The anatomy of ripples

The thing about ripples is that they happen all the time, invisibly, carrying our actions, our words, our art far beyond what we can see or even imagine.


This summer, sitting in my car at a red light, I witnessed something ordinary and beautiful. We were in the midst of a heat wave. For about a week, we’d had triple-digit temperatures, and though I wasn’t bothered – I love heat – all around me people were cranky, nerves were frayed. It was so palpable, the irritability and unease, that even I, lover of 100-degree days, had begun to wish for cooler weather.

So I was sitting at this red light and a woman began crossing the street. She was heavyset and though she wasn’t old, she had a walker with a basketful of bags on it. She leaned heavily onto the handles, walking slowly, as if each step represented a conscious decision, made over and over again, to continue moving forward. Her brow was furrowed and sweaty. She didn’t look at me or any of the drivers in the cars she passed but stared at the ground as it disappeared, inch by painstaking inch, beneath the wheels of her walker. I wondered if she’d make it all the way across before the light turned green.

Two lanes over from me, and two-thirds of the way across the walk, a pretty blonde woman in a giant, white SUV got out of her car. She ran to the woman in the cross walk, fell in step with her, handed her a bottle of water, smiling. The woman with the walker was almost to the curb when the blonde woman patted her back gently, then sprinted back to her giant SUV, closing her door just as the light turned green.

There were a lot of us stopped at the light that day. I’m certain I’m not the only person who has carried that moment inside me, and carried the kindness forward many times, since witnessing it.


In June, I read my friend Jill Salahub’s soulful interview with writing teacher and 27 Powers founder, Laurie Wagner. I loved the whole interview, but there was this one part of one answer that was life changing for me. (I know, that sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. Sometimes the words you didn’t know you needed come out of nowhere, like the key to a lock you didn’t know was inside you.)

Here’s a portion of what she said when asked what self-compassion means to her:

Because I am imperfect, because I am flawed, I allow myself to make mistakes. I will bumble things and the wrong words will come out of my mouth. I will hurt you and I will hurt myself. But because my heart is good, I’ll know that I never meant to. And it’s this “never meant to” that enables me to forgive myself and to forgive you too. I believe in the words, “ I’m sorry.” What else is there to say?

I’ve never been very good at letting “sorry” be enough, especially with my husband. It’s been a thing between us from the beginning. He accepts my apologies, but when he says he’s sorry, I haven’t known how to stop being mad. It’s like I have all this steam built up and no release valve. Our arguments have often gone on longer than they needed to because I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t let “sorry” be enough.

Until I read Laurie Wagner’s words and suddenly “what else is there to say?” became my release valve. I’m not perfect, but I’m getting better all the time.

I never meant to. I’m sorry. What else is there to say?



About the time I was starting to get more dogged about my doodling (I’m not at all sure “dogged” is the best word here, but I love the idea of dogged doodling, so I’m leaving it), I stumbled across a post by Julia Fehrenbacher. Embedded in the post was a  poem titled “How To Paint A Donkey.” It goes like this:

How to Paint a Donkey
By Naomi Shihab Nye

She said the head was too large,
the hooves too small.
I could clean my paintbrush
but I couldn’t get rid of that voice.
While they watched,
I crumpled him,
let his blue body stain my hand,
I cried when he hit the can.
She smiled. I could try again.
Maybe this is what I unfold in the dark,
deciding for the rest of my life,
that donkey was just the right size.

And then, amidst some beautiful words about what that poem meant to Julia, was Julia’s own painted donkey.


I fell madly in love with this little winged guy, and he’s become a symbol for me of the beauty (whimsy, delight, vibrancy) that we are capable of creating if we trade in our need to be perfect and right for a sense of play and exploration. He hangs on one of my walls now, a reminder of the kind of artist I want to be.


The thing about ripples is that they happen all the time, invisibly, carrying our actions, our words, our art far beyond what we can see or even imagine.

What ripples are you sending out into the world?


  1. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on October 10, 2013 at 6:14 am

    I love Julia’s donkey too! And I liked your first story, too. Very powerful.

    • j on October 10, 2013 at 9:26 am

      It was powerful to witness. Such a small act of kindness, really, but I’ll always remember it.

  2. Clare Flourish on October 10, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Your “I’m sorry” reminds me (I tell this repeatedly) of my change in a perfect moment from a passionate, raging “She Didn’t Understand!” to quiet, calm, Oh, right. She didn’t understand.

    There is nothing more to say.

    • j on October 10, 2013 at 9:58 am

      I love that story. I’ve done that too. Talk about the right words coming from an unexpected source – ourselves.

