What Women Know

Every evening, a nurse’s aide helps the old man eat. She knows that he cries because they’ve put him in diapers. On morning rounds, a surgeon checks the patient’s incision but knows nothing of his shame and despair. The aide is a woman; the doctor is a man.

A minister stands at the front of the church preaching about how to love. His wife sits in the back with a woman in a wheelchair. The older woman leans against the young wife, clutching her hand and talking about the son she hasn’t seen in ten years. Who has touched the parishioner with more caring—the minister or his wife?

Throughout the centuries, no matter what the ministers, priests and imams said in their sermons, it was women who spent hours of every day washing the weak and wiping away their tears.

It’s a cliché to say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But it’s true—as long as you survive the struggle. Because women had so little power in past centuries, they’ve been forced to learn some terrible and wonderful lessons.

Women know comforting. They’ve washed skinned knees and held feverish children through the night. They’ve encouraged and comforted each other in labor, and they’ve held sobbing sisters when a baby is lost. They’ve tended ill and dying men who barely spoke to them. And they’ve done it for years on end.

Women know intimacy. They know about bleeding and loose stools. The nurse’s aide who washes the old man’s body knows that his fortune doesn’t matter because there are oozing sores on his hips and heels that never heal.

Women know about powerlessness. They know about kind sex and cruel sex. They know that babies come even after rape, and that miscarriages come even when you’ve prayed for a baby for years. They know that when two people have sex, only one ever pays the price—and it’s always the same one. A woman knows that if another man comes into the room, her husband may ignore her and mock any comment she makes, even though her new ideas excited him earlier. A woman knows that a younger, prettier woman may take her place, even as her husband gets jealous when she speaks to kind men at work.

Women know about intuition. Even when others call their ideas silly or illogical, women often trust their gut. They know only heart knowledge can explain some of life’s most important experiences. Because they believed they could not lead others, they were free to deeply know the experience of daily life. They learned to trust things that seemed unexplainable, that did not make sense. Women have learned to follow the inner voice that says “Don’t try to cross the river” or “Get him to the ER now, no matter what anyone says.”

Finally, women know to cherish the shimmering flashes when God appears—a bee sleeping in a hollyhock, the touch of a sick child’s fingertip, the utter peace of a cooling body. They know they can’t command joy, but they trust the surprise of God’s caress.

It’s not that men cannot know these things. It’s that society herds them down chutes that lead to leadership positions—even though those positions force distance between the leader and the flock. Society forces men to compete in every interaction, making friendship and kindness dangerous.

Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed all taught the same truths:

  • God loves the small and weak.
  • God speaks to the heart, not the mind.
  • Love and kindness matter more than anything.

And this is exactly why women matter so much in ministry. We know comforting, intimacy, powerlessness and intuition because it’s the stuff of our lives. It’s what we have practiced for centuries.

It’s no coincidence that the first person to see Jesus after He rose was a woman. His outer form had changed. The words “alive” and “dead” no longer made sense—None of it made any sense. But Mary Magdalene accepted the shining new reality.

Women know the truths that matter. And that’s why we must offer ourselves in service to the world. Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed have spoken. To us, their words make sense. Serving them, we reach out now to comfort and lead. Our work is to create a new world.


By Jean Gendreau

Getting to Joy

Last week a song made me cry. It threw me backwards into the thick sadness of 25 years ago. I had forgotten how bad that time was. Thank God I had forgotten.

The theme was from a dinosaur movie that I watched with my little girls. In the movie, the young dinos get separated from their families. As they search for the big herd, all they have is each other.

Don’t lose your way
With each passing day
You’ve come so far
Don’t throw it away.

People try so hard. At that time, my second marriage was crashing. My dream of happiness seemed impossible. I felt I had tried, but it seemed happiness simply could never happen for me. Maybe for others, but not for me.

Live believing
Dreams are for weaving
Wonders are waiting to start
Live your story
Faith, hope and glory
Hold to the truth in your heart.

Here’s what’s wonderful: What I know today is that happiness is possible. We can find our wholeness. Healing takes time, but it is possible.

How amazing. I had forgotten how bad it had been. I didn’t even remember how much I used to hurt.

