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Beacon Press: UU Discussion Guides: Breaking Free

Discussion Guide: Breaking Free


Edited by: Marilyn Sewell
Binding Information: Paperback 
Price: $16.00 In stock. 

Guide written by Frances B. Caldwell.

Guide also available in PDF format (requires free reader).

Based on Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond edited by Marilyn Sewell (Beacon Press, 2004), this five-session program brings women together to discuss aging as the development of character, a breaking free of old restraints, and an opportunity to deepen their spiritual lives.

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Session 1: Getting to Know One Another, the Book, and the Schedule; Activity—Creating Lifelines
  • Session 2: Essay Discussion, Part 1; Activity—Loss Tempered with Appreciation
  • Session 3: Essay Discussion, Part 2; Activity—Aging Gracefully
  • Session 4: Essay Discussion, Part 3; Activity—Learning from Experience and Finding Role Models
  • Session 5: Essay Discussion, Part 5; Activity—Reading the Signs

Introduction

Women can be beautiful at any stage of life. As we age, our aliveness shines forth from the depths of spirit, if we dare to go there. Maturity can bring a sweet kind of joy, as we come to know how deeply connected we are with all that is, as we understand and accept how much we have to give.
—Marilyn Sewell

The Baby Boom generation has reached the age of fifty and beyond. The women in this generation have made giant strides in breaking out of traditional female stereotypes, and now they search for new ways to approach aging. Though some have taken to Botox, face-lifts, and liposuction, more lasting answers can be found by going inside, examining the issues of the heart and spirit. This discussion group is a vehicle for "inner" work. The women who have written the twenty-seven essays in Breaking Free look upon their own aging with insight and wisdom. Their words and those of other women in the group can help participants identify and understand the issues that may be holding them back from experiencing aging with vitality, grace, and joy.

General Procedure

With the exception of Session 1, each session will include an opening, an activity, a discussion of the assigned essays, and a closing. Session 1 will be devoted to helping participants get to know one another and to introducing the book.

The essays will be read in the order they are presented in the book. The first twelve, which appear in a section of the book entitled "Necessary Losses," deal with the many ways women's lives change as they enter midlife. The body loses its youthful appearance and strength while at the same time children leave home, parents may die, partners may be lost through death or divorce, jobs and responsibilities may change, and visibility and power in society may decrease. The second section of fifteen essays is entitled "Breaking Free." These essays focus on the many ways women have discovered vitality and wisdom in their older years, sometimes in the face of illness and despair. They have put these new powers to good purpose.

Essays are grouped for discussion in the following order:

Session 2—"from Fear of Fifty," "Facing," "Sink or Swim," "What This Old Hand Knows," "from Fierce Attachments," and "from A Good Enough Daughter"

Session 3—"Baking Bread with My Daughter," "Viriditas in Vinci," "Scars: In Four Parts," "from The Cancer Journals," "Saying Yes, Yes, Always Yes," and "The Woman Within"

Session 4—"Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses," "A Song to Sensuality," "from Revolution from Within," "from The Change," "On Being a Rebellious Old Woman," "Upstaging Time," "Nana I Ke Ku . . . Looking to the Source," and "The Calling"

Session 5—"Mopping the Floor," "from The Measure of My Days," "Wrestling with My Angel," "Fearless," "Death of a Mouse," "Santa Teresa," and "In the Hollow That Remains"

Suggested discussion questions are provided for each section of essays. The General Questions may be used to spark ideas and get participants involved, whereas the Specific Questions address particular essays. It would be better to start with the general questions in the larger group and continue in smaller groups with the more specific ones. However, leaders can decide the discussion format that best suits their group. Time restrictions will not allow for a full discussion of each essay, but the most meaningful aspects of each will surface.

The activities that lead into the essay discussion period will stem from the major themes the essays present and will often involve a homework assignment. In general, an activity will take approximately 30 to 45 minutes and the essay discussion approximately 1 hour, with the remaining time for opening, break, and closing. This schedule may be adjusted at the leader's discretion, depending on the number of participants, a factor that will affect the time needed for discussion.

Setting, Materials, and Equipment

Choose a comfortable room with seating that can be easily adjusted to accommodate different groupings. Some discussion will occur in the large group; at other times the group will break up into smaller units. The room should also have space for one or two worktables.

