How to Find Hope in Turbulent Times

Hope and Despair by Yuumei for Hope blog post


“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” puffs the little engine that can and it does pull the train over the mountain in the beloved children’s book The Little Engine That Could. Young and old readers rally to cheer the story of a determined train engine (notably, a self-effacing “she”) in Watty Piper’s picture book rendition of the traditional American values of optimism, hope, and can-doism.

Page from 1954 edition of The Little Engine That Could for Hope blog postThe message of The Little Engine goes straight to the heart of our deepest held cultural beliefs and aspirations: however modest our circumstances, by summoning courage and willpower, we can overcome. Like the sometimes bumbling and naïve heroes of Dickens, or the dim-witted dummlings in fairy tales, Piper’s little blue engine begins in self-doubt and ends in victory.

If only in the real world finding hope were as simple as reciting a positive mantra!

The word itself, hope, comes from the old English hopa and means confidence in the future. Wikipedia aligns hope with “expectation with confidence.” Over centuries the word’s meaning hasn’t much changed: to hope is to have trust in the future, even if the future is fraught with uncertainty and unknowns.

Hope is an essential curative for despair and necessary for survival, but as we face a new year in which struggle and sorrow abound, many of us feel depleted of hope. How can we balance accepting a difficult reality with preserving optimism about the future? Hope, it seems, is not backward-looking, but has its arms stretched out to the future.

The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu for Hope blog postTo feed the seeds of hopefulness, I recently turned to a conversation between sages, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Each man has been marked by arduous travels on the road of suffering but has preserved his humanity and his joy. The two venerable world leaders met in Dharamasala, India to celebrate their birthdays (both men are in their eighties) and to discuss the world situation. The result of their conversation is recorded in The Book of Joy.

Despite the title, there is nothing superficial or Pollyannish about The Book of Joy. Every chapter steers the mind and heart toward hope. Their considered views concur: “No dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet. This is the power we wield.”

Both men believe in our capacity to do good despite our capacity to also commit atrocities. When faced with video footage of disasters, our compassion “springs up.” We see this often in the flood of generosity from strangers after a national or international disaster. In fact, the desire to do good is our inherent nature, though sometimes conditioning obstructs this instinct. Desmond Tutu and His Holiness advise we can take heart that humankind is slowly evolving toward greater self-awareness. In Buddhist terms, we can count on our genuine warm-heartedness.

Self-Portrait as a Garden by KRIS-13 for Hope blog postWhen I asked renowned Jungian analyst Murray Stein about his perspective on hope, he sent me the following response: “I was thinking about what gives hope to people, and it occurred to me that when dreams of young children come to my patients, they always give a lift because children symbolize a future, and what is hope if not about the future?” He gave the example of a patient’s dream of a pregnancy and birth, images that signified a hopeful prospect for the patient’s new marriage and for a positive perspective on her own life.

“It’s out of dreams like this that hope gets born in people,” says Dr. Stein. In a chapter called “Turbulence in the Individuation of Humankind” in his latest book, Outside Inside and All Around, Dr. Stein draws a conclusion similar to that of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s: “Human consciousness is increasing and moving toward the realization that we’re all in this together…You don’t see this movement toward consciousness from day to day or year to year, but looking over decades and centuries, I see improvement in the human condition on the planet and an advance of human consciousness.”

Of course, miscalculated or misguided hope can lead us into greater difficulty. Psychotherapist Jason Holley admits that in his practice, much of his work is in helping clients recognize they have placed their hope in hopeless situations—the husband who won’t stop drinking, the narcissistic mother or abusive boyfriend. We might call this blind faith, a denial to see reality, something quite different from cultivating an “eyes-wide-open” hopefulness.

"God does not play dice" for Hope blog postThe possibility of a more conscious and compassionate humanity lets in a crack of hope in a world seething with difficulties. One doesn’t have to be a spiritual leader or a depth psychologist to find hope in a world seemingly depleted of reasons for hope. Even one of our greatest scientific geniuses, Albert Einstein, having discovered universal laws that govern “things unseen,” speculated that a benevolent force might be at work, a force that coordinates the exquisite workings of the universe. Later in his life, he wrote:

“I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves. For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process. If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning. But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.”

“God does not play dice with the universe.”

The story of The Little Engine That Could inspires the reader to try harder and invest hope in her capacity for success, but to sustain hope when the odds are against us, and our inner and outer resources have withered, requires that we look beyond the Ego ideals of self-determination and self-improvement. Hope is the domain of soul and what I call “the daily miraculous.” Just as Einstein marveled at the intricate order of the universe, so, too, might we seek the territory of awe and embrace its manifestations. What we feed ourselves matters. What we take in and acknowledge—with our eyes and ears as well as our mouths—determines our health—mind, body and spirit. A steady diet of negativity, defeatism, and cynicism can only perpetuate fear and despair.

