Category Archives: Writer Comment

May Writer’s Response



Here are some thoughts for you:

I have been thinking a lot about purpose.  Questing some things.  Trying to dig a little deeper into the theme of purpose and living intentionally.   Purpose could mean taking your talents and using it to what you love.  It could also mean that it’s important to consider where you are and live intentionally in that place.  Purposefully.  Understanding that every season is meant for a reason.

I recently went to Starbucks and on one of their java jackets staring right at me had this Oprah quote:  “Follow your passion.  It will lead you to your purpose. “

What a great gift to get such a perfect quote during this month!  I thought that this was perfect.  When in doubt, do what you love!  When you’re sure, do what you love!  Passion=Purpose!

Sounds great, right?  Perfectly easy, right?  Well…

What if?  What if you can’t do what you love to do right now?  What if you can’t abandon all because of current responsibilities, other needs, or financial limitations.

If you go back to thinking about Thomas the Train, a train is only as good as its track.  Being slightly off track doesn’t mean you can’t find purpose in what your doing.  If there is a crack in the track causing you to stall, re-evaluate.  Fix it.  Take a different way.  Go another way.  Sometimes there are delays.  That’s ok.  Stay focused.  Stay positive.  Consider options. Don’t get inpatient with the detour.  Enjoy the view.

– Dena


Just finding this blog today? Read the prologue for more details on what Living Chapters is all about. Check out the Chapter Summaries Page to get caught up to date.

writer reflection: March


A Writer’s Conclusion:  The Noble Path

In reading Beth’s entries this month in response to my challenge, I found her story was very similar to mine.  I also went through the motions of CCD and Mass, which I found largely uninteresting.  I also played mental games to occupy myself during services waiting for the last Amen so I could be released into the room at the back of the church where my brother and I would rush hoping there were donuts and orange juice left.  (The bribe of juice and donuts seems to be a common one.)  My reaction to losing my Sunday mornings and Wednesday evening to the Church for much of my childhood was not just to reject Christianity but also to spend the proceeding years attempting to understand why religion in general did not work for me, and subsequently, to figure out what did.

This, in so many words, was the primary goal of the task I set forth for Beth in this month’s chapter:  To interact with diverse spiritual experiences, and through thoughtful reflection, come closer to understanding one’s own beliefs.  As I told Beth at one point during the month when she seemed to be struggling with reading the Bible, my intention for this chapter was to actually read these ancient religious texts which not many people have done even though they may be familiar with the stories, and to interact and reflect on these texts and the profound affect they have had on us and our culture.  Even if we feel these ancient documents do not directly affect our lives, they do have an enormous impact on how a lot of people perceive the world.  They are a record of the hopes and anxieties of our ancestors and the mythology they created to deal with their world.

Ultimately, each person has to decide for him or herself what worldview they are going to embrace.  However, sometimes you have to experience something and reject it to gain a greater understanding of what you believe.  If nothing else, the goal of this chapter should be a thoughtful examination of our beliefs and a questioning of why we believe what we do.  A critical analysis of all of our beliefs, spiritual, political, or otherwise, is probably the most essential and useful instrument in the self-development toolbox.   Otherwise, as Anais Nin put it, “When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons.”


Just finding this blog today? Read the prologue for more details on what Living Chapters is all about. Check out the Chapter Summaries Page to get caught up to date.


january: writer reflection

IMG_3685photo (1)

By: Ashley Duffalo

I was standing in the golf course opposite my apartment building looking at the traces left behind in the snow. I imagined a scene where all the skiers, sledders and hikers who made these marks were inhabiting the slope together at once, like the foreboding chaos of a  Bruegel painting. This was my first Field Guide excursion into an unknown corner of my new universe—a private country club turned public park over the winter months.

As my mid-month reflection for Living Chapters I thought I’d share some observations I wrote down after my walk taken on Saturday, January 5th. I hope they’ll give you some sense of my new found place and transport you temporarily to St. Paul, Minnesota.