To heal, to find happiness, I had to discover four things:

1. Respect

I had to strip away the “pretends” and see the real child I had been—and I had to respect that child for enduring in harsh surroundings. Mind you, it’s not that my life was worse than everyone else’s. It’s that as children we all endure pain that no one else sees. I had to respect the child in me and be honest about my own confusion and sadness. I did this in therapy. It’s what I needed.

And then, of course, I had to respect the same thing in others. In the end, we are all just walking each other home.

2. Tenderness

I had to accept tenderness for myself. This is hard because all of us feel shame over who we have been. Some of us say, “Stop whining.” Sure, stop it, don’t whine your whole adult life. But first, learn how to be tender to yourself. Tell the truth. Name the hurts. I had to touch my child self, my teenage self and my adult woman self with true kindness. This means throwing shame in the garbage. We all heard, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”  Many of us heard, “We are ashamed of you.” It’s time to stop the pain. We have punished and re-punished ourselves enough. The only thing we deserve now is tenderness, and I had to learn how to accept it.

And then, of course, I had to offer tenderness to others. In the end, all we have is each other.

Souls in the wind
Must learn how to bend,
Seek out a star,
Hold on to the end.

3. Courage

Healing takes work. It’s hard to expose ancient pain, and others often enjoy watching your struggles. They love to point their fingers and say, “Boy, does he have problems” or “I’m sure glad I’m not as screwed up as she is.”  Ignore them. Walk on. Everyone needs healing and therapy—everyone. Your only job is you. Keep your eyes on hope. It takes huge courage to tell the truth to yourself and to believe that you can heal, that things can change. Believe me: You can learn to be whole and happy.

And when you know it for yourself, it’s easy to see it for others too.

Valley, mountain
There is a fountain
Washes our tears all away
Words are swaying
Someone is praying
Please let us come home to stay.

4. Reverence

As you heal, you become holy beauty. You finally see yourself as an amazing, glowing thing. A star. A light. A tender, courageous, honorable warrior who has fought through it and come out the other side. And when you see it in yourself, you see it in the others around you.

The Divine hopes for your joy. Heaven pours out healing. Hope and wholeness seep into us and through us until finally, as we shine, we pour out our light for others.

Don’t lose your way
With each passing day
You’ve come so far
Don’t throw it away
Live believing
Dreams are for weaving
Wonders are waiting to start.

The song still brings tears to my eyes. I want to reach out to the younger me, look into her eyes and tell her that she’ll make it through.

Believe me. It’s possible. Hold on to the end. I made it through, and so can you. My life isn’t perfect but it is good, very good.

Happiness. Wholeness. Home. Just keep going. Keep trying. Wonders really are waiting to start. 

Here’s a video of the song

….and here are all the words.

Don’t lose your way
With each passing day
You’ve come so far
Don’t throw it away
Live believing
Dreams are for weaving
Wonders are waiting to start
Live your story
Faith, hope and glory
Hold to the truth in your heart

If we hold on together
I know our dreams will never die
Dreams see us through to forever
Where clouds roll by
For you and I

Souls in the wind
Must learn how to bend
Seek out a star
Hold on to the end
Valley, mountain
There is a fountain
Washes our tears all away
Words are swaying
Someone is praying
Please let us come home to stay

If we hold on together
I know our dreams will never die
Dreams see us through to forever
Where clouds roll by
For you and I

When we are out there in the dark
We’ll dream about the sun
In the dark we’ll feel the light
Warm our hearts, everyone

If we hold on together
I know our dreams will never die
Dreams see us through to forever
As high as souls can fly
The clouds roll by
For you and I


Wilderness Love

As Mom came around the corner and saw it, she gasped, stumbled against me and started to cry.  “There are no words,” she said. “No words.” Touching that beauty, knowing it was real made her weep. It was the Taj Mahal. We had pushed our way through Agra’s appalling tourist bazaars, paid rupees for our tickets and stepped around the corner to see this. My eighty-year-old mother’s tears made it a holy moment. 

The wilderness where I live is like the Taj Mahal. It’s so magical, so enchanting that when people here describe a campfire or a misty dawn, they often choke up. When I first moved to the north woods, this surprised me, but now I expect it. People’s eyes change. Their voices get husky. “It’s the place where I see God,” a big man tells me. “It’s my church.”

