Storytelling with Drake Students

Martha and I bundled up on a very snowy morning in early January, and drove to the Hotel Pattee in Perry Iowa. Lopso, the resident dog greeted us warmly at the back door. His name complements the fact that he had three legs, making him lopsided. He became a caring presence to us and the students. Lopso wandered in and out of our session, and paused only for his hotdog lunch.

Carol Spaulding-Kruse had asked us to facilitate three hours of yoga with Drake students during a J-Term class, focusing on the intersection of yoga and writing. We focused our session on Hanuman, the monkey-faced god of the Hindu myths. Even though Hanuman’s story is centuries old, its lessons are still relevant today. The Ramayana is one of India’s most popular myths. In it Ram asks Hanuman to complete several difficult and challenging tasks, that he believes are impossible. Each and every time, Hanuman tells himself that he cannot accomplish such enormous tasks, and yet, he always does. He’s been telling himself a story that simply wasn’t true.

Lopso the three-legged dog at Hotel Pattee
Sweet Lopso approved our message, however he stood firm that he could not skip his hotdog lunch.

As we told Hanuman’s story, we asked the students to consider the stories they tell themselves. Martha and I urged them to note which stories are true, and which are not. Sometimes in our minds, we tell ourselves stories like, “I’m not funny” or, “I’m too shy.” Because the stories aren’t always true, necessary, or helpful, they limit our capacity to experience our full humanity. We told the Drake students some stories we’ve told ourselves, and how they’ve not always been helpful, true, or necessary.

Yoga asks us to occupy space, to relish in the full capacity of our humanity. Hanuman reminds us we can do hard–even impossible–things, even when we’ve been telling ourselves we can’t.

Strengthen Relationships

Whether online, at work or at home, I measure the quality of my life by the health of my relationships. How am I feeling about the people and organizations I connect with? What am I accomplishing through those relationships? Are they helping me grow? Or distracting me from my hopes and dreams?

Cyndy Erickson, Shelly Johnson and I presented a workshop recently at the Iowa Non-Profit Summit on strengthening relationships to achieve a more productive workplace. Key components of strong friendships and partnerships are communication, focus, continuing assessment and feedback. Not a simple task, but the rewards are great.

Jose, one of my Earth Heroes summed it up, “Miss Martha, when I’m special I work really hard.” In very few words Jose eloquently stated the key to education. It’s about the relationships. Between students and teachers and among students.

This fascinating article in The New Yorker says this about the creative process, “Like every element of ‘Hopscotch,’ we figured it out through conversation, testing, discovery, iterating.” Opera director Yuval Sharon has created an amazing experience in limousines and on rooftops in Los Angeles. The piece made me want to fly to LA to see it and I’m not even an opera fan!

I’m sure their conversations included honest feedback, one of the most difficult components of communication. How often do we avoid mirroring someone’s unproductive behavior to them? Or withhold the positive feedback that provides motivation and incentive for futher effort?

What are the costs of avoiding those conversations? Cyndy Erickson facilitates Fierce Conversations including delegation, confrontational and coaching conversations. It can be done as a one- or two-day workshop and could be combined with Real Colors or other professional development.

Real Colors is a personality assessment based on Myers-Briggs. We use it to help groups identify strengths and preferences. Then we build on it to develop better communication and stronger teams.

What is amazing to me, but perhaps shouldn’t be, is the way the group at the Summit received a brief centering/mindfulness exercise. More and more I’m using techniques I’ve learned from yoga to bring groups into the present as we begin programs. Giving permission and instruction for stillness and breathing seems to strike a chord among many.

For strong relationships, the ability to pause and breathe deeply is essential to overlooking minor annoyances, for gathering courage for the difficult conversation, for rewarding jobs well done.

Tell Me Something Good

I’ve worked with Des Moines kids since 1980. Sometimes it’s hard to be optimistic when the challenges seem to multiply each year. But this article and the statistics it uses to illustrate its points provides some tangible examples of progress.DSC_0285

This morning I taught art to half a dozen boys who attend a group home for various problems they’ve had at home. We start each week with an art journal. Today more than one boy started their journals with, “I hate my life.”

