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Moth Orchids: Broken Relationships Bloom Again

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My windowsill is filled with orchids. The challenge is getting them to bloom. In February I watch for the first signs, small green stubs that grow into willowy stalks with nodding lanterns that will unfold into the aptly named moth orchids.

I’m not organized enough to have proper labels on the pots and in late winter I wait for the buds to reveal the secret of their colors. Green velvet speckled with carmine, purple merlots, yellow-throated white ermine. All are eagerly anticipated.

But then a stalk was broken. The buds had barely unfurled. Someone had carelessly brushed it aside. I hadn’t noticed the stem hanging by a thread and I debated–should I snip it off or leave it dangling?  In either case the buds were withering. The next day I clipped it off, put it in a vase, and threw it away a few days later.

Our relationships can be broken. We can be careless and may not notice the brokenness until the relationship withers. The relationship is discarded.

Not too long ago, I received a call from someone I hadn’t heard from in many years. Our relationship had ended on a sour note a decade before. She had taken a chance in calling me and I took a chance in meeting her for coffee. We talked about our families, our art work, what new paths we were taking. A fresh start.

What opportunities come my way to rekindle a relationship?

How do I take a risk and begin anew?

Am I missing opportunities to reconnect?

Several months later when the orchids are dormant, a new shoot appears. The damaged orchid flowers prolifically, with perfect flowers of Naples yellow dancing on the window ledge.

When nurtured, broken relationships can bloom again.

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Astronomically High Waves: Reconnecting with the Soul

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This past week I spent at the beach reconnecting with my soul. The world had worn me down with unrelenting bad news. Inexorable waves of violence, bigotry, broken lives and relationships slapped me, rushing out from the screen; social media spawned the undertow.

One evening I stood on the quiet balcony looking out into the darkness. My daughter had told me the waves were astronomically high because the moon was so close.

All I knew was that I was spent.

I searched for the moon but saw only the faintest blush behind the clouds. The ocean was pitch dark and blended with the sky, only known to me by a deep rumbling cascade and faint whitecaps.

Overwhelmed, it was time to reconnect with my soul. Time to be guided by what I held to be most true.

  • What must guide me is the fundamental dignity of each person. The certainty that within us all is a spark of the divine. A spark that may flicker, be hidden, but remains deep within each of us.
  • What must inform me is the knowledge others possess as well as what I might know. An openness that wisdom can come surprising ways.
  • What I must recognize and accept is brokenness; the failings, pain and weakness of all of us. That the path to healing runs through each person I meet. That I cannot do it alone. It is through relationships that we are made whole.
  • What must motivate my actions is open compassion. Compassion in each conversation. Compassion without judgment.

A clear full moon broke through the clouds, scattering a path of diamond drops across the waves.   When faced with astronomically high waves, reconnect with the soul.

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Micro-Lending Circles: From Mongu to St. Louis

a presentation to Women’s Voices of St. Louis
March 13, 2014

At the Zambezi River, Zambia

At the Zambezi River, Zambia

Mongu

In the weeks leading up to my trip to Zambia with Women’s Global Connection, I was excited about my upcoming trip to do workshops on micro-lending and fundraising in Mongu. And then the day of departure actually arrived and I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. While development workshops were something I could do in my sleep, what I knew of micro-lending was strictly out of a book. With fifty pounds of navy blue uniform shorts in my suitcase, a backpack of protein bars and cheese crackers, and a small carry-on, I took the 18 hour flight to Lusaka.

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The next day we departed on an eight hour bus ride through the baking bushlands on roads that looked like rolled cookie dough with ragged edges overtaking the dry beige dust. Waves of dry heat distorted the sparse trees in the distance.

The OK Restaurant greeted us upon our arrival in Mongu. Entrepreneurs were everywhere–setting up shop in little corrugated buildings of ultramarine, orange, scarlet and grass green selling wood block stamped fabrics, bottled drinks, hard boiled eggs on sticks.