Ten years after we visited the Taj Mahal, Mom died. Dad had died just a few months before, and she went from diagnosis to death in about 20 days. And then, a few weeks later, my ex-husband’s body was found. For me even meditation and church couldn’t touch the edges of this grief. It seemed hundreds of miles across with no roads through. I couldn’t grasp where the pain started and stopped.

We decided to paddle out into the wilderness. There were long days of paddling on rivers and lakes with only the sky for company. The lakes led one into another, day after day, and we camped on rocky islands with only red squirrels and grey jays to talk to. It felt like the rivers, lakes and trees had no beginning or ending. The trees rose high around us and the water shone. 

The sky never faltered. As I paddled, the sky wrapped itself over me, over all of it. Finally I felt I could almost breathe. It’s not that the deaths were okay. It’s that awe and silence became common for me. Every day the massive presence of shining water and kind trees held me with a power so huge that even a grief as terrible as mine could soak into the earth like rain.

We live next to that wilderness in a house in the woods on a hill. At night, it’s mostly silent. The  lake across the road opens into a million acres of lakes, islands and forest without roads or people. Right now, it’s -26 F here, but every day in the summer, campers paddle by on their way into the silence.

Now, in February when it’s often -20 or -30 F at night, all we hear is one car spinning its wheels on the icy hill. Our neighborhood follows a one-lane dirt road through the woods, and only two other houses have fires going and lights on. Sometimes packs of coyotes wake us, yipping as they run by. Every now and then we hear wolves. But living here we see how wrong the fairy tales are. The wolves melt in and out of the woods like ghosts, avoiding people. To see one trotting down the road feels like a blessing because they vanish like a dream.

Sometimes we hear a logging truck on the highway a mile away. There is no traffic at all. Sirens are so rare that everyone stops talking and looks around because it can only be for a neighbor or for someone lost in the wilderness.

I moved here from a big university town. I needed to rest and leave behind the scandals and the competition. Mostly I needed to see if I could ever have a happy relationship. So I came here with a man to try it out.

Only a few people move here to stay. After all, there’s a massive filter. In the city, people come to get training, degrees and great jobs. The pay is so good that they ignore the traffic and cement. But Ely is a small town far from everything. No one moves here for ambition. People move here to get close to the wilderness—which pays little.

There are locals here who have stayed, but they stay for tradition and family. There used to be mines here that paid well, and there are still a few. But iron mining has changed, and without that security, families struggle.

People here know how to stay warm. They form book groups, go fishing together, ski on the lakes, practice yoga, play music, paint, quilt and write. They meet for breakfasts and dinners. The place is crowded with brilliant, gifted people. Among the people who came here from outside, I know a music therapist who sells canoes, a psychologist who preaches every few weeks and a veteran union organizer who can catch walleyes while he’s sleeping. Among the locals, I know a quiet stay-at-home mom who writes brilliant blogs, a crack mechanic who can resurrect a truck with 200,000 miles on it and a nurse who can sweetly change the mind of the most arrogant doctor.

People here have the time to be friends. My church is small but warm. When I walk in the door, people smile and call my name. The young Presbyterian pastor guides by listening and encouraging. In city churches, there are semi-pro musicians who sing and play. Here we have a few, but mostly in the choir we have the fun of just singing together, joining together. We can’t be ambitious, but we can sing together, week after week, for fun and beauty.

I came to the woods to become. I’ve learned how to trust and how to have fun. Of course I miss the city, especially the thrilling array of people, cultures and food. But maybe I’ve unlearned the worst of my city lessons. There is no race to be won.

The wilderness surrounds us. The silence holds us all.

Mom came here once just before she died, and she loved it. It was right after Dad’s death. She didn’t know yet how sick she was. Mom could always sense enchantment. She often lost herself in the moment. The Taj Mahal made her cry because it holds the same untouchable essence as a thunderstorm.

When she visited that summer, every day she lay for hours on our sun porch. When she came in, her eyes had changed. “Did you sleep, Mom?” I’d ask. She shrugged. “I don’t know. I couldn’t really tell if I was asleep or awake.” She shook her head in wonder. “The sky here…The trees….There’s just something about these woods.”  

by Jean Gendreau


Deep Winter

As I drive, snow stretches from the road across an open space to dense balsams. Beyond the road’s grey crust, strong white spreads across bogs, hillocks, rocks and little frozen creeks to the black-green woods. Nothing moves.

