Transformative Language Arts Network Power of Words Conference, Scottsdale, AZ, Sept, 2019

Labyrinth at the Franciscan Renewal Center, Scottsdale, AZ

I attended the Transformative Language Arts Network’s annual Power of Words conference for the first time last week and it was amazing! Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, former Kansas Poet Laureate, started a MA program through Goddard College in 2000, founded the Power of Words conference in 2003 and the Transformative Language Arts Network was officially founded in 2005.

The 2019 Power of Words conference was a small, intimate group of around 60 people. I found the discussions with fascinating and interesting people outside of the conference as inspiring as the actual conference offerings – which were incredible! I was able to have a nice chat with Caryn and we exchanged books, and I now have her Landed and Following the Curve to continue the conference with now that I am home. I met the new managing director, Hanne Weedon. Actually, I ended up chatting with most of the council at some point during the conference: Liz Burke-Cravens, Caleb Winebrenner, and Chip Cummings.

Right from the start of the conference, I sat down to dinner with author Gregg Levoy (Callings, Vital Signs) and Pediatric Neurologist, Peter Bingham (whose book in progress idea sounds great and I hope to read some day). Gregg Levoy did a few presentations, starting with his pre-conference workshop, Courage & Clarity with Your Right Calling – a great session in which he asked the audience a series of questions leading deeper into passion and calling and then looking through our answers to “search for concentrations of energy” in our answers and common themes. He also gave the keynote that night. Gregg was gracious enough to attend my workshop Heroic & Healing Journeys for Contemporary Times (which I’ll discuss in a future post), and he referenced Camus’ The Rebel, that “to be human is to rebel against tyranny.” It is quite a synchronicity that I had brought along that very book with me to the conference!

Gregg Levoy

The first pre-conference workshop I attended was Noa Baum’s “Stories Old & New: A Path to Healing & Resilience,” a storytelling workshop. This was a very helpful workshop and made me think about how “transformation is contagious,” to tell a personal story of transformation can become a universal story of transformation, and vice versa. Noa also gave a spell-binding performance of her “A Land Twice Promised.” I was speechless for a while after it. Noa is a Jewish woman from Israel and it is the story of her years of friendship with a Palestinian mother, recalling the struggles of growing up in the Middle East, whilst their children played together in the United States. The performance follows the story of their friendship, as well as the stories of their mothers. The name of her performance is the same title as her book, A Land Twice Promised: An Israeli Woman’s Quest for Peace. In speaking of the distinction between the performance and the book, Noa told me, “the show is the story of our friendship and the stories of our mothers. The book is a bit different – it is a memoir telling the story behind the show and how it all came to be. It is also the story of how I discovered the transformative healing power of storytelling and how I use it for peacebuilding.”

Noa Baum

The third pre-conference workshop was given by the wonderful poet, Usha Akella, “Fetch the Fire: Writing the Ghazal.” This was a great history and introduction to the form of the ghazal and we all muddled through writing one ourselves. The generous poet, Steffen Horstmann had donated signed copies of his book, Jalsaghar – thanks for this Steffen! We studied his ghazal, “[Clouds roil as Shango drum echoes in the Nile delta],” with the great line: “Charms rattle in a shaman’s fist as wind along the shore / Thrashes trees (rousing panthers from shadows) in the Nile delta.” Usha’s keynote the next day, “Matwaala: The Birth of a Festival,” described how she worked to found Matwaala, the South Asian Diaspora Poets Collective. This was a riveting presentation that focused not only on poetry, but politics, spirituality, immigration, and on bringing all voices together. It concluded with Usha reading her own poem, “Enough!” which Usha told the TLA Network they could share. This poem is a call and a challenge for “the people” to take care of the children of this Earth. Usha’s newest book of poetry is entitled, The Waiting. The book starts with the Prologue: “The hidden hand gently opens, reveals / the secret script so concealed from us, / And as the hope-less night moves to morning, / The heart’s compass from distrust to trust.” The Waiting is published in India, but you can get a copy directly from Usha by emailing her at: Reachmatwaala@gmail.com. Her other books are worth looking for: A Face That Does Not Bear the Footprints of the World, …Kali Dances. So Do I…, Ek: An English Musical on the Life of Shirdi Sai Baba, and her travel journal and poems, The Rosary of Latitudes. You can find links to Usha Akella’s poems through the Matwaala website and also a few of her poems from The Waiting are available on the Muse Indian website.

