fuel for love

What art fuels your ability to love? Fans the flames of love in you? In a recent lecture at the Chautauqua Institute in New York on compassionate love, I shared some arts resources that do that for me. One of them was the film, 13 Conversations About One Thingwhich reminds me how the little kindnesses we do in our days can make a big difference, both to other people, and how we stretch our capacities to love and be loved. Someone from the audience mentioned that the TV series Ted Lasso did that for them. Most of us become burned out at times. What films and TV programs fuel your capacity to love and be loved?


poetry and music weblinks

Here are some web-links to poetry and music from the Spiritual Connection book that I gathered up to post. I hope some of them can help to provide fuel for you in these days.

Here is a sampling of the first few on the webpage link:

10   Had I Not Been Awake by Seamus Heaney

34   Postscript by Seamus Heaney

38   Dust by Dorianne Laux

48   Even in the Quietest Moments Supertramp

49   There Is Some Kiss We Want, Rumi

134  3055 by Olafur Arnald


Is mending art?

Recently I have developed a passion for mending. I was invigorated by reading the books Mend! by Kate Sekules, and Visible Mending, and by Arounna Khounnoraj, that have all sorts of advice, instructions, and inspiration, e.g., for darning socks, or patching holes. While one of my daughters and her husband were visiting I worked my way through their torn clothing, and holes in woolen socks. I have moved on to shirt collars and ripped sheets. It feels so satisfying to me to take something that would be discarded, and make it usable again. Sometimes the item is even enhanced in the process.  Hand sewing is a soothing activity for me. Fabric holds memories visually and through touch, and I revisit those memories while mending, and when wearing the items again. Sometimes I even re-purpose the item for another use. I can do hand sewing while in conversation with others, or while listening to something on audio. I wonder if I can take this approach to my torn emotions, or the ‘holes’ made by grief?

muddy beets

One of the reasons I go to our local farmers market is to get lost in the visual beauty of the fruits and vegetables and flowers. I take in all the smells too.  It is a high spot of summer for me.  I bought these beets even though they looked rather unattractive.   When I got home, I decided to sketch them. At first, they just looked brown and muddy, but as I drew them, I detected subtleties. I thought about how things in our lives that do not look great on the outside, can reveal beauty and goodness nevertheless. And I haven’t even cooked them yet.

each of us is different

            This iris was nestled between the weeds outside my front door. After painting this, I realized that each iris I see looks different.  The irises have not changed, but I am seeing each of them in new ways. Previously when I looked at it I would have thought, ‘Oh yes, another iris,’ and put it into a file of cartoon-like irises in my mind – maybe some color variations, but basically all the same.  But each iris has a particular quality, exists in a particular space, and is seen by me in a moment that for me is different from all those before and after. Each human being needs to be viewed like that too. We put each other into boxes and categories so easily, yet each one of us is so distinct, and each encounter is so different.

What’s love got to do with it? We are not machines and AI is not human

A chapter in a book I am working on explores how we are not machines, yet can be duped into thinking that we are. It is part of a book that centers on how a person can flourish in difficult circumstances. As I was writing it, the Generative AI, Chat GPT, and computer future fears surfaced in the media, and we have been alerted to an acceleration of human-seeming abilities of technology. I found myself concerned with issues that are arising now, rather than long term fears, and wrote a paper for the US Office of Science and Technology Policy with recommendations for action. There are many people who can speak to so many issues raised by AI, but I thought there were some things that were being left out of discussions, and my scholarship in human relationships might be helpful in making recommendations for action and making a case for those.

We need to protect real human-to-human relationships and strengthen our relationships with one another in the wider social world. What can we do to help us see ourselves as we are, not as machines, and help us to relate realistically to human-seeming Generative AI objects with various levels of verbal, visual, auditory, and tactile characteristics? How do we encourage people to see the value of human-to-human interactions, of giving and receiving compassionate love, and accepting others and ourselves, flawed yet of value at a fundamental level? It is in our relationships with one another, embodied and truthful, that we express ourselves in a way that leads to fullness of life for ourselves and the people we encounter in our day to day lives. We need to put guardrails in place to help us to affirm these important characteristics of our lives in the midst of the increasing proliferation of human-seeming machines and technology.

Email me at lynn@lynnunderwood.com if you want the whole paper on AI and relationships that I submitted to the Office of Science and Technology Policy .

Seeing into the life of things


With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deeper power of joy, we see into the life of things.

 -William Wordsworth


space to reconnect

Sometimes we just need to disconnect and switch off in order to re-calibrate ourselves. Then we can fully dive back into the fray, refreshed and reoriented.

Do you disconnect from some things, people and newsfeeds every now and again?  What do you do?

I find drawing and painting helps me. It can be anything from doodling, to playing with colours, to sketching things around me.  When things are pulling me in too many directions, or overwhelming me, I find this gives me space to re-orient myself. Then I am more able to fully engage.

writing a poem for fun

mouse by lynn

Thank you for my limits–

They are gifts.

I do not have unlimited energy or choices

And so much is unknown.

All will work for good.

I can be at peace.


Welcome peace.

Be glad for imperfections and limits.

They are good–

Truly gifts!

The future is unknown,

Not determined or fully controlled by my choices.


Don’t fear choices.

Rest in peace.

Step into the unknown,

Warmly accepting my limits.

Receive them as gifts.

The limitations are good.


I want all to end well and be good.

As I invite grace into my choices,

I expect the future to hold many gifts

And peace.

Today I will embrace my limits

And see adventure in the unknown.


Do not fear the unknown.

Expect good.

Welcome my limits.

Dive enthusiastically into my choices.

There is reason to feel peace.

Thank you for all my gifts.


Look for gifts

in the unknown.

Know peace.

The future will be good.

Have confidence in my choices.

Be friendly with my limits.


Expect surprising and good gifts,

As I make choices when so much is unknown.

Acknowledging my limits can give me peace.


In my last post I mentioned how I was writing sestinas for exploration, playing with words during my morning contemplative time.  The above is one of mine from a couple of days ago.  You can see the structure of repeating over and over the end words, in a set order, and then in the final triplet using all 6 words.  I picked words that I wanted to grapple with, enabling them to sink ideas into me in a mantra-like way., pushing the words to their limits.  I am not a poet, and usually I do not share any poetry I write, but I am doing this to encourage you to dabble too, and see where it leads you.

I suggest that you pick 6 words and try this yourself. They can be very concrete ones or more conceptual, or more feeling words. The structure for the end word repetition is 123456, then 615243, then 364125 then 532614, then 451362, then 246531 – I hope I copied this correctly! – you will detect the pattern as you go.  And then a final three lines using all 6 words, two in each line: 1-4, 2-5, 3-6, or just put them all in there somehow in 3 lines. It may take a few tries to get into the swing of it, but taking a playful approach can make it fun.  And here is an online form that I shared with my students who did sestinas, that can help if all of that seems too much trouble: http://dilute.net/sestinas/

You may be surprised what has emerged as you read it after you have finished.

Becoming friendly with words again

Have you ever written poetry? Not to produce a poem as professional poets do or with the aim of creating something to be admired, but just for the fun of playing with words, being friendly with them? Sestinas are a poetic form, where 6 words are used over and over again in 7 stanzas, no rhyming.  (A good example is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem entitled Sestina, which was my first introduction to the form in the book, The Redress of Poetry by Seamus Heaney.) In a college class I taught, students were asked to write sestinas to explore who they were and picked words that resonated with them or meant something to them.  The repetition took them beyond the superficial as they continued with repetition to put the words in different contexts, with a final stanza pulling all together.  Although skeptical to start with, most of them quite appreciated the process in the end, and many also enjoyed the opportunity to share their final poem with others if they wanted to.

I am currently writing sestinas myself as a daily exercise.  I pick my 6 words, sometimes the day before, and then in my morning contemplative time I write one.  These are not intended to be great poems, or read by anyone other than me, but the stretching into the words, the playing with them, the exploration – this feels good.  I dig into my desires and emotions that are under the surface, unarticulated. I sometimes pick words from my journal from the day before, or take a theme of interest to me, and pick words related to that.