The shadows in the dark balsam boughs look deep enough to lose a family. From tree to tree, branches make a cruel thicket that scratches your face and cuts your arms, and the rocks under the snow trip you.

This isn’t an easy forest where Hansel and Gretel could wander. Evergreens and bushes push back hard. Everyone here knows stories of veteran hikers who got lost a few feet off the trail. People have to know what they’re doing. There are men and women here who know how to live far off the electric grid, who hike miles alone with no GPS and paddle canoes miles into the wilderness.

Even close to town, the road is empty. Northerners have been driving in snow since they were young, and there’s often snow six months of the year. In the city when a snowstorm hits, you wonder if the car next to you will be able to stop. Here you wonder if there’s hidden ice on a curve and how long it would take a tow truck to arrive.

Ahead on the right, big black birds bend and hop by a carcass at the side of the road. It’s a fresh kill, a young deer’s body next to tire tracks that run off the road where the car hit him. As I draw close, a bald eagle tugs the deer’s flesh while the ravens stand in a circle, coming as close as they dare. Further ahead, a snowmobile’s headlight shines as it crosses an open spot.

In deep winter we wake up to darkness in a cold house. I smell coffee while I build a morning fire. The forecasters were off by quite a bit—It’s -20 F and windy. The huge moon feels low enough to bend the trees. At night, pine martens often steal suet from the feeders, but the chickadees, woodpeckers, snowshoe hares and deer won’t come looking for food until it’s light.

All night long we heard the wind. This morning the house is at 52 degrees. The fire’s hot, and by the time I finish meditating, the sky is a light lavender blue.

This morning I have cookies and bread to bake. The butter’s been on the countertop all night but the house is so chilly that I have to warm the butter to cream it. The bread can rise on the warm stovetop while the cookies bake.

I smell the brown sugar, butter and vanilla. Around me there’s the breath of magic. This moment in this kitchen holds my whole life, hundreds of times in many places but always this silence and joy. I’m making noodles and white sauce as a young girl in the fifties, holding my little girl while she learns to stir a pan on the stove, watching my grandmother separate eggs for angel food cake, making pie crust with my grandson, rolling out the dough for naan while my Indian husband smokes as he watches.

Time pauses. A holy moment. God draws in a breath and never lets go. I touch home, and God breathes out forever.

I found charms in these woods. Enchantment. A raven bigger than a cat watches me from the maple next to the house. It’s so cold that the snow is crunchy. My partner comes in with a big basket of kindling he split. He laughs that the wood’s so cold that it just pops apart when he taps it with the axe. He put hay on the snow this morning. A buck bends to eat and then lifts his head. Behind him are two does and some yearlings, their faces and backs white with frost. The buck watches the house, his elaborate antlers brown against the black-green woods, like the old drawings of stags in medieval England. I think of enchantment, of men and women dancing by a fire in the greenwood, of the wild hunt.  

There’s a presence here. When the wind is high, snow beats the windows like a quick drum and the aspens’ high bare boughs bend like wild hips. But usually nothing moves. The silence stands immense and solemn, offering peace and power so huge and ancient that I smile like a child.

Late in the afternoon I stand by the window playing the violin. Three deer lift their heads and look toward me. In the wood stove, a big log flares up, and I start another scale. The room smells of wood fire and fish. My partner is cooking dinner. Darkness falls and the cold closes in. For me, the enchantments in these woods are real, and this night is kind and deep.

Words for a Bad Day


I can’t make it stop hurting. You’ll have to do that yourself, and you’ll get it done. I know you.

Eventually there’ll be that stubborn look. Scowling, grunting and swearing, you’ll push the stones off your body. The bleeding doesn’t really matter because once you push past the cave-in, you begin to feel some light on your skin, and some of it starts to heal up.

What I know for sure is that I am singing for you, to you. It’s safe. It’s lovely, easy, gentle. Nothing will ever hurt you this way again. You won’t get caught out again, dancing in light clothes, laughing, when wrongness cuts out your heart.

Sure, making a hard shell works for a while. There’s nothing wrong with shutting out the world at first.

But we’re all just seeds. Inside our stiff casings there’s soft stuff that none of us understands.

