Four Rules for Living, #3, Tell the Truth

The anthropologist and spiritual teacher, Angeles Arrien is credited with these 4 rules for living:  Show up.  Pay attention.  Tell the truth.  Don’t be attached to the outcome.


Tell the truth…  that’s something we were taught as children, wasn’t it?  I know I was.  I remember vividly one of the first times I did not tell the truth – to my mother – as a child.  I was playing with neighbor kids, far enough to be as independent as I could be at that age – about 5 – and close enough for Mom to keep a watchful eye out the front screen door that led onto the porch on our upper flat.  At some point, I slapped a little girl in the group.  I don’t know if it is a memory trick, or if it happened this way, but I saw my mother at that moment, checking to see that I was safe on the street.

When I got home that day, Mom asked me whether I had hit one of my playmates.  I said no, that it must have been another little girl who looked just like me.  Mom  must have been stunned – at my creativity and at my sense of being right – because I saw – and vividly remember – a look of enjoyment and understanding cross her face.  Nothing more was said.

We assert our independence as children by not following the rules our parents taught us, and if we are on the path to grow into conscious adults, we continue to assert our independence from our parents, over the course of our lives.  And as we assert our independence, hopefully, carefully, and with great discernment, we discover what is true, for us, for who we are, separate from our parents and what was true for them.

Telling the truth is not easy.  First of all, it means that one has come to know that we often do NOT tell the truth.  We remember and speak what was true for others.  We hide our feelings.  We ignore feelings we do not want to feel – are in the habit of not feeling – and so we cannot tell the truth of what we feel, in this moment, now.

Sometimes, if we are on a journey, and for awhile, we say someone else’s truth, because we do not yet know our own.  “I have to be positive,” we say to ourselves, and so we ignore what is true for ourselves and instead say what would go over well with our latest self-help guru.  Or we quote scripture, without having questioned its meaning, without having considered how and if it might apply to me in my own circumstances.  It’s easy to get stuck here, to not grow any more, because we think we have found “truth.”  All along, we still do not know what is true for ourselves.

In my own life, I remember coming to the place where I began to know and to feel – as if for the first time – my own feelings in response to something that happened.  I remember learning that I had to trust what I knew in my body as much – perhaps even more – than what my roiling thoughts were telling me.  I remember that when I first began to truly know what was true for me, I often could not say that truth without raising my voice.

Sometimes, I’m like that now.  Maybe I have to speak loudly enough so that I can hear!

But sometimes now, I speak truth that is truth to me, in this moment, in this circumstance, with this person, in this particular situation.  What is true is not some long-remembered “rule” from my childhood, or my religion, or someone I admire.  What is true is what is true for me.  I have learned that I can speak what is true quietly – very quietly – because what is true is what is meant for me, only.

And when I speak my truth, I can walk away without caring about how the other person responded.   Telling my truth is not about changing someone else’s mind.  When I “tell the truth,” I am complete.  I am not concerned about changing someone else’s mind – they have their own journey to the truth for themselves, after all, and I cannot know what that journey may be for them.  I am complete simply because I have honored truth, my truth, I have spoken it well, and I am complete.  When I speak my own truth, I respect myself, and I respect the other.  In fact, if I have honored my own truth, I can listen more fully to someone else’s truth.  I can listen for the deeper truth beneath the words, as I have done for myself.


I love these 4 rules for living.  I know it is not easy to live these rules.  Sometimes in life, I come across some idea or some short thought that fits.  I like to say that one could live their whole life, turning that thought over and over again, trying it on, seeing when it fits and when it does not fit.  These 4 rules are like that for me.  This is not the only truth I have held inside, turning over inside myself like one turns a stone over in the palm of one’s hand; one favorite for me, that I have returned to many times is this:  “give thanks in all circumstances.”

But these 4 rules for living are good, solid rules.  I like them because they are not easy.  They are not easily won, as if they can be honored without questioning our own thoughts and our own lives, as if they can be lived without hard work.  But they are good rules.

Next, “Don’t be attached to the outcome.”  (oh, noooooo!)



