Healing the world and relishing the world

Healing the world vs. relishing the world, Maggie Carey wrote on a large newsprint pad on an easel between us.   That’s I how I named the problem I wanted to address when Maggie asked me last week. I was sitting in a chair across from her, the Vermont countryside on view through windows on four sides, and 34 other workshop participants looking on, taking notes.   Maggie was leading a master class on “Finding your way in a narrative conversation”,  part of the series Refreshing the Spirit of the Work, sponsored by Peggy Sax and Re-Authoring Teaching and I had the lucky privilege of being interviewed.


I think of Maggie as one of the preeminent narrative therapists in the world, someone who had met Michael White as his gardener then studied with him for over twenty years as she mastered the medium and made it her own, ultimately joining him in creating Narrative Practices Adelaide.  No nonsense, playful, rigorous, curious, unapologetic, warm, caring, compassionate, Maggie had built her own house with her husband in the outback around Adelaide and had been doing social justice work with Aboriginal people and with women for decades.

Maggie Carey

Maggie Carey

At the workshop, Maggie interviewed me in a stop-start interview, in which she paused and asked the participants to think of what they would want to ask if they were the therapist, and invited a few of them to share their questions. So as the interviewee, I had the benefit of hearing all kinds of questions.

Here is what I learned about doing narrative therapy: The problem is not always the problem.   I said that I had been feeling that things were out of whack (she wrote out of whack on the paper) in terms of healing the world versus relishing the world, and when Maggie asked about moments in which I felt in balance, I named a personal retreat I had taken during the previous month as an example of giving relishing a full measure of attention. She put a star on the landscape of action timeline, and asked me a bit about the retreat, then paused and asked the audience for questions.

I realized in considering their questions that I actually had lots of examples of relishing, and anyway healing was also deeply satisfying most of the time, and in fact I had a rich history of both relishing and healing with accompanying rich narratives, such as this workshop itself, and of all the questions, I wanted to look more at the problem, at what was “out of whack.” Maggie taught us a deft way to name a problem in an externalized way in the words of and near to the experience of the person with the problem without belaboring the naming process, and that was by simply adding the word “thing” to the end of the word or phrase they were using to talk about the issue. So we lingered a little more to understand the “out of whack thing.” In pondering her questions, I realized that the out of whack thing brought on a drained and exhausted feeling, but not so much because I was either healing too much or relishing too little but because there was an accompanying voice that said, “You’re not doing it right.” It was that voice that was the real problem; it was what was draining and not the balance of healing or relishing at all. So Maggie paused again to ask for more questions, while I sat and listened. And my thoughts got to follow each question, and it was easy to tell which were most interesting to me.

The questions “What is the it?” and “What does SuEllen mean by right?” were easy to answer, too easy. The question I really wanted to explore was, “What is the intention of that voice for SuEllen’s life?”  And so with Maggie’s help I did.   I realized that the intention of the voice was to help me live according to my most cherished values, and that I was happy, more than happy to try to do so—and I also realized that even if one were wildly successful at doing it right, of course our lives have 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows (Maggie wrote this out, including the “of course”) and that the problem, the thing that was draining and made me feel out of whack was not having some of that inevitable sorrow nor even in asking Am I living my life according to my most cherished intentions?, but rather in the fact that the voice that was asking was doing so with unneeded harshness.

And another round of questions, in which I did not choose to explore why the harshness nor to find counter-examples to harshness but rather to consider what color the harsh voice was (red) and what shape it was (foggy and blobby) and what stood in contrast to the voice (kindness, golden sun on blue water) and that I could in fact invite the harsh voice to take a long lovingkindness meditation retreat, a three month silent retreat, and that I could with great kindness continue to consider the question, gently, what is most precious to me? How might I best heal and relish the world?

Maggie Carey and me with her notes from her interview of me.

Maggie Carey and me with her notes from her interview of me.