I felt like Alice in Wonderland passing through the gate and climbing up a steep hill into unfamiliar territory. The sun was bright and it was one of those radiant winter days that helps make this season bearable in Minnesota. Needless to say it was cold, even colder than normal with the Polar Vortex on its way. There was not a cloud in the sky, it’s blue was warm and gem like, and the white desert of snow reflected so much light it took a few moments to adjust my eyes.

The first thing I noticed: there were tracks everywhere—bootprints, ski paths, and sled grooves—with the densest overlay on the large hill, the prime sledding spot. Although no one was out playing today I decided to walk away from where the action would normally be found and descended down a series of undulating hills. I came across a partially frozen stream filled with brown autumn leaves that held a perfectly preserved dead frog, floating belly up to expose its pearlescent white skin. Time seemed to stand still here, if it weren’t for the run of water that cascaded from pool to pool to remind me that time and earth are always moving.

The landscape was full of bumps and valleys unlike most of the flattened prairie land around here. WIth the snow cover it was easy to forget that this topography was artificially created to give way to long fairways and challenging par fives. The white underfoot was uneven, sometimes hard enough to  support my weight other times I crunched through the top crust into the powdery stuff below.

The other blue that caught my attention was a cooler, more purplish one, found in the shadows cast by the trees. The silhouettes barely captured the intricacy of the branches. One tree’s veiny bramble brought to mind the delicate outline of flora found in Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de Benci that I had been looking at earlier after reading a passage by Rebecca Solnit, who referenced it in her Field Guide to Getting Lost.

If I were to account for the sounds I heard, a sensory experience that admittedly is less developed for me than the visual experience, I took note of the distant and constant drone of traffic, my own breath and footsteps in the snow, and the wind blowing into my faux fur-lined hood whirling around my ear canal.

If I turned south, the wind was at my back and it was warmer, thus I set off in that direction to climb another hill. My reward at the top was a small igloo, the exterior of which was made hard and glassy-looking from the elements. So much so that it almost appeared to be a permanent structure made of some futuristic material. I sat inside this cozy cave, protected, staring out towards my living room window before heading home.


Just finding this blog today? Read the prologue for more details on what Living Chapters is all about. Check out the Chapter Summaries Page to get caught up to date.

It’s the whole building….


Chapter four writer, Amy Rothstein challenged me with a series of existential questions to ponder and investigate this past September.  Amy was one of the few writers who joined me on each and every task she suggested for the month including creating a life plan, a meditation practice, and a visit to an isolation chamber. In her post here, Amy shares her reflections on the ideas she explored in that chapter since living it out with me.

In September, I wanted to understand the relationship between what Eckhart Tolle described as “Life” and our “life situation”; between the “foundation” and the “superstructure”. (Click here to view that original ET passage.)

Since then, I have worked hard to identify exactly what my life situation goals are and to respect and validate these inspired desires. Once that was complete (it was a messy process) I began to proceed with a tangible plan, which is to restart my art making practice after almost eight years of inactivity. The process involved in creating work put a spotlight on the negative thoughts that frequent my mind. My inner critic roared, my skeptical philosopher probed, “why this…what for?!”  I was getting in my own way. I found myself relying on past teachings that often seemed like abstract and fluffy concepts. Remarkably, they make sense now that I am using them to help me work on my life situation, and I am changing with the help of these teachings now than ever before.

So I would add to ET’s statement that just as it is unwise to build one’s superstructure (or “life situation”) without a foundation (or “Life”), the opposite is also true. It is futile to build a foundation without a superstructure. The goal of building a superstructure (i.e.: overcoming fears, taking on new challenges) motivates one to lean on their foundation.

**I can also report that I went to the isolation chamber again recently and I’m not sure I need to go anymore. Meditation is equally (arguably more) effective and I plan to pick it back up again.


Just finding this blog today? Read more about the Living Chapters project here.

Chapter Writers Reflect and Respond


During this month of December I asked for feedback or reflections from all Living Chapters players on what has happened thus far throughout this project. I sent a series of questions to all participants to instigate their thinking and encourage their writing on one or more of the questions. Both of my Boston friends and writers Chapter one: Joe Gallo and Chapter three: Andy Cook replied specifically to several of the questions directly. Below are some of my questions asked and their answers.

Do you think this project/process has affected or changed me in any way for positive or negative? if so how?

