Once upon a time there was a little girl who was afraid of almost everything: bugs that flew, caterpillars that crawled, lightning that flashed, winds that blew, dogs that barked, rumors of robbers, sirens that screamed in the night, vegetables that looked unfamiliar, people that spoke with difficult accents.

In tears she often ran to a wise man, asking him to protect her, sobbing out her question: how could she feel safe when everything seemed so frightening? This wise man was her father; he would hold her until her tears dried, he’d say some soothing words, then send her back out to play. He could not protect her from every scary thing, but he could console her until she was old enough to hear the answer she sought to her question: How could she feel safe?

When the little girl was ten or so, the wise man decided it was time for her to be told the secret to not being afraid. “This,” he said, “is my family’s secret. Your grandfather knew it, your grandmother knows it. Your aunt knows it. I know it. It is a secret that is shared with those who are wise enough to use it. So now I pass this secret on to you: Every day, you must do one thing that scares you. It doesn’t have to be a great big thing. It can be just little tiny scary thing. At the end of the day you may tell me what scary thing you have done, or you can keep it as a secret for yourself. But do it – one scary thing each day.”

For ten years the girl practiced the wisdom of her father: almost every day she did something scary. Because she was facing them, paying attention to the scary things, somehow they didn’t seem quite so fearsome any more. Sometimes she wasn’t sure they even counted as her daily “one scary thing.” So she moved on to bigger scary things – she accepted leadership responsibilities; she auditioned for (and won) the position of drum major in her high school marching band; she sang on the stage; she traveled across the country by herself; she ended a toxic friendship; she moved away from home to live on a college campus.

Now this twenty-year-old young woman finds herself in a world that has become very much scarier than anyone can remember: a global pandemic growing to monstrous proportions; people killing each other over whether or not they will wear protective masks; racial tensions breaking loose in city streets, with political civility and maybe even democracy seeming to be things of the past. She lives in the midst of climate change, with hourly extinctions of flora and fauna. She has what seems to me (her grandmother) to be a bleak future.

But Jessica has perfected the rhythm of one-scary-thing-a-day. And so, in spite of what the future may hold, she moves forward with plans for how her life will serve others. She will be an elementary school teacher. She’ll finish her education degree in another year. She has plans for graduate study. She has learned to discern what’s worth the energy spent on fear (not much, in her experience) and what isn’t. She knows how she will help her young students face scary times.

Once upon a recent time – last week, in fact – this same young woman, who once was afraid of almost everything, did yet another scary thing: she walked into a tattoo shop to have her own wisdom inked permanently into her skin, just above her right inner elbow.


In Jessica’s wisdom, and the determination of so many others in her generation, I find courage for myself, and a glimmer of hope for our future.



Last Sunday I was asked to give a talk at our local Unitarian Universalist Church. The title was, “A Writer, Being Written.”

This was the first time I’d spoken in public about my relationship with the holy Wisdom that I’ve searched for and (mostly) welcomed since I was a child.

When this Wisdom shows up (the timing totally out of my control), I’ve been inspired, annoyed, and/or encouraged at watersheds and crossroads throughout my life.

In my talk I described these encounters as an Invisible Hand: it has nudged me in one direction when I might have chosen another; it has caused me to open my mouth to speak to a stranger that I would otherwise not choose to meet. Also I described this Wisdom as a Silent Voice, advising me, suggesting (or demanding) that I reconsider a decision, and helping me through complicated scenarios. Since I am a writer, I recognize these actions as those of an editor, and decided to call this Wisdom my “Sacred Editor.”

Unlike the writing and editing of poetry, the mystical editing of my life doesn’t get to be pondered and polished, rewritten and improved with time. Either I pay attention to the Editor in the moment, or not – there is no going back to change those watershed points.

The writing of poetry is mystical in a different way. Words are under the jurisdiction of The Muse – She’s that aspect of the Sacred Editor that most often inhabits my belly, where the stories of my life’s experiences are transformed into poetry. The process follows a fairly predictable sequence: The Muse and I work together in the playground of words to make my poems the best we know how to do. When we can’t think of any way to make a poem better, then I send it off to Marian, my favorite copyeditor.

When the copyeditor’s notes come back, The Muse steps in again, now looking over my shoulder as I consider Marian’s comments. “Hmmm,” the Muse says, “yes, I think she’s right about that line break . . . No, I like that word – the way the single syllable changes the rhythm, makes the reader pause – I think you should keep that one the way we wrote it.”

And then, after agonizing over every word and syllable and punctuation mark for another day or week, out the poem goes into the world to sit for another month, or several, on a literary journal editor’s desk, hoping and whining for attention. That editor may ask to publish the poem (hooray!); or, more likely, they’ll send a thanks-but-no-thanks form letter to add to my burgeoning file; or, I’ll never hear from them at all. Then the Muse will sympathetically kiss the top of my head, and I’ll take heart, and send the poem out to yet another journal.

This week I’m taking some retreat time with my friend Corrine, at her lovely home overlooking Saratoga Passage on the east side of Whidbey Island. This retreat blends the two ways the Sacred Editor works in my life: writing, and being written. I’m loving it. First, I’m submitting to the Sacred Editor by taking time away, listening, giving Him opportunities to tweak ideas and intentions that will influence my life’s future. And second, I’m checking in with The Muse in that place in my gut where She stirs up the juices of memories, and energizes my words. For nearly a week I get to write, to just show up for meals that my hostess prepares, to have deep conversations with her about Life and the Sacred, to laugh and play with words, and to read poetry drafts to my dear appreciative friend.

Tomorrow I’ll pack up my pajamas and my computer and my poetry sketchbooks. I’ll haul them all back home, intending to keep working nearly every day on writing and being written. But at home is never quite the same as when I’m away, and never quite so successful as when I’m on a retreat purposefully listening to both the Sacred Editor and the Muse.