Why I Chose the Matryoshka Symbol

Matryoshka_coverThe Russian Matryoshka doll opens in half, right in the middle of the abdomen. Inside her is another doll that opens in half. Inside that one, another. Many dolls open in half until there are no more. The innermost remains whole. My father was born in Russia and I have been exploring my many selves through writing since childhood. “Matryoshka” seemed a natural to reflect my heritage and my legacy.

Since my first poem magically poured out of me at age eight, writing has been a constant companion, and is now my oldest friend. I started writing poems seriously as an adolescent. In my 30s I couldn’t stop writing them. Journaling has guided and soothed me since my 20s, with 235 journals now. I began publishing personal essays in my 40s, many of which were born from the raw material of my journals. In 2011, I published a memoir, Fatal If Swallowed: Reclaiming Creativity and Hope Along the Uncharted Path. Along the way, I developed a mission to help others experience the gifts of self-expression through both therapeutic and creative writing. That propelled me to launch a business called Write to Heal where I facilitate journal workshops and coach those who would like to make the leap to poetry, short stories, essay, and memoirs.

Once I started my business, I also dubbed my own “writer” Matryoshka, to remind me of the intention of my writing for myself and my readers.

How Matryoshka: Uncovering Your Many Selves Through Writing can help you

The personal essays and questions in this book, touching on issues of the body, mind, and spirit, can help you reflect on your many selves. An excerpt was just published at SpiritualityHealth.com .  Read it here to see what’s in store for you if you buy the book!

Go to my Contact page to order.


I’m delighted to introduce my massage therapist, Mimi Batman.  Mimi (Marie) is a Delaware Licensed Massage Therapist with almost 20 years experience.  Mimi practices in the Wilmington-Delaware area where she has a massage studio near Prices Corner.  She has been trained in many modalities, and blends them to create unique massages tailored to her individual clients.  She also enjoys writing, theater, and hiking with her husband Pete.  If you would like to receive more essays from her, please let her know via e-mail:  batman.massage@gmail.com.

Legacy by Mimi Batman

I am grateful for the legacy of Sally Gwin. I’m not related to her, but I have benefited personally from the oak trees that she had planted on either side of the Grand Boulevard in Greenwood, Mississippi.

There is something about a slow growing oak tree, a special ancient energy that is both soothing and grounding.

I was told the story of how she went up and down the Boulevard (back when it was a dirt road in a cotton field) with a horse-drawn wagon planting oak saplings on either side of what would later become a four-lane road.

She envisioned a four lane boulevard with a median, over-arched with oak trees. And so it became.

As a child I always knew we were close to Oma’s house when we turned onto the Grand Boulevard which was flanked by oaks so large that even as an adult I can not wrap my arms around them. Reaching for the sky, arching over the street to touch the leaves of the oak opposite them, they created a long, cool tunnel of trees. I loved those oak trees. They shielded us from the expansive, flat, hot, empty Mississippi Delta. The tree reaches down through the earth with her roots. They ground her, keep her from blowing over in harsh winds. Her roots balance her and nourish her with the minerals of the earth.

My roots: my toes. My toes keep me balanced. Spread out, they hug the earth beneath me. They push off when I jump or run. Toes feel warm in warm socks as they navigate soft cushy carpet. Toes feel cold on cold stone as they navigate the dark of night. Toes feel happy in the sunshine in sandals free from the confines of winter boots. Toes are essential, but usually forgotten.

My grandfather only had 3 toes on his right foot. He showed me. I was told by my mother that he had shot himself in the foot to get out of the trenches in WWI. He was a ninth grade  German boy and they’d pulled him out of school, desperate for soldiers to fight Germany’s hopeless war.

He sacrificed a few toes to get out of the trenches. He knew what was important and what wasn’t . Our roots, our foundations, are not only our own toes, but the toes of those who came before us. Their decisions and inactions brought us to this place. We look back, we look forward. We are here because of them. The future will rest on our choices (and lack of choices) today. What is your legacy? Who in the past has shaped your family today? Who’s lives have impacted yours?

What is your legacy to future generations? Who’s lives will you impact? I choose a legacy of peace. I choose truth, health and vitality in my life and the life of those who are influenced by me.  When relationships are difficult, and decisions are hard I have to remind myself that I’m not just fighting for myself, but for people I don’t even know yet.


