“Herspiral,” I say to folks, giving them my email or web address. Then I spell it out, and just to make sure, at the end I say, “As in a spiral belonging to a woman.” They always seem to know what that means.
When people ask me what I teach, I tell them “Contemplative Arts.” Note that “contemplative” comes before “art” – so when I am teaching Miksang Contemplative Photography, I am teaching a contemplative practice that happens to be photography. Ditto with Contemplative Writing and tritto with Shambhala Art. All of my teaching is based in Dharma/Buddhism, but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to enjoy or benefit from any of it. Perception is available to us all, all of the time – and perception, a basic, ordinary but magical connection to our world, is the basis of any inspiration or creativity.
Contact me with any questions. If you are interested in joining a weekly Contemplative Writing class, visit the Schedule page to find out times, then email me about which you time(s) are best for you. Most of the Miksang and Shambhala Art classes have links to registering at the location where I am teaching. Sign up for my newsletter below if you would like to receive bi-weekly or monthly updates.
You can read more of my Mission Statement below, or more details about how I came to do what I do in My Story below.
Finally, I am on just about any form of social media you may participate in – find links to those at the bottom of any page of this website.
Mission Statement for Herspiral Contemplative Arts
I have been teaching for ten years now. Here is my new mission statement – my mission hasn’t changed, but it’s gotten a lot clearer.
I want all of what we create to be of benefit. From the shortest poem to the longest novel, all of our stories and creations have potential to harm or to be of help. In fact, the smallest pieces are the best place to start, for it can be hard to see how, overall in our lives, we have any effect on the world at all, especially in creativity.
But we do. Laws of Karma in Buddhism say that even thoughts are actions, have interaction with the world. In the creative process, we can start quite small and notice how we interact with just the media in front of us – whether pen, brush or our own body – and from there, engage curiosity, compassion and realize that we are always communicating something. Out of that risky place of communication, we can harness our own power and use it for the powers of good.
If we are not comfortable with ourselves, if we disconnect from our own existence, we cannot help but cause harm. It all starts here, in our own bodies and minds. We purify through our actions – the creative tiny actions of pen to paper, arm to air, color to canvas – and those actions help to clarify all of our other actions. Contemplative Arts are our practice for everyday life – because, as it so happens – art is everyday life. There is no separation. All of life is constant creation and action. If we can begin in the creative process, through meditation and perception, awareness and compassion, feeling the power of inspiration to keep not just our art(s) going but also our lives, it makes living that much more worth while.
This is not a small venture. I am not in it alone. I am a part of two great lineages – Natalie Goldberg and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. It is these heart teachers who keep me clear about how to lead forward, guiding my students through the risks and rewards of creativity, towards a larger vision of Enlightened Society. Won’t you join me?
Recently, someone attended a talk I gave and asked me a common question:
“How did you come to do such an unusual and fulfilling thing so skillfully at such a young age?”
Some version of this question occurs frequently in my life. So I thought I would offer it here, on my website, for all to read who are interested.
I am 37, and have been doing this for ten years. It’s amazing to me – I know plenty of folks in careers that are third or fourth to them, and they still aren’t satisfied. This is my dream job, but it’s not something I dreamed of before I had it. More like a dream I didn’t even dream of having. So how did it happen?
I was raised in Appleton, WI, by two parents who were pretty atheist and non-spiritual. I experienced some pretty early losses: a grandmother dying when I was six, my father when I was 12, my other grandmother at 13 and then my mother at 19 and remaining grandfather at 22. After my father died, I briefly joined a born-again Christian church (rebellion against my atheist parents!), and this was my first taste of spirituality and community. I loved it! The church itself lost luster for me, but the relationships of community and spirituality stayed with me, underground, for another ten years.
I became a poet when my father died, too – wrote all the time as a way to survive his death, which was traumatizing to me. I wrote poetry continuously – winning awards and even a scholarship to college on it – until college. Then, when I got to college, my mother died, and I stopped writing. I stopped creating at all, partially due to college sucking up all my juices, and definitely partially due to my mother’s sudden aneurysm.
