Of Art Projects and Pen Pals, the Circles of Life

crochet mandalas for marinke WIP

In June I wrote about Riding Full Circle Through Depression, sharing how five years after depression stole my sense of adventure from me I was able to return to a previous desire and go horseback riding on the beach with my sister. Then in July I wrote about how I had just lost an online friend to suicide and the feelings it brought up were many and varied, ironic in a way because it returned me in some senses to the period of time when depression reigned, not so much in emotionality as in content. Life goes in circles that way. Doors that were opened are never exactly closed, and sometimes a breeze from today pops back into the past and jars them open so that they gape again until you go back and shut them a little more firmly (or ore tenderly as the need may be). After I lost Wink, my online friend, I started an art project in her honor, and through working on that I’ve returned in a way to the me that I was half a lifetime ago in high school.

Mandalas for Marinke

green ombre crochet mandala

The art project is called Mandalas for Marinke and you can read all about it and see the amazing contributions here on my crochet blog. But what is important to share today is the process that I engage in when contributions arrive. As I first began the project, I took myself to the stationary store that I love in Japantown and picked out a few things that I knew were going to be useful for me although I didn’t know why. I got heart-shaped stickers. I got three beautiful pastel polka dotted notebooks. I got a rubber stamp that looked like doilies or mandalas and purple ink to use with the stamp. My mind flashed so briefly that I hardly noticed it on the memory of an art store that used to exist on 4th Avenue in Tucson, a store I’d visit after school with my friends, rarely purchasing anything although occasionally getting stickers to use in the friendship books that I sent through the mail to my pen pals. A brief flash, from half a lifetime ago, and it passed.

Since I started the project, my daily mail is filled with beautiful crochet mandalas, handwritten letters, occasional small gifts and lots of color. I sit down each day with the stack of contributions, opening each one and giving it my full attention, reveling in the beauty that comes not just from the handcrafted art itself but from the loving intention of each participant in the project. I hold that love in my hands and let it course through me and try to send it out to wherever Wink’s spirit may be and to the hearts of whoever may currently be in need of such love so as to avoid joining her in her fate.

leftovers crochet art mandala

Then I pick up one of those polka dotted pastel notebooks, the purple one currently, and I record the contribution in there in my own handwriting. I write down the contributor’s name, address, email, website address, social media links, the number and type of mandalas that they sent in and if they wish to be anonymous. In the front of the notebook, I keep a running tab of contributions that includes each person’s name and location, so that I can see at a glance how many mandalas have come in and from where in the world they originated.

Somehow that process of recording the mandalas in this way is important to me. It’s not just about keeping the record. I do want the record – to include information in the upcoming art show and book, to be able to contact contributors as needed – but if it was just about that then I’d write it all up in a spreadsheet on my computer where it could be easily tracked and sorted and accessed. No, it’s more than that, somehow; it’s the combination of posterity and yet fragility that comes with handwriting each contribution down into the record. It’s like a guest book in an ancient inn, with people dropping in from all around the world and leaving their unique mark on the essence of the place.

crochet mandala doublestranded detail

If the person who sent the contribution is from somewhere in the United States, I write out a postcard thanking them for their contribution. (I intend to do something for the people contributing from other countries down the line but for now it’s easiest on postage to stick with this.) I write it on a postcard leftover from the mailings I did when I first wrote Crochet Saved My Life, the book that introduced me to Wink and her story. It takes me back to my own depression and my own triumph over the worst of it and the early days of knowing Wink. Each postcard includes a doily rubber stamp and a heart-shaped sticker and my handwritten thanks. Simple but I try to infuse it with my true gratitude as I write each one.

thread crochet

After that there’s a process of photographing and tagging and filing away the mandala contributions. I take the pictures and load them into my blog with the messages from the people who sent them, preparing them to be posted in their own individual posts in the days to come. I secure each contribution together with a tag that reminds me who it’s from so that it’s ready for the next stage – which will be an art book and art show, likely in early 2016. I place the contribution carefully into a file system that keeps the mandalas flat and ready for display. I try to email the people who sent their he(art)s to me to let them know I am grateful.

Pen Pals from the Past

three crochet mandalas

Until now, it had been a long, long time since I’d received daily mail, and a long, long time since I’d handwritten notes in this way. But oh how the memories have returned. Let me tell you about my pen pals and how they gave me the world when life seemed so small and desperate.

I was in seventh grade when I got my first pen pal, Melanie, and I remember being so excited because she was from Canada and at the time it seemed like such  foreign, magical place. She, along with my next few early pen pals, came from a pen pal service that I discovered in the advertisements in the back of one of my favorite teen magazines. This was pre-Internet, so I had to send away in the mail for someone to make that connection for us. It cost me a dollar and a SASE (postage was 29 cents at the time, I think) and it took time.

Junior high was awful for me, like it is for so many children. There are names now to describe what I went through – bullying, slut shaming. There are books to help the teens and parents who struggle with these things and classes for the educators to attempt to remedy the impact of the cruelty of children against children. But those things didn’t exist back then, there wasn’t a name for what was happening, and it was just ugly and hard and required a resilience inside of me that was strengthened by my few close friends, my first boyfriend and those letters that came to me in the mail at the end of some school days and transported me to another land.

detail of crochet circle

I became a little bit addicted to pen palling. By high school, I had discovered Friendship Books. This was how we in the world of pen pals met other pen pals. You created a little paper book and decorated the front of it with your address, some information about you and whatever art you wanted to create. You sent it to one of your pen pals, who added her art to the next page and sent it to one of her pen pals and at the end the last person was supposed to send it back to you. You could contact anyone in the book that you might want to be pen pals with. Today it’s called mail art. Back then it was just friendship books. A couple of years later I’d discover the world of zines and take the whole thing to another level still.

