Liz Laribee

Liz Laribee

Liz Laribee is the Director of the MakeSpace, a collaborative arts organization she spearheaded the founding of in 2012. Through that position, she has helped mobilize a series of creative projects in the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  She is a freelance artist, specializing in reuse and alternative materials in the creation process. Liz has exhibited her work in Harrisburg, in national and international print media, and at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art. For the past six years, she has taught reuse methods of art-making in classrooms at the University level, in public and private schools, and in after-school programs. Some of her current collaborations include Sprocket Mural Works, a citywide initiative to generate and document public art, a children’s book series with poet July Westhale, and DCBA Lawyers for the Arts, a program to enable lawyers to assist fledgling artists with stabilizing their projects.

Born in Kansas, Liz’s father was an Episcopal priest and interim pastor at churches who were struggling. Because of his work, she moved 17 times before attending Messiah College in Harrisburg. Though she had been accepted into Savannah College of Art and Design, she focused instead of creative writing and graduated from Messiah College with an English degree.

Q: You are involved in some creative, community-oriented projects like MakeSpace and Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral.  What is your vision and how has that evolved?

LL: My avenue into Harrisburg was an intentional community called The Sycamore House. I helped start that when I was a Junior in college through The Episcopal Cathedral. The model back then was that people would live in community together, with a commitment to the surrounding city. Your rent and utilities were paid for in exchange for community service and teaching the youth group. I moved into the community and stayed for 2 years. It was impactful and informative. I entered the city with eyes open and the intention to learn about the City and to impact it positively.

Experiments around the idea of community and grassroots efforts to make things happen was really hammered into my head in college and so, when I moved into Harrisburg, it continued that way. In 2012, five years after graduation, it was a strange time in Harrisburg history—there was Occupy Harrisburg, David Unkovic had been appointed as the receiver and had a really quick turn around and then resigned. When that happened it was sort of like Batman quit.

My temperament is that when I get discouraged, I redirect my energy into making something. I was invited around that time to a community meeting at the Pancake Mansion and I met this vibrant community of people who were trying to establish the “next thing” in Harrisburg and trying to pool our diverse resources and talents to create something more constructive in Harrisburg.

Around the same time I was often coming to Little Amps, sketching a business plan for an arts collective. My art was selling better and I needed an established workspace, but I was really broke. I knew that to move forward, I needed to share space and share resources with other people. The people and process I encountered in those meetings really helped percolate the plan I was forming with a few others, and that boomeranged us into honing our vision statement

We became aware of the property that MakeSpace is now in when I called my landlord who had the property. The philosophy was to use what we had available to us, which was very little money, but a lot of resourcefulness and a lack of inhibition. It lends itself to the whole thing being an evolving art project.

As far as a larger vision that I have…this is a strange time of life to be talking about my vision! I feel like this is the year that I’m slowing down, in a good way, a purposeful, mindful way, but my vision is just trying to love where I live. Trying to figure out a way to make that possible for myself and the others around me.

Q: Can you explore that a little more. Do you love where you live? What are a few of the things you need to be happy?

LL: I DO love where I live. What I mean by trying to love where I live means trying to piece together the elements that go into a life that I can thrive with. I need friends, coffee, a means to make and sell what I love to make and sell, and I need to be in community with the people around me. If those elements are in place then that, to me, will equal a happy life.

I think my language has gotten more personal the longer I’ve done this. At the very beginning, it was about “saving Harrisburg”, but over time it has become a little less…arrogant. It’s more about living a mindful life and liking who I am and those around me.

Q: Has that always been possible for you? To lead a mindful life? How has that idea changed over your life?

LL: I think one of the biggest changes I’ve see in myself is trying to learn how to hone in on the most practical and most joyful way to lead a mindful life. You start off really unfocused and think you can do anything, like we all write that in each other’s yearbooks, but over time, that becomes less interesting. You become less interested in trying to be absurdly prolific—you start to focus on quality and quantifiable, measurable results.

Q: I cannot wait to check out MakeSpace (and to bring my tinker boyfriend over).  Tell me some of the stories from MakeSpace.

