When my mind is in tangles, I walk. Sometimes it seems that there can’t possibly be enough miles in front of me to sort through the cobwebs, the demons of doubt, the frustrations or sadness or fear that sent me to the trail in the first place. Pounding the earth with my feet, I envision myself physically hammering out the swirls and tangles and figuring out the feelings that won’t easily give themselves up for understanding.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not always a grumpy walker. Many days when I hit the trail, my feet feel like they are floating above the earth, like I am gliding effortlessly across the landscape. On these days, my heart does a happy dance with every step. Akin to a “runner’s high,” I would have never thought this state was achievable through walking. But here I am, a former runner, and an now an avowed walking addict.

I’d have to check my baby book to find out exactly when I literally started walking, but I feel like I only started truly walking in earnest– as a practice of meditation and awareness, as much as an exercise– back in 2007 when I was training for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk for the Cure for the first time. I didn’t want to be under-prepared for the 20 miles a day of walking, so I over-prepared instead. If you follow the suggested 24 week training plan, you walk 585 miles to prepare yourself. I added at least a few extra for good measure. If you then count the 60 miles you log at the actual event, you have put in 645 miles of trail time in a 6-month period.

Walking is kinder and gentler on my joints than running, but obviously, the downside is that it takes much longer to walk ten miles than to run them. Yet, as I have gotten deeper and deeper into the practice, the time seems to work in my favor, forcing me to settle and calm into a steady, intentional rhythm. I know I’ve found it when my gait begins to have the same easy feeling of comfort that I have when I’m rocking on a porch swing, as if I could go forever. And in losing myself to this rhythm, I find myself more aware of everything around me, which in turn seems to magically loosen the knots in my mind, at least to some degree.

Once I start noticing things, I can’t stop. I never know what first will catch my attention and take me away from myself. Sometimes it’s a long wait. But eventually, it happens. Sunlight, shadow, dragonflies, chirping birds, irises in bloom that remind me of my grandmother, lilypads on water, geese with their goslings, the smell of lilacs. I know I’ve achieved walking nirvana when even ordinary weeds seem to leap out at me as if an emblem of ultimate beauty.

Forgive me for possibly seeming to portray walking as a panacea for all ills. No, it can’t fix everything. And while it happens to be my passion, it may not be for the next person. But my theory is that we all have something that will have this effect on us, if we let it find us.

Sometimes it seems like there aren’t enough miles in front of me to sort out my tangles. But almost always, by the time I finish, it seems like there were just enough.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Huge thanks to Steve Kaul & The Brass Kings, for permission to use “Big Jim’s Blues” from their new CD “Machine” as the soundtrack to this story.

“Healthy people base their lives on healing, authentic stories. Empowerment comes through the process of telling those stories.”  Theologian Matthew Fox

The keepers and tellers of our stories are precious people. We all do it to some degree, I think, even if we don’t realize it. And as Matthew Fox points out, the pay off for telling stories– healing, authentic stories– is not just a brief interlude of good entertainment, but rather an experience of empowerment, if we allow it to be. I’d like to tell you a story about a storyteller who understand this idea inside and out. In fact, he lives and breathes the idea daily. His name is Charles Hale and he shares his work at Stories Connect Love Heals.

A voracious reader of anything New York and its history, Charlie is just as often pouring over an edition of The New York Times from the 1800’s as he is today’s news. He scours any record he can find in search of details about his ancestors, Irish immigrants who settled in New York City and worked hard to build a life there, yet left behind precious little in the way of letters, photographs and evidence of their lives. Without these kinds of personal artifacts to help him know and understand his grandparents, great grandparents and great greats, Charlie uses bits and pieces of historical records, often finding only tiny shards at a time, and weaves them together with a discerning eye and a compassionate heart in a way that brings past generations to life again.