High school was rough for me in a way that was different from junior high. Junior high was rough on the outside – with mean people around doing mean things. High school was rough on the inside, with the mean parts of my brain doing mean things to myself in a way that it would take me another ten years to even begin to understand. I had trouble tolerating the sitting still of school, the taking in of information when my brain was already so full of the ruckus inside of itself. I often wrote letters to my pen pals in class,  and I swear it helped me to stay sane.

By my junior year of high school, I had over 100 pen pals. No exaggeration. Most of them were my age and were in the United States. But some were from people older than me and some were from other parts of the world, and I’d collect the stamps off of their envelopes, soaking them in water to remove the gummy part and sticking them in a shoe box, making tick marks on the inside of the box’s lid to indicate how many had come from where. These tick marks are not so different from the marks I’m making in the front of the Mandalas for Marinke notebook, and many of the letters came from the same countries that the mandalas are arriving from.

mirror art

Each day I’d get home, first from school and in later years from work (at a daycare, then an office, then a bookstore) and I’d immediately check the mail. I’d pull out the letters that were for me, sit down with them, read through each one, look at the friendship books or zines they contained and place them aside to respond individually. An individual response included my letter, of course. I’d pull out the friendship books from that envelope, decorate them and file them to be sent to someone else, pull the same number out of the files to be sent to the person I’d just responded to. I’d organize my response and fill the envelope with glitter, confetti and appreciation for the friendship that was coming to me from across the miles.

Those letters might have saved my life. They certainly made it bearable.

Yesterday and Today

double stranded thread crochet simple mandala

I met Wink through the world of the Internet and that’s how I’ve been connected to the many people who have contributed their amazing art to the Mandalas for Marinke project. I’m grateful for the world of social media and the way that it’s made me so in touch with so many people from everywhere who can understand a little bit of my soul. But I have to say I’m also grateful that it wasn’t around half my lifetime ago because what I needed then was the intimate connection of one-on-one letters sent slowly through the mail, each one allowing me to get to know the other person (and myself) a little bit more, a little bit at a time.

lavender crochet round mandala

When I imagine what junior high and high school would have been like for me if Facebook existed, I cringe. I was an impulsive teen who occasionally sent racy photos to the few boys that I pen palled with; I’m certain I’d have victimized myself with sexting if I’d been born a decade or so later. More than that, the world that opened to me through pen pals would have been exposed to the rest of the world I was engaged in – in such a way that I wouldn’t have been able to find or share myself with the vulnerability that those handwritten long-distance pages allowed. It’s not that today’s mode of communication is worse or bad; it’s just that looking back I’m so grateful for the difference in the years that I had, at least in that way.

pink thread crochet mandala for marinke project

And I’m grateful for the way it’s different now, even as I see some things that are the same. Returning to the receiving of mail, the handwritten recording of notes, the connection of one-on-one message-sending, the art that comes through the mailbox … it has returned me to memories that had faded into sepia tones in my mind. It has re-opened a door that was closed just slightly improperly, stuck in the door jamb in an awkward way, and it has allowed me to re-open that door, check out the room inside, be thankful now for what I couldn’t see clearly then, and perhaps close the door in a gentler way so that it isn’t stuck in awkwardness any longer.


Ups, Downs, Extremes … Balance? (The Confusion of Losing an Online Friend)

The last post that I wrote here on this blog was about Riding Full Circle Through Depression with my sister, a post about how I felt, in a way, like I had conquered my own battle with depression just a little bit because of a success I had in accomplishing a posse end goal of wanting to go horseback riding on the beach.

Shortly after I wrote that, I came online to discover that a good Internet friend of mine, someone who also battled severe depression and whose journey was not so dissimilar from my own, succumbed to suicide this week. My initial reaction to the news was a mixture of shock, sadness and fear (which I wrote about here).

As the days have gone on, I’ve continued to have a wide range of emotions. Life feels filled withe extreme news right now, in both good and bad directions, and there are moments where I feel like I’m in the middle of that achieving balance but most of the time it’s swelling clearly one way or the other.

This difficult news came during a week or so of other difficult news from other places around my life. I want to keep the details private because the stories are not my own to share; they are hard experiences of death, illness, sickness and life changes that are affecting some of the people closest to me in my life. Good friends, my beaux, people I love are being impacted by really tough things in life. It seems like it’s happening all around me right now.

All of those things are affecting me, as I pull to the center and hold the stillness for some of these people. But Wink’s suicide affected me, personally, in a strangely more direct way. I say strangely because I didn’t know Wink “in real life” but had communicated with her periodically over the past several years online after interviewing her about her experience with Asperger’s, loneliness and severe depression for my book, Crochet Saved My Life. Even when we weren’t communicating directly, I was abreast of many things happening with her through social media and blogging. She felt, in a way, like a close friend, and in another way like someone I didn’t know at all and that’s brought up a lot of strange feelings in and of itself. Those feelings are complicated by the fact that we specifically met and connected over the topic of depression, a journey that we’ve both been taking for many years.