Congratulating Linda Hall

I’d like to congratulate Linda Hall, a former journal student of mine. Her story, “The Miracle Lady,” has just been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miraculous Messages from Heaven.
Writing has always been a major force in Linda’s life, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes the background. Following her husband’s death five years ago, she has reconnected with her writer, including learning grant writing and revising “Miracle Lady,” the story about her mother’s near-death experience 20 years ago. Click the link below to read an  interview with Linda in Town Square Delaware.

100 Word Flash Memoirs

Anyone can write 100 word flash memoirs.

Just remember one punctuating life-moment. It could be 20 years ago, or just yesterday. Perhaps something painful, perhaps blissful. Then, be in that moment, and write a few lines.

Thanks to Joan Leof and some Twitter friends, I’m re-inspired to get back into my memories, and start writing again. After journaling for 28 years, I’d given up on trying to make a coherent, succinct chronicle of my story. I thought I’d be content just to keep journaling.
Then, in a conversation with Joan, she stirred the soup of my creative complacency. She reminded me of my belief that my story is worth telling. She rekindled my hope that stories should connect our human race, like a patchwork quilt of peace. This re-awakened my vision of publishing my story.

I used to be overwhelmed by the thought of all the work involved in piecing together the bits of my life into something interesting for the public. Characters. Plot development. Themes and sub-plots. Point of view. Do I flash-back or flash-forward? But when I learned about Flash Memoirs from Jessica Jensen (@jensen_jessica), the story started writing itself.
Each day, I write just one mini-story: a 100-word piece, inspired by a memory or one highlight on my timeline. Flash-Memoirs are to an autobiography what Haiku are to poetry.

Here’s an example:

Closeted on a Cruise Ship

navy Ensign_smallI accepted the offer. A fresh start, new beginning. A crisp uniform. My first chance to explore the world. What a miraculous opportunity! From a dead-end desk job, to a luxury cruise line officer. Far from everything I ever knew. New people. Sights. Languages. Foods. A buffet of cultures. An open space in which to declare myself whatever I want to be. Teacher. Author. Healer. Purveyor of truth and justice. A beacon for those who are striving to understand and accept themselves. Only, this ship is one socially screwy place. A repressed and chauvinistic environment. A swarm of gay men, but deep in denial! I’m lonely, and back in the closet again.

About the Author of this post, Nathan Ohren

Nathan Ohren researches the web for journaling experts who have a story to share. He found me a couple of months ago and we have started a stimulating dialogue. When he shared his positive experience with 100-WORD FLASH MEMOIRS, I invited him to share it here.

Nathan is the host of JournalTalk, a bi-weekly podcast featuring expert information and inspiration on journal-writing. He has been keeping a personal journal for over 28 years, and enjoys coaching people and facilitating groups for creativity, self-empowerment and effective life management. Nathan is the founder of www.Write4Life.us, a resource for “living with passion, clarity, and purpose through journaling.”

Up on the Roof

Today I feature a second guest post by a Brandywine Writers’ Circle member, TCDavis.  Tom grew up in Wilmington, as this post will reveal.  He’s a photogapher, as well as a writer.  A photo of his heads the post, which is entitled, “Up on the Roof”.


photo by TCDavis

I ran in the Y this morning, around the banked gray track above the main gym.  That track was so terrifying when I was a boy!  There was no protective railing at the bottom, so a kid tripping at a curve might slip beneath the first rail and plunge to the basketball court below. This was my constant fear, at any rate.

I’m no longer a child, and there is a finer spaced barrier all around the track now, so I run without fear.  I run remembering how Dad loved this place. I run imagining him as a young man, striding this very path, round and round, strong and confident.

The rising sun is streaming through the thick block glass of the eastern wall, bathing the track in a tawny glow, and I feel my father’s spirit, strong and confident, and pleased that I’m following in his footsteps.

Dad was an athlete:  Golden Gloves boxer and gymnast.  He could walk on his hands in the loose beach sand, and glide like an airplane flying backwards over the winter ice of Twin Lakes.  In his body he possessed the grace he lacked in personality.  Who knows whether he would have been equally graceful in that way, had he felt as safe at home as he did at the Y.

Home was not safe for him.  I learned this when he was recovering from a heart bypass operation, and I, emboldened by years of schooling and therapy, dared to ask:  “Was there domestic violence when you were growing up?”

