Kathleen Dowling Singh: Wake Up Now
In 1998, Kathleen Dowling Singh published The Grace in Dying (HarperCollins), a groundbreaking work on the spiritual process that often accompanies dying. Now, in her second book, The Grace in Aging (Wisdom, Aug.; reviewed in this issue), Singh urges baby boomers to wake up to their spiritual selves before it’s too late. “If there is all of that radiance, peace, love, and basic sanity, why wait until 11:59?” she asks over iced herbal tea in her quiet, Buddha-bedecked home in Sarasota, Fla.
Singh was an unknown when, inspired by her observations as a hospice worker and transpersonal psychologist, she wrote The Grace in Dying. “I began to see in people who were dying the same types of spiritual shifts you would see in longtime meditators,” Singh says. “There is a really deep inner process going on for everyone at the end of life. People get deeper. People get real. Gratitude arises. Forgiveness arises.”
That first book deal came about because she reached out to respected spiritual teachers like philosopher Ken Wilber, founder of Integral Institute, whose 20 books include Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Shambhala, 1995). Singh says Wilber supported her book wholeheartedly and referred her to agents. After The Grace in Dying came out, she says, “I left hospice and [basically] did a five-year book tour.”
While she says The Grace in Dying was expository, Singh describes The Grace in Aging as contemplative. Crossing all wisdom and religious traditions, she says it deals with this question: “What can we do to explore grace in the middle of living?” Singh intends the book for readers in their mid-50s and older. She wants them to realize life is finite, they don’t know how many days they have left, and if they are ever going to experience a spiritual awakening they should do it now. Singh believes many Westerners are blocked by the feeling that they have a basic flaw, and that spiritual awakening is available to other people but not themselves.
Many people fail to attend to their spiritual selves as they go about life. “All that stuff you worked so hard to acquire is going for pennies and dollars at yard sales,” she says, “and you should clean out your closets spiritually.” When people wake up they can appreciate the deeper meaning of life. “It’s all really lovely—all of it, even the hard parts.”
A resident for 30 years of Sarasota County, Fla., where she is still in private practice, Singh grew up Catholic in Fairfield County, Conn., left the faith in college, and defined herself as a Buddhist for years, although not so much now. “I guess at this point I don’t see a need for a label,” she says. While she has no specific conception of an afterlife, Singh holds an “abiding faith” that something about us exists outside birth and death.
Singh is now at work on a book about the spiritual awakenings of respected Buddhist and Christian contemplative teachers. We live in a time when people have access to every religious tradition for wisdom, she notes, and “I do think there is a merging in America, a one-dharma approach to awakening.”—Juli Cragg Hilliard
Sukey Forbes: A Way Through Grief
It took many years and much reflection for Sukey Forbes to begin to feel alive again after her daughter Charlotte died of a high fever at the age of six. But one day, after a stranger said to her, “You are so full of life,” she realized that, for the first time in a long time, she was. Her healing process is chronicled in The Angel in My Pocket: A Story of Love, Loss, and Life After Death (Viking, July).
While Forbes knew her daughter’s death was a tragedy she would never get over, she also knew it was one from which she hoped to grow stronger. “I was equal parts determined to move through the grief, to really feel it, and determined to move back to living a full range of emotions, though I didn’t know if that was possible,” Forbes says. That journey through grief is interwoven with the narrative of her family’s distinguished New England heritage in The Angel in My Pocket, and she says the family dynamic both “helped and hindered the process.”
The great-great-great granddaughter of Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Forbes’s family is solidly Boston Brahmin, a tradition famous for its privacy and discretion regarding family matters. She says her family has been “largely supportive” of the book, though some have shown concern. “I’ve tried to be sensitive about sharing and about balancing personal privacy and collective responsibility,” she says.
Forbes’s family tree offered the comfort of knowing that each member’s life had been recorded and remembered, going back generations. “I know the names and a little bit about each of 500 people on the tree,” she says. “Being supported by that type of a network, that culture, was important to me.”
Whether visiting her family’s island off the coast of Cape Cod or floating on a lake in Minnesota, Forbes also found comfort and peace in the natural world. “Part of my family tradition is coming through Emerson,” she says. “We find God in nature. Although I like going to a church for the traditions that are there, I feel closest to God in nature. All of my breakthroughs and breakdowns have been there.” She says a sense of place is important in her writing and that, in The Angel in My Pocket, nature, at times, serves as “therapist, God, or holy refuge.”