Always learning


IMG_0685Mom used to say: “You learn something new every day.”

Like a mantra, I have lived those words.

My mother did not graduate from high school, although she received her GED while I was in university.  I know for certain she did that so that I would graduate with a degree, since I was wavering, and had taken a semester off during my senior year at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  She didn’t tell me her purposes, but I knew.  When she received her certificate, I sent her a spring bouquet.

Mom quit school early to work.  She married young, also, and had a son within a year – Ronn, my brother.  Mom was bright.  Now, when Mom comes up in conversation, I tell folks that she should have been a teacher – a kindergarten or first-grade teacher.  The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who lived in flats in neighborhoods of poor folks, it was enough that she learned to read and write.  She taught her father to read English when she was a girl.  In my mind’s eye, I can see her, bright and determined, her feet wrapped around the rungs of a wooden chair in a cramped Milwaukee flat, as her father, Vlas, concentrated and paced, determined, also.  He was smart, although uneducated in his native language.  He made that long trip across the ocean, left the familiar village of his homeland so that his children could learn to read and to write.

So Mom knew the value of education, although she could not see to get a degree herself.  Life, the life of a working class woman, intervened.  She was married and divorced by the age of 22.  She worked hard at Cutler-Hammer in Milwaukee, where her employers noticed the bright, hard-working young woman.  She quit her job when she married my father.  That’s what working class women did in the 1940’s.  The truth is, she had greater earning potential than my father.  But that’s how things were done.  A woman married, a woman quit working in the outside world, a woman kept house and raised the children.

When I was girl, I walked 3 blocks to the Center Street Library – on 27th and Center – with Mom, every week.  She must have read all of the books  in the “mystery” section of that library.  It was in those days that I learned to love the smell of libraries.  In a library, it seems we can smell the riches of what is carried in the aisles.  Twice in my life I have worked in a library – in high school, and again in seminary.  For awhile as an undergraduate, I even flirted with the idea of becoming a librarian. Books would save me, many times, during my life.

When Mom and I left the Center Street Library  to walk home, we each carried two or three books to read for the week ahead.  I see now that Mom was living her mantra:  “you learn something new every day.”  She modeled that for me in concrete ways.  I was not able to see that for many years, but now, in my own learning, I understand.

Mom taught me how a woman washes clothes, too.  During the summers when I was a young girl, my babushka-d Mom would take me down three flights of stairs to the shared basement of our flat to show me how to wash clothes.  I remember the smell there, too, the damp and soapy smell of the basement, the hot, steaming water of the wringer washer.  Into the first load went whites – sheets, pillow cases, underwear.  Into the second load of the same water went towels and colored clothing.  Into the last load went Dad’s work clothes.  See, Mom?  – I have not forgotten!  I know the smell,  I can see the beautiful wooden stick Mom used to lift the clothes from the washer into the first rinse water, and then into the final rinse before the clothes were taken in the large wooden basket into the yard to dry in the humid air.  As I write, I can smell the air, too.

If I could have one item of Mom’s, it would be that wooden stick, smooth, smelling of soapy water, imprinted with Mom’s hands, her weeping and her worries.  Where did that stick go?

I see Mom’s broad, strong peasant hands, hands that in later years would be crooked with arthritis.  She was a worker, teaching a little girl whose work is ideas and books and the fabric of words.   “You learn something new every day.”  I took those words into myself, and I made them my own.

The path I have taken through life has been the path of learning, too, not always from books.  But I am keeping your mantra, Mom:  I keep it, still.





What Work Is…

One thing I have learned on this journey of life is what work is – and what work is not.

I come from a family of hard workers. My father worked long and hard hours in the gritty, noisy, dangerous land of a steel mill. On weekends, he had a second job as the security guard in an apartment building that was home to professionals. My grandfather worked in a foundry. Uncles grew crops, picked in orchards, and raised pigs. I loved them all, as different as I am from them.

