Raji Kelley Simpson

Raji Kelley Simpson_iwRaji Kelley Simpson is a storyteller, self portrait artist and teacher, and dancer. She has a book (or two) in the works and she recently launched Selfie Love~Self Portrait Workshops as a character development program for middle schools. She just celebrated 20 years with the love of her life (and co-facilitator of Selfie Love) Jeffrey Simpson, and they were recently recognized internationally for some collaborative self portraits. The next round of Selfie Love~Virtual Self Portrait Workshop beginning soon and if you’re interested in joining you can find more information at (www.selfielove.com).

Q: Can you tell me what led you to start Selfie Love (http://selfielove.com)? What has surprised you about the way that people portray/want to portray themselves?

RKS: Selfie Love~Virtual Self Portrait Workshops and Selfielove.com began as all of my endeavors do; out of the desire to show up fully to me, my expression, and life & and in turn share that experience with others.

On the surface, my work is about self-portraits and photography, but ultimately all of my work is about guiding others to radical self love, creative expression, and the freedom to be themselves.

I took my first self portrait the day I was diagnosed with disease.  A lifelong conversation between my thyroid and I manifested physically in the form of disease and self portraiting became my most potent medicine.  Self love to quell self attacking autoimmune aspect of disease & creative expression to celebrate all aspects of voice.

For twenty years, I had been ‘doing my work’ as a seeker, yogi, lightworker, miracle maker. My first response to physical health crisis was to FIX IT. Oh, I had all the tools, mantras, postures, and miraculous juju to cure myself of this disease.

When I began to explore with self-portraits, I was delightfully shocked that I was receiving instant, powerful, insightful information about myself and situation; in a totally new way. It was like stepping into ‘witness’ mode, in order to see myself, literally!, and then from there; create desired expression and explore possibilities for myself from there.

Guiding others in the process of self portraiture with others is what makes this process alive for me. It’s like chocolate, it’s way more fun to share it with others. What surprises me most about the way people portray themselves is their capacity and willingness to want to dive in so deep, so fast, and show so much of themselves. There is so little held back in our virtual self-portrait workshops. Their desire and courage to be so real with themselves and share that with the group is astounding. It has a ripple effect that fuels us all to go to our edges. I have become acutely aware of the basic need that we as humans have to be seen, heard, and share our stories.

Q: How has being an artist changed the way you look at the world?

RKS: As a lifelong gymnast, dancer, and storyteller; my art has always been process art, it’s a fleeting expression of a moment and then it’s done. My self portrait work is also completely process oriented; as satisfying as it is to create visual tangible pieces of art and have that proof in form; for me, it’s all about the underlying expression and capturing a feeling or a moment.

And…I have finally declared myself an artist!

This has shifted the way I look at the world and furthermore how I am in the world, because I’ve made it a conscious choice to be guided by how I want my art and life to feel (full of self love and creative expression). I’ve opened to the truth that my life and my expression are the art. Stepping into this has relieved a lot pressure and past notions regarding things I need to ‘do’ in my life. I am also noticing and finding great joy in making art out of all of life’s little moments. This has led to an even greater level of presence in my life versus constantly looking for the big AHA moments.

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

RKS: Oh, without skipping a beat, I would tell myself to have fun, that it’s okay if it’s easy, drop the perfection mentality, to stop following someone else’s map, that I am perfectly too much, that I don’t have to do a fucking thing in order to be living my potential.

Pardon the f bomb, I’m a little passionate about that subject.

Q: Tell me about one incredible moment in your life. What did you learn in that instant?

RKS: There was definitely an instant. October 31, 2003. My newborn son, Finn woke up from a 6 day coma post birth. In that moment, I had the experience of truly knowing the absolute preciousness and privilege it is to be alive. I mean, really alive. Sure, I always ‘knew‘ that, but to have an actual experience of it is a whole new level of understanding.

I go through the natural cycle of forgetting and it is amazing to have those now almost 11-year-old brown eyes live to constantly remind me. Thank you, Finn!