Charlie has a name for his work. He calls it “breathing of an ancestor’s space and time.” I get goosebumps every time I hear him say it. No small feat, Charlie actually manages to put us in the shoes of his ancestors. Literally. He has been known to retrace the steps that his great grandparents must have taken in traveling from home to work. He researches what the weather was like on the day of a particular event he’s unearthed. He finds out what buildings existed at the time so that he’ll know what his ancestors would have passed by as they walked. He learns what headlines they would have read in the morning paper. By the time Charlie is finished with his story, I most certainly do feel as though I am breathing with his ancestors in their space and time. I can practically smell the coffee that was at their breakfast table.

In a recent conversation, I asked Charlie about his passion for storytelling and where it comes from. To answer my question, he told me of an exercise he’d once done to find the one word that describes him best. After a lengthy process of elimination, comparing words and honing down to the ones that felt the most true to who he is, he came at last to a single word: connection. And stories, he said, connect us. “When you tell a good story, if you tell it well, the other person can get into your space and share a moment with you. When we share a moment together, we literally breathe of each other’s space and time. And when we breathe of each other’s space and time, we create community.”

Excerpts from our conversation form the storyline of this video. At one point I thought I might provide a voice-over narrative to tell Charlie’s story. But in the editing, I found that Charlie’s voice and words tell his story best. So I offer you a moment to share from our chat– and a chance to breathe of Charlie’s space and time.

*Huge thanks to author Jean Raffa for bringing the Matthew Fox quote to my attention. I highly recommend her blog, Matrignosis: A Blog About Inner Wisdom, as a thoughtful, thought-provoking place to visit.

**On a musical note, the piano composition in this video was graciously created by Barbara McAfee, http://barbaramcafee.com

When I was four years old, I asked everyone to call me “Cowboy Bob.” I can hear myself pausing indignantly and growling, “Don’t call me Lucy. Call me Cowboy Bob.” I cannot recall how long this phase lasted, what prompted it to start nor what caused it to end, but when I think of this era in my life, I smile.

About the same time, perhaps a year or so later, I received a gift from my parents– a ukulele. What I really wanted was a guitar and, in all honesty, I was offended by this toy-ish instrument. Didn’t they take me seriously? Didn’t they know I was ready for the real thing? I was almost six, and in my mind I was an adult already. I don’t know if Cowboy Bob and the ukulele are linked, but somehow I feel they are.

In the 40 or so years that have passed since then, my musical life took a lot of twists and turns but never took off. I begged for piano lessons. Got piano lessons. Begged to quit piano lessons. Quit. I got a guitar. Took lessons. Never practiced. Quit. And at some point, I put away all instruments for a long time.

Somewhere in my 30’s, the guitar called to me. I picked it up and this time I didn’t quit. I don’t have the soul of a virtuoso, nor the patience to practice enough to truly master an instrument, but I found out why I was so drawn to these instruments and to music. An unknown, untrained place deep in a corner of my heart told me I that I needed to put my stories to music to save them, to savor them, to share the beautiful truths that lived in them.

I bought a ukulele and started playing it again. It felt so at home in my hands, like it belonged there, like it was always supposed to be there. Why on earth had I ever put it down?

Recently, I was looking on ebay at vintage ukuleles– old instruments with dings and nicks and personality. I wasn’t looking for a fancy or expensive instrument, but one that had a history in it. When I came across a uke with the Harmony logo on it, I recognized it instantly and realized I already had what I was looking for. It was on a shelf at my parent’s house.

One phone call to my mother, a few days of waiting, a UPS delivery, and voila! My old ukulele was back in my hands. I put new strings on immediately and tightened the sticky tuning gears to get them hold a tune. I admired the nicks and dings in the uke’s body, history that I had put there myself.

Almost immediately, the ukulele began to show me a song. It was about coming home and about being welcomed back; about what we toss away and what we carry forward; about what makes us leave and what causes us to return. Most of all, it was about the “knowing” that is always with us but that sometimes takes a long time to learn.

Looking back, I realize that Cowboy Bob had an important piece of wisdom for me that I knew all along and yet had missed at the same time. The cowboy in me was saying loud and clear: “Take me seriously. Listen to me. I have something to say!”

I had tossed aside the ukulele because I misjudged it, underestimated it, didn’t think it was big enough or serious enough to hold all my intentions, my ambitions. And yet, many years later, I found it was the only instrument I ever needed.

I could hear myself and be heard.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome Home/Lucy Mathews Heegaard © 2012

What do they say when you come back home/Where’ve you been, why you gone so long/What brought you back, what kept you away/Now that you’re here, please stay

Tell me a story of leaving behind/Tell me another of return/Show me the face I used to know/And I’ll tell you all I’ve learned

Leaving’s not always a true goodbye/Broken things can be repaired/Wisdom comes in its own time/But knowing is always there

What do they say when you come back home/Where’ve you been, why you gone so long/What brought you back, what kept you away/Now that you’re here, please stay

Now that you’re here, please stay

I am a pack-rat of the highest order. I save everything. Well, not everything. I save memories. Photographs, letters, old cassette tapes with recordings of friends and family, and ancient family movies. But the problem is that if you save everything, you sometimes can’t find what you need when you need it.

For months I had been thinking about an old cassette tape that my father recorded for me on the weekend of my graduation from high school. While I was out at parties with my friends, my father recorded messages from family members visiting for my graduation. What I remember most from that tape is my grandfather’s laugh. I kept replaying the tape in my mind, but I desperately wanted to find the real thing.

My grandfather, Forrest Lee Mathews, was a booming presence, someone who was prone to taking people by surprise when he spoke. He said exactly what he thought—no mincing words. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a down-to-earth eye on the world. Every time I listened to the tape, I could feel the delicious tension in the room when my father asked his father to record a message for me. My grandmothers had just delivered their messages, short and sweet, and while I cherish the sound of their voices on that tape, I can hear their discomfort at being recorded. “Lucy, we are so proud of you,” said one. “We are so happy to be here, Lucy,” said the other.

When the microphone got to my grandfather, I could practically hear the collective holding of breath as everyone waited in anticipation of what he might say. He began to speak slowly, with all the natural warmth and charm that was his essence. I have always wondered if he thought in advance about what he would say, or if he simply made it up as each word rolled off his tongue. In his gentle southern accent, he proceeded to deliver a message that surprised everyone and resulted in laughter around the room. I think even he was surprised at how funny everyone found his comment. He, too, began to laugh, and got so “tickled” (as we say in the south) he barely got his closing sentences out. The moment is so candid and real, the laughter so unplanned and so true, that I feel lighter when I listen to it. And I feel closer to my grandfather. It’s as if he’s in the room with me.

The good news is that I did find the tape. The clip here is for anyone who is curious to know exactly what my grandfather said that day.  And I’m now taking more seriously the chore of cataloging and organizing all my pack-rat treasures because they hold so many important memories for me.

But the bigger question that has arisen for me from all of this is: how do we “archive” the ones we love? What bits and pieces, handwritten notes, recorded audio do we select to create a full picture of someone? Bigger yet, perhaps, how do we archive ourselves? What is the essence of me that I will want my granddaughter to search for one day?

Of course, there is no simple checklist. The answer is personal to each one of us. In thinking of my grandfather, I wanted most to hear his laughter. In fact, that’s a sound I cherish about everyone dear to me. But there’s so much more that can help create a full picture of someone– hearing a narration of a familiar story; reading a handwritten letter that captures a moment just after it unfolded; hearing someone speak about what matters most to them; and, of course, looking at photographs or watching a home movie. We can capture so much in this digital era, but how do we make sure we capture the most important things?

So I am posing the question rather than answering it– what relics or treasures are most important to you about the ones you love or about yourself?  Is anyone else a pack-rat like me, squirreling away treasures of memory? (I know you’re out there!) What do you keep and why?

**In case the audio player above does not work, you can also listen to the clip at: http://studio-lu.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/flm-graduation-message-to-lmm.mp3

Have you ever noticed how your mood is lifted when you spontaneously catch the eye of a stranger and share a smile in passing? So often, we stay in our own private worlds, our defined spaces of friends and family, of familiar routines. But once in a while– sometimes on purpose, sometimes by serendipity– we connect to someone we don’t know and it lifts us up. To me, those moments are the small reminders of a big idea– that we are all connected and that behind the face of every smiling stranger, there’s a story.