LL: There have been so many stories. I had met this guy once, maybe 15 years ago, and because of Facebook, he messaged me and said that “I met this Klezmer band while I was in Europe and they’re in the states and they want to play at MakeSpace.” It was one of the most incredible live performances I’ve ever seen and it was so emotional for me that it was happening in the MakeSpace. They performed and their stomping nearly brought the floor down. The next day I had to sweep a bunch of euros off the floor. They left euros in their wake!

We renovated the space with our own sweat equity and elbow grease. There was a room off the kitchen that was totally not insulated—you could almost see through the walls, so we left it vacant as a meanwhile space until a neighborhood artist named Stephen Michael Haas asked to experiment with an installation in that room. He spent three days with primer and India ink and turned it into this incredible piece of installation art. He did a mural on every bit of space. It’s this imitate autobiographical statement of his life and it’s become one of the staples of the experience at MakeSpace. It was an incredible way to redeem the space with nothing but a person’s resources, spirit, and time.

Q: How do you make time for yourself?  What gives you balance?

LL: What I love to do to get time away is to go away. I travel a lot—I take two big trips each year. It’s necessary for me; I have wanderlust. I like reminding myself of a larger world and contexts that are totally separate from my daily to-do list.. I don’t owe anyone in the Turkish airport any emails.

I also really love going to the River and sitting on the steps and not bringing my cell phone with me. And m y new house has a balcony off of my bedroom, so I spend a lot of time there.

Q: What is something that the world should know?  Maybe the best piece of advice that you ever received or the message you have for others.

LL: Be excellent to each other. I think that’s my best advice—it’s dependent on no resources other than yourself.

Q: What do you think is the capacity of someone’s internal resources?

LL: People are limited by expenditures of their own time and energy and the disadvantages that come from larger systems, but how you treat people is your choice.

Q: How has the way you treat people changed based on your experience?

LL: Well, I’m more interested in listening than speaking these days. Some arrogance is wearing off. I’m trying to be more cautious about what it is that I put into the world and how that happens.

Q: What question did I miss?

LL: It’s probably what is your name an anagram for! And the answer is LIBERALIZE.

Barbara Rittinger Rigo

Barb Rigo


Barbara Rittinger Rigo focuses her practice on representing management in a wide range of labor and employment matters, including:

  • Trials for race, gender, age, disability and national origin discrimination claims
  • Arbitration
  • Mediation
  • Family and Medical Leave Act litigation
  • Wage and hour class actions
  • Trade secret law

She defends clients in all types of industries, including transportation, hospitality and pharmaceutical, in state and federal courts, as well as before administrative agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and state and federal departments of labor. 
Barbara focuses a large part of her practice on counseling employers on day-to-day compliance with local, state and federal statutes, such as:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
  • Title VII
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)
  • Wage payment collection laws
  • Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN)

She is a frequent speaker on those and other topics. She also drafts and reviews employer policies and employment and severance agreements for clients spanning numerous industries.

Barbara is a member of the Discrimination Commission for the Township of Haverford. She is also a member of Littler Mendelson’s Diversity Advisory Committee. Prior to joining Littler, she was an associate at two large firms in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. In law school, she was a senior editor of the Dickinson Law Review.

Q:  What path led to your career as an Employment and Labor Attorney?  What qualities make someone excel in your field?

BR: I always wanted to be a lawyer, probably because my dad is a lawyer. A lot of people fall into law because they don’t know what else to do, but becoming a lawyer was always my goal. I became involved with employment and labor law, because I was into Constitutional law, but it’s really because I have the most interesting cases. Every day, my work is like the Jerry Springer show. I love the interesting human stories and freak shows. I love people claiming that something crazy happened and then deconstructing their story to find out what actually happened.

I think for labor and employment, unlike a corporate lawyer, practicality is a key trait. Being able to listen and figure out what is important. A lot of times the things that people focus on aren’t really important to their lawsuit, so I help them understand what is important and come to a resolution they can live with. To be successful as a lawyer, being responsive is also incredibly important. I hope that my clients feel like they can talk to me and that I’m quick to respond. I also like to prove my point. It’s an annoying trait in a kid (as my mom tells me and as I deal with every day with my kids) but it’s a good trait in a lawyer. I don’t think my nature would be suited to a less adversarial profession.

Q: How do you juggle the demands on your time?  What brings you balance?