Ultimately, however, the book is not about a particular place, but a process. “It’s a story of resilience,” Forbes says. “It’s not just striving but thriving. I worked to find the gift in grief. If we’re open to it, there are great lessons to be learned from our suffering. I wanted to find those gifts and come back a better person for the grief.”
Forbes hopes her own story will help others as well. “My primary goal in writing this book was to give people permission to decide to be okay, that they could work through horrible loss, pain, or suffering,” she says. “And if they do get to the other side, they could end up richer as a human being. Death can soften us in good, productive ways.”
Even 10 years after her daughter’s death, Forbes continues to grow and change because of her loss. “There’s still a huge hole that won’t heal,” she says. “But my heart has grown to allow more space for other things around that hole.”
In her efforts to heal, Forbes sought the advice of mediums and clairvoyants, trying to communicate with Charlotte. Stories of the near-death experiences of others and inexplicable signs in her own life have led Forbes to feel her daughter remains present in a real way.
For Forbes, what awaits us in the afterlife remains uncertain, yet she feels a sense of comfort and believes her daughter is in a good place. “We as souls don’t go away,” she says. “When we die, souls leave [our] bodies, and I don’t know where they go, but they don’t vanish permanently, and what’s left behind becomes a part of us. I have moved to a place where I carry my daughter with me.” Forbes’s living children are 17 and 13. When they and Charlotte were younger, she would say, “If you miss me put your hand over your heart, because I’m in there.” Now, she puts her hand over her own heart, and thinks of Charlotte. “I feel that she is in there,” she says. “It’s as if we changed roles.” —Kerry Weber
Ace Collins: Inspired by Dogs
Sometimes rescue dogs save us not just from fire, flood, and fallen buildings, but from ourselves.
That’s the theme of Ace Collins’s new book, Man’s Best Hero: True Stories of Great American Dogs (Abingdon, June; reviewed in this issue), a collection of tales about real-life dogs that saved the lives of the people who loved them, often in unexpected ways.
“Bum” was an abandoned dog living a rough life on the streets of New York City in the early 1900s when he found a homeless man freezing to death in a stable and went for help, saving his life. They adopted each other, and man and dog found the strength to pick themselves up off the streets.
Collins, the author of more than 80 books, says these stories—about a dog who stops traffic every day so children can safely cross the street, a dog who carried communication wires through the trenches during WWI, a dog who jumped in a frozen lake, not once but three times, to save a drowning man—give us a glimpse of the potential in all living creatures.
“Rescue dogs don’t need to be put down,” Collins says from his home in Arkadelphia in his native Arkansas. “They have incredible gifts they can give us and many things they can teach us. They are not limited by people’s perceptions of them.”
Collins’s own rescue dog, a blind collie named Sammy who he and his wife rescued from a puppy mill, happily romped in the backyard mud as he spoke with PW. “Sammy is blind, and you would think, no way he can have a happy, productive, normal life, and yet he does,” Collins says. So did the dogs whose stories he tells in Man’s Best Hero. Many of them ended up in loving homes after being abandoned for some defect.
Sammy also led Collins to write the book. Lil Copan, senior acquisitions editor at Abingdon Press, read posts on Collins’s blog about Sammy and suggested he write a book about special dogs.
It is a return of sorts for the author. Well-known for his behind-the-scenes stories of famous singers and famous songs (Music for Your Heart, Abingdon, 2013) and for his seat-of-the pants fiction thrillers (Darkness Before Dawn, Abingdon, 2013), he also wrote two books in the 1990s about the real-life Lassie.
In a way, Collins says, he’s been preparing to write this book for a long time. “I have had dogs all my life, and they are around me and with me more than most people are. I think that gives me a natural ability to understand a bit more about how they are thinking. If you know them to that level, it is not that hard to get inside their heads.”
