Stories and Ideas

Maryellen kissed by a camel at the Pyramids_edited-1
“I’m getting happy again,” Maryellen Knowles, 73, said. After seven years of caring for an invalid husband, a time she describes as one of the most difficult of her life, she now experiences the “total freedom of being an older single woman…joyful, alive and healthy.”
This exuberance for life shows everywhere in her life–in her commitment to spirituality and art at her church, in her work as a spiritual companion, in her adventurous travel and most clearly in her focus on beauty, what she calls “the core of my being.”
“Beauty is everywhere if you notice it,” Maryellen says, but she’s quick to clarify that beauty and pretty are not the same thing. “Beauty is God solidified.”
Early on, photography became Maryellen’s way of exploring this beauty. Toting her Brownie camera, she covered school and family events as an eight-year old enthusiast.
Now with her digital Canon camera, she captures the faces of people on her travels around the world, as well as those in everyday life. Her personal joy comes… more
from working as a.landscape artist, an interest that takes her to the “woods and water” whenever time permit.
When Maryellen retired after 46 years in education, she returned to school to study spiritual direction. She still employs her skills in this vocation by serving as a companion to individuals and to small groups of women.
“I offer a yearlong program for women I call the ’4Ls’–Listen, Learn, Laugh and Love,” she said.
But when she realized that spiritual direction would not provide the income she needed as a retiree, she reflected on where her passion connected with her ability to support herself. “Where can I give joy? How can I connect with people in a life-giving way? How can I express through the arts the way I see beauty?”
This assessment led her to back to her childhood interest in photography. She offers her services capturing weddings, family celebrations, retirements and any event where people are interested in preserving memories.
Maryellen integrates her interest in photography and spirituality through her work as a volunteer for Arts in Worship by the Urbandale Church of Christ. This integration captures a “main theme of my life.”
“Photography is my spirituality,” she said. “It’s so much like me I don’t go anywhere without my camera.”
Maryellen’s approach to life shows not only in her photographs, but also in her joyful presence. Her explanation?
“If you choose to look with love, that’s how people will see you,” she said.
To learn more about Maryellen’s photography services and to view her work, go

“You can be warm and really tough”

Miyoko Hikjii chose this cover for her new memoir to be released May 30 to make a point: “You don’t need to hide your femininity. An exterior is just that,” she said.

In her deployment to Iraqi in March of 2003, people told her she didn’t belong there. She discovered otherwise. ”The moment of truth comes in your ability to make an instant decision that has nothing to do with yourself,” she said. ”I can pull a trigger.”

This insight and her desire to share her story prompted Miyoko to write her book, hoping it would be an “empowerment story” for other women. Yet the memoir is far from a pep talk. She describes it as a “no-holds barred, honest account of one woman soldier.”

Her story starts when she was called up to active duty as a member of the Army National Guard three days before her five-year commitment was due to end. She signed up for the Guard originally to take advantage of the benefits of the G.I. Bill and worked on a journalism degree at Iowa State University. She also had a desire for adventure. Deployed not long after the fall of Saddam Hussein, she was part of the first Army unit to occupy one of the first Iraqi Air Force bases. Located in Al Asad in a northwest Sunni triangle, she helped move supplies through check points, mostly by driving a truck.

A hostile environment for women

As a journalist and as a woman, she has a unique perspective on the war. Women comprise only 15 percent of military personnel and “live in a hostile environment.” Sexual assault is “hugely underreported,” according to Miyoko with only 6 to 13 percent of such assaults being reported. ”Rape is a tremendous problem. Lots of times I didn’t feel safe. That added to the trauma of my experience,” she said. “A lot of women have post-traumatic stress from feeling unsafe in a double way–both during working and during time off.”
“I developed a cold heart.”