I grew up in a different time – the generation after World War II, those privileged years, and even though I come from working class, hard-working roots, my work has been of a different sort. I have been privileged enough, and smart enough, to get an education and to land a professional job right after college.  I almost did not make it through college; I dropped out in my senior year, uncertain about what I really wanted to do as I entered the adult world.  When I graduated, I carried with me a BA in English, that “jack of all trades” degree.  Still, I was the first generation in my family to go to college.  My parents helped that happen by giving me room and board – at home – while I commuted to university.

By temperament, I didn’t fit into my working class family.  From the time I was young, I was a dreamer, and I loved words.  Mom couldn’t understand why I didn’t “go outside” during the summer, why instead I spent  hours melted  into a chair, a book in my lap, my eyes in the pages, my imagination immersed in the worlds I found there.  She understood my reading, and encouraged it.  She didn’t understand my introvert’s ability to lose myself in what I read, although she was an introvert herself.  Sometimes, though, we read the same books and talked about the characters as if they were real, pointing someone out on the street, the character we knew so well!

I grew up in a different time, when the values of the 50’s, of the nuclear family and what that meant were being questioned and even discarded.  In the spring of my first year of college, universities were closed during the spring semester after demonstrations against Vietnam grew violent across the country.  I loved university much more than high school.  In a way, my life began then, when my books gave way to intellectual thinking and exploration.  I was made for that world!  I was a free-thinker, and I was also careful and uncertain about my own life, and so I did not explore much of the world outside my intellect.

My world opened up, I think, when I began to explore the inner, rich world beyond my senses.  In my 30’s, uncertain about how to really live my life, how to engage in relationships, how to be happy, I began to explore my feelings and motives.  I discovered the spiritual world, a fit for me.  I made an adventure of going to 12 step meetings, retreats, healers, and therapy.  I was motivated by my pain, which is truly the door to inner exploration.  Something about life as others live it isn’t working, and so the inner world beckons.

To me, real work is inner exploration.  I call it growth.  I have come to see that as we grow outside the bounds of all the restrictions we were taught were “reality,” and “truth,” we actually grow, we expand, not only intellectually, but emotionally, and in power.  My journey has been a deep journey of inner exploration, and I join so many other spiritual and therapeutic teachers of the world – Merton, Helen Keller, Jung – in that regard.  My journey has not been easy for me, but I am grateful.  I know what it is to be grateful even when the times of my life are tough.

My real work has led me to one place, only.  My real work has led me, simply, profoundly, and beautifully, to myself.   I am grateful that I have companions on this journey, because to have no companions at all would be lonely, so lonely.  Some of my former companions, those who I love still, have not taken the journey, and so I find my ability to be with them limited not only in time but in content.  In a way, I miss them.   I love them, still.

My real work has led me to relate my life to God, whatever God is.  I surrender the ego, when I can, and when I reach the edge – again, and again, and again… >>>>…


For one thing I am eternally grateful.  I am grateful that I have found my call, and that although it is a lonely call in many ways, I am grateful that there is a community of fellow journeyers on my path.  Some I will never know personally, but I know they have taken the journey:  Dag Hammarskjold comes to mind; I know he is a fellow pilgrim.  And I am grateful that this journey has opened my heart to the world, to the suffering of all other human beings.  My journey has led me to understand that we are all the same, inside, and that we are perfect as we are.

You, too.



“Practice makes perfect!” – Miss Schmidt, 3rd grade teacher


“Practice makes perfect” was Miss Schmidt’s mantra.  Miss Schmidt, third grade teacher, white-haired and in her navy blue dress with white polka-dots, black shoes.  Thank you, Miss Schmidt! I got the message, internalized it, translated the message to my own liking (we all do that), and lived a long time trying to be as “perfect” as I could be.  Thank God, “practice makes perfect” only lasted so long, and then?  Then, it “fizzled” out in my mind, and in my life.

Oh – freedom!

The first time I challenged my wanting to get things right was in a class I took for several years:  “Aikido as Spiritual Practice.”  The class was a combination of movement and dharma talks (The Intuitive Body: Discovering the Wisdom of Conscious Embodiment and Aikido [Wendy Palmer]).