BR: I’m really lucky that I work with people who respect my need for balance, and I have throughout my career. My husband, Steve, travels a lot. My colleagues were really supportive and respected my ability do this job in a flexible way, even if it wasn’t the way everyone else does it. But what goes along with that is that you have to be prepared for people to think you’re less dedicated and not let it bother you. I really like my work; I love doing what I do. I’m really lucky to have had mentors that supported me and gave me the flexibility to keep doing this job. And when the job was less flexible than I wanted because of a trial or other work obligations, I’m lucky to have a husband, parents, family and babysitters (who are like family) who helped pick up the slack when I needed it. Otherwise it never would have worked.

Smart phones also changed my life so that I can have the balance to work from anywhere, including being on top of work when I’m with my kids or volunteering at their school. I try to be home for dinner every night. Even if I have more work to do, I do it after the kids are in bed. I always wanted to be part of my kids’ education, volunteering, taking the kids to school. My regular schedule was that I took my kids to school so I could connect to them and that world and then go to work. I want their teachers to know who I am. I’m lucky to have a job where I can come in a little late.

Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?

BR: Relax.

Part of our development at work includes personality tests. They really are dead on. Through this test they had us take at work I could see that I hit the roof quickly with stress, but I come down quickly too. Over time I’ve learned how to not hit the roof as much. I probably wasted a lot of time being frustrated. I’ve learned that it’s important not to take things so personally.

Q: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve done?

BR: My kids. There’s nothing else that matters to me as much as them and their accomplishments. They’re not perfect, so working through their problems is rewarding too.

Q: Life is beauty and pain.  Tell me about the role of pain in your life.

BR: I have that Irish-Catholic guilt that says that things can always be worse, and I am so blessed. I feel so lucky. Certainly sometimes life gives you problems and pain and I look at it like pain makes you stronger, because you have to push through it. No one ever solved a problem by staying in bed. I like to push through problems to try to solve them, and if I can’t, I try to look at the positive and how blessed I am to have what I have. I do complain and I’m sarcastic, but I still have to push thru it- and I always try to.

Q: How does being Irish-Catholic shape your view of the world?

BR: I think it’s just about community- whatever community or communities you choose. For me, in part, it’s my religion. Whatever your religion, I hope it impacts you to strive to be a better person and to do the right thing. I’m not always perfect, but it gives me some kind moral compass. Every religion gives you that, so it doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as you have something that guides you to do the right thing or be a better person.

Q:  What question did I miss?  What else should I know about you?

BR: One thing that I think about a lot is that if I had the chance to do it all over again would I do the same thing? I’m sure I would. Staying at work wasn’t the easiest choice after having kids, but I’m grateful that I made that choice and grateful for the people who helped me make it. A lot of people look back on their careers and lives and wish they had done things differently, but I think I’d do the same things again. I’d maybe just try to have had more fun doing it. And yelled less….

Julie Mathers

Photo credit: Molly S Photography,

Photo credit: Molly S Photography,

Julie Mathers is a passionate educator, tutor, and yoga teacher. She works as the Educational Director for Owl Hill Learning Centers and teaches yoga at Evolution Power Yoga. Julie has three much-loved babies (a “singleton and twins!”) and has been married for eight years to her British husband. Julie openly shares about her life and struggle with an eating disorder on her blog.

Q: Tell us about your background and your path in life. Who are you? Where did you come from?

I was born and raised outside of Philadelphia in a small town named Swathmore. I was the fourth generation to be born and raised there in a very small family. I came to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to go to school to be a teacher. I had this instinct from square one that I wanted to teach. Even growing up I made my sister play school all the time. It’s what I did. I stayed in Lancaster because I ended up teaching and continuing my education here. Right now, I coordinate preschool programs for a private childcare company called Owl Hill Learning Center and teach at Evolution Power Yoga.

I got sick in 2000. I’m learning that a lot of my life and what I was doing up until that point were precursors to the disease. It was during my junior year in college that I started wrestling with an eating disorder, mostly anorexia.

Usually there is a trigger that sets off an eating disorder. One of my triggers was that I was with an abusive boyfriend for six years. Our breakup in 2000 was a catalyst for my eating disorder. I didn’t get sick because I wanted him back or because I was devastated by the breakup, but because I was used to being emotionally and verbally abused. It wasn’t him that specifically caused it, he was one piece of it, but I was missing something I had had for six years. I had this negative relationship, but it also gave me safety because it gave me a definition. It gave me an identity and it was what I knew. When it was gone, I needed to find a punishment to replace it. To define myself.

