The HeART of the Matter: Writing and Art as a Spiritual Journey Workshop



Join us February 7, 2015 at the beautiful Heartwell Institute on Pleasant Street in Worcester, MA for a day of exploration, creativity and delight.

The act of making art can be a spiritual practice, drawing deeply on what matters most in our lives.

In this hands-on workshop, we will be using free-writing, visual journaling, and book-making to delve into the interior spaces of the stories we carry. We will experiment with ways to express our creativity by using a wide range of art materials.

Artists and writers of all levels, including those who don’t identify as artists or writers, are welcome to come play and enjoy the pleasure of making.

Bring a brown bag lunch and your creativity. Enrollment is limited to 15 participants. $125 includes the cost of materials.

Co-Facilitated by Lauren Rutten and Karen Elizabeth Sharpe

Register online here:

A Writer is Someone Who Writes


A writer is someone who writes.

I often say this as a gentle yet firm reminder to anyone who discredits their journalings, scraps of poetry, and pages of fiction and memoir as anything other than writing.

Publishing is a business. Writing is a dream, a habit, an art, a release, an expression, a healing, a teaching, and a journey. Writing and publishing are not the same thing and too often we unfairly judge one based on the criteria of the other. Sounds a lot like how we often judge ourselves and each other in general.

On Saturday, September 20, I have the pleasure of participating with three others in the Seven Bridge Writers’ Collaborative fall Writers’ Roundtable: Living the Writing Life. The session will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the Dexter Room of the Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, Mass. I’m looking forward to this event because I always learn something about myself when in the company of others, especially writers.

Call yourself a writer
The first step to living the “writing life” is to call yourself a writer. Not a secret writer. Not a doodler. Not a dabbler. Not a sorta, I-don’t-know, maybe kinda writer. If you are dreaming of lines of language, or writing the scenes of your youth, or feel an urgency to work through an emotion or a story by writing it out, you are a writer.

I struggled for many years to define and identify myself as a writer. I felt like the kid hovering along the edges of the playground while everyone else was in the kickball game because I didn’t think I had the right color shirt to join a team.

Too many of us do this to ourselves: we judge our worth based on outside criteria and overlook the value of the expression itself, the knowledge, wisdom, and joy that comes from the expression. No matter the level of our skills or education, we rely on communication – on words, language and expression of self – to understand who we are and how we relate to the world. We name everything. We describe everything. We try over and over to get those names and definitions right, or beautiful, or revelatory. We can’t know ourselves without communication, even when it’s communication with self.


When we do it in writing, we can make sense of reality – or multiple realities or fictions – in a way that no one else can. Healing past hurt can happen in our writing. Birthing the dream of a story and character can happen in our writing. Rich warm belly laughs can happen in our writing. Peaceful interludes can happen in our writing. We need to give credit to ourselves and value the profound nature of our efforts and our own expression. This is the approach I take with the Sirona Women’s Writing Retreats and poetry workshops. A writer is someone who expresses through writing: a writer is someone who writes.

Release your need 
For me, I had set up criteria of needing a certain type of degree or accreditation after my name to be seen as legitimate. No one else set up the need for those criteria. I did. The criteria existed in a social construct but I was the one who bought into the need for it and fell prey to the judgment of standards. Because I attached those standards of expectation to my writing, to my expression, I felt bad unnecessarily and spent far too many hours trying to figure out what I needed to do to prove myself.


Working in first journalism and then higher education often reinforced my feelings of inadequacy. To be honest, it still sometimes does. There is always someone more profound, more accomplished, and with more professional letters after their name. Being a poet, this tends to be an ongoing battle of me against myself, comparing and contrasting my credentials against those I want to be like. Most publishing poets these days are created from the academic M.F.A. machines that now clutter the literary grad school landscape. As life would have it, a feasible path to an M.F.A. has yet to reveal itself to me.

Yet, I continue to write poetry. Through my writing I continue to work at making sense of my own life and the beauty and horrors of what it means to be alive. I continue to try to learn more and get better, because each little bit is like a little bit of enlightenment.

I approach writing like a practice like yoga or running. It’s a habit. Sometimes I avoid it. Sometimes I am consumed by it. Sometimes I just need to clear the clutter to make way for something else to show up. Sometimes that happens a lot. Often I begin in the mystery and find something intriguing happening along the way. I go back and work on things. I go back and work them out. I leave things undone. I wonder what might happen next. And, I am sometimes asked to give readings, to participate and lead workshops and to publish, when I am able to fit that particular effort into the rest of my busy life.


Make some music
Lately I’ve described myself as being similar to a self-taught musician. I learn by ear, and by the lessons of the art and expression of those who have come before and are still creating now. Perhaps most importantly, I also follow my own inner guidance. I may not finger the strings of the guitar as expertly as one classically taught, but we both feel good and accomplished making music out of life.

The Seven Bridge Writers’ Collaborative Writers Roundtable: Living the Writing Life, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30, p.m., Saturday, September 20, 2014 at the Thayer Memorial Library, Dexter Room, Lancaster, Mass. Free and open to the public!


You really can’t do this wrong.

Imagine today you go to your mailbox, and find there an invitation, just for you, to a healing writing retreat, where all your responsibilities have been taken care of. This day is just for you. No meal making. No children to drive around. No parent or partner to care for. Just you. Nestle up and have some tea. Put your slippers on. Share a smile with a new group of friends. 

What are some of your secret hopes for writing and healing? What are your secret fears? And what in the world is writing and healing anyway? Or, perhaps you just don’t know what to write. You can write about that. Here, you have permission to just be and let the pen and words fly. You really can’t do this wrong.