Coping with this environment and the realities of life for citizens of Iraqi required Miyoko to develop was she calls a “cold heart.” ”I had to say to myself that that’s why life is like here and it’s not my problem,” she said.
Her recovery from this deployment is about “winning back her feelings.”
“It’s hard to express but service in this setting requires breaking all emotional gauges. I’ll never be the same again,” she said of what she considers the lifelong journey ahead to heal.
Writing has been helpful
Writing has been helpful, Miyoko discovered, as she participated in a writing program at the University of Iowa for veterans. It provided an opportunity “hang out” with other Iraqi veterans, as well as share experiences with Vietnam vets who comprised 50 percent of her class. ”Not everyone needs a counselor after military service but staying connected is critical,” she said.
Writing gave her the opportunity to share, as well as process her experience. ”It provides an opportunity to turn this experience into something beautiful as well as to give a part of it to someone else.” Her writing was also motivated by a desire to keep alive the memories of people she knows. ”Two of my friends were killed and two were disabled,” she said.
The impact on families and friends of loved ones lost is under appreciated. ”One of my friends who died was married with two sons and the other was engaged. These are people with a real future and whole families left behind.” Her own sister and mother were impacted by fear about her safety to the point they were reluctant to open the door or answer the phone.
Was the Iraqi war worth it?

“People gave a lot of heart and soul but the outcome is ambiguous. It’s hard to see a positive result,” she believes. Beyond toppling Saddam Hussein, the U.S. involvement has not resulted in a better life for Iraqis in her view. ”We didn’t need to be there a decade. People don’t have more economic security. They are not living any better. Training has been ineffective because Iraqis lack an identity with their country, preferring instead to defend and protect their tribal interests,” Miyoko said.
One accomplishment she notes is the reopening of schools for girls. ”We were able to build desks, chairs and provide school supplies, even though classes were held in bombed-out buildings without electricity,” she said.
People get close fast

Miyoko includes in her memoir  a history of women in the military and also charts the course of a romantic relationship that grew out of her deployment. “People get close fast,” she explained.
Miyoko is married to Tom and has two children, two and three. In addition to raising her family, she works as an actress in commercials and is writing on a second book. Her final advice to women:
“You find out what you’re made of when you take a risk. If you always play it safe, you’ll never know. The greatest risk offers the greatest benefit.”
All I Could Be: My Story as Woman Warrior in Iraqi is available at Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, in Barnes and Nobles stores and on Amazon.


“Here for the long haul”


“Recovering from trying times takes more than optimism and positive attitude,” Ronda Armstrong, writer, ballroom dancer and proponent of self-care said recently in discussing her more 38-year history of addressing the health challenges of Carney Triad, a rare tumor syndrome. “Do the best with ‘what is.’ Offer it a chair and embrace the good,” she advised, an approach she has modeled throughout her life.

When Ronda Armstrong was diagnosed with a disease that results in slow-growing tumors that often must be surgically removed or treated in other ways, she started a self-care routine that included time for rest, small meals and snacks due to a partial stomach, and attention to the priorities she and her husband Bill care about.

“I let go of taxing tasks to devote more time to dancing,” she said.  In her early forties dancing boosted her physical fitness to “its best ever.” Dancing filled Ronda and Bill with so much joy they adopted the motto, “Dancing Through Life.”

Yet when tumors continued to appear and additional surgeries were necessary, she knew it was time to raise self-care to a new level.

“No more dabbling. The previous tweaking of routines to support my health turned into bold moves,” she said. “Earlier shifts had not been sufficient to fit my personal needs.”

That led to choosing the activities that allowed her to contribute in positive ways to the lives of others while living with wellness as a primary goal.

“I prioritized getting enough sleep, and planned time for exercise and spiritual nourishment. After discerning the activities that gave me strength, I put aside those that drained me,” she said.

Facing a big life challenge? Consider this wisdom from Ronda’s life story:
Acknowledge your feelings. Grieve the loss.
Greet “what is” with hospitality, rather than avoidance or resistance.
Reflect on your situation. What am I learning? How can I use it?
Make self-care a priority.
Be intentional in making choices.
Share your story to experience healing energy and inspire others.

Ronda attributes her resiliency in part to her parents–a mother with a strong personal faith and a father who told stories and always asked her “What did you learn?”