So, I chose ”Ed”, eating disorder, and we call him “Ed’ because it gives all of my thoughts and my behaviors a name and an alias. Because I’m not Ed. I’m not an eating disorder, I’m Julie. I’m a teacher and a mom and a friend, and I’m not Ed. The disease is Ed.

I faked recovery for over 13 years, but last year I went into full out-patient recovery, including therapy, psychiatrists, psychologists, dieticians, groups, etc. I worked to get back to a healthy body weight and I’m working towards fine-tuning all of the wonderful things that come along with shifting all of the patterns that come with eating disorders. It’s my work. And my big passion is making the world understand that this is a disease that kills, just like cancer, and it should be handled with the same amount of intensity, understanding, compassion, and awareness. Eating disorders don’t just affect white rich girls, they affect everyone. It’s for men, it’s for all ages, it’s for all ethnicities. It’s a huge disease with lots of facets and it has to be dealt with that way. It has to be dealt with mind, body, and soul!

After a year of therapy, I learned that I didn’t know how to be mindful. I’m learning how to know when I’m full and know when I’m hungry. I’m learning how to honor my needs, desires, and wants. I’m learning how to say “No”. I’m learning about self-compassion, anxiety, guilt, and shame. People without an eating disorder can eat anything without attaching feeling or meaning around it. If I eat something that’s not healthy for me, I feel so guilty and ashamed about it. I attach all of these negative emotions around eating and food. I’m learning to sit with those emotions. In past years, I could numb out negative feelings by not eating and I was extremely disconnected from my body. I’m learning to be present now.

I’m working on a series of events called Love Your Selfie—No Edits. The very first part of that series is a scale smash event. I rented a space for two hours with all these events tied around letting go of numbers that confine you. We’re literally going to have a graveyard with sledgehammers and mallets to smash the you-know-what out of scales. That’s going to be followed up by an eight-week body-image workshop series and the culminating event is going to be a transformational speaker, Suzanne Conrad. She’s going to be coming from Vancouver and she does a life coaching leadership series. She’s coming to the Ware Center to speak. The workshop series will extend from Sunday, October 5 to Sunday, November 23 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. at Evolution Power Yoga in Lancaster.

Q:  You’ve been identified by someone as being incredible. What do people see in you that is incredible?

JM: That is really hard for me to answer. I have a hard time believing that I am incredible. Parents say to me that I’m an amazing educator or students say that I am a great yoga teacher and it’s really difficult for me to say thank you. I don’t think anything I do is incredible, because for me nothing I do is enough.

Incredible to me is something that’s not reserved for me. I have to DO something to be incredible, right? And you know, maybe the incredible thing is that I’m learning how to be me. And that me is enough.

Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?

JM: Don’t worry about being perfect. Because perfect doesn’t exist and it will be a life of hell trying to find it Also, perfect people aren’t fun, because they’re not living. The only things that are perfect are inanimate objects, because they’re not alive. My entire life I’ve been trying to be perfect—a perfect eater, a perfect teacher, a perfect mom, a perfect woman, a perfect body—and it’s so stressful trying to be that way. I’ve literally killed myself for perfection. My expectations are unrealistic and I expect 195% of myself at all times and it’s just not possible.

To be honest, I am so afraid of my children having the same disease that I had. The only way I can stop that is to make sure that I am honest with them and let them know that these are the lessons that I have. I learn so much by watching my kids. My son said to me the other day, “Mommy, I just stop when I’m full because I’ll just have it later on.” When I asked him how he knew that he said, “I just know.” It was awesome.

Q: Tell me about struggle.

JM: I think it comes from trying to be perfect. My biggest struggle has been dichotomous, black and white, all or nothing thinking. For example, my thinking was either eat everything and purge through exercise, or eat nothing. It was, “I’m going to do 755 things in one day or be so sick that I have to be in bed.” That type of thinking is hard, especially when you’re trying to be intuitive with your eating and your mindfulness, and your rest. Nothing is ever enough and there are no limits with that kind of thinking.