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

RKS: I’m an eternal optimist and at this stage of life, I love to find the beauty within the pain.

Growing up as a gymnast and dancer, I learned as a young child to use those as my outlets to transform pain into art.

In later years, my relationship with pain became more about learning to embrace it and learn to hear its messages before transforming it/making it ‘go away’. I love to acknowledge the presence of pain and ask questions like, ‘why are you here, what is your message for me?’ before trying to ‘get out of’ the pain. Disease has been my biggest teacher in the last few years and I’m thrilled to come to a place where giving pain some voice has led me to a place of ease within it all. (and I’m feeling great!).

Mali Phonpadith

Mali Phonpadith

Mali Phonpadith is an author, speaker, CEO/Founder of the SOAR Community Network and the Executive Producer of Tea with Mali TV. She consults with entrepreneurs and visionaries to help them S.O.A.R. (See, Own, Articulate, Release) with their unique message and mission by implementing emotional marketing and social media strategies.

Mali has over 17 years of marketing, sales, and business development experience. She also ran a financial services practice with Northwestern Mutual Financial Network for seven years where she created and implemented risk management strategies for hundreds of clients.

Mali is a well-known community champion and fundraiser for local non-profits. She is the co-founder of the Young Professional Leadership Group and the host of two podcasts, SOAR and Creative Entrepreneur Buzz.  She is a published poet and author. A Million Fireflies is Mali’s memoir about her voyage from war-torn Laos to America and she is also coauthor of Seen and Sustained: Best Practices in Communication that Increase the Visibility of Small and Diverse Businesses, a professional workbook written with Akia Garnett, Jane Lovas, and Tamecia Bradshaw.

Mali has traveled across the United States, speaking at The Library of Congress, Smithsonian, The Lao American Writer’s Summit, University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business, Lao American Advancement Organization, International Rotary Clubs, SWAMFest, and many more. Advisor Today Magazine, Asian Fortune Newspaper, News Channel 8/WJLA DC, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, Intentful Magazine and numerous blog talk radio programs have featured her inspiring journey.

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

MP: Many close family members, friends and colleagues have told me that my gift in seeing beneath the surface and going straight to the core of people’s hearts and minds is what impresses them most. The ability to place little judgment on others and choosing to interact with compassion, even before knowing anything about another human being, are some of the attributes that I have been praised for. I have experienced multiple tragedies, healed through the grief of losing loved ones unexpectedly, and through these challenging times, I became more aware and awake to the power of my time here on Earth. My losses taught me to love Life.

I have an innate desire to learn what lights people up, what makes them feel connected to others, to life and to the Universe. I want to support them in valuing their time here on Earth too and helping them see, own, articulate, and release their unique gifts, talents and experiences to help them create a profound legacy. By supporting others to live their highest calling, however they define their purpose in life, I also get to create my legacy one person at a time.

Q: How does writing poetry change the way you think?

MP: Poetry is a natural gift that came with me. I say this because I never learned how to write poetry but it was the natural way in which I expressed my emotions as a young girl. Poetry has always been my refuge, a natural channel for me to release my feelings, both good and not so great. It allows me to pause, take deep breaths or release my sorrows. When I write poetry, I find clarity toward understanding what I am feeling and this opens up more avenues for better decision-making, helping me choose actions that move me forward more gracefully.

Q: What are some lessons from Laos that you have carried with you through your life?

MP: My parents had to escape with us from Laos. They got in a boat and rowed across the Mekong River, seeking safety for their children. They did not know if they were going to make it to the shores of Thailand, let alone find our way to a refugee camp. Somehow they knew to take that leap of Faith. That was the defining moment in my life. I was only four years old but their decision to leave danger behind, crossing the river to the great unknown, was the most important lesson in my life. I have learned to trust and believe that when our lives are filled with challenges, there is always a better place on the other side. I always move toward optimism and hope using the only tools I have inside of me, my intuition and faith that “all things are as they should be or they would be something else”. This mantra helps me move forward during the toughest times of my life.

