Can Change This


The Journey of Transformation

Appreciate and rely on your spiritual resources

April 13th, 2019

I wrote the following essay after living with my parents as a caregiver to my Mom, who had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). I was also going through treatment for breast cancer at the time and my hometown church was an essential part of my support system.


My childhood was ordered by four bells. They outlined the parameters of life in our small Minnesota town. The first and most ordinary was the small bell hung on the balcony of my parents’ house. It was conveniently placed right outside the door, steps from the kitchen. When Mom rang that bell we could hear it anywhere in the neighborhood and headed for home, as we and all the neighbor kids knew it was time for supper, or bedtime. I believe the other parents appreciated my parents’ inventiveness because when it rang their kids all  headed home, too.

The second bell was not a bell at all, but was a siren. At the volunteer fire hall uptown, in our central Minnesota village of 350, there was a siren, and, in addition to notifying all the volunteers when they were needed to fight a fire, it was blown twice a day all year round, at 12 noon and 6 in the evening (for a few years it blew at 9 pm, too). It created a time-frame for the day, and was neatly aligned with mealtimes. When I moved back to care for Mom it was blown only at noon. This was a familiar, comforting call for everyone to take a timeout, eat, and then continue with the rest of the day’s activities.

The third bell was the bell that called campers to activities at Camp Lebanon, on our beloved Cedar Lake, four miles from town. This lake feels like it belongs to us, because my Grandparents (and now my brother) lived there and their home was the gathering place for cousins coming from far away. In addition, a handful of second cousins were neighbors there, since our grandfathers had all bought land on the lake in the 40’s. Camp Lebanon is a Bible camp and they had a fabulous diving board raft that was like honey to our young bee selves. We knew we were not to trespass on that raft but at times the temptation was too much and we indulged ourselves. Their bell would ring out regularly throughout the day, indicating various activities/times and it rang clearly over the lake. A favorite annual escapade was for the older kids (my brothers and cousins) to plan a raid on the camp, with the purpose of ringing the bell at night, throwing firecrackers, and generally raising Hell in this heavenly camp. The raid would be coordinated, using various watercraft, timing, roles or each of the older kids, and the escape plan.

The fourth bell was the church bell at Gethsemane Lutheran, where I was baptized, confirmed, and still claim membership. My mother was raised in the church, and Dad joined it (and was baptized, since that got missed when he was an infant–his father was recovering from tetanus or “lockjaw” as it was called then and his mother had her hands full with five children) when they were married. Every Sunday morning it would ring out, and we could clearly hear it at the house, since the town covered less than a square mile of area. The man who was the church custodian and bell-ringer was an expert—he rang it with measured, even and lovely regularity, setting the standard so that fill-in ringers did the same beautiful rhythm.

When St. Mary’s, the Catholic church in town, rang their bell it was a bit jerky, inconsistent, and clearly NOT Gethsemane’s bell. We all grew up hearing our bell, and if we heard it as we were heading to church, it insistently urged us to hurry up and get there. We could hear it in the church, too, and knew that the service would start before it was done ringing. As a confirmation student, a friend and I sneaked to the belfry and rang it. It was so big and powerful that on the swing back it pulled me off my feet. Very exhilarating for a 12-year-old. That bell was part of our lives and part of the framework of my family’s life in Upsala, along with the other three “bells.”

This bell was the most meaningful, because of its solemnity and sacredness. How it represented Gethsemane, the teachings we learned there, and the connection we had, as I was part of the fourth generation to be a member there, all added to its significance and our love for it. The sound it made, so melodic, resonant and perfect, just made it more special.

In the mid-1990’s Gethsemane built a new church. Once it was up, slightly behind and to the side of the other building, the old Gethsemane of red brick was torn down bit by bit and recycled. Since we built a fellowship hall first, with the plan to build a sanctuary later, the bell was secured in a church-member’s barn. There was no way to know when the sanctuary would get built, so the bell was there indefinitely. In 2001, my mother’s ALS was diagnosed. Sometime in that year she noted to my dad, “I’ll never hear Gethsemane’s bell again.” Well, that did not sit well with him. Mover and shaker that he was, he decided something needed to be done about that. He approached some other church members and said that he thought we ought to get the bell re-installed, somehow. A committee was formed and after a few meetings, some donations and brainstorming, a plan was completed for a small bell tower to be built. It was located next to the church, and to satisfy those concerned with it being placed in a future steeple, it was agreed that when the time came, it could easily be moved. For now, though, the bell’s sweet tones would be heard again.

I happened to be visiting in Upsala when it was completed, and John, one of the church members working on it, called us to say they were going to “test it” and maybe I should come up. Mom listened interestedly from home, and I went up for the premiere ring. After a dozen or so good solid peals, we knew it was a success, and we all laughed, celebrated with hugs and tears, and knew a very good thing had been done. This type of kindness from Dad to Mom was typical of him, and when he saw something needing to be done, he got it done. Mom got to hear that bell every Sunday until she died, even though she rarely returned to church.