I was prepared, powerpoint presentation in hand, to present a workshop the next day to a group of Lotsi tribeswomen so that they could begin their micro-lending circle. The women arrived in brightly batiked dresses. One woman had lost her home to a fire in the past week. Many had seen family members die from AIDS. All lived with limited means. Despite this, the women were happy and optimistic. They had recently formed a rice collaborative to capitalize on the high demand for the famed iron-rich rice of the western province and had been given land to farm by the tribe. That was a big step.

We sat to begin our circle. They spoke Lotsi–I spoke English. The handouts made great scrap paper. Sennana, an Oxford-educated princess of the Lotsi tribe, served as an able translator and I discarded my presentation and started with questions:

Why did they want to create a micro-lending circle?

What could the funds be used for and what projects were outside the circle?

Who could participate?

What was the amount for a loan?

How long could you take to pay it back, and what was the interest?

The women had their own circle process. For each question they would start at a different point in the circle. The reason for micro-lending was simple. They wanted to start businesses–that should have been obvious to me given that the entire town was given over to small entrepreneurs. Funds could be used for micro-enterprises, for their children’s education fees, for funerals, but not for bottle–liquor–stores.

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They quickly settled on loan terms and interest rates. Actually they were so efficient that they completed the micro-lending design in the morning and took the afternoon to develop a business plan for their rice business.

And then they danced.

St. Louis

When I returned to St. Louis I was determined to bring the micro-lending concept here. The Incarnate Word Foundation provided $5,000 in seed money to each bank. Women came together at Midtown Catholic Community Services, Haven of Grace, Let’s Start and East Side Heart and Home to begin their own circles.

There were no rules. Each group developed their own lending policies, repayment plans and interest rates. Most of the banks have interest rates that hover at about 5%. Usually loans are for no more than $500 and can be used not only to start a micro-business, but also to buy an appliance, provide a down payment on an apartment, or repair a car.

A partnership with the St. Louis Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) took the micro-lending circles to a new level. After an initial grant form the Incarnate Word Foundation the NCJW took the micro-lending circles to a new level by providing a mentoring component and focusing on women had suffered from domestic violence or limited economic opportunity. In two years they have expanded to five Helping Heart Banks serving women connected to Lydia’s House, Safe Connections, ROW, and the YWCA. Their efforts have also expanded to credit repair as they link women who are paying their loans back with the Credit Builder’s Network so that the women are able to repair their credit scores.

Banks like the Women’s Helping Hands Bank continue to make loans based on a “face check” not a credit check. That particular group has gone on to develop a cooperative farmers market, City Greens, as well as a matched saving program for neighborhood youth. The bankers of Women’s Helping Hands Bank have not only developed a handbook on micro-lending but also presented at Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington. That trip was a highlight not only for them, but also for me as I sat and listened to them tell other leaders how they had started a micro-lending circle that had blossomed into other enterprises.
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What does it all mean?

For me the most important outcomes from micro-lending aren’t repayment rates or bank assets. What really matters is empowerment.

Each bank begins with the women themselves. They set the agenda. Their opinions are the ones that matter. After years and sometimes decades of being told what to do they are now the decision-makers. In one instance the women began by saying that they couldn’t do it–they didn’t feel they had the education or ability. But inspired by the example of the Lotsi women, they went ahead and did it anyway. No one stepped in to do it for them; instead other women walked with them to reassure, encourage and celebrate.

The affirmation that the women bankers and clients experience is the heart of each bank.

What does it feel like to finally be able to make decisions?

When does apprehension evolve into trust?

How does empowerment change our relationships with our children?

How does empowerment change how we see ourselves and the world?

I went to Mongu to teach women about micro-lending and the women of Mongu and St. Louis ended up teaching me.

City Greens Market

City Greens Market

How Are You in Your Heart?

