Mindfulness in the Heart of Baltimore


Mid-day sunshine brings Baltimore to life.

Mid-day sunshine brings Baltimore to life.

I don’t know if you have ever read or seen Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” but yesterday, walking mindfully through Baltimore on my way to a photo shoot for my new gig writing for our local paper, I had one of those “occurrences” in everything that I saw, heard, and felt.

If you aren’t familiar with Bierce’s short story, “Occurrence” is about a man who is hanged for treason during the Civil War. In the process of being hanged, though, the noose breaks, and he embarks on an all-senses-heightened run back home to his wife. (I have included the video at the end of this post. Really– it’s an Oscar-winning classic short film by filmmaker Robert Enrico).

No. I didn’t feel like I was being hanged. It was the other part — the all-senses-heightened experience that I was mindful of: brilliant colors brought to life by a descending sun, the intricate textures and architecture in the buildings, and the people– the people! I was blown away by the surprise on some people’s faces when I looked into their eyes and smiled as we passed by. There was life there, a sudden belief that they were acknowledged, even appreciated without judgment. The energy we shared in the simple exchange of smiles was exhilarating.

It was all available to me simply by walking mindfully as I went from the Light Rail train to the Baltimore Sun building on N. Calvert Street.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is all about awareness and staying in the present, with open appreciation and gratitude. I could have occupied my walk with plenty of worries and fears about meeting the individuals I am now working with at the paper. As well, I could have stressed the entire way about getting back in time to pick up my daughter before 5 p.m.

What if the photographer has a line of people waiting for head shots?
What if my editor is in a meeting and I have to wait?
What if the trains are running late?
What if…?

Nope. Waste of energy. Every single one of those thoughts. At that precise moment when I stepped off my train and started walking toward the Sun building, not one of those what-ifs was in my control. If I kept my focus on there, an hour in the future, I would have passed up the mindful walk that centered me and enriched my experience in Baltimore.

Walking mindfully is having an awareness of your surroundings  It is simpler than you might think.

Yesterday, in my walk through Baltimore, my mindfulness allowed me to experience, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city, “perfect sweetness [in] the independence of solitude,” as Emerson wrote in his essay, “Self Reliance.”

Mindfulness Is Available to All of Us

Creativity and beauty can be found throughout Baltimore; all we need to do is be mindful to see it!

Creativity and beauty can be found throughout Baltimore; all we need to do is be mindful to see it!

Mindfulness has been around for centuries, and it continues to be practiced everywhere — in the workplace and in the schools. According to Cara Moulds, an energy-shifting, confidence-building possibilitarian, it is anything but a fad.

If you simply look at the many examples of how mindfulness is already being incorporated into business and education, you can see that this is much more than a trend. And also, consider the scientific research being released to show the benefits both in employee productivity and student test scores, not to mention well-being and compassion toward others.

Still, many people align being mindful with some deep religious sect or cult. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a very simple tool to help us live more creatively and fully, every day of our lives.

Meghan Vivo does a wonderful job debunking the myths of mindfulness in her article, “8 Misconceptions About Mindfulness.”

Mindfulness is a quality and a tool – a very powerful one. It won’t, by itself, bring eternal bliss or answer all of life’s questions, but it can bring a sense of connectedness and peace to the practitioner, which can translate into fewer self-defeating behaviors. . . . It also helps cultivate other qualities, such as wisdom and compassion, that lead ultimately to greater satisfaction, even in difficult circumstances.

We don’t have to join some kind of group or live our lives any differently; the difference is that we need to understand that the powers of mindfulness are within us, right now. Once we understand that, everything suddenly becomes possible in our lives, even when taking a simple walk in Baltimore City.

Here’s the short film, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Robert Enrico:


About Rus VanWestervelt: I am a pretty mindful guy who teaches writing, creativity, and — yes — even mindfulness. My eCourses have received great praise over the years, and I would love to work with you. Shoot me an email (rusvw13@gmail.com) or find me on Twitter (@rusvw) or Facebook (facebook.com/RusVanWesterveltWriter). My fall classes will begin mid-August. I am looking forward to working with you!

