Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


The quest for breadth and depth

Photo: Liz Turner

As I dive deeper into a new writing project, I am reconnecting with the power of my relationship with my thoughts — the very narration of my days. As every one of my storyteller friends knows, narration is both a daily companion we can’t escape and a maker of meaning that we all need.

I revisited an insightful article on the topic by writer Steve Almond, which is reminding me of what’s missing in much of writing these days: an effective narrator. It reinforces for me how much I need one personally, just as my writing does.

In the cultural shifts of the last decades that turned many into viewers rather than readers, “we’ve lost our grip on the essential virtues embodied by a narrator: the capacity to make sense of the world, both around and inside us,” Almond writes.

Photo: Diane Kirkup

Narrators serve the role of portraying big things, conceptually: how individual fates collide with history. More than just awakening readers’ sympathies, they help enlarge their moral imagination as “they offer a sweeping depiction of the world that helps us clarify our role in it,” he says. The perspective that narration offers helps us make meaning of a story, and of our lives, and also find a sense of place for ourselves in the scheme of things.

In times whose only constant seems to be constant change, we need narrative more than ever, even as it’s fast disappearing. While publishing gets downright pedantic that writers “show, don’t tell,” a well-developed narrative and its vital contribution to a story, like nutrition in a diet, becomes endangered through ignorance and oversight.

Narrative is as essential in human life as purpose is. It’s the one thing that, when time is shrinking, spinning, rushing past us with ever-increasing speed, points faithfully to what is timeless. We don’t need it to spoon-feed us, naturally. But we do need its signposts.   

Almond notes that media has created increasingly passive audiences, able to absorb and react, but not to imagine. That’s a pretty low (survival-based) level of human experience. And, accordingly, the focus of a lot of current writing is on the instinctual aspects of human beings — survival or perpetuation of the species (chase scenes and preoccupation with the sexual, often voyeuristically so).

Author Nathan Rutstein predicted this more than 25 years ago. He had worked in television and other media and authored many books when he made the observation that human society was increasingly losing sight (literally, as if not seeing it) of the higher possibilities and qualities in human potential as it grew more fascinated with and gripped by materialism, both in media and in the rest of what was called culture.

Almond’s article describes the approach of most media as that of “minimizing sustained attention,” which results in a flitting, easily distracted behavior that doesn’t ever engage with any depth – becomes incapable of doing so, perhaps. That’s almost the exact opposite of what a novel (or painting or play) was designed to require and invite. Or a spiritual, contemplated life.

Reading, unlike scanning and surfing, requires involvement and commitment, both from writer and reader. The narrator, and a story’s narration, is what facilitates this, helps create a book’s world, then lends it meaning. Many books now feel as much like packaged entertainment as most commercial television, and as unsatisfying and lacking in nourishment for our inner life. Much in publishing seems to train attention on mechanics, a shock-value, attention-getting and contrived writing style and manipulative repetition of “tropes.” A  cookie-cutter approach to more of the same. So much more of the same. Preoccupation with the lower nature, particularly if a series might be wrested from it. In order to have more of the same. Where is the room for discovery, depth, mystery? Soul?

Photo: Karen Darling

Almond describes how although some current works reach for these, “still work heroically to make sense of the world,” they find themselves “on the margins of a popular culture dominated by glittering fantasies of violence and fame. On a grand scale, we’ve traded perspective for immediacy, depth for speed, emotion for sensation, the panoramic vision of a narrator for a series of bright beckoning keyholes,” he says.

We’ve bartered away the riches of our indwelling higher nature, what brings meaning and depth to life, for the indulgence and absorption of our instinctual one. In a way, that is the only aspect of human being that seems to get the attention and focus now, perhaps with a thin veneer of the intellectual applied over it, or emotion that’s dealt with mainly in sentimentality, hyper-dramatization or other superficiality.

Narrative, and the meaning it serves, can restore the breadth and depth of human experience and bring it back home whole. Ennobled.