A couple of years ago, in a Tai Chi class I was taking, my curiosity was piqued by a woman I hardly knew who had a hobby I never imagined I would find fascinating. She was a quiet presence in the far corner of the room, taking the same spot each week, as we all seemed to do. Tall and slim, with her long gray hair pulled back in a pony-tail, she moved gracefully, purposefully, silently.

One day, I happened to overhear her describing her needlepoint projects and was captivated. I edged to the outskirts of the group that had gathered around her as she showed her work and described it. Listening to her speak, it was almost as though her philosophy of life unfolded in every stitch of her work.

A few weeks later I gathered the courage to approach her and ask a favor. I wanted to tell her story, to record her voice, to photograph her work, to let her wisdom unfold through her description of her hobby. At that point, I was only just beginning to explore the realm of mixed media storytelling. I had barely any samples of my work to show her to give myself some credibility in asking. I asked anyway. And she said yes. I was stunned that she would trust me with something so personal as her own story when I could only give her a vague notion of what I wanted to create.

I had envisioned a story based on audio and images featuring her face, her gentle countenance, her words, and the colors and textures of her needlepoint projects. In my original plan, her voice and face would be at the forefront and I would be invisible– an unseen editor creating a vehicle for her story to tell itself. Yet the day I interviewed her, I learned that she did not like being in the spotlight and would prefer that her face and name not be featured in the story I would create.

So I did the only thing I could think to do– I became her narrator. While those who know me best will tell you that I am not shy about hamming it up and being the center of attention in small gatherings of close friends, when it came to this realm of sharing stories of heart and substance, I felt shy and was more comfortable being an invisible hand behind the story. But the thought of letting a good story go untold was too much for me and nudged me forward.

I first mixed this story in 2009 and shared it with family and friends. The anonymous subject of my story became known as “The Threads Woman” amongst my friends. Several said they wished they could meet her, have coffee with her, learn more about her, be her friend. They, too, had been captivated by what I saw and heard.

Remixing the original materials with the newer software and techniques I now use, I was pleased that the heart of this story is as compelling to me now as it was when I first heard it.  And just as “The Threads Woman” said yes to the story idea originally, she has graciously allowed me to share her story more widely, reminding us that we are all connected and that we all have a story to share.

A lucky moment, I caught Wangari’s smile while photographing a meeting at UNEP in 1987.

Environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai is being eulogized by presidents and prime ministers. She died in Nairobi on Sunday at the age of 71. Yet, to me, the most impressive testament to her legacy is the list of condolences from names you wouldn’t recognize. In a multitude of languages, these condolences are being posted in record numbers to her Greenbelt Movement website by regular folks around the world whose lives she touched with her warmth and genuine kindness as much as with her brilliance and her passionate dedication to protecting the environment and human rights. I am one of the many “regular folks” who share a fond remembrance of Wangari Maathai and mourn her loss.

Fresh out of college, I landed in Nairobi, Kenya in 1987 to work for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).  I staffed a committee of women who were advising UNEP’s Executive Director. Professor Maathai was one of those women and a mentor to me in those months I spent in Kenya. In my journal, I marveled at her ability to translate her wisdom into messages that compelled people to action. Her ideas, I wrote then, “come through in her writing very clearly–down to earth and to the point, yet reflecting the depth and breadth of her training as a biologist. She captures thoughts and creates solutions that are often downright brilliant in their simplicity.”

Beyond what I learned from her writing, I received the enormous gift of her friendship during my stay in Kenya.  She always greeted me with a smile.  Her joyful laughter infused our work with the best of energy.  She gave me rides in her big Greenbelt Movement van, amused, I’m sure, by a wide-eyed, young American woman off on a Kenyan adventure. She also gave me one of the nicest compliments I have ever received.  At my going away dinner, she said, “I like Lucy because she has such an innocent face– a face that wishes all the good things in the world, and to which all the good things come.” I can still hear the cadence of her voice as she said it. The thought brings warmth to my heart and a smile to my face even now.  I have been trying to live up to that compliment ever since.

