As promised, here is Part 2 of the interview with me in Light of Consciousness Journal. It begins when my first marriage was falling apart and I took off for an ashram. “Ashram?” my mother said. “You don’t need an ashram! You need a marriage counselor!”
To Live a Sacred Life: Reflections on a Personal Journey – Part 2
What was your first ashram like? It was at an Integral Yoga Center in Connecticut. I went because my marriage and I were in a bad place, and while there, I entered a gentler place, and remembered the feelings of peace and love. I felt healed by our early morning meditations, soothed by the warm milk and honey we had before bed. I remember words the teacher said during hatha yoga: Reach as far as you can … and then stretch a little farther. Yes, I thought, that will be my philosophy for life.
We did karma yoga too. I was to clean the toilets as an offering to God. Now at home, this was something I dreaded; yet at the ashram, I wanted the toilets to shine! But what I loved most was chanting in Hindi. The music was so beautiful and the energy so high, as we all sang together the names of God. I wrote an article about my experience for Glamour magazine. I believe it was the first article on yoga and ashrams in a national magazine.
I wrote for several national magazines then, sharing life experiences with humor. But soon, writing began to feel too self-centered. I wanted to be out helping people and less involved in myself and my words. I wanted (modestly!) to save the world!
How were you going to save the world? Well, I started with the skies. New York was so polluted, and I was saddened that my children couldn’t see the stars at night. I wanted everyone to be able to breathe clean air and feel healthy. So I volunteered for the Clean Air Campaign, which focused on upgrading city boilers and reducing reliance on cars. That summer I took my children to Nantucket, a mostly car-free island, and loved riding a bike all around. I noticed how happy and friendly people seemed as we cycled past each other, and I had a vision that New York, another small island, could be this way too.
When I came home, I wrote a grant and co-founded an organization called Transportation Alternatives (TA). Its purpose was to promote bicycling, walking, and mass transit and to get bike lanes on New York City streets. We organized a bike-in down Broadway that spring, and 5,000 people came — all races, all ages, from all over the city! Pete Seeger came on his bike with his guitar; Dustin Hoffman cycled with Mayor Ed Koch; and some of the cast from Godspell came and sang, “Day by day, Oh dear Lord, three things I pray…” It’s one of my happiest memories! What I’ve always wanted is to bring people together around a common dream—to create community. TA still exists, and New York now has separated bike lanes on major streets.
How did you become a community organizer and a teacher? I went back to school to get my MSW and then worked in Harlem for ten years in a dropout-prevention program. That’s where I learned what poverty truly is, far sadder and darker than portrayed in Little Women. But I also saw great love and generosity. I saw families with no money take in other children from the street. I don’t want to glamorize, because I know of the many problems, but in places like Harlem and rural villages in Mexico, I experienced a deep sense of sharing, community, and faith.
The kids I was working with had such hard times at school or believing in any future. Many had seen a friend or family member get killed and had teachers who had become embittered. I felt that through teaching I could do more to help them, give them concrete skills to better their lives and create a classroom full of love. So I went back to school to become a teacher. I wrote my thesis on developing a curriculum around the Iroquois Indians. I’d always been drawn to Native Americans, to their spirituality. The more I studied their traditions and beliefs, the closer I felt.
Two years later, my now-husband John asked me to move to Boulder where he was starting a magazine. I was all excited thinking, “I’ll go out West with John and teach on a reservation!” But when I got to Boulder, I was told, “There are no reservations here.” I called the University and they said, “Call the Family Learning Center. They work with disadvantaged and immigrant children.” Their director, Brenda Lyle, told me they once had an after-school center, and hired me to start one again. So I recruited about 100 volunteers, trained them to be tutors, and it was a beautiful time. It was the children’s home away from home, and we all had so much fun. One thing I know about volunteering is that those you serve are giving you a gift by letting you help them. It’s a wonderful, mutual sharing.
Coming to Boulder was like coming to heaven—the mountains and wild flowers, the sunsets and big sky. I’d lived in large cities before and never saw such natural beauty. We started a vegetable garden, took long hikes, and I felt closer to the earth, sky, and God than I’d ever imagined. And as a bonus, we traveled to reservations in nearby New Mexico to honor or partake in Native rituals, and took trips to Mexican villages where I felt uplifted by their fiestas, simple life, generosity, and faith.
Who were your spiritual teachers? There have been so many, some already mentioned. But to name a few more: my mother, with her deep faith and natural connection to God that helped her through some trying times and helped me too. Rita, an Irish Catholic elder I met and loved in Boulder, who made me feel the love the Blessed Mother has for us all. Billie from Harlem, who taught me to love myself and write my ‘gratefuls’ every night. Halil Baba, my Sufi teacher from Turkey, with whom I took hand and who told me, “Imitate the Saints. They were only human too.” And Brant Secunda, who taught me Huichol Indian rituals to heal inner wounds and become a better person.
But one of my greatest teachers was pain. It was in the hardest, most painful years of my life that I reached out most to God, and God answered — sometimes through a blessed peace, sometimes through signs, and sometimes through the kindness of strangers. Some of those strangers were New York taxi drivers, who were immigrants from all over the world. So I’d be crying in their cab or we’d just start talking, and they’d say these wise, amazing things that lifted me up. I felt they were angels sent by God. And I saw we are all alike, in our suffering and in our compassion.
Who are your teachers now? Mostly books — by Deepak Chopra, Pema Chödrön, Susan Jeffers, Anne Lamott, and The I Ching by Brian Browne Walker. I think I was guided to write my book in part to remember my path — and my ways back to it when I’m lost. But some books that inspire me the most are novels or memoirs about courage, goodness, and faith, about people triumphant in spirit and love, or living simply and in harmony with nature. Books like Rain of Gold, Mrs. Mike, My Antonia, and I Heard the Owl Call My Name.
Was there ever a time when all your spiritual paths came together? One dark winter night, I took a “Find Your Purpose” quiz. The directions were to remember times in your life when you felt great joy from something you did or were part of. I thought of the bike-in, The Learning Center, my children, and walking at dawn in the mountains; times when I felt great union with other people, nature, and Spirit. Then I was to write down and fill in “My highest purpose is…” And I wrote: “To live a sacred life, connected to others, nature, and the Divine through love, gratitude and acts of service.” That is how my book began!
What is the best gift that we can give to the world? Our joy — no matter how bad things seem, and these are challenging times. But the worse things are, the more joy is needed. So our task, I believe, is to help make things better wherever we feel called, to find goodness wherever we can, and to add to the goodness however we can. And to do all this with joy!