Joe: “I’m not sure that this project has changed you any… maybe it has made you become more of what you have always been. You actually seem to thrive under the microscope you put yourself under. Maybe it’s because you are being challenged on a daily basis and seek to meet the challenges your friends have set out for you to meet. I think we said something about the “contract” aspect of this. I never would have jogged for a month if I hadn’t given you my word that I would. And knowing that this was part of the project, made certain things possible. Sort of like people who barely know each other will embrace for the camera… except this is far more natural. The surprising thing is that nothing seems grafted. Your life seems more whole, now that I think of it…”

Do you think this process is helpful or useful?

Andy: “I think this process is a fascinating way for you to challenge yourself to grow while exploring your relationships with your closest friends. The fact that it’s in public is weird, but I guess it creates the accountability one needs to keep a project like this going. I also support any creative endeavor you undertake, especially when it puts you in the spotlight, as I know that’s outside your comfort zone.”

Has this project affected you in any way – if so how?

Joe: I’m not sure. I think the month we spent in mutual participation was a good one and the fact that you came up to Boston during that time was a bonus… but it did confirm one thing. When I give my word to a friend, I most often keep it. (Can’t say always because there must have been a time or three I hadn’t.)

Did you have any expectations of what this project would be? How is it the same or different?

Joe: “At first I had no idea why you would do this or even want to do this. But in a world in which people find themselves stuck, this is really an amazing way to get unstuck, become less self-conscious, and really experience what makes living worth living.”

Andy: “I guess I imagined the chapters would be more narrative, as in, people would be creating stories for you to live out. They seem to me to be more like challenges than chapters, per se. But whatever, its all interesting.”

How do you think the month you participated in went? What do you think I got from it? Or what did you take away from it?

Andy: “I think it was rocky. I didn’t expect as much push back as I got, or for the negotiations between us to be so difficult and stressful. I think we were both pretty stubborn about it, but I’m glad we were able to make the compromises we did. In the end, I think our friendship was only strengthened by the experience… though I wouldn’t want to do it again. I know for me it was an opportunity to pay the close attention to my consumption habits that I always wish I made time for, and it’s had lasting impact. I try to remember the habits I started that month, and while I don’t always stick to them, I do sometimes, and that’s an improvement. My hope for you is that you have a similar experience. I also think it generated some very interesting conversations on my end, and probably on yours.”

Do you have any favorite moments or outcomes from what has happened thus far in any of the chapters?

Joe: “Chapter 6: Interpersonal Relationships. The interviews, and the write-up of the banjo player and the write-up about your encounters with strangers. Interesting that if there is an aim to something, strangers will back off when they’ve fulfilled their obligations. Whereas if you’re just winging it and talking to someone because you happen to strike up a conversation, things can go anywhere. I tend to think that engaging people to get something out of them is a crime. And I think your experience, as mentioned, attests to that.”

Andy: “I liked hearing stories of you trying to communicate via post-its and pantomime.”

What now? Any suggestions ideas or advice for going into the second six months?

Andy: “Several times when talking about the ‘opinion piece’ part of our month, you said things like ‘I know this isn’t what you wanted me to do, but…” etc. When in fact, I DID want you to make it your own and I was pleased with how you did it. I’d suggest you don’t assume people have certain expectations of you in this project (aside from what is explicitly stated, of course). It made me feel like you thought I was narrow-minded, or overly strict or something.”

Joe: “That you should live happily ever after…”


Just finding this blog today? Read more about the Living Chapters project here.

October Writer Response: Emily Wheat


After reading Beth’s response to my challenge for this month, I felt inspired by the image she posted of the ghost that has been living in her car. Eventually these guys will journey around the country, spreading Halloween joy, but for now they are strung across my room.

wheatie ghosts

wheatie puppets

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to an Adventure Time themed party. Not knowing what Adventure Time was I googled images and immediately knew I needed to make finger puppets of the characters. Hopefully the Birthday Boy likes his gift! I think that they turned out pretty cute.

wheatie leaveswheatie prints

As an art teacher I spend a lot of time creating projects and prepping materials. One of my current jobs is teaching art once a week at the local Montessori school. Last week we made gelatin prints, which turned out to be a joyful experience resulting in some beautiful prints.  These images show the process I go through on a weekly basis to make examples of the project and collecting materials.


