Nelson Mandela: Courage and Humanity


December 10, 2013

We share the spoken words of Dr. Maya Angelou reciting her tribute poem for Nelson Mandela, His Day is Done

As Dr. Angelou says, "We lift our tearful voices to say thank you!"

We honor Nelson Mandela's life, legacy and hopeful vision lived out in the midst of injustice and suffering. He was a man whose leadership was solidly grounded in his own humanity and compassion as he became a worldwide icon of leadership and justice for our age.

Thank you for your profound gifts and enduring wisdom, Nelson Mandela.

“We will not forget you, we will not dishonor you, we will remember and be glad that you lived among us, that you taught us, and that you loved us all.”

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What is your rope to the barn?


December 3, 2013

 Blizzard photo

The blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul.
    —Leonard Cohen

Not everyone experiences blizzards of snow in December. Perhaps you've survived sand storms or torrential rains. In the Prelude from A Hidden Wholeness, Parker J. Palmer offers a "rope to the barn" to keep us connected:

There was a time when farmers on the Great Plains, at the first sign of a blizzard, would run a rope from the back door out to the barn. They all knew stories of people who had wandered off and been frozen to death, having lost sight of home in a whiteout while still in their own backyards.

Today we live in a blizzard of another sort. It swirls around us as economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war. It swirls within us as fear and frenzy, greed and deceit, and indifference to the suffering of others. We all know stories of people who have wandered off into this madness and been separated from their own souls, losing their moral bearings and even their mortal lives: they make headlines because they take so many innocents down with them.

The lost ones come from every walk of life: clergy and corporate executives, politicians and people on the street, celebrities and schoolchildren. Some of us fear that we, or those we love, will become lost in the storm. Some are lost at this moment and are trying to find the way home. Some are lost without knowing it. And some are using the blizzard as cover while cynically exploiting its chaos for private gain.

So it is easy to believe the poet's claim that "the blizzard of the world" has overturned "the order of the soul," easy to believe that the soul---that life-giving core of the human self, with its hunger for truth and justice, love and forgiveness---has lost all power to guide our lives.

But my own experience of the blizzard, which includes getting lost in it more often than I like to admit, tells me that it is not so. The soul's order can never be destroyed. It may be obscured by the whiteout. We may forget, or deny, that its guidance is close at hand. And yet we are still in the soul's backyard, with chance after chance to regain our bearings.

This book [and the resources of Courage & Renewal] is about tying a rope from the back door out to the barn so that we can find our way home again. When we catch sight of the soul, we can survive the blizzard without losing our hope or our way. When we catch sight of the soul, we can become healers in a wounded world---in the family, in the neighborhood, in the workplace, and in political life---as we are called back to our "hidden wholeness" amid the violence of the storm.

Excerpt from Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Jossey-Bass, 2004

Share your reflections with a friend:

What are the blizzards (storms) in your life or work?

What's the "rope" that connect you to who you are at your very core?


Today's blog is a mirror of our Words of EnCOURAGEment newsletter. Subscribe here.

P.S. Courage & Renewal retreats offer a profound experience of the soul connection and trustworthy community described in A Hidden Wholeness. See our calendar for upcoming programs.


Times of Transition and Letting Go


Terri O'DonnellTeri O’Donnell (November 29, 2013)

I am a high school Biology teacher at Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa, and I have completed three full Courage to Teach series, which have been invaluable to me personally and professionally.

When I first started this adventure, I was teaching part-time. My son was in elementary school. I was running marathons, and was considering returning to work full-time. Since then, I am working full-time, teaching three different lab classes, and I am the science department chair. My career has grown and my responsibilities have grown in what feels like an exponential way.

Last year, my son had a terrible run of debilitating migraines, baseball injury after baseball injury, and he ultimately had to leave school and go on independent study. My husband was hospitalized with a very frightening high blood pressure event due to work stress, and had to spend much of the spring at home on disability. I was rear-ended and my car was totaled. I broke my back, and two of my vertebrae have slipped out of place. Cortisone shots will work for a time, and surgery is imminent. Meanwhile, I can’t run – can only swim or bike – and I hurt after standing up at work all day. I am adjusting to not being able to do everything I want to do, and trying to stay fit despite my injury.

I do realize the gravity of all that I just wrote! But I swear, the only way I have made it through any of it (let alone all of it) is that I have learned techniques from Courage to Teach. I read, I write, I breathe, I visualize, and I try to find the cosmic humor in all of it. It makes me look for the positive side and be more compassionate with others, knowing that I don’t know what challenges they are facing.

During my very first Courage & Renewal retreat, the facilitators posed the question “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”  I had heard the question before, and perhaps I even considered my answer to it. But, after spending the weekend in much-needed retreat, I DREW the answer in my journal. (By the way, I have told myself for years that I am not artistic, that I can’t draw, that I just embarrass myself when I try. Also I swore off of journals the day mine was discovered and read. I was twelve, and I was embarrassed, horrified, and angry.)  

But on that day, I drew a picture in my journal of my photographs displayed on the walls of a local restaurant. I drew notecards, and a few other ideas, and I showed that my photography is worth something. I wrote that people would love my art and want to buy it.

Fast forward to the present:  My photos are on the walls of the local restaurant!  My photos have generated a lot of interest, and I have sold several. I have also started a small business selling photo notecards. It’s happening because I had the courage to look within.

My first two Courage retreats were so positive, so meaningful and so fulfilling. This last one challenged me in ways that I didn’t foresee. It was a rough time in my life, and the topics seemed hand-picked to torment me. I was more publically negative than I am usually comfortable with. Even my art projects, which usually look like a happy first-grader created them, looked like an angry eighth-grader took her turn at the art table. But I found my way through, with love and humor, a great deal of work on my part, and a great deal of patience, I imagine, from the people with whom I shared the circle.

By the last retreat in the series, I felt that I had really experienced something significant, and I felt renewed and blessed to have had such an opportunity. Growth isn’t always pretty, and I proved it!

I have a lot of questions about my role, my profession, my life. Right now is a very significant transition time for my whole family: my son has just started to drive. He will soon be graduating high school and, presumably, going off to college; my husband and I are realizing that we can count the years until retirement, when previously it was too painful to count that high; I am looking toward having back surgery with a 3 to 9 month recovery period until I will be “normal”. I will need to pass the AP biology class to a younger teacher. I will then be working with reluctant learners, getting out of the spot light a little bit, and saying goodbye to all of those letters of recommendation that come with teaching the upper level classes.

In some ways I am choosing, and in other ways I am being forced, to do less than I have been doing, and I hope to do less with more heart and soul and meaning. Finally, I need to figure out where my photography will take me, and how exactly my photography and I will get there. I’m pretty sure my photography wants me to move to Maui, but the details of the move are pretty sketchy at present.

Before Courage to Teach, I loved summer. Just summer. I really didn’t appreciate the unique gifts of each season. Now I recognize, name and appreciate the seasons for who they are, and what they offer. I have also come to associate the change of the seasons with the promise of a retreat weekend: poetry, journaling, reflection, nature, photography, companionship, a slower pace, and great food. Also when I think of spending time at Santa Sabina, in the pillow room, with the beautiful view of the courtyard, in the quiet, I am immediately content. I can’t wait to find out what nature and spirit will reveal to me.

I look forward to another Courage to Teach retreat series to help me in this time of transition, growth and letting go.

The next Courage to Teach series at Santa Sabina Retreat Center in San Rafael, California, begins February 14-16, 2014. Get details. Also see more retreats for educators.

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November 22


Parker J. Palmer (November 21, 2013)

Like most people of a certain age, I remember exactly where I was on November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated.

I was a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of California in Berkeley. I heard the news as I was leaving a bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. After asking several passersby if it was true, I ran across campus to tell a professor I worked with, who was just ending a class. He kept saying, "It can't be… It can't be…"

During the 1950s, when I came of age, it was easy for white, middle-class Americans like me to live with the illusion that all was well with our country. Kennedy's assassination was the first of many events during the 1960's that shattered that illusion.

The poem "November 22," which I wrote a few years ago, is about the way my world began to unravel on that date—and about the origins of my commitment to contribute whatever I can to the constant reweaving our world requires.

I'm ever-grateful for the countless people who collect the threads, maintain the loom, and work without ceasing to restore the tattered fabric of our common life—devoting themselves to creating that "more perfect Union"...

A poem by Parker J. Palmer

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Advice for New Teachers


Celeste HoffpauirCeleste Hoffpauir (November 19, 2013)
An excerpt from American Teacher

I began my teaching career at a public middle school in a working-class area in the East Bay. I struggled a lot the first two years. The only thing that saved me is the support and guidance I received from a few of my colleagues, some truly valuable professional development trainings from the district, and the fact that I had a really good curriculum.

A lot of being a successful teacher in urban ed is about hustling—working with what you have and problem solving as you go. You get really used to not having enough and it can feel like you have to do everything by yourself. I did not have the cultural competency necessary for that educational environment. Many of my students’ backgrounds and needs were new to me, having had little exposure to people of color where I grew up and very little experience with African-American culture or the Latin immigrant experience.

I learned very quickly that I had to invite my students’ identities and life histories into the classroom as much as possible so that I could get to know them. And I had to show up authentically, and in turn, share my own identity with my students. When I learned to do that, a community began to form in the classroom. I started to seek out curriculum that was about acknowledging our stories. I would open every year with these lessons, and then I’d integrate them as often as I could so that my students’ voices were part of the dialogue.

I was also going through a process of self-discovery. I was learning who I was as a teacher and a white woman teaching an ethnically diverse student population.

My best advice to a new teacher is to spend time getting to truly “know” yourself. Teaching mirrors back who you are--your fears, gifts, and flaws--like no other profession. Invest in your own personal identity and realize that you have an inner life as a teacher that inevitably impacts your instruction and the quality of the learning, and the community that exists within your classroom. 

The better you know yourself (this includes strengths and weaknesses, light and shadow), and make time, space and room to reconnect with what feeds your heart, the more you will be able to show up authentically in the classroom.

And never go it alone. Many times, our schools are conducive to isolation, but I have learned that building strong, real collaborative relationships is the single best thing I can do in the service of my students. It has taken me years and many missteps to learn that partnership, and working in a team, is always better. I need to be vulnerable, patient, and flexible to do this, but inevitably my lessons, practice, delivery, and response in the classroom, and in turn, student learning, are strengthened when I work collaboratively.

Click to learn more about the new book, American TeacherThe wisest thing I did as a new teacher was ask for help, and seek out instructional coaching and social and emotional support. Honestly, without that, I’m not sure I would have found the strength and courage to remain an educator. 

Celeste Hoffpauir is a high school teacher and academic dean in the Bay area, California. She is also a Courage & Renewal facilitator, leading retreats for educators. 

Photograph by Roman Cho, from the new book American Teacher: Heroes in the Classroom (Welcome Books, New York) by Katrina Fried with a foreword by Parker J. Palmer. Buy the book ( Celeste’s story is one of 50 profiles of extraordinary educators who are transforming the lives and futures of their students.

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How do you lead your life?


Courtney Pinkerton (November 12, 2013)

How do you lead your life?

Is leadership an “out there” enterprise? Is it a function performed by other people — special, chosen others — who stand in front of a group and show us the way? Perhaps… but increasingly I’m realizing that our culture defines leadership too narrowly.

What if instead of passing this practice off to the chosen few we considered it an invitation to put ourselves in the drivers seat, or in effect, to lead our own lives?

Each one of you has a powerful impact in your social eco-systems: your family, friends, work environment, and community. And as you grow and stretch there are ripple effects out in concentric circles from your life which touch, inspire and spark change around you.

In fact this is one of my favorite side effects of being a life coach and retreat leader… the honor of walking with people as they turn up their inner light and watching how it brightens and impacts the world around them. Often this happens in surprising and delightful ways.

This is not a side effect we can engineer or force (and you certainly can’t approach self-growth work with the goal of changing someone else) but again and again I have witnessed people showing up for the gift of their own life in a fresh way and watched their courage and grace spill over around them.

So how do you lead your life?

Step One:  Put your ‘beginner’s mind’ in the driver’s seat

Beginners mind is the practice of relaxing our mind’s habit of labeling or already “knowing” every experience and bringing your focus back to what you are actually experiencing instead of your idea of it. This practice is true in really stressful contexts or life experiences… for we can redeem even the most uncomfortable experiences by consciously choosing to learn from them.

This shift of putting your most expansive you in the drivers seat can help shift the focus from blaming and reacting and gift you back a sense of agency, freedom and choice. (And these are the very things which are often in short supply when we feel backed in a corner with two bad options, anxious over finances, broken-hearted over a relationship or community conflict or are experiencing any other kind of grief, sadness, or fear).

So step one of leading your own life is to show up as a student, with open and receptive eyes to learn (even if part of what you are learning is how to avoid ever ending up in the same place again!)

Step Two: Stay in the Action

To lead your own life requires a commitment to stay in the action. Often in challenging situations or times of growth we become aware of a gap between what is happening and what we know to be possible, or between the pain we find ourselves living and the way we wish we felt. And the temptation in these situations is to flip out on one side or another of the gap rather than to hold the tension.

We can flip out on the side of cynicism, despair and withdrawal or we can flip out to the realm of irrelevant idealism, too much possibility and maintaining a life of illusion. We flip to either side of the gap to avoid the hard and painful dimensions of engagement. (indebted to Parker Palmer and the work of Courage & Renewal for this lesson).

But flipping out of the gap also takes us out of the action, it takes us away from the space where we can evolve as people. We bypass our own opportunity to learn.

Staying in the action is not about striving or being hard on yourself. In fact it is the opposite. In order to endure the discomfort of change and growth in the gap it is essential to be compassionate with yourself and get really good at drawing in strength, energy, and resiliency from the resources which are available to you. (A meditation or centering practice is really helpful here… especially in times of transition.)

I’m curious… how can you imagine staying in the action today or this week? Are there ways you can resource yourself as you grow and change?

Courtney Pinkerton is a writer and owner of Bird in Hand, a holistic life coaching practice. She completed dual Masters degrees from Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Kennedy School in 2008 and shares weekly blog posts on meditation, the Enneagram and other mind/body practices through her site

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Turning to Wonder

croptracey1November 7, 2013

Ken SaxonTurning to wonder is one of the touchstones used to create safe space in our Circle of Trust® approach. The touchstone suggests that if you feel judgmental, or defensive, ask yourself, “I wonder what brought her to this belief?” “I wonder what he’s feeling right now?” “I wonder what my reaction teaches me about myself?” Set aside judgment to listen to others -- and to yourself -- more deeply.

In this video, Courage & Renewal Facilitator Ken Saxon shares how this touchstone strengthened his capacity as a community and business leader to engage in those rich and vital conversations necessary for navigating change.

Join Ken Saxon and Susan Plummer for Journey Toward an Undivided Life in Santa Barbara, California, from January 22-24, 2014. [Update: This retreat now has a wait list. See other available options.] Experience "turning to wonder" and other touchstones for yourself at this Courage & Renewal retreat.

This retreat reconnects you with your inner wisdom—and with others—in a way that will refresh and sustain you like nothing else for the important work you do in the world. At this retreat, you will

  • Focus, without distraction, on what matters to you, especially your values and vision, challenges and fears
  • Learn principles and practices from our Circle of Trust approach that can be applied to your daily life and work.
  • Connect with others seeking similar insights, who listen fiercely with “no fixing allowed”, who honor each other’s differences.

See our calendar for similar retreats in other locations.

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What are you for?

croptracey1November 5, 2013

“I believe.” Something changes when you say it out loud. Something shifts.

When you say “I love you.” When you say out loud, “This is important to me” or “I don’t know but I’m wrestling mightily with this idea.” Or “So much is changing, but this much. this much, I know is true.”  

Something happens when you can articulate that.

Enjoy this video conversation between Parker J. Palmer and Carrie Newcomer, who then sings her ballad “I Believe.”

Look through your own life and see what you can “sing about.”  

What truths do you embody as you lead your life?

For you, what makes life so, so wonderful and worth living? As Carrie says, “It’s that idea, not what are we against but what are we for?”

Today's blog is a mirror of our Words of EnCOURAGEment newsletter. Subscribe here.

P.S. The circle of trust you experience in a Courage & Renewal retreat offer a community, a context, that supports you in discovering and speaking your truth. See our calendar for upcoming programs.

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Young Women Speak the Unspeakable in New Anthology


T T cover FINAL FRONT300October 29, 2013

by Erin S. Lane

Excerpt from the introduction of Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith (White Cloud Press, Oct 2013), co-edited by Erin S. Lane and Enuma Okoro

I was a graduate student of theology when word of her actions reached me. During a seminary class on preaching, her professor had warned students not to wear open-toed shoes in the pulpit lest they be a distraction to wandering minds (and libidos).

Better yet, he advised, men’s black dress socks were recommended for all—women included. She showed up the following day in dress socks as instructed. Except they were pulled taut. Over bare legs. Beneath a miniskirt.

Her transgression was small but potent. By literally following her instructor’s words, she unmasked their unspoken message that to exercise authority in the church she would have to become like a man.

The anecdote stuck with me as I began collaborating on this book with my co-editor, author Enuma Okoro. It revealed how even the bodies of young women in the church, never mind their voices, remain taboo for some, and in twenty-first-century America, no less.

In the clear and honest words of the women who “talk taboo” in this book, we hear voices of truth that can help Christians reclaim respect for flesh and come to feel more at home in their own skins. Talking Taboo is an important book, one that should be read and discussed in every church in the land.
– Parker J. Palmer

Taboo. It is a word we seldom use in the United States, where freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our foundation and the boundaries of what is socially acceptable have stretched wide. The notion that there are still experiences that remain off-limits for expression sounds antiquated, or even prudish. And yet we still bite our lips. Hold our tongues. Swallow our words in fear of being stigmatized, ostracized, or vilified. The power of taboo is still palpable.

Young American Christian women have more freedom than ever before to speak for ourselves; we are being theologically trained in unprecedented numbers, accessing leadership in our communities through both orthodox and unorthodox avenues, and playing the roles of professional, wife, mother, daughter, girlfriend, and friend, among others. As the first line of an evangelical magazine article titled “50 Women You Should Know" affirms, “Christian women who want to pursue influential roles in politics, the church, and other sectors of public life in the United States and Canada have never before had more opportunities to do so.”

But with all of the perceived progress, why does it feel like our voices still aren’t fully being heard? And if we could speak honestly, what would we want to say? This is a collection of essays that aims to address what happens when we speak the unspeakable about our sacred experiences of faith, gender, and identity.
Our book is part of a series of anthologies from I Speak for Myself, Inc. on young American men and women from three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. While the first volumes on Muslim American men and women explored the relationship between faith and country, Enuma and I knew a volume on the experiences of Christian Americans would need to be positioned differently. Christians continue to make up three-quarters of the population in the United States, a majority that is reflected in the number of Christian memoirs and narratives on the shelves of bookstores across America. Put simply, we wondered what hadn’t already been said and who hadn’t said it. The pages that follow are our attempt to flesh out this silence…

While we don’t all agree with one another, we believe in the power of personal stories to build bridges of understanding where there were none, to give faces and names to what were previously only “issues,” and to bind people together in their common humanity.

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Five Attributes of Trustworthy Leadership


October 25, 2013

What makes a leader worthy of our trust and what should we also hold ourselves to? Diana Chapman Walsh, president emerita of Wellesley College and an exemplar of courage and integrity, talks about five attributes of trustworthy leadership needed for this time of complexity. When embodied, these capacities help us bring our full selves into our work.

1) Question ourselves.
2) Develop and attend to solid partnerships.
3) Avoid the use of force except as a last resort.
4) Value differences not only as a mark of respect but as a source of creative information.
5) Create a community.

Enjoy Diane's wise words on these five points in this video from the IHI Open School, Profiles in Leadership series, How has your idea of a good leader changed over time?

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Rethinking the Violence of Modern Life


October 22, 2013
Parker J. Palmer

The Violence of Modern Life excerpt

Sometimes, when I talk about the value of contemplation, someone will say that contemplation is a cop-out, an escape from the world's needs. But my experience with activism tells me otherwise, and this quote from Thomas Merton explains why.

When we fall into the frenzy of overwork, we do violence to ourselves and kill "the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful." The results can range from unmanageable anger to sullen resentment to burnout, all of which lead to misguided action—and ultimately take us out of the action.

We need to expand our understanding of "violence", a concept that goes well beyond doing physical harm. We do violence every time we violate, or fail to respect, our own or another person's soul. Psychological and spiritual violence do as much harm in their way as bombs and bullets do in theirs.

Living nonviolently means more than "Thou shalt not kill." It means, "Thou shalt not violate anyone's soul", including your own...

P.S. About the photo: Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama met in Nov., 1968 in Dharamsala, India where the Dalai Lama was living in exile. They quickly recognized each other as "soul brothers" and doubtless would have continued to work together. But Merton died in Bangkok just one month later at age 53. It's one of history's most instructive ironies that Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama, both deeply committed monastics, have had a huge impact on the peace movement, the racial justice movement, and other forms of activism all over the world.

The quote is from Merton's 1966 book "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.

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Building Trust in Congregations


Susan Otey October 16, 2013

Susan Otey, Pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Billings, MT

After attending several Courage to Lead weekend retreats, I wanted to introduce circles of trust in my congregation. I hoped my congregation would experience the gift of being deeply heard and trusting their inner teacher, but I was afraid that if I tried creating something on my own, I wouldn’t maintain the integrity of the work. I struggled for several months around how I might use this work meaningfully in a congregational setting when the Geography of Grace retreat and curriculum was introduced. I was thrilled to attend the training and come back with my very own copy of the curriculum.  

When I returned from the training, curriculum in hand, I set about gathering my first group; those I hoped might lead others through this work in the future. In the year since I started my first Geography of Grace group, I have offered 5 different groups and 29 people have begun to trust their fellow congregants, have learned how to listen deeply to others, and have started understanding they do not need to fix other’s problems. They are striving to live into listening and asking questions in a new way.

When I asked this group what was the most beneficial aspect of Geography of Grace, here is what they said:

  • “having a place where I can be my true self, good and bad”
  • “the opportunity to think about experiences and situations and how they have shaped me”
  • “self- discovery and being free to talk openly without judgment”
  • “learning to trust not only the group but my own inner teacher”
  • “knowing that in the circle of trust I can share or not and that is okay!”

Geography of Grace has helped my congregation see each other through new eyes. It has increased trust and understanding of each other and of the inner teacher. It gave one woman in my congregation the voice she had suppressed years ago. It has offered people the understanding that the struggles and problems we face are very similar, no matter how good we look on the outside. Since we started using Geography of Grace, I have observed people listening more deeply to themselves and to others and responding in ways that show empathy and compassion rather than judgment.

Ministry is hard work and there is no end to the number of people who want to tell you exactly how to “do ministry”! The greatest gift of the Circle of Trust approach has been learning how to trust my own leadership. This work has been invaluable in my life and ministry as I strive to lead from a place of wisdom and integrity.  

If you’ve experience a Courage & Renewal program for yourself and want to share its approach in your faith community, please consider joining us in Lutz, Florida, from February 4-6, 2014 for a four-day retreat and training on the Geography of Grace curriculum. Registration is now open.

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