Ever since I was a teen, one of the saddest moments of summer was when the fall magazines began to appear. “September!” they proudly announced. But beneath their cheery photos of fall fashion and crisp weather, there was an unspoken sadness: Summer is over.
This summer, however, I was delighted to receive the Autumn Issue of Light of Consciousness Journal, which along with its inspirational articles includes an interview with me! And I am grateful that editor Sita Stuhlmiller asked me to reflect on my spiritual journey. This allowed me to see where it all began and how my many paths came together—as all paths ultimately do.
Here is Part 1 of the interview. It reflects the changing seasons of my life, and I hope you enjoy it!
To Live a Sacred Life: Reflections on a Personal Journey
You have experienced many vocations and paths on your spiritual journey.
Yes, despite my aversion to change, I followed all my callings. I’ve been a writer, a teacher, an environmentalist, a social worker, a community organizer, an editor, and even, briefly, a Tarot Card reader! It was the same with my spiritual journey: I was always open and searching.
How and when did your spiritual journey begin?
With reading, as soon as I was able. My childhood was often painful, as it is for many. Books were my salvation. They carried me away to what seemed a better world. I especially savored Little Women and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Little Women showed me the goodness and joy of helping others, of being poor in wealth but rich in spirit. “Rebecca,” a young girl who had to leave home, was brave and fun, kind and grateful, and wrote beautiful poems—often about nature. She was my role model, and the book enhanced my own love of nature and words. As I walked to school, I’d stop to smell the lilacs, gather leaves from the maples, and write poems like Rebecca did.
I knew by the time I was seven that I wanted to be a writer. I also knew I wanted to help others who were less fortunate than I. So I started a club at school to make scrapbooks for orphans. Later, the teacher informed us that there weren’t any orphanages left in Philadelphia! But my path as service was set for life. And so was my path through nature.
It wasn’t till high school that I discovered Mary Poppins and the fantasies and questions it contained: Are dreams less real than when we’re awake? Why can only babies hear the animals talk? How much of our reality do we personally create? These were Zen-like questions, and I later learned that the author, P. L. Travers, was a Zen practitioner.
Another book I loved was Anne Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea. It was the first time I read personal essays by a woman that were so honest and meditative. Like Rebecca, Anne learned from nature— gifts from the sea—her way to peace, forgiveness, love, and acceptance. I believe these two books influenced my decision to major in philosophy in college.
It was a good decision. I loved sitting with my fellow phil majors and talking endlessly about what is real, what is happiness, is there good and evil. I was a beatnik and a tad intense! I read Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche … still looking for another world beyond the one we see. Outside of class, I found more enchanting books, like Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, that gently led me toward Eastern religions and reinforced the lessons of Little Women: to be rich in spirit, humble, and of service to others.
In grad school at Berkeley, I studied comparative literature, specifically, philosophy of literature, to continue my searching, which at that point was more an intellectual and emotional quest to understand the universe and myself. Some writers that touched me most were the Catholic mystics: Meister Eckhart, St. Teresa, The Cloud of Unknowing. I yearned for the ecstatic union with God they described, to lose myself in something far greater. I even wanted, briefly, to become a nun.
Wasn’t your family tradition Jewish?
Yes, but at that point I was estranged from Judaism, which had been a huge part of my early life. I grew up across the street from our synagogue and went to Hebrew school and services every week. I loved many of the holidays, like Sukkos, when we’d pray outside under a lean-to covered with fruit. But it was a conservative synagogue, and I couldn’t relate to the Hebrew prayers, which I could read but not understand. More distancing was the fear I felt from some stories in the Old Testament and from how I then perceived Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when I feared being punished for my sins and saw God as an ever-watching judge.
But many stories in your book honor aspects of Judaism.
Yes, my children led me back. Their father and I raised them to be open to all religions, but when Tony was 10, he said he wanted to go to Hebrew school like many of his friends, to be part of a group and be bar mitzvah’d. So I started keeping Sabbath with my kids, and we found a synagogue to attend on Friday nights. Because it was a reform synagogue, not conservative, it was less strict, and most of the prayers were in English. Best of all, there was a beautiful children’s choir that Tony and Elise both joined. I can still hear the children singing in their angelic, high voices, May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart find favor in your eyes, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. I would walk through Central Park while singing that psalm. I was a single parent then, and prayerful songs lifted me up from my personal sorrow.
Around that time I found a book by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. It was called The First Step, and it led me into the more mystical, joyful, Hasidic aspects of Judaism — which I later entered more deeply through synchronistic contacts with Reb Zalman and visits to services of the Jewish Renewal movement, which he co-founded. At some of those services, we danced ecstatically in the aisles, the way I loved doing in Black Baptist churches or Hari Krishna temples. It’s an ecstasy that lifts you out of yourself and closer to Spirit. For me, the doorway to heaven is music and dance!
That’s one reason I found the 1960s and ’70s so spiritual. All music can lift me, but in those decades the lyrics became as powerful and transformative as the rhythms and tunes. Now, smoking pot and trying acid helped, too; but I could get stoned just listening to the Beatles or Dylan or the Moody Blues: “My Sweet Lord, I really want to see you Lord” … “Let it Be”… “All You Need Is Love.” These were spiritual invitations, and getting high meant just that: getting higher, closer to truth, each other, and all that’s divine.
Two books I treasured then were Be Here Now by Ram Dass and The Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda. But it was music that was leading me on. My marriage was falling apart, and I guess I was too. But Dylan was singing “Knockin’ on heaven’s door,” and I could hear the knockin’ on my soul.
Where did that knocking eventually lead you?
To ashrams and yoga centers; to Zen retreats, Buddhist temples, and Catholic monasteries; to consciousness-raising workshops like est and Insight that helped me work through emotional issues and find forgiveness. And to a major event featuring The Sufi Master of the West, where Reb Zalman was the warm-up act and said, “You’re searching for God? Forget the bells and whistles. Just get down and pray” — and I cried as if I were coming home.
I was living in NYC then, which people may think of as materialistic and cold, and in some ways it is. But it’s also filled with people who love people; and especially back then it was as much an art center and spiritual center as it was a center of finance. Spiritual teachers come there from all over the world. I heard Chögyam Trungpa give one of his first talks in America. I studied hatha yoga in the Upper West Side apartment that was the Integral Yoga Institute’s first home. I walked with my children to Muktananda’s ashram for Hindu chanting and Indian dinners. And I heard Krishna Das lead Kirtan in an old movie theater on Broadway. That was another time I suddenly found myself crying. Kirtan is my most beloved and direct way to connect with the Divine.
It was in NYC that I joined with thousands of people from all walks of life to march against the war in Vietnam, to work for the nuclear freeze and women’s rights, to hold vigils for Martin Luther King. These movements weren’t just political; they were spiritual too. To be part of them meant to feel our unity and connection and the striving for peace and justice for all.
PART 2 of this interview will be in my next blog.