Her husband taught her the levity of laughter through his aim to put a smile on everyone’s face.

“Finding humor unsticks us from challenging situations and moves us forward,” she said.

Her own gift for telling stories and writing has resulted in her work being publlshed in Chicken Soup for the Soul and in Tending Your Inner Garden’s Winter and Spring anthologies.

In her story in the Winter book, “A Tale of Comfort,”  she talks about how pets have “acted as guardian angels who comfort us through many tough times.” These pets and dear friends who have died have helped Bill and her “witness the beauty of life’s fragility and the depth of its hardiness.

“We discovered anew the gentle grace of imparting quiet attention and savoring smiles, stories and touching moments with those who needed us,” she wrote.

It’s wisdom that plays itself out in Ronda’s life. Often saying “no” to offices, committees, fundraising drives and other worthy causes, she chose instead to use her time in quieter ways that build on her gifts.

“I choose to believe what I do each day is enough: smiling and spreading small acts of kindness, encouraging and connecting with others by writing stories and caring notes, supporting others with prayers and presence, and sharing hospitality during community outings and social activities.”

Ronda, now 61, has retired from her school social work career, allowing these priorities to be a central focus. A friend who lamented she wished she had followed Ronda’s example of self-care earlier in life affirmed Ronda’s life path.

“Her comment helped me recognize that my commitment to self-care in a world that tends to skimp on rejuvenation and reward busyness has paid off with a legacy I’m proud to model,” she concluded.

Early on Ronda’s surgeon offered a prediction.

“Mrs. Armstrong, you’re gonna be here for the long haul!”








“God has a plan, we just don’t know what it is”


When Teree Caldwell-Johnson left her job as Polk County Manager in 2003 under what she calls “less than fortunate circumstances,” she was confident her faith would see her through. “When one door closes, another opens.”

The door she opened was that of a stay-at-home mother. “For one and one-half years I shed my professional responsibilities to be a mom, doing volunteer work and participating in carpools.”

Faith, friends and family kept her calm and centered.  This strong foundation reflects her upbringing. Her mother and father were devoted to education and activism. Her father was a high school teacher, principal and counselor who later went on to serve as a member of the City Council, as mayor of Salina, Kansas, and as a state legislator. Her mother was a college professor.

As the youngest of three, Teree also looked to her two older siblings who aspired to make a contribution in life.

“What you see (as a child) is what you replicate,” Teree said. So it’s not surprising that when a phone call arrived, inviting her back into the public sphere, she paused and reflected only briefly before responding.

Would she accept a position as CEO of  Oakridge Neighborhood Housing and Human Services, serving an inner city neighborhood?

“I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. This would be a great way to marry my management experience with a passion for community service,” she said.

Her original intent was to stay two years to help set a strategic direction. “But I had invested too much to leave. After eight years, I love it!” Teree said.

Heading up a residential program for primarily low-income families, including refugees and immigrants from 15 to 18 countries and three continents, challenges not only her head but also her heart.

“Poverty is a huge issue and current economics have accelerated the problem,” Teree said. “Minimum wage is not livable and people have to make tradeoffs to figure out how to get by.

Oakridge wraps families with comprehensive services as they look for employment, provide before and after-school care, and take care of young children at home.

“Poverty is a barrier, but not an excuse,” she said. “I’m torn by the hard calls.”

When it’s necessary to consider terminating a family’s residency, for example, she always “gives them an extra shot.” For Teree, “the children trump everything–what’s best for them.”

Her own principled and solid family background influences how she approaches the families who live at Oakridge. “I’m dealing with parents who are young, often uneducated and many don’t know how to parent,” she said. ”I treat people the way I want to be treated.”

Another way Teree serves the community is as a member of the Des Moines School Board. Elected in 2006, she believes this elected body should reflect the people being served. As the only minority on the board, she takes seriously her responsibility to represent the issues important to this community.

Although she hasn’t yet decided whether she will run again when her term expires this year, she’s firmly committed to staying at Oakridge.

