Ask The Most Powerful Question

wisdom of elders, ask the most powerful question, what should I know, is there something you want to tell me,

Image courtesy of

“I ask once or twice a year,” she told me. “But it’s a powerful question. It should only be used wisely.”

I was interviewing a woman I’ll call Ms. C. for an article on faith and spirituality. She was truly an elder. I don’t mean age-wise, although she appeared to be in her mid-seventies or beyond. By elder I mean the sort of person who lives deeply and gladly passes along what she has learned.

Ms. C. dressed up for our meeting. She wore a navy blue suit and dazzlingly patterned silk shirt, a tiny hat perched on her elaborately coiffed hair, and bright red lipstick that made her dark skin glow. The pants and sweater I’d tossed on looked pretty casual by comparison.

Ms. C talked about seeing the divine in all things. She spoke precisely, with poetic imagery, but also slid easily into humorous retorts. I felt a wondrous enlargement of spirit in her presence and was, frankly, reluctant to end our interview.

Then she mentioned that she employed the most powerful question of all.

I waited to find out what that might be.

She told me that it should be asked only when the questioner felt strong and ready for the answers. And it should only be asked of those who loved you and could be trusted to tell the truth.

She told me she asked her husband (of 42 years) every now and then. She also asked her sisters and close friends, usually when she felt prompted by some unknown impulse.

The question seems simple: “Is there something I should know?”

She said the answers it evokes are rarely simple.

When Ms. C. kept receiving important and sometimes surprising answers to that question it inspired her friends to take up the question too. She gave me a few examples.

~A neighbor was told by everyone she asked that she needed to seek medical help for a condition she thought was under control.

~A friend was advised to stop wearing clothes that were too tight and too young for her.

~A fellow churchgoer found out that his son was back on drugs.

~One person was informed that a long-standing habit of his infuriated his best friend.

~A former co-worker learned that she came across as haughty and cold, and needed to learn how to get past her shyness to let people see her warmth.

~A friend was told that a secret he thought had been buried long ago was out but no one had wanted to break the news to him.

Ms. C. says that she mostly listens to what the Quakers call the “small still voice” inside her but she has one ear open to what else she might need to know.

I tend to think there’s peace right beyond the need of answers but I won’t deny that Ms. C’s question has its uses. Nor will I deny that truth-telling feels wonderfully liberating.

Do you have a truth just itching to get free, if only a certain person would ask you?

And what about truth seeking? Will you be asking the most powerful question?

Non-Stylish Woman Wears Blog

no style sitting at the computer, blog hag,


Stylish? Nope. Nothing about me qualifies.

My presence makes people who are fashion backward and technologically inept feel much better about themselves. Clearly there are perks for hanging out with me.

But my friend Linda Dobson who authors the wonderfully useful site Parent at the Helm has bestowed the Stylish Blogger Award on me anyway. Maybe she’s decided that my endless quest for meaning counts as style. Thank you Linda, I’m surprised and grateful.

The “rules” that accompany this honor are to divulge seven things about myself, and then pay the Stylish Blogger Award forward to fifteen other blogs. Linda and I read some of the same blogs so to avoid overlap I’ll gladly bestow the award on other worthy winners.

Seven Random Things About Me List

1. I want to do everything. I tend to have trouble fitting my chosen everything into that container called my life.

2. I can find a positive angle just about anywhere. Sometimes I have to use my optimism-tuned crowbar.

3. My ideal breakfast involves lots of onions, homemade paneer, curry spices, and any vegetables that show themselves.

4. After a youth misspent being painfully polite I’m developing minimal impulse control. When my youngest offspring wondered what it would be like to frisbee a tortilla, I tossed it for him. We ended up flinging it up the stairs, at each other, and at his sister. (This is VERY fun.) The dog disciplined us by eating the tortilla.

5. Deep sighs activate the vagus nerve, making one feel calm and relaxed. I admit I should join Vagus Overusers Anonymous.

