Majd Kurdieh: Finding Meaning and Purpose Through Art , by Renu Thomas

My colleagues at the gallery find it amusing that I stand in awe and silent dialogue before Majd Kurdieh‘s paintings or look around for new ones each week. The merchandise promoting his work has grown from cards and mugs, to include fridge magnets, coasters, and now T-shirts, which are all displayed at the entrance of the quaint café attached to the gallery. Kasha who works there informs me when new products arrive and translates the Arabic script for me.

Kurdieh is a Syrian refugee and currently lives alone in a small house with just two rooms in the mountainous area of Lebanon, close to the Mediterranean Sea. His art practice dominates his life and in his free time, he enjoys fishing. His images are whimsical and childlike and include Arabic text inspired by his love of books, poetry, and music.

Majd Kurdieh

The animated characters Kurdieh created, the Fasaeen – which means ‘tiny people’ in Arabic – are a boy (Fasoon) and a girl (Fasooneh). They look deceptively innocent and have an unusual gang of friends, including a hyena and a monster. Kurdieh calls the gang ‘the very scary butterfly gang’ and each painting offers a narrative of how they work together, to steal sadness from the world and replace them with flowers. The butterfly, Kurdieh explains, is a fragile creature, so our instinct is to approach it delicately, afraid to harm it and in this context, he uses the word ‘scary’. His message is that we should approach each person in our lives with that kind of fear – of knowing that unless we are cautious, we can do them harm.

The Fasaeen are often painted with missing arms, which to me suggests a feeling of helplessness and perhaps the artist’s as well, but Kurdieh’s intention is to portray connection; that when two people truly connect, they must connect with their hearts. The little girl is the leader of the pack and he relates most with her. The characters act as a conduit through which his stories flow and he says that they seem to control him. The narrative develops as the painting progresses and he does not begin with the end in mind.

Majd Kurdieh

I am unsure exactly what it is that draws me to his work. I wonder if it is my Syrian roots on my father’s side or the simplicity of his work that makes one feel that if he can paint, well then, so can I. Perhaps it is the stories of war, displacement, and trauma that have come knocking on my
door since I began my clinical placement as a student of Art Psychotherapy. Something in me awakened as they revealed their stories, the impact of war, the senseless loss of lives, and the strength of the human spirit to survive. They had left in a hurry and were not prepared for what lay ahead.

Irrespective of our circumstances or where we live, there is a need to know in our innermost being, who we are, and where we belong, and in the comfort and safety of that knowledge we no longer just survive, but we begin to thrive. Majd Kurdieh stays anchored to his roots through the stories and poems of his favorite authors. Books occupy a big part of his home and are a tangible reminder of where he came from.

The initial paintings of Kurdieh seem hurried and the words of the poem look as if they were placed without much thought of alignment. Some of the words in a few paintings have even been crossed out with a line running through them, as if the artist is granting permission to make mistakes. The rawness of his work is appealing. I was intrigued to learn how his method of drawing the monster morphed intentionally from the way he draws the dove. Nuances like this draw the viewer in for a closer look at Kurdieh’s work, and new layers of meaning are revealed.

The first series, ‘Stealing Sadness’ showed the characters outlined with bold black lines. The removal of those boundaries in his second series ‘Surrender to Love’, was a simple but inspired way to visually free the characters of the restrictions they faced, and empower them to do more.

For the past two years, I have been facilitating creative art and writing workshops in collaboration with an art gallery in Dubai, and of all the artists I have seen exhibited here, Majd Kurdieh and his series ‘Stealing Sadness’ remains my favorite.

Kurdieh’s poems written in Arabic on the paintings are replaced in later work with more concise statements like “the country is the wound and you are the honey”. Other than the motley crew of animals, most of the repeated motifs in his paintings are from nature and include the sun, moon, clouds, flowers -particularly the poppy.

Majd Kurdieh
Majd Kurdieh

There is an invitation to look at what is within us in his paintings and the condition of the heart appears to be a popular theme. An elephant with the heart of a butterfly has the message, “If your heart is as light as a butterfly, anyone can fly”. In another, the elephant is seen to have the heart of a fish.

Kurdieh is in no way bitter about the path that has led him to Lebanon. Art making and poetry have served to channel his pain through the Fasaeen, transforming it into a message of hope and optimism. He is the best-selling artist at the gallery here in Dubai and his work is gaining global attention and popularity.

Majd Kurdieh

The very scary butterfly gang Kurdieh says, lives in the hearts of each one of us and the artist poignantly tasks us with the responsibility of finding ways to take away the sadness from the lives of people and make the world a better place.

Don’t miss the chance to check out Renu Thomas’ online class, Identity and Belonging: An Exploration through Visual Art and Creative Writing. The class runs from October 26 – December 7, 2022, at the TLA Network.

Renu Sarah Thomas is an Art Psychotherapist (British Association of Art Therapists – BAAT) and workshop facilitator. She has several years of experience in introducing and conducting programmes that promote the personal, social, and emotional well-being of individuals in Dubai, India, and Scotland and adapting these programmes to suit the cultural climate of the region.

She is a self-taught artist and although Renu finds pottery making and acrylic painting centering and enjoyable, it is through writing that she has found liberation and empowerment. Her growing areas of interest include displacement and trauma and through her spontaneous creative art and creative writing workshops, she passionately encourages people to pursue some form of creative expression, embrace their authentic selves, and intentionally find their purpose.

Born in India and raised in England, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia, Dubai has been her home for the past 20 years.

Our voices matter and need to be heard.