The Joy (and not-joy) of Relationship

April 6th, 2014

We had a family gathering at my house on Friday evening, since my sister and brother-in-law were visiting from Florida. The thing that stands out in my mind about it is that everyone was so GLAD to see each other. There was tangible joy, just to be together.

It is one of the greatest blessings I know to feel that love and see the connections between people I love. It makes the hassles of planning, communicating, cleaning and cooking all worth it, in spades.

Hearing laughter and chatter, seeing the men holding babies that are not their own, and LOVING them, seeing nieces and brothers helping themselves in the kitchen and a sister-in-law stirring pots is pure contentment to me.

I missed those that weren’t here, also. Nieces and nephews busy elsewhere with their own lives, great-nieces and nephews involved with other parts of their family, a brother on a book tour, parents who are no longer with us, aunts and cousins who are far away, all are missed.

Not everyone is blessed with joyful relationships. There isn’t always joy in these relationships, either. There can be irritation, hurt feelings, disappointment and confusion, as well. In some families there is outright hostility and estrangement. It pains me when I see it in families I know and love. I see and hear about painful relationships daily in my work as a therapist. It is a primary source of anguish and bewilderment for my clients.

The Dalai Lama encourages compassion for others, and reminds us to see that we are the SAME as others, and not so different. Understanding that the other is experiencing the same feelings, challenges, desires and frustrations can equalize things and help us to find empathy for him/her.

Terence Real, who wrote The New Rules of Marriage (Ballantine Books, 2008) and other books explains that many of us get caught up on an “escalator of contempt” which shuttles us back and forth between grandiosity (better than) and shame (worse than).

Terry Real, escalator, contempt, grandiosity, shame, same as

Escalator of Contempt
Grandiosity —— Shame

When we think we have all the answers we look down on others with contempt and disdain. We pump ourselves up as more important than, smarter than, more talented than, etc. and grandiosity reigns. When we put ourselves down as stupid, unworthy, inadequate and unlovable we are in shame and are treating ourselves with contempt.

What gets missed is the experience of same as. We are fundamentally the same as everyone else, with inadequacies and amazing traits; quirks and gifts; bad behaviors and generosity; wisdom and foolishness; strengths and weaknesses. We are all human.

In recent years I have experienced some painful conflict in personal relationships. Some of it related to miscommunication and misunderstandings, some to unrestrained words of anger and judgment, some to differences that got translated into weaknesses and shortcomings. I was forced to see attitudes and behaviors in myself that were extremely hard to admit. The primary thing I must acknowledge is that I can be critical, shaming and grandiose. I also can feel rejected, ashamed, misunderstood, mistreated and unworthy.

Terry Real recommends stepping off the contempt escalator and remembering the other person is much like I am; not less than me and not better than me. It helps me manage my reactions and feelings when I remind myself, “same as.” The other person is struggling just like I am, feels similar feelings, and has many great qualities as well as shortcomings, just like me. The other is trying to be understood and get needs met just as I am; and is NOT out to get ME.

And I began to use a phrase in my head when I was feeling frustrated with someone and thinking, “they should have…” or “why don’t they…” The phrase I said to help me let go of judgment, anger and hurt feelings was “JUST LOVE ‘EM.”

It serves to remind me that the most important thing is that I DO love them, and that calms me down and allows me to accept them just as they are, which is, after all, what I want them to do with me. It takes me off the “contempt escalator” and allows me to change my thinking, which changes my feelings and actions.

I try to say this to myself, as well, when I get a case of the “I should have…”

Roll with it

August 20th, 2013

This is the time of year that everyone (especially in northern climes like Minnesota, I think) starts to pack in a lot of summertime activities, knowing that fall is about to descend. And, it is prep time for students and teachers returning to school. I am one of those again; this time I’m teaching a class in the Social Work graduate program at SCSU; providing instruction in the fundamental skills needed to be a social worker.

I am eager to dig into this class and learn the process of teaching the theory and skills of my profession. Interestingly, the textbook to be used is the same one I had when I started my MSW program at Louisiana State University in 1987. That was Edition 2, and now I will use Edition 9. Wow! Has it really been that long? I love the synchronicity of this and can see that it is THE book, and has evolved appropriately to be current and cutting edge.

Social Work, classroom, students, university, class, learning

Classroom and students

I feel that I have evolved in a similar way–changing and adapting to stay up-to-date and fresh through the years of honing my craft and helping others who are in the beginning stages of their careers.

This is another aspect of resilience, I think; adapting and growing through challenges, upheavals, changes. Becoming stronger and remaining fit to perform necessary tasks and fulfill new roles.