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

MP: “Honor your unique gifts, talents and experiences. Believe in yourself and trust your instincts to lead you on the right paths in life. First, learn to tap into your instincts and hear that inner voice. Once you have practiced doing this for yourself, you will be better equipped to honor others’ gifts, believe in their brilliance and trust their instincts to lead them on their own paths in life.”

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

MP: I have had many painful moments in life. All of them have led me here to a place where I truly honor my life. As a child, I grew up in the United States basically in poverty. I felt like an outcast living in a neighborhood where no one, besides my own family, acknowledged me because there we very few Asians who lived in our neighborhood. I was ridiculed and bullied for most of my childhood.

In my mid 20’s I lost my fiancé and nephew to a drowning accident and two years later, I lost my godfather and my own father, both to cancer. Two years thereafter, I lost my best friend to suicide, then an uncle to lung cancer and in 2013, my beloved grandmother passed away. I have felt hopeless and reached the bottom of despair yet somehow crawled out of the depths of sadness. I did this by simply feeling every ounce of the pain and “walking through”. I trusted that at some point, I would arrive at a lighter place and somehow, I always did. I was forced to exercise my heart muscles, my physical stamina and my emotional bandwidth. I have been tested, I have been challenged and I have prevailed with an even greater thirst for living in each moment. All of these experiences have elevated my desire to live a profound and meaningful life while I am alive and on this earthly plane. My empathy bucket has stretched deep and wide so I am much more capable of supporting others who are moving out of pain and choosing to walk toward peace.

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

MP: My life’s work gets played out every day through my business. I get to help every person sent to me see, own, articulate and release their unique gifts, talents and messages into the world. I help others set themselves free of barriers, grief, and doubts through my SOAR retreats, mapping process, podcasts, publications and cable television show, Tea with Mali. I feel fortunate for all the elements came together to create my existence. Life has happened to me so I am making it a point make it count, appreciate my time here and live out my purpose!









Vicki Fox

Vicki FoxVicki Fox is a catalyst and conduit for holistic growth. She loves to connect people and inspire them, and this drive led her to create Women of Intention, Ordinary Women Making An Extraordinary Difference in 2006. I met Vicki at one of the Women of Intention meetings where I was impressed by the heart-felt gathering of super cool ladies. I’ve made some lifelong friends from these meetings. Besides being a consummate connector, Vicki is a freelance court reporter who types a stunning 260 words per minute.

Q:  What led you to create Women of Intention?

VF: In 2005, I had moved to York to start a new life and get remarried. That December, I ended the engagement and moved back to Harrisburg. Many women had been excited and encouraged at my finding love in my early 50’s.   Returning to the area, I felt a bit of shame and some embarrassment as if I had let these women down. I knew I needed to let them all know my story and I also knew that it would be an opportunity to reinvent myself. My solution was to hold a 55th birthday party for myself, invite them all, tell my story and celebrate my new beginning. I asked them to come and celebrate with me, explaining that their presence was my present.

A love of mine is creating a safe space and building community. With that in mind, I posed two questions to the women knowing it would bring us together as a group and connect our hearts. I requested they come prepared to share an intention for their own self-care and an intention for the care of the planet.

Thirty-four women showed up! It was a Two Tissue Event! When women stood up and shared their intentions, it was incredibly moving. The next morning when I awakened, it was as if I was in a conversation with someone, and I found myself saying out loud, “Yes, you are right. Unless I hold monthly gatherings, all their intentions will die. Women of Intention: Ordinary Women Making an Extraordinary Difference.” I believe that experience was divine intervention.

Ordinary women making an extraordinary difference.

It has been eight years. I’ve watched the original women grow and change. Women of Intention attracts an eclectic group of women. The beauty is that most of these women would never meet because of their life’s path. Yet when we convene and share deep conversation, there is a sense of camaraderie. We realize while externally we may seem different, we are all the same — desiring a safe world where we can all make a difference and prosper.

I have often described Women of Intention as not another networking group, but rather a group where we connect our souls. That being said, I encourage the women to support each other in our work in the world.

Q: Women of Intention has been flourishing for years. What are some of the things that surprise you?