Dear TLA community,

In the midst of a very hot summer here in the eastern continental United States, it is ever more clear how needed and significant our collective voices are in this time of increasing political turmoil, attacks on our constitutional rights, escalating war, and the climate crisis. 

The decision to remain hopeful in the face of so much challenge is a powerful tool – as radio host Krista Tippett recently shared in a New York Times interview: “I talk about hope being a muscle. It’s not wishful thinking, and it’s not idealism. It’s not even a belief that everything will turn out OK. It’s an imaginative leap, which is what I’ve seen in people like John Lewis and Jane Goodall. These are people who said: I refuse to accept that the world has to be this way. I am going to throw my life and my pragmatism and my intelligence at this insistence that it could be different and put that into practice.”

We invite you, the poets, journalists, writers, novelists, songwriters, playwrights, and other brilliant wordsmiths, to join us as we set our sites on hope, speak truth to power, and harness our collective courage to step beyond what has been familiar and comfortable to move much more quickly and in much bigger ways. The time is now.

Our voices matter, and need to be heard. 

To the power of words, 

Hanne Weedon
Managing Director

The Journey Within, by Kimberly Lee

You’ve seen the iconic poster—a woman in profile, her head turned to look boldly at the artist, her right arm raised in a fist while her left hand rolls up her sleeve. She wears a blue work shirt and a red, polka-dot scarf tied around her temples. Eyebrows immaculately sculpted, eyelashes done up, red lipstick topping it all off.

During the height of the pandemic, my cousin sent around a photo she’d unearthed, of our grandmother with a work crew, wearing that same blue shirt. When I asked my mother about it, she said my grandmother was part of a World War II “ladies’ crew,” and that her work had to do with ball bearings or something. My mother would have been four. I’d seen the poster a million times, but never knew my grandmother had been a “Rosie the Riveter.” I set out on a mission and eventually found a mug online representing her in this role.

Rosie the Riveter: We Can Do It!

My grandparents were part of the “The Great Migration” of Black people from the Deep South to the northern and western states that took place in the early 1940s. Although their movement was within the same continent, when I think about it, I get the feeling of something epic, and it is, because their choice to undertake the journey deeply impacted my quality of life, even though I wouldn’t be born until decades later. I heard about this journey in detail from my grandfather, with whom I was very close, yet I recently wrote about it from the perspective of my grandmother, who I never knew—she passed away well before I was born. In “Departure,” I take on her voice, describing how my grandfather came to California, started working on the naval shipyards, set up house, then sent for her and their two girls—my mother and my aunt. “The air is different here. Lighter. It could be that I’ve never been this close to an ocean, never felt the calm mist tickling my skin. Or maybe this is what it feels like to breathe easy, and free.” Those lines were my attempt to capture the emotional journey, the change that seems to be coming from outside conditions but is actually burgeoning from within.

Ship scaler Eastine Cowner helps construct the Liberty ship SS George Washington Carver. 1943. Kaiser shipyards, Richmond, California. E.F. Joseph/Library of Congress.

Because while my grandparents’ movement was definitely physical, through numerous states from one end of the country to the gorgeous Pacific Coast, I know that faith, perseverance, and fortitude were the true inner gifts of the journey, the qualities they silently nurtured and developed in their own hearts to have the fortitude to make the trip.

Although the narrow definition of a journey is geographical, a movement from point A to B, we know an emotional component is always present. The richness of the inner adventure compels us to see the journey as a metaphor for countless situations, no physical change of place required. We face challenges, find allies, and overcome obstacles on the way to a final destination. We experience personal growth and development, chances to rise to the occasion, and strength arising from finding our innate gifts. We triumph, determining for ourselves what success truly means.

IAM members from District Lodge 751 were among the African-American Rosie the Riveters who played a large part in building planes during WWII.

Joseph Campbell described the well-known archetypal pattern of the hero’s journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. While Maria Tatar’s recent The Heroine with 1001 Faces might be seen as a response to that work, it goes beyond it by expanding our view of heroism to include qualities and narrative arcs centering the power of women to effect change. Similarly, the journey of the healer and seeker, along with the journey of integrity, offer fruitful ways to view the universal struggles and joys we face on life’s trajectory. On each of these paths, even if there is physical relocation, the deeper journey always takes place within. The process may be as silent as caterpillars transforming within the confines of silky, stationary cocoons. They emerge exquisite and renewed—altogether new creatures—as a result of the inner journey. Containing invisible remnants of the past yet exploding with flight into the future, they affect their own destiny and that of those to come. We are those butterflies.

6th Century Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Through the lens of the heroine’s path and other narratives, the thousand-mile journey becomes our lives, splayed out across the years of our existence. We look back to see where we’ve been and how far we’ve come, then venture on, knowing that just as fog clears when we move forward, our next steps will be revealed.

Welders at the Landers, Frary, and Clark plant in New Britain, Connecticut, 1943. Gordan Parks/Library of Congress.

Last year I cut and pasted this quote, author unknown, to a vision board: “Take every curious little opportunity and own it.” A flyer that read “Jobs For Negroes” was the curious little opportunity my grandparents seized in the mid-twentieth century, buoyed by hopes and dreams for safety, security, and larger, more fulfilled lives. They didn’t know the ultimate outcome, but had faith that if they took the leap, a net would surely be there. As musician Jan Garrett sang: Fight to stay awake/Choose the path you take/Even if you don’t know where it’s going/Trust your own unknowing. Like my grandparents, we don’t need exact certainty to enter uncharted territory. Whether our movement is physical or centered on the journey within, we only have to believe in the possibilities and stay awake to the signs that illuminate our path, guiding us to precisely where we need to be.