Everywhere the daily miraculous sends communiqués to our spirit. As T.S. Eliot writes in The Four Quartets:

. . . Music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.

Purple-throated Carib hummingbird for Hope blog postConsider these small miracles.

  • A hummingbird’s wings beat 720 to 5400 beats per minute. Its metabolism is a hundred times faster than an elephant’s. Its brain is 4.2 % of its body weight, which is approximately the weight of a penny, but despite its tiny size, hummingbirds hear better and see farther than humans. Hummingbirds fly over five hundred miles across the Gulf of Mexico in twenty hours without stopping. They can remember every flower they have ever visited.
  • Honeybees can differentiate hundreds of different floral odors from miles away. A honeybee will fly 90,000 miles, the equivalent of three orbits around the earth to collect 1 kilogram of honey. A bee’s brain is the size of a sesame seed but has a remarkable ability to learn, remember and calculate.
  • When your skin is cut, you bleed. Unless severe, the cut stops bleeding within minutes. Soon the edges of the wound close. A scab forms and new skin grows over the injury. Millions of complex biological functions that facilitate healing occur without our willing or even noticing them.

French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty postulated that we live in an inter-subjective field with all life and the natural world. For him, the world is not just speaking to us but is also listening to us. We walk through the woods and admire the trees while the trees may be watching and admiring us! More than a mind-trip, a neatly stated slogan, or immutable orthodoxy, hope may originate in a palpably lived experience of awe and wonder at our interconnectedness with everything else on the planet. To be enchanted by the world is to be a participant and not simply a spectator.

If anything I’ve written here has prodded your curiosity, try keeping a journal of things that daily awe, amaze, or enchant you. Inhabiting this quality of reverie may be your path to hope.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

“Waves of Inspiration” Writers’ Conference

WavesWaves of Inspiration is a writers’ conference dedicated to exploring multiple sources of inspiration for writers.

It features four different tracks – spirituality, nature, theater, and art — as well as 15 different presenters.

The Conference lasts for four days and includes sessions on poetry, faith, inter-disciplinary creativity boosts, the enriching aspects of restriction, and more. Extra-curricular options include trolley rides, fish boils, and a trip to Peninsula Players.

I’ll be conducting three workshops; When Paintings Speak: Art, Empathy, and Creating Characters, Complex vs Flat Characters: Digging Deeper into the Human Soul, and, lastly, on a trolley ride to Woodwork Gallery I’ll discuss using visual art as a writing prompt, and with a tour of the gallery to follow.

Remember, I’m only one of 15 presenters, so there will obviously be lots to do and discover.

Plus, it’s in Door County in the summertime and all Conference events (except the field trips!) take place at the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor.

Sounds pretty much perfect, doesn’t it?

I hope to see you there!

Please Note: The $295 early bird registration fee does not include accommodations at the Landmark Resort, although a group rate is available through the Conference. Be sure to check the registration form carefully to make sure you’ve signed up for all the extras and field trips you want.

Dinner with friends

Dinner settings for Sappho Woolf_600x315


Writers are often asked where they get their ideas, and that’s a good damn question. As far as I can tell, memory, imagination, dreams, bits of history, overheard conversations, observations, and popular culture combine in unpredictable ways to fuel a story. The past is always awake telling us where we’ve been and what we’ve known. The future alights in reverie or dreams, at the blurred edges of our vision, offering glimpses of what might be possible. Imagination bundles up rag-tags of this and that and pushes them into consciousness where a whole new thing takes form. None of this is analyzed by the writer, certainly not this writer: when the muse arrives with a full suitcase, I welcome her like a queen.

But here’s my latest answer to that perennial question of where a writer’s ideas come from — they come from the brilliant minds of others! On that note, when recently asked by a friend what writers I’d invite to a dinner party, the following list popped into my head. And what a list! Can you imagine what a vibrant, eclectic, and profound conversation might ensue?

Jane Goodall
Virginia Woolf
Muriel Spark
Marie-Louise von Franz
Toni Morrison

All women — at least this time around.
Two poets. Three novelists. One primatologist/anthropologist. One Jungian archetypal psychologist.
One Greek. Two Brits. One Scot. One Kashmiri. One Swiss. One American.