My struggle is this—how do I let go and how do I trust? How do I just be? How do I relax with what is and stay present? I’ve lived past and future and I’ve missed so much that is present. My struggle is being here now. The present is always OK, it’s living in the future that causes anxiety.

Q: Life is beauty and pain. You’ve told me about pain in your life—What is beautiful in your life?

JM: There is so much beauty in my life, but unfortunately I feel like I’ve missed so much of it. Beauty for me is on the inside. It’s not a size anymore. It’s doing what gives me life. What makes me thrive. I thrive by teaching—a teacher to myself, a teacher to students in the classroom or in the yoga studio. Teaching others by example that you don’t have to starve yourself or go on a diet, that women get to eat fries and not just salads. For me, beauty is what makes me come alive.

My kids are beauty. My kids are amazing and trusting. They are free and freedom is beautiful.

Beauty is compassion. It’s caring. Beauty is healthy, but nothing to do with your body size—it’s freedom from rules or rigidity.

Again, there’s so much in my life that is beautiful. I get to do what I love. I get paid to educate on a daily basis. Beauty is that I got to have these wonderful babies even after I had an illness. I spent so much time in my disease that I lost sight of all things beautiful…and there’s so much.

Q:  What question did I miss? What else should I know about you?

JM: I think that I am really passionate. I’m really driven and have this hard work ethic and I want that compassion, work ethic, and drive to attract people. I’m not here to change the world, but I’m here to be a little selfish and to take care of myself so that others can see that that’s ok.

I’m completely dedicated to my kids and I want the world to be different for them. That’s my mission.

I’m extremely thankful for the reception that I’ve had on my blog in my coming out as having an eating disorder. The support has been incredibly non-judgmental and supportive. This community has been an amazing accountability partner. I thank my yoga practice, too. Yoga started as a form of purging to get rid of calories, but now my yoga practice has forced me to be in my body. Now that I have a healthy body weight, my practice has gotten much stronger. It has given me a connection to myself.

I’m ready to start life. I don’t want to miss any more.EPY_LoveYourSelfie_Promos_4P

LN Lurie

LN Lurie_iw

LN Lurie is an extremely interesting dynamo. She’s an audio engineer whose expertise is in gaming. According to LinkedIn, LN specializes in “picking a direction, putting out fires, and replacing [herself] with efficient pipelines.” Through our interview, I also saw a passionate leader, who is great at telling stories through podcasts and using sound as a medium to communicate. LN is a global volunteer and her work includes disaster relief in the Philippines during Typhoon Haiyan. Some of her past roles include “Queen of all things Audible” and “Super Audio Girl.” (Is it clear yet why I think LN is awesome?) Currently, LN is wanderlusting across Africa while the rest of us drool over her pictures.

Q:  How does telling the stories of others make you consider yourself and your story?

LL: I believe that when you re-tell a story, it becomes yours. Not the actions or experiences, but the story is yours. The takeaway is yours. With that said—I believe that ANYTHING I hear, I’m an audio person, after all, I try to relate that story to my life.

An example is hearing my grandmother talk about her life. She’s 90. She grew up during the depression where having a bit of string to tie up her hair was coveted. Hearing stories like hers, if anything, make me grateful for the things that we DO have in this world. When I retell this, I hope you become grateful or mindful as well.

Q: What role has music played in your life? Are there artists that you turn to time and time again?

LL: This is my favorite question. I was a music major—I’ve played the violin since age three and bassoon since seventh grade. I’ve played countless instruments because I originally wanted to become a band instructor. “What’s a bassoon?” you ask…don’t feel bad. My professors at Berklee, a Jazz school in Boston, didn’t know either. They actually called it a “wooden saxophone”.

But yes, music is incredibly important to my life. Because of school, I analyze music instead of simply listening to it. First I hear the melody, then the counter melody, the rhythm, the bass line, how everything works together, the chord progressions…and finally by the seventh or eight time I listen to a song, that’s when I’ll hear the words.

My mom was a piano pedagogy major. She didn’t allow me to listen to anything “unless they were dead.” She thought current music wasn’t really music. So I grew up listening to Beatles, Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven. When Kurt Cobain died, I was ecstatic! I ran home and said, “MOM!? CAN I LISTEN TO NIRVANA NOW?!” and she just looked at me and said “No. He’s not dead enough.”

