Saturday, July 20, 2013

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 11, July 2013

Welcome to the July 2013 video discussion from the Universal Heart Book Club - where your co-hosts Stephanie Dowrick and Walter Mason discuss our special finds of the month. This month we talk about Alison Oakervee's Share and Michael Pollan's Cooked.  We also celebrate our FIRST ANNIVERSARY of this Book Club (founded, July 2012). And Stephanie introduces you to a remarkable organization, Women for Women International (and their local links).

You will also find our written reviews of these books below, as well as a range of almost 100 very fine articles written during this last year. As you read the articles we feature each month, please feel free to share your views in our comments section. It's easy using "Anonymous" if you don't have Google email. Just watch out for "Captcha": always two sets of letters or words with a space between. Those conversations are essential to this being the "book club" we envision. Many thanks to our dear friend Peter Kirkwood for the marvellous support he is giving us to film this short conversation.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Stephanie Dowrick is delighted to discover WOMEN FOR WOMEN INTERNATIONAL

Is it any surprise to you to know that 70% of those in our world who are subsisting on less than $1 a day are women? This has profound significance not only for the women themselves - and their access to adequate nutrition, education, health care, and rights to home and safety - but also for their children, for the world's children. For a child to grow up in poverty in a world of plenty is already an immeasurable injustice. This situation is gravely worsened when we realise how much of that suffering is caused by war. In war-torn and post-war countries, women are "targeted for rape and violence…forced from their homes…lose husbands and children and often become the sole providers for their families."

So, how should we respond?

In 1993 a remarkable young Iraqui-American woman, Zainab Salbi - then in her 20s - founded a quite unique organisation called WOMEN FOR WOMEN INTERNATIONAL. Her first-hand experience of the devastation caused by the state-sanctioned violence that is war, and the particular devastation it causes women and their children, inspired her to set up a program which allows women and men in richer, more peaceful countries to support on an individual basis women who've been affected by war.

Zainab's formula is simple, intelligent and effective. Through a monthly modest contribution, sponsors (people like us) make it possible for women in war-affected countries to enrol in a focused, free one-year program of vocational education. Each participant is offered business and skills training, health and emotional support and vital access to micro-financing so that the benefits they gain can continue.  This is literally a life-giving, life-saving program and the women can, for the first time, achieve some degree of the independence and security we can too easily take for granted.
Every child, every person, deserves safety and peace.
Since WOMEN FOR WOMEN INTERNATIONAL began, around 500,000 women have been directly helped and what's even more impressive is that it is estimated that this positively and immediately affects at least two and a half million people (many, many of them children). And so much more is possible.

This seems to me to be an exceptionally practical way that we can extend our peace-making efforts - not least because an educated population of women will always have far more power than when women's poverty effectively marginalizes and silences them.

To support this organisation, and to let people like us know that it exists and that we can become sponsors ourselves, a small team have put together a most beautiful cookbook - which is my special book this month.  The book is edited by Alison Oakervee and is called SHARE. Its subtitle says it all: "The cookbook that celebrates our common humanity".

100% of the royalties go direct to WOMEN FOR WOMEN
Many, many people have contributed fabulous recipes, from Meryl Street (who also contributes a heartfelt foreword) to Richard Branson, Archbishop Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Ashley Judd, Stephanie Alexander…but  I am also hugely enjoying the recipes from women in countries as diverse as Kosovo, Afghanistan and Nigeria. I am no "clever cook"! I am daunted by vast lists of ingredients and certainly don't spend hours in the kitchen. So I am relieved to say that these are recipes that are absolutely manageable in busy everyday lives. What's even better, though, is that reading the book and using the recipes is also a way in to understanding the lives of women who have no choice but to depend on us to make a difference.

Buy multiple copies of this wonderful book and give them liberally to friends. You would be giving far more than a gorgeous cookbook filled with nutritious, delicious and manageable recipes. (You can use our bookshop links, upper right.)  I also urge you to consider becoming a sponsor for an individual woman in the WOMEN FOR WOMEN programs. Their mantra is: "Change the world, one woman at a time". 