I decided to make some cards using Styrofoam printing plates and while I was searching for some materials I came across this plate of a skeleton that I created last fall. I made it just around this time last year in an attempt to create something to celebrate my grandfather who passed away a several years ago.  I say attempt because like many projects that I start I didn’t ever do anything with the plate. I’m thrilled about the prints (which some people will receive in the form of cards) and want to share a little about why I was so inspired to create this imagery in the first place.

As Beth has pointed out we share a deep love for Halloween. Part of this love has to do with my fascination with skeletons and the depiction of them functioning as if still living.  For this reason I was looking at a lot of art centered around Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, last year and wanted to create a piece of my own that would allow me to celebrate my grandfather, someone who has had a profound impact on my life.

My grandfather, Al Nolin, was a man who was always making something new or changing something that already existed. My childhood was spent visiting his ever-changing wooden deck that transformed the back yard into a terraced wonderland. When I was young he sculpted a life-size horse on the basement wall, later deciding to chisel it off due to a leg that wasn’t quite right. He was a man who did as he pleased, living his life the way he saw fit. He constantly challenged people to embrace who they were rather than allow someone else to define them. Not only with his words, but through his actions he inspired me to be a maker of things. His lifestyle and his attitude have influenced me in more ways than I can know. Honestly, sometimes this influence seems like a curse as he was a fairly stubborn man, but I am grateful to have shared part of my life with such a talented and passionate individual. This year has been spent celebrating the life of a loved one lost and remembering that Dia de los Muertos is not about mourning the passing of those folks but remembering the lives they lived.

Our protagonist has also been thinking about her grandfather this month. Here is something she made for him.

Here are a few other things she has been making this month – check out the Living Chapters Facebook page to see more of the making this month!


Just finding this blog today? Read more about the Living Chapters project here.

September Writer Response: Amy Rothstein


As predicted, sticking to the meditation practice was really challenging at first. For the first two weeks, I was grouchy, my body resisted and my mind ran like a noisy wild bronco. I did stick with it, kicking and screaming inside. Around mid-month, my thoughts during meditation started to lose potency. They became quieter; and while they still arose, they were easier to let go of. As a result of the meditation, I’ve become slightly more aware of my thoughts at times when I wouldn’t normally be. Meditating has also made it easier for me to moderate my consumption of (legal) substances and to be slight more disciplined in general. I have still been only meditating for 15 minutes.

I have tried to make a frequent practice of listing persistent, reoccurring thoughts, which tend to be subtle fears. I have found that proactively surfacing these ghosts helps me to prevent them from snowballing and allow them to exist if necessary. I plan to keep doing this.

As far as the one-year, five-year and lifetime-goals go, I created a list like this in January of 2012 and I took this opportunity to revisit it. Beth and I discussed her (and my) resistance to this assignment. While she resists planning; I resist commitment.  We agreed to only list what genuinely comes to mind.

I seem to be striking some sort of balance between being comfortable with where I am and also taking action about the future- perhaps that balance between what ET calls “Life” while working on my life situation. At this point it’s obvious that I tend to ask a lot of questions. Knowing which questions are best left unanswered is a skill I’m also honing these days.

So, where is my sense of humor? Do I take this stuff too seriously? This month hasn’t been any more serious than usual for me but I always do a fair amount of clowning around. Most importantly, having a disciplined routine to help address big questions (with or without answers) has actually made me feel a bit lighter this month.

So far we’ve covered “just being” and “doing” and for the last week I’d like us to cover “feeling”.

Just finding this blog today? Read more about the Living Chapters project here.

The Body


Chapter 4; Week 4

One of the core agreements of existentialism is that being human means we will experience anxiety. There are countless sources of anxiety, but comfort seems to be its opposite. To access feelings of comfort when we would normally be anxious seems to be a truly lofty goal. For the last week I’d like us to look at how we access and experience comfort and discomfort in our bodies out-and-about in the world.

Assignment #1: I urge Beth to be mindful of her breath, body/extremities, movements and actions this week. Try to remain aware of your breath, your body, movements, and actions throughout the days this week.

  • Start after your morning meditation at home with some mundane tasks like cleaning or making your bed.
  • Work towards doing this in public, while you’re in groups and in social situations.
  • Identify how your body reacts to stress or anxiety. Start to observe your body in different situations and emotional states.

Assignment #2:  Come to New York City for some isolation! Beth is coming to visit me in New York. On Saturday, Sept. 28th we both have separate 60-minute appointments in the floatation isolation chamber at Blue Light Floatation. For more information on what the heck that is and what to expect, visit the Blue Light website here:

Here are some pre-float prep notes:

  • Don’t be on a coffee buzz the day of the float.
  • Don’t drink too much water.
  • Get good sleep the night before.

A skeptical Blue Light Floater documented her visit on this blog. The post goes into great detail about what to expect when you go to Blue Light for a float. What you choose to think about (or not) inside the floatation chamber is up to you. See you this weekend, Beth!

Just finding this blog today? Read more about the Living Chapters project here.

August Writer Response: Andy Cook


Hello again LC readers, and welcome to my writer’s comment period.  After twelve days of playing Cap and Trade with Beth, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking not only about my personal consumption habits, but about consumption trends in the world in general.  I’ve no doubt this has also happened to Beth, perhaps causing some of her frustration with our fun game.  But after a few clarifying conversations, I think we’ve got the hang of it. In the next dozen or so paragraphs, I’ll subject you to some of my thought topics and some of the tactics I’ve adopted to mitigate my own wasteful behaviors.

But first, an invitation:

Join the Cap and Trade Game!  Like most games, learning the rules is a bit of a pain at first, but once you get the hang of it, it ain’t no thang.  Plus, if you’re good at it, at the end of each week you get to make other players do eco-friendly things.  This week, Beth got to make me read an environmental book and plant a tree (photos forthcoming)!  Regardless of how well you do, playing along is bound to make you examine your life and existence on this planet.  Who doesn’t want to do that? Find the game here.

My Experience Playing Cap And Trade

I began the first week of Cap and Trade on work-cation in New Orleans, which made playing the game pretty tough.  For one, the heat index in the city was over 100 degrees every day I was there, meaning I wasn’t about to sleep without air conditioning.  This wouldn’t have been a problem back in Boston (where I don’t even have air conditioning), and immediately got me thinking about the relationship of energy consumption to where we choose to live.  I’ve been known to scoff at the types who live in places where the weather is always beautiful (I’m looking at you, Californians), but I can’t deny the fact that such a choice means using far less heating and air conditioning (if not more driving).  When I think about climate change, and our dwindling non-renewable energy resources, I wonder:  will humans ever become a migratory species again? I pondered this while biking all over the city of New Orleans, which thankfully balanced out my air conditioning points quite nicely.  It didn’t, however, mitigate the points I got for flying in a plane, which is probably why Beth beat me this week!

After twelve days of playing this game, I can already say that some things have changed for me.

1 (WATER):  I now shower with a bucket.  Forcing myself to track my water usage and seek out opportunities for re-use has made me painfully aware of how much water I typically let fall down the drain.  It shouldn’t be surprising; we citizens of the developed world with plumbing and hot water heaters take the stuff for granted.  But the fact is, we can only do that because massive dams have been built, towns flooded, hundreds of miles of pipes buried beneath the earth, testing and treatment stations created, hundreds of experts trained and employed to treat and monitor, and millions of dollars spent annually to keep the whole system running.  And that’s just to get the water to our houses.