A story I really wanted to share with you is about how music makes this weird thing happen in my brain, and probably everyone, where all of a sudden you hear a piece of music and you remember where you were when you first heard it, or how that piece has personal meaning for you.

I remember listening to Metallica’s One during a YMCA lock-up after a school dance. My High School Sweetheart Greg and I had just finished running up and down stairs, hyped up on Mountain Dew, and that song came on. We both stopped as if we were shot and drop down on the floor, mesmerized by the song, staring at the ceiling, trying to control our breath as we hold our planks. I get taken over by this almost trance-like guitar solo in the beginning. The music transports me to July 1999 and we are sitting on a wall listening to Metallica live. It’s pitch black except for a few joints and cigarettes. The guitar solo starts, I stare at the crowd, and it starts to rain. In real life, I snap out of my haze, realizing that I’ve been holding a plank for three minutes at the YMCA and I start to do Box Jumps.

It’s amazing how music can transport you and tells stories.

Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?

LL: I would tell myself to think bigger. I could always think bigger. Also to think more simply….and don’t listen so much to my mother!

Q: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve done?

LL: Teaching my 90-yearr-old grandma how to use an iPad.

Seriously. Do you know how difficult that is?! I mean—I’ve worked in corporate America. I’ve dealt with sexual harassment. I’ve traveled solo around the world, I’ve moved to new countries, I’ve been poorly kidnapped in Ecuador, I’ve had my bag and all my belongings stolen in Panama, I finished a marathon, I’ve survived the world’s worst typhoon in history in the Philippines, I’ve been a first-responder on many incidents, I’ve been published countless times in video games. I’ve played Bassoon Porn Music! But my greatest achievement is teaching my 90-year-old grandma how to use an iPad.

How I measured my success was by writing her a message on Facebook. She “liked” it! That was it. That was the best day of my life!

Q: Life is beauty and pain.  Tell me about pain in your life.

LL: I sliced open my thumb with a machete in Guatemala. Where there is no clean running water and I had to wash out my hand with rum. Is that the type of pain you’re talking about?…I’m sure it’s not.

My other pain is my biggest challenge right now. I’m about to embark on a journey to Africa with $5,000, which seems like a lot and maybe it is, but I’m going to pretty touristy places. I like some amenities, so my biggest challenges is that I’m still unemployed, basically, but my finances are in a scary, unknown situation. On this trip, I’ve planned three weeks so far, but that’s all time with family. I used to be someone with a 10-year goal and 10-year plan, but I’ve found that I miss out by planning so much. I backpacked through Europe and found that I only had two good stories from those three weeks because I planned so much. I started planning less when I went around the world and I started finding better stories. For Africa, I’m not planning at all, which is a huge challenge because I’m such a planner and a control freak. So not having any finances and being a control freak, I have no idea how I’m going to do this. And I don’t know what will happen when I come back. All those things are pretty scary.

Penny Alsop

Penny Alsop

Penny Alsop is an ordained Buddhist chaplain in the Zen Peacemaker and Prajna Mountain order. She studied with and was ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax at the Upaya Zen Center. She received Jukai and the name, Inzan, Hidden Mountain, from Roshi Halifax. Previously she took refuge vows with Pema Chodron and Bodhisattva vows with Khandro Rinpoche. Both gave her the name, Nyingje Sheltri, Compassion Crystal Sword. A profoundly grateful mother to Sophia Grace Alsop and proud native Floridian who embraces her Southern heritage, she has had incarnations in this life time as a llama wrangler, back-country guide, ski instructor, urban gardener, small business owner and nonprofit founder. She volunteered as a meditation instructor with FCI, Tallahassee, a women’s federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida for twelve years. She is a Hospice volunteer and partners with Bella, also a Hospice volunteer and gracious, ninety pound, black Labradoodle. Penny is currently working in southeast Florida with a nonprofit organization whose mission it is to provide behavioral health services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, to individuals with no other resources to secure these services. Penny remains committed to finding ways to help the ease the rigors of transition from prison for formerly incarcerated women and to assist in the mighty effort it takes to find employment, housing and the will to keep trying.