He lowered his gaze and nodded yes.  That was all I got.  I wanted to ask whether he had been hit, but decided to let that be.  Dad had told me once that he overheard his mother and father arguing, and revealing in their rage that neither had wanted him to be born.  What a blow that must have been!  Violence to the very soul.

When Dad’s health was failing his blood chemistry went kerflooey.  He was hallucinating.  I was in his hospital room during one such episode.

I asked him, “Where are you, Dad?

“I’m on the roof of the YMCA,” he replied.

“What are you doing up there?”

“Enjoying the view! It’s so beaufiful!”

When he had regained ordinary consciousness I told him what he said he had seen.


“”Yes,” he explained.  I would hang out at the Y as long as I could, in the pool, at the gym, up on the roof.”

“Why the roof, Dad?”

“There was a concession stand up there.  I’d eat a sandwich and look out over the city.  It was a grand view.  Made me feel good.”

When Dad got so sick he couldn’t leave his bedroom I took pictures of the Y and mounted them in a large frame, with a clipping of the lyrics of the Drifters’song:

“When this old world starts getting me down

And people are just too much for me to face

I climb way up to the top of the stairs

And all my cares just drift right into space


On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be

And there the world below can’t bother me.


Let me tell you now . . . .

Right smack dab in the middle of town

I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof, up on the roof.

And if this world starts getting you down

There’s room enough for two

Up on the roof, up on the roof.


That reminder hung in his room until he died.  It’s mine now.


— TCDavis

What a Veteran Discovered About Himself Upon Returning to Vietnam

For this post I’ve invited a friend to guest write.  Tom Davis (known as TCDavis on the internet) is a retired pastor, interfaith peacemaker, and my Web guru.  Take it away, Tom!

— Joan


Thanks Joan, for the opportunity to post here.
About a year ago I joined a group of writers convened by Joan.  We meet weekly, and recently decided to call ourselves the Brandywine Writers’ Circle.

TCDavis_portraitI like to have specific listeners in mind when I write.  That’s how I managed to turn out sermons every week for over twenty years:  by holding in my imagination particular persons to whom I am speaking .  My BWC colleagues fulfilled that role for me in a recent project, a kind of travel journal called Double Exposure:  A Veteran Returns to Vietnam.  I say a kind of travel journal, because Double Exposure is really more about me than the place I fought in forty three years ago.

Along her own very difficult life’s journey Joan experienced deep benefits from journaling, which she tells about in her book, Fatal If Swallowed: Reclaiming Creativity and Hope Along the Uncharted Path .  Now she encourages others to journal as a path toward healing.  I’m sure that’s why she asked me to write here on what I learned about myself through the writing of Double Exposure.
Well, Joan, here goes:

I learned that merely by recording events I can increase my awareness of the significance of what happens on any day.  Also, I learned that when I reflect thoughtfully about what happens, in order to weave events into a larger story, they take on even more significance for me.  Let me illustrate.

At mid life, while working for a master’s degree in counseling, I received the assignment to write a psychological autobiography.  Students were urged to be absolutely candid, and to interpret as best they could the meaning of their experiences.  I had returned from Vietnam almost two decades prior, but had never written about my war experiences.  I didn’t have flashbacks, but over the years certain memories kept rising from the deep. They would reappear every so often in my mind’s eye. Writing about them for the assignment, even in a very superficial way, quieted them somewhat.  They visited me less often.

The writing of Double Exposure was even more cathartic, for in this effort I had to ponder troubling memories, really come to grips with them, and face what they told me about myself.  This was scary and sad.  I was grateful for the support of colleagues as I stirred up the mud.

What I discovered about myself is that I was capable of surprising acts, both laudable and deplorable.  I was capable of selfless, loving acts, and angry, vicious ones.  This realization, mind you reader, never hit me in all those years  I was raising a family.   I had always thought of myself as basically a good person.  Coming to grips with my war memories ripped open that self-protective veil to reveal a dark side I had not acknowledged before.

Finally, the writing of Double Exposure made me aware of a deep desire to make amends.  I have started a photo sharing group at Flickr.com between Vietnamese and American photographers.  Most of the members are young Vietnamese, and several are from north Vietnam, the kinds of persons I was doing my best to kill in 1970–a striking and redemptive irony!  Please join us at http://www.flickr.com/groups/vietnam-unitedstates_sharing and share pictures of the America you love.



baretree_thumb.jpgHave you ever had a special relationship with a tree, or group of trees? Think back to childhood and throughout your life.

