Witnessing Hearts

A year ago I didn’t know yet that I was creating heart portraits. I didn’t know yet that I would soon come to see and interpret symbols and messages in the hearts I was drawing.

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I had been drawing hearts since fall of 2015. So many hearts. It started when I was preparing to go to Palestine to do human rights and accompaniment work; I was feeling afraid for many reasons. As I was trying to talk myself out of the fear, an image came to me: a heart- my heart- nested in others, like Russian dolls. I drew the image. Then I drew it again. And again. After that I kept drawing hearts. The forms and styles changed over time. But I couldn’t stop. Occasionally my thinking brain heaped judgment on my creative brain, trying to convince her to draw something other than hearts. Thankfully, Creative Brain didn’t listen and kept producing hearts. Eventually, Thinking Brain ceased trying to stop her.

Early in those heart-drawing days, as part of a New Year pay-it-forward activity, I drew a heart for an acquaintance. I sent her a digital photo of it, but never gave her the actual drawing. Fast forward two and a half years.

I had started studying Reiki and found that I had intuitive gifts that I hadn’t known about before. As I practiced Reiki with people, words and images came to me that felt connected to the clients. I shared what came to me and very often, the clients told me that the messages and images made sense to them or that they’d experienced similar images or words during the session. I wanted to understand this newfound ability, so I sought out intuitive people who might help me comprehend. One was the person I’d made a heart for years before.

The morning of our meeting I created a second heart image for her. When we met, I sheepishly gave her both, conscious that in over 2 years I hadn’t managed to get the first heart drawing to her. She received them graciously and told me the meaning each one held for her.

Then she looked at me and asked, “How long have you been tuning into people?”

I shifted in my seat. “Uuuuuuhh.” More shifting, “Since I started Reiki training?” About 6 months before. Then I realized I’d just given her a “tuned-in” drawing I’d created 2 1/2 years before.


I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation. I do remember creating an intention shortly after our meeting: I want to draw people’s hearts.

Heart images came and this time they were connected to particular people. One of the first was a friend’s heart that seemed to be shattering, in pain, even as a brightness was emerging from within. After I drew it, I sent a photo to my friend.

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“When did you make this?” she asked.

“Just now.”

“I’ve been working with this imagery today,” she told me.


More images came. I began to sense that, as with Reiki, the hearts I was drawing had significance beyond the image. What appeared in the hearts symbolized struggles, pains, joy, love, points of high energy, energy available, and energy depletion. I was hesitant to share the interpretations at first. When I did, the recipients told me that what I was seeing and saying resonated, made sense, gave them a sense of being seen.


I realized that was showing up in the drawings and interpretations was not necessarily public knowledge. With this realization, I knew that I needed to ask permission of the intended recipient before drawing and interpreting. Not doing so seemed like a violation of trust and a misuse of the gift I was given.

Trying to understand this new manifestation of intuition, I sought out volunteers, people I didn’t know well or at all (I didn’t even know where some of them were located geographically), who would allow me to draw a heart for them and offer an interpretation. I asked for their feedback in return.

The recipient of one portrait said I’d identified an issue in her life that she rarely talked to anyone about.

In another portrait, created for someone I only knew by name, I got a sense of a “spiritual crisis.” I was hesitant to use those strong words, so when we spoke, I talked about a deep spiritual pain. At the mention of it, she proceeded to describe a spiritual crisis she was working through.


After these trials, I felt an urgency to share this gift with the world. Only about 6 weeks after discovering I can see people’s hearts and lives in this way, I started offering heart portraits on a commission basis. I’ve created dozens of them now for friends and strangers alike.

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Over and over, recipients have asked, “How do you know that?” as I offer some reflection about their life. My truthful answer, “I don’t know.”

Over and over, recipients have said, “This is beautiful,” even when the hearts show signs of brokenness and pain.

I do not tire of saying, “Yes, this is beautiful and it is a reflection of you. You are beautiful.”

The portraits seem to be getting more detailed and the interpretations longer. I continue to be surprised at what appears. I continue to be in awe of the beauty and complexity of people. I continue to be curious about how this gift will evolve.

I have inklings…

Recently I experimented with heart sketches- heart drawings created quickly in the presence of the recipient and interpreted on the spot. I look forward to creating more of these.

I believe there are other ways this gift will manifest as I rely on an Imagination Greater Than My Own.

And so I keep drawing.

And I lean into trust.

And I treasure this gift I have discovered of witnessing hearts.

Surrendering Our Hearts

On Ash Wednesday 2019, I was invited to share my reflections at church (based on Joel 2: 12-18, 2 Corinthians 5: 20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18). These were the words I spoke:

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do not be like the hypocrites,” seeking external affirmation. In the first reading, we are told to “return to God with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, with mourning.”