It would take pages and pages to adequately praise the work of each of these brilliant women, but one thing they have in common is their uncommon courage as writers and thinkers. Each has changed the way I see and think about the world, each has astonishing stories to tell.

LalleshwariThe fourteenth-century mystic poet Lalleshwari, also known as Lal Ded, lived at a time when Shaivism, Sufism, Buddhism, and Hinduism were alive and entwined in a rich amalgam of religions merging in Asia. I’m told that though she was ridiculed and taunted, Lalla, lit by divine inspiration, danced naked through the Kashmiri valley singing her ecstatic poems. Here is her voice, translated by Coleman Barks.

I didn’t trust it for a moment,
but I drank it anyway,
the wine of my own poetry.

It gave me the daring to take hold
of the darkness and tear it down
and cut it into little pieces.

Jane Goodall. I reach for one of her books when I need to remind myself to honor my instincts and rekindle my sense of wonder. When doubt (something I’m examining a lot these days) blunts my energy for taking a step forward, I reach for Jane — a role model for me of a writer who has documented the courage and passion necessary for her work.

jane-goodall-615Among other esteemed achievements, Jane Goodall is credited with changing how scientists study animals in their natural habitats. In 1960, without any formal training or advanced education, she left England to study wild chimpanzees at the Gombe project in Tanzania under the tutelage of the famous anthropologist, Louis Leakey. In her own words, she was then “a naïve young English girl,” but one who’d always held a fascination with wild life. Now, decades and many books later, she’s an international treasure. Here’s one of my favorite passages from her book Through a Window.

There are many windows through which we can look out into the world, searching for meaning. There are those opened up by science, their panes polished by a succession of brilliant, penetrating minds. Through these we can see ever further, ever more clearly, into areas that once lay beyond human knowledge. Gazing through such a window I have, over the years, learned much about chimpanzee behavior and their place in the nature of things. And this in turn, has helped us to understand a little better some aspects of human behavior, our own place in nature.

But there are other windows; windows that have been unshuttered by the logic of philosophers; windows through which the mystics seek their visions of truth; windows from which the leaders of the great religions have peered as they search for purpose not only in the wondrous beauty of the world, but also in its darkness and ugliness. Most of us, when we ponder on the mystery of our existence, peer through but one of these windows onto the world. And even that one is often misted over by the breath of our finite humanity. We clear a tiny peephole and stare through. No wonder we are confused by the tiny fraction of a whole that we see. It is, after all, like trying to comprehend the panorama of the desert or the sea through a rolled-up newspaper.

Marie Louis von Franz with JungMarie-Louise von Franz is probably the least recognizable name on my list. Like her mentor and colleague, the depth psychologist Carl Jung, Ms. Von Franz can be credited with helping modern thinkers understand the psychological and symbolic dimension of fairy tales. At my imaginary dinner party, Marie-Louise turns first to Sappho and then to Toni Morrison and asks each their favorite fairy tale. Are you a Cinderella? Rapunzel? A bewitched crow? she might inquire. Can you imagine the lively conversation that would follow? Most of us are driven by the unconscious myths we carry about ourselves, and these motifs, these archetypes (the orphan, the seducer, the wise old man) with which we identify shape our lives. Think about it! What fairy tales haunt your mind?

Space prevents me from quoting more than two writers who’ve inspired me to speak the truth and given me faith in my own process. But to circle back to my specific choices, I see now that these invited guests share certain qualities that in turn reflect my own biases and interests. They are observers, rebels, pioneers, seekers, original thinkers, and I think also, each is in her own way, sassy and determined.

May you too find nourishment in their books, and may you too be awakened to new wonders. Here’s a place to start.

Sappho                                Sappho: a new translation Mary Barnard
Jane Goodall                        Through A Window
Virginia Woolf                       Moments of Being
Lalla                                    Naked Song, translated by Coleman Barks
Toni Morrison                       Beloved
Marie-Louis von Franz           Shadow and Evil in Fairytales
Muriel Spark                         The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Woolf Morrison Spark_600x428

On Enchantment and My Writing


Enchantment. I hope the word sends a thrill up your spine! When was the last time your conversation turned to enchantment? Who talks about enchantment these days? That may be one of the reasons it interests me. As a writer, I’m interested in what isn’t being said in the public sphere—the unsaid and the unspoken.

The German philosopher Wittgenstein explored the subject of enchantment. WittgensteinAccording to him, enchantment transports us beyond our finite selves. To be enchanted, he wrote, was “to show the fly the way out of the bottle.” To show the fly the way out of the bottle! The French poet Paul Eluard said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” I agree. Enchantment is with us here, now.