I’m An Artist, So Pay Me, Maybe?

Adam Byatt recently posted a piece about artists getting paid (or not), in response to a piece written by an artist named Amanda, who was responding to a letter that was sent to her by an artist named Amy.

Adam, Amanda, Amy… All artists. I’m thinking of changing my name to Arus (and it shall be pronounced A-roos, with a roll on the “r” if you can manage it) — at least for the purposes of writing this post.

I’ve been chatting off and on for several years about this topic with another artist, Cara. We both believe that giving abundantly provides abundant returns.

The question is: Where should artists stand when it comes to being paid for their work?

Before I even begin to answer that question, let me throw out a few particularly random, but relevant, thoughts.

The boom of the internet and the technology explosion have collectively oversaturated the market with good works at little to no cost. Nearly everybody with a smartphone can take a better-than-decent photo. Pretty it up on Instagram, Hipstamatic, or even iPhoto, and you can put together a great virtual album of photos worthy of their share of oohs and aahs, all of which will happen in a matter of seconds before friends and followers flip through their newsfeeds and move on to the next batch of artistic creations.

Never before have we been able to read so much, so immediately, and so efficiently. There’s a lot of good writing out there in the blogosphere, and virtually all of it is for free.

We are getting our “fix” of great art stuff — both making it and receiving it — and we don’t have to pay a dime for it. In fact, even when we want to purchase local artists’ works, we often have too many choices, and we simply cannot buy everybody’s books and photos that we would like to.

So where does that leave the artists who are trying to make a living through their creations?

We are being forced to rethink how we market our work (if at all), and to whom.

We cannot stop creating our photos, our sketches, our stories. It is a part of who we are; it is what we do, what we know, and what defines us.

We can choose other professions that sustain an income while we “dabble” with our art, but that’s not who we are. Our work suffers, and our contributions are never as significant as they should be. And, when we do invest a great deal of energy into a specific project, the returns are negligible, at best.

I have likened it in the past to CPR compressions. It’s getting harder and harder to create a product that isn’t on constant marketing life support. The minute we stop pumping energy into that product, it expires within a few days.

Very sad.

On Adam’s post, one commenter wrote that she has found a way around the “friends network” problem; she bypasses her local audience completely and sells her work in markets that are looking to buy high quality art.

This makes sense, and I think it’s worth a try to make that work if you are serious about making a living from your work. But it also saddens me to think that we need to go outside of our general community to have our work taken seriously. (For the record, I am ever grateful for the tight-knit group of supporters who has always purchased my stories and my photos.)

For me, I’m returning to some traditional means of publishing — sharing a little less online and through self-publishing, and submitting more work to reputable pubs and journals for consideration. It doesn’t mean that I won’t be blogging or posting through my social networks, but I will work harder on finding traditional markets to “accept” my work and build my credentials and clips.

Like Adam says, artists need to find their own path and walk it genuinely. For some, that’s the full-blown, make-a-living path. For others, it means giving, sharing, and submitting a little more generously while making some money in other ways.

I’m refining my own path, and it’s working for me. But I am, and always will be, an artist.

Put Yourself First To Be Selfless

It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Put YOURSELF first to be selfLESS? Such a contradiction, right? I mean, it goes against everything that we’ve been taught.

How HORRIBLE of you to think of yourself first! Do you realize how much more helpful you could be if you devoted more time to others? Instead of taking that run, or working on that project, you could be helping others in greater need than yourself.


I got fired up about this yesterday as I was listening to my brother-in-law’s interview down in Tampa about Caregiving (he’s written a book about it, and even has a great website; I’ve placed the promo video at the end of this post for you to get a better idea of the power of love that he shares with my sister). Well into the interview, the radio host asks him to talk about some caregiver tips (he’s got 70 great ones in the book), and the tip he shares is that caregivers have to take care of themselves. He then goes one step further and says that, even before the caregiver takes care of the patient, s/he has to take care of him/herself FIRST.