I want to play with those words. Return to God with all your heart. Return all of your heart to God. Turn all of your heart in to God. Surrender.

I created this image shortly after speaking the words in this reflection.

I created this image shortly after speaking the words in this reflection.

With these words in mind, I offer an image: imagine a heart, perhaps your own. It is both broken and open. Broken open. Around that broken-open heart is another heart. And around that one, another. And another. All open, many broken in one way or another. The first heart, your heart, is nested in protection. Broken open, yet held with gentle care. The outermost heart is the heart of God, the heart of All, God’s heart that can hold the hurt that breaks us, God’s heart that can heal us, if we surrender our hearts to God.

Turn all of your heart in to God “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” There is much to lament in our world. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia, poverty, ecological devastation, sexual abuse, addictions, the school-to-prison pipeline. So many people lack access to clean water, clean air, adequate medical care, adequate educational opportunities, adequate housing. No doubt there are other things to add to the list. There is much to mourn and yet instead of mourning, we may allow our emotions to go only as far as anger, with our resulting actions rooted in something other than love; we blame whoever we perceive to be the problems. We mistake people for problems, even as we accuse “them” of doing the same. We may not allow ourselves to weep and mourn, because we’re fearful that we will be consumed by grief if we turn our hearts in to God. Instead of allowing our hearts to be fully nested in God’s, we may shrink our hearts, close them a little tighter every time we judge people as “wrong,” “stupid,” “heartless,” every time we call them names and mock them as we direct our righteous anger at them. As we determine who is right and who is wrong, we may seek the approval of other righteous folks, and refuse to engage in connection with those who we believe clearly don’t get it.

Maybe we engage a little, volleying accusations back and forth online or on the streets or in “dialogues” that are actually just talking at or yelling over. But these engagements aren’t connecting. They create distance between us, and keep us hanging in the painful, but sometimes also powerful, feeling of anger.

A nonviolent communication activity that I love to lead takes people through ways of responding to difficult messages. When we receive a message of shame and blame, we have four options: we can shame and blame back; we can direct the shame and blame toward ourselves; we can offer empathy and understanding to ourselves and/or we can offer understanding and empathy to the other person.

The movement from shame to empathy is profound. Sometimes as people go through the exercise, they wonder aloud if it’s ok to express empathy and understanding for a person with a perspective they find deeply problematic. Because we live in a shame and blame culture, we may think that if we don’t immediately express our righteous indignation, we are abandoning our values. And yet, if we are clear on our values, and those values include compassion, hope, love, kindness, humility, it is vitally important to practice them precisely in those places where we are sorely tempted not to.

Going to Palestine gives me many opportunities to try. On my first stint with Christian Peacemaker Teams, I started doing something that, when I remember to practice it, helps me turn my heart into God. In times of relative calm, when I am around Israeli soldiers, I repeat these words in my mind: “I do not hate you. I wish you peace. I wish you love. I wish you joy. I know you are more than what I see you doing.” This practice is not easy. It is exhausting. Sometimes my stomach churns and my head aches as I do so. As I let these words play in my mind, I also try to meet the eyes of those to whom I offer these wishes. Sometimes our eyes meet for a few moments of connection where I am not a CPTer and they are not soldiers, we are just human beings. What I know about those moments is that my heart experiences both breaking and healing simultaneously. I experience our interconnection and deep sorrow because the connection I feel is not the norm in that context. It is a fleeting moment of stepping out of hypocrisy and into integrity. Turning my heart into God.

I created this image in October 2015. It was one of the first heart images I ever drew.

I created this image in October 2015. It was one of the first heart images I ever drew.

When I am willing and able to sink fully into God’s presence within me, the response from the soldiers is often also more humane and human. Perhaps they are sinking into their divinity, too. When I stand fully armored in anger and righteousness, the response is one of equal or greater defensiveness: posturing and flaunting power, just as I, too, am trying to do. And yet, my truest power comes when I take my armor off, when I stand in a humble posture of trust in God.

I want to end with an example of someone who knows a far harsher reality than I. In the midst of the civil war in South Sudan, Bishop Paride Taban turned his heart into God and transformed his weeping and mourning into connection and joy. Instead of choosing righteous anger in response to the war, he chose to create the Holy Trinity Peace Village, “where individuals and communities can interact without threat or fear… People from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds learn peaceful coexistence there” (from Choosing Peace, edited by Marie Dennis) To stay grounded in the spirit of reconciliation and peace, Bishop Taban offers 28 words to say every day. Today, I offer his words to you. I invite you to say these words daily, to explore them, and to practice them:

Love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, sympathy, kindness, truthfulness, gentleness, self-control, humility, poverty, forgiveness, mercy, friendship, trust, unity, purity, faith, hope, I love you, I miss you, Thank you, I forgive, We forget, Together, I am wrong, I am sorry.