From wherever you are in the world, it is possible to participate. You do NOT need to be a woman to be a sponsor; you just need to care enough. is their "home" webpage. Some countries also have specific WOMENFORWOMEN web presence, including Australia where it is  You are also welcome to contact Jenny Bassett - WOMEN FOR WOMEN's volunteer organiser in Australia - via email:  You might also want to consider broadening your support through greater engagement with International Women's Development Agency (IWDA).  We can act. We can help. We can care effectively.  Your comments are very welcome.

"You can change the world, one woman at a time."

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Michael Pollan's Cooked reminds us of the social value of cooking and eating

"Grandma cooking" is what food commentator and slow-food advocate Michael Pollan advocates in his latest book, Cooked. It is an impassioned memoir about food and cooking and a desperate call to all of us in the developed West to think about what we put in our mouths and to re-embrace the messy, delicious and wonderfully sentimental charms of home cookery.

In Cooked Pollan decides to put his money where his mouth is and hire a chef to come to his home weekly to instruct him in the mysteries of preparing simple but delicious food for his family. The lessons Pollan passes on are surprising, and probably not the type of things to excite the hart of a nutritionist or food purist. What he is advocating is not food as medicine. Or at least, he is stressing the psychological benefits of home cooking, and the creation of food-based memories that are frequently bnuilt up around unhealthy eating, but are no less delicious for it. And so we are instructed to add lots more salt to our home-cooked meals, and worry less about health and food faddism and more about building a relationship to real food prepared by human hands in the warmth and security of a home kitchen.

As would be expected of Pollan, he is passionate in these pages about the charm - and taste - of slow cookery. Casseroles and stews loom large in his own gastronomical mythology, and he yearns for a return to leftovers, the surplus products of several hours of cooking in great big dishes that can be consumed with joy and ease over the ensuing days. Such descriptions caused me to flashback to my own childhood, and  memories of bubble and squeak and cold roast pumpkin lovingly packed up for school lunches.

Food has become a source of discomfort and anxiety, says Pollan, when it really should be one of comfort and love. Sure, not all of what we might choose to prepare at home could be considered health food. But the author still delights in, for example, mastering the art of baking the perfect white loaf, cofortable in the knowledge that, for all its deliciousness, it is almost entirely absent of nutritional value.

There is so much in  this book that will please and excite the foodie. From the championing of fermented foods to the re-telling of gustatory folklore (did you know that milking was traditionally the work of women because it was believed their soft hands would not distress the cows?) to the appeal of stinky snacks (smelly cheeses, fish sauce and stinky tofu), this is a book that celebrates food's principal place in our life and in our culture. Equal parts travel memoir and social history, Cooked is an absolutely delightful read.

Walter Mason writes on Inner Abundance

Abundance has gotten something of a bad name.

Say it now and people imagine garages filled with pointless cars, or houses with too many rooms and going to sleep visualising a cheque for a million dollars. For some it represents a crass sort of yearning that is easy to poke fun at. At times it seems as though people who are thoughtful and spiritual, people who care, have fled so far from abundance that they have emerged out the other side, where stinginess, lack and hyper-criticism dwell.

These are states we are totally at ease in. These are the qualities that inform our media, our academies and sometimes even contemporary religious discourse. We live in a moment that privileges cynicism and asks us all to criticise before we praise. If we ever praise.

But there is a different way of living. There is a lighter, more joyful approach to life that is innately abundant but that doesn’t require wall-to-wall carpeting, magazine bodies and shiny pieces of machinery. I’ve found I can go to bed happily at night with nothing in my head but a gratitude at living and a knowledge that I have tried my best to be of service to others and to have been a source of happiness and grace.