6. I’m still afraid of the dark. Actually, that there will be no more light.

7. Told too many times by too many formative people that I had so much potential, I began to see my Better Self taunting me from a far distance. I renounce that pressure. Hereby I rename that Better Self by the more apt initials, BS, and accept my own flawed and tender self.

Newest Stylish Blog Winners
From Skilled Hands

The Contrary Farmer

The Chatelaine’s Keys

Campaign for the American Reader

The Committed Parent

Food Renegade

Humane Connection

Math Mama Writes

The Unschooler Experiment

Living Peacefully With Children

The Parenting Passageway

Post In Space


Balzer Designs


blog walk,


Now it’s your turn. Take a stroll through these blogs. Enjoy the the wealth of content and uniqueness of vision you find there. Now that’s stylin’.

Confessions of a Subversive Cook

subversive cooking, sustainable household, inventive cooking, creative ingredient substitution,

It’s a family joke that I am unable to follow a recipe. Not a funny joke but completely true.

I can’t help myself. I tweak the kind of flours and fats, ramp up the spices, toss in a few extra ingredients, adjust the methods used. Yes this approach alters a recipe beyond recognition. But my family will admit the end result usually tastes good even if they like to ask, “Okay, now tell us what’s really in here.” That’s because I’ve been known to put chard in popsicles, beets in dip, and beans in brownies.

Sometimes I try, really try, to follow a recipe to the letter. There’s the real joke. Because when I do the results are awful. The casserole is tasteless, the biscuits are scratchy, and the cookies slump into pools of goo. Clearly improvising is the best route for me.

What I really like about improvisation is facing the challenge our great grandparents faced as they ran frugal households. The same challenge accepted by cooks every day all over the world. Very simply, to use everything well while wasting nothing. This is more about necessity than anything else. It means the cook knows what is in the garden, pantry, and refrigerator at all times. She knows a hard frost is coming, so the rutabagas can stay in the ground but the green tomatoes must be picked. She remembers that the potatoes in the pantry are starting to soften and must be used right away. She knows the lentils made two days ago have to be served or frozen.  She finds ways to use carrots going limp and cheese getting dry. She purees leftover soup to make sauce for an entrée and turns yesterday’s roast chicken into today’s enchiladas. In our current economy it’s not a game for many of us. This real life pursuit is more interesting and more rewarding than any competition faced on Top Chef.

I find the creative aspect downright addictive. So tonight, when our dinner guests called to say they were running late I realized I had time to make another dip to serve alongside our homemade salsa. I turned up the music and started pulling out potential leftovers. A few ounces of cream cheese abandoned when the asymmetrical but tasty homemade bagels ran out, a few spoonfuls of leftover canned chile in adobo sauce, a large cooked sweet potato. Probably doesn’t sound like a dip. Except to this recipe heretic.

I warm the cream cheese a little, then mash half the sweet potato with a fork and mix in a bit of the chile in adobo sauce. The texture is awful and the taste is nothing like dip. So I toss it in the blender. Nope, it’s too thick to blend. I add a dollop of sour cream. Blend. Oh, nice orange-y color. Taste? Needs something. I toss in a pinch of dry chipotle powder and a dash of salt. Blend. Taste. Needs more heat so I add a bit more chile in adobo sauce. Blend. Taste. It needs some freshness. I have green tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers but I don’t think I’m aiming for a raw element. Instead I pour off a tiny bit of the liquid from the salsa we canned. Blend. Oooh, it’s good. Still needs something to round off the strong edge. Hmmm. Maybe this sort of spicy will benefit from a little sweetness. I think about putting in applesauce but first try drop of our honey. I give the blender another whirl. Perfect!

The doorbell rings, the dogs bark, and our friends come in bringing lively conversation. My improvised dip is there on the table next to the salsa, waiting to be scooped up with blue chips. The colors are an aesthetic delight and the use of leftover ingredients satisfies my frugal heart. But what’s really a pleasure is watching the whole bowl emptied by friends who rave over the taste even after I confess that it’s made out of sweet potato. In a heavenly kitchen somewhere I hope those great grandmothers nod their approval.