During this Lenten season, I invite you to let these words sink deep into your heart. Tears of weeping and mourning may wash over you.  I invite you to let these words reach the place of deepest connection within you, where your heart is reconciled to God and all of God’s creations, and let that connection guide your action with and for yourself and others. During this Lenten season, I invite you to surrender your heart to God.

Mending of Hearts

For more than a year, I’ve been playing with hearts…artistically.

I didn’t know when I started that I was working on my own heart in ways words couldn’t express, but my hands, given the freedom to do so, could.  

First by cutting and ripping pieces of paper and forming hearts or broken hearts or mending hearts in collages.

Then by drawing hearts within hearts within hearts, smaller hearts nested, protected by the larger ones. All open hearts, sometimes naturally, sometimes broken, jagged-edged.

Months ago, my dad, an artist, who I often show my not-like-his creations, noted, “Your hearts are changing.”

No longer broken and dark, but open and bright, filled with light.

I noted that the same had happened inside me. Somehow. Inexplicably. I had only a few weeks before returned from a most difficult stint in Palestine. In that place of deep brokenness, my heart returned to me, to the world, brighter and more open, willing to take in the hurt of the world only long enough to send the pain out buoyed by the light I had found in myself.

After that, I went a few months without creating anything. When I started again, my hearts made their way into otherwise abstract drawings of intersecting ribbons and swirls and strings of beads. I don't know why.

Last month I spent a few days alone in a cabin in the woods. I spent my days walking, watching, writing, drawing. Noticing the spider webs everywhere glistening in the sun, watching a spider in my screened-in porch devour one spider…and then another… I could only draw spider webs. Imperfect webs of connection against blurry backgrounds of creation. No hearts.

Almost 2 weeks ago, I was on a very different, and equally rich, retreat, spending time with the Benedictine sisters in Erie, PA, and a number of other wonderful women. For the first time since my previous retreat, I felt the impulse to draw. Again, webs. But this time, each web I drew had strands of silk that formed one heart, or a few. Ever since my sojourn into the woods, I had been paying attention to spiders and webs. They, or at least one, had been demanding my attention, biting me in inconvenient places (including inside my belly button) on more than one occasion (Side note: this was when I learned that lemon juice helps to soothe the itching and the swelling of spider bites when over-the-counter creams do not).

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In Native American traditions, according to Jamie Sands, spiders represent “the infinite possibilities of creation.” Perhaps my spider was reminding me, not so subtly, that I had some work to do: weaving love into the web of my own creations.  

After yet another bite (I hope the last), my webs have not simply contained hearts, but been made of hearts within hearts within hearts. 

I created my last simple drawing a few nights ago. Bewildered by the troubles of our world, I started the web, first with the strands that met in the center, all bright colors. Then the strands that connected one to another around and around and around. In hearts.

Shortly after I began, I heard shouting in front of my house. Reluctant to leave my heart-growing endeavor, I went out on my front porch and saw two men who seemed to be attacking, one even beating with a stick, another.

One of the attackers, curly light brown hair, striped blue and gray shirt, saw me. “Call 911!” I didn’t understand what was happening and took another moment to take in the scene, trying to process what I was seeing. After a few more seconds of shouting, the man on the ground stopped resisting, thankfully conscious and, as far as I could tell, unharmed.

“He tried to steal a purse,” Curly told me, breathless. It had happened at a bar a few blocks from my house. “Call 911!” I dialed the number and handed him my phone. My pregnant neighbor had come out to see what was going on.

As the self-appointed doers-of-justice stood and the accused sat on the ground, my neighbor and I talked and watched. The accused stood up, the other two vigilant, ready to subdue him again. The accused asked me for water.

I noticed he was sweaty, his kelly green t-shirt nearly soaked. I wanted to give him water, but equally wanted to remove myself from a situation I still didn’t fully understand.

He asked again. I hesitated.

He ran. They chased. He only made it across the street and a few houses down.

My neighbor and I continued to watch as another man arrived to stand guard, now three surrounding the accused. Then the police came. The men from the bar left. An ambulance arrived.

I went inside, not knowing if the accused left in a police car or an ambulance.

I resumed the web of hearts.

Strand by strand.


Color by color.


I knew that what I could give to the world that night was a representation of the world I wish to help create.

Not fine art, perhaps, but sincere.

A simple vision, so difficult to manifest in 3-D.

But possible.

I have to believe it’s possible.

I do believe it’s possible.  

Tonight, I was reminded that I am not the only person who believes this.

We can create a web of love.  

Linking us one

by one

by one.


to you

to whom?

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