I gradually introduced different media, first crayons. I asked the boys to experiment with using different pressure, and mixing different colors. Then I passed out watercolors and had them paint over their crayon drawings and see what happened.

They really got excited when I put their watercolor paper under the faucet and told them to go experiment with putting watercolor on it. They tried brushing, splattering, dripping. Their attempts produced a variety of results, but the product isn’t the point with these young men.

The point is building self confidence and a sense of mastery. Using simple tools and media gives these boys a chance to succeed, to produce something they’re proud of, whether it’s for the spring show or to take home to decorate their rooms.

DSC_0330Last week we built structures per Andy Goldsworthy. First we watched the movie Rivers and Tides as well as a satire my cousin created. The idea of just creating a piece of art was a little too abstract, so I asked them to build structures. They learned collaboration, creativity, perseverance and problem solving through the activity.

They climbed trees, got dirty and wet, and came up with several different approaches. Today when we walked back to the woods, their shelters were still there. And they crawled into them.DSC_0278

Become an Embodied Being

“Your body is a temple of the holy spirit,” I think that’s one of the few catechism teachings that made a real impact on my life. It’s made me hesitate to get tattoos, though I do have some “nasty piercings” as my daughter calls them. Since I started practicing yoga about four years ago, that catechism passage has become more meaningful to me.

We are embodied beings. The path to harmony with nature and fellow humans is at least in part through physical discipline. To create serenity and contentment, we must nurture and respect our bodies. Too many of us (some say 90% of women) do NOT respect our bodies. We think we’re too fat even when we’re too thin. We yoyo diet and don’t get enough exercise.

“Be the Change in Your Body” is part of a series of Thursday evening dinner discussions at Christopher’s Restaurant. Join us on January 2, 2014 for a discussion on changes that happen to our bodies, with or without our permission. What it takes to accept those changes and the power they have over our self confidence. We’ll explore what it means to be embodied beings, to nurture our spirits by keeping our bodies healthy. We’ll discuss our relationships with food, and the ways we move our bodies to enhance our lives.

“This body of ours is a temple of the Divine”

Katha Upanishad, Hindu tradition

Hope is a Verb

It’s hard to be hopeful when we’re bombarded with news 24/7. Sometimes it’s next to impossible to scare up the courage just to go out into a world where it’s ok for almost anyone to carry an automatic weapon.

Much less to speak up about what we believe, whether it’s a big issue–climate change or a small one. Well, after a fairly thorough search, I’m pretty sure there ARE no small problems. Maybe a few inconveniences.

But I read an article this afternoon in More Magazine that takes it down to the simplest of solutions. Go back to the things that comforted you in your childhood. Mira Bartok talks about rabbits, both literary and plush. She also writes of a photo of an absent friend on her fridge; I have a small gallery of mentors who have passed away on my dresser.

I can look into their eyes at the beginning of the day and find the courage to go out into the world to seek my fortune. I also have a necklace my friend Jill made me from beads she collected while she was in Peace Corps. When I was going through a particularly difficult time of my life I wore it to meetings where I felt vulnerable and needed the courage to tell my story.

That experience of reporting an incident of sexual harassment didn’t seem like it would change the world, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that can.

A young friend of mine, at great personal cost, brought charges against a doctor who harassed her. Her courageous action means he no longer can practice. She’s made it safer for women to trust the professionals we rely on.

Jane Goodall spoke at Drake University a few years ago. She sees a fairly dire future for the planet, her beloved chimpanzees and all of us. But she talked at length about hope and about the work she continues to do to turn the curve of climate change, “What else are you going to do? You can’t just give up!”

Just Sit There

Next Step Adventure is offering “Be the Change,” a loosely connected series of Thursday evening dinner discussions  at Christopher’s Restaurant beginning January 2, 2014 with “Be the Change in Your Body.” Register here for one event at $30 or register and prepay for all five events for just $125 ($25 discount).

Our February 27 session will focus on mindfulness. The more formal aspect of mindfulness is meditation. To be honest, I do better in moving meditation.

Walking, swimming and art are three of my favorites. In Sweat Your Prayers, the late Gabrielle Roth reflects on her nearly forty years of teaching personal and spiritual development.