A CD or tape player for background music is suggested for use during Session 1, when participants work on the Lifeline project. One or two long worktables will be needed for the Lifeline project, and one would be useful in later sessions for displaying items brought to class. The first session requires craft materials; a list is provided in the session description.

Opening and Closing

Leaders may choose to open sessions as many Unitarian Universalist groups do, with the lighting of a candle or the traditional chalice. In addition, to reacquaint group members, a "check-in" is useful. A check-in involves going around the group with each member giving her first name and responding to a "prompt" question. Members may choose to pass without speaking on the question. Suggested prompt questions are provided for each session, but they may be altered or replaced with a simple "How are you feeling today?"

To close each session, the leader or a participant (assigned ahead of time) may choose a particularly meaningful quote from one of the essays. A suggested quote for each session is provided if needed. After the quote is read, the group is adjourned. Some groups may enjoy participating in a circle hand squeeze. This is done with all members standing in a circle holding hands. One member begins by squeezing the hand of the person on her right who does the same to the next person and so on until the squeeze has gone around the full circle.

Homework Assignments

Each session, except the last, will have two homework assignments. One is to read and take discussion notes on the assigned essays. The second assignment will vary. Completion of both is necessary to fully participate in each session, although attendance would be beneficial even if the homework weren't completed.

Leaders are encouraged to complete the homework assignments and participate in the activities along with group members. Not only will the leader enjoy the course more this way, but she will also be better able to bond with the other women.

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Session 1

Getting to Know One Another, the Book, and the Schedule
Creating Lifelines

This session has two primary purposes: 1) for participants to get to know one another and begin to feel comfortable in discussion, and 2) to introduce the book and the course content. The Lifeline activity will get participants thinking about the many elements of one's life and the wisdom that comes through experience.

For this first session, provide nametags for participants as they enter the room. Low background music is also appropriate, but turn it off when discussion begins.

Have the following materials set out on the worktable(s):

  • Stacks of 8 ½" x 11" white paper (7 to 10 sheets per participant)
  • Glue or tape dispensers
  • Sets of colored pencils or markers with fine points
  • Scissors
  • Rulers for each participant
  • Regular pencils for each participant
  • Gold or silver stars
  • Old magazines

Participants will use these materials to construct their Lifelines.

Opening

Light the candle (optional) and welcome the participants. Tell them that the essays in the book and the scheduled activities are sure to give them new insight into their own aging process as well as an opportunity to make new friends and share new experiences. Have participants check in by giving their first name and responding to the following prompt or one of your own choosing: "What do you hope to learn or gain from this study group?"

The Study Agenda

Distribute an agenda for the five-week course and ask for questions and comments. A sample agenda is provided at the end of this web page. Answer any questions participants may have concerning the content and procedures. Encourage them to complete the homework before each session, but tell them to attend even if they have not. They are likely to benefit anyway, though not as much as they would had they completed them.

Distribute the Breaking Free books, included in the course fee. Tell them to bring the book to each session.

Creating the Lifelines

Ask participants to move to the worktables. Pass a completed Lifeline around the group so they will understand how one is constructed and what kinds of information to include.

The Lifeline is a long strip of paper with a centered, horizontal line divided into 1-inch segments, with each segment representing one year of an individual's life. Ten years may be marked off on each sheet of paper, and the years should continue at least ten years beyond the present one; thus, each woman will need between five and ten sheets.

With the rulers and regular pencils, ask participants to turn each sheet of paper sideways and draw a horizontal line through the middle of each sheet; this way the line can be at least 10 inches long, allowing for a ½-inch margin on each side for gluing to the next sheet. On the 10-inch line, have them draw ten short vertical lines, each 1 inch apart from the next. The first line represents their birth year. They may write in the year for each line, or at each fifth line. They are to create a sheet like this one for each ten years of their life as well as one for the next ten years. The sheets are then glued or taped together to form one continuous line of years.

Next, using the colored pencils and the rulers, participants should add items to the center line by drawing vertical lines in the colors suggested below and labeling each one at the end with an event, person, or place. On the last sheet of their Lifeline, the one representing their future, have them place events, travel, and accomplishments that they expect to occur in the years to come.