Beyond the Hero’s Journey: Exploring the Paths of the Heroine, Healer, and Seeker, with Kimberly Lee, runs from September 14 to October 26 on the TLA Network. Join Kimberly for an engaging exploration of long-established and recently-outlined journeys in literature, film, poetry, videos, podcasts, and the lives of public figures. Through creative writing prompts, SoulCollage®, and other interactive exercises and activities, we’ll discover how aspects of these paths exist within our own lives and can be used to inform and enrich our work with others.

Kimberly Lee (@klcreatrix) left the practice of law some years ago to focus on motherhood, community work, and creative pursuits. A graduate of Stanford University and UC Davis School of Law, she is certified as a workshop facilitator by Amherst Writers & Artists, the Center for Journal Therapy, and SoulCollage®. She has led workshops at numerous retreats and conferences and is a teaching artist with Hugo House and Loft Literary. She serves on the board of the Transformative Language Arts Network and is actively involved with The Center for Intentional Creativity. A former editor and regular contributor at Literary Mama, Kimberly has served on the staffs of Carve and F(r)iction magazines. She holds a certificate in copyediting from UC San Diego Extension and is an active member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and ACES: The Society for Editing. Kimberly’s stories and essays have appeared in publications and anthologies including Minerva Rising, LA Parent, Fresh Ink, Words and Whispers, Toyon, The Ekphrastic Review, Wow! Women on Writing, Read650, Quillkeepers Press, I Am Woman: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America, and elsewhere. Kimberly trusts in the magic and mystery of miracles and synchronicity, and believes that everyone is creative and has unique gifts to share. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three children.

Spotlight on the Teachers: Kelly DuMar, Kimberly Lee, Marianela Medrano & Renu Thomas

Clockwise from upper left: TLA Network fall teachers Kelly DuMar, Kimberly Lee, Renu Thomas, and Marianela Medrano

This fall’s classes include four of exceptional quality and strength, and more are in the works. Don’t miss our annual Summer Sale of 20% off all classes, now through August 15! 

Kelly DuMar (@kellydumar) is offering her Memoir as Monologue class, which includes the rare opportunity to see each participant’s monologue performed by trained actors at an online performance. A longtime supporter of our work, Kelly has recently rejoined the board as part of our leadership team. Her care, attention-to-detail, and dedication to fine teaching are a rare and special set of gifts, and we are lucky to have her engaged in leading this organization, and teaching for us again. 

New-to-the-Network teacher, Kimberly Lee (@klcreatix), is offering an exciting opportunity to take a deep dive into reconfiguring the concept of the hero’s journey. An attorney-turned-facilitator/editor/writer, Kimberly brings thoughtful, generous, and expansive perspectives to her roles as Network board member and workshop leader. Read her recent blog post about her class here. We are thrilled to offer this exciting new class, and welcome Kimberly to the heart of our TLA community.

Renu Thomas is new to teaching for the Network, hails from India, and has spent much of her adult life in Dubai. She combines a deep knowledge of west-African, south-, and west-Asian cultures, and brings significant professional experience as an art psychotherapist and facilitator to her role on the Network’s board, and to our teaching and learning community. Don’t miss finding a spot in her brand-new class, Identity and Belonging, as it is filling quickly!

We are so lucky to have poet, therapist and community activist Marianela Medrano (@palabracounseling) offering Pathways to Wholeness to our community again this fall. Students love this class, and we are excited to provide the chance for more people to learn from this incredibly talented and brilliant change agent. Marianela recently wrote a bilingual book of poetry titled, Journeys/Viajes, and is completing a new non-fiction book, Pathways to Wholeness: Mindful Writing Toward Momentous Leaps of Meaning.

Take advantage of our Summer Sale, available now through August 15, and take 20% off the regular registration fee for any of these wonderful classes.

Red: A guest post by TLAF Certificate student Sharon Bippus

Editor’s note: Sharon is a student in the Transformative Language Arts Foundations Certificate program. This blog post is one of five reflection posts she will be submitting as part of the certificate requirements.

Collage created by Sharon after listening to a guided meditation where participants meet the Muse. After creating the collage, participants respond to a series of prompts in order to communicate with the Muse and receive her special messages.

Robbyn Lane McGill’s two-part class, Kissing the Muse [offered again July 2022], is a wonderful circular journey through the ups and downs of life. On this great adventure, I had the privilege of meeting interesting characters such as the Seducing Siren, the Reluctant Rebel, and the Magical Guru. These wise messengers communicated with me through a variety of creative prompts, and I especially enjoyed meeting the Magical Guru who introduced herself to me as “Vision.” She helped me to see my surroundings in a new way.

During the autumn when I was enrolled in the Kissing the Muse course, I found myself in need of some rest and relaxation one day, so I went to the nearby nature sanctuary with my camera. I was sitting quietly on a bench near the bird feeders waiting for the wildlife to appear. From previous visits, I had learned to be still so that the animals would not feel threatened. My patience was sometimes rewarded with visitations; on one occasion, a jackrabbit appeared and on another, two possums. Various birds stop at the feeders – woodpeckers, blue jays, wrens, and my personal favorite, cardinals. On this particular visit, a male cardinal was perched in a tree on a branch above me. I took several pictures of him, and afterwards I sat in silence simply enjoying his company.