What do we do with it once it’s there?  We shit in it.  We leave it running while it heats up.  We let it rain gloriously over our bodies for minutes after we’re already clean, simply because we dread going to work.  And then that water flows through sewers to treatment plants (if it’s lucky) where it gets cleaned up and spat out into the ocean, where it becomes saltwater, unusable to us.  The least we can do as grateful citizens is try to make the most of it while we have it.   My shower bucket catches much of the water running off my body.  I then (don’t get grossed out) use it to shave.  Then I use it again to water my garden.  It’s a small gesture, I know (a drop in the bucket, you might say).  But it’s gotta start somewhere.  And speaking of small gestures…

2 (AIR): I turn my phone off frequently.  And it’s so satisfying.  You may have read the article on energy use of phones and computers I posted to the Living Chapters facebook page (or maybe you didn’t, so here).  As the article explains, charging a cell phone only requires a tiny amount of energy, but when you multiply that by everyone using cell phones in the world, it really adds up.  The bright side is, using a phone requires less energy than a laptop, and far less than a desktop, so I’m happy to shift my web browsing to that device.  But then I start to wonder: how much energy does the internet use?  I mean, the whole internet: all the servers, towers, satellites, and devices that connect to it?  I imagine the answer is hard to fathom, and likely not sustainable in the long term.

3 (FOOD): I eat less meat.  Particularly when I’m out at a restaurant and don’t know the provenance of the meat on the menu (did the chicken have a name?) This is something I’m constantly saying I’ll pay more attention to, but frequently don’t.  If a friend invites me to a new, awesome BBQ joint in the neighborhood, I’m there.  But with the incentive of competing for points with my good friend Beth, I’ve been opting for the salads and pasta primaveras.  And why shouldn’t I?  Conventionally raised meat is, quite frankly, a terrible thing.  Raising animals on factory farms uses a massive amount of water, supports a highly problematic corn subsidy system (because that’s what they’re fed), and dumps unhealthy amounts of antibiotics and feces into our watersheds.  If you’re interested in learning more about these issues, please check out the Food Systems And The Environment website I helped author last year in a class at MIT.

4 (WASTE): I’m composting again.  I was lucky enough to grow up with a hippy father who had me recycling and composting clear through high school (if you’re reading this, Dad, thanks!).  But as an adult, I haven’t composted unless I had a garden, which has only happened for two years so far.  I have a garden again at my home in Somerville, but since I’ve known I’d be moving in September, I haven’t bothered with the compost part.  WIth the incentive of the game, however, I’ve been saving my food scraps and donating them to my neighborhood community garden.  It’s easy, it’s satisfying, and it does a tiny bit to help fight back against the erosion of soil.

Ok. At this point, it’s taken me over three hours to write this response, and I can’t help but think about the points I’m racking up by having my computer on.  So if you’re still reading, thank you.  Please turn off your computer now, and go take a walk.                                                                                                                                                         Just finding this blog today? Read the prologue for more details on what Living Chapters is all about.

Gabe’s parting words


For close to two decades, I have had the distinct pleasure of watching as Beth has woven the unique tapestry of her life. Eschewing expectations and avoiding predictable paths, she has touched the lives of thousands of people in a positive way, on her own terms. As I have watched her buzz around, sometimes in the same apartment, sometimes from afar, I have often felt that she has not given herself credit for the immense amount of “good work” that she has done.

Well, I no longer have to be the silent witness. is now in the world, and it is a stunning portrait of Beth’s life’s work thus far. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, it is a concise overview of all the amazing things that Beth has participated in and created in her professional life. As I said at the beginning of the month, Beth’s work is not well represented by a paper resume and I think her website ably proves my claim. Even without her heart-felt written summaries, the photo galleries alone on her ePortfolio tell stories upon stories… and all those faces reflect the larger theme that Beth’s work is all about people.

This past month was full of unexpected personal challenges for Beth, and I hope that in some small way, having a large, logical problem to solve that involved reflection on personal achievements provided some comfort during this time.

While I am always glad to see Beth, I was particularly glad that she was able to visit me during the course of this chapter. We were able to wander memory lane together, and to hash out the themes that have guided our lives to this point: one which happens to be another major transition period for us both. I was there to watch her pour through books of symbols and runes, and she was able to see my scrapbooks… all eight of them.

Unlike Beth, my scrapbooks are not complete. The pieces are in place, but my handwritten notes are still to be finished. Like Beth’s ePortfolio, like our lives, they are still a work in progress.

Thank you, Beth, for inviting me to be part of this project. I hope that as you show off your website in years to come, you are reminded of me and this project, and how friends can always be there to be that little extra motivation that you may need.