Eventually the cells begin to stretch. The scar tissue makes our hearts new. Legs and wings sprout, even though we swore it would never never happen.

The wings come from the Divine, and we float on a holy wind. We think we can run again. We try dancing.  A voice starts low and scratchy but quivers, grows and sings.  

There is terrible wrongness in life. Injury. Illness. Grief. Shame. No one deserves pain.  No one wants this to happen. But it does.

That hard seed, the scarred heart, is holy. When pain tears the heart open, it hurts. What grows afterwards is so beautiful that pilgrims light candles, kneel to it and chant.

So keep digging out, a little bit every day. Just keep going. Come here, to where there’s a beach and gleaming waves. It will be a gentle evening, and I made this bonfire just for you.


A Tale of the Ghost of Christmas Past

“Come with me, my child.”

I glare at the shining spirit. “I’m old—not really a child any more.”

It shakes its gleaming head. “Just a figure of speech, my… er… friend. Come. We have things to see. Take my hand.”

I reach out and take its hand, but I’m shaking. Even a radiant spirit can be damned startling.

Everything around us melts. We seem to be flying low over a snowy landscape. There’s a city with bright lights. As we float to a stop, I gasp.

“But this is my old house, where I lived when I was five!”

The spirit lifts its ghostly arms and we pass through the walls into a living room. There’s a Christmas tree and a piano. And there I am, small me, coloring a picture. My mother is staring into the fire, and my father is watching football. My little brother is leaning against Mom’s side, and my grandmother’s lips are pressed into an angry line as she knits a sock.

I sigh. “I was very alone. Do you see how alone I was?”

It sounds strange but I can feel the spirit’s warmth reaching around me like an arm. “Yes,” it says. “That’s what you felt and it was real.”

“It wasn’t fair. My childhood should have been better.” I stick out my lower lip just a little bit.

“No doubt of that, my child… er… friend.”

“It’s why I’m angry sometimes.”

“I see. Yes. But of course, you’re not really that child any more.”

“Well, I am. My inner child is still there.”

Its laughter makes an odd echo, like a dolphin thumping its tail in a huge underwater cave. “Your inner child is a divine being, yes, and is eternal, a part of heaven to be sure. But…”

“What do you mean ‘but’? I got hurt!”

“But you’re an adult now. You’ve lived a bit of life. In fact you’ve lived a lot of life, and you know what happens in real life.”

I think it’s trapping me somehow, but I don’t see how, so I say nothing.

“Why do you think your mother is staring into the fire?” it says.

“Isn’t it obvious? She’d rather be in her thoughts than pay attention to me.”

“Ah. That’s what the child saw and felt. Try something else now—We’re both spirits here, and you’re a wise ghost. Try looking again, using your adult eyes. What do you know now about your mother’s life at that time?”

“Well… the marriage was bad. I know that. They never divorced but my dad had girlfriends. We found out after he died.”

The spirit nods. “Go on…”

I want to argue. “But look—Why is she cuddling with my brother? I was right there! I needed love too.”

“And what did you find out as an adult about your brother?”

“Oh… yeah. Well, none of us knew that he was sick yet. That came later.”

“You think your mom didn’t suspect anything? With the bruises and the nosebleeds?”

The lump in my throat makes it hard for me to talk. “Okay, but what about me? I mean, I get that my brother got sick later. But just because Mom’s life was hard doesn’t mean I didn’t deserve love.”

The spirit’s smile was incredibly sweet. “Of course not. Not at all. But your parents were real people, not storybook characters, not super heroes. Why do you think your dad had girlfriends?”

“Well, how should I know?”

“Let’s go back farther.” It wraps its cloak around me and we fly again, over the country, over the ocean itself. We finally stop in a small village in Scotland. The huge pit head of a mine looms nearby.

“Scotland? Wow… Is this where my grandfather grew up?”

“It is.”

A man stands in the glow of a doorway and pulls a woman to him.

“Hey, that’s my grandfather. But wait—That’s not my grandmother! What’s this about? Granddad had other women?”

“He did. It’s just how they did things in that family and in that time. Marriage was a business arrangement really.”

“But my grandmother was so sweet. It wasn’t fair!”

“What do you know now that you did not know as a child?”