This post was corrected on July 1, 2014 to remove reference to a conversation  that Michael White spoke of that had increased his awareness of discourses of heteronormatively that I had mistakenly attributed to Maggie.   Like me, Maggie recalls Michael’s telling of the story of how a participant had raised her hand and said she couldn’t hear him once during a presentation on couple’s therapy, and he asked if he needed to adjust his mike, and she said, no, what I mean is, I can’t hear you, because you say couples but you are referring only to heterosexual couples.   I could hear you better if when you meant heterosexual couples you said heterosexual couples and when you said couples you meant all kinds of couples.  For over ten years I had thought that story referred to Maggie, and getting to know her better made it seem all the more like her, to speak up against dominant discourses and to make diversity more visible!  In correcting my misattribution, Maggie wrote, “I do remember well his talking about this event (and it has always stuck with me in a really strong and helpful way), but I believe it was a gay woman who made the comment to Michael in a workshop. So it may have got confused in the telling and re-telling along the way, but it was not me.”

Mindfulness, self-compassion and narrative therapy

 Last weekend, while taking a break from the Positive Psychotherapy conference I was attending, I walked along the circling footpaths in the Boston Public Gardens.  All around me flowering trees raised limbs thick with blossoms just beginning to open, sweetening the soft spring air.

spring boston public garden

I had come to the conference to find out what the established view, the Harvard’s eye view was of this newcomer to the psychotherapy pantheon, and to figure out for myself how it fit with narrative therapy and narrative psychiatry.  I had read Marty Seligman’s book, Flourish, and loved its focus on strengths and gratitude and connection and what was going well.  But Seligman is positivist, proffering the official definition of happiness (which he was still fiddling with) and explaining how to get it, while narrative practices are post-modern, by which I mean that ideas and technologies of happiness are understood to be contextual, cultural and contested.  Narrative practitioners are curious about what the person seeking happiness would say was happiness, how that person would define it, how they would say that happiness sneaks up on them, where it picks them up hitchhiking, where it might take them dancing.

What I love about narrative therapy is the deep honoring of each of our ways of being happy.  Our own happiness recipe.   I can’t agree with what Tolstoy says in the first line of Anna Karenina.  The way I see it, happy families are in fact all different; every happy family is happy in its own way—and that is where the magic is.  Narrative is about asking questions to discover and draw forth and flesh out and cook up that recipe, to find out where we can get the carrots and onions and cream to make soup out of the stone that someone might bring in as if it is all that they have.

At the conference, I discovered that most of the winds under the wings of what is called positive psychotherapy are mindfulness practices.   Mindfulness invites us to pause and be present and loving and accepting with what is, with what we are feeling or thinking or experiencing.  Mindfulness invites us to name our experience.  For example, Chris Germer, who presented beautifully on fostering practices of self-compassion, invites us to notice when we are suffering and name it as such:  This is a moment of suffering.  I find this similar to narrative practices that invite us to externalize the problem that is causing us to suffer, to give the problem a name, and to consider what relationship we want to have with it.  As a narrative therapist, words are like a bouquet of flowers from which I offer one and then another to my patient, asking might this or that be a fitting name for their experience.  While I find suffering to be a word that honors my experiences of emotional pain, not everyone does.  We can ask,  Might suffering be a word that resonates for you? Grief? What about emotional pain?  

In his practice of fostering self-compassion, Chris next invites us to acknowledge the way in which suffering is a common and inevitable human experience, to say Suffering is a part of living.  Is this not a comforting story?  We are not alone in our suffering after all.  In narrative practices, we seek to invite forward stories that might offer comfort and connection with others.  Is part of the suffering the thought that there is something wrong with you if suffering is present? Is that true? Would you say that others also suffer?  How is it for you to bring to mind the thought that everyone suffers at times?

Chris’s final step in cultivating self-compassion is to invite us to be kind to ourselves.  May I be kind to myself.   While personally I value kindness, as a narrative therapist, I would want to first clarify whether the person consulting with values kindness.  Would you say that kindness is something that you value?  If they answer yes, I might ask them to tell a story of their experiences of  kindness, where they learned to value kindness and other questions to make their relationship to kindness more vivid, nuanced and personal.  Would you say that those who are suffering are deserving of kindness? Might you deserve kindness when you are suffering? Might you offer yourself kindness when you are suffering?  What might that look like?  What words might you use to offer yourself kindness? With what kind of gesture might you offer yourself kindness?

