Skip to Content

Food, Friends & Real Talk About Life After Loss

The Dinner Party Manifesto. Go to the website.We spent a lot of time in our early days around the question of, “Is this a grief group or isn’t it?” and trying to understand what we were and were not qualified to do. We read books and studies and talked to lots of people with letters after their names. We soon realized the answer to the grief group question was a pretty definitive, “no”. There are lots of highly trained people who are expert in handling trauma and working with the bereaved, and we’re not trying to replace them. This isn’t about fixing, or advice-giving, or even coaching. It’s not really even about grieving, at least not in the traditional sense. None of us are qualified to tell someone what they need; hell, most of us are still figuring out that out for ourselves, and struggling to pay close attention when our personal needs change. When we hear of someone wanting to “help others through the same experience I went through,” our eyebrows furrow. We’re interested in creating accessible spaces where you can “speak your truth” with peers, or more to the point, friends.

There is perhaps no greater champion of the “no-advice-giving” rule than Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. Palmer is best-known as the author of The Courage to Teach, and the person who made it okay to talk in corporate retreats and other secular settings about  “the soul” and living what he calls “a divided life”. Among the celebrated voices in the self-help world, whose soundbites litter the cover of O Magazine and call to mind Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia, he is neither a kook nor a salesman; he makes no attempt to proffer Five Easy Steps That Will Change Your Life Today.

Still, I was a bit worried when I picked up his book, A Hidden Wholeness, a couple of weeks ago. I was looking for practical tips that we could share with our hosts that wouldn’t feel cheesy or forced or generally facilitator-y: tips that steered clear of what one of our original Dinner Partiers, Jess, calls, “woo-woo”.

My now dog-eared copy is testament to the fact that I need not have worried. In the book, Palmer writes extensively about the “divided life”: the problem that happens when we compartmentalize, and are compelled to cover up a key part of ourselves. (Okay, fine, it can sound a little woo-woo.) But it strikes me as a far more apt description of life after loss than “grief” or “bereavement.” It’s a feeling we hear a lot, and know all-too-well personally: Long after our brains have resumed functioning, after we’ve passed one anniversary and another, and adjusted to a new normal, we discover our work still isn’t finished. We continue to project one image here and another there. We choose carefully whom we share our stories with and when. We never quite adjust to our phantom limbs.

Palmer lays out the theory and practice behind an approach he calls “The Circle of Trust”: a highly refined set of principles and practices for facilitating soulful conversation, creating the kind of safe spaces where you can listen to and learn to act on your own “inner teacher”. The result is both reflective and instructive, unearthing everything from the design of “clearness committees,” a practice created by early Quakers to help participants achieve clarity, to how to practice deep listening.

It’s worth reading in full. For those looking for a Cliff’s Notes version, however, here are a few choice quotes, and a few key tips for anyone looking to create spaces where it’s cool to #realtalk.

1. Honor the awesome in everyone. Looking for the perfect thing to say at the perfect moment? Forget it. Your goal isn’t to say something profound, or to produce a lot of head nods. It’s to create a space where everyone–yup, you included–can listen to their own voice, and in so doing, discover their own ah-ha’s.

“We all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution, or leader.” (25)

“‘I took comfort and strength from those few people who neither fled from me nor tried to save me but were simply present to me. Their willingness to be present revealed their faith that I had the inner resources to make this treacherous trek — quietly bolstering my faltering faith that perhaps, in fact, I did.’” (62)

“It’s not about what you say. It’s about creating a space where every person can hear and discover and listen to their own voice.” (120)

2. Do not, do not, do not attempt amateur psychotherapy. The end.

“A circle of trust is not a therapy group. It is not facilitated by a professional therapist, and its members do not have a therapeutic contract with each other. In an age when therapy is practiced without credentials, competence, or invitation, the image of two solitudes protecting, bordering, and saluting each other can keep us from falling into this common form of interpersonal violence.” (63)

3. Create intentional moments of silence: Growing up, my agnostically-inclined mom insisted on starting dinners not with a prayer, but with a moment of silence. We held hands around the table, closed our eyes, and simply sat for what usually amounted to 15 seconds or so–an eternity to my seventh-grade self. I always had a slight pang of embarrassment when friends would come over and join this little ritual of ours, and it’s only now that I’ve come to really appreciate it.