My peace ended abruptly when two women walked by. One of them stopped near the bird feeders, complaining in a loud voice about the sanctuary, “There’s no color here. Well, it’s green, but there’s no color. I mean, it’s pretty, but it needs some color.” Her friend, probably tired of listening to her criticism in the midst of this oasis, kept walking, leaving the grouch behind. Her loud voice now aimed in my direction, “Where’s the red?” I replied with a tinge of sarcasm in my voice, “Welcome to Houston?” If she wanted fall colors, she was in the wrong city. Failing to get the response she wanted from me, she moved on.

As she walked away, I realized that had she just looked up 20 feet, she would have seen the vibrant red cardinal above her head. Beauty was visible, but only to someone with open eyes and not an open mouth. Later, as I walked around the sanctuary, I was extremely aware of the pops of red all around me. Here was a spiky red flower. There was an autumn leaf on the path. A couple of bright red berries hung from a branch. Another cardinal appeared. Red was all around me, and it was magnificent. It wasn’t the shade of anger and it was strategically placed for those who take the time to look.

I felt deep gratitude towards my Magical Guru named “Vision,” and I felt even more connected to my cardinal friends, grateful that I have the patience to sit with them in quiet solitude and receive their unspoken but powerful messages. On this day Cardinal said to me, “Beauty is all around you. Just open your eyes.”

Sharon Bippus, PhD, is an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) instructor who finds inspiration in the intersection of creativity, mystery, and synchronicity. As an undergraduate, she was awarded two scholarships to study in Germany which fueled her desire to learn more about the diverse world we live in. Since that time, she has taught English in Slovakia and China and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Western Russia. She currently teaches ESOL at a community college in the suburbs of Houston, Texas where she works with students from all over the world. In her free time, she enjoys mixed media, collage, and photography and has received training in trauma-informed expressive arts and nature-based therapeutic practices. She is a SoulCollage® facilitator, a Veriditas-trained labyrinth facilitator, and a student in the Haden Institute’s Dream Work Program.

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What Some of Our Teachers are Reading Now…

Following up on last month’s post about what our staff and board members have been reading, we asked some of the writers, editors, poets, and facilitators who teach for the TLA Network what they are currently reading, and why. We thought you might enjoy getting more of a glimpse into our teachers’ worlds – see their selections, listed below.

We would love to hear what YOU have been reading – share your latest favorite reads with us, and we might just feature you and your favorite book(s) in an upcoming newsletter, or as part of a Network book club! We would love to hear from you!

Jennifer Browdy, PhD – professor, editor, community organizer & group facilitator.

LSD and the Mind of the Universe: Diamonds from Heaven, Chris Bache.
The author is a distinguished professor emeritus of world religions, who spent 20 years researching the nature of reality and metaphysics by taking himself on more than 70 high-dose, carefully set and monitored LSD explorations, with fascinating results.

The Quantum Revelation: A Radical Synthesis of Science & Spirituality, by Paul Levy.
Levy has done an outstanding job of bringing the insights of quantum theory, Jungian depth psychology and mystical spiritual traditions like the Kabbalah to bear on foundational questions of reality and human consciousness.

The Radiant Heart of the Cosmos: Compassion Teachings for Our Time, by Penny Gill.
Gill, a retired professor of political science and longtime dean of the college at Mt. Holyoke College, unexpectedly began to channel the voices of two Tibetan deities, Manjushri and Kwan Yin, who taught her about the “tsunami of Spirit” that is accelerating the pace of change on Earth at this time, and how we can learn to keep our psychic balance and ride with it, rather than getting swept up in fear and resistance. This book, written in three voices, tells Gill’s personal journey as well as relating the conversations she’s had with Manjushri and Kwan Yin. 

Lisa Chu, M.D. – multidisciplinary artist, illuminator, and community catalyst.

The Apology by V (formerly Eve Ensler).
The concept and content of this volume — an imagined apology written to the author in the voice of her long-dead father — are a healing salve to those among us who are still searching for the roots of the harmful, invasive, or violent behaviors of the ones who proclaimed to love us. V’s cleansing work speaks to the heart of anyone who has spent time inquiring into, deconstructing, and reconstructing internal narratives in an attempt to liberate from the invisible yet unmistakable tendrils of these violent inheritances.  I take this book in small sips, returning to pick it up again after walking with it in my belly for awhile.

Sara Berman’s Closet by Maira Kalman.
This is a short illustrated volume that I didn’t expect to have such an impact on me. At first I flipped quickly through it, but as I neared the end I realized there was a twist, an unexpected turn inside me that planted a seed for reimagining a definition of a well-lived life. Everything by Maira Kalman astonishes and delights me, but this was an added surprise and life lesson inspired by the story of her mother’s closet.

Remarkable Diaries: The World’s Greatest Diaries, Journals, Notebooks, & Letters by Kate Williams.
This one sits on my art desk and reminds me of the long lineage of thinkers – artists, explorers, writers, inventors – whose notebook practices have been reproduced as images with historical context here. I feel like I am in the company of my people whenever I leaf through these pages. I feel grateful for the existence of these notebooks, their preservation, and the fact of the existence of the minds and hands which made them. To me these are as much a product of their lives as any final works published. They are each a piece of multidimensional evidence of the uniqueness of creative process and the shared medium of the notebook across centuries of human existence.

Kimberly Lee – Writer, Editor, Workshop Facilitator.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.
This book’s  compelling premise was hard to resist: Four young siblings visit a woman who can supposedly predict the exact date of a person’s death, and as the characters move into and through adulthood, we learn how this knowledge affects their choices and behavior in all aspects of their lives. 

Goddesses of Self-Care: 30 Divine Feminine Archetypes To Guide You, by Stephanie Anderson Ladd.
This nourishing workbook offers a wealth of information on a wide variety of feminine archetypes from cultures around the world, inviting readers to harness the wisdom and ways of these entities to craft a self-care strategy through reflection, journaling, art making, and other activities. 

Infinitum by Tim Fielder.
A gorgeous graphic novel that begins in ancient Africa, then moves through history to the present and beyond, spanning the globe as the main character, Aja Oba, seeks to destroy the curse that binds him while finding love and purpose. 

Robbyn Layne McGill – writer, editor & producer.

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by Douglas Carlton Abrams, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
I’m actually listening to the audio version of this book while I do my daily chores – a simple practice for elevating the mundane into a joyful experience. Two friends, who also happen to be two of the world’s most influential spiritual leaders, come together for a weeklong event to share their thoughts on living with joy, even in the face of adversity. In the audio version, two actors read the parts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond, as the writer weaves his insights around them. It’s a thought-provoking, inspiring, entertaining, and uplifting read (or listen). 

Falling in Honey, by Jennifer Barclay.
Inspiring for aspiring memoir writers, and anyone who loves the Greek islands. This book gets some mixed reviews as far as the quality of writing goes, but I am still putting it here for two reasons. One, I’m a huge fan of memoirs about travel and love, and this one is an entertaining story about the British author’s experience of discovering and moving to a tiny Greek island in the Dodecanese (one that I just visited, and also fell in love with), with a twist. 

And two, you can learn a lot from the way other memoirists craft their stories – good, bad, and in-between. This was only Barclay’s second book, and she continues to write, improve, and follow her creative heart, so I find that very inspiring.

Storycraft, by Jack Hart.
This book brings readers into the process of developing nonfiction narratives by revealing the stories behind the stories. Hart shares tips, anecdotes, and recommendations he forged during his decades-long career in journalism, with examples that draw from magazine essays, book-length nonfiction narratives, documentaries, and radio programs. A great resource but also a fascinating, fun read. It also greatly improved my ability to write blogs, newsletters, and articles for my clients.

Angie Ebba – Writer, Activist, and Performance Artist.

Odes to Lithium by Shira Erlich.
This collection of poetry looks at the author’s mental health and her relationship to the medications she takes. I love the raw honesty and vulnerability in many of the poems in this book, and the way that we see the struggles and triumphs that can come with learning how to navigate mental illness.

The Boy With a Bird in His Chest by Emme Lund.
I loved how this novel tackled the question of what it means to be different, the cost of hiding ourselves, and the courage it takes to show who we are, even when people don’t like it. This book has great representation with a variety of LGBTQIA main characters. Despite the book being full of surreal elements, I found myself completely believing them, and looking for the birds that may be living in the chests of others.

Marianela Medrano – Psychotherapist, Writer, and Poet.

What the Dead Want Me To Know, by E. Janet Aalfs 
These poems have a life of their own and speak of justice and inclusivity while whistle-blowing the rich old boys who “behind our backs launder money/fumbling hands in drawers the same old way….”  In this collection, lyricism meets reality, crudeness, and injustice with the mastery of great poetry. Aalfs knows that “not looking away” is the “given prize.” 

She understands the relationship between body and mind as a continuum. Her white body crosses a black one, breathing in the same lines, knowing that “budding bruises” come up from the breathing ground… healing. She prays and revises her prayer, asking for calm, giving it to us on each line that breathes now and forever.

Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer, by Jamie Figueroa. 
Jamie Figueroa gets us into the world of two siblings rooting meaning and a sense of self in this brilliant and well-plotted novel. They meet at the intersection of humor, sorrow, and loss that crosses generations. One can say it is a novel that puts generational trauma into perspective.

Riham Adly – Writer and Editor 

Let Our Bodies Be Returned to Us, by Lynn Mundell.
The collection explores those tender moments in the lives of women and young girls who could not embrace or explore their sexuality. They need to fit but they could not belong. Coming from a culture where women are treated as lesser beings,  I felt intrigued when I realized women struggled everywhere. 

One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large by Chris La Tray.
This is one of those books that I return to over and over as a writer. It is both touchstone and inspiration, reminding me of the power and pleasure of staying curious and writing down what I notice. 

The Darling Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker by Susan Wittig Albert.
A delicious summer read where the characters feel so real I could pop next door for some lemonade and a chat, the setting and history is well researched and accessible and the mystery stays a mystery until the end. I’ve never been disappointed by anything, fiction or nonfiction, that this author writes and she is prolific!

Tracie Nichols – Facilitator, Copyeditor, and Poet. 

One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large by Chris La Tray.
This is one of those books that I return to over and over as a writer. It is both touchstone and inspiration, reminding me of the power and pleasure of staying curious and writing down what I notice. 

The Darling Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker by Susan Wittig Albert.
A delicious summer read where the characters feel so real I could pop next door for some lemonade and a chat, the setting and history is well researched and accessible and the mystery stays a mystery until the end. I’ve never been disappointed by anything, fiction or nonfiction, that this author writes and she is prolific!

How Listening with my Body (and Writing about it) Keeps me Resilient, by Tracie Nichols

As a child, I was convinced the big old white pine tree next to our home and the puffy clouds in the sky were telling each other the most amazing stories. I thought that if I could just figure out the right way to listen, I’d be able to hear them.

Almost every day I climbed that pine tree. I was so determined and so achingly curious. I can remember feeling as if I was trying to open my senses like a sunflower—all bright petals following sunlight—so I could catch cloud stories and tree tales. Arms wrapped around the sticky trunk, right ear pressed to smooth bark, left ear tilted to the sky, nose filled with resin and wet air, I became a tiny girl antennae on a wind-swayed tree.

This was my first experience of listening with my body.

Did I finally hear the tree and cloud stories? I did! Even better, I co-created countless tree and cloud and girl stories, helping me realize that I was somehow part of the green world surrounding me. This was in the years before other people’s disbelief eroded my trust in the stories my body heard through my senses.

The author as a teenager – photo courtesy of Tracie Nichols

Now, years later, after navigating the saw-toothed gift of recovering from sexual trauma, I’m again listening with my body. I regularly sense the conversations happening in the ecosystem where I live: trees and clouds, late summer grasses and streams, murders of crows and chimes of wrens, the boom of bullfrogs and creak of katydids deep in the night. And, if I’m willing to let my body transmute sound, rhythm, and gesture into words on a page, the act of writing what I notice restores me, refilling resilience depleted by the intensity of the times through which we are living.

Sometimes I simply notice deeply. Sometimes, if life is happening with unusual vigor or I’m feeling my resilience slipping, I may choose to notice with a specific kind of nourishment in mind.

For example, when the pandemic was grinding into its ninth month, I started a practice of noticing and writing about what I called “defiant joy.” I needed to remember that joy was still sparking in the world despite the pall of constant fear and worry.

Sycamores in Winter – photo by Tracie Nichols

Defiant Joy #1
today
there is joy
in noticing
that the curled yellow
sycamore leaves still
rustle with the same dry

welcoming-winter song
they’ve murmured every
autumn for the
past twenty-five
seasons.
that
while all
things change
(some in a breath)
some follow the
slow arc of time
set by mountains
and spinning
planets.
life’s balance
flows tidally.
our lives
are invitations
to noticing
truth.
pain.
beauty.
wonder.

The key to making listening with your body a nourishing practice is understanding how deeply you notice now, and how effectively it supports you in staying resilient. Then you can consider if you would like to change established patterns or cultivate expanded noticing to deepen your well of resilience and engagement.

Autumn Creek – photo by Tracie Nichols

In my upcoming six-week course through the Transformative Language Arts Network, Listening with Our Bodies: Writing Toward Resilience, we will be exploring our own noticing patterns—the ways we notice and what we notice—through multi-sensory exercises and writing invitations. This class will benefit word artists of all kinds: facilitators, coaches, counselors, activists, educators, and explorers. It will serve anyone looking to connect more deeply with the source of their creativity and/or the source of their resilience. It will nourish people working to make change in their communities, who have been stretched thin by life, or who are at a crossroads in their personal growth explorations. I’d love to write with you!

Tracie Nichols, M.A. writes poetry and facilitates writing groups from her small desk under the wide reach of two very old and very loved Sycamore trees in southeastern Pennsylvania. She’s a Transformative Language Artist in process, and is fascinated by the potential of language to heal and transform people and communities. Putting her master’s degree in Transformative Learning and Change to good use over the past two decades, Tracie has designed and facilitated many virtual and in-person lifelong learning experiences on a truly wide range of topics for small groups. She’s just beginning her foray into submitting poetry for publication and has already accumulated a healthy pile of rejections to her few joyfully celebrated acceptances. Learn more at tracienichols.com.

Healing The World With Words: Pádraig Ó Tuama

The power of words to wound is also a measure of the power of words to heal. – Pádraig Ó Tuama. 

Irish poet, author, theologian, and activist Pádraig Ó Tuama has published six collections of work over the years. His most recent, Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World, was released this past October. Ó Tuama is also the host of a podcast, Poetry Unbound With On Being. The solo podcast explores the meanings, themes, and intricacies of poems written by his peers in beautiful fifteen-minute recordings that let his audience fall deep into the words of these brilliant artists. 

In Poetry Unboand’s May 30th, 2022 episode, Ó Tuama discusses poet Andy Jackson’s, The Changing Room, a delicate and alluring eight-stanza prose poem that discusses the themes of self-consciousness. Ó Tuama eloquently unpacks the verses during the thirteen-minute listen. He explains, “It’s a poem that pays attention to an experience of one [body], but really that’s a sleight of hand… Jackson is looking at the attention that [his body] gets and is refocusing it, extending it wider, looking at the deeper question, what does it mean for any of us to be in a body?

Ó Tuama’s work expands beyond the written page and into his community.  From 2014 to 2019, Ó Tuama led the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation group. During his tenure, he wrote Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, a prayer book which draws on the organization’s spiritual practices. Ó Tuama formulated the collection based on decades of work addressing the personal and political conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and other global conflicts.

Under Ó Tuama’s leadership, the Corrymeela Community helped develop school and group curricula to discuss narrative practices, art and conflict, and interfaith dialogue, and his work advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights had impact throughout Ireland and beyond.

A beautiful example of Ó Tuama’s ability to see and understand a wide and wise variety of perspectives is in his 2020 poem, How To Belong Be Alone.

It all begins with knowing

nothing lasts forever,

so you might as well start packing now.

In the meantime,

practice being alive.

There will be a party

where you’ll feel like

nobody’s paying you attention.

And there will be a party

where attention’s all you’ll get.

What you need to do

is to remember

to talk to yourself

between these parties.

And,

again,

there will be a day,

— a decade —

where you won’t

fit in with your body

even though you’re in

the only body you’re in.

You need to control

your habit of forgetting

to breathe.

Remember when you were younger

and you practiced kissing on your arm?

You were on to something then.

Sometimes harm knows its own healing

Comfort knows its own intelligence.

Kindness too.

It needs no reason.

There is a you

telling you another story of you.

Listen to her.

Where do you feel

anxiety in your body?

The chest? The fist? The dream before waking?

The head that feels like it’s at the top of the swing

or the clutch of gut like falling

& falling & falling and falling

It knows something: you’re dying.

Try to stay alive.

For now, touch yourself.

I’m serious.

Touch your

self.

Take your hand

and place your hand

some place

upon your body.

And listen

to the community of madness

that

you are.

You are

such an

interesting conversation.

You belong

here.

Ó Tuama articulates the sensation of anxiety so effortlessly, in a way that allows readers not only to identify this feeling but also experience what this character, whether us, Ó Tuama, or someone else, is feeling as well. The line, “Sometimes harm knows its own healing” encapsulates this fascinating idea of using our perceived weaknesses as new strengths – the idea of taking a part of ourselves that we avoid focusing on, and finding its strength, finding its power and durability, and ultimately, its vigor. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama will be featured as one of three keynote speakers at the TLA Network’s upcoming Power of Words Conference, titled, Hope is a Discipline. The conference will be held online from October 13-16, 2022. Along with Camille T. Dungy and Katherine Adams, Ó Tuama will be speaking and presenting on the theme of hope being a discipline. We welcome you to join us!

Gabe Seplow is a Philadelphia native who is studying Contemporary Theatre at The Boston Conservatory at Berklee. He went to high school at AIM Academy in Conshohocken, PA, where he was a founding member of the Student Diversity Leadership group, traveling the country to different conferences to study and learn to make school a more diverse and equitable place. Gabe has written and directed plays performed at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival addressing social justice, diversity, and equity issues, with the goal of shining a light on gun violence, racial biases, and white privilege. He is currently an Intern for the TLA Network, doing research, assisting with social media, and helping with conference programming.

It felt nurturing: An interview with TLAF Certificate graduate, Hollie Ziskind

The transformative power of language and art… [in] every aspect of living and working in an evolved world

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of interviews with students who have completed the TLA Foundations Certificate.* Answers may be slightly edited for space and clarity.

Hollie Ziskind is a mindfulness teacher and creative consultant, founder/creator of pen and portal, and the KEY method. Using a mindful approach in 1:1 consulting and group teaching, she helps women experience transformation and healing through their creative practice. Certified through the Awareness Training Institute, Amherst Writers and Artists, and the Transformative Language Arts Network, she’s been featured in Choose901, Swimming with Elephants, Meniscus Journal and Chrysalis.

TLAN: Why did you originally apply for the TLA Foundations certificate?

Hollie: The idea of learning from, and working with, other like-minded artists at the intersection of art and transformation called to me. I work with creative women in mid-life, and I believed this certification would enhance that, and my own creative work.

What TLAN courses did you find most useful? Why?

I really enjoyed Pathways to Wholeness with Marianela Medrano because of the mindfulness component, and also because of Marianela’s own groundedness, and attention to the subject matter. I work in a very similar area, and it felt nurturing to be led through this course. I took lots of notes and really enjoyed the sharing there too.

What was your greatest learning(s) from the process?

The big picture takeaway for me was the reiteration of the transformative power of language and art, not only in social justice, but in politics and climate change, and seemingly every aspect of living and working in an evolved world, and courses that actively engaged in that effort.

For more from Hollie, and to learn more about using mindfulness and inquiry as a path to healing and transformation, stop by https://www.penandportal.com or @penandportal

*TLA Foundations (TLAF) is an introduction to TLA in theory and practice with opportunities for reflecting and acting on ethical work, community networking, and TLA in action, completed on one’s own time over two years. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. More details can be found here.

What We’re Reading Now…

Recently we asked our staff, board and founder what they are currently reading, and why. We thought you might enjoy getting a glimpse of our latest literary delights, listed below.

Share with us what YOU have been reading, and we might just feature you and your favorite book(s) in an upcoming newsletter, or as part of a Network book club! We would love to hear from you!

Kimberly Lee – TLA Network board member:
The Happy Writing Book by Elise Valmorbida.
Contains 100 bite-sized, spirited essays on writing inspiration and craft, for both aspiring and established authors who want to infuse energy into their work—and their lives.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré.
A Nigerian teen, married off by family for her dowry, is determined to change her destiny and find her voice by achieving the education her late mother dreamed of.

Finding Me by Viola Davis.
An honest, revealing memoir that chronicles the rise of the Oscar award-winning actress from a disadvantaged childhood to international acclaim, and the emotional demons she slayed on the way.

Katia Hage, TLA Network board member:
La fin est mon commencement: Un père raconte à son fils le grand voyage de la vie, by Terzano Terziani.
A book about an Italian journalist’s journey and his observations through his many voyages to Maoist China, Vietnam, Cambodia before communism, India and more. A fascinating new perspective about world events lived through in those countries. 

Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
The book reminds me of the many faces of the divine feminine and the power of healing through storytelling in returning the bones to their own people. 

Jen Minotti – TLA Network board member:
All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson.
Super important, beautiful, honest memoir by a Black, queer voice for the YA population. I loved this book before it was banned from libraries and schools in 15 states, but now I am making sure to read all of the books on these banned-book-lists as my personal form of protest.