True expression, in any form, and always, in its highest one, is incomplete without it.

Find Steve Almond’s excellent article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/magazine/once-upon-a-time-there-was-a-person-who-said-once-upon-a-time.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0


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So great a favor


Photo: Kathy Gilman


It is through the power of the soul that the mind comprehendeth, imagineth and exerteth its influence, whilst the soul is a power that is free.

The mind comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete, but the soul hath limitless manifestations of its own.

~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

I have lots of wonderful company these days, as I ponder the mysteries of inspiration and creative process while I also pursue some new writing work. The pathway of The Munich Girl was an eight-year journey of discovery that always reinforced the utter uselessness of expectations. It also revealed the surprising value of open-hearted expectancy. This newest work is doing much the same.

As I reread Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, I’m reminded that: “ … When you walk a path you love, there is something deeper calling you forward on it, like a beautiful question that can never be answered. In the hard times you may turn away from it, but a part of you knows you’ll always turn back because you can’t give up on what you love, even if you try.”

Author Toko-pa Turner, who has recently released a soul-nourishing book called Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home, has shared some wise words about creative process:

“In the end, I think the real work is not finding inspiration, but attuning to it. So when I’m not feeling inspired, I know somewhere along the line I’ve been distancing myself from life.

“This feeling of being separate from ‘something greater’ is usually brought about by numbing habits; so I’ll take myself to the forest and let my senses be reawoken and warmed back to life. I think pleasure is really the gateway to feeling connected and inspired.”

Hers is a reminder of just how abundant grace and guidance are, and how they long for us to meet them. Both nature and artistic life are a part of that worship.

Image: Judy Wright

As the words of St. Francis declare:

“Such love does the sky now pour, that whenever I stand in a field, I have to wring out the light when I get home.”

Lest I think myself unworthy to receive, especially a bestowal that is so abundant, in a book called Paris Talks, Abdu’l-Baha urges:

“Try with all your hearts to be willing channels for God’s Bounty. For I say unto you that He has chosen you to be His messengers of love throughout the world, to be His bearers of spiritual gifts to man, to be the means of spreading unity and concord on the earth. Thank God with all your hearts that such a privilege has been given unto you. For a life devoted to praise is not too long in which to thank God for such a favor.”





Making room for the new, and the good


“Taz,” courtesy of Jon Ring.


When you suffer because of discrimination, there’s always an urge to speak out. But even if you spend a thousand years speaking out, your suffering won’t be relieved.

Only through deep understanding and liberation from ignorance can you be liberated from your suffering.

When you break through to the truth, compassion springs up like a stream of water. With that compassion, you can embrace even the people who have persecuted you.

When you’re motivated by desire to help those who are victims of ignorance, only then are you free from your suffering and feelings of violation. 

Don’t wait for things to change around you. You have to practice liberating yourself. Then you will be equipped with the power of compassion and understanding, the only kind of power that can help transform an environment full of injustice and discrimination.

You have to become such a person — one who can embody tolerance, understanding, and compassion. You transform yourself into an instrument for social change and change in the collective consciousness of mankind.

 ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses To Life’s Burning Questions

No matter how it seems out there, humanity IS evolving from war-like competitiveness to peaceful and loving connectedness and CO-existence.

… the chaos we are experiencing in the outer world is nothing more than our own resistance to freedom and peace.

And notice that the deeper “resistance to change” digs in its heels, the more irrational it becomes.

~ Christine DeLorey

I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit.

When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.

~ Henry David Thoreau

Your life situation may be full of problems — most life situations are — but find out if you have any problem at this moment.

Not tomorrow or in ten minutes, but now. Do you have a problem now?

When you are full of problems, there is no room for anything new to enter, no room for a solution.

So whenever you can, make some room, create some space, so that you find the life underneath your life situation.

