Confessions of a judge-aholic.


The poet Rumi once wrote:

“Out beyond right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

How I’d love to visit! I only wish he’d left directions.

Hint: The kids in the video below found it. 

Me, I’m a judge-aholic.** I grew up with self-judgmentalism. A condition that may be inherited.

I wish I could have a second vaccine dose and be done with it! Instead, it’s taking me years to unwind the effects of my upbringing and our culture.

Early training in self-judgment

I grew up in suburban Connecticut where comparing yourself with others was played like an Olympic-level sport. As children, we began practice in second grade, when we were diced, sliced, pureed, and graded. I learned then that a bad mark could endanger my acceptance into Harvard. (No matter that Harvard was not accepting female undergraduates at that time.)

Harvard, in our community, was placed spiritually just under “Heaven.” Yale came next.

I’d love to purge parts of my cultural upbringing.

To witness or to judge

Recently I’ve had the experience of singing in triads where one person takes the role of the singer, one becomes the encourager/timer, and the third, the witness. Then we switch roles.

Given my training in coaching and listening, I assumed I’d be a good witness. I know how to listen in silence and find something to appreciate in another.

Instead, I learned that the witness role asks me to listen to the singer, hold space for her, and suspend any evaluations. Including appreciations.

Could I learn to witness a singer without having opinions? Even positive ones?

When it was my turn to sing, I found it magical to sound into a space of non-judgment. I could observe and witness my own voice without worrying how I sounded. So what if my high notes broke or my low ones sounded like gravel under a pickup?

I sang without the overlay of judgment. I observed, then returned to silence. My voice relaxed.

But there was still an obstacle to overcome: I like compliments.

“Good” and “bad” comments go together

I am very sensitive to people’s criticisms and negative judgments. I wish I had a magic wand to disappear that part of me.

Even as I loved being witnessed as I sang, a voice in me peeped: Did you like what I did? Did you like my voice? Was it good? 

I wanted to let go of the negative comments and hold on to the positive.

In some situations that’s fine. But not when you’re a witness. And if you’re a judge-aholic, en guard!

Praise can feel fabulous. But for us, it’s a slippery slope.

I start by wanting to hear that my voice sounds good. Then the inner peeper starts demanding: More! More! Am I special? Am I loved?

When discernment is necessary

Of course I don’t need to judge myself for judging myself or wanting comments, right?

And, some of the time, self-evaluation isn’t bad. It’s necessary in order to learn the requirements of certain forms of art or music. We learn to discern what works or doesn’t.

The art of discernment is tricky when you’re self-judgmental. For example, when I read music at the piano, there are right notes and wrong notes. You can’t say anything goes. Beethoven would roll over.

Practicing is the art of increasing the percentage of right notes.

But playing wrong notes affects me viscerally. They gong in my ears and quiver in my chest. They cloud my mind and send my back into spasms. When my symptoms escalate, I have to stop playing.

How can I work with standards, aka right and wrong notes, and be a calm witness and not a judge?

It beats me.

Another option

My guru in this regard is my husband.

He continually tells me that he really likes to hear me play the piano. I remind him that I play a lot of wrong notes.

He tells me, “I know but they don’t bother me.”

Thunderbolt! How could that be?

He is able to discern right notes/wrong notes and still enjoy witnessing.

He can judge the accuracy of the notes without judging the player.

My husband is clearly ahead of me when it comes to enlightenment. (But not, alas, when it comes to judging himself.)

On a cheerier note

My dogs understand how to hold this paradox. They do not waste time holding on to judgment even when I repeatedly fail them.

For example, during our recent blizzard, they yapped and yelped, “WE WANT TO PLAY IN THE SNOW NOW!!! even as I explained that it took fifteen minutes to wipe off the 15 pounds of snow each of them carried home after a romp. And I had already done it THREE times in the past TWO hours.

They disagreed but soon the incident was forgotten and the boys settled back into the gentle, witnessing state called, “It’s fun to be with Mommy,” and “Can we come up on the bed, please?”

There’s hope for us judges

If you’re a judge-aholic, I’m here to tell you there’s hope. It may take a lot of practice, a lot of witnessing, and a lot of letting go.

In my case, perfection isn’t the goal. That’s a judgment, anyway.

Wish me luck. Recovery requires a steady commitment I can only make one day at a time.

And now for a real treat…kids who get it from Britain’s Got Talent:


Let’s sing a new revolution

Estonian choral group. Creative commons license. By Ave Maria Mõistlik

In Estonia, people sing. An Estonian woman I heard speak in an online singing class talked about Laulupidu, Estonia’s choral song festival. Begun in 1869, it now draws 100,000 participants, including 30,000 singers.