First! I couldn’t believe he said that on the radio, as the sole purpose of caregiving was to be there for the patient, first and foremost.

But after thinking about it for a few hours, it started to really make sense to me. How in the world can I take care of another individual, if I don’t first take care of myself? In the end, is it worth it if the caregiver falls ill from such personal neglect? ONE- where does that help the patient? and TWO- nobody asked you to sacrifice your life for that person.

I’m just 10 days away from my next 5K, and when I went on my run today (after not running for a few days), I realized how out of sync I had become in those days that I did not run. I neglected myself, and my mood dipped, I couldn’t be there for my kids like I had been just a week ago, and I started feeling less confident, insecure, and self-doubting about a lot of issues. Talk about HORRIBLE!

One run, though — one hour to take care of myself — and everything is rebooted. I feel great, my social interactions with my family have improved immediately, and I’m looking forward to working harder on a few projects that I’m in the middle of creating.

Why did I not run those last few days?

It’s a contagious, flesh-eating monster, I tell you. For all of you Little Shop Of Horrors fans out there, it was feeding Audrey II, and the more I did NOT take care of myself, the happier and bigger that monster got. The negativity, the diminishing effort to accomplish my goals, the stronger desire to eat more, work less…. Yeah, Audrey II was being fed a bunch of soul-sucking trash that was making me feel absolutely worthless.

The reason why I didn’t run is because I had “other things to do” that were creative in nature. I rationalized and said that this was BALANCE, this was feeding the muse, this was satisfying both the spiritual and the physical.

My daughter scoops less manure when mucking the stalls every weekend when she is at the farm.

Bottom line: If your workload is too much that you can’t take time out for yourself, then your workload is too heavy, and you got to cut something out. Simple as that. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, is more important to you than keeping in shape, taking good care of yourself, and staying on top of YOUR game, whatever that game might be.

Then, and only then, can you truly be selfless for others. Only then can you be there when they need you, and in ways that don’t make you feel like you are sacrificing your life for theirs. It’s not about that folks. Never was, and never will be.

This is YOUR life. Love it. Live it. Give it.

No excuses!

Ok– Here’s the video promoting my brother-in-law’s book. It’s bigger than that, though. You’ll see. Music is by the wonderfully talented Pattie Lin. Pattie, you are the best.

Why I Wrote — And Published — Cold Rock

I am a writer, photographer, educator, and speaker. But more than any of those things individually or together, I am a strong advocate for all of us to accept the challenges we face daily and do our best to live an inspiring and fulfilling life.

I wrote and published Cold Rock because I believe in sharing this desire to live fully with as many people as I can. Everything about my writing, teaching, photography, and workshopping is meant to inspire others to recognize the beauty in living in the present; it is imperative that we embrace our individuality and be confident with who we are.

This is my latest book, first published in December 2011 as a print book. It quickly became an inspired reading shared across the country. I am really excited to release it as an eBook and share it with an even larger audience. It’s available on Amazon here, and I priced it as low as I possibly could (it’s just $2.99) to give everybody an opportunity to read it.

Many of the subjects in Cold Rock deal with really tough issues — bullying, sex abuse, depression and even suicide. I wrote about these topics because they are out there — not exclusively in the churches, or in our neighborhoods, or in our schools. They are in all of these places, and so many more. We need to have the courage to stand up to these atrocities, help those in need, and find the strength within ourselves to believe in Love, to believe in each other, to believe in living an inspired and fulfilling life.

It wasn’t easy to write about these topics, and I don’t mean to single out any single group (such as religious leaders) or mental illness (such as depression); rather, these are representatives of the larger issues we face every day. They are in our past, and they often reveal themselves in our present; we need to do our best to combat them with strength, self-confidence, and love.