  3. leah77 on October 10, 2013 at 10:27 am

    J, your doodles are magical because they carry a bit of your soul with them—the mood and message of your spirit. I went to a friend of mine’s page and she had posted your yoga lady on her wall and wrote, “I love this!” Well, I was thrilled that she found your yoga lady on this vast world wide web. I’d never poster your yoga lady, so I know she didn’t get it from me. I’m saying this to say that you are a beautiful soul with so much to offer. When we hush the critic and live authentically all sorts of magic happens.
    Oh, and btw, lately I’ve been wrestling with forgiveness. Something that has never been an issue before, but for some reason I’m stumbling a bit with it. I’m glad that I can love myself anyway and that the forgiveness I seek to offer others I can first bless myself with.
    Anyway beautiful lady. Enjoy the pause and play a bit. Don’t take things too seriously because that’s a real creativity killer too.

    • j on October 10, 2013 at 11:31 am

      Aw, thank you for the doodle love. BIG smile!

      I hope my yoga doodle had my name on it. When I realized, after the fact, how much the love warrior doodle had been shared, it broke my heart, because only my initials were on my original post. I mean I love that people like her, I just wish they knew who drew her. One lovely woman who bought the cards said she searched Google until she found the artist. I don’t think most people are willing to go to so much trouble. (Lesson learned: ALWAYS sign EVERYTHING.) 🙂

      Remember that forgiveness doesn’t require you to remain in the orbit of the person you’re forgiving. It just means you let go of the pain they’ve caused in you, so you can move forward. I’ve come to believe that forgiveness is for the person doing the forgiving, not the other way around, and only you get decide what your forgiveness entails.

      As for me, right now, I’m in the opposite of a lull, but your advice is still dead on. I need to not take it all too seriously whether I’m pausing or running full tilt. You’re so right about what that does to creativity!


      • KjM on October 11, 2013 at 10:25 am

        Goodness! The image of a Judy running full tilt…oh my! Color and beauty and doodles abound…lit by a smile with the light of a thousand suns.

        • j on October 11, 2013 at 9:13 pm

          Kevin, I adore you. (And pretty much everything you write… especially about me.) xo

  4. Marcie on October 10, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Your story about ripples and the waves they create has inspired me on this day when – I too – am feeling stuck in stagnant waters. Thank-you for your stories!!!

    • j on October 10, 2013 at 3:42 pm

      You’re so welcome! *hug*

  5. juliafehrenbacher on October 10, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Big sighs…

    Oh J. You ALWAYS do this. You touch me to the point of tears, you make me think and giggle, and, each time I read you, the longing to meet you grows even stronger.

    That first story – oh my heart. It makes me know how those little acts of kindness really do mean everything. It doesn’t take much to spread love around, does it?

    Thank you for sharing my beloved donkey – that little one has a place so close to my heart. Wow, how art can teach and heal us.

    You are one of my very most favorite ripples, J….so damn thankful for you.

    • j on October 10, 2013 at 3:44 pm

      We will meet, it’s written in our stars.

      In the meantime, know that you are sending out the most amazing and affirming ripples. The world is better for you and your work being in it! <3

      • juliafehrenbacher on October 11, 2013 at 9:06 am

        (((J)))…have I told you lately how much I love you?

        • j on October 11, 2013 at 9:21 pm

          I think you might have mentioned it. But you know. I can never hear that enough. xo

  6. Alarna Rose Gray on October 10, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Yes. Beautiful. As you know, your words were a key to a lock I didn’t know was inside me! You have that ripple effect going on in spades… 🙂

    I also struggle with accepting sorry. What your friend said is lovely, and sensible, and freeing – when you’re in the company of people who genuinely ‘never meant to’. But when I have trouble letting go is…when sorry is an oft repeated mantra, but actions never change. How do you forgive then? I’m still figuring that one out…

    (BTW. You ARE that kind of artist!)

    • j on October 10, 2013 at 3:54 pm

      Aw, thank you! <3

      I think you're allowed to be frustrated when "I'm sorry" is used more as a pacifier than as a first meaningful step toward fixing the issue. I read somewhere that couples tend to have the same two or three arguments over and over again. The trappings change, but not the core issues.

      That sounds right to me.

  7. Nancy on October 10, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    Hi beautiful, I’m creeping out of my self-imposed hiatus from online to say a) I love you, b) I love the story of the women, and c) If the I’m sorry really comes from your heart, there’s nothing else to say, indeed! I recently got an “apology” and you sure can tell the difference when someone really means they are sorry rather than when they’re saying the politically correct thing. I finally stood up for myself after that, and I’m waiting for the ripples to settle. I know, though, no matter what happens — something good will come from the misery!

    • j on October 10, 2013 at 7:02 pm

      I hate when people I want to talk to go on self-imposed internet hiatuses! That said, a) I love you back, b) I love the story of the women too; it’s a “renews your faith in humanity” story, and c) Yes! I should have clarified that the “sorry” has to be genuine (which was Alarna Rose Gray’s point as well).

      I hope you get more from your misery than your own evolution, but if that is all that you get (and sometimes it is), I do believe that personal evolution is a precious, gorgeous thing. Eventually. 😉


  8. Chris on October 10, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Well, I hold all of you, enlightened, brilliant, beautiful love warriors, whimsical donkey painters and spiritually led creators up on a pedestal of perfection and exaltation!!!!! To know that you, too, fall prey to the sneaky, belittling inside monkey voices is encouraging! It makes the creative playing field level and our unique, one-of-a-kind (synonym, duh, Chris) works of art worth rippling to the universe!!!