Palmer suggests creating moments of intentional silence in the beginning, so that people don’t feel compelled to immediately fill spontaneous moments of silence later on. That doesn’t mean you have to spend five minutes in a meditation (unless that’s your jam, of course). A few deep breaths and the silent setting of intentions can go a long way.

4. Ease into it. The soul is shy, Palmer is fond of saying. Asking a person to share something deeply vulnerable the instant they walk into a room is generally a sure-fire way to scare them off. The Circle of Trust employs what they call “third things”–typically a poem or a song–to help kick off a conversation. Participants are invited to share whatever it is that comes up for them in hearing that particular piece or story, and to reflect on why they respond in that particular way.

For us, the “third thing” is, in a lot of ways, the dinner itself: We find it’s generally a good idea to leave a few things unfinished as folks arrive, to give people the chance to help set the table, pour drinks, and mingle casually. Preparing dishes with a story behind them–say, a family recipe, or a favorite food of the person you lost–and introducing those stories at the beginning of the meal, serves the same purpose: a way of introducing yourself and the person you lost, and easing into the conversation.

“If soul truth is to be spoken and heard, it must be approached ‘on the slant.’” I do not mean we should be coy, speaking evasively about subjects that make us uncomfortable, which weakens us and our relationships. But soul truth is so powerful that we must allow ourselves to approach it, and it to approach us, indirectly. We must invite, not command, the soul to speak. We must allow, not force, ourselves to listen.” (92)


Lennon FlowersThis blog post originally appeared on Learn more about how Lennon Flowers and her team are transforming life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by community support, candid conversation, and forward movement.

To Understand Within, Look Outside Yourself

As I lay amongst a stand of Gum trees, looking up into their branches, I remembered how the branches we see in the trees above are also reflected in the trees’ roots beneath us. I suddenly had this beautiful feeling of being held, Embraced By A Tree, above and below. It inspired me to create this painting and poem.

I find it paradoxical that in connecting with nature around me, I am able to also go deeper within myself to find my own root and essence. To feel fully connected within I need to feel fully connected without. At one with all.

What connects you to your root & depth? What practices could you build into your life to deepen the connections within and without?

Artwork by Leanne Nearmy

here I am
all of me
the essence
the root
the depth
of me
No more
is required.

Leanne Nearmy
Facilitator Preparation
Australasian Cohort 2014-2015

Parker Palmer’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at Community
(…with a fourteenth thrown in for free)

“The Inner Edge,” August/September 1998

[Note] The title, and only the title, was inspired by the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens (see The subtitle was inspired by late-night TV infomercials.


I. Whether we know it or not, like it or not, honor it or not, we are embedded in community. Whether we think of ourselves as biological creatures or spiritual beings or both, the truth remains: we were created in and for a complex ecology of relatedness, and without it we wither and die. This simple fact has critical implications: community is not a goal to be achieved but a gift to be received. When we treat community as a product that we must manufacture instead of a gift we have been given, it will elude us eternally. When we try to “make community happen,” driven by desire, design, and determination—places within us where the ego often lurks—we can make a good guess at the outcome: we will exhaust ourselves and alienate each other, snapping the connections we yearn for. Too many relationships have been diminished or destroyed by a drive toward “community-building” which evokes a grasping that is the opposite of what we need to do: relax into our created condition and receive the gift we have been given.

II. Of course, in our culture—a culture premised on the notion that we must manufacture whatever we want or need—learning to relax and receive a gift requires hard work! But the work of becoming receptive is quite unlike the external work of building communal structures, or gathering endlessly to “share” and “solve problems”: receptivity involves inner work. Community begins not externally but in the recesses of the human heart. Long before community can be manifest in outward relationships, it must be present in the individual as “a capacity for connectedness”—a capacity to resist the forces of disconnection with which our culture and our psyches are riddled, forces with names like narcissism, egotism, jealousy, competition, empire-building, nationalism, and related forms of madness in which psychopathology and political pathology become powerfully intertwined. Read more …

A Day That Sings

Poem by Denise Levertov

With the onset of summer, I am taking a week to be with my extended family. We take time to simply be together–to refresh, revitalize, to languish in an abundance of time and leisure. The kitchen is filled with fresh local fruits. The days are warm and long. For a brief time, busy work lives recede.

Whether summer or winter, do you notice certain days that infuse you with possibility? 

