February 22, 2007, Vol. V Issue 4
It was one of those magical moments. I’d torn a page from the newspaper community section that described some cross-country skiing trails up at Mt. Hood. A week or so later I picked it up to read while eating my morning oatmeal. By chance I flipped the page over. A small headline about a women’s seminar caught my eye. The speaker was Paula D’Arcy. I’d recently run across the website for her upcoming conference, WomenSpeak2007. Given the many powerful books she’s written, the news that she was organizing a conference intrigued me. And now she was going to be speaking practically in my backyard. Providence — I love it!
And just this week, I got to see the living legend, Dr. Maya Angelou, right here in Portland. Both of these amazing women brought home to me, in different ways, the beauty of humans touching humans, heart to heart, sharing their personal experiences. And here I get to share that with all of you.
Paula D’Arcy: From Joy into Grief and Back to Life
I’m not often asked for spirituality as a topic, or that it be an aspect of a presentation for that matter, yet it’s a thread that runs quietly in the background. I do often get feedback from my speakers after an event that they sensed the desire for a spiritual aspect to their program and have responded appropriately. Perhaps I sense it as well when I match the speaker up for the event. In any case, Paula D’Arcy is all about her spiritual journey, which she shares generously, so that is what I will share in turn with you here.
In 1975, she was a happy young woman with a job as a counselor, a husband and twenty-one month old daughter. Then tragedy struck. They were on the way home from a weekend trip where they’d announced to her parents that they were expecting another child. A drunk driver hit them head-on at 97 miles an hour, and in an instant, her beloved family was gone.
Her perfectly ordered life was shattered. And she was still pregnant. Despite the new life inside her, grief, depression and anger were her constant companions. How could God allow this to happen? Where was God then? Where was God now? A quest had begun.
Telling this story is not always part of her presentations, and grief isn’t always about the death of a loved one. It’s attached to many other types of losses. As she acknowledged early in her presentation, each person attending (grief was the topic) was in his or her own stage of grief, and not expected to arrive somewhere else as a result of her program. Each person’s journey after all unfolds in its own time. Actually, her program was all about living despite the losses and, in fact, in the face of them.
“Power isn’t in the circumstance, it’s where you meet it from – with bitterness and despair or with hope, faith, and spirit,” she told us. “When you try to cross the threshold of pain, what you’re always up against is yourself. Then the question arises, ‘Will l allow myself to learn, for life to take me to deeper levels?’”
In her case the threshold was the loss of her husband and child and yes, she was up against herself. Could she go on, allow herself to learn and make something beautiful of it? “What I came to realize was that if I couldn’t learn to love what I have, to make it beautiful, I wasn’t honoring the people I have in my life now. All you can do is learn to love.” She doesn’t make any bones about the depth of her despair or the ups and downs of her journey. She sees the humor, beauty, pain and joy, and she shares it with vulnerability and courage.
Although Paula can’t remember when she didn’t write, being an author wasn’t her original intent. She journaled. As a young Mom, she wrote about all of her first baby’s “firsts” and her own delight. When she lost Sarah in the accident, that journal of joy became a journal of pain and loss. A copy of it fell into the hands of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and he encouraged her to publish it. Song for Sarah, sold over 600,000 copies in the first six months and has been translated into eight languages. The most recent edition was published in 2001. Her second book was, Gift of the Red Bird, the story of her remarkable spiritual adventure alone in the wilderness for three days. Other titles include When People Grieve, A New Set of Eyes, Seeking with All My Heart, and Sacred Threshold. As much as I’d like you to know about her as a speaker, I’d also encourage you to pick up some of her books at the library or the bookstore.
While grief and loss may not be on our Top Ten list of most requested topics, we all know they are as much a part of life as birth and celebration. Paula’s story is a journey from joy into death and grief and back to life. In the end, it’s about love. “How can I give the gift of love and break it up in little pieces and share it?” she asks. I think she does just that every time she writes a book, leads a retreat or gives a speech.
An Evening with Dr. Maya Angelou
The curtain on the enormous proscenium opened to reveal Dr. Maya Angelou, center stage, nearly 80 years of age, still nearly six feet tall, leaning against her cane, elegantly attired in a long black dress and a long double strand of pearls. She was poised behind a clear lectern, with a tall chair-stool to lean back on and in the background, a comfy parlor arrangement of sofas, end tables and lamps provided an inviting atmosphere. You could almost imagine yourself sitting down to tea with her.
Her presence was huge all the way up to the balcony where we were sitting. Oh, that voice – basso profundo and totally unique. Between reciting poetry (it seemed like it was anyone’s but hers), breaking into song every so often and breaking up the audience with laughter, she told us family stories and told us about her life as a celebrity. Her self-effacing humor endeared her to everyone as the laughter attested. A rare gift, she has the ability to talk about herself and lift it from mere self-revelation to examples of the human spirit in action that we all could use to bring grace to our own lives.
Herself a mesmerizing vision of grace, swaying and stirring when she moved, Dr. Angelou captivated us in her audience with vigor, fire and perception – and the simple, profound truth. She has, as her website proclaims, the unique ability to shatter the opaque prisms of race and class between reader and subject, speaker and audience throughout her books of poetry and her autobiographies as well as her public performances. It’s true. She uses race to reveal to us important points about what it means to be human.
Keying off a 19th century song, for example, she themed her message around “Rainbows in the Clouds.” She shared stories about her Uncle Willie, a storekeeper in Stamps, Arkansas, beginning with how he had made her learn her “fiveses and sixes and sevenses,” and she described the white lawyer in the next town who had learned his tables from Uncle Willie too – and then the well-dressed black man who met her as she returned for her uncle’s funeral and who revealed that he too had learned his multiplication tables from Uncle Willie – and he was the first black Mayor of Little Rock. And then there was the man and his family who approached her in the Kennedy Center years later, who revealed that Uncle Willie had made their grandfather learn his arithmetic – and the man was a Congressman from Arkansas. The story of the positive influence that this one crippled son of slaves in an isolated Arkansas town had made on others showed that any of us can change the world. “Because of him, I am who I am today,” people repeatedly said about Uncle Willie through generations of white and black people. “Being rainbows in the clouds reminds us that each of is absolutely unique and absolutely powerful,” she concluded with passion, sophistication, and the absolute devotion to integrity for which she is known all over the world.
Dr. Maya Angelou is a remarkable Renaissance woman who is hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary literature. As a poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director, she continues to travel the world, spreading her legendary wisdom. Dr. Angelou has written twelve great books including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her current best-seller A Song Flung Up to Heaven.
Dr. Angelou’s speaking engagements are managed exclusively by one agency. If you’d like further information, please contact me and I’d be happy to help you.
Women of all nations and creeds will gather March 9-11, 2007 — two weeks from now — at the San Antonio Convention Center in Texas for WomenSpeak2007. The event was inspired by a vision of Paula D’Arcy that is becoming bigger than life before her very eyes.
“We’re expecting well over 1,000 women. We have women registering from India, Uganda, and West Africa. Over a dozen former prison inmates are coming and our hearts are moved again and again by donations that are making this all possible.”
So, what exactly is WomenSpeak2007 all about? Well, peace actually. As her website describes it: “Our purpose is to honor the unspoken wisdom held by Spirit within a woman’s heart. We must think differently in order to effect change in the world. Reach for the power and compassion that lies within. Respond to the beauty and power that is already ours.” The schedule of activities includes music, dance, poetry, drama, and rituals as well as keynote speeches and creative workshops.
The conference is being sponsored by The Red Bird Foundation, which Paula D’Arcy founded in 2001 as a non-profit foundation for the purpose of fostering personal and spiritual growth for people in need throughout the world. In the United States, the Foundation’s work has included prison retreats and talks, evening gatherings at shelters and scholarship support for foreign students, enabling them to receive a higher education in the USA. The Foundation also offers scholarship support to allow those of lower income to attend Paula’s retreats.
“In 1998, after nearly twenty years of leading retreats and seminars,” Paula said, “I had a vision of all that is possible in terms of reaching a wider audience, including the many who presently live in great need. I saw the impact of pain that has never been transformed, as well as the impact of unresolved grief. I also saw what it might mean to have the opportunity to attain new awareness and freedom. That day Red Bird Foundation was born in my heart. Since its beginning the Foundation has become a means of touching the hearts and lives of those who have limited resources or little hope. Most moving of all is the knowledge that our contributions come from hundreds of people who would like to be part of a hands on effort to effect change.”
When women like Paula D’Arcy listen to their hearts and allow their vision to come forth and be supported, phenomenal things happen. We’ll bring you a report of the results in a future issue.
Meantime, take care of yourself, for your good health and those you love.
Yours truly in good health,