidence, not a speck of stage make-up on my cheek or collar. But can you imagine the stars in my eyes, as I recount that experience for you now?

Littlerock had predicted that we’d end up on the top tier balcony, but the stage manager pointed us toward a dark corner in the first balcony, adjacent to and immediately above the DWTS marquis. And in the opposite direction? A thick cement pillar. Not that I minded the fact that I wouldn’t be on television; I’m camera-shy, anyway. But wedged as we were, between two immovable objects, our view of the dance floor was seriously obstructed.

“Hey Littlerock,” I teased, when the security guard climbed the stairs, “These are some pitiful seats we’ve got here, don’t you think?” He nodded, winced slightly. “Yeah, they kind of are. Let me see what I can do.” Within minutes, my new friend had made arrangements for us to move to the second balcony, directly opposite the stage! We’d have to stand for the duration, he warned, but it was the perfect vantage point from which to watch all the action. We exchanged wordless winks, as old friends often do, and then he vanished.

I slipped out of my shoes, all ninja-like, and tucked my feet into the folds of my skirt. Ahhh, blessed relief! It was short-lived, however, because the stage manager snuck up behind me, “Put your shoes back on!” she hissed. Trade-offs…
Little by little, the theatre came to life. Loud music pulsed from overhead speakers; spotlights chased invisible performers across the dance floor. A warm-up host gave us the inside scoop on the VIP section, walked us through the filming sequence, and tossed DWTS t-shirts to the loudest, most enthusiastic audience members.

Mere minutes before showtime, a knot of VIPs ambled into the theatre, clutching their iPhones. Paparazzi kneeled at their Louboutined feet, long-lens cameras at the ready.  Eric Roberts sat next to Sherri Shepherd, and I spotted Louie Anderson and Katherine Webb (from Splash) in the celebrity section. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills showed up en force; even Lisa's dog Giggy made an appearance!

The house lights dimmed, and the judges took their seats. Bruno pranced and preened, as always.  The co-hosts stepped in and out of the spotlight, introducing the cast members when they took their marks, and holding interviews in the kiss-and-cry area afterward. Among the constellation of stars for Season 16: Aly Raisman, Sean Lowe, Kellie Pickler, Andy Dick, Jacoby Jones, Wynonna Judd, Victor Ortiz, Lisa Vanderpump, D.L. Hughley, Zendaya Coleman, Ingo Rademacher, and Dorothy Hamill. It was a privilege to watch their practice videos, and then leave everything on the dance floor that evening! I’m not a dance expert, by any means, so I’ll leave the play-by-play to the experts. (Performance summaries here).

In one of the video clips, a dancer whined about having to practice in heels (Zendaya?). I leaned against the balcony, feet afire and ankles aching. Boy howdy, could I relate! Everyone did really well,even those who were relatively new to dancing. My heart went out to  Dorothy Hamill, though. She'd only just recently recovered from spinal surgery, and she had an ankle injury, to boot. Not a word of complaint excaped her lips, though; she danced through the pain with courage and composure. At the judges' table, she deflected any compliments; she lavished praise on her dance partner, instead. She was the epitome of grace...

When the show ended, I hobbled down the balcony stairs on swollen feet. Our line converged with that of the dance teams, and I found myself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Wynona Judd. Whoa, she's so much taller than I am! She carries herself differently, too. When Sheryll complimented her dance routine, Wynona stared straight ahead, eyes like flint and shoulders squared. “You gotta shoe up and show up,” she said, in a no-nonsense voice. And then she brushed right past us.

Other dancers breezed down the hallway behind her--a blur of glitzy costumes, athletic bodies and gleaming teeth. But when Dorothy Hamill approached, her courage was almost palpable. Though her eyes were brimming, and her face was etched with pain, she never lost her composure. Empathy spilled out of me, inconsequential words that filled the narrow space between us. “You were so graceful out there,” I said,” and so very brave. I was really inspired by your performance...” She paused, head tilted just slightly, as if she were listening to every syllable. And when I finished speaking, she smiled and squeezed my hand.  Grace, again.

I limped to the car afterward, I must confess. And by the time these fire trucks rumbled through The Grove and parked in front of the restaurant where we ate dinner, my feet were blistering hot. Believe you me, I wanted to toss those heels aside and hop on one of the gurneys!


Still and all, I was glad that I went; happy, too, that my sister Sheryll came with me! It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a memory-making experience for our scrapbooks! Bonus round: I developed a new appreciation for those dancers--before, during, and after their performances.

One more thing I'd add: My brief encounter with Dorothy taught me to stand a little taller, reminded me to approach all obstacles with dignity and grace. Given her innate talents and sparkling personality, I'd give her a solid round of 10s. Though her time on DWTS was cut short, her star shines brighter than any mirror ball ever could.

Good Friday [Mar. 29th, 2013|09:20 am]
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Image via Flickr (greeneydmantis)

Good Friday: It's not part of my Pentecostal upbringing, so I've always wondered about the circumstances surrounding that name. Only just recently, I learned that "good," in this context, means pious or holy--a reference to the sacred events leading up to Easter Sunday. Light shining through the dark; Grace in the midst of suffering...

Pictured here, the Rose Window at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, in Newark, New Jersey. I'm only speaking for myself, mind you, and I mean no disrespect to those for whom certain religious icons are sacred, but I prefer this beautiful stained glass window to the dark, blood-soaked images that typically symbolize this day. (I have nightmarish flashbacks about my Sunday School handouts, and it seems I'm not alone.)

I believe every day is sacred, each in its own way, and so it is that I tend to gravitate toward Light. That's how imagery works, isn't it? It speaks differentl to each one of us, depending as much on past experiences as our current vantage point. 

A blessed Friday to all of you, no matter how you observe it! xoxo
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Wordless Wednesday: You get what you pay for [Mar. 27th, 2013|01:01 pm]
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Of rosebuds and waffles [Mar. 18th, 2013|04:54 pm]
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CIMG9071 CIMG9071
The first rose of the season is rather like the first waffle on Sunday morning, don't you think? A bit ragged around the edges, and mottled, but all the sweeter for the fact that it's a harbinger of good things to come.

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