The following is a guide for the Lifeline items:

Red Major events (births, deaths, weddings, graduations, divorces)
Green Places lived
Blue Major relationships (people who have made a difference in your life: mentors, teachers, friends, other formative people)
Orange Accomplishments (jobs held, projects completed, skills learned)
Purple Major travel experiences

Participants may want to add stars to mark especially significant items, and some may want to illustrate their Lifelines with drawings or images from magazines.

Allow participants to work on their Lifelines for approximately 1 hour. Tell them they are free to take breaks during the work period as needed. When most have finished, ask them to regroup in a discussion circle. Close the work period with no less than 20 minutes remaining in the session.

Going around the circle, ask each participant to select one major event from her Lifeline that has made a significant difference in her life, explaining why and how it has affected her. If time allows, go around the circle again, this time asking members to share one relationship that has made a profound difference in their lives.

Point out to participants that we are shaped by the events and people in our lives, and together they offer a wealth of wisdom and experience to be put to good use in our later years. Participants may take their Lifelines home with them.

When the discussion ends, remind participants of the homework assignments for next week:

  1. Write an essay or poem about your body or a particular body part expressing your appreciation and awe for all that it has done for you. The essay "What This Old Hand Knows" will provide inspiration.
  2. Read and take discussion notes on the essays attached to Session 2.

At this time, you might want to ask for a volunteer to find a quote from next session's essays to read as a closing next time. Then read the following quote from Alix Kates Shulman's "A Good Enough Daughter":

You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality.

Close with a circle hand squeeze or a simple "Goodbye. See you next time."

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Session 2

Loss Tempered with Appreciation

Opening

Participants gather in a large group discussion circle. Light the candle (optional) and begin the discussion with a check-in around the circle, each woman giving her first name and responding to the following prompt or one of your own choosing: "What did you leave behind to come here tonight? With every choice there is a loss."

Sharing of Writing

Most participants will have written a poem or essay celebrating their body or a body part, the homework assigned in the first session. Sharing of personal writing is best done in small groups. Divide participants into groups of three or four. Ask them to share their writing one at a time, pausing between each reading. Stress that throughout the readings, the group should listen in silence and respect without comment or question. When all the writing has been shared, participants may express the feelings evoked but without critique.

When the groups have finished reading, members may choose to place their works on a table or pin/tape them to a wall or display board. During the break that follows, women may browse the display area and enjoy the works of others.

These writings may be collected and word-processed into a booklet if the leader and members choose to do so. Volunteers may want to take on this project.

Break

At the conclusion of this activity, give participants a 5- to 10-minute break. During this time, in addition to stretching their legs and going to the restroom, they might enjoy a light refreshment of some kind: coffee or tea and cookies. This option depends on the facility and the budget.

Essay Discussion

To break up the essay discussion period and allow for more intimate discussion, the following routine is suggested:

  1. Begin discussion in the large group using some of the General Questions to stimulate thinking and to get people talking.
  2. After approximately 15 minutes, give each participant a handout with the four Specific Questions written out.
  3. Set up four discussion stations around the room, each one clearly marked with 1, 2, 3, or 4. Set up four chairs at each station.
  4. Ask participants to choose two questions from the four that they would particularly like to discuss, and at a signal from the Leader, each participant will head to the station bearing the number of one of the questions she has chosen. If a selected station fills up with four members, the woman must go to her second choice.
  5. After approximately 15 to 20 minutes, the Leader will signal again, and participants will head to the station of their next choice to participate in another discussion.
  6. At the conclusion of the second small group discussion, reconvene the participants in the larger group. For each of the four questions, ask members to share some of the highlights brought out in discussion.

The following questions may be used for this session:

General Questions:

  1. Do you see any major themes emerging in these essays?
  2. Did you identify strongly with any of the essays?
  3. Do you strongly disagree with any of the writers?
  4. Are there any passages in the essays that particularly resonate with you? What are they and why are they meaningful?
  5. Can you identify a deepening of character or spirit in any of the writers as a result of their experiences?