Structure helps. I follow the requirement of having the 6 words at the end of each line in the first 6 stanzas, in a set order, and then pull all together in the last 3-line stanza using all 6 words, which feels very satisfying. You may want to try this.  The rules seem complicated at first, but once you get the hang of it, it really is simple to follow as you go from one set to another as in a square dance, picking up the last word in the last line, and making that occur at the end of the first line in the next stanza.

We so often think of poetry in terms of the end result, the poem itself to be read and hopefully appreciated.  But this exercise of writing these sestinas has no such aim.  My aim is to become friendly with words again, and to dig into my thoughts and feelings that are bubbling under the surface, and give them air.

Repairing damage

When we have experienced emotional or physical or relationship damage in the past, it can continue to feel frustrating at best and irreparably harmful at worst.  I so often look at the broken places as problems, limitations, and inadequacies. Or I try to ignore them. But the kintsugi approach actually highlights the beauty in repairs.

The Japanese word kintsugi describes the ancient art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Kintsugi takes a broken piece of pottery, and uses precious and beautiful lacquer to highlight all those places where the breakage happened. The end result is something that many would say is even more beautiful than the pristine original.

Kintsuge treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Reflecting on this is helpful for me. The kinds of damage we can experience can include things like emotional abuse, physical illness or injuries, treatments for cancer, relationship break-ups, or forced relocation.

I have had a laundry basket for decades. The lid has slowly been breaking apart at the edges.  I decided to repair it using raffia pieces that came in some packaging.  I tied the raffia pieces to the edge places where it was breaking to hold them together.  This is a drawing of the result. Someone commented on this drawing, and said that it looks like the raffia pieces are dancing.  I can look at this basket lid, and reflect on the same for my life.  I can react to the injuries, and make beauty, and creatively respond.  Fully acknowledging the injuries, the hurts, the damage, but also reveling in the dance of my responses.


welcoming imperfection

“To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do–-away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart.  You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes.

“To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work, your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work required a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept.

“For Albert Einstein, even the seemingly perfect construct of mathematics yielded to his observation that ‘As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.’

“For Charles Darwin, evolution lay revealed when a perfect survival strategy for one generation became, in a changing world, a liability for its offspring. For you, the seed for your next art work lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece. Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides–-valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgemental guides–-to matters you need to reconsider or develop further.  It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.”

from the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, Image Continuum, 1993



It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.


From Thirst: Poems
Copyright © Mary Oliver


The poet WH Auden said that the artist feels the impulse to create a work of art when the passive awe provoked is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship. To be fit homage, he said, this rite must be beautiful. We do not always achieve our goal to create something beautiful, but our desire to do so is good in itself.

speaking my mind

Art by Pawel Kuczynski – permission from the Artist to reproduce

For nine months now I have been re-composing and recording an audiobook of my Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book. It was published back in 2013, and needed extensive revision to work in audio. I took a lot of the research and quantitative material out and put it in the appendix, so it could be focused even more on the experiences that the listener had personally.  I wanted to narrate it myself, so set microphone and iPad up in the corner of the room I use for art, with baffles and pop-filter.  The whole process has been a labor of love. Editing out sounds, sending to an audio-engineer, re-recording and re-editing.  I am now working with Applelane Press to get it out on different platforms. For now, it is here: https://payhip.com/b/c4jv

I enjoy listening to audio-books and thought in this format people could allow the book to wash over them.  I developed a journal as a PDF included with the book so that people would have a space to write their answers and reflect on the questions throughout the book, a part of the paperback that many have appreciated.

One of the challenges in the process has been that I have had to listen to, and re-listen to, my voice. I felt it would be better to read it myself rather than have someone else narrate it, and I am hoping that adds to its value for the listener.

The picture here is by an artist I admire so much, Pawel Kuczynski. A picture can truly represent even more than a thousand words.  This picture encourages me to get back to doing my drawings and paintings, now that this audiobook is floating out into the world.

elegance of grace

“Don’t push the river” a friend of mine reminded me.  Recently I have been thinking about how grace makes its way through me, in my life. These words helped.

Grace is one of the most majestic words in theology. It suggests the sublime spontaneity of the divine which no theory or category could ever capture.  Grace has its own elegance. It is above the mechanics of agenda or operation. No-one can set limits to the flow of grace. Its presence and force remain unmeasurable and unpredictable.  Grace also suggests how fluent and seamless the divine presence is. There are not compartments, corners or breakages imaginable in the flow of grace. Grace is the permanent climate of divine kindness. It suggests a  compassion and understanding for all the ambivalent and contradictory dimensions of the human experience and pain. This climate of kindness nurtures the sore landscape of the human heart and urges torn ground to heal and become fecund. Grace is the perennial infusion of springtime into the winter of bleakness. – (John O Donahue, Beauty, 2004, Harper Collins pg 228)

the spiritual practice of drawing portraits

drawing by lynn

When I draw or paint someone, I find myself exploring the heart of the person, and becoming sympathetic to their fears, their desires, their concerns.  We can never fully understand what another person is feeling or their circumstances or history, but we can stretch into that in our portraits.  We are limited by our skills. But we can still move in love toward the person, and see the fundamental value of another human being, when we draw them. For me, this is a spiritual practice.


I ‘listen’ to poetry to hear what speaks to me.  Each of us hears a poem in a different way.  I have been finding nourishment in these lines from the poem “Somewhere” (from Laboratories of the Spirit, Macmillan 1975) by the Welsh poet R.S.Thomas.

What speaks to you in these lines after reading them slowly?

…the point of travelling is not

to arrive, but to return home

laden with pollen you shall work up

into the honey the mind feeds on.


What are our lives but harbours

we are continually setting out

from, airports at which we touch

down and remain in too briefly

to recognize what it is they remind

us of? And always in one

another we seek the proof

of experiences it would be worth dying for.


…Surely there exists somewhere,

as the justification for our looking for it,

the one light that can cast such shadows?

Where do you find evidence of “the one light that casts such shadows”?  Now that you are spending more time at home, do you find yourself using the pollen you have gathered up on your travels in the past, to make honey for your mind to feed on?

Everything we see

Everything we see is light

-Paul Cezanne


drawing by lynn

“I asked the earth, I asked the sea and the deeps, among the living animals, the things that creep. I asked the winds that blow, I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars….My question was the gaze I turned to them. Their answer was their beauty.” – St Augustine.



Is being vulnerable something we should avoid at all costs? There is a welcoming quality in vulnerability. Who wants to be hugged by, or hug, a suit of armor?  This quilt on my sofa invites someone to sit on it.  Not like metal, square edges, hard corners, which might represent a ‘cool’ place.   Softness represents invitation and warmth.  Soft, vulnerable people can easily get injured, but also create a safe space, a welcoming space, for someone to relax and rest, and be who they are.

get over it?

We hear people say to ‘Get over it!’  But is that such good advice?  This poem expresses a response to that better than I can.

We don’t get over things.

Or say, we get over the measles

but not a broken heart.

We need to make that distinction.

The things that become part of our experience

never become less a part of our experience.

How can I say it?

The way to “get over” a life is to die.

Short of that, you move with it,

let the pain be pain,

not in the hope that it will vanish

but in the faith that it will fit in,

find its place in the shape of things

and be then not any less pain but true to form.

Because anything natural has an inherent shape

and will flow towards it.

And a life is as natural as a leaf.

That’s what we’re looking for:

not the end of a thing but the shape of it.

Wisdom is seeing the shape of your life

without obliterating (getting over) a single

instant of it.

-“The Cure” by Albert Huffstickler

Good mistakes

One of the things that holds me back from creating things is the fear of making mistakes.   When doing this drawing, my reddish pen ran out of ink, and then the yellowish ink i changed to ran unexpectedly.  But in the end, something unfolded that I could not have imagined from the start.  Life can be like that too.  Things we think are bad mistakes can lead to unexpected and good outcomes.