Q: Some of your work has included a Zen Chaplaincy and work with Hospice and inmates with a women’s federal prison. What motivates you?

PA: I would say that I have a strong motivation as a human being who is grateful for her life and secondarily, as a contemplative. From this foundation, many different permutations of being of service have arisen. Some of these forms seem more important than others; helping to ensure that low-income individuals and families have enough to eat seems more important than my commitment to be friendly at work, for instance.

In actuality, I think that everything we each do matters very much. That I have been inspired and have responded to the call to offer myself as a chaplain, a meditation instructor to incarcerated individuals, and to be with the dying for instance, is not any more important than the countless ways we all have easy access to the words, actions and thoughts that when tended to properly, result in our doing good, doing good for others and ceasing to cause harm.

These three things are what is called the pure precepts which members of the Zen Peacemaker Order maintain; but I think that everyone, regardless of their traditions, are fundamentally motivated in this way. We all recognize, on some level, the need to be engaged with our world and each other. We all have a call to respond. If we are fortunate enough to hear that imperative and if the conditions of our life allow, it is our responsibility to each other to put things in motion to be of service and to help to alleviate the suffering of others, including animals. I think that most of us to do respond though it may not be obvious or sexy.

Q: You founded the Damayan Garden Project? How do you feel when you are gardening? How do you feel about the growth of the 501(c)(3)?

PA: This question is a little sad for me to answer because of late, I have not been able to garden. Though just recently, I was at home for a change. I’m often away. The weather was extraordinarily beautiful. It was even cool, which is unheard of in Tallahassee in July. I spent an entire day just piddling in the yard; mowing, trimming, making little water fountains for the birds, creating rock borders and such. At one point, I couldn’t get the weed eater started so I used hand clippers and for about an hour, I trimmed the lawn with those clippers. I remembered being in India and seeing women do this kind of thing with scissors! I didn’t go that far, but if you’d seen me, as I’m sure several of my neighbors did, you might have thought I was taking attention to detail a bit too far.

Being outside with plants, water, sky and dirt between my toes and under my fingernails is pure joy. When I was able to help create gardens for folks and especially when I saw the delight that comes from tending to the production of food that often times can be shared with others; well, there’s little that compares to that kind of happiness for me and it seems, having been a part of the construction and maintenance of hundreds of personal, school and community gardens, many others.

Damayan is the nonprofit organization that I founded in 1990 to help alleviate food insecurity in the low-income population of counties in and near Tallahassee, Fl. That it is still going strong, is a testament to how important, necessary and utterly fulfilling it is to be a part of community gardening. I’m especially interested in urban farms these days. It’s a perspective that is particularly meaningful to those who are in food deserts.

Damayan is still doing very good work. Of course, that makes me happy and mostly, I am grateful for all the effort of so many people who have ensured that those who need this assistance or who would otherwise benefit, are receiving this help and that those who are offering that help, get to do that. It’s a good thing, all around.

Q: You wrote: “I do this work because it’s needed. That’s the easy part to see. What’s harder is saying I can do it. I will do it. Then you start.” What have you started lately?

PA: Ha, ha, I have to laugh at this question! For many years, I lived in a state of “starting.” I’ve started all manner of things, including a llama farm (one the more fun things I’ve done). That’s one of my strengths, getting things going. It’s been harder for me to keep up with the maintenance of a project that has come to fruition than it is to pull something together out of nothing, or out of chaos. After some years of great personal upheaval and the ensuing grief, I was unceremoniously thrust into conditions where I had little choice but to take a more measured approach to the whirlwind of ideas that constantly float through my mind. I’d had to manage my depleted energy, in other words.

Right now I am working with a nonprofit organization, which is in its infancy, so it is a start up of sorts but not of my doing. I was lucky enough to be asked to help get it up and running. The Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network is responsible for managing a multimillion dollar contract with the state of Florida to ensure that behavioral health services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, are available to citizens in five counties in southeast Florida who have no means or resources of their own to get this assistance. I’m removed from the direct services but have been instrumental in building the infrastructure. Fun. Hard. Good.