Specific Questions:

  1. These essays are in a section of the book entitled "Necessary Losses." What kinds of losses do you see the writers experiencing and are they common in women's lives?
  2. Jong in "Fear of Fifty" writes about "the mad woman in the attic" consumed with ferocious anger. Do you ever feel angry about the situation of the older woman? How do you deal with it?
  3. In "Facing," Wall gives a convincing argument against face-lifts. Do you agree with her? What are your feelings about the use of cosmetic surgery to lessen the effects of aging on a face or body?
  4. Gornick writes of a conflicted relationship with her mother. Has your relationship with your mother changed over the years? In what ways?

Closing

In closing, bring everyone together in the large group setting. Remind them of the homework assignments for the following week:

  1. "Aging gracefully" is a common phrase, but what exactly does it mean? Bring a photo, object, or drawing of an object which has in your opinion aged gracefully. (Examples might be an article of clothing, artwork, furniture, an animal, etc.) Be prepared to provide your definition of the term.
  2. Read and take discussion notes on the essays attached to Session 3.

Ask the member who volunteered to bring a closing quote to read it to the group. If none is available, the quote below from Sornberger's "Viriditas in Vinci" may be read:

[Sending a child off into the world] is the same kind of faith that creation requires. For in order to create one must be willing to be a fool—to fail, to look ridiculous. One must sense the energy of the thing to be created and give oneself over to participating in its making. One must lose control.

Close with a circle hand squeeze or a simple goodbye.

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Session 3

Aging Gracefully

Opening

Begin with names and a check-in. The suggested check-in prompt is: "Boucher in her essay ‘Saying Yes, Yes, Always Yes' quotes an ancient Shin Buddhist when she writes ‘Thanks for everything. I have no complaints.' For what in your life, whether a pain or a pleasure, are you particularly grateful today?"

Sharing of Objects That Are Aging Gracefully

Ask participants to bring out last session's homework assignment—the objects, drawings, and photos exhibiting the phrase "aging gracefully." If the number of women attending is no more than ten, have them share in the large group. If not, have them break into groups of three or four. Each woman in turn can pass her object/photo/drawing around the group for closer viewing as she explains two things:

  1. What the term "aging gracefully" means to her.
  2. How the item (or picture/photo of an item) she has brought has aged gracefully. Why is it still prized? Will it continue to grow in value?

Have smaller groups summarize their session for the larger group.

Break

A 5- to 10-minute break is recommended after this activity.

Essay Discussion

Follow the same procedure used in Session 2. Discussion questions are given below:

General Questions:

  1. Do you see any major themes emerging in these essays?
  2. Did you identify strongly with any of the essays?
  3. Do you strongly disagree with any of the writers?
  4. Are there any passages in the essays that particularly resonate with you? What are they and why are they meaningful?
  5. Can you identify a deepening of character or spirit in any of the writers as a result of their experiences?

Specific Questions:

  1. Sornberger, Moore, and Tisdale write about their children. Does a mother's love for her children differ from the love she has for others in her life? If so, how? Does this love change over time?
  2. Illness is a topic taken up by Lorde, Boucher, and Glasgow. Have you ever had to deal with serious disease or pain? How did the experience change you?
  3. Glasgow claims, "So long as I could keep from hurting anyone else, I have lived as completely as it was possible, the life of my choice. I have been free." Do you feel you have lived a life of freedom? In what ways? In what ways have you felt confined?
  4. Lorde writes, "As women we were raised to fear. If I cannot banish fear completely, I can learn to count with it less." Do you agree that women are raised to fear? How have you lessened fear in your life?

Closing

Remind participants of the homework for the next session:

  1. Identify a woman, either one you know personally or know through the media or literature, who you believe is a positive role model for older women. What about this woman makes her exemplary? How have you used her good example? If possible, bring a picture of this woman to the next session.
  2. Read and take discussion notes on the essays attached to Session 4.

Have a volunteer read an appropriate closing quote from the essays or read the following suggested quote from Boucher in "Saying Yes, Yes, Always Yes":

At sixty-three, I had a heightened sense of the shortness of the time ahead of me, and that unburdened me of much baggage from the past. There were some books I wanted to write, some places on the globe I wanted to visit. I hoped to stay as healthy as I was for many years to come.

Close with a circle hand squeeze or a simple goodbye.

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Session 4

Learning from Experience
Finding Role Models

Opening

Have participants gather in the large group setting. Light the candle if desired and after a welcome, initiate discussion with the following prompt or one of your own choosing: "Allende and Angelou particularly address sensuousness—delight in seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and feeling. What has been one of your most sensuous experiences since we last met (other than sex)?"