I wrote on my crochet blog about these feelings (linked above) and received so many responses this week from people who are also feeling similar things. Many, many people are saying that they are experiencing grief over losing Wink and they don’t quite know how to place it since they “only” knew her online. Our society doesn’t have a good way of understanding or handling the impact of this type of loss yet. Many have said that they don’t feel like their families understand why they are crying and devastated over losing an Internet friend. There’s a sense of isolation.

So, so many of these people have shared their own stories with me (on my blog, in my Ravelry group, through other social media channels and in private emails) about how depression has affected them. Many have said that they were suicidal in the past, some that they are struggling with suicidal ideation now (note, please seek the support that you need if you are feeling this way – reach out to friends, family, crisis hotlines or even the ER). Others have shared their stories about people in their own lives who have caved to suicide.


It’s been hard, in a way, to read about all of this struggle and sadness. And in another way, it’s been so incredibly uplifting to see the crochet/ craft/ online community come together to give each other support in this time. So many people have reached out to me, left comments on the blog post by Wink’s sister and connected to each other to encourage one another and express their feelings about this loss. I had known immediately that I wanted to do something to honor Wink and channel my many complex feelings while helping the community so I created the #MandalasForMarinke project and it’s gotten tons of amazing support already. I hope it’s helping people as an outlet to craft through their feelings and I hope it will achieve my aim of raising awareness about the difficulty of depression.

This is just one of several amazing things on the positive side of the spectrum of emotions. Another is that I just got accepted to be a Text Crisis Counselor (like a hotline but via text; see video below for more info on how this helps people).

Apparently only one third of the applications this round got accepted so that’s an honor and I’ve started my intensive training for that this week. It’s a great next step for me in terms of giving back to the community, helping others experiencing mental health and other crisis issues and figuring out what I want to do with my own graduate degree as I move forward. In addition to these things, there’s been other great news in the lives around me, touching the people I love.

So there are these extremes – of loss and sadness and of growth and connection. In the big spectrum of life, this creates balance and I get glimpses of this balance in moments during the day. But in such quick back-to-back succession, these extremes are in deep contrast to each other and can feel overwhelming in some moments. I’m grateful to have the community support that I have and the internal resources for self-care that I’ve developed over time.


Riding Full Circle with Sister through Depression

horseback riding

My sister was here last week to visit with me. It’s always so wonderful to have here. My siblings are my best friends and the only thing I’d change about life in San Francisco is that I wish they were here with me. She was only here for a few days but we packed in a lot of lovely experiences together. On her last day here, we went horseback riding down in Half Moon Bay, an experience that pulled me full circle through a tough time.

You see, my sister once did try to live here for a summer, checking out whether or not it was the place for her. It was during the lowest depths of my depression, right before I got diagnosed and got help. I didn’t know what was wrong and I didn’t understand how to cope with depression. It was an awful time. The worst part was that I really wanted to enjoy my sister’s stay, to do fun things with her, to create memories, to celebrate our adulthood together … and I couldn’t.

It’s hard to explain depression from outside of it. We did do things sometimes that summer and sometimes I laughed and had fun. But I often couldn’t do anything. Or I fell apart. I remember one time we went to some kind of comedy day down by Yerba Buena and there were all of these people around, mostly kids, and I just started crying and I couldn’t stop and I felt like I was going to implode. I had to have my sister call my best friend who also didn’t really know what to do for me. I don’t recall how the day ended. Sleep, eventually, I suppose.

Everything just felt hard that summer. On the one hand, my senses were dulled and I couldn’t take pleasure in anything. And on the other hand, my mind was constantly ruminating and producing feelings of anxiety. Everything scared me. I got my first Zipcar rental while she was here and the whole process – figuring out how to get the car, get the gas, drive again after it had been awhile – terrified me and upset me and made me cranky, and snappy, and stressed and then I felt guilty and bad and sad about being cranky and snappy and stressed.


So that summer, I had suggested that we go horseback riding on the beach. It was something that had been on my “life list” for many years, probably something I saw in a movie or read about in a book that sounded magical and stuck in my mind. My sister thought it was a great idea. But I couldn’t do it. The cost, the drive, the ride … it was all too much. I kept saying we’d go soon and then being upset about it. My sister was fine with it all. She was mildly disappointed that we weren’t going but she’s laidback and was having a good time here on her own anyway, taking art classes and going to festivals and exploring the city. And yet, I felt terrible that I couldn’t take her.

That was six years ago. So before she came to visit me this time, I said that the one thing I wanted to do was to go horseback riding on the beach. I wanted to tie that loose end up into a bow. So we went. And I was a little anxious, because I hadn’t been on a horse in a long time, but I wasn’t debilitatingly anxious. I was fine. Because I am mostly fine now.

We rode an hour on a trail on the bluffs above the ocean then another hour on the beach itself. My horse was too tall, my stirrups didn’t quite feel right and when the mare would gallop I’d get scared enough that I’d have to WHOA her to stop. But I wasn’t petrified. And I wasn’t depressed. And I wasn’t stuck inside of my own head. I was able to look around and see the stunning beauty of the area. The trail wound through some beautiful flowers. And I have to say, riding on the beach actually is as magical as the movies make it seem. The waves crash on to the sand near the horses and you’re up there so tall and you’re part of this magnificent natural beauty in a way that is entirely distinct from standing on the sand on your own.

By the time that the two hour ride was coming to an end, I was definitely ready to be done. I was sore all over. I was tired and hungry. But I was so happy. I knew that it would be a good accomplishment to complete that activity but I didn’t expect to feel as elated inside as I did. It was as though there was this incomplete thing that was still waiting inside me to be done and when we finished the ride it was finally finished and I felt whole. It was like that loose end had been hanging there inside of me all of this time, itching just a little beneath the surface to cause tiny discomfort, and now it’s all tied up and the scratch is gone.