Accustomed to the Dark

art by lynn

I have been reading so many good poems over the holiday season. This is one that spoke to me as I continue to write about how tough times can be good.


We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

Emily Dickinson

fighting roosters

I do not like conflict.  But we just cannot avoid some of it in life. Others can be aggressive, we can feel outraged, or we can just have strong disagreements.  The words in this drawing of mine are from a set of translations/interpretations from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton.

are we having fun yet?

art by lynn

I love this season of the year. The music, the art, the feelings of anticipation, the celebrations.  But it is so easy to get swamped. With things to do, preparations, and the other work in our lives that does not stop for the holidays. And as days get darker and shorter up here in the northern hemisphere, that doesn’t help.  I did an advent calendar last year, and I have put up a rerun of it this year.  Today’s window asks about fun.  Even if we are working hard in our jobs or household tasks, can we snatch moments to have some fun? The art here is from the window today, and the link to my advent calendar is: https://tuerchen.com/6bf19534

You can open each little window from now until the end of December if you enjoy advent calendars.


art by lynn

Acorns are scattered all over my neighborhood. Their beautiful little rounded bodies with caps that fit so well.  It is hard to believe they can grow into oak trees. But what has to happen to that seeming perfection for it to become an oak tree? It gets covered with dirt. The cap falls off, the rounded body splits down the middle, an awkward brown substance emerges.  A green sprout pokes out and grows longer, up through the soil. Leaves unfurl, roots grow down. And in time a little tree starts to grow. And as water and sun nourish it, it can grow into a small sapling, and eventually an oak tree. A marvelous strong oak. A place for children to climb, and birds and squirrels to build nests.  When I think about my life, I am not a perfect little acorn. My cap has fallen off. My body has “cracks”, and changes over time in ways I don’t particularly like or approve of. But new growth happens, transformation comes from these changes.  I can hope that someday, given sun and rain and other nourishment, a sapling will emerge, and then, who knows?

fun and philosophy

‘The History of Philosophy without any Gaps.” is a podcast I have listened to for years and love. I have learned so much.  Many of the episodes, on topics of particular interest to me, I listen to 2 or 3 times. If I find this fun, what does this say about me? The presenter, Peter Adamson, has a sense of humor, and is open-minded, and has such a knowledge base, and provides a depth of content that he expresses so well.  I listen on iTunes, but here is a link to his website: https://historyofphilosophy.net/ If you want to get a taste of it, look under ‘themes’ and find something of interest.  I couldn’t resist drawing the host.

waiting and life

 drawing of giacometti by lynn

Lately I have been meditating on selections from this great collection of poems by Wisława Symborska. This is a gem that continues to speak to me.

LIFE WHILE-YOU-WAIT by Wisława Symborska

Life While-You-Wait.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.

I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.

I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.

Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for happy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.

Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run —
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.

If only I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).

You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.

from Map: Collected and Last Poems, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak

comparison is a thief

It has hit me so strongly lately that life does not happen on a level playing field. When we compare ourselves with others, we just do not have all the information. And even if we have the information, we do not sufficiently take it into account. Social media exacerbates this.  We all come into life with biological propensities, we find ourselves embedded in a culture. We have particular parents or caretakers, some very loving, some very abusive, and most in between.  So many life circumstances are beyond our control. Traumas, other people we are involved with, environmental disasters, economic assets.  Each individual comes into the world as unique and inhabits a place in the world that is distinct. Comparison so often gets in the way of our decisionmaking, for example our assessment of how we should be and what is best to do.

When we bite into a strawberry and want it to be a great orange, that gets in the way of enjoying the delicious strawberry taste. Each of us has a distinct flavor that needs to be appreciated for what it is, each of us appreciated for who we are. Comparison can steal our joy.

finding bits of bliss

drawing by lynn

“Follow your bliss” does not always work for me. How do we keep working on projects that we are not that keen on? I feel duty bound to do some things, and there are other things that I just revel in. I find myself mistakenly thinking that if I were a perfect human being those things would always be lined up. But the human condition means that we are often facing things that must be done, yet are not that enjoyable. There are a variety of ways I find for getting me through a tough job, but sometimes I just need to take a break. I like to draw much more than I like to write. When I am working on a writing project, sometimes I just take a break to do a drawing. Then I can often dive back into the world of words with renewed enthusiasm. What do you do that revives you?

A daily choreography of praise

art by lynn

[…] every bole and limb begins to dance;
the universe’s light-fantastic prayer
now lauds a wooer taking still a chance
on just this cosmic ballet’s elegance
where nothing is decided in advance,

where hadrons jiggle in their resonance
while galaxies bebop and flowers blaze;
in cedars and wild animals I glance

a daily choreography of praise.


-from Micheal O’Siadhail’s ‘Five Quintets’Baylor University Press 2018

art and love

Drawing of the artist Felix Scheinberger by Lynn

“There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

-Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother.

joy nevertheless

drawing by lynn

I am fascinated by how we can experience joy even in the midst of tough times. I have seen time and time again that joy can be found in the midst of so much gunk. I have interviewed people and read research studies and other writing about resiliency and post traumatic growth, and have heard how people are thriving in the midst of trauma and disease.  I find it inspires me. I meet people whose lives seem much tougher than mine, and I find myself in awe of the joy they can find in the midst of it all, and am encouraged.

dancing with joy

I have always loved to dance, and to watch others dancing. There is something about dancing that can express joy in fantastic ways, connecting our feelings of joy to how we feel in our bodies. I have enjoyed a video recently, of the TU Dance Company in a collaboration with the singer Bon Iver, and I enjoyed sketching the dancers, entering into their experience while doing so (click here for a YouTube). Music and dance together can lift us up, no matter if we are participants or those watching.

bless my boots

art by lynn

My people, my objects, breathe in a different way: there’s another core—an excitement that’s definitely abstract. When you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing—if you have an emotion about it, there’s no end.”

-Andrew Wyeth


sestina liberation

In so much of life I see words obscuring truth. Here is something that reminds me that words don’t necessarily hide the truth, but can liberate it.

I have given the assignment to students to write a sestina – not creative writing students, but undergraduates from all disciplines. This was a part of my Perspectives: Art Science and Spirituality interdisciplinary course.  We were exploring the nature of the Self in various ways through the arts and sciences, and their sestina was to be about themselves, exploring who they were.The sestina is a poetic form with a set pattern of ending words and stanza structure. It uses the same 6 words as the end words of separate lines, over and over again through 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, each stanza in specific different set orders. No rhyming or rhythm needed. Then in a final 3-line stanza you use all 6 words mixed in with other words. ( 123456, 615243, 364125, 532614, 451362, 246531; 2-5, 4-3, 6-1 ) I gave them the format, and helped with online computerized ways to make it even easier to get started with it (like this). I shared Elizabeth Bishop’s Sestina as a good example.(click here if you want to read it.)

Not everyone liked the assignment to start with, but in the end most enjoyed the process and result. Sharing their final poems in class (but only if they wanted to), let them share who they were with each other, and discover each other, in new ways.

I have returned to this exercise and am currently writing a sestina each day.  I pick the words the night before.  By the 4thstanza most of us tire of the words’ obvious meanings. Stanzas 5 and 6 force us to dig deeper into how these words require unpacking from our subconscious.  And the final 3 lines including all 6 words can lead to a kind of resolution.  It is wordplay, and also loosens me up as well as exposing feelings and giving me insight into ideas, myself, other people, or situations.

I am no poet, and have no illusions that mine will ever be shared or that I have written “good poetry”. But the process itself is freeing. It reminds me that words can be fun, ends in themselves, and that helps encourage my other writing.

flowers and darkness

Flowers grow out of dark moments.  
Therefore, each moment is vital.  It affects 
the whole. Life is a succession of moments and to live each, is to succeed.

-Sr Corita Kent

I am emerging from many weeks suffering from ‘the revenge of the chickenpox’! This quote from this marvelous creative lady seems just right.


art by lynn

…For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven

From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.”