“There’s too much to be done and too many people to do it for,” she said.

Love of natural world inspires music and poetry

Singer/songwriter/performer and teacher Cathy Hardy rediscovered what she calls the “Divine Presence” as she began walking her black lab Indie in the woods close to her home.

“I was drawn more and more to the beauty of the wild and untamed woods. I realize that my dog brought me ‘home’…to a place of profound refreshment, truth and life,” she said in relating the essence of her spirituality.

For Cathy, a resident of Mission, British Columbia, Canada, the woods teach her that she is part of a circle of life.

“My human existence will come and go and is a small part of a greater whole. Whatever ails me is small in comparison with the grand story and this helps me keep perspective.”

As a child living with her minister father and family on church property, she experienced the magic of dust particles “descending like stars through the light pouring in from the golden stained windows,” as she dusted the pews and window ledges of the church.

It’s this sense of the “Mystery of the Presence of Love,” nurtured in childhood and developed in a lifetime of experience, that infuses her music, called “soulful, spiritual, inspirational, healing and restful” by her fans.

She created her first solo CD, “Love Shines,” in 2011, nominated for Folk/Roots Album of the Year with Gospel Music Awards of Canada.

One song from that album called “Rise Up” reflects a transformative experience as she walked the woods for comfort during a “very low place” in her marriage. (Listen here:

“I saw a very large stick around 7 feet tall. I felt compelled to take the stick and begin walking. As I began to walk with tears streaming down my face, the stick pounded into the ground and began a rhythm. And I felt these words come to me, ‘rise up woman, rise up,’” she said.

The chorus of this song was born. As Cathy began to hear other women’s stories of challenge, she began to sing this “rise up” refrain. “After a year, I realized this needed to become a full song and so it did.”

Cathy is also beginning to write poetry and her poem “Begin Again” is featured in the Tending Your Inner Garden book “Spring: Women’s Inspiration for the Season of Hope and New Beginnings.”

“People began to tell me they liked my poetry…and so that’s how I realized that the pieces I was writing…felt similar to the writing of songs, and another way of expressing my heart. And so I kept going and writing more,” she said.

Cathy shares her love of music through her teaching. For the last 25 years, she has instructed children 4 years old and up.

“I love helping kids/people to really experience the music in its fullness, learning the technical aspects of knowing a song, but then learning how to connect at a deeper level as well,” she said.

“When you teach someone a song, you know that it can be with them for the rest of their lives, so it is an amazing opportunity and responsibility.”

As Cathy looks ahead, she wants to create “safe spaces especially for women to be still, to be nurtured, to be restored so that they can go back into their regular life with greater alignment with their true selves.” She does that through her “Soul Care Days/Retreats.”  She is also working on her next album and plans to continue to write poetry, stories and reflections.

You can learn more about Cathy and her inspiring work at her web site

Listening and responding: the heart of what works

Engage Carmen Lampe Zeitler in a discussion of all the ways her organization–Children and Family Urban Ministries–supports the potential of children, youth and families and you’re soon swimming in a sea of programs, ministries, strategies and interactions. Before long the real story of CFUM, as it is known, emerges. This is about listening to what families need to raise healthy children in a neighborhood with more than its fair share of challenges and then responding by creating a supportive community around them.

Are parents not home when their kids end the school day? CFUM creates The Haven, an after-school program with an emphasis on strengthening academic skills. Do children arrive at school hungry? That realization started the Breakfast Club. A Supper Club for adults and children complements it at night. Do middle school girls and boys need help making healthy choices that move them to life goals? Whyld Girls and Backyard Boyz provides structure, guidance and more.

After sixteen years at CFUM as its executive director, Carmen has not wavered in her belief that to make a difference, her staff and volunteers need to know the neighborhood, know the people in it and companion children from K to 12 and beyond. An indicator this approach works is that mobility–people leaving their programs–is only 20 percent each year, compared with the 60 percent turnover in schools in this near north-side neighborhood in Des Moines.