I was particularly drawn to Chris’s work because of its gentleness and the way in which it resonated with my own mindfulness practice—and because of my own suffering that weekend.  Sunday, Mother’s Day, was the first anniversary of my beloved father’s death.  My dad was an unfailingly kind, loving and gentle man who raised his six children with humor and encouragement.  His absence, combined with the ongoing absence of my youngest child who had left home in the fall to go to college 3,000 miles away, seemed to foster a daily dysphoria that greeted me before dawn, catching me unawares, all foggy-brained and ready to believe any thought the waking world offered me.  Many mornings during our long winter I have had to push up through layers of sadness and regret to be able to get upright enough to brush my teeth.  A dragging sense that something was wrong lurked and pounced on me in the interstices of my days, irrespective of the weather, compounded by the thought that my misery was out of proportion to my losses.  As I walked out in the fresh breeze and warm sunlight of the Boston Public Garden last Saturday, tulips shone and bobbed and cherry blossoms cascaded along branches.  I paused before a young sugar maple with tender new leaves opening like tiny hands.  One year ago we had planted a sugar maple on my sister’s farm near her orchard of peach and apple trees and scattered my father ashes under it.  My eyes filled with tears.  I paused and put my hand over my heart.  This is a moment of suffering.  Suffering is part of living.  May I be kind to myself.

It really helped me feel better.

planting dad's maple



Mothers, Daughters and the Heroic Journey

IMG_1173-1024x768Mothers of nine- to twelve-year old daughters, I will be co-leading a program for you and your daughter that I think you will love.  Meg Agnew, Cindy Parrish and I are delighted to again be offering our fun, lively, and meaningful workshop for mothers and daughters to take time together to bond and grow at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

In co-leading the program last summer, I was moved and inspired by the joy that mothers and daughters experienced together and the support and insight that mothers offered one another in our mothers-only discussion times.  You can see the joy in these photos from the workshop last year, and it warms my heart to anticipate sharing this experience again this coming summer.  Kripalu is a beautiful setting, with delicious food, excellent yoga classes, a panoramic view of the valley, and a private beach.Kripalu lake view

Here is the description of the program:

Mothers, Daughters, and the Heroic Journey

July 20–23, 2014 Sunday–Wednesday, 3 nights

 At the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health

Click here for more information.

For at mothers and their daughters ages 9–12.

Presented by Meg Agnew, SuEllen Hamkins, and Cindy L. Parrish

Mothers, you can choose to be a vital part of your daughter’s coming-of-age journey.
Using theater games, visual arts, writing, and sharing, the creators of this weekend invite you and your daughter to explore what it means to thrive as an adolescent girl while you deepen your connection with one another.

Gain wisdom and insight by looking back at who you were around the age of eleven, while your daughter explores what she cares about and who she is becoming. Experience the power of invoking ancestral support and see what that support has to offer both of you. Share with other mothers in a mothers-only discussion group while your daughters explore who they might become in playful and meaningful ways.

In this workshop, you can

  • Experience a greater sense of connection as mother and daughter
  • Know yourself better through the question, Who am I right now and what is nurturing this vision of myself?
  • Gain tools, ideas, and resources to create support beyond the workshop and foster depth and closeness during the coming-of-age years.

 Note We ask that each mother and each daughter please bring a picture or item that represents a female ancestor—whether you are related to her or not—whom you admire and would like to “invoke.” Also, each mother/daughter pair bring a small object that represents something that you both love or value.

 Children in this program must be accompanied by a parent or adult who is registered for this program.

 Online registration is not available for this program. Please call Kripalu Registration at 866-200-5203 to register.


Changing the world for mothers and daughters

Here is my question: how are we doing in changing the world for mothers and daughters?

Last weekend I met my colleague, sociologist Kim Huisman, in New York City to finalize the details of our research project on what difference the Mother-Daughter Project is making in the lives of girls and women. We were there to present about “The Challenges, Successes, and Outcomes of the Mother-Daughter Project” at the Museum of Mothering’s annual academic conference. Kim and I had begun collaborating two years earlier when she had created a mother-daughter initiative in Maine based on the Mother-Daughter Project, and the enthusiasm of the response there had spurred her to bring her expertise as a sociologist to investigating the influence of the project world-wide.

