In Sweet Company

“Getting in touch with [this feminine, receptive side of our nature] can be a life-transforming experience because what we’re really talking about when we talk about receptivity is how we can be open to growing and evolving into more enlightened human beings.”  — Lauren Artress, IN SWEET COMPANY: CONVERSATIONS WITH EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN ABOUT LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE


There is an old mission-style church in La Jolla, CA, I used to visit called Mary Star of the Sea. I’d walk into the chapel, wait — each time as if for the first time; barely breathing — as my my eyes adjusted to the dappled light and the heart-stopping image of Mary painted on the wall behind the altar. She stood before me engrossed by an inner wonder I did not know, yet her out-turned hands, her enveloping arms, invited me in.  The head of the world rested on this Mother’s breast.


Images of the Divine Feminine are showing up a lot these days in art, in spiritual practice, in everyday conversation — more than ever before — to provide us with a balanced framework for living. Her compassionate Presence, Her listening heart, Her lionhearted warrior spirit are part of a social a movement, an evolutionary progression toward the manifestation of a compassionate and cooperative way of living. The Divine Feminine calls to us, to women and men, to revision our lives, to counter greed and power and self-interest and isolation with generosity and shared partnership, with emotional intelligence and kindness. If we love ourselves a little more, love ourselves as Mary Star of the Sea loves us, and love others with that love, the spirit of the Divine Mother we carry in our hearts will begin to transform the world.


We all know stories that ground this idea in everyday reality. The great dancer Katherine Dunham once told me about the work she did with injured veterans after she retired from the international stage. “When those of us who were able danced before them, their eyes filled with light,” she said. “They could not dance, but something inside them did.” That light is the Divine Feminine.


Zainab Salbi told me about some Bosnian women she worked with at Women For Women International who suffered unspeakable atrocities of war yet prospered. “What do you want us to do,” they said to her. “Just because we’re in this situation doesn’t mean we must stop loving ourselves.” Their boldness, their ability to create something out of nothing, is the Divine Feminine.


Let Her Gentleness and Strength make a home in your heart this Mother’s Day and for the year to come. Let it be your gift to yourself — and to the world.


Your thoughts?

“God is not someone who allows things to happen or not happen. The real question I need to ask [ is ] how can God help me find the strength to deal with what happens? By reframing the question, I opened myself up to other possibilities.” — Rabbi Laura Geller, IN SWEET COMPANY: CONVERSATIONS WITH EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN ABOUT LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE


It’s been thirty-six years since I first labored over the pronunciation of the names of the Indian saints and sages featured in the pages of Autobiography of a Yogi, unaware of how the unfamiliar marriage of letters would one day roll off my tongue and become music to my ears. At some point in my life the words “Books are your friends” popped into my head and has proven true time and again—particularly with Autobiography of a Yogi. Recently, I bought my fifth copy of the “AY,” Paramahansa Yogananda’s spellbinding account of his search for God, and will soon read it again—underlining phrases, dog-earring pages to the point where eventually it, too, will need to be replaced.


I like to believe everyone has a “friend” like this, a book they turn to for inspiration and comfort, that fascinates them, that brings order and meaning to their life. Though I can effortlessly quote lines from its pages, each time I read the AY I feel like I am reading it for the first time; I “discover” ideas I did not notice before, I connect with a story on a deeper level. Each new Voila! is powerfully relevant to what is occurring in my life and I marvel at the seemingly serendipitous appearance of the right words at the right time.


One of the surprising things about Autobiography of a Yogi is that it is witty as well as profound. I did not expect a book of such spiritual heft and depth to be light-hearted. Paramahansa Yogananda was a spiritual adept, an eminent sage, and an ardent lover of God with a first-rate sense of humor. He expertly puns and teases, gently guiding his reader to not take their humanity too seriously. His humor also bears witness to the great joy that permeated his consciousness.


Mostly when I read the Autobiography of a Yogi, I feel as if I’ve come home. Though I did not conceptualize my quest for meaning and happiness in spiritual terms when it began—and was quite surprised to discover it was God I was, in fact, seeking—the validation and belonging I felt when I first read the AY made it perfectly clear developing a personal relationship with God was the sum and substance of my search.


Though the AY has been acknowledged as a classic in spiritual literature for over sixty-five years, has been translated into twenty-six languages, and is used as a text in colleges and universities around the world, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I do believe, however, that we all need books like this, books that are our friends, that make us feel stronger, smarter, braver, a part of something greater than ourselves and, thus, immensely grateful. As the heroine of another well-loved book once said, “there is no place like home.”