Warm regards,


Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Courage & Renewal programs and retreats renew your mind and spirit. Find a program to bring forth your whole self.

P.P.S. Today’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment newsletter. Subscribe here.

New Interview: Parker J. Palmer Speaks on Jean Vanier

Why We Must Also Listen to Our Inner Shadows

“If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone ‘out there’ into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others,” writes Parker Palmer in Let Your Life Speak. What does it mean to confront our inner enemy, knowing we can never truly be rid of those shadows? In the article below, facilitator Rick Bommelje offers an illuminating story about embracing the both/and of our inner worlds.


A powerful old story captures the importance of the messages that we listen to inside of our heads.

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.” It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”

You might have heard the story ends like this: The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed the most my son.”

In the Cherokee world, however, the story ends this way…

The old Cherokee simply replied, “If you feed them right, they both win.” and the story goes on:

“You see, if I only choose to feed the good wolf, the bad one will be hiding around every corner waiting for me to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention he craves. He will always be angry and always fighting the good wolf. But if I acknowledge him, he is happy and the good wolf is happy and we all win. For the bad wolf has many qualities – tenacity, courage, fearlessness, and strong-willed – that I have need of at times and that the good wolf lacks. But the good wolf has compassion, caring, strength and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all.

“You see, son, the good wolf needs the bad wolf at his side. To feed only one would starve the other and they will become uncontrollable. To feed and care for both means they will serve you well and do nothing that is not a part of something greater, something good, something of life. Feed them both and there will be no more internal struggle for your attention. And when there is no battle inside, you can listen to the voices of deeper knowing that will guide you in choosing what is right in every circumstance. Peace, my son, is the Cherokee mission in life. A man or a woman who has peace inside has everything. A man or a woman who is pulled apart by the war inside him or her has nothing.

“How you choose to interact with the opposing forces within you will determine your life. Starve one or the other or guide them both.”

~ Cherokee Story

This article was originally posted here at Listening Pays, the blog of Courage & Renewal facilitator Rick Bommelje. Rick is a professor of communications at Rollins College and an Inductee to the Listening Hall of Fame. He  facilitates Courage to Lead programs with a focus on listening as a tool for powerful leadership.

From Mess to Meaning: A Leader’s Journey


It was all “just too much!” There was too much overwhelm, too much grind, too much meaninglessness, depression, isolation and too much uncertainty that anything would ever change. In hindsight, it was not surprising that my overly stressed and under nurtured life came to a full stop, shutting down my health  — physical and mental, finances, home and career  — but fortunately through Grace, not the urgings of my spirit.

Such had been the state of my “successful” yet work-weary life as an education lobbyist when the wise spirit within pressed me to ask, “What is it that really matters to you?” I found myself in a Google search for the only answer that mattered to my heart in that moment: “love and compassion.”

And there it was…confirmation on the landing page of the Fetzer Institute…a picture of H.H.The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in full embrace, and an announcement that they would soon receive the Fetzer Prize for their work advancing love, forgiveness and compassion. In that one image I saw love and compassion across individuals and cultures, and religions and race, and also saw a stand for creating bridges across differences of all kinds.

Scrolling through the site I saw the Center for Courage & Renewal and the tag line, “Reconnecting Who You Are with What You Do.” In that one line I received affirmation that I was not the only one disconnected. Thus began my relationship with the Center. A couple of years later I was invited to participate in the Courage & Renewal Academy for Leaders and truly began my personal relationship with courage work — work I came to refer to as “the courage to begin again.”

At the initial Academy retreat, I knew I was in the right place when before sharing my own story, one of my cohort members shared the proverb, “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.” I was home and there was hope.

My clarity and conviction to begin again grew with each cohort call. The calls were a safe place to pause and ask previously unmentionable questions, along with intelligent and committed peers with whom to do so. I had the privilege of experiencing the tremendous courage my peers called upon in the search for their own more sustainable ways of being, doing and contributing. I received confirmation, affirmation, validation and the courage to align my work with my most deeply held values, motivations and desires for meaning and contribution.

Through this alignment, through “truing up,” I became clear that my calling too is to be a bridge across the personal and political, the individual and global. It is from this aligned and far more solid foundation that I will soon enter the Pacific School of Religion as a Changemaker Fellow in its new Certificate of Spiritual and Social Change program and its Center for Spiritual and Social Transformation. Together these initiatives seek to integrate formative theological study with the preparation of vocation as a catalyst for transformational leadership and social change.