Collins hopes this won’t be his last dog book. He is already at work on a biography of Sammy and wants to update Man’s Best Hero every year. “I would love to get readers to nominate their own dogs as heroes. Then I would write a book about 10 or 12 heroes a year,” he says. “That would thrill me to death.”—Kimberly Winston
Bonnie Gray: Finding Healing Rest
Bonnie Gray’s panic attacks started in 2011, just as she was making progress on her first book, a how-to title that was to be based on her successful blog, Faith Barista. The attacks didn’t end until 2012, when she turned from that project and embarked on a very different book, the memoir-cum-guidebook Finding Spiritual Whitespace: Awakening Your Soul to Rest (Revell, June).
Every night during the anxiety-ridden year she was trying to write her first book, Gray awakened every two or three hours with severe, choking panic attacks that were subsequently diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by a series of events she’d experienced as a child, including her father’s painful departure after her parents’ divorce and her mother’s strict approach to discipline, which once left Gray alone and feeling abandoned in their basement apartment for hours when she was four years old.
A married mother of two young sons, the 43-year-old Gray says that in spite of her demanding childhood, for most of her life she was “fearless,” meeting the high expectations faced by a first-generation Chinese-American who was the eldest child of a single mother. Gray graduated from UCLA with a degree in computer science and engineering, and for years she worked as a high-tech corporate marketing professional. She cultivated a rich Christian faith, made a home in Silicon Valley, and didn’t bat an eyelash at double-black diamond ski runs.
Gray’s deep, secret hope was to be a writer, but she felt the pressure to provide for her family and earn their respect instead of pursuing that dream. It was only in 2009, when she stopped working to stay home with her babies, that she started Faith Barista, a blog that explores the daily realities of being an “everyday Christian.”
The blog led to the book deal—and the panic attacks. Shaken, Gray sought solace in her faith and the help of a therapist. Finding Spiritual Whitespace, a painful, honest, and inspiring account, chronicles Gray’s discovery that “in order to find my voice and heal my heart, I had to bring all parts of my story back to light,” she tells PW.
Key to the process of recovering her memories and integrating them into both her spiritual and worldly selves was accessing the ability to rest in what Gray calls “spiritual whitespace.” The term refers to the artistic and design principle that it is the unmarked, unfilled areas of a space or image that give the whole piece its definition, clarity, and meaning.
“Whitespace allows a painting to breathe,” says Gray. “It gives your eye a place to rest so you can see the colors.” And in the swirl of modern life, she says, spiritual whitespace “is a beautiful place where souls can rest.” Gray’s spiritual whitespace proved to be her writing, but for others hiking, gardening, cooking, or singing could be sources of this healing rest, she writes. Journal prompts and biblical insights pepper the narrative, inviting readers to embark on journeys like Gray’s.
Now free from panic attacks following a therapeutic breakthrough a year ago, Gray reflects on the obstacles that stood in the way of her healing for so long—and her spiritual growth as she overcame them.
“It’s hard for us to stop and rest because we have to face why we need it,” she says. “But spiritually speaking, that’s our richest connection point with God. I don’t have to do a thing. I just have to rest in God’s presence.”—Holly Lebowitz Rossi
Taffi Dollar: Embracing God’s Love
Taffi Dollar wrote her seventh book, Embracing the Love God Wants You to Have (Amistad, June) thinking about Coretta Scott King and Harriet Tubman. They personify what Dollar strives to accomplish in the women’s ministry she founded as co-pastor (with husband and author Creflo Dollar) of World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga. King and Tubman offer role models for women who struggle to make God a central part of their lives, which is also her struggle, Dollar says.
Dollar initially wanted to call the book The Gracious Woman. But as it evolved to focus increasingly on relationships, the title changed to reflect a more intimate and tangible goal. “Since there’s such a focus in the book on the woman herself and the family and other people, we tied in the significant parts of [a woman’s] relationship with God,” Dollar says. “It’s not just getting the love God wants us to have or receiving it, but really engaging in it.”
Drawing on the influence of “women of old, who were being led by the Holy Spirit, and meditating on God’s word,” she says, Dollar ends each chapter with a prayer and a few blank pages for readers to journal under topics like “Breakthrough,” “Growth,” and “Mastery of New Understanding.” She included that space to make the inspirational book more useful for support groups or for devotional meditation, a practice that helped her grow in her own relationship with God.