Since I’ve been practicing yoga, seated meditation comes easier to me. Breath is one key. Observing your breath leads to managing it, then moving with it. Finally in savasana, we let our breath breathe us.

I’m excited to be making some progress in seated meditation–I can now sit comfortably for 20 minutes or so, without getting squirmy or falling asleep. Quite an improvement. So what?

So, it turns out meditation not only helps us handle stress but actually changes our brains and our bodies. As I age, I become more and more committed to maintaining my mobility, both physical and mental. My mom spent the last three years of her life literally vegging out in front of Animal Planet.

At her graveside service, I imagined God requiring a certain amount of stillness. Because she never stopped working, being busy, she had to make her quota all at one time. I plan to get my sitting done in a less painful way.

I just learned from Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight that staying in the present moment happens in the right side of the brain. “We are the life force power of the universe.” That’s what this neuroanatomist learned from having a major stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. She believes that through focusing in the right hemisphere of our brains, we can project peaceful energy into the world. Talk about an idea worth sharing!

We’ll touch on all of these aspects of mindfulness, and some others as well on February 27 at the “Be the Change” dinner discussion. We’ll focus the discussion on being fully present in life through meditation, putzing, art and yoga. Whether through formal or everyday practice, mindfulness improves mental health.

Be the Change

Next Step Adventure is offering a series of dinner discussions called “Be the Change” on Thursday evenings beginning January 2, 2014 with “Be the Change in Your Body.” All of the events will be held at Christopher’s Restaurant in Beaverdale. Register here for one event at $30, which includes a healthy dinner of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Or register and prepay for all five events for just $125 ($25 discount).

Many a conversation ends with a statement something like, “Well now that we’ve solved all the world’s problems…” Then we go on to the next discussion. I often feel more overwhelmed by the issues of the day at the end of the day than I did at the start. But Rachel Naomi Remen says something like, “What if you’re exactly what the world needs right at this moment?”

I love that, and I work to keep it in mind as I go through the happy and sad events in life. A dear family member was killed in a car accident a week ago, and it feels pretty hard to believe that all is right with the world. I know death is part of life. As Thich Nhat Han says, “We need to see the garbage as beautiful because the garbage is in process of turning into the flower.” So, I’m looking for peace and understanding.

Would you like to get some clarity and support for being the change you wish to see in the world? Then join us for a series of dinner discussions at Christopher’s Restaurant. Here are the topics for the five sessions:

  • January 2–We experience the world through our bodies, our senses and movement for our whole lives. We’ll discuss how to get back into our bodies and engage in life.
  • January 23–Join us for a lively discussion of lobbying, letter and op ed writing to be heard in the political arena.
  • February 6–Where is the courage to create change in times of big problems? It’s hard to be hopeful, but we’ll chunk down problems, explore how vulnerability enhances connection, and cultivate optimism.
  • February 27–Focus on being present in life through meditation, putzing, art and yoga. Whether through formal or everyday practice, mindfulness improves mental health.
  • April 3–How to improve our relationship with mother earth? We’ll explore things to do outdoors, eating a more sustainable diet, conserving fuel and decreasing stuff.


  • Martha McCormick–artist, yogi, transition coach, facilitator, teacher, entrepreneur
  • Kyla Cox–urban farmer, activist, community organizer, Zen student, counselor
  • Sonni Giudicessi–manager, yogi, political organizer, athlete

Attend one or all discussions at Christopher’s Restaurant, 2816 Beaver Avenue, Des Moines (Wheelchair Accessible). Register here for one event at $30, and includes a healthy dinner of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Register and prepay for all five for just $125 ($25 discount). Please send a check or money order to Next Step, 3615 Adams Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50310 by November 18th, or pay by credit card the night(s) of the event(s).

Questions? Ask Kyla at or 515-689-7255


Reach Out and Connect

I spent Thanksgiving weekend with LucyKate in New York City. We took the Metro to Noho, walked through Soho, the Bowery, and Washington Square. After a ramen lunch in St. Mark’s, we heard people shouting our names, and finally turned around to find the Kerman girls & friends, running to catch us. AMAZING to connect with people from home in the US’ busiest city. But it’s the second time it’s happened to me. Last time I was here, I ran into Duane Halbur outside Grand Central Terminal!