Wikimedia commons. Estonian Song Celebration. Photo by ToBreatheAsOne

Then, she added that the country liberated itself from Soviet rule through their “Singing Revolution.”

A singing revolution?

I needed to learn more. I knew shamefully little about Estonia, a small country on the Baltic Sea less than a third the size of Washington State. The country was the site of some of the worst horrors of the twentieth century, losing 25% of its population during WWII. In 1939 Stalin and Hitler created the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which “gave” Estonia, then an independent democracy, to Stalin, whose forces occupied the country. In 1941 Hitler broke the pact and Germany brutally occupied the country throughout WWII. After the War, Stalin convinced the Allies that he would set up free elections in Estonia, with the Soviets given authority for the country.  That promise was quickly broken. The country became part of the Soviet Union.

For the next fifty years, the Soviets controlled the county through oppression, terror, propaganda, and the prospect of forced labor or death for dissidents. Men, women, and children continued to be shipped to work in Siberia (where half died). The colorful culture of Estonia was being converted to Soviet-style gray.

The country’s spirit was almost broken. They had no guns, no military power.

Yet, they had the power of song.

The Song Festival continued. The Soviets saw it as a way to spread propaganda. At the festival in 1947, they required Soviet music to be sung, allowing only a few Estonian songs. But at that festival composer Gustav Ersenaks introduced his composition “Mu isamaa on minu arm,” (Land of My Fathers, Land that I love) using lyrics from a beloved national poem. As 25,000 people on stage sang this beautiful hymn-like homage to Estonia, it became a new national anthem.

The song gave hope. It reminded the Estonians of who they were. 

Later the song was banned from the Festival. But in 1969, at the Festival’s close, the crowd of 100,000 started singing it spontaneously, despite Soviet orders to stop.

The Singing Revolution began. Young people carried singing into the streets.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev opened the door to freer speech with his Glasnost policies. In1988, 300,000 people showed up at the Song Festival grounds to sing together and hear messages of independence.

The Estonians didn’t win their freedom solely by singing. It took years of political strategy, rallies, perseverance, and raw courage. In 1992, as the Soviet Union fell apart, Estonia was recognized again as an independent nation. Today, it is a thriving member of the EU.

And the people keep singing. 

Are you singing yet?

Singing has been the backbone of many social movements, like the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Perhaps a revolution we need is to take back singing.

Unfortunately, every day, across North America, a chorus of people can be heard chanting, “I can’t sing,” a hymn they learned after some friend or teacher derided their voices. Singing is seen as an art reserved for the Three Tenors, rock stars, and Lady Gaga (whom I happen to love). Singing is for televised competitions with one dramatic winner and a lot of broken hearts. Singing is for the talented and the in-tune.

The funny thing is, when you sing a lot, no matter how you sound, you discover that you can sing.

I’ve been someone who wouldn’t sing alone in public because my voice becomes funky when scared. Yet that might be changing.

If I tried to sing in front of you, my voice might start out rough and warbly. But If I claimed my notes from the inside out, delighted in the experience of singing, felt the silence before the sound, and then enjoyed allowing tones to vibrate inside of my head, throat, and chest, my voice would become more sure.

Or maybe not. But does it really matter?

It’s time to reclaim our birthright. To all be artists, musicians, dancers, and creatives.

If you can talk, you can sing. If you can move, you can dance. These are not special gifts reserved for the few.

Why bother to sing?

Why bother you might say. “I do certain things well, and singing isn’t on the list.”

Fine, I’d reply, but then I’d challenge you to watch the remarkable documentary The Singing Revolution and watch the Estonian faces, lit up and inspired, singing in the middle of the worst times and circumstances. Feel the light in their eyes. Feel what happens when people make music together. Feel the power of hope.

Singing together created a force, it turned out, even stronger than guns.

I’d like to think that the revolutions we need now for social justice, racial equity, consciousness, and environmental healing could be won, or at least be fortified, by song.

Singing together, we can find connection with others, open our hearts, share our truths, and stimulate our hopes for the future.

A revolution is a tall order. But done with joy and love, (thank you activist Valerie Kaur), it might be possible.

Today, we can take a small step: Claim your note. Then, sing it with love, whether to your cat, in your church or to the world.

If you need more time

Even though last week I wrote about seeding a new beginning, I’ve had trouble starting up again.

The air feels fresher, yet still weighted. It’s been hard to feel clever, creative, or wise.

Time to surrender to what is.


I’m not quite ready
to start up again.
Couldn’t I plunk by the stream
Soak in a bit of stardust,
Harvest some moss,
Watch the water glimmer?

The air with joy and tears weighs heavy
The stream runs swift beside me
Carrying news, ideas, in a moment gone.
What did I say I needed to do
wanted to do
or thought I’d learn about?
It felt terribly important
until it floated away.