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Several years ago, I traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, with the Incarnate Word Sisters. We touched down in Villahermosa in inky darkness and traveled to the heart of the city where bars were doing a brisk and noisy business. The next morning we traveled by bus up through the clear air of the mountains in Chiapas.

Our home base was a coffee plantation owned by the Ch’ol Indians. The sisters have been partners in Nich Klum Cafe for decades, working with the tribe to build an international coffee company. During that week I learned the mechanics about growing organic coffee–from seedlings in the greenhouse to beans forming in the fields. That the best coffee was shipped to Europe, the second-best to the United States, and the rest was left for Mexico.

Gregorio was my guide. He spoke four languages–I speak one. At the start of each day his greeting translated not as “How are you?” but as “How are you in your heart?”

When people ask “How are you?” the expected answer is “fine” or at the very least “okay.” It is a superficial question.

“How are you in your heart?” That is a deeper question that places us in relationship.

Although I don’t say, “How are you in your heart?” I try to keep that question in my mind and read between the lines as I go through the day.

  • How is my friend who lost her husband six months ago really doing?
  • How is my relative who is recuperating from a broken hip at home alone really coping?
  • How is a colleague who has a new supervisor really adjusting?

And I take an extra few minutes to listen. To see the day through their eyes. To give encouragement, a kind word or an unexpected note in the mail. To be present.

How are you in your heart?

I hear their heart and I hear mine.

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Prayer Flags and the Four Winds: What Is God Telling Us?

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My friend Pat just sent me a set of her prayer flags. Bright symbols of faith and aspiration are tossed by the four winds in my garden. Each morning the bright colors, symbols and messages catch my attention. They are beautiful and it is easy to not notice the wind itself.

At the foundation where I work, I often go next door to Sr. Mary Margaret’s office to debrief after a meeting or a phone call. She possesses a tart realism leavened with affection and wisdom; she is an excellent colleague and mentor. Her German practicality is the ideal counterpoint to my Irish intuition.

There are times when I’ll tell her about a particularly frustrating meeting. Or I may have encountered what appears to be an unjust situation that hurts those who are powerless. Perhaps it is a project that is going awry, a set of policies that actually mitigate against accomplishing the goal.

When I voice my aggravation and annoyance, Mary Margaret’s response is not to commiserate, but to say, “What is God telling you?”

My first thought is usually, ‘I don’t really care what God is telling me. What I care about is how bad or wrong this is and how frustrated I am.’

But later I return to Mary Margaret’s question: What is God telling me using this situation?

And that question leads to others.

What is the underlying message that I am missing when I focus on situation itself rather than on what we are working toward?

How can I stay attuned to what actually needs to be accomplished rather than get mired in negativity?

What is the other perspective that is present and what is the good to be found in that perspective?

Where can we turn to move past the obstacle and build consensus around a solution?

How do I emphasize the inherent value of human relationships rather than get bogged down in being political?

I take time to feel the wind. Because while it is important to see the prayer flags, it is the wind that makes them flutter and dance.

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What’s Important Is How We Do It

Surprise Lilies in the Parkway

While I was walking this morning, I was reflecting on a quotation from the woman who founded the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

With God, what we do is less important than how we do it.
Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, SSND

She said those words a century ago, but they speak to my heart today.

At the Incarnate Word Foundation I see many agencies working to serve those in need. Those of us in the funding world pressure them to show measurable outcomes. We want to know that they are effective in delivering services, that they measure their progress toward goals in quantifiable ways, that they are efficient in their use of resources. In response, agency leaders develop elaborate logic models and hire consultants to create service delivery systems.

And while good stewardship is necessary and important, the danger in that is an over-emphasis on what is being done rather than how it is being done.

Are we grounding what we do in compassion, love and respect?

Are we taking time to listen with our heart?

Are we walking with them on their journey?

Do we sit and hold a woman’s hand?

Do we see the spark of the Divine in each person?

So often we focus on getting things done, on accomplishments and outcomes. While we may reach every benchmark, we can lose the love and humanity that should be present whenever we are with others.

