Monthly Archives: May 2009

Creating Connections

This past week had me contemplating what it means to be of use. Listening to one NPR Morning Edition program, I began to tally all the problems on the Obama administration’s plate: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Supreme Court Justice nomination, lack of US cyber security, the economy, the environment…and the list continued. It was overwhelming as I thought about what it must take to attack all these issues with a calm and thoughtful approach. You’ve got four years to change the world, so where do you begin?

Meanwhile, watching volunteers and brave souls in the Dominican Republic the week before, I was struck by all they each could add to their list — sanitation, nutrition, access to education, reduction of teenage prostitution…you’ve got the rest of your life, so where do you begin?

When studying how those who take on societal problems, or engage skillfully when fighting against an institution like a culture or a government, I notice that it is about planting seeds. It is rare that you will win the whole battle within your lifetime, so what seeds can you plant that might take root? It is about doing your part as a generation within many generations before and after you. For example, Rosa Parks did her part, as did those before her and as we must do today in the battle of basic civil rights for all citizens.

Sand Mandala

Sand Mandala


Author and conservation activist David Quammen describes the importance of creating connection between wilderness areas as critical to ecological health. Fragmentation creates islands and it is within islands that we experience extinction. As I listened to David describe this concept last night in support of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, I realized that this was a beautiful reframing of how we might think of fighting a good fight to resolve what seem to be irreconcilable differences. In other words, in my actions am I creating islands or corridors? As these great long battles shift and redefine itself, so what can I add to create more connection rather than fragmentation? Is this not only the work of the environmentalist, but also that of every individual who seeks to improve a society?

Navajo Sand Painting

Navajo Sand PaintingTibetan mandala

I wanted to include a brief video of Peter Donnelly of Christchurch, New Zealand, who plants seeds of connection, creativity and a reminder of the temporal nature of being here. He reminds me of the practice of the Tibetan sand mandalas and Navajo sand paintings, as seen above, which are painstakingly created only to be erased. In all three there is the message of bringing forward your gifts regardless of the final outcome.

To see more of Donnelly’s art, go to

Fundacion Mahatma Gandhi

I just returned from an amazing week in the Dominican Republic supporting a Montana State Honors course on global poverty developed by my dear friend Lori Lawson. Along with sixteen students, we learned about micro lending, visited a batey (sugar plantation community) where poverty can be most harsh and also landed for a few fascinating days in Las Terrenas.

Children painting homes with MSU Students

Children painting homes with MSU Students

Returning to people who play well, I want to introduce you to José Bourget and Annette Snyder. José and Annette live in a growing northern DR beach town. Once a small fishing village, Las Terrenas suffers from rising prices with grand homes of wealthy French, Germans and Dominicans along with striking poverty. Creeks run beside palm- and rusted metal-constructed shacks with no plumbing or visible latrines. Children run shoeless and often in only worn underwear or simply a torn t-shirt through mud and the creek water used for bathing, washing of pots and probably too much more to be safe. Meanwhile, the local, ex-patriot and surrounding church communities are not nearly as volunteer minded as we might assume.

When José decided to return to the Dominican Republic after living in the US for twenty plus years where he worked as a professor at the University of Maryland, he and Annette wanted to help alleviate suffering. So they founded a library with their own two young children in tow.

Anacaona Library

Anacaona Library


Why a library? What of the open-air dump with garbage piled twenty feet high picked over by birds and enterprising people upstream? What of the rising numbers in prostitution, including parents renting their children to foreign sex tourists? Or perhaps the endemic issue that although public school is free, to attend a child must have shoes, a uniform and supplies, something often beyond a poor parent’s grasp?

“The number one fact that keeps a person in dire poverty is illiteracy,” José explained, “We see that children with no support at home or unable to start school until 7 or 8 are often unable to keep up and drop out of school by age 10. Illiterate, they then are unable to get but the simplest of jobs and many times this is in prostitution. Teenagers become pregnant and the cycle continues.” Annette added,  “There is so much that can be tackled, but if we can provide a place for children to come in the afternoons where there is help with homework and books to read, that is a place to start.”