-Patrick Kavanaugh (from Canal Walk, from Collected Poems, 2004)

stepping off the escalator

Many of the Zen stories that are almost always incomprehensible in rational terms are simply the ringing of an alarm clock, and the reaction of the sleeper.  Usually the misguided sleeper makes a response which in effect turns off the alarm so he can go back to sleep. Sometimes he jumps out of bed with a shout of astonishment that it is so late.  Sometimes he just sleeps and does not hear the alarm at all.

art by lynn

But we in the West, living in the tradition of ego-centered practicality and geared entirely for the use and manipulation of everything, always pass from one thing to another, from cause to effect, from the first to the next to the last and then back to the first. Everything always points to something else, and hence we never stop anywhere because we cannot: as soon as we pause, the escalator reaches the end of the ride and we have to get off and find another one.

-Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite.

spirituality is not a project

The false self impulsively turns the spiritual life into a project and a task of the ego. But what is the false self trying to get that a person doesn’t already have? The false self prays from where it thinks it should be or would like to be. The true self prays from where it is.

-Albert Haas OFM

nighttime and rain

As I reflected on the days here in the northern hemisphere getting darker and darker, this quote from Merton seemed just right. This is from my advent calendar (click here if you want to see the whole calendar).

I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking up the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!

-Thomas Merton, from the essay Rain and the Rhinoceros


an advent calendar

Click here to link to my advent calendar: https://tuerchen.com/6bf19534

The time before Christmas is soaked through with the excitement of waiting, beautiful music, tiny lights, candles, thinking about gifts, good food, good times with other people. When I lived in Germany the Advent calendars fascinated me.  Hanging in the window, light came through from outside through the thin paper images as each little door was opened on the consecutive days leading up to Christmas. When my children were younger I bought a new one each year. I finally found one with art by Martin Erspamer OSB that I have now re-used year after year.

With friends and family spread all over, I wanted to make an advent calendar online that people could enjoy. I wanted to make one to speak more widely beyond the Christian tradition, and I hope this will be a satisfying one for all, and bring with it the Spirit of the season. Each day in December is numbered, and cannot be opened until the day arrives. You may need to hit ‘refresh’ for each new day. Enjoy!

Here is a link to day 1.



unbelievable sunset

A beautiful sunset from the hills of Kentucky. The colors in the sky were unbelievable, but I tried to capture them anyway.


from the poem Still, by AR Ammons

…at one sudden point came still,

stood in wonder:

moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent

with being!

From The Selected Poems: 1951-1977, Expanded Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright © 1986 by A. R. Ammons.

I was on retreat this past week, and I even found the bathroom beautiful.  It seems to have followed me home, together with the many positive effects of the week at the monastery.


St Kevin and the Blackbird


This poem is one of my favorite descriptions of compassionate love. I did this drawing in response to it. This poem continues to speak to me today, to those moments when I find myself in situations where I think I just do not have anything more in me to give. Where do you get the strength to love when you seem to have nothing left in the tank?





“St Kevin and the Blackbird”, by Seamus Heaney,

from The Spirit Level (Faber and Faber, 1996) (c) Seamus Heaney 1996
And then there was
St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling,
arms stretched out,
inside his cell, but the cell is narrow, soOne turned-up palm is out the window, stiff As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands and Lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, Imagine being Kevin. Which is he? Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms? Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head? Alone and mirrored clear in Love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

I would rather…

I put a bumper sticker on my car last winter. It reads “I would rather be here now.” I don’t naturally think this, especially in tough times. When I stuck it on, I wondered whether I would always agree with the words: in traffic jams, in the midst of conflict, if I had an accident, in the deep cold of winter. It is a daily reminder to me to whole-heartedly inhabit my own skin, no matter what the circumstances.

There is a chapter “Yes!” in my latest book, that I just recorded in audio. Click here if you want to listen. In it I invite us to reflect on our personal challenges and difficulties, yet affirm the value and wonder of who and where we are. I also write about how we view our past, and how we might see the good in what we might see as mistakes and things that don’t seem at all perfect.

what if i were an oyster?

the oyster persists in filtering seawater and fashioning the daily
irritations into lustre.”




–Ellen Bass, from the poem Reincarnation

Traveling without seeing ahead

We travelers, walking to the sun,

can’t see
 ahead, but looking back the very light

That blinded us shows us the way we came,

Along which blessings now appear, risen

As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,

By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward

That blessed light that yet to us is dark.


–Wendell Berry, from Given: New Poems

So often I want to see what is coming ahead, so that I can plan, so that I can better control things, including myself….But the future is not something we can see in any kind of certain way. And imagining that we can is a delusion to be avoided. That does not mean that we cannot be hopeful, however, for bright surprises.

nonchalant asparagus

One of the best things about summer where I live is food from the farmer’s market. I cannot grow plants for the life of me, but I so enjoy looking at the beauty of the produce at market, and then, of course, eating food made from fresh ingredients. These small blessings add so much to the quality of my life. The asparagus this year has been great. Fresh food like this inspires even this mediocre cook to make a dinner. When I sent this drawing to my daughter she said it was nonchalant asparagus. 

moon language

“With That Moon Language” by Hafiz, a 14th-century poet from Iran

drawing by lynn

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this: this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a moon in each eye,
that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?

the peril of trying to be someone else

“One learns who one is and it is at one’s peril that one attempts to become someone else.” —John Barth

art by lynn


drawing by lynn

Drawing can help us uncover distress in someone, and touch them tenderly. 


Can drawing fuel my love?

I had the wonderful opportunity to be in the LA area this past academic year on a research fellowship. During the many meetings and conferences, when I was not speaking myself, I tried to capture something of the essence of people by drawing them—a perfect drawing was not the goal.  Drawing people has continued to enable me to better engage with the topics.

Even more importantly for me, drawing people has continued to be a spiritual practice, stretching beyond the surface of the person and embracing them.  Can drawing people stretch our love towards them? For me, the answer is yes.


small things

“People who place their small time into the heart of eternity, which they already carry within, will suddenly realize that even small things, have inexpressible depths, are messengers of eternity, are always more than they appear to be, are like drops of water in which is reflected the entire sky, like signs pointing beyond themselves, like messengers running ahead of the message they are carrying and announcing the coming of eternity, like shadows of true reality that are cast over us because the real is already very near.”—Karl Rahner (trans. Annemarie Kidder)

art by lynn


art by lynn

“There is a freshness deep down things”, wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I am finding myself looking for freshness in each day and moment, and finding it in the most unexpected places.



I have been part of a group of scholars these past few months, discussing suffering from the perspectives of literature, philosophy, theology and psychology. During our weekly conversations I have found that drawing people in the group, as always, helps me to focus. Although ideas are so often the center of academic discussions, it is the human beings that speak to me. Each person has a depth of being, a fullness of life, that I want to capture somehow. Doing this brings me to appreciate them more.


                   drawing by lynn




The person is prudent who does not allow his vision of reality to be controlled by the yes or no of his will but rather makes this yes or no of the will dependent upon the truth of reality.

-Josef Pieper summarizing Thomas Aquinas

Moving places?

drawing by lynn

When we move to another place, what happens? I had to move a lot as a child, and have had to move as an adult too, mostly due to circumstances beyond my control. I remember wondering as a small child if the towns and houses we moved from disappeared, when we left them. I am heading to Los Angeles in a few weeks for a fellowship at a college there for the academic year, and I am really looking forward to the opportunity. To work on a project that has been on the back burner for so long and spend time with good people will be great. But I love being at home, and leaving it will be hard. I have tried to create welcoming spaces around me for those who visit my home, and even for the wildlife.

What relationships do we form with the things and places around us?  The internet, email, Skype, and phones lets me keep in touch with people at a distance. Maybe there are ways I can take a sense of the place with me too, expanding my sense of place to stretch wider.

Why beauty?

art by lynn

But are these beautiful because we think them so, or because they are beautiful in the mind of nature or the mind of God, beautiful by intention inborn in a world beloved?