Usha Akella

I thoroughly enjoyed several long talks with Peter Bingham of Vermont Children’s Hospital and Suzanne Richmond, who developed the Health Arts & Sciences program at Goddard College. Suzanne introduced me to Dr. Celia Hildebrand, an acupuncturist, who then invited me to drive out to meet Gladys Taylor McGarey, one of the founders of the American Holistic Medical Association. I had a nice chat with Celia and Gladys and we all spoke of our callings and journeys into becoming healers. Gladys is quite impressive, at 98 years old she is still working on developing a Living Medicine program in the community and she shared with us some of her notes for her upcoming talk at the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine conference later this month.

Dr. Gladys McGarey

The conference was set at the beautiful Franciscan Renewal Center with a desert healing garden that I started every morning in, drinking coffee, journaling, and watching and listening to all the desert birds and animals waking up for the day.

Such great community, inspiring company, and visionary creativity at the Transformative Language Arts Network Power of Words Conference! Check out their website and their work! Photos below of (Middle Right) David Kopacz, Usha Akella, and Chip Cummings and (Lower Left) Peter Bingham, David Kopacz, poet Cindy Rinne, Suzanne Richmond, and Usha Akella.

New Article in The Badger: Words Create Worlds, Part 2 Rebecca Solnit and Calling Things by their True Names

My next article in this series on words creating worlds, fascism, and spirituality is out in The Badger online magazine! It can be found on pages 52 – 60.

This article focuses on Rebecca Solnit’s latest book, Call Them by Their True Names (2019). Here are a few excerpts from the article and accompanying photos from the Olympic Peninsula.

“Words create worlds,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.[i]

What we call things creates not just discourse, but reality. The words that we use and the words that we do not use lead us in certain directions and have different effects. Words are not just words, they are tools that shape, and give expression to, reality.

Words create our reality and our current reality is in crisis.

Across the world, in many different countries, politicians are rising to power using words of separation rather than words of union. This political crisis is a spiritual crisis because using words to create reality is a spiritual act.

One of the Crises of the Moment is Linguistic

Rebecca Solnit’s Call Them by Their True Names (2018) examines the uses and abuses of language in politics, stating that “one of the crises of this moment is linguistic.” The linguistic crisis confuses us about what is real, what is true, about who we are, and about our relationships with each other and the natural world. “Calling things by their true names,” Solnit writes, “cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.” “Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides brutality.”[ii]


Sun through the Rain Forest, near Sol Duc River, Olympic Peninsula (D. Kopacz, 2019)

The Deregulation of Meaning

"If you begin by denying social and ecological systems, then you end by denying the reality of facts, which are, after all, part of a network of systematic relationships among language, physical reality, and the record, regulated by the rules of evidence, truth, grammar, word meaning, and so forth. You deny the relationship between cause and effect, evidence and conclusion; or, rather, you imagine both as products on the free market that one can produce and consume according to one’s preferences. You deregulate meaning. . . . And this is how the ideology of isolation becomes nihilism, trying to kill the planet and most living things on it with a confidence born of total destruction."[iii] 

A Storytelling Work that Matters

"This work is always, first and last, a storytelling work, or what some of my friends call ‘the battle of the story.’ . . .  To sustain it, people have to believe that the myriad small, incremental actions matter. . . . To believe it matters—well, we can’t see the future, but we have the past. Which gives us patterns, models, parallels, principles, and resources; stories of heroism, brilliance, and persistence; and the deep joy to be found in doing the work that matters. With those in hand, we can seize the possibilities and begin to make hopes into actualities."[iv]

Doing “the work that matters,” this is what we are called to do. Joseph Rael reminds us that “work is worship,” so this work of activism, this work of story, this work of loving our neighbors, is a sacred work that we are called to do and that we are called to put into words so that we can create, instead of a world of hate, separation, and war, we can create a world of love and peace.

Sun through the Trees, Mt. Muller, Olympic Peninsula

Next issue: Rob Riemen’s To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism

Throughout 2019, I will continue to write about some of these topics of how our “words create worlds.” In working with Joseph Rael, writing our next book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, I felt compelled to write about the responsibility of mystical, visionary, and shamanic experience—that we must work toward “Spiritual Democracy.” At its deepest point, mystical experience leads to an awareness that we are all one and this comes with a responsibility to challenge words of separation which ultimately lead to fascism. Mystical experience is a pathway that leads us to question who we are and gives us a responsibility to use our words wisely to create worlds where we are becoming the medicine that our world needs. As Rumi says, “We are pain and what cures the pain.”[v]


[i] Life Between the Trees blog, https://lifebetweenthetrees.com/2012/08/06/words-create-worlds-monday-morning-parable/. I first came across a shorter instance of this quote in the Omid Safi reference below.

[ii] Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names, 4, 1, 4.

[iii] Ibid., 50.

[iv] Solnit, 184-185.

[v] Rumi, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it,” The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, (106).