What’s brewing in mind for my next effort involves the manifestation of my Buddhist chaplaincy in a very tangible, hands on way and it includes, at least, these things: abandoned animals, eggs, coffee, construction, chickens, bread, business, bees, honey, art, gardening, tiny houses and formerly incarcerated women. We’ll see how all that comes together, soon. Likely, though there’s no guarantee, what comes into being will be the basis for how I live the rest of my life.

Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?

PA: Oh, gosh, I have so many earlier versions to choose from! Here’s one that may be helpful to recall. It’s the version that misunderstood that I had to work very hard to be kind. Turns out, if one brings rigidity to the practice of kindness, it produces the opposite, which is a type of aggression and in my case, it manifested as distance from others. Ouch, that hurts to say.

I have a much more relaxed view of how to be kind as a result of observing how I held too tightly to an image and lost the actual experience of connecting with others, right where they were. I think it’s important to be on one’s toes, attentive and aware, of course, and, I think that this can be done with some relaxation. Naturally, then there’s the danger of getting too relaxed, at least this is true for me. I can get a bit lazy.

Fundamentally, my practice is about being on the razor’s edge between not too tight and not too loose, as our Buddhist teachers often remind us. In my life, trying too hard, even to be kind, has not been beneficial.

So I would say, dear Penny, maintain your practice with a sense of relaxation and humor. I would also remind that version of Penny (and the current version which has already changed since I first started responding to these questions), that though life is short and death is sure, there’s time.

Q: Life is beauty and pain. Tell me about pain in your life.

PA: Oh, good gracious. You’re really digging in deep here, aren’t you! First, I must say, that pain and painless are states of mind; both very real and maybe not so real. So right off, I encourage anyone who may be reading this to consider that as a possibility.

I have a very intimate relationship with pain; some at the most excruciating degree that a western, middle class (though I grew up poor) woman can experience. I won’t go into the details of all that but I will say this about what I have learned about pain and its close neighbor, painless. Right around the corner of pain is painless; and vice versa. One does not exist without the other, and as I’ve said, these are fundamentally states of mind.

The greatest benefit I have derived from this particular journey is the realization that without a judgment of an experience, there is just an experience. More pointedly, I have found, that it is wholly possible, presuming that one has enough to eat, is fundamentally safe from outright harm and has clothing and shelter, however meager, to let both work on one’s mind and heart as a mode of transformation and insight.

To use the more common vernacular, painless isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Though, without deep stretches of painless states, one will be debilitated and unable to work with one’s circumstances. Additionally, if one’s basic needs are not being met, working with pain isn’t very possible. Which is one reason why it is crucially important for us all to be actively involved in any way that we possibly can to be of service to others where these fundamental needs are not being met.

I have had the great, good fortune to have worked closely with some eminent Buddhist teachers. Pema Chodron is one with whom I have spent time. Pema is responsible for giving me the practices, encouragement, support and sense of humor needed to work with pain. What I mean when I say, “work with” is that I have benefitted from approaching, rather than distancing myself from pain; getting to know the feelings, thoughts and judgments that accompany this very visceral experience. This is no easy task and it can, in my opinion, be dangerous if the proper view and requisite support isn’t in place, if the pain is excruciating. Still, I would say, go for it. These painful places are chock full of gems I would likely not have found anywhere else. I imagine that the same is true for most of us.

Q: What question did I miss? What else should I know about you?

PA: Thank you for this opportunity to be part of your project and thank you for what you’re doing. I appreciate the time, effort and curiosity that it takes to do create and maintain your site.

I love Madeline Albright’s quote that, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Her message is sucker punch to the gut of complacency and distancing from the fact that we need each other and women, in particular, should develop a sense of responsibility to one another.

So I would say that there’s nothing so important about me, it’s a “we” thing. We cannot separate ourselves from each other, try as we might out of a misperception that we are disconnected from one another and thus we erroneously think we must maintain that distance.

I would say that what I have to offer is the encouragement to dive into your life, with all its grimy, loveliness and get to know things as they are, with the people, plants and animals with whom you are in contact. Don’t turn away. Let your experience touch your heart in such a way that a tear comes to eye. Find the people, places and situations that allow you to dig deep; those who offer, without a repayment plan, solace and infusion of energy and very importantly, joy!

Pema, my root teacher in the Buddhist tradition, once said to me, “Penny, get in there and work with people. Get your hands dirty.” I would like to end on that note with the same encouragement to you.