Your thoughts?

“… for me, spiritual practice is making the bed, defrosting dinner, and so on. It’s not magical or removed; it’s about how I discover and reveal myself as I do things that are ordinary.” — Miriam Polster, IN SWEET COMPANY: CONVERSATIONS WITH EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN ABOUT LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE

It’s been several years since I interviewed Grandmother Twyla Hurd Nitsch for my last book, IN SWEET COMPANY: CONVERSATIONS WITH EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN ABOUT LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE, yet I find myself thinking a lot about her. Gram, as she liked to be called, was the Lineage Holder of Seneca wisdom and the leader of the Wolf Clan Teaching Lodge. Hers was an inherited position, one she was trained for as a child by her grandfather; one she, in turn, trained her son, Bob, and his wife, Lee, to carry on after her passing in 2007.

Gram knew how to be a Wisdom Keeper not just in her role as a spiritual leader, but in how she moved through her life. It wasn’t what she did, but who she was. Being smart, or wise or “right” was not important to her. She tried simply to be, as she said in our interview, “a good example.” She was so comfortable in her own skin, so at peace with how the Universe worked and her place in it, that her smile spoke volumes.

Gram was not separate from the world. She did not lead an ivory tower life. She raised five kids, suffered tragic losses, had more than her share of hard times. But she used everything that happened to her as a stepping stone to bring her closer to Great Mystery. “Everything that happened to me was just like going to school. Even [for a period] when I couldn’t hear or see…I felt like I was being gifted because of what I was learning through the experience.

“When I was a child, my elders taught me it was up to me to make myself happy, and when I go to bed each night I should thank Great Mystery for my happiness. Most people don’t take responsibility for their own happiness—it doesn’t even enter their heads to do that! And at the end of the day, they’re not grateful for the good things that happen to them.”

Personal responsibility and gratitude are not intellectual or esoteric concepts known to a privileged few. Gram took these concepts, and all the teachings she so deeply believed in, and made them her own. She lived them in her daily life. It was beautiful to see. It taught me so much.

Your thoughts?

I’ve come to a place in my life where God doesn’t look like any on thing, but is, simply, everything. There is a text from the Psalms that says, “I have placed God before me all the time.” To me this means that my task as a religious person is to notice God in every facet and moment of my life.  Rabbi Laura Geller, IN SWEET COMPANY: CONVERSATIONS WITH EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN ABOUT LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE

For almost three years, now, it’s been my joy and privilege to have a young girl named Janae as my friend and pen pal. Though I knew her parents for years – my “pretend” son and daughter-in-law – and was at her christening, we formally took up with each other one sunny summer afternoon during a rare coming together of our respective families. She fit in the hollow of my arm just so, and I wrapped that arm around her like a great feathered wing. During the three hours we were together, we stood, sat, walked, and talked in this position. I close my eyes and feel her there still.

We’ve being emailing back and forth across the divide – she in the great state of Massachusetts and me in Northern California — ever since, sometimes as often as twice a day. We talk about our favorite Muppets, what we want for Christmas, what we want to be when we grow up, that who we are is more important than what we do. We talk about difficult teachers, noisy brothers, and best friends. We wrote a poem. When she wished for a sister, I offered up my significantly older virtual self and she appropriated me as readily as I had taken her in her father twenty years before. When I told her I’d be offline for a few days because I needed to take my computer in for repair, she immediately sent me a note so the first email I’d receive when I got up and running would say, “Hope they did a nice job on your computer.” For her birthday this year, I sent her a lace hankie that was my Mother’s so she would have “something old” to carry when she walked down the aisle.

Another friend, a woman in her early 40’s, recently asked me for some advice because, she said, I was a “wise elder.” I’m certainly elder material, and take joy in helping others, but this was my first official go round as a marked elder. I admit, the honorific initially threw me for a loop, but I rose to the occasion, checked my ego at the door, and offered my $.02. What I said seemed to help her and I was glad.

I’m not sure what my disembodied and now ceremoniously eldered self brings to Janae. She has a loving family and many friends who appreciate her uniqueness. I actually think Janae is helping me more than I’m helping her. To see the world through her eyes, fresh eyes, eyes of a woman beginning, a woman in the making, is thrilling. And it fills me up to share my stories with someone (myself included!) who hasn’t heard them a thousand times, who views them as fresh and interesting.

Listening to Janae also makes me feel confident about passing the torch. She is smart. She is kind. She is strong. My flame may sputter and spurt, but hers rises.