In shifting out of a career and into a calling, I will combine my personal and professional advocacy skills with the lessons learned over the past few years about peer learning, mindfulness, mental health, neuroscience, leadership and vocation. As a Changemaker Fellow, I will add the last and most important pieces, further spiritual formation and theological grounding in order to do what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has encouraged:

“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”

valerie_purnellI offer this story of reinvention and ongoing transformation in hopes that another searching soul might land upon it and find encouragement to participate in the Academy for Leaders. Meanwhile, I will cherish my Academy photos and the memories of those therein. They listened to me, saw me, tempered, centered and encouraged me. I embrace and carry them forward with me in strength and with the deepest gratitude. That is what is offered here.


Want to hear more from Valerie about the process of finding her True North? Watch her video here.

Learn all about the Academy for Leaders at and consider taking your leadership “from mess to meaning” at one of the upcoming academies near Austin, Texas (2014-2015) and Seattle, Washington (2015).

Everyday “Lollipop” Leadership

How many of us are completely comfortable calling ourselves leaders? Why not?

In the TEDxToronto video above, Drew Dudley shares a story about the moment he realized he had the idea of leadership all wrong.

“As long as we see leadership as something bigger than us―as long as we keep leadership as something beyond us―we give ourselves an excuse not to expect it every day from ourselves and from each other.”

“We start to devalue the things that we can do every day. And we start to take moments where we truly are a leader and we don’t let ourselves take credit for it and we don’t let ourselves feel good about it.”

Courage & Renewal teaches that if we can carry out our lives from a place of courage, love and integrity, we discover that all of us are leaders on the inside. And we can bring our leadership outward.

What if, as Drew suggests, we saw leadership in terms of lollipop moments: “how many we create, how many we acknowledge, how many we pay forward, and how many we say thank you for?”

Drew reminds us of the beauty in everyday leadership and that a small, even invisible, action can transform a life.

When did you last witness or create a lollipop moment?

What if we celebrate leadership as the everyday act of improving each other’s lives?


P.S. Courage & Renewal programs and retreats cultivate the heart and soul of everyday leadership. Find a program to help you lead from within.

P.P.S. Today’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment newsletter. Subscribe here.

Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” Gives Strength to Teacher & Students

For five years I worked at a “persistently failing” elementary school in West Philadelphia. More than 90 percent of my students received free or reduced lunch, and many were exposed to violence in their home and in their neighborhood. Over the years, I hardened myself to navigate the trials and tribulations associated with the violence, hopelessness, and struggles of the school community. I also discovered how my young students had to develop an inner strength to overcome the many barriers they faced on a daily basis.

One day, I received a newsletter from Teaching Tolerance in my mailbox. The newsletter had excerpts from Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” printed on the back. The poem came just as my school was being shuttered by the district. It came after five years of battles, victories, losses, joy, pain, hope, fear, and myriad emotions, sometimes all felt in the course of one day. My colleagues and I felt like pawns in a game, being shuffled around without knowing where we might end up. We worried about our students and who would be teaching them to read, write, and do math and helping to heal their physical and emotional wounds.

The strength that the poem exudes helped me reflect on my strength as an educator and that of my students. I posted the excerpt outside my classroom in my new school. It continues to inspire me, and I hope it helps my students see this strength in themselves, that they, too, are the dream and the hope; that they, too, can rise.

Note: Mary Beth’s reflection is from our book, Teaching With Heart: Poetry That Speaks to the Courage to Teach. We reprint it here in honor of the beloved poet Maya Angelou, whose life and writing has sustained and inspired us in the Courage & Renewal community.

Mary Beth HertzMary Beth Hertz has been teaching in Philadelphia since 2002. She is certified in four different areas and holds a master’s degree in instructional technology. She was named an ISTE Emerging Leader in 2010, and in 2013 was PAECT Outstanding Teacher of the Year and an ASCD Emerging Leader. Follow her blog at

100 Reasons to Love Teaching With Heart

40-TW 40-FB

A perfect year-end
Thank You gift for teachers!

buy the book
Order today from:

Use the code on our flyer for a 30% DISCOUNT & FREE SHIPPING

PDFDownload the intro chapters and the poem mentioned in today’s blog

PDFClick to get this free chapter
Using Poetry for Reflection and Conversation

Publisher: Jossey-Bass
Hardcover, 288 pp., $19.95
ISBN: 978-1118459430


Today we’re proud to announce the debut of Teaching With Heart: Poetry That Speaks to the Courage to Teach. Here is a reflection by Rick Jackson, Co-Founder and Senior Fellow, who helped the editors select the final stories from hundreds of wonderful submissions. (Learn more about the book.)