Beauty is the crisis of our knowing, the signature of love indwelling in all created things, called from nothing by love, recognized and answered by love in the human heart, not reducible by any analysis to any fact.


–Wendell Berry, A Small Porch, Counterpoint Press, 2016

memory and time

The events of our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order: the continuous thread of revelation. -Eudora Welty

I have a collection of objects sitting on top of my bookcase – with various things inside. Reminders with meaning. One basket bought while living in Belfast, another from Kalamazoo, one a gift from a colleague once full of fresh fruit. A hatbox that has held wide-brimmed hats that I once wore to keep the drizzle off my head or to shield the sun. Peeking out of one basket, a water bottle once full, mercifully purchased for me by my hosts on a car trip from from the airport at Cluj-Napoca to Targu Mures Romania. A box of note cards of leaf photos bought in the village of Einsiedeln, Switzerland at a meeting held at a Benedictine monastery in the Alps. I so often want to get rid of various objects, downsize my belongings, but these objects continue to live as part of a “thread of revelation”. When I did this painting, all of these events came back to me more vividly. The people, the interactions, the experiences and feelings. Perhaps this painting can now take the place of the objects, calling all to mind.

sculpting in time

“Art is a meta-language, with the help of which people try to communicate with one another; to impart information about themselves and assimilate the experience of others.”

-Russian film director Andrey Tarkovsky, from the book, Sculpting in Time

sketch by lynn

parting the curtain

My continuing passion is to part a curtain, that invisible veil of indifference that falls between us and that blinds us to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.

-Eudora Welty, author

good conversation

“16 questions” by lynn

What makes for a good interview? I think Dr. Rachael Kohn has it nailed. I had the privilege of being interviewed by her on the Australian public radio ABC show The Spirit of Things, which aired on March 26. She is an exemplar of how we can help good conversations to happen in our daily lives. We can ask questions that bring out the other person, and sometimes stretch them in an accepting context. We can take time to listen to the answers, rather than thinking about what we are going to say next. We can find out about the other person, and engage with them, not use them as a vehicle to press our point of view. When in the course of research, I  interviewed people about the practices that were important for compassionate love, ‘really listening to the other person,’ was one of those practices.

Rachael engages in conversation with a perfectly lovely voice, and that helps this too. She sets the person at ease through her respectful and honest attitude. She gently asks probing and sometimes hard questions, which enable interpersonal connection and understanding to happen. Of course, a conversation that is designed to be broadcast, and happens between continents, can never be like one over coffee or at home, and because it was an interview I didn’t get to ask her questions, but nevertheless, this same kind of asking and listening can happen in our own living rooms or when we are in a variety of social situations.

The show, which includes a poem and quotes from the Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book, is now up on the ABC website, where it can be played or downloaded http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/are-you-spiritually-connected/8376242  Her balanced approach provides a model for us all for how to make a space for truly good conversation.

Contour drawing as a spiritual practice

contour self-portrait by lynn

One of my favorite ways of sketching is to do blind, or semi-blind, contour drawing. In it, you try not to look at your paper at all, and not lift your pen, while you draw. You look at the subject, not the paper, and feel your way around and within your subject, as you draw with your pen or pencil. I was first exposed to this method in a studio drawing class in college and found it marvelous. When I do this while drawing a person, it connects me with the interior feelings of the person. It reminds me that the visual nature of the person is not just about ‘looking good,’ and that the success of a drawing is not in its photographic likeness. It also draws my attention to how we can perceive some of the complex life of a person even through outer appearance. It is, for me, a kind of spiritual exercise.

You may wish to try it. All you need is a pencil, paper, and a subject. The easiest to start with is yourself in a mirror. More details about this method can be found in a book by Kimon Nicolaides, A Natural Way to Draw.

arresting attention

art by lynn

I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.

Saul Bellow, the Art of Fiction No. 37, 1966, The Paris Review

listening to birches

Poets can open our hearts and touch us. Robert Frost does this for me in his poem ‘Birches’.  The complete poem can be found at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44260 or in The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969).

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

And then after Frost digresses about how ice storms bend the trees downwards, he continues:

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.


So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Each of us may be touched differently by this poem. The full poem can transport us into the woods, the natural world. The description of the boy can take us back to the sense of adventure and freedom of swinging and climbing as children, and even our adventures as adults. But the poet also gives a way to think of our desires to be free of the constraints of the world, when our faces ‘burn and tickle with the cobwebs’ and ‘one eye is weeping from a twig’s having lashed across it.’  Yet, he reminds us:  ‘Earth’s the right place for love.’  We launch out in this wild world that is the right place for love.

the master and his emissary

art by lynn

art by lynn

One of the most eye-opening books I have read in the past few years is The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2009) by the psychiatrist and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist. The title is taken from a story about a wise spiritual master who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, his domain grew in size. He then had to trust others, emissaries, to ensure the well-being of the more distant parts. He had to delegate to these emissaries. He nurtured and trained them, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious emissary, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s balanced temperament and patience as weakness, not wisdom. So the emissary became contemptuous of his master, and considered himself in charge as he did his work. So he took over, and his tyrannical approach cause the domain to ultimately collapse in ruin without the wise ruler being in charge.

This story, says McGilchrist, represents how the two sides of the brain need to work together for our success as people and as a civilization.   Although he takes the two sides of the brain as his starting point, he assures the reader that the way ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ have been used in popular culture are simplistic and do not adequately grasp the complexity that he sees existing, and I agree about the simplistic take on left brain/right brain.  His deep and thoughtful book stretches beyond these simplifications and can inform the way we see the world and ourselves. From his introduction:

“My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture….

One of the more durable generalisations about the hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt – possibly underlying and helping to explain the apparent verbal/visual dichotomy, since words [more left brain] are processed serially, while pictures [more right brain] are taken in all at once. But even here the potential significance of this distinction has been overlooked. Anyone would think that we were simply talking about another relatively trivial difference of limited use or interest, a bit like finding that cats like to have their meat chopped up into small bits, whereas dogs like to wolf their meat in slabs. At most it is seen as helpful in making predictions about the sort of tasks that each hemisphere may preferentially carry out, a difference in ‘information processing’, but of no broader significance. But if it is true, the importance of the distinction is hard to over-estimate. And if it should turn out that one hemisphere [the right] understands metaphor, where the other does not, this is not a small matter of a quaint literary function having to find a place somewhere in the brain. Not a bit. It goes to the core of how we understand our world, even our selves, as I hope to be able to demonstrate.…The relationship between the hemispheres does not appear to be symmetrical, in that the left hemisphere is ultimately dependent on, one might almost say parasitic on, the right, though it seems to have no awareness of this fact. Indeed it is filled with an alarming self-confidence.”

In the book he describes the Left Hemisphere (as a symbol as well as an aspect of the brain itself) as being the more verbal, analytical, breaking things down into parts, attending to details, not necessarily in context. But because it is so verbally quick and facile, it is able to shut down the right side of the brain, sending constant inhibitory signals, that enable the way it acts and envisions the world to ‘take over’ both in our minds, and in our culture. He goes on to say:

“…I suggest that it is as if the left hemisphere, which creates a sort of self-reflexive virtual world, has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand. In the past, this tendency was counterbalanced by forces from outside the enclosed system of the self-conscious mind; apart from the history incarnated in our culture, and the natural world itself, from both of which we are increasingly alienated, these were principally the embodied nature of our existence, the arts and religion. In our time each of these has been subverted and the routes of escape from the virtual world have been closed off. An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.”

His suggestion for the world is that we need both aspects of our minds, and the world needs both. And we need to envision ways for the right brain to be empowered to be the “wise ruler” and the left brain serving those ends in the world.