If I didn’t respond to you
It’s not that I don’t care.

My life today
Is beginning to feel like Facebook
A post today
is ancient tomorrow.
Too fast it seems,
a moment’s news, no longer new.

(I forgot to note
the things I must remember.)

This is the way dreams are lost.

Perhaps my mind has to stop
before it can catch up.

I want to sit by the bank
rooted in silence
and not worry
about what I will miss.

It helps to see you
sitting on the opposite bank.
I think you understand.


If any of you are feeling fatigued while asking what’s next, I’m with you.
I’ll look for you beside the cool waters..

To tame a raging bull

It is rare that I consider aborting a blog I have almost completed. But how to keep writing, let alone think, when an army of rioters is storming the US Capitol?

I saw photos of ninja-like warriors climbing over Capitol walls, upended offices, broken glass, and Congressional representatives huddled under their seats.

My mind spun as I was pulled into a maelstrom of news. Had things really gotten this bad?

How to tame a charging bull.

I had intended to write reflections inspired by a photo of two iconic statues that stood, for a short period of time, in proximity to each other in Manhatten. With the names “Fearless Girl” and “Charging Bull” they came with extensive backstories; their brief time near to each other in 2017 sparked controversy and floods of visitors.

The images spoke to me of two faces of power. I loved seeing them together.

Fearless Girl evoked what it is to stand with grounded courage. With her posture, she suggests a sense of sovereignty that comes from self-knowledge, determination, and a deep connection to values and higher truths.

Fearless Girl is not a matador. She does not stand in anger, wanting to defy or kill the bull.

Through her stance, Fearless Girl suggested a new way to take on the bull.

Without fear or force, but in relationship.

(I think the bull might like that, too.)

Moving ahead

Parker Palmer, educator-luminary spoke words that ring for me as we move into a new year.

“Hope is holding a creative tension between what is and what could and should be, each day doing something to narrow the distance between the two.”

It’s time to move ahead, finding the fearless girl that lives within us, regardless of our gender, age, race, or appearance. Let’s acknowledge how crazy-powerful a bull can be, but not back down. Let’s find a way to guide that power and use it to make some of the changes this earth is crying out for.

Let’s welcome change in the spirit of a new year. Time to acknowledge our values, reclaim our hopes, and find the actions that we, Let’s welcome change in the spirit of a new year. Time to acknowledge our values, reclaim our hopes, and find the actions that we, individually and collectively, are called to take.

With our feet on the ground, we stand tall!

Here’s to a brighter New Year,

PS How are you starting the New Year or reacting to this week’s events? I’d love to learn on the web blog-post.

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Let’s celebrate 24 new hours 

When you rise tomorrow it will be a new year. Or perhaps, where you are, it already is.

For many, the turn of the year to 2021 will be a relief.

To the robins, squirrels, salmon, oak trees, granite and gray wolves, it’s business as usual. Life continues on.

And while I sincerely hope that 2021 will be less fraught with difficulties and tragedies than 2020, we humans will still need to do the work of trying to be decent human beings.

Which, it turns out, is not that easy.

To uplift our spirits for the time ahead, I wanted to share this song with you, produced by a folk chorus that, like many, had to go virtual in 2020.

The song itself has a history.

The first two stanzas were adapted from a poem by Wendell Barry and then set to music by Wendy Tuck in 1975. The song was first sung in West Virginia.

When I rise
Let me rise
Like a bird

When I fall
Let me fall
Like a leaf

Then, as true folk songs do, the song migrated and found its way to Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s community in France. More verses appeared and now different versions exist.

I love this version of the song. Shane Jewell, a choral director from my island, produced it virtually in 2020 with people from around the world. I would love it even if I didn’t recognize some of the singers.

Waking up this morning, I smile
24 brand new hours are before me
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look on all beings with compassion

May we rise together in 2021.

Your presence is a light


A friend shared a quote this week. It moved me so much I tracked it down, to Kent Nerburn in his book, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.”

It seemed a fitting way to celebrate this season of light.


“We are not saints, we are not heroes.

Our lives are lived in the quiet corners of the ordinary.

We build tiny hearth fires, sometimes barely strong enough to give off warmth.

But to the person lost in the darkness, our tiny flame may be the road to safety, the path to salvation.

It is not given us to know who is lost in the darkness that surrounds us or even if our light is seen.

We can only know that against even the smallest of lights, darkness cannot stand.

A sailor lost at sea can be guided home by a single candle.

A person lost in a wood can be led to safety by a flickering flame.

It is not an issue of quality or intensity or purity.

It is simply an issue of the presence of light”


Let your light shine, whatever holiday you celebrate. I feel and appreciate your presence!

Wishing you light, abundant joy, and peace — I’ll see you in the New Year.




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