~ Eckhart Tolle



The light of our kindness vanquishes the dark

Photos courtesy of David Campbell / http://gbctours.com/


As Winter overtakes my days, one book reviewer’s words continue to strike a chord:

 “One of the things I also enjoyed was that this story took place in a kind world, with supportive and loving folks, despite their past difficulties, even with each other.”

This is the reason that I write –  from the belief that this is the world that all of our hearts want – and that all of our hearts are capable of helping to bring it into being.

Our minds can be reinforced in a thousand ways to believe that this is unrealistic and impossible.

But our hearts know so very much better. They always hold the key to that kinder world they can envision, with love.

Perhaps this is what Carl Jung was pointing to in these words:

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence
is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.

It seems that “kindling a light of meaning” is inextricably linked with compassion, which author Christine DeLorey recently defined as “love of life.”

Our experience of life in these times can feel harsh and cold and unyielding. Those are the times when our hearts can feel stricken, fearful, confounded.

But like the sun, even in winter, there is always, each day, that waiting possibility of “radiating light throughout the world and illuminating your own darknesses” so that “your virtue becomes a sanctuary for yourself and all beings.”

Those words of Lao Tzu’s, shared a long time ago, capture the timeless essence conveyed in what we remember in every new Season of Light: the light does, indeed, shine forth most brightly, unmistakably, in darkness.

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Presence as prayer

Image courtesy of Tarot by Cecelia


Man is My mystery, and I am his mystery.

~ Bahá’u’lláh

We can trust that there is a knowing that is out of the realm of thoughts or emotions or circumstances. When we deeply trust, our minds open to discover what is true, regardless of what we are feeling.  

~ Gangaji

The single most important thing we can do is stop and get off the train of our own obsessive convictions and move into awareness of some sort of presence or the present time … and breathe again. That’s about as prayerful as life gets. That is about as faithful and spiritual as I mean. And everyone can relate to that.              ~ Anne Lamott

Let go of what you are not and be who you truly are. When you let go, you create space to receive more.

~ John Whiteman

Words from Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul are also helpful:

Photo: Nelson Ashberger

“ … identify as the observer, not the experience; don’t let painful experience influence the present; you are not the thoughts you observe; a life of joy and love follows from a commitment made to a life of joy and love. Learn to live from your heart, not your ego. Take refuge in the Divine, not the temporary. Learn to control your mind rather than letting it control you. It’s just a mass of thoughts. It is possible never to ‘have’ a problem again.”

The journey that matters most to me requires that I review the events in my life for the wisdom and purpose they carry. This inventory brings questions like:

~ What are my true needs, and what is my inner “enough”?

~ How do I remember that strength, and every resource I require, arrives increment by increment, as I am ready?

~ How do I remember that inspiration and assistance will arrive, but need me to ask for them, acknowledge that I need them, and be willing to receive and act upon them?


The Munich Girl and Nazi Germany – and now

Photo montage courtesy of Patricia Mueggler.


As I landed back in the U.S. from a span of time in Europe, I received this kind message from writer Stephanie Villegas:

“Just wanted to let you know that my latest blog post was a list of the best WWII books (for Middle & YA readers) and your book The Munich Girl is on the list.”

I am honored that the novel has been recommended this way, and it’s in great company on that list –


Discovering the “Girl” on a library shelf in Kendal, UK.

Stephanie’s blog is well worth visiting for some intriguing posts, too, especially one about what sort of very human lives we need to see better represented in fiction. Be sure to look for some of her own short stories while you’re there.

As I revisited the trail of The Munich Girl over these last weeks, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what my experience with writing the book revealed for me, and what I continue to discover now.

Many readers, both in their questions and their reviews, draw parallels between the historic time frame of the novel and the events and atmosphere of our own time.

Fun and new friends in Munich.

Earlier this year, I enjoyed an interview with author Elizabeth Horton-Newton, whose good questions led me to exploring some of my own reflections on this, especially as they relate to the imbalances playing themselves out (and quite intensely!) all around us:

  1. You’ve chosen a very unusual subject to write about. How did you come up with the idea for The Munich Girl?

My original intent was (and remained) to explore more about the lives of everyday Germans during WWII. When life led me to information about Eva Braun, it opened up whole new questions, particularly because she came from a background of everyday Germans – not what many would expect to be Hitler’s choice at all.