Embracing the Love God Wants You to Have offers tips and advice to help women build their self-esteem and draw them closer to God, their mates, and their children. The book draws on Scripture, personal anecdotes, and Dollar’s experiences with women she ministers to. She says the idea grew out of her own history. “God’s love helped me to get over my particular fears,” says Dollar. “This book addresses a part of me that I haven’t written about in the past, being upfront and honest about traumatic childhood experiences.” She writes about being awakened in the middle of the night at the age of five by a man tapping on her window. Although her father chased the man away, the fear never left her.
The power of redemptive love—in relationships with God, family, and friends—is an emphasis of the book. “Jesus was a redeemer,” Dollar writes. “Jesus didn’t know what would happen, but yet he was willing to do His part... asserting Himself and willing to die and willing to sacrifice. And so many times in relationships, that’s what it takes. Someone has to be willing to be the redeemer.”
Marriages don’t end over lack of love, she believes, but “an inability to change in the seasons of life,” she says. Her parents were married for 49 years, but their relationship ended because they were unable to accept change. Dollar wrote about that because “I thought that could help others and help them stand through crises and other tests of faith. Even sometimes when good things happen, we don’t always know how to deal with that.”
Dollar considers Embracing the Love God Wants You to Have her best work because it provides a framework for Christian readers to consider the ways we all evolve over time. “I’ve just come to a place in my life that I’m willing to share the good, the bad, and the ugly. Mistakes, triumphs, things like that,” says Dollar. “Most pastors’ wives can easily shy away from those things. There’s pressure to be perfect and not share the imperfections. I’m not ashamed to talk about the past and what made me who I am. More important than what people think is understanding how [to] overcome fears and the past.” —Joshunda Sanders
Drew Pittman: Winning Fathers
Drew Pittman’s sons were just nine and 11 when a routine moment got him thinking about how quickly his opportunity to shape their lives would be gone. Pittman, an NFL agent and the author of First Team Dad (Regal, July), came down the stairs for dinner one night to a glimpse of his wife and sons that stopped him in his tracks. It hit him that his boys were growing up fast.
“All these ideas I’d had of being a dad flooded through my mind. When I got married, I had one idea about what being a good dad looked like; by the time they were born, I had another,” he says. “But the only thing all those ideas had in common was that I hadn’t really acted on them yet.” Pittman says he “took a self-inventory and had to admit to myself that I was good, but not consistently great, at being a dad. For too long, I’d just assumed ‘good’ was enough. I was surviving and I was better than most. But that was a pretty subpar standard.”
With just seven years until his oldest would be out of the house, Pittman decided to act. He listed ways he could become a great dad, fleshing them out in hotel rooms late at night while he was on the road. It wasn’t long before the list began to look like a table of contents to Pittman. He concluded that what he and other fathers needed was something concrete, a game plan to take the lessons from the field to the family. In First Team Dad, Pittman covers concepts like redefining success, creating a distinctive family culture, fostering teamwork and the right attitudes, and motivating others to do their best.
“It’s easy to see [principles like teamwork or attitude at work] while we’re watching a game and recognize their importance, but taking those concepts and applying them to specific areas of our lives is harder,” Pittman says. One of the ideas Pittman took from the field and instituted in his own family is the huddle. The team huddle gives the coach a chance to provide guidance and the players a chance to tell what they’re seeing on the field. Pittman says the family huddle gives him and his wife a chance to hear what’s going on with the kids and give good coaching and feedback.
As an agent, Pittman has an eye toward helping his clients not just sign well with their first pro team, but also have solid careers. The average NFL career is just 2.3 years, he says, so players must make the most of their time on the field while remembering that there will be a lot of life to come after their time in football is over.
Fathers want to make the time they have with their kids count, too, Pittman says, but it’s important they take the long view of fatherhood when they’re tempted to think their voice doesn’t matter. “Some guys think they’ve missed their chance. Their kids may be teens or grown up with kids of their own. They think a book like this is for guys with young children; they say ‘All this book does is show me how bad I was.’” Pittman wants men to know it’s never too late to strengthen those relationships. “[Fathers] don’t have to keep a bad legacy going.”
“The state of anything—a team, a business, or a family—can be traced back to the leadership,” Pittman says. “Entities with strong leadership thrive while those with weak leadership don’t.” —Deonne Lindsey