Transition to What I Do Now
The last semester of college I took one creative writing course, the only one I took in college, with the amazing Aimee Nekuzmatatil at UW Madison. She helped me fall back in love with poetry. I graduated with a double degree in French and Anthropology, with no intention to do either as a career. I left school hungry to write again, and found a local group called PGI that was meeting and doing readings, critiques, and so on just blocks from my apartment. They were perfect – my age, funky and political. I am still friends with quite a few of those folks. I met my current closest friend in that group, and it was my main social and creative outlet for almost five years.
I was also taking photographs more and more. My camera was my father’s ancient Pentax K1000. I learned some photo developing and darkroom work in a photography class in high school, but mainly I was a theater technician and that took all of my creative energy, along with writing. I took a lot of pictures, though, and had them developed at the local drugstore. Nothing super creative, mostly documentary, as my father had been in his photos.
Right after college, in September of 2001, I went to Europe with a friend and we were in Barcelona when 911 happened. We were shocked – landed in Barcelona after an overnight ferry from Majorca to stay with a woman who spoke almost no English. In Catalan, close enough to the Spanish my friend spoke and the French I spoke, we understood that something terrible had happened. We consumed as many International Herald Tribunes as we could, trying to understand.
We spent our days in Barcelona – now trapped there – going to Gaudi buildings and taking photographs. When I got back from that trip and developed the pictures, there’s a clear difference between my pre-911 photos and post-911 photos. The pre-911 photos are much more documentary. The post-911 are much more expressive – abstract, and tense. Intense. Aware of chaos and expressing it.
In the writing group, I met a woman who was taking a writing class with someone who used meditation as a part of the writing process. I loved my PGI group, but was also craving some female peer support in writing, so I took the class on my new friend’s word alone. “You’ll love it!” she said, and so I did. These classes, with Paula Novotnak, were Paula’s own creation. She called them Writing From Center, and were held in a little office on the near-East (funky) side of town I lived on the edge of. Once a week I would go there, meet with her and a 1/2 dozen always-older women, meditate, write, share and get super supportive feedback. I cried. I struggled. I wrote about and learned about resistance. I mourned my mother, found my voice again and began to learn how to compassionately listen to others. My second class with Paula, after confessing to all the women that they were my motehr’s age or older and I thought (because my mother had expressed this) that life ended after 30, and so they confused and inspired me. In that same class, after class, I asked Paula how I could learn to do what she does. Without a blink, she suggested I basically study what she was doing while she did it and we’d meet quarterly to discuss it. I didn’t realize how generous and aware she was at the time – I now see, having been asked the same thing myself numerous times – how much faith she had in me and superior restraint to work with her own potential feelings of jealousy, territoriality and fear.
At an art exhibit in Madison’s tiny modern art museum, I saw a show of Aaron Siskind’s. Most of the pieces were from his highway tar period – towards the end of his life, he shot abstract full-frame pictures of highway tar. I loved it, and immediately knew there was something in common with what he was doing and what my post-911 photos were doing, though I couldn’t articulate why at that time.
I read some of his writings, and writings about him, though, and I was disappointed to find that what he articulated didn’t line up with how I felt. But something was happening, opening. I was tapping into something important and deep in photography.
Paula had to stop teaching, and she suggested I begin teaching. I was 25, working both in technical theater and as a book buyer for a radical lefty bookstore in Madison. Both jobs felt lacking somehow, though the book buyer job really was a dream job I had always wanted. I wanted to teach, but I was scared to, and had no idea how to even begin. Paula suggested that I go downstairs (her office was on the second floor) and visit the people who ran a meditation group down there. Because their door was on the side of the building, and hers was on the front, I had never entered nor particularly noticed them. She said they might sublet me space, and as Rebecca and I (my best friend) both were also curious about continuing to practice and study people like Pema Chodron, whom Paula had shared with us in class, this seemed like a good fit. Almost as an after thought, Paula said, “Oh, the people downstairs? That’s Pema Chodron’s lineage.” It had taken me months to even recognize all these new Tibetan names – Pema Chodron, Chogyam Trungpa – when Paula used them, and to understand she was referring to the same people again and again. Paula isn’t Buddhist, not officially, but her leanings became my destiny. Or already were.