Visiting them this week I was struck by a number of ways that Annette and José are playing well. Although community needs are overwhelming, they seem to know how to balance vision with sustainability. To help, they must be able to provide support over the long haul. I was impressed by how they focused on first assuring that the library and an after school program are nurtured even though they have hopes to provide support to women wanting move out of prostitution and to address some of the great sanitation issues. They model “Dream, yet make sure you will be able to deliver.” 

Also, watching from a leadership standpoint, I believe their ability to encourage volunteers has greatly contributed to their success.  Since the local community does not embrace an attitude of volunteerism, Annette and Jose rely on foreign volunteers who come to work for one month to one year. If you have time, expertise and interest, Annette and José will engage your ideas on how to bring these to the community. For example, two young women visited for three months, bringing with them a self esteem/empowerment program for 15 teenaged girls they had developed. Others teach painting or beading after the children have completed their homework. The couple’s openness to new approaches to support their mission allows their team to tackle more. 

From Annette and José I will take away the practice of balance — Keep looking where I can help while determining what I can sustain. Hold a clear vision while being open to receiving novel support from a greater community.  Nurture well not only your own children (something they are doing in spades), but also those of your community. Serve, but don’t forget to spend time enjoying your surroundings as we did at lunch in El Lemon (Annette is wearing the lime green shirt, Lori is next to her and José sits across!). 

Lunch with Jose and Annette

Lunch with Jose and Annette


Meanwhile, the Anacaona library’s Spanish children’s book section is extremely well worn and very small. They have set a goal of 10,000 books by 2010 (they now have about 5000 in a variety of languages.). To help the library meet its goal, donate or volunteer  please visit

The Business of Endings

Serve your wife, children, father, and mother, and treat them as if they are very dear to you, but know in your heart that they do not belong to you. – Ramakrishna

When my son and I addressed his high school graduation announcements this week and started to receive others, I found myself ruminating more about celebrations, rites of passage and community. As I wrote earlier, cross culturally, ceremony is used to facilitate moving us from one phase of life to another. Our community helps by showing up at the celebration to witness our change. Also, even though an event might focus on one family member, it also can support transition for others. For example, puberty, graduation and marriage rituals signal shifts for both the child and the parents while funerals publicly mark changes within not only a family, but also within a community.
So, I’m feeling pretty comfortable that closing celebrations are important for both celebrant and their family. But, I’m noticing they also cause some stress. First, we have to face an ending and a new beginning, which elicits fear of the unknown. The ground shakes a bit underneath all our feet as we recognize that we haven’t yet practiced this next phase. We’ll figure it out, but it requires figuring! After years of teaching and conflict resolution, I try to take special care around endings. Be it the end of a workshop, a business or a phase of life, a structure that has given us comfort is being taken away and that causes disequilibrium.  Being gentle with oneself and those around seems in order.

Celebrations can not only throw us off by making us face by an ending, but it can also be stressful figuring out just who to invite! Not only do I get to confront where I now stand, but also who actually should stand with me. I’ve come to think of my community as organized in concentric circles with me at the center. At a macro level, I’ve got an inner circle of family and friends that surround, then a mid circle of acquaintances and an outer circle that is comprised of other’s in my “tribe” be it of a town, country and then the greater human race (or all living things depending on one’s viewpoint).

Now, within each of those circles, there are further gradations. Like within the inner realm, there are the friends you would call without hesitation at 3 am versus the buddies you would ring up happily up til 9 pm. Among your family, there is the sibling with whom you shared a room and the distant cousin you met once. Thus, the former of each example probably would be placed in a closer circle than the latter.

In our culture, we usually invite portions of our inner circle to coming-of-age ceremonies. However, since we don’t clearly know within which sub-circle everyone belongs, this can create messiness. Invite too many and appear to be trolling for dollars (or maybe it always looks like that with graduations!), or don’t send enough and offend a family member.  Also, although I believe ceremonies are important, I would be hard pressed to appear at every event to which we have been invited, or to send a gift for that matter. 🙂 So, choosing who to invite and how to respond also creates disequilibrium.