Subversive Cook is now the title of my next book. I’m slow at work on it. See how you can contribute at or get in touch with me using this site’s contact form. 

Mine Is The Wrong Kind Of Lust

don't make me travel, why I stay put,


Let me explain.

My schoolteacher father had summers off, so my parents made the best use of that time. That meant teaching their children geography and history through travel. Each winter my mother started planning our frugal summer trips. She sat at the kitchen table with maps and guidebooks arrayed in front of her as she carefully plotted a route that maximized educational stops along the way. Old battlegrounds, restored villages, and scenic natural wonders were her priority. The other priority? No admission fees.


why I don't travel,

One summer we traveled over 6,000 miles. Most days we had an early breakfast, drove for six hours, spent the late afternoon sightseeing in the steamy heat, then went on to a trailer park where our 15 foot Scotty was invariably the smallest trailer around. Other folks in these places looked like there were staying a few days. They sat in lawn chairs and chatted around campfires. My parents meant business. Ours was a carefully planned agenda which meant we kids showered soon after supper in those ubiquitous cement block restrooms and went to bed early, usually lying awake in the hot metal trailer listening to other families laugh and talk under the trees.


why I don't travel,

Our trips were strictly no-frills in every way. My parents spent as little as possible on food—we never had fast food or restaurant meals while we traveled. I ate a peanut butter minus jelly sandwich chased by Tang every day at lunchtime. They scouted out the cheapest gas and took only the most carefully considered photos in those pre-digital days. Miraculously they maintained family peace in very close proximity for weeks on end, although we kids found minor parental spats over directions and mileage calculations secretly hilarious.

Don’t get me wrong, my parents had wonderful motives. They piled three kids in a small car and showed us the country. But I was a lethargic and grumpy traveler. Hurtling down the highway with windows open (air conditioning allegedly reduced fuel economy) only aggravated my asthma and hay fever, plus I suffered with relentless headaches and nausea from car sickness. Yet I wasn’t sufficiently self-aware to let anyone know that I felt dizzy, woozy, and short of breath. I longed for the comforts of home: library books, a familiar bathtub, my trusty bike, and some control over my own life. As soon as my mother got out the maps to start planning I felt nothing but dread, which I masked with a facade of eager anticipation lest I be called “ungrateful.” But every minute our car headed farther away from home seemed wrong somewhere in the center of my being. Until we returned I felt suspended from my own completeness—a weary, one-dimensional version of myself.


I refuse to travel,

Perhaps these long yearly trips, taken when I was unwell and unwilling, served to inoculate me against travel. As an adult I still struggle to feel wholly myself when I’m away. That marks me as seriously maladjusted. Wanderlust, or at least the urge to get away, is the norm. All sorts of well-meaning people mock non-travelers as people with no sense of adventure.

Oh sure, I long to go places. I’ve even traveled of my own volition. But I rail against the backward century in which I’ve been born, or perhaps the backward planet I’ve been born on, because I can’t adjust to the concept that it’s not possible to mosey over to Belarus or Uruguay or Finland this afternoon, have a wonderful lunch, meet some new friends and assure them that I’ll stop by next Friday. The problem isn’t the destination, it’s getting there. I know poets and sages say it’s all about the journey. I’ve journeyed, believe me. I say all of life is a journey, every single moment that we’re wide awake and fully participating in the process of living.

hermit's rationale, staying home, peace in place,

Besides, aren’t poets and sages all about being true to oneself? Being true to myself means giving in to the lust to stay rooted.

I experience a kind of delicious completion as I perform the simple rituals of life right here every day. I make cheese from our cow’s milk, walk the dogs, chop vegetables, work at my desk—-all in view of the fields and trees that sustain me season after season with their subtle, incremental changes.