For me, the ultimate wise ruler would be a meta-view of all. McGilchrist’s descriptions of how we function biologically can enable us to recognize the biases that might exist in the world today, that need our correction. We can see how the aspects of our brain that describe the world in mechanistic and fragmented ways can take over, even though they are better designed to serve rather than dominate.

the new year

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice…. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

T.S. Eliot “Little Gidding”

art by lynn

Joy in hard times

 art by lynn

art by lynn

I am involved in a project at Yale University on joy, considering what science might have to contribute to our understanding of it. I have also been doing more work and writing on how dire circumstances can help us dispel certain delusions of thinking. These words speak to both:

The basic assumption of the happiness mentality—in spite of considerable hard evidence to the contrary—is that if one lives one’s life correctly one will be happy. The corollary of this assumption is that if one is not happy, one is doing something wrong. These two beliefs form the foundation of a system that has become so rampant in recent years that many people now feel any sign of unhappiness in their lives is a symptom of psychological or spiritual disorder. People who believe this strive to resolve or repress unhappiness as quickly as possible….

The happiness mentality causes people to repress or deny many of their own negative feelings. It prohibits the rich experience of living through painful situations, of fully feeling and being in the sadness, grief, and fear that are natural parts of human existence. It fosters a pastel quality of life, with limited ranges of emotion. Some shallow conditions of ‘happiness’ may be achieved in this way, but joy is altogether out of the question. Most of us know that prohibiting agony in the experience of life must also prohibit joy. To try to accomplish one without the other is to dilute both the experience and the meaning of life. But the happiness mentality can overcome this knowledge, convince us that sadness is unhealthy, and cause us to bridle all our feelings. At best, this watered-down existence takes on a ‘Pollyanna’ atmosphere, denying the negativity of life. At its worst, it sinks into apathy, denying life itself.

Human beings who adhere to the happiness mentality are continually attempting to deprive themselves of the rich dark side of life, the leaven, the creative complementarity without which happiness is empty. If these attempts are successful, life’s experiences become as flimsy as tissue. If the attempts fail, people feel that something is deeply wrong inside them. Neither way allows the precious beautiful, awesome possibilities of accepting the richness of life as it presents itself in each moment.

Perhaps the greatest inherent defect of the happiness mentality is that it prohibits sensitivity and responsiveness to the suffering of others. The happiness mentality maintains that one must first organize one’s own life toward the absence of discomfort. Even if a person manages to accomplish this for a brief period of time, the terrible pain in the rest of the world still exists. One then has an extremely limited range of options in responding to this pain. One can deny it, shut it out of awareness through ‘selective inattention,’ or one can engage in brief sophomoric attempts to rationalize it. But the fact remains: private happiness can exist as a permanent condition in the midst of public suffering only if it is based on delusion.

(This is of course not to say that one must carry the world’s burdens on one’s shoulders with constant morbidity. In fact, the happiness mentality is in large part a rebellion against precisely this kind of puritanical pessimism. It was not too long ago that people in our culture were looked upon with suspicion if they appeared too happy. Many puritanical-pietistic themes of Middle America maintained that life was hard, that each person had to bear the cross, and that suffering was good for the soul. It was believed that something was morally wrong with people who did not seem to be struggling with the pain of life. It is not surprising that generations of such somber sobriety would eventually bring rebellion. As usual, however, the pendulum swung too far. Now, instead of happiness being seen as a moral impropriety, unhappiness is seen as a psychological defect.)

Whenever one is preoccupied with happiness, the possibility of joy is pre-empted. Poets, contemplatives, and some philosophers have long maintained that a fundamental qualitative difference exists between these two states, but our society is just barely beginning to appreciate how radical that difference is. Happiness has to do with Freud’s old pleasure principle: the satisfaction of needs and the avoidance of pain. Joy is altogether beyond any consideration of pleasure or pain, and in fact requires a knowledge and acceptance of pain. Joy is the reaction one has to the full appreciation of Being. It is one’s response to finding one’s rightful, rooted place in life, and it can happen only when one knows through and through that absolutely nothing is being denied or otherwise shut out of awareness.”

May, Gerald. (1987). Will and Spirit. Harper and Row. pp 14-16

being completely

singlefacelynnunderwood There is always

a certain peace

in being what one is,

in being that completely.

-Ugo Betti

memo to self

on the bulletin board in the kitchen


light through the crack


drawing by lynn

The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be….

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

These lines are from the song, Anthem, by Leonard Cohen, a great poet who expressed his words in song deep and resonant and spiritual. The words of that song, “forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” are so potent.

In an interview on his creative process, he said: “It’s very hard to really untangle the real reasons why you do anything. But I was always interested in music and I always played guitar. I always associated song and singing with some sort of nobility of spirit…. I always thought that this was the best way to say the most important things… I don’t mean the most ponderous or pompous things. I mean the important things — like how you feel about things, how you feel about someone else — and I always thought this was the way to do it.”

He struggled with depression all his life, and he commented on the effect on him of the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca, “the loneliness was dissolved, and you felt that you were this aching creature in the midst of an aching cosmos, and the ache was OK. Not only was it OK, but it was the way you embraced the sun and the moon.”

Here is a link to a performance by Cohen in Ireland of the song Anthem : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4U4lXgvorU

how to fight

If you feel like fighting fire with fire, remember real firefighters use water.watercompressedlynnunderwood

the human eye

The human eye is not the camera eye. Vision takes place in the depths of the mind, with the assistance of emotion, knowledge, and belief.” – Flannery O’Connor

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

to everything there is a season


drawing by lynn

Autumn has arrived here in the middle of the US. I am a lover of sun and warmth, but somehow this year, I am finding myself loving this season. As leaves leave the trees, they burst into such glorious colors. And this is also the time of apples and squashes and onions – such marvelous fruits of the earth. This morning it is rainy and cold, but I look outside and see the colors, and smell baked squash and apples, and I think, there is something wonderful happening in this time and place.


Some people say that crpweedslynnunderwoodweeds are just plants that are growing in the wrong place. I recently drew some plants of indeterminate nature outside our front door. A final burst of flowers before autumn hits.  I often have trouble telling weeds from flowers. It is the same in my life too – sometimes those things I am sure are weeds, end up with beautiful blooms.



reason and the heart

art by lynn

The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of…We know the truth not only by reason, but by the heart.”

Blaise Pascal, the author of these quotes, lived in the middle of the 17th century. He was a mathematician, physicist and Christian philosopher. He made important contributions to the study of fluids, pressure and vacuums. He invented an early mechanical calculator and did major work in probability theory. He also wrote in defense of the scientific method. I find it fascinating that he wrote the statement quoted here. One of his most famous works was in philosophy and theology, Pensées.

I am frequently engaged in academic discussion and writings, and before you know it, subjects are reduced to a series of logical steps and desiccated prose. Topics like joy, goodness, flourishing cannot ultimately be reduced to logical patterns that we can dissect into tiny pieces. They are alive in the lives of people in ways that our words or neuroimaging machines can never fully explain.

My inability to explain what is in my heart does not mean that it is less valid. And when I attend to another person, it is important that I listen analytically to what they say, but it is also so often important that I listen to what is in their heart, beyond their words.

Animals at the fair

sketch by lynn

sketch by lynn

At the county fair last week there were farm animals to touch, lots of children, and even a pig race.  We passed an exhibit of bales of hay that all looked the same to me, yet one had a blue ribbon attached to it.  Turkeys roaming around that almost were my size.  Cows being milked. The badge of this little dog belonging to the local sheriff read ‘deputy sheriff.’ This all had me reflecting on our relationship to animals – in farming and as pets.


good glue

Brush it on, rub it off,comprcropgluelynnunderwood

under or over,

Rub-ber ce-ment.

What keeps us together?

What pulls us apart?

Strings of sticky.

Separation– no tearing.

Closeness– no wrinkling.


the dog days of summer

comprfarmersmarketllynnunderwoodcomprbeachlynnunderwoodAs I feel the first nip in the air, summer is coming to a close, but there are still memories of many things that made this summer wonderful  – including the farmers’ markets and the Lake Michigan beach. And opportunities to draw them, from life and from memory and imagination.