When the question: “What if you had known Eva Braun, but hadn’t known the role she played in his life?” arose, the story’s momentum became unstoppable for me. A number of people actually did have this experience with her, didn’t find out the truth of her situation until after her death, because she was required to remain an invisible secret in Hitler’s life. That way, he could sustain the adulation he received through the myth that “his bride was Germany”.


  1. Did you anticipate the amount of research you would need to do? How did you decide where to begin?

Because my interest had been hooked, I welcomed the research process. I stumbled into this focus because, as I sought to understand the experience of German people during the war, the very first book I read was about Eva Braun.

The author pointed out that Braun’s experience with Hitler mirrored Germany’s. First he seduced them, then abandoned them, and finally, led them into destruction.

Through further reading, I gained a more complete view of the time period in Germany, and of the world Eva Braun inhabited. I then I began to study her films and photographs more closely, since photography was such an essential part of who she was. It’s why we have such personal visual records of Hitler, and many of her images reveal a lot about the tone and circumstances of her life, too.

  1. As you did your research did your feelings about the real people, Eva Braun, Hitler, any others, change? In what way?  

As I learned more about Hitler than I’d ever want to, it was unmistakable how flawed his psyche and personality were. Textbook narcissistic personality disorder, later compounded by the erratic results of a mixture of unstable drugs.

But once you get beyond the significant inaccuracies published about Eva Braun over the years, you find a more rounded and humane personality, one whom many credible sources even admired.

She was dismissed by historians as unimportant when, in fact, as one German biographer noted, she holds the key to better understanding Hitler.

But only if we’re willing to allow that, in addition to behaving monstrously, he was also human. For some, that idea’s still something like heresy.

However, a paradox that I think could tell us a lot about our present imbalances of inequality is that the very sorts of caring, nurturing qualities that the Nazis sought to demean and suppress were exactly what Hitler came home to Eva Braun for.

One question for me is, when, and how, will we find the collective will to value and honor these qualities in both genders, and all situations?

It is the devaluing of them that has allowed, and continues to allow, atrocities like the Holocaust to happen.

You can find Elizabeth’s full interview, along with her review of the book here:



Patience a key on the soul’s map

Photo: David Campbell / GBCTours.com

It was a turning point when I realized that patience isn’t something I “should” cultivate or practice, but a bearer of grace and mystery that deserves to be warmly welcomed into my life.

More things require — demand — it in my days now. Much like the better-informed choices that can help preserve my physical well-being, patience is too vital a resource to overlook in these rapidly changing days.

Photo: Nelson Ashberger

When I open to patience like a flower, receive its remedy, and practice restraint with the personal tendencies that want to trample it underfoot, I feel protected from things that could become stressors and irritants. Eventually, many of them stop hitting my inner radar screen at all, which suggests that, without patience, those previously mentioned tendencies actually go looking for unhelpful things. Patience is a key that opens a door that leads beyond them.

Of course, intercepting those tendencies often leads to encountering feelings, ones that the tendencies seem determined to avoid. That’s when I remember that patience, when welcomed like a kind, benevolent friend, rekindles something I love very much: a quiet, steady believing feeling that things are going to turn out as they need to, and all is well. The whole experience of living feels reassuring. Soul-sized, from a liberating overall perspective, rather than the ruts those old tendencies of mental habit might drag me through. They won’t stop trying to drag me there, but I don’t have to go.

Recently, someone who works hard, does a lot to help others, and has challenges, just like the rest of us, stood beside me and breathed, “I have a good life.”

It was like a blessing. It definitely felt like words that come from the other side of that door that patience, with its resulting assurance, invites us through.

John O’Donohue expressed this kind reality beautifully:

“The soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.”