Things Falling Together – Quickly
Rebecca and I went downstairs to check out the center, which turned out to be the Shambhala Meditation Center of Madison. We got meditation instruction from Kathy Faas, who was then co-director, and Kathy, when I asked if I could lease some space from them, basically handed me the key and said, “You can use it during such-and-such times. If you make anything, throw us some of it.”
I began teaching writing very part-time, calling it Contemplative Writing. I started with drop-in classes, then, over the course of a year, started to run three weekly classes, at different times of the day that fit around my odd schedule of teching local theater and dance shows. I quit teching to teach more evening classes, and finally, after just a year and a half, left my bookstore job, so I could try and teach full time. I also bought a house – quickly – before my credit was about to look awful. The house was just down the street from Paula’s office. I had bought it to be close to her – my first real teacher. And now I was close to work. And more than I realized at the time.
After teaching in the Shambhala Center for a few weeks, some fliers appeared in the mail along with a video and calendar. It was a promotional package that Michael Wood, one of the co-founders of Miksang, had sent out to all the North American Shambhala Centers. Kathy thought I might find it interesting, so I took home the video and watched it. Eight times in a row. I cried. This, this was it. This was what Aaron Siskind hadn’t said. This is what I had been looking for. I googled Miksang and came up with a workshop in Chicago in two weeks. I didn’t have much money, no car, but I found a way – borrowed a vehicle and went down to the Chicago Shambhala Center, which I didn’t know existed before that week.
I was also taking courses at the Madison Shambhala Center, what the Shambhala tradition calls Levels, or graduated curriculum that helps give meditation path a sense of path. I connected with the teachers and students, and Rebecca and I were taking it together. PGI had dissipated, so my writing classes were my new writing community.
In Chicago, I took a Miksang Level I with David Schrier, who was then a brand-new teacher. David apologized quickly – he was not a photographer, he said, but he loved these teachings so much and John had asked him to teach. Who was this John person? I’d seen his name on the web, was disappointed not to find anything close by from Michael, the only name I’d known. David told me he was the other co-founder. When could I study with him? I asked David. He’d be coming soon to do Level II. And how could I become a teacher? David was flummoxed by my inertia. But from the first talk in the basement of the Chicago Shambhala Center, with only five other folks present, I knew I had found it.
It. What it? I didn’t know what, I just knew that this was it. I had no idea what I had stumbled into, but I knew it fit with the writing. I studied with John, came to study with Natalie Goldberg (author of Writing Down the Bones, the first book that directly combines meditation and writing, from 1985), and eventually became a teacher under John. I followed him everywhere – in those days, he was just beginning to travel, as was Michael, and so I actually took my teacher training in Davis, California with John. I took the trainings again and again, transcribing them, studying deeper and deeper, and within two years, I was not only a teacher but on path to train other teachers.
Finally, I was peripherally aware of the Shambhala Art teachings. I finally got to take the weekend programs in Minneapolis with Lisa Stanley, and, after I felt settled enough into my other two forms of teaching, I took teacher training for Shambhala Art in LA with Steven Saitzyk. My trio became complete.
That Takes Us to Now
Today I teach four in-person contemplative writing classes a week, in my living room, for 28 weeks out of the year (four sessions, seven weeks each). During those sessions, I try to travel as little as possible, so I can focus on my in-person classes. When not in session, I travel to any Shambhala Center – or any other place, for that matter – that wants me to come and teach any of the three things I teach. Those are mostly weekend programs. Most of those places I started first with teaching Miksang, then writing and now also Shambhala Art. I have solid, loving communities in many cities in North America, England and France. These are not just students, but my peers and sangha.
In addition, I have also started teaching more and more online. I teach three writing classes a week online (live, with a writing-outside-of-class component), am in beta mode teaching an online Miksang class with a group in Edinburgh, Scotland, and am developing curriculum with platforms like Shambhala Online and Ruzuku.
I also offer more and more mentoring and one-on-one work: writing advocacy, memoir mentoring, Skype Miksang lessons, etc. As the world of teaching grows and changes, so do all of the schools I teach with, and so do I.
Who knows what is next? My only guess is that it will take me – and all those who are willing to go there with me – deeper into the core of the teachings at all of what I do: being present, working with perceptions, enjoying the richness of our minds and experience.