Before our presentation, as we sat at a little wooden table near a sunny window in a cafe on the corner of 83rd Street and First Avenue, we reviewed what we knew: Since 2007, when The Mother-Daughter Project was published, my co-founders and I had received one hundred and forty emails from women from all over the world who had started or were planning to start a mother-daughter group based on our model. Women had written us from Virginia, California, Massachusetts, Texas, North Carolina, New Zealand, England, Germany and Australia. Mothers contacted us to get advice about starting groups in the military, for mothers who had adopted girls from China, for grandmothers of teen daughters who were pregnant. Among the mothers who wrote were those who identified themselves as African American, Jewish, Muslim, lesbian, straight, single or married. They wrote about what was going well in their groups and about what was hard; they sent photos and asked for advice. Kim and I decided that we wanted to follow-up with as many of these mother-daughter groups as we could to ask them how it was going.

So now we are putting the final touches on an initial survey and follow-up interview questions. What is your group like? Who is in it? When had it started? What do you value most about your group? What is challenging? What difference has your group made in the lives of you and your daughter?


The goal of our original group of mothers in starting the Mother-Daughter Project in 1996 when our daughters were young girls was to change things for mothers and daughters. Not only did we want to support one another as mothers and support our girls growing up strong and free, we wanted to create a context that supported mother-daughter connection through adolescence. As we met once a month as mothers only and once a month as mothers and daughters together, talking and laughing and playing and learning, year after year we supported one another as we took on the hot issues girls and women faced: friendship, body image, cycles, desire, intimate relationships. In doing so, we developed a model for how small groups of mothers and daughters could help one another and their relationships thrive through adolescence and beyond in ways that honored our values and our unique cultural contexts. Our original group met for ten years, from the time our daughters were seven until they were seventeen, and as we began presenting and writing about what we had learned, other mother-daughter groups based on our model have started all over the world.

Recently, I interviewed Hannah (a pseudonym), who has been meeting with her group in Virginia for six years. The four mothers are in their mid to late forties and the five girls are ages 14, 12, 12, 11, and 11 (the two sisters in the group are ages 14 and 11). They started meeting when girls were five years old, and they lost two families in their first year; one family moved and one was not a good fit.

Hannah was happy to say that their group is “going great”. They stuck with our original format, meeting once a month as mothers, and once a month as mothers and daughters together.

“For her and me—it’s been a positive influence on our relationship,” said Hannah. “She is really keen to do group stuff, even when she does not want to do stuff with just her mother.” She added, “It’s helpful for us as mothers as well. When something comes up, we rely on each other to figure it out.” For example, at their last mothers’ group, one mother discussed the experience of her daughter with test anxiety. “This mom could discuss this with the other mothers, asking us, what would you do?”

Hannah cited several factors that are contributing to their group going well. “The families are very committed to it; people clear other things out to make room for the mother-daughter group. It’s an accommodating group, we do things by consensus, and can let go of stuff. And it’s very reinforcing. We like it, we like each other, and all the girls are comfortable with all the moms. We were very intentional early on, just as you suggested, pairing up with a daughter who was not our own to plan a few meetings.”

The girls in their group do not go to the same school, which Hannah finds to be an asset, saying, “It’s really nice to have another peer group with different girls, who are more outdoorsy, more sporty, which lets my daughter explore another side of her identity, since her school peers are into clothes and makeup.”

Hannah described how her group developed traditions: pumpkin carving, making Christmas cookies, a winter tea party, an annual swimming party. “We created mother-daughter scrapbooks and twice a year at our meetings we bring the scrapbooks up-to-date with photos of mother-daughter events.” Twice a year they do a mother-daughter overnight, for example, a rafting trip.

“We had a lot of fun with the menstruation year when the girls were nine,” and they did all the suggested activities for that year that we outlined in our book: studying the moon, creating a dance of the women’s cycle and getting hands-on learning about menstrual paraphernalia. Hannah says, “Our daughters have a much clearer understanding than their peers about periods. They are the ones teaching the others girls what they know.”

In reply to my email to her to ask if it was okay for me to share her story in this blog if I disguised identifying features, Hannah wrote: “Name changes and changing our location will be sufficient. We are all happy to help. We love our group and our girls!”

So….if you are in a mother-daughter group inspired by the Mother-Daughter Project, I would love to hear from you, too! And if you would like, pass this along to any other groups you know of as well.
You can contact me on my contact page.