My life intersected with Wangari Maathai’s for only a short blip in time.  I never saw her again in person after my stint in Kenya more than two decades ago.  And yet I have carried her presence with me for all these years because of the depth of her kindness.  The wealth of condolence notes on her website from “regular folks” like me lets me know that I am not alone in this experience of her.  Surely there should be some kind of prize– even bigger than the Nobel, I think– for people like her who can touch, move and inspire us in the short time our lives intersect and change us for the better for the rest of our lives.

Rest in peace, Wangari Maathai.

To read more about Professor Maathai’s work at The Greenbelt Movement, visit www.greenbeltmovement.org

To hear Wangari’s voice and read another beautiful tribute to her, visit the Being Blog at  http://blog.onbeing.org/post/10684547786/wangari-maathai-dies-but-spirit-lives-on-in-song

In this day and age, with all the demands on our time, resources and energy, many of us learn to stay afloat and keep our sanity by drawing our boundaries– by “just saying no.”  While boundaries are important and knowing when to say no is an invaluable skill, I would like to extoll the virtues of “yes.”

A recent project took me to Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to film my friend Barbara McAfee singing her song “Yes.”  I heard her introduce this song in concert once, saying that when she began writing music as a twenty-something, one of her first compositions was entitled, “No!” She said it took her 25 years to write “Yes!” I laughed and thought of the classic behavior of two-year-olds, when they discover the power of the word “no” and can hardly be convinced to answer a question with anything else.

But what about “yes?” In the fast-paced daily grind, do we lose sight of the many things– big and small– that make us make us leap for joy, that comfort us when we need it, that sustain us?  Barbara’s song is a jubilant expression of just these kinds of moments and a beautiful reminder to pause and “just say yes.”

For the video, Barbara’s friend Tom Peter, The Tree Guy, known in the Twin Cities for his artistry with wood, loaned us his Crystal Canoe and joined us to help with filming.  I had no idea what a stir a seemingly invisible canoe could cause.  Everyone who saw us was mesmerized, from toddlers to hipster teens to leather clad motorcycle dudes to gray-haired grandparents.  Each and every passer-by broke into a huge smile and stopped to talk, both to us and to one another.  Many even sang along as we filmed around the lake.

As I witnessed the laughter, the conversation, and the joyful commotion– not to mention the sunlight on the water, the heron taking flight and the lily pads in bloom– I knew I was in the midst of a golden “yes” afternoon.

May we all dwell in the spirit of yes!

Barbara McAfee’s music is available at iTunes.  Her website is at www.barbaramcafee.com.  The Tree Guy can be found at www.respectfultransitions.com.

When you think of the word “home,” what comes to mind? A favorite room? A refuge from the hectic pace of daily life? A space for family meals and traditions?  A gathering place for celebrations?

If we polled an audience with this question, we would likely have as many different memories, dreams and stories as people in the audience. I would venture to guess that no one would chime in with words like, “Lumber! Drywall! Nails! Plywood!,” because home goes so much deeper than the walls and shelter a house provides.

Whether home is an apartment you rent or a house you own, having a decent, safe, affordable place to live gives us a foundation to hold all the other layers of our existence– family, work, school, play, hopes, future.

The faces in this video tell the story better than any words can capture. The photos come from two very different places, but reflect the same joy. In Winona, Minnesota, we watch as a single mom receives a home for her family through the “Women Build” program of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. In Zacapa, Guatemala, an extended family of two parents, children and a grandmother gain a home of their own through Habitat International.

I had the chance to visit this terrain of affordable housing, which was my field of work many years ago, because friends of mine, Jean Leicester and Barbara McAfee, asked me to create a video for their song, “More Than A House.”