We started each class on the mat, after we had entered the room, removed our shoes, and bowed to the gathering class, teacher and students.  Barefoot, we faced the mirrored wall, our teacher facing us, and moved together through a series of simple practices.  For some reason, “let’s practice,” the words spoken by the teacher as she led us through our warm-up, was in my mind on that one particular day.  I moved awkwardly, furtively watching the teacher and the other students.  Was I moving correctly?  Why did she look so graceful?  Can I do it like him?  Above all, am I doing it right???

I felt – awkward.  Check this out for yourself:  feeling awkward is a heavy thing.  It weighs you down.

Then, something snapped or switched or jerked in my mind.  I stopped watching the others, and I began to “practice” from the inside, rather than the outside.  I began to feel the movements.  I was free!  In my mind, I was 5 years old again, fully myself, my little girl legs dancing and thrashing, and it all coming out – perfectly!  I could feel that little girl, sense her insides, my insides.  I was free!

I have not forgotten that moment, that moment in time when I broke free from Miss Schmidt’s mantra:  practice makes perfect.  I expect that in many ways, Miss Schmidt was right.  But we all have our own translation of what we hear, of what comes into us, of what we remember, and value – or remember, and discard.

Practice means that:  simply practice.  When life is practice, we become free.  When life is practice, there is not getting it right or wrong.  When life is practice, there is movement.  When life is practice, we can move from one practice to the next, allowing what does not work, what has not worked, what will not work to freely move along.

We talk about spiritual practice.  Spiritual practice is like that, too.  Practice is only practice, not perfection.  There’s a  difference.  There are no perfect feelings, no perfect objects brought to completion.  What is perfect quickly loses its shine, and that’s part of life.  So – practice.  Don’t practice to become perfect.  Don’t wait for the perfect time.  Don’t expect to not have feelings that aren’t “perfect,” or “good,” or positive.  Just practice.

Make of your life, this:  practice.


Our Little Worlds



We all grow up in Little Worlds, Little Worlds that begin with our families – for better or worse – and gradually expand into the world that surrounds us, that Big World, that foreign place.  For some of us, that foreign place intrigues, and so we spend our lives widening and widening the boundaries of the Little World where we began.

For some of us, Big World is a frightening place – which it surely is – and so we use our precious energy to make sure the boundaries of our  Little World are never broken.  We live within the confining – and supposedly safe – shell of Little World.  We take our Little World with us, wherever we go.

Our minds hold our Little Worlds, embrace our Little Worlds, surround our Little Worlds.  If we think we have open minds and still, our world does not embrace the wideness of the world and its varieties of thinking and people and ideologies and practices and dresses and rights and wrongs, then our minds are not open at all.  We are locked in our Little Worlds, the only worlds our minds can hold.  Whenever we think:  “how can they be that way?” or “how can they think that way?” we are living within the limits of Little World.   That’s how our minds think; that’s what keeps us in Little World.   Often our Open Minds are not Open at all, they are only the Little World, unable to give way to Big  World.

Experience teaches us – hopefully – that our Little Worlds are not big enough for life.  We try to control our Little Worlds, keeping the Big World away; sometimes we are startled awake, startled alive,  have our minds broken open.  When our minds break open the edges of our Little World gives way to  Big World.

Our minds are broken open when our hearts are broken open – by failing, by submitting our privilege, by addiction, by depression, by the truth that whatever rules we learned in the Little World cannot carry us in Big World.  Our minds are broken open when we realize we do not know, we cannot know what is right or good for another.  We learn that we don’t even know what is right or good for ourselves.  We learn that the rules we learned in Little World don’t work in Big World.  The rules we learned in Little World are meant to keep us small, and safe.  Big World is not safe; Big World is an adventure.

We – those of us who have  had our Little Worlds broken, are grateful for those things that have broken us, for they break the Little World.  And this, this alone makes the world a safer, kinder, gentler place, for all.  Big World is a place of love, of limit-less love.

When Little World is broken, Big World appears.