Sirona Women’s Writing Retreats


In the Absence of Sparrows

Once again we have arrived at a haunting, a destination unexpected, or perhaps one we’ve done our best to avoid, yet still, we find ourselves here, face to face with a horrific, senseless death, and our need to contextualize, to root, to stammer for understanding.

In the wake of the slaying of his friend James Foley by Islamic militants ISIS in Iraq, poet Daniel Johnson has re-introduced his poem “In the Absence of Sparrows,” written about his friend, Jim, who was from New Hampshire.

Dan has also written a tribute to Jim and their experiences in Teach for America and their paths into the world thereafter.

If there is ever a question about poetry’s place in contemporary society it is answered here. Poetry and journalism are siblings in truth. They are intense and in the moment. In your face. Beg you to ask deeper questions and search for meaning, for understanding, and awaken your curiosity. Why do we need journalists? Why do we need poets? For the same reasons: we need truth, we need details, we need metaphor to explain things if we don’t understand, we need context, we need ethics unbetrothed to commodities, we need the intimacies of each other to humble our egos and to set us free.



The Meaning of the Fourth of July …

Justice. Today I am contemplating the meaning of the word justice, and what it means to be fair and reasonable. And then one step further, the meaning of fairness, of reason. And then one step beyond that, I am contemplating too the boldness and ferocity of character that steps forward to declare injustice when he or she sees it.

It is July 5, 2012, the 160th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ oration “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” which he delivered in Rochester, NY, on a day probably much like today, which is beautiful. Warm. Sunny. A slight breeze to lift the hair, the hem of a skirt slightly. A passing cloud for shade. When Douglass spoke, our young nation was 76 years old. A generation had embraced the ingenuity and freedom of the young nation, its aspirations, its dreams. And it’s lie. In 1852, slavery continued as a savage blight south of the Mason Dixon line and men like Douglass, free in the North, free to speak, were elevated in what whites may have believed was stature. But it was caricature. It was torture. Douglass was no more free to enjoy fairness and reason than the enslaved in the south.

Gathered on the common behind the City Hall in Worcester, Mass., today, I stepped out of my everyday life along with nearly 50 others to step into the life of Frederick Douglass. We did so momentarily, as the passing participants in the public reading of Douglass’ speech. Sponsored by Mass Humanities, the public reading of Douglass’ speech has become an annual event, an annual reminder that to move forward in our quest for justice in today’s world, we need to embrace the still vivid stories of our past. More than 100 others came to listen to his impassioned, righteous and haunting words.

“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common,” said Douglass “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”

Among the crowd, there were many of many colors, ages, occupations and financial resources. I cannot speak for anyone but myself about why I wanted to speak the words aloud. Which is this: The legacy of slavery and its harsh decendant, segregation, is but a breath away from each of us. Justice and equity among all, is still a dream away from a dream away from a dream.

This is no more evident in the continued fantasy “birther” movement targeting President Obama. It is no more evident in the fearmongering of Tea Party politics, or even more evident in the color (and gender) of the faces of nearly every operational, advisory and organizational board of directors and trustees at colleges, universities and corporations nation-wide. And perhaps most shamefully evident of all is the injustice in our own elected bodies, who are supposed to represent fairly and with reason as they contemplate and weigh the benefits and detriments of every law in our country. Look at their faces and say there is representative justice. It cannot be done.

I often feel a level of powerlessness in helping to shift our collective consciousness into one of reason, fairness and equity, instead of competition, rancor and fear. Racial divides, gender divides, economic divides all stem from a core fear for our individual survival. Scapegoating and finding small windows of weakness, or using force or wealth to create categories, allow individuals and groups to manipulate heirarchy and control what things we might have in our lives to enjoy, to survive. Somewhere along the eons, we missed the chance to recognize that an intellectual society need not be driven by methods of survival of the fittest.

I spoke Douglass’ words today to remind myself, and those in my presence, that injustice lives among us still. It is stealth and it is fierce. It is insipid and heinous. When I listen to my dear friend Jess tell of her struggles in an urban center of the U.S., of breaking free from perpetuating the stories of oppression among her family, friends and colleagues, and the even harder struggles her partner Dee faces as a black man in the city: the job shutouts, the expectations for failure, for fulfilling others’ stories of struggle and deprivation, my heart aches. While there is love between us, there is still a divide and stories that go untold.

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed,” said Douglass. “O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed.”

In the end, we each will only have our stories to tell to one another. Not our riches or fame. Only our stories. I do not want to know that I carried shame by not calling out for a better way of living, for identifying wrongs. And I do not want to know that I gave away my hope of possibility, and vision.

Douglass told the story of injustice, and in doing so, spurred the movement forward to justice. I can do my part. Bit by bit. And then tell my story about it too. And to be willing to step forward and and identify what I see: Generational fear that has no cause, the profiling that results, the targeting of groups, genders and gender identification, ages, colors, all the many profiles that continue  to ostracize because of a history of fear of survival and a legacy of dominance. These chains are often so hard to recognize as wrong since the capital of our society, our economy even, are built upon them. And I am no different. That is my story as well. The legacy I carry from my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and those who came before.

Yet, despite the laser of his vision on the condition and inequity of the 1852 black condition, which he scathingly describes in detail, Douglass also had faith in the future, that things would change. At the close of his oration, he did so with grace with a call for a shared compassion and change:

“In every clime be understood, the claims of human brotherhood, and each return for evil, good, not blow for blow; That day will come all feuds to end, and change into a faithful friend each foe.”

We must continue to overcome, and it must be done together. My story. Your story. Our story.