    • j on October 10, 2013 at 7:04 pm

      Ha! You are a wonderful, soulful, amazing goofball! I love this comment. You ripple mightily, my friend, trust me on that! <3

  9. lunajune on October 10, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Judy…. I responded from work from only three key things, ripples, they always catch me, I remember the donkey story soooo well, and thirdly, it’s you :~)
    what I didn’t do was go read your post as I was busy at work and really shouldn’t have been online in between appointments. I saw all three of those things flow past and I just knew I had to say something… and now I read all of the post and I am so glad I did…that I listened, the Universe called, through this post, and the ripples we both needed came. I think I too need to print up this donkey to remind me too.
    We are constantly creating ripples, and truly there is no better feeling than knowing your ripple is felt in such a positive way.
    Forever may our ripples roll

    Love Light & Laughter always

    • j on October 10, 2013 at 7:15 pm

      Ha! I love that your Facebook response was based on three things, and none of them were the post itself. (Plus, the third thing was awesome.)

      If you’re interested, clicking on Julia’s donkey will bring you to her Etsy store. That said, I would imagine looking at your wonderful moonlit tree painting would give you the same “explore, play, have fun” message!

  10. Karin on October 11, 2013 at 7:02 am

    1. I bet that was a great moment to watch. The most I’ve done is stop up traffic trying to save a turtle, lol. It was a back country road, but by the time I was done, there were several cars behind me. I didn’t want to squish the little guy–and I’d like to think the people behind me considered what saving a small life would mean.

    2. I have a hard time forgiving as well, but I’m also told I use “I’m sorry” too much. I’m the kind of person who apologizes for EVERYTHING, whether it’s really my fault or not. (I’d like to think I’m covering my bases, but I think it’s another matter entirely.) After a while, I begin to wonder if my apologies mean anything at all–but since I do tend to apologize for things out of my control, people are often taken back by it and I have to be reminded that even I can’t cause everything to go wrong.

    3. I love the story behind the donkey, and Julia’s pictures are always beautiful. Sometimes we have to remember that not everything has to be perfect; art certainly never is. It’s the imperfections in life that art is celebrating, I believe (especially modern art).

    • j on October 11, 2013 at 9:17 pm

      1. I’d have loved to witness that. (And now I kind of have through your telling of it. So sweet!)

      2. I used to do that too – apologize for everything, including things our of my control. I still do sometimes, but I’m getting better. About four years ago, I wrote in my note book in letters that took up a whole page “I want to live a less apologetic, less explanatory life.” Like all our best intentions, it appears to be a practice.

      3. “It’s the imperfections in life that art is celebrating.” I LOVE that! I agree completely!

  11. Nina Badzin on October 13, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    I can’t imagine witnessing that moment. It was inspiring just to read about it.

    The donkey is perfect. “Just right.” But all makes me think: Do right. And, Write. It all works.

    • j on October 14, 2013 at 8:55 am

      You reminded me of my favorite advice from my favorite professor in college, when I was complaining about not being ready for an upcoming fiction workshop class. He said, in essence, stop complaining to him and “just write.” I’ve never forgotten it. I wrote it on a post-it note and it’s been on my wall ever since. I love the parallel you’re pointing out between “just write” and just right.”

  12. lauriesuewagner on October 13, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    Hi there – thank you so much for sharing part of my interview with Jill – it was such a treat to get to talk to her. The older I get, it seems that the entire practice is forgiveness and gratitude – for ourselves and everyone around us. We’re all in the same boat – different details – same boat. I’m glad to find your blog! Thank you.

    • j on October 14, 2013 at 8:56 am

      Thank you back! I can’t tell you what a difference your words made (and continue to make) for me. I’m insanely grateful you wrote them.

  13. Rosie Grey on October 25, 2013 at 2:16 am

    I loved reading your ripples – wonderfully written! And the “I’m sorry” really hit home 😉
    I’m so glad I found your blog!

  14. j on October 25, 2013 at 9:48 am

    I’m glad you did too! I just popped over to your blog between meetings today, and wow! I think it’s hilarious that you considered your latest photo to be “dreary” while I think it is stunningly beautiful, tranquil, and full of story. Proof (yet again) that we are not always the best judges of our own work.

    • Rosie Grey on October 25, 2013 at 10:39 am

      🙂 Thanks so much, Judy!

  15. Estrella on October 27, 2013 at 8:41 am

    The right words, from a not-so-unexpected source, your blog, j. This is why I love coming here, I always find what I need to read, the right words. I also have a tough time letting things go. So thank you for sharing your ripples, this is a gem of a read!

    • j on October 28, 2013 at 3:16 pm

      You’re so welcome, Estrella!

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