As one friend commented when we spoke about attending celebrations, “There were two events about which I still question if I should have attended. The first was a gathering of friends around a woman who had suddenly lost her husband.  We had recently become friends and I wasn’t sure she would have wanted me there to comfort her. The second was a funeral of the mother of my daughter’s friend, should have I gone? It’s not always clear.”

So, with 18 school days left, the cap and gown have been tested in the kitchen and the announcements were sent. For the lack of a better guide, we followed the Golden Rule and mailed to those from whom I would expect a similar notification. I’m thinking I will use the same when deciding how I should respond when invitations appear. Meanwhile, I find myself full of mixed feelings; including great joy for the future that lays ahead for my son and some anticipatory sadness for his absence at home next fall.  Endings are indeed important and sometimes tricky business.

Celebrating Each Phase of Parenthood

Graduation and wedding season will soon be upon us. Time to dust off the wingtips and maybe cough up some dough for an appropriate gift. A sometimes uncomfortable (could just be the shoes) experience, I know that many in my world wonder why we should partake in these events. Yet, looking at these and other “closing rituals,” my advice would be to tie that double Windsor and show up if it makes sense. 

Humans struggle with comprehending that an experience or a relationship is over. Our propensity to create stories and habits seem to play into this difficulty. For example, if I ask you about your family or your work, you are going to tell me a story. I might tell you that I am a mother of three, married for twenty-four years to an attorney and live in Bozeman. It may be true, but it is still an interpretation of my reality. All the “facts” I provide color how I thus perceive myself. Tell the story enough and it becomes a habit even though some of its details may have changed.

When I am coaching with parents, I notice that sometimes the stories about our children reflect a long-passed reality. For example, we may be treating our offspring as though they were young when they needed our minute-by-minute concern. However, if they are now adults, they would best handle their personal affairs. 

But, who wants to let go of good thing? Our brains sure don’t! That I am “a young mother just starting out” is usually preferred to “I’m a middle-aged woman alone.” I want to hold on to the good stories as long as I can. Yet, ask adults whose parents refuse to let go and treat them like ten year olds. When it’s time, it’s absolutely time. There are times when we need to consciously shift to a updated description of where we stand and thus to a revised way of conducting ourselves. In letting go, we open ourselves to new and maybe even better possibilities. 

Celebrations like graduations and weddings push us to move on. When we overtly acknowledge an ending, we are more apt to face facts and adapt. I believe this is a leading reason why funerals and mourning rituals are the most highly celebrated of all rites of passage around the globe. Even if we admit our loved one has died, the publicly act of celebrating this ending with our community makes it harder to act otherwise.  

If your child is not the one graduating or getting married, showing up is still valuable. Rituals “stick” when they are witnessed by others. When I’m waffling on going to a celebration, I remember a favorite essay from the National Public Radio program “This I Believe”  by Deirdre Sullivan entitled, “Always go to the Funeral” (click here to read or listen to this piece.) Ms. Sullivan explains, “I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that. The first time he said it directly to me, I was 16 and trying to get out of going to calling hours for Miss Emerson, my old fifth grade math teacher. I did not want to go. My father was unequivocal. ‘Dee,’ he said, ‘you’re going. Always go to the funeral. Do it for the family.'”

And so, this summer I too will pull the dress from the dry cleaner’s bag, slip into the pumps and know that whether I am the parent or just the friend my appearance at each event is worth any discomfort.

Announcing a one day workshop in Tacoma, WA

For those in the Pacific Northwest, I will be providing a one day “Thriving Through Tough Times” workshop in Tacoma, Washington on May 30, 2009. It will be a fun and highly interactive day of exploring techniques to overcome our toughest challenges.

We will meet at the Center for Spiritual Living on 206 N. J Street. Cost: $25.00. Please contact Frances Lorenz, (253) 383-3151,, to register. Hope to see you there!