And yet we seem so attracted to enchantment’s opposites—cynicism, irony, mistrust—qualities that show up in lots of contemporary fictional characters who reflect our twenty-first century discouraged and disenchanted point of view. Enchantment, instead, would have us stand in the place of wonder and consider ourselves apprentices in the mystery of Being.

I’ll share a recent discovery—the role enchantment has played in my writing—paul-eluardand how the enchanted state in a writer, in this case me, seeps into the work itself. Another way of saying this is that what’s in the psyche of the writer shows up transmuted on the page. Transmuted is key because sometimes only the slightest aroma of the original idea is evident in the final written form. Think of it this way: The rapture expressed in Mozart’s The Magic Flute is directly related to the rapture Mozart presumably felt while composing it. If Mozart was filled with rapture, rapture will be in his music.

marc chagall die zauberflote_fullsizeThere’s plenty of enchantment going on in my novel The Conditions of Love. (Check out Mr. Tabachnik’s relationship to opera, or Eunice and Rose’s relationship to the natural world, or Mern’s intoxication with Hollywood.) I myself was in an enchanted state while writing a lot of the book, but I also admit that my characters, in turn, enchanted me. This is the moment when I might explain that the novel’s origins began when I started to hear voices, but that’s another story for another time.

This writer has experienced her most enchanted states at our cabin in the north woods where much of The Conditions of Love was written. You might say that in solitude and stillness, my apprehension of and connection to the invisible world ripened. The wind spoke to me, the pines spoke to me, the sun-diamonds on the lake and the slap of water against the shore worked their magic. At other times while writing the novel, I took myself to foreign towns where I’d rent a bungalow and sit myself down to write. Enchantment can occur at any time, but it does seem to appreciate an escape from the familiar.

We don’t talk much about enchantment, but most of us have experienced it and still get glimpses. For example, music shares an ancient relationship to enchantment. Think: hymns, chants, rattles and drums. On a more modern note, I recently read that melody and rhythm trigger the same dopamine system in the brain that rewards food and sex. Absolutely! Who didn’t think that whirling dervishes and ecstatic dancers of every stripe were having more fun than the rest of us!  It appears neuroscience has finally caught up with what the sages always knew.

There’s so much violence and terror in the world today. whirling dervishes of istanbul“You name it, the world is aflame,” said Gary Samore, a former national-security aide in the Obama Administration, to New York Times reporter Peter Baker. I wonder where we can find an antidote to the dread and doom? Where can we look for relief? Couldn’t an engagement with enchantment, that is, to stand in wonder at what does exist, open worlds of possibility and present a wedge of light in the darkness?

Here’s a very brief list of fiction writers who play with enchantment in their work. Poets need their own list.

Suggested reading:

Lewis Carroll: The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

Steven Millhauser: Little Kingdoms; The Knife Thrower and Other Stories

Louise Erdrich: The Plague of Doves

Tea Olbrecht: The Tiger’s Wife

anything by Jorge Luis Borges or Edgar Allan Poe

anything by Angela Carter


Five motivational techniques that worked for me — my interview on the Writer’s Relief blog

Writers Relief_400x400When I was first starting out as a poet, I discovered Writer’s Relief. Ronnie Smith, the founder, was exquisitely aware of how writers often work very hard on something and then procrastinate in sending the piece out for publication. What she and her staff formed was an agency that did all the dirty work for writers. Writer’s Relief is now celebrating its tenth year, and if you check on their website you’ll see what a fantastic boon for writers it has become including great free advice on their blog, video tutorials, and a free publishing toolkit. They stay loyal to their clients. They were kind enough to do a shoutout on their Tumblr blog when The Conditions of Love was first published last year.

RonnieSmithPhotoSMALLThe WR blog currently features a Q&A with me about the process of writing. I always wonder when I do these interviews if anyone reading them will actually find them helpful. I try to offer tips I’ve actually find useful, and ones you won’t find in most writing advice columns. Here’s one I doubt you’ll find in any book or blog on writing:

PrintHave a sangha, the Buddhist word for a place of refuge. Cultivate a group of friends who love and support you and who understand the challenges of your writing life. Make sure you can belly laugh with them too. A good minute of belly laughing does wonders for the creative spark.

I have found that “recharging” with friends has often been critical to staying healthy and sane. And there are four more suggestions I hope will provide comfort and support to a writer somewhere. One fun aspect to this interview: Writer’s Relief is giving away a free copy of TCOL to one lucky reader who comments or asks me a question on the blog before June 11. Check it out and let me know what you think. You could be the winner.