I hope those of us who are truly rooted have something to offer this ever faster world. Our insights may be simple. I pay attention to the vegetable gardens, the beehives, to blackbirds convening in a clamor across the treetops. Changes I see are those that take place slowly and noticing them is part of the pleasure I find in being fully here. To me there’s soul-drenching nourishment that comes of contemplation, quiet, and service. Thank goodness we can fulfill the desires we choose, leaning eagerly toward the excitement of travel or to answering longings that serve a quieter nature.

You know where to find me. I’m right here.


staying home, anti-traveler, delights of home,

What the French Revolution Can Teach Us About Parenting

A Deck of Cards Dating Back to the French Revolution Where Kings Have Been Replaced With Wise Men (Solo, Plato, Cato, & Brutus), and Queens With Virtues (Justice, Union, Prudence, & Force) La Bibliofilia

The parent I would become was changed by history. Or at least by revelations history can offer.

At 18, I signed up for a college history course simply to fulfill a requirement.  Although I’ve forgotten the professor’s name, I’ll never forget the man. He was oddly proportioned with a short round body that didn’t match his oversized head. His florid face, full lips, and bulging eyes gave the impression that he was continually strangled by an unseen hand. Stadium seating in our introductory history class of nearly 100 students made him look even more foreshortened as he stood below us at the front of the room. He used no visual aids, no videos, only an occasional map that he drew himself on the board. He spoke without notes about a subject that impassioned him. As he lectured his voice started to quaver, his hands trembled in front of him, and he leaned forward looking at us with red-rimmed eyes. He was overwhelmed with the task. His lessons had to sink in.

That lesson was the same no matter what era we studied. He taught us to look at all of history using one pivotal question.

What happens when people are deprived of (or otherwise separated from) the consequences of their words and actions?

We studied the elite in various societies throughout history who were insulated from the consequences of their actions, even if the working poor around them suffered more and more from decisions made by the elite. We analyzed the larger impact this had on the culture over time. Then we narrowed it down. We looked at rulers who were typically brought up with all the advantages of privilege. Those who rarely experienced the consequences of their actions from childhood on tended to make decisions that resulted in tragedy, sometimes immediately, sometimes in ways that resounded for generations.

Any time we stumble on truth we see how it interconnects with larger truths. That was the case with my history professor’s question. I saw that theme, consequences, everywhere I looked—- in literature, in politics, and in the news being reported each day. I saw it in relationships around me. And on weekends, while volunteering with a project that offered services to teen addicts, I saw it there too.

So I vowed to use what I’d gained from my history professor when I became a parent. When my toddlers made a mess, even spilling a drink, I offered them a rag and some assistance cleaning it up but I didn’t do it for them. That work was their own. As they got older I expected them to give me three reasons when they wanted to do something outside our normal rules. They learned impeccable logic in the service of their own interests. And when they were teens I didn’t keep them from taking reasonable risks, knowing that they had developed a fine awareness of their own abilities.  I certainly suffer at times from parenting this way.  My kids expect ME to deal with the consequences of my own words and actions.  I can’t rant about an idiot driver on the road without one of my kids telling me it’s an opportunity to practice inner peace. That’s what happens when my words come back to bite me.

Too many kids are deprived of the consequences on a small scale. When parents help a child on and off playground equipment for fear of falls, the child is taught she can’t trust her own body. If a parent takes over building a model when the child becomes frustrated, the child is taught he is incompetent. If a parent refuses to let a child take the blame after hurting another child, she is being taught to avoid responsibility (and empathy). These aren’t the messages parents intend to convey. They’re hoping to make things safer, easier, and happier for their children. But frustration, embarrassment, even a few bruises are important parts of the maturing process. Attempts to make childhood frictionless are misguided. Worse, the consequences of words and actions on a larger scale may be much harder for these children to understand. At least that’s what history tells us.

Maria Theresa of Savoy, comtesse d'Artois