“The children we work with see the larger world,” Carmen said. “They put the pieces together around them more than other kids. They know what it means when the utility bill comes due. They see what needs to be done to help their parents and families. That can lead them to feel powerless, frustrated or even angry.”

Rather than frame this fact as a problem, Carmen looks at the potential it represents. She and her staff encourage children and youth to write poetry, to memorize poems that might inspire them now or later in life, and to engage in arts activities.

“When one of my children had a poem published in a journal, he responded, ‘Great, now I can read the other poems too,’” Carmen relayed, as an example of how one success can lead young people to other interests and accomplishments.

As CFUM celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, Carmen reflects on the fact that during much of this history, she has been there, day in and day out. How does she sustain her engagement and commitment?

“Having interaction with the kids daily is key. When I go to Breakfast Club with the children, I love to twirl the jump rope. When Giovanni broke the record with 300 consecutive skips, that little accomplishment kept me going quite a while,” she said.

Solitude is also important to her. A self-described introvert, Carmen enjoys walking the labyrinth on Sunday mornings and pondering a new way to do her work.

“Having a plan helps, too,” she says. “I do that Sunday night for the week but avoid working beyond 9 p.m. or I’m too stimulated to sleep!”

Her women’s circle has been meeting monthly for 15 years, an important source of community for her personally. An an ordained pastor, she continues her membership in a local American Baptist Church. Yet, at age 57, she wonders what else she should do with her life.

“I’d love to write children’s books,” she confided, and she has two great ideas she’s been nurturing for some time.

“But maybe I’m where I’m supposed to be,” she concludes. Swinging the jump rope, eating breakfast with her children, listening to parents, guiding staff, adjusting always to what families need–the work keeps her healthy and grounded for now.

Learn more about Children and Urban Family Ministries at Contribute your support or time for this vital community resource.

Taking play back into people’s lives

Mary Ellen Lewis wants to help people feel at ease in their bodies and to access inner wisdom. She does that through her work as a leader of InterPlay, a global network dedicated to using movement, storytelling, voice and stillness as tools for discoveries both playful and profound.

“Through InterPlay I have been able to portray a depth of feeling I could never express with words,” she said.  ”I feel a deep connection between myself and God or the Life Force.”

Her journey to InterPlay started early in life. “I’ve always wanted to be a dancer,” Mary Ellen said. “I felt that spirit within me.”

That spirit led her to ballet in second grade, modern dance in high school and college and eventually liturgical dance, movement that expands the worship experience. She has been a Certified InterPlay Leader since 1985.

“Dance or movement takes whatever is inside and moves it around until I have a different perspective,” she said.

Attend an Interplay session and you’ll progress from simple spontaneous movements to music to telling a story with your body. You’ll participate alone or with a partner or as part of a group. You’ll be encouraged to find a movement or dominant pattern that most expresses you.

It may be thrusting or shaping or hanging or swinging, the four improvisational movement guidelines of InterPlay.

“My pattern is ‘shaping,’ I think because I like to organize things,” Mary Ellen said.

Before long, the deep breathing, movement and self-expression help you move through the stresses of the day, while honoring the information within, and restore play to your life.

“InterPlay has helped me get through the tough stuff of life, to not be so serious and to get beyond life being hard,” Mary Ellen said.

Another important benefit of InterPlay is the formation of community among regular participants as they join together for respite from life pressures and use play as a way to better health.

Learn more about InterPlay and find a teacher near you by checking out their international website. Contact Mary Ellen Lewis at 515/274-3026 for information about opportunities in central Iowa.

Integrate these suggestions from Mary Ellen to experience the benefits of this practice right now:

Shaking out:

Release body tension by shaking out the body. Start with one arm, then the other. Shake out one leg, then the other. Then move into shaking out one’s whole body spirit. “Shaking out moves information and tension that gets stuck in the cells of our body,” Mary Ellen said.

Deep breathing:

Take a breath and let it out with a sigh. “Breathing deeply and then letting out your breath out can be very cleansing and body opening,” she said.