Books have been helpful to me in my journey towards an abundant happiness. I know it’s a cliché, but I have had to become aware of my own inner goodness before I could begin dispensing it to others. When I was feeling down and angry with myself (and I felt like that for a long time) I’m afraid I didn’t really have all that much light to shine out on the world. One of the books that helped me turn it all around was Marianne Williamson’s A Return To Love. It changed my life so completely by helping me realise that I didn’t have to become anything or be anything to be loved. I was perfect exactly as I was.

I am aware of an abundance that is sourced, not from the possession of material comforts, but from a state of mind that seeks to recognise the efforts of others and their tendency towards goodness. I learned from the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, especially in his book Peace Is Every Step, that so much of what I take for granted is, in fact, a source of rich blessing. His books helped turn me from a grumbling complainer to a person who gave thanks many times a day for the wonderful life that had always been mine.

Each day I seek to thank and praise, directly and explicitly, those people, forces and things that have pleased me or that I have observed to please others. I discovered by accident a wonderfully peculiar book called The Gentle Art of Blessing by Pierre Pradervand, in which the author advises us to fill our days with silent and spoken blessings. Reading this book caused me to be on the lookout for blessings, and for opportunities to extend my own blessings upon people.

I fear I have become eccentric in this pursuit, but my fears come to nothing when I see the pleasure my exercises in abundant brave praise cause. When I shyly ask for the restaurant’s manager and a cautious, guarded young man emerges, and I tell him how wonderful his food and staff have been I experience an abundance of shared joy and recognition of human effort.

Or when I stop an elderly woman on the street and tell her that her lilac pant suit is exquisite and makes me happy just to look at, and she tells me she made it herself, I recognise the abundance of pleasure that has occurred and the recognition of effort, style and the lingering vanities that we all experience.

I had a great teacher in all this. It was a woman I didn’t know and have never seen again. I do not know her name.  But I used to have the great privilege of working at the Mind Body Spirit Festivals. Working at these vast exhibitions, from 7 to 7, four days in a row, is a special kind of hell. I would come home with my feet literally bleeding (it costs extra to hire a chair for the day, and besides, most stalls have no room for one), and quite deafened from the constant New Age music, gonging and motivational speeches that rang from the stage we were always so strategically placed next to.

It was Sunday at 4pm and I must have spoken to or served around 1,000 people. A woman approached me slowly, her enormous stomach swathed in a maternity dress and I remembered wondering how on earth she had managed negotiating these crowds.

“I have been watching you,” she said, and I was instantly suspicious and fearful.

“I’ve been sitting in the cafe watching you, and I needed to come over here and tell you that you are beautiful. The way you have managed to smile at everyone, to be gracious and helpful, never to let your annoyance show.” Turning to walk away, she turned back to me and said, “And I can say that because I’m pregnant, and I’m pretty sure you’re gay.”

I floated home that night, feeling extraordinarily elated because my efforts had been recognised and noted.  
And after that I decided that that’s how I want to be. I want to give voice to the wonderful people and things I see around me. I decided to be lavish in my praise, to give it away as though I had an endless supply which, it turns out, I do.

I have decided to “tell it like it really is.” There is so much beauty that surrounds us, so many kindnesses and efforts to ensure our comfort that we take for granted. When I see goodness, when I see beauty, when I see generosity, I am going to name it, just like my pregnant angel did at the Mind Body Spirit Festival.
There lies my abundance – in the recognition of wonder.

Some more books that inspire the cultivation of inner abundance:

Excuse Me, Your Life Is Waiting by Lynn Grabhorn
Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers
Write It Down, Make It Happen by Henriette Anne Klauser
A Year to Live by Stephen Levine
Inspired & Unstoppable by Tama Kieves

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Stephanie Dowrick teaches writing in Kyoto

WRITING IN KYOTO, 24 October - 2 November 2013
Is there something special about Kyoto that you have chosen it for your writing retreat?
How is a writing retreat different from, say, a spiritual retreat...or a guided travel experience?