I’m surprised that Women of Intention keeps on going. There are times that I want to give up. It’s a lonely process. When one sends out three or four newsletters to the over 600 women on my list and there is no requested feedback, I sometimes start to wonder Is anyone out there? Then as we get closer to an event date, women start enrolling, and I get renewed excitement.

The evening of an event always reminds me why I spend so many hours planning and executing the program. It is because magic happens when you gather women! There have been many synchronicities, friendships and collaborations borne at Women of Intention. To keep things fresh, groups need to evolve. As the women have changed and grown, the programs have reflected that. I am looking forward to seeing where we go from here.

I have watched my growth over these past eight years. In some ways, I’m a maverick, but in other ways, I’m terrified, both of failure and success. Trust is a big issue for me and I know I am not alone. I’m like “every woman” and I feel like I am a good barometer in deciding what topics to present.

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

VF: When I look back on my life and see things that were a “mistake”, where life could have gone a different way and didn’t, I see at that time I had an inner knowing that the path I was choosing, mostly because of fear, was not the one for my highest good.

My advice would be: Be quiet and still, listen to that inner voice that is telling you not to do something, or the excited, passionate voice that is telling you it is time to stretch and be a “yes”. Trust all the answers are inside. Remember if you make a decision that does not feel right down the road, there is always a course correction to get you back on track.

Q: How has the path your life has taken surprised you?

VF: It’s interesting because at this part of my life I want to be in the front of the room, but for thirty-nine years I’ve been the silent person in the courtroom as a court reporter.

Court reporting has been a good profession. I’m certified at 260 words per minute. From recording hundreds of trials and deposition, I know a little bit about everything, yet not much about any one particular area. Every case is something interesting – from Three Mile Island to the Rite Aid trial – but it’s like you’re a fly on the wall and not a participant.

To develop the other side of my brain, I’m certified in reflexology and as a yoga teacher. No one in the courtroom has ever said, “Thank you, Vicki, I feel so much better.” It is nice to hear that after working on a client’s face and feet or instructing a yoga class.

It has surprised me that I am not in the front of the room more. In high school, I was very active in student government and I enjoyed making a difference. I have been a Toastmaster for five years, and I am honing my skills so that in my Third Act, I will not be silent any longer.

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

VF: Currently, the pain is that my daughter lives in Chicago and my son, his wife, and my two-year-old grandson live in Minneapolis. I miss them terribly. The beauty is I am happy that they have fabulous lives and are amazing human beings, but I am saddened that our in-person contact is so restricted because of the geographic distance. God bless Skype!

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

VF: I am a wonderful doer, and I am trying to carve out some time to be. To listen to my soul’s calling to see what is next for me. In April, I connected with some wonderful people out in California. I was invited to a meeting with fifty attendees, twenty-seven women and twenty-three men.  We are embarking on a movement in its early stages called The Conscious Elder Network. Our intention is to be a catalyst to transform our culture to respect the wisdom of the elders and to use that wisdom to support the dreams and visions of the younger people in our culture to create a kinder, more gentle and self-sustaining world.  I am not sure what my place will be there. I am trusting that will become more apparent as we move forward.

There has been much back and forth since this initial website and it will be growing organically.  One thing that is not visible there at the moment is the importance of intergenerational collaboration.

One new friend from The Conscious Elder Network said his definition of a conscious elder is to be comfortable with uncertainty and embrace the mysteries of life.  That is certainly a growing edge for me, and I am enjoying my new involvement with these wonderful people, many of whom appear to truly know how to live in the present and trust all is well.

So stay tuned. We hope The Conscious Elders Network will begin a movement where elders will help the youth achieve their dreams, and we, as elders, will return to our rightful place where our wisdom is respected.

Some other unknown facts about me are that I love to sing (my fantasy is to sing vampy, jazzy songs in a cocktail lounge!) and I take private ballroom dancing lessons and have participated in annual shows where my instructor has me doing lifts. Also, what everyone says about being a grandparent is true. I recommend it to everyone. Pure joy!


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….

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.