Because with God, what we do is less important than how we do it.

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Day Lilies: We Choose How We See the World

Day Lilies at Carondelet Pottery

Day Lilies at Carondelet Pottery

When I am throwing pots at Carondelet Pottery, I usually take a break and sit in the garden. And when I do, I make a choice. I can choose to focus on the weeds that need pulling or the fence that I have been meaning to paint, or I can choose to see day lilies blooming.

Every day we have times when we choose how we see the world.

Later that morning as I was emptying the trash at the studio I saw two men fishing for cans in the dumpster. This presented me with several choices.

I can choose to ignore them.

I can choose to inform them in no uncertain terms with only a glance, not words, that they shouldn’t be fishing in the dumpster and that they had better not knock trash into the alley.

Or I can choose to say, “Good morning.”

Which is what I did. And they responded with “Good morning” as well.

We had a brief conversation about the beautiful weather, the nice people at the Methodist church a few blocks away, and the price of scrap metal. All three of us made a choice about how we saw each other that morning.

And it was the beginning of a lovely peaceful day.

Day Lily, Carondelet Pottery

Day Lily, Carondelet Pottery

The Mission Is Within

photo by Grant Gillard

photo by Grant Gillard

The primary nectar flow is in full swing and my bees are single-mindedly going about their work. Some guard the hive, others fetch water from the pond, forage for nectar, alert their comrades to new blooms by dancing on the doorstep. They and their mission are one. The mission is within.

And I think of Sr. Alice.

I first met Sr. Alice when she was leading a spirituality and arts center in the congregation’s old dairy barn. Alice is a white-haired wise woman, her features sharp, her eyes kind and laughing. She is a tai chi practitioner, tall and angular, moving effortlessly through the world of spiritual traditions.

Alice’s white barn housed vibrant art and quiet music where the dairy stalls had been. The soaring beams of the hayloft framed a contemplative sacred space. I loved walking past the tall rosemary bushes into the barn, reflecting upon artists’ visions, listening to Alice as she shared her latest spiritual journey. But then it was gone.

The sisters’ retirement complex was next door and needed more space. The barn gave way for senior apartments to expand the sisters’ ministry to serve older adults.

The loss touched my heart. I thought of Alice, the scent of the rosemary and heat bouncing off the Texas sandstone that bordered the barn path, the light coming through the square dairy stall windows. The white barn gave way for a high-rise. I couldn’t imagine how terrible Alice felt about losing that beautiful space.

A few months later I was in San Antonio on the motherhouse grounds walking behind the retirement center. Suddenly, I saw Alice striding toward me, tall and slender in a red shirt and denim skirt. I hurried toward her and blurted out my concern for her and the loss of the barn.

She just smiled. Then she said that she was fine.

The barn was just a place, albeit a beautiful place, but a place all the same. She had been given an office in the retirement center and was carrying out the mission in a new way that she called Chispas, or sparks, for the sparks of the divine that are in each of us.

Alice explained that the mission is within her. The place is unimportant because she carries the mission within wherever she is. The mission manifests itself in whatever she is doing.

I have thought about that conversation with Alice many times. So often we get caught up in the need to possess something, whether it be a place, a project, our job or another person. To varying degrees these things are necessary for us, but they do not define us.

Each of us has a mission.

The bees currently live in a hive box in my yard, but they could swarm and move to a hollow sycamore tree or rotted building eaves. The bees would construct new comb, rebuild the honey stores.

We carry the mission within.

Relationships: Begin as You Mean to Go on

Blue/Purple Vase, Carondelet Pottery

Blue/Purple Vase, Carondelet Pottery

When I am throwing at the wheel, typically I begin as I mean to go on. As I center the clay, I am intentional. For a vase, I keep my left hand firm against the side to maintain a centered clay column; I push down with my right fist and strong arm the clay into a flat disc to create what will become a plate. I begin as I mean to go on.