“Ah.” I sigh. “My father had girlfriends just as his father had done. But my grandmother was lonely.”


“…And that’s why she was so hard on us all. And her constant criticism made it harder for my mother to bear, especially when she was already so sad herself.”

I watch as my grandfather trudges home, pushes open the door and sets some coins on the table. My grandmother picks them up and puts them in a jar on the mantle.

“All right. Take me back to my own family, would you?”

The snow tickles my cheeks as we swirl back through time and come to rest in the somber living room.

“I see it now,” I say.

Its voice is very deep. “What is it that you see, dear one?”

“I see that they were doing the best they could….Yes, I was lonely. But there were things going on that I could never understand as a little child.”

“And now?”

“I see that it wasn’t that they didn’t love me, and it wasn’t that I didn’t deserve love. But life just happens, and people get hurt. Maybe they wanted to love me and didn’t know how. Maybe it was just the best they could manage.”

“Can you forgive them?”

I sigh again. “Yes… maybe. But why should I?”

Somewhere a bell chimes three times. “Because opening to love really matters. Because getting wiser always means getting kinder.” 

A kiss brushes my cheek. “Because your healing makes the world whole. That’s the lesson. That’s the essence of it all. Nothing else matters. Forgiving them heals you—and what heals you also heals the world. Opening to all love is the divine essence. In the end, all we have is each other.”

Overhead I hear the sound of wings, and the spirit’s voice melts away. “That’s all there is. That’s what’s holy. That’s the light in the darkness.” 


The Christmas Seed

It is dark and getting darker. Under the snow is bitter ice, and under that, brown earth. I remember standing by a grave 45 years ago—my baby boy’s grave. I had been in the hospital about a week, too sick to be there when they buried him. It was February in Wisconsin.

What came to me as I stood in the cemetery was that brown earth does well against the ice. Years later I know without a doubt that it’s true.

Yes, things end. Relationships end, jobs end, lives end. What I thought would work failed, and my mistakes could fill a warehouse.

But mother earth holds her own against the ice. A fallow field can overwhelm every dream of disaster.

Tonight the woods are growing darker, and I rest in the utter silence. I surrender. I give up what I thought I knew. The silence grows.

There is a magic deeper than time, stronger than any word or thought. None of my thoughts work in this quiet—none of my regrets, none of my plans. All I can do is surrender.  The earth’s safety deep under the ice holds me.

It turns out that I am a seed. I never knew it. The woods around me knew, but I didn’t. The leaves fell, the lakes froze. All the flower stalks bent and dropped their seed pods. The bears went to sleep.

I thought I was separate, but I was wrong again. I thought I knew what was happening, but I did not.

The Mystery that sings the darkness is a holy thing. I cannot understand, but I can trust it. There’s no point in planning or analyzing. If I try to grab it, it melts.

My shell softens as I wait. In the darkness, there’s a sense of Advent—not bright lights or trumpets, but the possibility of hope. There’s nothing to be seen yet. This is the longest night, after all.

Just as bulbs lie in the brown earth, I rest. There’s a sigh. Conception. Maybe. It comes out of nowhere, just a tickling touch. Grace. Just a breath.

A leaf falls from a tree into Oneness. A flower drops its seeds, trusting the brown earth.

Water turns to ice, proving Oneness. It knows that even as ice, it is water. It is always part of the whole. The only thing needed is a bit of warm light.

Years ago, as I looked at the grave’s fresh brown dirt, I was still whole—but my brain didn’t know it. I thought I was broken.

Even though the ice covers everything, the seed knows. Conception needs darkness and secrecy. Later there will be a stirring on the surface, but for now, the deep magic requires mystery. Oneness—love—holds me and you and my baby boy forever.

Tonight’s snow falls gently. I light my candle and wait. It’s just a few days now until the longest night. The seed knows that the light will come again.

—by Jean Gendreau

We will have a “Longest Night” service for people who feel quiet, thoughtful or sad at Christmas. The service will be in Ely, Minnesota, on December 21st, at the First Presbyterian Church at 6 pm. This will be a gentle, quiet, heart-energy service of love and remembrance. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you are Christian.
Starting on January 2nd at 5:30 pm, there will also be a free meditation class,  “Meditation: A Six-Week Journey” offered in Ely MN. All are welcome. To sign up click here.