Sharing of Role Models

Divide participants into smaller groups of three or four to share descriptions and pictures of role models, last session's homework assignment. Ask participants to respond to the following questions and display any photos or pictures they may have brought:

  • Who is the woman you deem as a positive role model in your life?
  • What is her position or her relationship to you?
  • What is it about the way she lived or lives her life that you find inspiring or motivating?
  • What have you done in your own life to model hers?

When all have shared, reconvene in the larger group and have the small groups summarize or highlight their discussions.

Break

A 5- to 10-minute break is recommended after this activity.

Essay Discussion

Follow the same procedure for essay discussion as in the last two sessions. Suggested discussion questions follow:

General Questions:

  1. Do you see any major themes emerging in these essays?
  2. Did you identify strongly with any of the essays?
  3. Do you strongly disagree with any of the writers?
  4. Are there any passages in the essays that particularly resonate with you? What are they and why are they meaningful?
  5. Can you identify a deepening of character or spirit in any of the writers as a result of their experiences?

Specific Questions:

  1. Allende discusses her idea of the perfect lovers' retreat, filled with good food and wine, exciting aromas, and even the reading of stories together—never a video. For you, is she right-on or slightly off-key?
  2. Steinem staged a very public fiftieth birthday party for herself. How did you or will you celebrate your fiftieth birthday?
  3. Greer states that an older woman "can no longer live through others, or justify her life by the sexual and domestic services that she renders." What, then, can she do? Does Greer offer advice?
  4. Both Cooper and Paley approach old age with an "uppity attitude." Give examples of this. Do you approve, or do they go too far?

Closing

Distribute the worksheet "Reading the Signs" (found at the end of this web page). Introduce it with an explanation similar to the following:

"Calizar in her essay ‘Nana I Ke Ku . . . Looking to the Source,' writes about a woman having to guide her life as one guides a canoe through the water, looking for signs, reading the weather, and avoiding obstacles when possible. This worksheet will help you read the signs in your own life and steer toward peace and joy."

Remind participants of the homework assignments for the next session:

  1. Complete the worksheet entitled "Reading the Signs."
  2. Read and take discussion notes on the essays attached to Session 5.

Ask for a volunteer to read the quotation she has selected for the closing. If not, read the following quote from Calizar in "Nana I Ke Ku . . . Looking to the Source":

When a woman remakes herself, as she must do many times while in the body, the skills of navigating and translating are called upon without thinking. If we are to move with the water, as people of the canoe, we must be able to read the way. Signs, shifts, and nature's messages are often subtle, and translating them accurately takes practice.

Close with a circle hand squeeze or a simple goodbye.

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Session 5

Reading the Signs

By this last session, participants are no doubt feeling very close to each other. Because of this, you may find a different tone arising in this session. The closing is especially important this time with a goal of preserving the feeling of camaraderie that has developed.

Opening

Gather as you have before in the large group setting. After a welcome, begin discussion with the following prompt or one of your own choosing: "Thinking about Calizar's metaphor—life as a canoe trip—in one or two words describe your ‘canoe trip' on life's waters today (examples: blissful and profitable, choppy and hazardous, bumpy, etc.)."

Note: For this session, reverse the order of events by discussing the essays first and saving the more intimate discussion of the "Reading the Signs" worksheet for later.

Essay Discussion

Follow the same procedure as in the previous sessions. The following are suggested discussion questions:

General Questions:

  1. Do you see any major themes emerging in these essays?
  2. Did you identify strongly with any of the essays?
  3. Do you strongly disagree with any of the writers?
  4. Are there any passages in the essays that particularly resonate with you? What are they and why are they meaningful?
  5. Can you identify a deepening of character or spirit in any of the writers as a result of their experiences?

Specific Questions:

  1. Galland in "Mopping the Floor" states that our only means of understanding compassion, charity, patience, wisdom, love, and generosity is through watching how good people lead their lives, not from any text or teaching. Do you agree with her, and how does this relate to your own life?
  2. Sewell, Griffin, and Fisher intersperse their writing on serious subjects with humor and whimsy. Give some examples. What is the effect? In your opinion, is it appropriate to treat serious subjects with levity? Have you ever used humor to cope with a serious problem?
  3. Williams' essay describes the miracle of Santa Teresa. Both Williams and Joseph Smith, the Mormon leader, were captivated by Teresa's story. What is your take on it? Have you experienced miraculous events in your own life?
  4. Hurd uses the cave as a metaphor for the empty spaces in our psyches. Do you think the metaphor works? What "caves" have you encountered in your life's journey?