Capturing the essence

I love drawing faces. It feel so good when I actually feel like I have touched the essence of the person and it also actually kind of looks like them. There is something about the way we see a person that can help us to capture the essence. Ubi amor ibi oculus, where there is love, there is sight.

drawing of eric by lynn

drawing of eric by lynn

truth better than fiction

art by lynn

art by lynn

These peppers grabbed me at the farmer’s market.  It is hard to believe that these colors are real, and not made up. And they tasted better than I could imagine too.

still life

art by lynn

Reflecting on the words ‘still life’ I thought of great artists I admire. How Matisse and Chardin and Cezanne see so much ‘life’ in groups of objects. I bought this jar of mustard because I loved the container. The idea of “Löwensenf” appealed to me, and I loved the shape and colors of the jar. I was also fascinated by the shape of this wooden gizmo that is used to release muscle tension.

Lion soft and strong

Mustard bites and warms

Pressing muscles till they melt

Grinding gently

Freeing flavour

what’s it worth?

sketch by lynn

sketch by lynn

Someone has said that the lives of most persons are like jewelry stores where some trickster has mixed up the price tags. The diamonds are priced at next to nothing and some worthless baubles at thousands of dollars. Unless we stop business as usual and take stock, we are likely to end up in bankruptcy. So long as the store is crowded with people, there is no chance of taking inventory and putting things to rights. We must close the doors and take the time alone. Then we can check with the stock list, our list of priorities, and give the right value to the right object.

-Morton Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence

ahhh strawberries


I have been to the Michigan farmers market again this summer. These strawberries were fresh and delicious – my fingers smelled of them too.  I had forgotten what real strawberries were like.


“To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree, is an act of reverence not only toward the tree, but also to our human connection to it. It gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness.” Alan Lee

sketch of dove by lynn

sketch of dove by lynn

For me, spiritual connection with God (or the divine or holy as expressed in other words), is part of why making art gives me such joy. I keep doing art for a variety of reasons, but one of them is definitely, for me personally, this spiritual connection that I see more clearly in the process – to the world, to God, and to the holy immanent in the world itself.

My friend loves looking at disintegrating buildings, and in paying close attention to those, something resonates deep within him. It is not just the obviously beautiful that can bring this sense of connection to us, but often things that do not look so great on the surface. When we look at other people with reverence and respect a sense of spiritual connection can be especially present. All of us are a mixed bag of the obviously lovely, and things that do not look that great. How miraculous that we can have reverence for one another nevertheless.


one reason that work can feel bad

“Work without love is slavery.”

–Mother Teresa

drawing by lynn

getting ready to work

means to a means

Well Water


Well Water, by Randall Jarrell, Vintage Contemporary Poetry, pg 65-66, Discovered in the notebooks of Gertrude Beversluis)

Immanuel Kant, not my favorite philosopher, was adamant that we should treat people as “ends in themselves”, not only as means to an end.  Some people try to manipulate us, flatter us, and basically see us as means to their ends, ways to get what they want to happen. This is demeaning for us, even if we don’t consciously realize what’s going on.

We even do this to ourselves in our daily lives. And this is what this poem reminds me of. I so often slip into putting myself on the “squirrel-wheel”, pushing the wheel, getting only rusty water.  When I treat myself as only a means to an end I demean myself.  Instead I want to see daily life like the author does at the end of the poem, and gulp from the clear fresh water of the dailiness of life as I do tasks, relaxing with pleasure into the flow of life.


Exactitude is not truth – Henri MatisseLynnUnderwood

Currently I try to spend time most days doing and studying art. I get better in many ways through practice and study, but I will never get to a photographically accurate image I expect. I do hope, however, to get close to the truth — of the subject, or idea, or myself.  I did this self-portrait yesterday of me in the sunshine, using a hand mirror. It has ‘mistakes’ in it, and it is not exact. But I still hope that it gets at some truth of me.

If you do a creative activity of some kind, can you be pleased when you capture some feeling or express something imaginatively? Cooking or woodworking may be a creative activity you enjoy, or you may play music or write fiction. I hope my ‘mistakes’ can encourage you to continue be creative even when you are not exact.


art by lynn

art by lynn

to see what we see

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”        –Charles Peguy


I found myself trying to find words and image to convey something of this tiny arm and hand full of promise.

Milagrosdrawing by lynnb



in the breeze of the holy


draw near

flow through

unclench –

no need.  New

power now.

Will of good pleasure

through my body

my arms

my hands.



listening with my pen

maialynnunderwood I have spent a lot of time in various meetings over the last couple of months. When I am not speaking, there is lots of time for listening. I find that by drawing people, it helps me to focus, and also to ‘get’ people in a more wordsmithlynnunderwoodcomplex way, to hear them beyond their words or silences.  Here are a few sketches of lovely people from a recent meeting.ftzcm2lynnunderwood 1


art by lynn

art by lynn

I have asked people what kinds of things they thought of, when they felt ‘thankful for their blessings.’ One lady replied that after recovering from a bad cold, she really appreciated the taste of tomatoes. So often we just don’t notice wonderful things until we lose them.

seeing better

Ubi amor ibi oculus

A new dimension of seeing is opened up by love alone. And this means contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance.

–Josef Pieper, Three Talks in a Sculptor’s Studio

art by lynn

art by lynn

dog blessings

art by lynn

art by lynn

I have been trying to draw more regularly. I am not a great person for Lent, the time of year before Easter, as I find the liturgical year somewhat confusing, but these past years I have been taking the opportunity to add something into my life in these weeks that I feel needs to be added. This year it has been an effort to do art each day. It gives me joy, and is definitely something I feel called to do, and yet never seems to have a deadline, so often slips off the plate. This drawing is of my daughter’s rescue dog, Professor Pudding, who is a blessing to be around.

valentine days

photo of my daughter by lynn 2015

photo by lynn 2015

I received an email from a counselor/researcher in Kenya last week. He was researching what makes for flourishing marriages. And it reminded me of a study in the Science of Compassionate Love book that reported predictors of good marriages many years on. When people began their relationships with both a global adoration of the other, and an accurate picture of their flaws, they had a better chance of the relationship still being strong and good years later. Being loved by someone who knows our flaws, our weaknesses, and still thinks we are wonderful, ‘the bee’s knees,’  is so great. I think it has a divine source, a source that is ‘more than’. Some of us do not experience this kind of love in romantic relationships, but taste it in other human relationships and/or our relationship with God. To receive this kind of love requires vulnerability on our part.

In my Perspectives: Art, Science, and Spirituality class, one assignment is to select a piece of art — film, poetry, visual art, fiction — that represents compassionate love. One young man brought this one in. When he read it to the class, this poem gave most of us a taste of a kind of love that is truly nourishing. It transcends the romantic, helping us to inhabit eternal love.

Gate C22 by Ellen Bass




the beautiful unknown

drawing by lynn



There will be something,

anguish or elation,

that is peculiar to this day alone.

I rise from sleep and say:

Hail to the morning!

Come down to me, my beautiful unknown.


Hail to the Morning, by Jessica Powers, from The Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, ICS Publications,1999.

Animated film: ‘Mother’

from "Mother" animation https://vimeo.com/126077901

from “Mother” https://vimeo.com/126077901

I have been a fan of animated films all my life. This recent student film is a gem. It articulates themes of the flow of love, compassionate love, in ways that words so often fail to do. It is not too sweet, and is nested in the complexity of life.

Here is a link to it on vimeo.

play and wisdom

art by lynn

art by lynn

One thing I especially enjoy during my yearly retreat at the monastery, is the celebration of the divine office at 3:15 AM. In the dark, in the middle of the night, half awake, I gather in the huge quiet space with the monks to celebrate the beginning of the new day. Once there was a reading from Thomas Aquinas, “The Contemplation of Wisdom.” As the new year begins, I find myself returning to this piece. And I always find it lovely that Wisdom is described as female.