November and the holidays are all about reaching out and connecting. This time of year does bring up some stuff, as do sickness and loss. A couple old friends and I broke china, shouted, and got past family resentments so they can connect with their father, who has cancer, and needs to tell his story, forgive, and ask for forgiveness over the next couple years. They want to mend their family connections, and are working hard to do it.

When I reported on Healthy Polk 2020, Priority #8, to the Polk County Board of Health, I emphasized connecting and reaching out. Few people on my expert team were connected before. They weren’t the “usual suspects” who guide community action in central Iowa. I interviewed each of them before we met, and used each unique perspective throughout the process. At the first meeting I put toys out, used computer key intros, played “Get on the Bus.” They shared their bios to ensure connection beyond the task at hand.

At the Iowa Non-Profit Summit, I facilitated a panel of Gerry Schnepf, Elvin McDonald, and Jan Herke. When Elvin began as Director of the Friends of the Botanical Center, the Board complained of littering and vandalism on the grounds. Elvin reached out to the school up the hill, and now the Boys & Girls Club brings kids down every week to garden 20 ten-by-ten-foot raised beds. They pick up litter on their way, and vandalism has not been a problem since.

Jan talked about Youth in Parks, a program that’s been going strong since I worked with Urbandale, West Des Moines and Ankeny on a partnership that continues to plan, train and evaluate the program together. They connect hundreds of middle school kids with service opportunities in parks, nursing homes, and day cares.

Gerry talked about how service learning connects kids to communities, so much that some research indicates they’re more likely to stay put when they’re grown. Keep Iowa Beautiful is developing Teachers Going Green, based on service learning and place-based education. Both of these approaches connect kids and schools with the communities around them.

LucyKate is studying Independent School Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. Over the holiday, we talked about education and relationships a lot. We watched this wonderful TEDx video with Brene Brown. Could vulnerability really be the key to connections? What do you think?


Reflect on Service

I love service learning. It’s fun to help kids help people, in preschools, retirement communities, parks and gardens. Service learning is a respected way to get kids involved in their own educations.

But it’s not just about doing projects that help communities. For service learning to be valuable to young people as well as to the people they work with, we have to involve them in every step of every project–investigation, planning, action, reflection, demonstration and celebration.

After Global Youth Service Day last spring, Jessica Krough, Melissa Simmermaker of the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service, and I talked about innovative ways to reflect on the state-wide day of service. We decided to experiment with Internet based radio to bring kids together from different GYSD projects around the state. About eight kids joined me on my show, “We’re Entrepreneurs–we can help.” Three of my Earth Heroes, and two students from the Hoover High School STARS program came to the studio. Two students from Lamoni Middle School and their facilitator joined us by Skype.

The Earth Heroes talked about the ongoing project they’re doing for Global Youth Service Day. Jessica visited the garden, and helped them read the Governor’s Proclamation. They were still clearing the garden, building their dragon, and planting vegetables.

As Kyla, Terrance, I work with the Earth Heroes at the Des Moines Botanical Center, we talk about

  • What happened?
  • So what?–How did you feel? What did you learn?
  • Now what?–What’s next? How can you use this experience in the future?

Here is some of their wisdom–

  • “When I’m special, I work really hard.”
  • “I didn’t know broccoli grew on a plant.”
  • “Digging is fun!”

The Earth Heroes walk down the hill from Boys and Girls Club at Carver Community School to the Botanical Center, and we form a circle. The kids know the FIRST thing we do is the “Name Wave.” The kids lead the Wave, starting with everyone yelling out their name as loud as they can. Then come “compliments and appreciations,” a chance for everyone to say thank you, and talk about what we like.

It’s September, and the 2nd through 5th graders are harvesting squash, pumpkins, watermelon, beans, tomatoes, okra, onions, potatoes, peppers and sunflower seeds to take home. Any gardener knows fall is time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, what got done, and what didn’t. What was lost? Where did the summer go?

So, they’re taking photos in the gardens, and next week we’ll create a map of each of the 20 ten-foot X 10-foot raised beds, making notes about what grew, crops that worked well together, and what the Heroes learned from experiments with okra, mulching, and fall planting.

Service learning is a powerful way for young people to find relevance in education, dream about the future, and change the world.