Break

A 5- to 10-minute break is recommended after the essay discussion.

Sharing of "Reading the Signs" Worksheets

Break into smaller groups for this activity even if the full group has as few as ten members. The material here is very personal and participants will feel more comfortable sharing in a small group.

Each woman in turn may discuss those parts of the "Reading the Signs" worksheet that she feels comfortable sharing.

After approximately 15 minutes, bring the large group together.

Closing

This last sharing might be considered a "check-out," a way of saying goodbye with good thoughts. Have each woman in turn respond to the following prompt: "What are you taking with you from this experience?"

When each member has contributed, the Leader at her choosing might distribute some small gift as a remembrance. It could be something simple like a flower, a rock, a bookmark, or a charm. It might also be a finished booklet from Session 2 containing the writings of group members.

The following quote from Marilyn Sewell's "Wrestling with My Angel" might be a fitting closure if a group member has not prepared another one:

Who would I be if not a passionate, angry woman? I'm moving into the answer now: I would be a given over woman. The passion without so much of the ego. The anger shifting strangely to compassion, as I understand how much longing fills all human hearts, and how much suffering we all endure. And stranger yet, I sense that all these feelings are converging in a nameless kind of joy. How can I tell you of it? It is the joy of acceptance, of relief, a letting go of the tension between what I have demanded of life and what I find is true of life. Bringing together what I want and what I have been offered. Being at one with what is.

Close with a circle hand squeeze or a simple goodbye.

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Sample Agenda

Date Session 1 Getting to Know One Another, the Book, and the Schedule; Activity—Creating Lifelines

Homework Assignments:

  • Write an essay or poem about your body or a particular body part expressing your appreciation and awe for all that it has done for you. The essay "What This Old Hand Knows" will provide inspiration.
  • Read and take discussion notes on the following essays: "from Fear of Fifty," "Facing," "Sink or Swim," "What This Old Hand Knows," "from Fierce Attachments," and "from A Good Enough Daughter."
Date Session 2 Essay Discussion, Part 1; Activity—Loss Tempered with Appreciation

Homework Assignments:

  • "Aging gracefully" is a common phrase, but what exactly does it mean? Bring a photo, object, or drawing of an object which has in your opinion aged gracefully. Be prepared to provide your definition of the term.
  • Read and take discussion notes on the following essays: "Baking Bread with My Daughter," "Viriditas in Vinci," "Scars: In Four Parts," "from The Cancer Journals," "Saying Yes, Yes, Always Yes," and "The Woman Within."
Date Session 3 Essay Discussion, Part 2; Activity—Aging Gracefully

Homework Assignments:

  • Identify a woman, either one you know personally or know through the media or literature, who you believe is a positive role model for older women. What about this woman makes her exemplary? How have you used her good example? If possible, bring a picture of this woman to the next session.
  • Read and take discussion notes on the following essays: "Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses," "A Song to Sensuality," "from Revolution from Within," "from The Change," "On Being a Rebellious Old Woman," "Upstaging Time," "Nana I Ke Ku . . . Looking to the Source," and "The Calling."
Date Session 4 Essay Discussion, Part 3; Activity—Learning from Experience and Finding Role Models

Homework Assignments:

  • Complete the worksheet entitled "Reading the Signs."
  • Read and take discussion notes on the following essays: "Mopping the Floor," "from The Measure of My Days," "Wrestling with My Angel," "Fearless," "Death of a Mouse," "Santa Teresa," and "In the Hollow That Remains."
Date Session 5 Essay Discussion, Part 4; Activity—Reading the Signs

Reading the Signs

Write responses to the following questions on another piece of paper.

  1. What new knowing is mine?
  2. Where is wisdom leading me?
  3. What shifts or changes do I want to make in my life?
  4. What are possible obstacles?
  5. Where can I find strength to sustain myself on the journey?
 
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