Recently, a friend was worried about how she would work with a new colleague. She liked this person but, as an introvert, she was worried about being overshadowed. Would she be second fiddle, not because he put her in that place but because she placed herself there?

I told her quite simply,

Begin as you mean to go on.

At meetings, continue to share your perspective and not hold back because your new colleague is the extrovert. Continue doing your part of the work, and don’t carry his water.

It may appear to you that he doesn’t have all of his ducks in a row for a meeting, but don’t begin by assuming he is unprepared and then put yourself in a support role to provide what you think he needs to make his presentation a success. He is a professional and his way of preparing might be quite different, but still successful. And if turns out you were right and he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been, he will learn to do a better job the next time.

You need to establish an equitable relationship from the start and not place yourself in a subordinate role. You are, in fact, colleagues. If you represent yourself as support staff, that is how he will treat you.


When I throw that vase, I establish the parameters from the outset. Because if it starts as a plate, it is almost impossible to force the clay back into a cylinder and pull it up into a vase. The clay particles have been pushed in a different direction. Even if you do force it back, the results are usually not happy.

Begin as you mean to go on.

The Power of Being Present

Alley Springs MO

An essential part of living Incarnational spirituality is the power of presence. Very seldom are we truly present to others and to ourselves. We live in a constant state of distraction.

Technology brings the work world home and we take pride in being accessible 24-7. Vacations are merely working in another locale as laptops and i-phones keep us connected to the office, but at the cost of being connected to our families, friends, and ourselves. Multi-tasking interferes with our ability to focus on the task at hand. In meetings, it is increasingly rare to have anyone’s full attention.

Recently, I went to a meeting where a philanthropist was talking about her foundation’s work in urban neighborhoods. At the end of her remarks, she asked for questions, and then proceeded to use her Blackberry while simultaneously answering our questions. My suspicion is her texts and tweets are about as trivial for the most part as those that I receive. But what I know for certain is how little value she placed on the conversation at that table that day.

The Power of Being Present

I still remember the first time I experienced the power of presence. I had come to San Antonio to check in with the Congregation and stopped by Sr. Helena Monahan’s office. She was in leadership at that time and her days were spent overseeing the work of a religious order of more than 300 women, traveling to the new missions in Zambia, or working with the University of the Incarnate Word where she was the university’s attorney—her commitments were many.

When I walked through the door, I immediately began our conversation by telling her that I was sorry to interrupt and that I would only need a few minutes to bring her up-to-date on what we were doing in St. Louis.

Her response was to come around the desk, sit down across from me and say, “I am here for you. Take the time the time that you need.“

There is a power in that moment when someone sets everything aside and focuses on what another person has to say. It creates a relationship.

Presence and Incarnational Spirituality

Recently, Helena shared her thoughts on how presence and relationship are essential and stem from Incarnational spirituality.

The divine is in every person. If I put somebody off or don’t take advantage of being with that person, then I have really missed something of that person, of God and of just the experience of living. I try to live that out because it makes life calmer as every moment becomes important.

Sometimes it is challenging to do this when you are with someone that you totally disagree with on important issues. You may just want to scream. That’s the time to step back from your anger and realize this is a human being who has the same reasoning powers and decision-making powers and somehow they’ve come to a different conclusion. I don’t have to agree with them and I can challenge them to the best of my ability and not become emotional. This is a huge discipline.

Recently I’ve been reading and reflecting on Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh which discusses how the tenets of the two faiths are very much alike. A key premise, and I do think it is valid, is that all of life is a continuum.

There is a ‘before I was born’ and there is ‘my life’ and there’s going to be ‘whatever happens after I die’ but really it’s all a continuum. That takes away fear and helps you live in the present moment without worrying about what is going to happen.

It’s very enriching and incarnational since ‘In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.’ The Word will always be. Whatever God is and whatever the Word is – the expression of God – that is what we are trying to live and that is in every person. So that is where I am.