As I page through Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach, I’m struck by the deeply thoughtful writing that surrounds and upholds the entirety of the book—a book that recognizes this simple and enduring truth: To do the tough, demanding work of educating our children in the face of so many pressures requires enormous passion, courage and poetry.

  1. At the heart of the book are the heartfelt, moving stories of 90 diverse teachers, educators and administrators who write about how each poem speaks to them and guides their teaching. As Amy Harter in her story and poem, below, captures both the struggles and dedication of teachers who “keep standing up—for myself, for my students, and for the integrity of my profession.”
  2. In an opening Note to the Reader, authors/editors, Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner declare their intention to “…strive faithfully to honor the noble aspirations of the profession.” This volume certainly does that!
  3. In Parker Palmer’s Foreword, he asks “Where do teachers find the resources necessary to continue to serve our children in such difficult circumstances?” Then Palmer names the sources: In the human heart… and in communities of mutual support. How true.
  4. In Taylor Mali’s bold and moving Introduction, he writes: “Whether teaching or writing, what I really am doing is shepherding revelation; I am the midwife to epiphany.” And Mali adds this affirmation: “…poetry replenishes the well because it is another way of teaching.”
  5. In paragraphs that introduce each section with deeply moving language, Sam and Megan note how: “The teachers describe how reading poetry provides a low-tech version of time-lapse photography.” “The work of good teaching is quiet, hidden, and often immeasurably subtle.”
  6. How Wendell Berry’s poem Real Work, below, “refers to the beauty of important work done well and the heartbreak of important work that is beyond what one can accomplish. This paradox is the heart and soul, the wonder and burden, of the teaching life.”
  7. In Sarah Brown Wessling’s richly personal Afterword, she reminds us that “…the center of all good teaching is a nexus of humility, an understanding that teaching isn’t about the teacher, it’s about the learner.”
  8. No wonder John Merrow’s endorsement includes his desire to buy copies of Teaching with Heart for all the teachers he has interviewed in forty years of reporting.
  9. No wonder Sonia Nieto calls the book “…a wake-up call to the nation about the value of its teachers.”
  10. No wonder Diana Chapman Walsh claims that the book is “…the best possible field guide…” for “…every teacher with heart…” to keep close at hand “…while carrying society’s most sacred trust.”
  11. And there is even another bonus. The final chapter is a gem of a guide to unleash “poetry’s capacity to touch the human soul and open up opportunities for us to retain our humanity.”  (Click to get this chapter as a free download, Using Poetry for Reflection and Conversation.)

For all the headwinds in the face of teachers, this book—truly a gift—puts wind beneath their wings.

An Excerpt from Teaching With Heart:

In this, my fifth year of teaching, I’ve already been shuffled around to various teaching positions—urban, rural, private, and public. I’ve striven for excellence in my profession, but I’ve also been laid off, had my salary cut, and been told that I’ve entered a career without promise. But like many of my fellow teachers who face similar situations, I just keep standing up—for myself, for my students, and for the integrity of my profession.

“The Real Work” brings with it a simple, ringing truth that echoes my experience: hardship inspires innovation, honesty, and a desire to persevere enough to fight through. It is when we reach a dead end that multitudes of previously unseen paths open up to meet us. Thinking back on my own teaching paths, I realize that am my career’s cartographer, drafting a map rich with color and experience.

The poem also makes me think of my students, many of whom shoulder unthinkable burdens, yet still manage to employ their mind and spirit in the journey of learning. Students show bravery every time they put their own voice to a page despite the uncertainty that can come from all directions, without and within.

So much of teaching is doing the work of standing back up—knowing with profound certainty that our “baffled minds” are meant to do this “real work” of journeying together, to teach our students and ourselves that the struggles we overcome help strengthen the voice of our song.

—Amy Harter, High school English and theater arts teacher
Port Washington, Wisconsin

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

—Wendell Berry

Learn more about the book, Teaching With Heart.