All about Love: New Visions by bell hooks.
After bell hooks’ passing earlier this past Winter, I revisited her work. Although written over 20 years ago, this book is as relevant today as it was two decades ago, maybe even more so. My yellow highlighter practically dried out from all of the use it got while reading this book! And I now use the word “love” as a verb, as bell hooks instructed us to do!

Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain.
Hot off of the presses, I couldn’t wait to read this book by the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a bedside favorite in my house! It’s as great as her previous book, combining research with personal narrative and is perfect for anyone going through a transition (basically all of us!).

Renu Thomas, TLA Network board member:
The Girl with the Suitcase, by Angela Hart
Angela Hart has fostered many children over the years. This is a true story about the joys, doubts and challenges in raising Grace who has had a difficult upbringing before coming to Angela’s home. It offers a fresh look at parenting and the nature vs nurture debate. Inspiring.

Hanne Weedon, TLA managing director:
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken.
I’ve been reading this incredible book with my 14-year-old daughter over the course of the past year – a few pages every week, and we are slowly turning our time, focus, and attention to how we navigate the climate crisis as a family. Each section is engaging and accessible, addressing the 100 most substantive solutions to reversing global warming, all based on meticulous research by leading scientists and policymakers around the world.

For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health, by Al Vernacchio.
This is a fantastic, illuminating, funny read by a thoughtful, youth-empowering sex educator who really knows his stuff. An incredible resource for anyone who is parenting/close to/working with teens, this book helps bridge the gap between what we thought we knew and what we actually need to know to help our young people navigate this complex and rapidly-shifting issue in their lives.

Palmares, by Gayl Jones.
A 2022 Pulitzer finalist, this incredible epic novel is at once a love story, a fugitive slave’s odyssey, and an investigation into the meaning of freedom. Set in 17th-century colonial Brazil, the novel is that perfect combination of mythology, history, and magical realism – plus, Jones’ mastery of language and voice are a delight. This is the perfect read you will not want to put down.

Gabe Seplow, TLA Network intern:
The Sentence is Death, by Anthony Horowitz.
A fascinating murder mystery that has you on the edge of your seat, wanting more answers the further you get into the novel.

Slaughterhouse-Five: Or the Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut.
An easy, summer read that includes comedy, drama, action, and heart-wrenching imagery from WWII.

Kelly DuMar, TLA Network board member:
The Rainbow, by D.H. Lawrence.
Exquisite prose in this classic novel by a master about three generations of a British family who live in the east Midlands of England spanning 1840’s-1905, focusing on love, coming of age, marriage, family. Lawrence’s descriptions of nature are gorgeous and precise.

There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, by Fiona Hill.
Really smart and thoughtful memoir of a brilliant British woman who rose to a powerful government position in the US from her working class, disadvantaged roots in County Durham, England as the coal industry failed. She does a superb job of exploring the role of privilege in the US and British educational systems. She stood up to Trump by testifying against him at his first impeachment from her role of serving in the Trump administration. Courageous and honest and authentic––and funny.

Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir, by Rebecca Solnit.
A literary feminist memoir in a powerful voice of poetic prose about the impact of the threat of sexual violence toward women in our culture.

Liz Burke, TLA Network board member:
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong.
Ocean Vuong’s novel is one of the most beautiful I have ever read. It’s a coming of age story and an intimate letter to his mother written by a poet whose language stings as forcefully as it soars.

Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World, by Pema Chödrön.
Pema Chödrön shares necessary wisdom, guidance and practices to navigate and bring more compassion to our difficult world and all its inhabitants. She offers me hope as I face life’s challenges.

Postcolonial Love Poem, by Natalie Diaz.
There have only been a handful of poets whose work, upon reading it, causes me to gasp in awe at the beauty. This is one of them. I feel Diaz’s work in my bones.

Jade Eby, Manager, TLA Network Classes:
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland. I’m a huge fan of family drama stories… especially where there are hidden secrets just waiting to be exposed. I love that the backdrop of this novel is Australian land and culture.

I Heard You Scream by Emerald O’Brien — My favorite summer reads are fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat thrillers. And I Heard You Scream fits the bill! This is a binge-able read with satisfying twists and turns. 

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, TLA Network founder:
Embroideries by Marjane Satari
I fell in love with this graphic novel about the inner lives of Iranian women, written and drawn by the author of the astonishing Persepolis, a historical and deeply personal memoir in what Satari calls comic-book style.

frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss
Here is an astonishing collection of poetry that’s a combination of fierce memoir, experimental language, and pure poetry, and hey, it’s by a TLAer at heart, and she just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry!

The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich
I’m re-listening to this novel by the unparalleled Erdrich about a powerful legacy, haunting questions of identity and home, and brave forays into real love in many forms. 

Beth Turner, TLA Network board member:
The Diné Reader/An Anthology of Navajo Literature, edited by Esther G. Belin et al.
Powerful testimony to keeping culture, faith, family, land connections alive via the written, spoken or danced word. This is a peaceful and powerful read, a rarity for me to experience both within so many different poems and essays. I found the works to be awakening and stirring – there is no shame or blame, but facts and truth.

Liminal Thinking: Create the Change You Want by Changing the Way You Think, by Dave Gray.
This book is about the power of thresholds. Liminal space sits between you and me when we meet, when teams meet, when people groups gather – it is a rich land. I think this space as one filled with low-hanging, ripe fruit. Anyone can reach up and pick the idea, solution, opportunity, revelation, wisdom and share. I look to cultivate this sort of atmosphere in classes, retreats and within small groups. It is an activating read. I am pondering what action may be required/explored personally and communally.