Stephanie Dowrick & William Suganda in Kyoto

Those questions are two I am often asked - and they are easily answered. Kyoto has been described by many as the world's "most exquisite small city" and it is indeed a gem. Not only is it clean, safe, accessible and vastly rich in temples, shrines, glorious gardens (and quite wonderful, affordable authentic restaurants), it also has an exceptionally strong aesthetic. Everywhere you look there is natural and created beauty to be found, often in ways that can appear to Western eyes unusually restrained and disciplined, yet that adds to the depth, even the excitement of what one is seeing. 

In a city that itself trains the eye to see more carefully, perhaps more mindfully, it is easily possible to discover a new and newly satisfying depth of focus. It is this that will influence most writers and would-be writers (and this is a course for writers at all levels, with partners also welcome). I am confident that "deep looking" is a glorious experience in and of itself, and that it also colours or flavours every individual's writing in ways that are liberating and far from uniform.

Writing is, after all, an outward expression of inward experiences. The writer may be describing external "scenes" or experiences - real or imagined - but what emerges through words is what each individual writer has made and is making of those experiences. It's almost a circular movement: from what one takes in, then gives out. "Taking in" in a city as artistically supportive as Kyoto is can be exhilarating. An example of this comes in the haiku classes that are always part of our Japan journeys. In a very few lines, the writers capture - and release - a moment. It is, though, a moment with resonances that chime both forwards and backwards.

I have made the bold claim that I can teach virtually anyone who is willing creative journal writing. I'd say the same of haiku. And participants' pleasure in their own and others' haiku and other more familiar forms of writing is one of the greatest rewards for me of Kyoto teaching.  We are also supported by the immense knowledge that long-time Kyoto resident Mark Hovane shares on our beautiful morning in temple gardens, followed by an exquisite traditional temple lunch in a private dining room. Mark's passionate, engaged teaching also adds to our capacity to "see" and therefore to write more sensually and with greater personal reward.

Combining my writing teaching also with William's gentle, knowledgeable guidance around the city itself, and its treasures, means that participants are tremendously stimulated, but also quickly form a feeling of collegiality and community which is at least half the fun of the retreat. And we want this to be a trip that brings great pleasure: pleasure in personal discoveries, in discovery of the city and the good company of other writers and would-be writers, and far greater fluency and pleasure in writing itself, at whatever stage of experience someone has reached.

A writing retreat does differ in many ways from a spiritual retreat. It is more sociable, more extroverted, and the external discoveries are as great as the inner ones. I love both kinds of experiences and feel immensely privileged that my teaching at Mana Retreat Centre, Coromandel, New Zealand, and in Kyoto, Japan, are delightful in such different ways. Most people coming on a writing retreat have the desire to express themselves in words, and to discover what words can give them. A spiritual retreat is much more of a "retreat" from everyday concerns, with as few distractions as possible, in order to store up treasures and insights inwardly. I would add though that with the Tai Chi that William so beautifully  leads, our emphasis on Kyoto's most sublime temples, shrines and timeless gardens, as well as the meditative practices that I love to teach and share, we are certainly offering something intrinsically meaningful, inclusive and spiritually refreshing. That makes this trip quite distinct from "sight seeing" and brings lasting depth and value.

Most people will feel instinctively which kind of experience is right for them at a particular time. And I am no longer amazed how the right group inevitably evolves, often creating friendships and connections that may last a lifetime. 

For details of the 2013 WRITING IN KYOTO journey, and a beautifully detailed and illustrated pdf. please contact 
Our numbers are strictly limited. A single room supplement is available. Participants can meet us in Kyoto from anywhere in the world.

Dr Stephanie Dowrick is co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club, an immensely experienced writing teacher, a former publisher, and author of more than a dozen major books, including Creative Journal Writing, Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love, Seeking the Sacred, The Universal Heart, and In the Company of Rilke.