“ ‘Run ahead into your house and gather yourself there and play there and pursue your thoughts.’ (Ecclus. 32.15-16)

“The advantage which the study of wisdom has is that it is to a greater degree self-sufficient in pursuing its business with us. When we are engaged in outward activities we need many things to help us, but in the contemplation of wisdom we work all the more effectively, the more we dwell alone with ourselves. So, the words cited above call us back to ourselves: ‘Run ahead into your own house,’ that is, be anxious to return from external things to your own mind, before anything else gets hold of it and any other anxiety distracts it. That is why it says in Wisdom 8.16, ‘I will enter my house and rest with her’, with wisdom, that is.

“The first requirement, then for the contemplation of wisdom is that we should take complete possession of our minds before anything else does, so that we can fill the whole house with the contemplation of wisdom. But it is also necessary that we ourselves should be fully present there, concentrating in such a way that our aim is not diverted to other matters. Accordingly the text goes on, ‘And gather yourself there,’ that is, draw together your whole intention. And when our interior house is entirely emptied like this and we are fully present there in our intention, the text tells us what we should do; ‘And play there.’

“There are two features of play which make it appropriate to compare the contemplation of wisdom to playing. First, we enjoy playing, and there is the greatest enjoyment of all to be had in the contemplation of wisdom. As Wisdom says in Ecclus. 24.27, ‘My spirit is sweeter than honey.’

“Secondly, playing has no purpose beyond itself; what we do in play is done for its own sake. And the same applies to the pleasure of wisdom. If we are enjoying thinking about the things we long for or the things we are proposing to do, this kind of enjoyment looks beyond itself to something else which we are eager to attain. If we fail to attain it or if there is a delay in attaining it, our pleasure is mingled with a proportionate distress. As it says in Proverbs 14.13, ‘Laughter will be mixed with grief.’ But the contemplation of wisdom contains within itself the cause of its own enjoyment, and so it is not exposed to the kind of anxiety that goes with waiting for something which we lack. This is why it says in Wisdom 8.16, ‘Her company is without bitterness”(the company of wisdom, that is) ‘and there is no boredom in living with her.’

“It is for this reason that divine Wisdom compares her enjoyment to playing, in Proverbs 8.30, ‘I enjoyed myself every single day, playing…’ each single day meaning the consideration of some different truth. So our text goes on, ‘Pursue your thoughts,’ the thoughts, that is, by means of which we obtain knowledge of the truth.”

There are many good suggestions in this piece, such as the need to “take complete possession of our minds before anything else does.” He describes the spirit as sweeter than honey… not something heavy to lift. And I am personally finding the centrality of play as he describes it, a helpful one in my own life right now. We often think we have to be serious, and somber, in order to pursue things that are worthwhile. But in this passage, Thomas urges a playful attitude. I am finding that this kind of attitude is necessary in my life just now. A new year of play and hopefully some wisdom – sounds good to me.

our bodies, ourselves

Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” —James Joyce, Dubliners

We so often forget our bodies, ignore them, and even treat them badly. Bodies are literally wonderful, even when they are not behaving in ways that we like. Even in sickness, or when causing us grief. One of the reasons I love the Christmas season so much, is its reminder to me that the spiritual and physical aspects of our lives are linked. The Christmas story of the divine entering into the messiness of the human condition reminds me that the divine is also involved in my messy condition. The story does not describe some pristine scene, with everyone in their best clothes, pretending that challenging feelings are not there. It is a story where a pregnant woman arrives in a strange place, there is no room in the inn, and she ends up in a stable with dirt and animals and has her baby there. Having a baby is very physical – not clean and tidy. And the first visitors are the local shepherds, probably with some sheep. The whole scene connects with physical bodies and situations and messy emotions. There was lots of worry and pain and puzzlement, as well as joy and amazement.

During the Christmas season I sing with my body, eat good things with my body, hug and am hugged with my body, worship with my body. I suffer when things are not going so well – with people or physically. I find myself suffering on behalf of others less fortunate than I am. I feel the pain of this in my body. And the Christmas story keeps bringing me back to the reality of the divine in my physical being. Reminding me that if I leave my body out of the equation, I am not truly living life.

You will be entering this holiday season in your body—there is not much chance of doing without it! Can you think of how your whole being engages with the various aspects of the holiday season? In relationships, with food, with consuming, in giving, with music. Pay attention to signals that your body sends: of grief, distress, need – but also of joy, affection and delight. Don’t let your body just go on autopilot, but welcome it into the mix. Enter into the complexity of the holiday season with your whole being and see where that takes you.

drawing by Rembrandt

drawing by Rembrandt

roses in season

I heard the Canadian singer Feist singing a lovely and wide-reaching version of a song for the holidays from the 16th century, during this past week. Here it is on YouTube: Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,

birthday flowers from eric- drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn


drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

Deer often sleep in our front yard. They are not disturbed by me heading out the driveway, or the dog barking from inside. They are vigilant, however and can burst up and out on a dime if necessary. One of the Daily Spiritual Experience questions (DSES) that I developed is “How often do you feel deep inner peace or harmony?” (many times a day, every day, most days, some days, once in a while, never). A recent study looked at various factors that predicted survival for those with congestive heart failure, and more frequent experiences of deep inner peace as measured by the DSES question was one of the things most predictive of living longer. (Park CL, Aldwin CM, Choun S, George L, Suresh DP, and Bliss D, 2015. “Spiritual Peace Predicts 5-Year Mortality in Congestive Heart Failure Patients.” Health Psychology, doi:10.1037/hea0000271.)

To have these experiences in our lives is not dependent on whether we are feeling happy or depressed or anxious. Although it may be easier to feel this in certain circumstances, this sense of deep inner peace or harmony depends more on our attitude or orientation in the midst of things. When I described themes in the Spiritual Connection book, the sense of deep inner peace or harmony was linked to “Saying Yes”, being at ease in our own skins, knowing that somehow good is present even though it may be invisible in the midst of tough times. This sense of deep inner peace and harmony can keep us feeling more balanced and calm. This can affect our physical being and our relationships with others. I am blessed by the peaceful presence of the deer in our yard, munching on the plants. They contribute somehow to feelings of peacefulness in me.



from Scaffolding: Selected Poems, by Jane Cooper, Tilbury House, 1993

Our relationships with others challenge our sense of ourselves, and our perception of the spaces we live in. How do we listen? How do we make space for each other? How do we envision the places we live in together?

art and love

…To see in contemplation, is not limited only to the tangible surface of reality; it certainly perceives more than mere appearances. Art flowing from contemplation does not so much attempt to copy reality as rather to capture the archetypes of all that is. Such art does not want to depict what everybody already sees but to make visible what not everybody sees….

To this end we have to consider a certain aspect of the term “contemplation”…. The ancient expression of the mystics applies here: ubi amor, ibi oculus — the eyes see better when guided by love; a new dimension of ‘seeing’ is opened up by love alone! And this means contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance…affectionate affirmation.”

-Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, Ignatius Press 1990. pg 74

painting by lynn

painting by lynn

love remains

What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross”

wrote the modernist poet Ezra Pound in Canto 81.

drawing by lynn

                                                                                 drawing by lynn

Limited descriptions in the media and by others about the way the world is structured frustrate me. Pinning dead butterflies to a wall, scientists and those describing science so often remove the vibrancy from concepts and the rich tapestry of life. Science is very useful – informing our understanding of the world in practical ways that can make life so much better. I spent years doing cancer research and public health work, and the result, even of my work, was that some lives were saved, through earlier detection. But to frame everything up in scientific terms, to give reductionism and determinism the high ground, is a mistake. Science can inform our understanding of love – illuminating some of the situations and circumstances that might promote love – and in other ways such as helping us understand some of the psychological and biological impediments. But in the end, there is something about self-giving love centered on the good of another, that is just amazing, and cannot be reduced to equations, and mechanical and chemical flux. A transcendent element of a full life.

art and receptivity

Trying to externalize experiences by painting, writing, etc. helps us to understand them and to be more receptive. Being receptive and willing to change and grow makes one most alive I think – more vulnerable to both pain and joy. – John Busby (Drawing Birds, Christopher Helm Publishers, 2004)

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn