Category Archives: Spiritual Stuff

Be the Game Board

Note: I wrote this for my email subscribers a few weeks ago and am just now getting around to posting it here. If you want to receive similar stuff in your inbox 1-2 times a month, click here.


Happy August!

And boy, is August here with a vengeance in Northern Virginia. When I stepped outside to run early this morning, the humidity was 97%. Sixteen miles later, I felt every bit of it.

Many of you know I’m training for my second marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, here in DC in October. This is my grudge match—I had to defer last year’s entry due to injury. I’m excited for this hometown race, known for being well-run with lots of cheering crowds. The only downside is the timing—race in October means long runs in July, August and September. I keep telling myself that these hot, humid, hilly miles are building mental toughness, but in all honesty, every time I step outside into air that feels like it’s already been breathed, I want to cry. (Come on, my people are from Northern Europe. I’m built for permafrost.)

I was running recently on one of those hot and humid days when I passed a man in his 70s. We exchanged a quick greeting and as he shuffled by he said, “Beautiful morning.” At first I was dumbfounded: Beautiful? I can literally wring out my shirt right now. But then I decided to get outside myself and really take a look around. And it was beautiful. The sun was still low in the sky and casting lengthy shadows. The birds were singing. The green on the trees was rich and deep.

This weekend I was in North Carolina for a family reunion, and again I went for a morning run—later than I’d hoped, so the sun was beating down on me from the first step. Again it was humid and gross, and I found myself longing for crisp November, or even frigid February. But this time I remembered my running buddy from the week before, and I let myself really look at the deserted country road, the soft blue sky, and the meadow fuzzy with mature grass:


I realized how often I get trapped inside my own experience—how easy it is to be stuck there without considering other perspectives. To put it in religious language, this is perhaps a foundational human sin or shortcoming—to see our own narrative as the only valid one. Much of our consumer culture is designed to feed this individualistic focus—marketing, social media, even news sites serve up targeted messages designed just for us: our preferences, our prejudices, and our longings. This sunny, soupy day was bearing down on me with its oppressive heat, so how could it also be beautiful? Yet it was. (Not to mention the gratitude that comes from being able to put one foot in front of the other, breathe clean air into lungs, and move slowly but relentlessly forward.)

Recently when I wrote to you, I shared a story from the wonderful book The Art of Possibility. Permit me to share one more tidbit from that book. The authors, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, talk about shifting our perspective such that we see ourselves not as a pawn in a game, nor as the strategist of the game, pulling all the strings, but as the game board itself, “the framework for the game of life around you”:

The purpose of naming yourself as the board, or as the context in which life occurs to you, is to give yourself the power to transform your experience of any unwanted condition into one in which you care to live. We said your *experience*, not the condition itself. But of course once you do transform your experience and see things differently, other changes occur.

When you identify yourself as a single chess piece—and by analogy, as an individual in a particular role—you can only react to, complain about, or resist the moves that interrupted your plans. But if you name yourself as the board itself, you can turn all your attention to what you want to see happen, with none paid to what you need to win or fight or fix. …One by one, you bring everything you have been resisting into the fold. You, as the board, make room for all the moves, for the capture of the knight *and* the sacrifice of your bishop… for your miserable childhood *and* the circumstances of your parents’ lives… Why? Because that is what is there. It is the way things are.

On a superficial level, seeing yourself as the game board can seem narcissistic. But as I’ve considered this analogy, I find it provides an expansive space for me to receive life in all its complexity, not denying the unpleasant things, but also not letting them be the sum total of the experience.

Of course, things happen to us in life that are much more grave than a scheduled run on a humid day. This shift in perspective is very difficult work—lifetime work. But on a humid day in, with sweat rolling down my back, I got a startling and lovely glimpse that it was possible.

Peace, Joy and Yes,


What’s Saving Your Life Lately?

When I send out my twice-monthly-ish emails to subscribers, I usually close with the question, What’s saving your life lately? (Thanks for the question, Barbara Brown Taylor.)

And I love when people reply with their answers… everything from “finally feeling more human after my son’s death” to “working at a rescue shelter for cats.”

Here’s my current list, at varying levels of grandiosity. (Small things can save your life, right?)

The West Wing Weekly podcast. Nerd comfort food.

The book Challenger Deep, an excruciating but gratifying read about a young man with mental illness. Such reverence. Such

Last weekend’s run at Great Falls:


Loved ones who forgive me readily when I screw up. Bonus when those loved ones are my children.

MyFitnessPal, my constant companion to help me make better nutritional choices.

Getting the summer camp schedule mostly locked down for the kids.

The Hamilton soundtrack–the multi-layered gift that keeps giving.

A week in which the writing flowed, aka lots of sh***y first drafts.

Kitties who jump five feet in the air when birds visit our patio bird feeder. I’d say they jump in vain, but it entertains us, so they’re earning their keep around here.

Swimming, then biking, then running, for the first time in rapid succession, in anticipation of a triathlon in two weeks.

What’s saving your life?

The Five-Minute Journal, Tweaked


A few months ago I wrote about a new practice I’ve been doing–a morning journaling exercise that takes about five minutes. It’s been a great way to center the day.

Among other things, the practice involves listing three things that would make the day fruitful. I wrote: “Most of us have way more than three things on our daily to-do list, so it helps to be clear on the most essential items.”

Then yesterday I read a lovely reflection on the Storyline blog:

At the end of every day, no matter how busy I’d been, there were always projects unfinished, emails unanswered, and household chores left undone. I hadn’t done it all, so I felt like I hadn’t done enough.

And it’s only a short leap in your heart from “I never do enough” to “I’m not enough.”

I tried making really thorough to-do lists, but that just gave me a super detailed record of all the things I wasn’t getting to. I would not call that helpful.

So the author created an Enough List: three things that are enough for the day. “They don’t have to be life-changing things, they just have to be the things that are most important to me today. When I’ve done those three things, I’ve done enough.” She may do more than three things, but those extra things get to be gravy. And if she doesn’t get to the three things, there’s grace.

I like that framing even better! Enough is such a gracious word.

So here’s the improved version of my morning journal:

Three things for which I’m grateful:

My Enough List for the day:

An affirmation: 

I’m curious about:
And the evening practice:

Three things to celebrate about the day:

One thing I could have done better:

Happy journaling!

Image is “Journaling” by Seth Barber, from Flickr via Creative Commons license


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Overwhelmed? Do It Like the Looney Tunes Do

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I’ve been traveling quite a bit recently, mainly leading retreats on the Sabbath book. Last weekend was the end of a two-week stretch in which either Robert was traveling, or I was, or for a brief 45 minutes when our planes crossed in the air, both of us. It’s ironic that I’m talking to groups about Sabbath, given how hectic my schedule has been! I’m careful to take Sabbath time even when I travel–a quiet afternoon at the hotel between sessions, a trip to the movies on the Monday after my return. What suffers is the home stuff. The entropy is wild around here at Casa Dana, and that impacts my mental health.

I was reminded by someone at this weekend’s retreat of a practice I wrote about in the book but hadn’t thought about in a long time. Time to revisit it again.

Are you, too, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff involved in adulting? Read on for a technique that’s worked for me. This is an excerpt from Sabbath in the Suburbs:

Remember those old Looney Tunes cartoons in which a hungry character looks at its prey and sees a juicy steak where the head is supposed to be? Or when the guy who’s down on his luck finds a singing frog and begins to see dollar signs?

I try to do the same thing with the clutter and piled-up projects in our house. Rather than looking at an unfinished task and seeing what we’ve failed to do, I picture what that unfinished task represents: namely, something important that we have done.

So when I look at our cluttered garage full of broken rakes and household items we’ve discarded but haven’t yet gotten rid of—some of which have been with us for years—I try not to see our failure in getting the garage cleaned out. Instead I see all those times we pedaled bikes up and down our street with our kids, gasping to reach the top of the steep hill, then soaring down to the bottom again.

Every time I open the cabinet under the sink, I see a mess of bottles, desiccated sponges, and aluminum foil. For nine years they have begged for an intervention from the Container Store. I try to see something else instead: I see Caroline hunched over a ball of yarn and a chaos of stitches as I teach her, slowly, to knit. With this new vision, the undone thing isn’t a sign of neglect or failure. It’s a testimony that something else is more important at this moment of our lives.

Even if you don’t observe Sabbath, a shift in perception is helpful. It doesn’t ever all get done. We need to train our vision. We see failure when we should see alternatives. Better to focus on the good and important things we did do instead of berating ourselves for falling short of an ideal.

Robert’s grandmother remembers a time when her children were young and a fussy neighbor wrinkled his nose at the bare patches of grass in her yard. “You really ought to do something about that,” he said with disdain. She responded, “I’ll grow grass when I stop growing children.”


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Image is from Humans of New York on Facebook–a friend sent it to me this week, and it felt very Sabbath-y.