I live with chronic depression. That summer was the worst of it and I’ve gotten steadily better ever since. But I think of my illness like a cancer, with remission and not necessarily cure. It comes back sometimes and I have to be diligent in treating it. In fact, I’ve noticed over the last months that I’m more anxious than I was for awhile, that my downs are a little lower, and I eye that carefully, checking to see if it’s a normal reaction to what’s happening in my life or if it’s something that needs more care. I’m not always healed, but I’m well enough to ride horses on the beach with my sister and love almost every minute of it.

sisters beach


Animal Assisted Therapy for Couples

lucy pet therapy

Lately I’ve become super interested in the use of animals, especially dogs, in counseling settings. It’s something that I’ve been developing as an interest for awhile and of course it’s been enhanced since I started doing pet therapy volunteering with Lucy through SPCA. I wrote a few papers on the topic for grad school this semester and thought I’d share one of them here today.

Animal Assisted Therapy in Couples Counseling

Animal assisted therapy utilizes pets in the therapy room to enhance the power of the counseling relationship and the work done with clients. This has primarily been studied in counseling working with individuals, especially children, people on the autism spectrum and individuals working through trauma. However, there are a handful of therapists out there who are actively using pet therapy in couples counseling. Animal-assisted couples therapy is typically used in conjunction with other approaches to working with couples, rather than as a stand-alone type of therapy. It complements several of the major approaches used in couples counseling and works well for therapists using an eclectic approach.

Approaches to Animal Assisted Therapy

There are three ways that pets typically assist in couples counseling. The most common is for the therapist to bring his/her own pet to the sessions; this is usually (but not always) a dog. The pet is often specially-trained to work as an emotional support animal. In some cases, the pet may belong to someone other than the therapist but be assigned specifically to work in that therapy office. Although this area of research has only been studied in recent years, it is not a new approach to therapy. In fact, Freud himself was known to bring his dog Jofi to sessions and even to make interpretations through Jofi based on the behavior the dog displayed towards the clients! (Walsh, 2009)

The second approach to animal assisted therapy is for the clients to bring their own family pet into the couples counseling session. This is less common but can be greatly beneficial for some clients. Clients who share a love for their pet may be able to use this as a bonding tool to motivate their work in sessions. Other times, the favoring of the pet by one over the other can quickly reveal insights into the relationship.

Finally, couples therapy may incorporate family pets without actually bringing them into the room. This is done by asking clients questions about the pets at home with the specific intention of gaining more information about family dynamics, the ways in which the couples interacts with one another and even potential domestic violence in the home. A Utah State University study by Ascione, Weber and Wood called The Abuse of Animals and Domestic Violence revealed that in one domestic violence shelter more than 85% of women and 63% of children reported pet abuse in the home. This is one of several studies that suggest a strong correlation between the way a person treats the animals in the home and the way that (s)he treats the other humans in the home.

Pets Reflect Couples’ Behavior Back to Them

One of the core tools that the therapist uses with couples is to provide them with insight into the impact of their actions on each other, the relationship, and the family system. Sometimes a dog can demonstrate this information to a couple better than even the most qualified therapist. In her TIME Health article The Dog Will See You Now, Alexandra Sifferlin provides one example from the therapy room of Colorado-based LPC Ellen Winston who used pet therapy with a couple that was divorcing but wanted to communicate better in order to co-parent. Sifferlin writes, “During the sessions, the couple would sit on complete opposite sides of the couch. Sasha (the dog) would hop in the middle, curl up and fall asleep. Both partners would stroke Sasha at particularly emotional moments, and it helped them calm down. Still, they continued to get agitated, often letting therapy sessions intensify into screaming matches. When that happened, Sasha would quickly get up and walk to the door. Winston used those moments as teaching points.” The couple quickly began to see how damaging their conversational style and saw, through the dog, the impact it was likely having on their children. This motivated the couple towards change.

Pets are Part of the Family

MFT research from the 1970s reveals that many therapists noticed the important role that pets play in families, which is why it can be powerful to have couples bring their family dog into a session or to devote a session to talking about the animal. Froma Walsh, PhD writes in Human-Animal Bonds II: The Role of Pets in Family Systems and Family Therapy:

“Murray Bowen (1978) noted that the family emotional system, which reverberates like shockwaves through the network of relationships, may include even nonrelatives and pets. Network therapists Speck and Attneave (1973) noticed that pets often seemed to reflect the feelings of family members and their behavior seemed directly related to the behavioral trends in the family.”

Pets can become part of the triangle in family relationships. Walsh gives an example:

“In some cases, pets became the subject of observation and conversation between spouses, with warmth, concern, and affection expressed for the pet rather than for each other. In a pursuer-distancer relationship, this could provide affection for a partner wanting more intimacy than the other. However, in some cases, this could evoke jealousy and hurt. One couple came to me for therapy because the wife felt starved of affection by her husband, who sat petting his purring cat on his lap every evening but could not express affection toward her. Exploration of family-of-origin issues revealed that, having felt threatened by his mother’s intrusiveness, he was more comfortable being affectionate with his cat than with women.”

If a pet can become part of triangulation in families, it can also be used therapeutically as the third leg of the triangle in the counseling room.

Pet Ownership Lowers Stress in Marriages

Pet ownership has been known to lower stress . Jill A. Kraus reported in her study Stress in Pet Owners and Non-Pet Owners that married couples with supportive social relationships were less likely to experience the negative impact of stress and that pets in the home could serve as just such a supportive social relationship to the benefit of both partners. The therapist can help the couple relive positive experiences that they have had with their pets to strengthen bonding and positive emotions between one another.

Furthermore, Walsh, PhD, writes, “In a study of social interaction patterns in the everyday life of couples, Allen (1995) found that couples with dogs had greater well-being, and those with the highest attachment to their dogs – and who confide in them – fared the best.Interestingly, talking to dogs – in addition to one’s spouse – was related to greater life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, and physical and emotional health. Confiding in pets to ‘‘discuss’’ difficult life situations greatly relieved stress.” Therapists have been known to ask couples to direct their conversations through the dog in the room in order to reveal sensitive information that they may not yet be able to speak directly to their partner.

Other Benefits of Pets in Couples Therapy

  • Pets improve people’s moods. A more positive attitude may help improve therapy outcomes. It reduces client anxiety and helps build therapeutic rapport in the early stages of the relationship.
  • Dogs can encourage couples to interact with one another. Therapy dogs can be used to play interactive games with clients to get them working together. This shows the couple that they can indeed work together after all.
  • Animal misbehavior can be a teaching tool, especially for couples who disagree over how to to discipline children and other parenting issues. It can also help a couple practice problem solving.
  • The pet may be considered part of the healing team. Therapists who work with couples to identify their individual and shared support systems may add the pet to that list.

Additional Considerations

Although the health benefits of having pets and even the use of pets in the therapy room are not new things, they are understudied, especially as they apply to couples’ counseling. Therapists interested in working with pets in this way should gain as much training as possible. Additionally, the therapist must consider the legal and ethical issues involved with bringing pets into the therapy room.

Sifferline, quoting Canisius College adjunct professor of anthrozoology Sherly Pipe, says, “a therapy animal should be considered a partner rather than a tool. “We tend to have a greater willingness to consider the impact on our partner than our tools. We have to make sure an animal is happy participating and still has adequate time to behave like the animal that they are.”

Walsh’s report adds, “The therapist’s careful selection and certification of a therapy animal, rigorous healthcare and monitoring, and informed consent by clients are all essential (Fine, 2006b; see Delta Society, Standards of Practice, http://www.Deltasociety.org; Therapy Dogs International, http://www.tdi.org).” If animal abuse is revealed during the course of therapy with animals, the therapist must adhere to the appropriate mandated reporting requirements.

Finally it is important to remember that people form strong bonds with pets. If a therapist’s pet is used regularly in couples counseling, it will be important to include the pet in the termination process when couples’ therapy comes to an end.




Counterpulse, Arts Fundraising and Down’s Syndrome


Capacitor dance photo via Facebook

Over the weekend I went to Counterpulse, a local arts organization that specializes in producing cutting-edge works of performance art. They have been in the same spot in SoMA for a decade but are moving to a new building in Tenderloin later this year. I had been there before and enjoyed the space and the mission of the place but hadn’t attended anything there in a long time. I didn’t realize that what I was attending was a fundraising event, but it ended up giving me a great perspective on the place.


I heard about the May Day event because of an email from Capacitor, one of the five groups performing on the night that I went. They’re an aerial-contortionist-dance group that I always find amazing and I look forward to seeing their work. They didn’t disappoint of course, sharing and excerpt from a longer work that will be at Fort Mason next year that I’m already looking forward to.

Capacitor has been working with Counterpulse for the past year. The other performances were a mixture of similar work helped along by Counterpulse and performances by other partner / sister organizations in the Bay Area like ODC theater. Both types of performance were interesting. There was a wearable technology performance where movement altered voice sounds in a captivating way. There were two pieces that had a humorous edge. And there was a solo dance performance using a oversized chair as an impressive prop. I loved the mixture of performances, the unique inspiration of each, the abbreviated look at the dance community in the Bay Area.

directors counterpulse

Counterpulse executive director Tomás Riley with artistic director Julie Phelps

What was interesting was that it was also a fundraising event. Before the show and during intermission was a silent auction where people could bid on items including wine, bodywork, art, bike tours, overnight getaways, book collections and more. Between the two final acts there was an “auctioning of the bills”. This was fascinating to watch. The directors of Counterpulse got on stage and shared a breakdown of the different costs of operating their new facility, asking people to take on a portion of the costs. They said it was a way for donors to let people really know where their money was going. And of course it helped to make their costs really transparent.

It was fascinating to watch what people would contribute for or not, something that seemed to be based on the item up for donation rather than the dollar amount. Someone who didn’t bid on anything else shot his hand up immediately to donate enough to cover one week of free yoga for community members. Another gave to cover the cost of one month of full health insurance coverage for one of the staff members. A few donated to help provide stipend funding for arts fellows. Three more each gave a month of rent costs to keep the doors open. Another wanted to give tangibly and offered her money to the cost of office supplies and toilet paper.

Sometimes it was uncomfortable, sitting there in the audience, waiting to see if anyone would give for something specific. There was a sense of pressure to give, even though the presentation of the process was congenial and friendly, and I was curious if some people were giving out of response to that pressure. It was also interesting, as an outsider who isn’t really familiar with this community, to see how much of the giving came from a combination of staff members, board members and longtime supporters that the staff knew by name. It made me think of how we are all so passionate about our own little communities, the niches we’ve found ourselves in that we’re willing to really give for. It made me think of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and how it’s so true that people really do want to give to others in so many different ways.

art of asking

One of the things that they were requesting donations for was the cost of maintaining the elevator in their new space. They mentioned that they were not required to include an elevator but wanted to do so as part of their ongoing commitment to full accessibility – not only so that people with disabilities can attend shows but so that dancers with varying accessibility issues can be welcomed to participate in the shows. This impressed me. I see a lot of live performances of all types and it made me think about how few have had visible disabilities of any kind.

writing with grace book

Right now I’m reading Writing with Grace: A Journey Beyond Down Syndrome, a book by writer Judy McFarlane who works with a young woman named Grace who has Down’s Syndrome and is writing her own book. Judy is starkly honest about her own preconceived notions as she first met Grace and how she had to confront her own biases. She delves deep into the history of Down’s Syndrome research and litigation, both in Canada where she is based and also around the world. One of the things she highlights is the way that Down’s Syndrome fetuses are frequently aborted. I have no opinion either way on this, other than to say that I think abortion is a choice that all mothers should have though it shouldn’t be taken lightly and always comes with pain even when it’s the right choice. But the idea of it struck me because I have always kind of accepted that this is a totally reasonable choice to have and McFarlane caused me to consider that perhaps the legitimizing of aborting an entire category of humans isn’t something that should be commonly accepted.

What it really has me thinking about, I suppose, is the many different types of people there are in this world compared to the small percentage of which we consider “normal”. People on the autism spectrum, people with developmental disabilities and physical disabilities, people with major learning disabilities, people with mental health issues … there remains so much stigma around all of these things, stigma I admit I work with constantly inside my own self to varying degrees. And how each of these is considered a disability that diverges from the “norm”. But with the percentage of people affected by any one of these things, can we really say that the “norm” is norm at all?

I’ve learned a lot about the thinking process of people with autism as well as the learning process of people with dyslexia. Now in reading about Grace’s journey, I’m seeing yet another side of the same coin. And what it forces me to look at is my own value system in regards to “intelligence” and “knowledge” and “being smart”. I’ve always been smart by the standards of society. I’ve always gotten great grades in school and been able to carry on intellectual conversations on a wide range of topics and enjoy being well-read. And yet, it’s only way of learning and interacting with the world, so what I cling to as “smart” for me excludes entire categories of people who learn and express in other ways.

I realize this isn’t a new concept by any stretch, that this is something that people with different learning styles have been telling us for a long time. And yet it’s somehow impacting me in a different way right now. It’s subtle. I’m not sure what it means or will turn into or if it’s just reorganizing my thinking a little bit, which will likely reorganize my perception of and experience in the world. It’s all in process. And where I am at today.


Birds at AT&T Park and Other Thoughts on Urban Animals

giants game att park birds

Last weekend I went to a Giants game over at AT&T Park. I hadn’t been to one in a few years – not since before they started winning championships actually. They were playing the AZ Diamondbacks, which are from my hometown although I think I only ever went to one game when I actually lived there.

I like baseball well enough. There’s something nostalgic-yet-new about the simplicity of this game that we learned in childhood taken to an adult level with balls thrown so hard that bats crack. But mostly what I like about going to the games is the experience of it all. The cheesy music Take Me Out To The Ballgame sing-a-long. The Kiss Cam. The hot dogs. And the fireworks since it was fireworks night when I went.

When the game ended, we moved down to seats near the field so we’d be able to get out from under the awning that had been keeping us almost-warm in the chilly nights of San Francisco in order to see the fireworks exploding in the sky over the bay. It’s a pretty magical thing.

As we sat watching before the fireworks began, we began to see a few seagulls coming down into the stands to snack on the remnants of peanuts and sourdough bread bowls. And then a few landed in the center of the field itself. And then suddenly it was more than a few – a whole flock, a number of seagulls so big it seemed like they must have come from all over the bay. They flooded the stadium, frolicking on the field and eating away at our scraps on the ground in the bleachers.

giants game att park birds

There were so many of them that my eyes were glued to their movements. I’m not a huge fan of birds and have been known to feel fear in the midst of such scenes but this time I was just wildly fascinated. The bright lights were still on, the stadium was still filled with people –  how did these birds know that the game had ended and it was time to come down and get their snacks?

When the lights turned off in preparation for the fireworks, a few of the birds began to fly away, while others continued to scavenge for food. As the music began to beat most of the birds took off. When the fireworks started, they all fled. Halfway through the fireworks show I noticed a lone gull circling about the field and wondered why he wasn’t away with the others. Was he lost? Confused by the vibrations of audio and pyrotechnics? Or just cleverly seeking to be the first to return for the goodies once the show came to an end?

I liked the fireworks show. But it was the birds I kept remembering after the game was done. I keep thinking about how odd it is that we co-exist with these animals in this way. How they are wild and yet not wild, living alongside us and waiting for our baseball games to end each night so they can eat our leftovers. It reminds me of Belize and Zooburbia and makes me wonder what it really means for an animal to be wild these days and what our responsibility is to those animals that live in the midst of our domestic lives.

I don’t have answers. But I find myself all year long drawn to information about animals and their emotional lives and how they help people and what they mean in today’s world. I’ve always liked animals, of course, but it’s really only been in the last year that they’ve suddenly become this hugely important part of my life. I think about my year of practicum that I’ll eventually have to do to complete my degree and wonder about ways to work animals in to my therapy. I choose animal-assited therapy whenever I can pick a free topic for a graduate school paper. I volunteer with Lucy and take care of a few other pups here and there.

My mom works at an animal rescue. My brother walks and runs and trains dogs. It’s in the family, in the history, in our value system somewhere to live alongside these creatures.


The Art of Asking and Other Inspiring Recent Reads

art of asking

I read a lot. And I like most of the books that I read. But rarely am I so moved and touched by a book that I have to tell everyone about it over and over. I recently read The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer and I find that I keep mentioning it to people.

Dresden Dolls

I didn’t realize when I picked up the book that the author was one half of The Dresden Dolls, a cult band I loved fifteenish years ago although I was never the devoted fan that Palmer describes in her book. I discovered their music through file-sharing back in the early days of high speed Internet, before I fully understood the legal dos and donts of music downloads. I wanted to see them perform live once, at Bimbo’s when I first moved to San Francisco, but it didn’t happen. Then they split up and I started listening more to folk and pop ballads and things shifted. But it’s interesting to read Palmer’s descriptions of her devoted fans, to realize that I was one step away from a life that included participation in that world, that a breath taken differently here or there could have meant I was being described in her writing.

Crowdsourced Funding

Palmer’s book is about the mutual relationship between an artist and her fans, whether she’s an established musician and best-selling author or just a statue performing on the street (which Palmer did in New York for five years and describes in such loving detail that I am forever changed in the way I watch our San Francisco statues now). Her book is the outgrowth of a TED talk of the same name and it drew attention in large part because it illuminates crowdsourced funding, such a hot topic today.

It captured my interest because of my own recent ups and downs with the choice to fund a project that wasn’t yet finished. I discovered that the pressure of having people already backing the project immobilized me, making it difficult to keep on working through the writing, creating a writer’s block that feels permanent although I know it’s not. I finally chose to offer refunds to my backers to relieve some of the self-imposed pressure of the project. Palmer’s success with crowd funding is lovely to read about, in part because as a reader I get to witness her own ongoing insecurities with the constantly-evolving relationship she has with her fans. She also shares several stories of projects that did and didn’t get funded and did and didn’t get completed and I resonated a lot with the truth in all of these stories.

Help in Abundance

Palmer talks really about how we can identify what we need, ask for help from the “crowd” and get those needs met but only if we are participating in a sort of community where we also give back when others need it as well. She talks about how, working as a statue, she would exchange a flower for a donation and how the donations came from people rich and poor, other street performers and homeless people, children and the elderly and whoever and how the exchange is equally valuable regardless of the monetary value or the participants. And how this is all relevant to other exchanges … how sharing and hearing stories, for example, is part of the community need.

I have noticed since reading the book how often people do actually ask for and receive help within the community around me. Someone gets on the bus and doesn’t have change and people everywhere look up from the immersion in their phones and offer their coins. Friends express that they are going through a tough time and the community comes together to create a safety net to buoy that person up until they can stand on their own again. We spend a lot of time in this life expressing our lack (lack of sleep, lack of time, lack of whatever) but in opening my eyes to what’s around me I’ve noticed there’s really abundance all around me.

Social Media

I’m an active user of social media but I’m not sure I ever fully understood the human connection value of it until I read Palmer’s book. She writes about “the fundamental things that create emotional connections: the making of art, the feeling-with-other-people at a human level”:

“That’s what I do all day on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and my blog. The platform is irrelevant. I’ll go wherever the people are. What’s important is that I absorb, listen, talk, connect, help, and share. Constantly.”

“The net tightens every time I pick up my phone and check in on Twitter, every tie I share my own story, every time I ask a fan how their project is coming or promote somebody’s book or tour.”

I’ve always had an appreciation for the way that people reach out to me via social media and email but reading Palmer’s book made me really stop and want to acknowledge each of those interactions. It made me want to share more, more genuinely, more authentically, in a new way, in a richer way. I thank her for that.

Partnerships and Love

Throughout this book, Palmer shares her struggles with learning to let her husband (author Neil Gaiman) support her financially in her work. She finds that she can easily let strangers help her but it feels different taking money from her love partner. It’s a struggle I think many female artists (and those who don’t call themselves artists, I suppose, and maybe not just females for that matter) deal with in their relationships. Money and love and art … this is life and yet we try to hard to keep them un-entangled to keep them clearer in our heads, which is all just an illusion but one that makes us feel more in control.

Blending Lessons

I can’t seem to put together cohesive thoughts about how much this book impacted me as I read it and as it keeps rippling through my mind. It’s all still forming I think. Palmer writes about how we all take things in, sift through them, put them out in a different way and this is our art. I want to quote her on this but can’t find the part in the book where she wrote it and maybe that’s okay. The idea is that we accumulate all kinds of different material and then we shuffle it and re-form it and give it back to the world in a new way. With some art, the inspirations are clear. I tend to write like this – to draw a lot of clear connections and then share my own insights from them. For others, its changed and distorted a lot from the original input. I remember now that Palmer writes about blender settings. Some people really turn the blender up to level 10 and mash their inspirations into something so new that you could never tell that the smoothie they offer you was once a strawberry and a banana and some ice and some milk. I remember my parents’ old blender and how my favorite button was always “pulse”, hitting it again and again to slowly stir up a little bit of something different while watching the outcome as it shifted.

And Other Recent Reads

I’m returning The Art of Asking to the library today. It’s still settling into my head although the poignancy of it will probably get buried beneath the stacks of other writings I consume so regularly. Already there are other inspiring reads that are recent but fading. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness had me momentarily terrified of epilepsy and intrigued by all we do and don’t know about the workings of our neurons. Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty fascinated me as it taught me to understand the language and history of computer programming and how it relates to Indian fiction writing. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way has me thinking about my own elite high school education and what we do right and wrong here in American learning. And I wonder how these things will and won’t stick with me, work their way into my own philosophy of the world, emerge in my own writing.


5 Awesome Reasons You Might Want to Read Wind Catcher

wind catcher novel

This fantasy adventure series is steeped in American Indian culture and so much more.

Winner: Mom’s Choice Award — Silver Metal
Winner: Awesome Indies — Seal of Approval
Recipient: Readers’ Favorite — 5 Star Review

Today is the release date for a new YA novel called Wind Catcher that I had the chance to read in advance and want to recommend. Here are the five key reasons you might want to read this book:

1. Father / Daughter Author Team

The book is co-authored by Jeff and Erynn Altabef, a father/ daughter writing team. That’s just cool. It’s rare, it’s unique, it’s special and it leads an original perspective to the novel. Both authors’ voices are incorporated into the story without weakening the plot line in any way.

2. Native American Fantasy

This book is considered a Native American YA Fantasy. It incorporates history and culture from Native American belief systems with fantasy writing and contemporary young adult issues. I’ve never read anything quite like it before, although in a tangential way it reminds me of one of my favorite books, Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. I think it’s because of the way that spiritual/ psychological issues are tackled through a lens of mystery and fantasy. What’s spirit? What’s fantasy? What’s “crazy”?

wind catcher novel

3. It’s About Choosing

The main character faces a series of choices about where to go with her life, choices that reflect the decisions that teens face when teetering between childhood and adulthood. That’s something that I find super relatable. After all, we all made choices as teens and young adults that shaped a lot of what followed.

WC Release

4. It’s a Good, Fast Read

True to YA format, it’s a book that you can read quickly. I love to immerse myself in a story for a few hours and read it from beginning to end (although admittedly I read quickly). I love to finish a book while traveling on a plane or when I can’t sleep one night. But I don’t want to compromise quality for quickness.

5. It’s a Series

This is the first book in a series called Chosen. That means that if you like this book, you can look forward to the ones that follow. The second book is due out in November 2015.

And Now for the Prizes!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Soul Sessions: A Book About Soulmates, Serendipity and Life After Death

Soul Sessions image

As soon as I saw the campaign for this book, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. Soul Sessions just looked like something that was unique from the other books that are out there and it piqued my interest. I quickly ordered it on Amazon and I began to read it as soon as it was delivered to my doorstep. It’s a quick and compelling read that I sat down and devoured in one sitting, pausing to make more tea and eventually to pour a glass of wine but otherwise staying glued to my couch, beneath my favorite crochet blanket, turning page after page.

About Soul Sessions

Soul Sessions is the story of a man who goes through a tragedy and struggles with suicidal depression. However, he meets a psychologist who uses past-life regression to help him understand what is happening with him. Through this, he discovers that there’s a woman he has been partnered with in many other lifetimes and he becomes compelled to find her again in the current life. It’s a love story and it’s a story about the bigger question of what happens to our souls when our bodies die.

What I Loved

  • I really appreciate stories that look at depression in an honest way.
  • I also appreciate that there are many different ways to get out of depression and I think this one – the potential to find a lost love in this life time – is an intriguing one.
  • It’s a love story. How can I not love a good love story? But it’s not a traditional love story in any sense of the word.
  • It’s thought-provoking. It’s really more than  love story. It’s a story about spiritual growth.

soul sessions book

Food For Thought

Although the book is a simple read, Soul Sessions is filled with complex ideas and offers a lot of food for thought. Mulling over some of the questions that the book poses challenge me to think about my own belief system. I’ve always had this push-pull feeling about past lives. Sometimes I believe that we’ve been here before and will be here again. Sometimes I believe this is true only in the sense that the star stuff in our bodies will come and go in different incarnations. And sometimes a series of past lives that we can understand in this lifetime is just beyond my grasp and I doubt it. But what do I really believe, when all of the doubts and questions fade away? I still don’t know but the book has my mind wrapping itself around and around these questions. It’s inspiring in that way.

You Might Like Soul Sessions If:

  • You like quick-read stories.
  • You’re looking for something different to read.
  • You believe in soul mates.
  • You are curious about life after death.
  • You love a good love story but want to experience one that’s different.
  • You are inspired by spiritual growth stories. One reviewer said that reading this book was like getting a spiritual hug!

Learn More

Learn more about Soul Sessions and author Carson Gage here.


I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.


Lucy, Pet Therapy Perfection

lucy muni

Golden Retriever Lucy and I have recently received our certification to work together as an animal assisted therapy team through the SPCA. We did three weeks of classes/ evaluation. I did 3 shadow visits of other teams. We did two visits with a mentor shadowing us. And now we are on our own. It’s so inspiring for me to see and Lucy loves the work.

pet therapy dog

I got the idea to do this because every time I walk Lucy there are people on the street who just light up when they see her. So many people have randomly told me that seeing her made their day. She loves people so I figured it would be a win-win situation and it is. She is certified to visit schools, hospitals, transitional living centers, psychiatric units, etc. Sometimes they take her to the park to play, sometimes she’s in a community room and sometimes she goes room to room. She snuggles up with people and they make each other feel loved. It’s so warm and wonderful. I feel lucky to get to witness these exchanges.

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