It can be a very humbling process. Many times through the years I have seen a “new” technique or approach introduced and embraced, and realize I knew something very similar to that YEARS ago, and had not really incorporated it. I often have a sense of “I knew that once! Why haven’t I been doing it?” or “Damn, I could have written that book!” It is disconcerting but I have come to realize it is an outcome of living a lot of years and being in a career for 30+ years. I also know that I can’t do it all, nor does it make what I have done less valid.

That’s where “roll with it” comes in. Here’s a definition:

“to adjust to difficult events as they happen–roll with it.”

Etymology: based on boxing, from the literal meaning roll with the punches (step back or to one side as you are being hit), so that you do not receive the full force of the attack.
Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2003. Reproduced with permission.

We need to adjust, be flexible, accomodate and sometimes, in order not to get knocked down, we need to take the punch and move with it.

roll with it, punch, resilience, bounce back, adapt, flexibility

The ability to bend and be tough are essential skills in this world. Seeing our imperfections, errors, shortcomings, and misses is part of rolling with it. Understanding our fallibility but not letting it undermine our self-confidence and sense of purpose can be difficult, but when we do it we can successfully move forward and attain more wisdom. Owning those truths about ourselves improves our resilience and enhances our ability to accept things, people, events, that we cannot change, and helps us gain tolerance of others, as well.

Resilience, bend or break, tree


More transitions; so what’s new!

September 1st, 2012

So, I am in the middle of more transitions. Does it ever stop? No, we just get to cruise sometimes. I am not in cruise control right now, but in the midst of some heavy traffic, construction, detours. I need to be on my toes.

My love relationship ended earlier this summer, due to core differences in our values and worldviews, and an erosion of good feelings between us.  It has not been easy, but my busyness has certainly helped to distract me from the loss.

I have had lots of company, fun weekend activities, a heavy workload and the process of my father moving from assisted living to nursing home. It has been hectic, challenging, rewarding, fun and draining.

Last weekend I spent 4 days with my team, Sand Shells, as crew at the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure in the Twin Cities. It was, as always, moving, inspiring, exhausting and exhilarating. My ankles are still swollen and bruised, and I wasn’t even trying to walk the 60 miles! I helped to set up and run Pit Stop 3 with my team. We handed out food, water, Nuun (our sponsor’s sports drink) and encouragement. We used the theme, “Wild, Wild Breasts!” If you haven’t been around the 3-Day, it is quite focused on breasts and having fun, so plays on words and irreverent themes rule the day. We had western outfits and props (even a photo op with a pony!) and got a lot of smiles out of the walkers. The spirit and energy of my teammates was amazing to watch.

The Closing Ceremonies, where I was allowed to wear a pink shirt and walk with the survivors, created feelings that are beyond words. The inclusion and validation we survivors experience fills my heart up to the brim, and reminds me how precious it is to have come through breast cancer. There was a moment during the Walk that I was encouraging walkers with water and thanks, and suddenly one of them said, “No, thank you, Survivor. Walking three days is nothing compared to chemo.” She had seen my “Survivor” button. It was so unexpected and so powerful that I melted into tears. It made all the sweat, exhaustion and body aches worth every minute.

3-day, breast cancer, walk

3-Day Walkers

Earlier I had visitors from Sweden and spent a week with them. It is a special thing to show them around the area to which the Emigrants came and have them get to know their American family better. I spent a weekend with one of my best friends, her siblings and cousins and had a ball. The laughter and cameraderie were delightful.

I have had a full schedule at work, because of taking time off here and there, and filling up the remaining spaces with clients. Always feeling behind and overwhelmed by paperwork, but managing to keep my head above water and give clients what they need from me. At times I have heard positive feedback and have been moved to tears by the growth, insight and relief they express, as well as their gratitude.

Finally, I have just started a new endeavor of teaching a foundational social work class at a local college, St. Cloud State University. My first class met this week and I did well, I think. Thanks to a great curriculum I inherited from others, and help from several professors there, I got through it and feel optimistic and enthusiastic to continue it. It does challenge me, though, and I see that I am a student this fall too, as well as those in my class!

SCSU, St. Cloud State University, Social Work


Along the Way Workshop, March 31, 2012

April 15th, 2012

Along the Way: Transformation through difficult times…

Relationship, Resilience, Respite, Renewal (the 4 Rs)

March 31, 2012

Unity Spiritual Center

Sartell, MN

Susan Holmen, LICSW, ICADC


Using music, meditation, journaling and sharing, Susan explored the journey of transformation. The group looked at the 4 Rs and discussed their personal experiences and challenges.




“The workshop provided a nice balance of quiet introspection and interaction with others. The insights Susan shared awakened several ‘aha!’ moments of consciousness in me. It’s an experience that could be repeated over and over and would likely uncover something new each time.”  Sara M.