Extraordinary Women: Angela Renkoski

Learning who we are and what we want in life takes courage and risk-taking. Angela Renkoski has demonstrated plenty of both.

In 2008 Angela sold her condo, left her job as a journalism professor at Drake University in Des Moines, put her stuff in storage and drove to California to attend a six-week yoga retreat. Her only plan was to relax before finding a job that would allow her to live near the ocean.

That began a four-year journey filled with aspirations as well as dashed hopes as she set aside her ocean dream, sought solitude in a cabin on Lake Michigan a few months, then settled in St. Louis for family reasons and an “abiding love for the Cardinals.”

“I was stumbling in the dark,” Angela said, looking back. “Now I see that I was cleansing my life by removing all the blocks that get in the way of loving.”

Like the phrase in Angela’s poem “Stepping Up My Soul,” she was “easing my soul’s passage to light.”

In opening herself up to adventure but still looking outside herself for answers, she confronted the fact that the solutions were inside.

“After failure in the external world, I finally surrendered. I acknowledged my need to go inside to heal. The real issue was the limiting beliefs I was hanging on to,” she said.

Listening to her heart’s desire, now she is on a much different path. “I made a commitment to myself to follow Spirit,” she said. That commitment has led back to California where she is earning a master’s degree in spiritual psychology at the University of Santa Monica.

“I have felt so divinely guided and supported along this path, and taking such a big leap has allowed me to, thankfully, jettison my resistance and trust Spirit,” she said.

Spiritual practices have been key in the transformation. “Meditation has been most helpful, which I do in the morning for 20 to 30 minutes. Prayer with others, which is really new for me, also has been amazing,” Angela said.

The master’s program and her path are challenging her to answer three crucial questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What is my purpose?
  • How can I better serve others?

“Now I see Beauty, Peace, Wisdom, Joy and Love as my true nature, where before I saw these qualities as ego equivalents of appearance, compromise, intelligence, instant gratification and need.

“Does that sound too judgmental?” she asks, laughing. “I don’t mean it to. I am mindfully practicing acceptance of myself as a Divine Being having a human experience.”


You can read the full text of Angela’s poem, ”Stepping Up My Soul” in our Spring book, to be released September 27. Order your advance copy now at a special introductory price of $14.95. Featuring women from around the world, this second in a series of four volumes themed to the seasons offers poetry, essays and stories that help you imagine new possibilities for your own life, prepare and nurture new growth, and transform dreams into concrete realities.







GOING INSIDE TO MEET YOURSELF can be a frightening journey at times, but ultimately, it is the only path home. It is the path to your inner garden, to the rich soil of creativity and passion that make you unique. And it is the path to your connection with Spirit/Creator/God, where peace and joy abide.

We asked Inner Gardeners to share how they express that sacred journey home in their lives. Here’s what a few of them said. How would you answer?

“I feel most blessed when I’m in the mountains and when I see eagles.”

“The winter season speaks to me because of its emphasis on renewal.”

“My relationship with God is peaceful. God is not a ‘he’ or a ‘she,’ but more like a source of energy that I come out of.”

“Centering prayer is a very important part of my life. I’ve practiced it for about ten years, and it’s gotten me through difficult times.”

“I say a prayer of gratitude every morning and ask for help for myself and the people in my life.”

“Writing is my primary spiritual practice. Having a structure for that is helpful.”

“Yoga is meditative for me and brings me balance and strength.”

“I enjoy connecting with the earth by being outside—canoeing, sitting on a tree, camping and gardening. I want to ‘touch stillness.’”

“I want authentic connection with people and a sense of community.”

“I don’t know if I’m spiritual but I’m definitely not religious.”

“My spirituality is expressed through my creativity. I love to work with art materials. Art is a form of prayer, more expressive for me than words.”

“I feel like I’ve grown and matured spiritually, and that has created more joy in my life.”

“I have a huge faith that’s always going to be there. Nothing rocks that.”