Barbara– a singer-songwriter and a wise teacher on how to find and use your own voice– sings the lead and is backed up by the Twin Cities’ reggae band New Primitives. Topping it off, the chorus is sung by members of  the Morning Star Singers, a local hospice choir, who volunteered to help. Choir member Julie Bonde, who is a Habitat volunteer, generously offered photos and video from her building trip to Guatemala. Jean, also a long-time Habitat volunteer, gathered images from a project in her community that she helped build.

As the saying goes, “many hands make quick work.” I would add that many hands joined in the spirit of love and directed toward a common cause make very  joyful work, as well.  This is certainly true of the writing and recording of this song, with so many talented voices lending their time to bring Jean and Barbara’s creation to life.  And it certainly can also be true of efforts to make a difference in addressing the need for affordable housing.

In 2002, one of my dearest friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. In her late thirties, with a wonderful spouse and two young sons, I watched as she navigated surgery, chemo and radiation, as so many women do. Beyond the grueling aspects of treatment itself, there was the enormous heart space to travel: How do you talk to your kids about having cancer? How do you maintain your closest relationships when you are going through something most of those around you can’t understand first-hand? Bigger, yet, how do you face your own mortality?

My friend and I live more than 1,000 miles apart.  When you’re that far away, you can’t pitch in to do the things that are most tangible– picking up the kids from school, running errands, making dinners.  Yet, I desperately wanted to give her my support and love.  So I went to the archive of our past history together– old letters I had saved from our decades of friendship, beginning in high school, spanning through college and our early years in the work world, to getting married and having children.

Each week, I sent her a package containing one year’s worth of her letters to me, beginning in 1980 and ending in 2000. I marveled that we had traded letters in every single one of those years. I was awestruck by the depth of what we shared with one another. I lamented the fact that we slowly stopped writing real letters with the advent of email and arrival of our children. I copied each letter (no, i didn’t part with the originals!) and wrote commentaries in the margins about our escapades. I laughed and cried as I revisited memories and hoped that they would be a good distraction for her after each weekly chemo treatment.

My tiny window into her world during that year made a huge impression on me. Since then, so many more of my friends have been diagnosed. Gradually, I have become more and more involved in the cause to help find a cure for breast cancer and support women going through it.

I always knew that someday I wanted to tell the story I had witnessed.  Yet, often, the stories that are closest to our heart are the most difficult to express. It wasn’t until I saw a neighbor of mine– newly diagnosed and on a walk after chemo– that the words to this story came tumbling out. Though it is written specifically about women and breast cancer, the message applies to any major life challenge. Every picture and every journal entry is from a woman who has been through it. More than 30 women shared their private moments and thoughts to offer comfort to those currently on the path. . . one step, one true step, at a time.

Hindsight: Why Stories Matter

Don’t we all wish we had the 20-20 vision of hindsight in the moment an event is unfolding? We would have all the insight that retrospection brings, without having to wait. I used to believe that if we thought hard enough, studied and scrutinized long enough, then we could do all the right things, take the shortest route, make no mistakes. Of course, life doesn’t work that way.  And if we believe in that fallacy, then we’ll spend lots more time feeling we’ve failed than feeling we’ve succeeded.

In truth, hindsight can only come with time and reflection. Often, it’s only by looking back with the perspective of distance that we can see the turns we missed, or the steps that could have made life easier, or the ones we took that were right on the money, even though we made them without fully knowing which direction was best. Perhaps that’s the point, after all– that we cannot know everything. We can only do the best we can in each moment. It’s not about being perfect but about learning.

Maybe the real purpose of hindsight is to help us make sense of what we’ve been through, to sort through the messy details of the ups and downs and turn them into a story with a beginning, middle and end. And, ultimately– if we are willing– to offer our story to someone else.  Because in sharing our own story we can help others feel less alone, more connected, more empowered or simply comforted in the midst of their own moments of not knowing. In return, we might be lucky enough to have someone else’s story reach us at the moment we need it most.

We all have wisdom to share, usually more than we realize. Start telling your story. Trust me, it matters.