I have had several significant relationships with trees. Below is a poem  I wrote a couple of decades ago about such an experience. It recently appeared in my memoir.


dance in lace

the treetops


the morning sky

in dark green lace

when the lace

took pause

i snipped

a yard or so

swirled it around

my bare swaying body


to join their dance



1. A relationship(s) you have/have had with a tree (s).

2. A significant relationship you have/have had with any aspect of nature.

3. “In some Native American languages, there is no word for loneliness. The people consider all nature their kin.” Jan Phillips, Divining the Body

Do you relate to any aspect of nature as kin?

4. A healing experience (s) you have had through nature.

5. Make a list of chapters for your autobiography with every chapter relating to an aspect of nature.

6. The aspect of nature that feels most like a metaphor for your experience of YOU.

World’s Oldest Newspaper Columnist


“Miss Hemenway began her writing career at the age of 90, and on the 29th of this month she will turn 100. She is probably the oldest newspaper columnist in the United States, perhaps on earth.” This was from an article written about Ruby Henenway in 1984.

It seems fitting since my first blog post, 1/30/12, was about men who began writing when they were in their late 90s and 100, that my first post for 2013 showcases a woman who began her writing career at age 90.

Whether it’s Christy Brown writing his autobiography with his left foot, the only part of his body that he could control, men learning to read and then write their stories in the ninth and tenth decade of their lives, or Ruby taking on a column at age 90, the commonality is the same – when the desire for self-expression is strong enough, neither age nor disability need be an obstacle.

What are YOUR obstacles?


Three things from you inner world that keep you from your writing (i.e. insecurity, fear of exposure, perfectionism).

Three things from your outer world that keep you from writing (i.e. job, family, commitments).

Imagine yourself at 90 or 100 being asked what you regret not having written about. What would that be?

Your Hero (es)

left-foot_thumb.jpgDecades ago I read My Left Foot, the memoir of Christy Brown. As Reid Gagle says on an online site —  “Christy Brown is a spastic quadriplegic born to a large, poor Irish family. His mother, Mrs Brown, recognizes the intelligence and humanity in the lad everyone else regards as a vegetable. Eventually, Christy matures into a cantankerous writer who uses his only functional limb, his left foot, to write with.”

Christy became my hero. I identified deeply with his yearning for written self-expression, despite his disabilities from Cerebral Palsy. He became a symbol for me of overcoming whatever one’s obstacles are to own one’s story through the written word.

The seed was planted back then for me to open the Christy Brown School to help other’s tell their story. People went to special schools for dance, painting, music, drama, I reasoned. They would come to the Christy Brown School for written self-expression — journaling and creative writing.

Life happens. I never did get to open that school, but the same yearning that drove Christy has never left me, nor has my desire waned to help others overcome, like Christy, whatever they need to in order to write.

Eight months ago I launched Self-Expression Salon from the seed of my Christy Brown School vision. Thank you for being a member.



1. Your hero (es)

2. When a hero of yours inspired you to take action in your life

3. When a hero disillusioned you

4. A seed you planted that came to fruition in a way you didn’t anticipate (including with your writing)

5. Someone who sees you as a hero

6. A recent seed you have planted

“Saved by a Poem”

Have you ever been saved by a poem — one you’ve written or read? I have — by both!

So has Kim Rosen, as she explains in her book, Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words. Kim also has written an article for the July/August issue of Spirituality & Health magazine called “The Medicine of Poetry.” In the article she says, “…current scientific research shows that your brain waves, breathing and pulse literally change when you give voice to a poem, opening your mind beyond ordinary thinking. The physical elements of the poem literally create the biochemical circumstances for healing and insight.”

I invite you to think about your history with poetry.

1. If you’ve written poetry, do you remember your first one? What inspired it?

2. What is the last poem you wrote? What inspired that?

3. Do you remember the first poem you ever memorized?

4. Do you have a favorite love poem?

5. If your confidence and creativity for writing poetry were at their peak, what would you write about?

6. If you could hire a great living poet to write a poem as gift from you, what would the poem be about and who would the

recipient be?

7. What poems have comforted — or even saved — you?