Some of the incidents in Cold Rock did happen to me, on various levels. It was especially hard to write about them, but the driving force in me to do so was to open the door for others to do the same: find the courage, confront the obstacles and the atrocities, and live a fulfilling and loving life.

Many of the things I do today support this mission. I run a nonprofit group called LinesofLove.org, which is an outreach program for teens and young adults struggling with anxiety and depression.

Smash365.com is one of my latest projects. It is a culmination of decades of research and writing in spirituality and living life fully. My creative partner, Cara Moulds, and I write daily creativity prompts to help others just like you and me SMASH our fears and live inspired lives. Our prompts are challenging, but they are also free. And they always will be. We hope they provide individuals the chance to experience their journey through life with passion and happiness.

Finally, there’s MarylandVoices.com, an ever-transforming journal of literary advocacy focused on publishing cutting-edge creative nonfiction that tackles taboo issues like the ones I confront in Cold Rock. I encourage you strongly to get involved at your local level and advocate for fairness, equality, and social justice.

I received my MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College, and I am available for speaking engagements and workshops in writing (specializing in journaling and writing memoir), photography, publishing, and inspired living. Follow me daily at rusvw.net/blog, and feel free to contact me directly at rusvw13@gmail.com.

I believe in you. I believe in the power of Love. I believe we all have a chance to make the choices that will change this world. Contact me. Let’s get started on making a difference within ourselves first, and then with the rest of our communities in general.



I have been interested in memoir writing all my life. I wrote my earliest pieces in sixth grade, thanks to a tremendous teacher, Jack Delaney, who introduced his students to the world of writing true stories about the experiences we had in our young, young lives.

I graduated from Goucher College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction, and one of the tracks available to us was memoir writing. Working with writers like Philip Gerard, Lisa Knopp, and Leslie Rubenstein transformed my writing in ways I never imagined possible. More important, though, is the urgency of memoir writing that they instilled in me. We all have stories to tell, traces of our existence experienced exclusively by us. To let those stories go untold loosens the fabric of our generation’s history, our experiences, our lives.

When the larger fabric of our country’s — and our world’s — history is missing the too-many threads of stories untold, we begin to get a tattered picture of what this life is like for all of us. The documentation becomes unbalanced; we look back on generations past and wonder, was it really this one-sided?

We have a need, a responsibility, to tell our true stories, but with that responsibility comes fear, sometimes anxiety — perhaps even dread. What will others think about the things I have experienced? How can I write about the stories that have changed my life when I know I will hurt the ones who once hurt me? What if I put all of this energy and courage into these stories, and then no one reads them?

All good questions that demand even better answers.

If you are interested in writing memoir, and would like to join our closed group of individuals who are exploring the sub-genre and sharing relevant information about writing tips, strategies, reviews, conferences, and publication opportunities, come on over and join us. You can find us on Facebook at


We hope you will join us. Together, we can tighten the fabric of this life we are living, and share with generations yet born what mattered most to us in our lifetimes, and why.

Traditional Publishing: Is It Still Possible?

Kyle, a 19-year-old writer enrolled in a BA creative writing program at a local university, posed the following query on Facebook:

Alright, so my ultimate goal is to make a living and career out of writing and publishing books. I want to do it the traditional way of going through a literary agent who will establish a contract with a respective publishing company. The tricky part is getting a foot in the door. Agents receive query letters every day from hundreds of people trying to get themselves out there. The agent needs to see something that separates a writer from the rest, someone they know has credentials and can market. This is usually done through building some sort of resume and getting published in minor places like magazines and online sites, contests and whatnot. I am working on my BA in Creative Writing which I will receive from Salisbury. I’m hoping to get published somewhere somehow along the way, so by the time I have my degree, my resume will speak for itself in the query letter. At the same time, I’m toying with the idea of somehow getting an agent sooner, though it is a very long shot. I have a 4 book series I would be presenting, something I’ve been working on for 2 1/2 years, recently turning 19. The original novel, which was just supposed to be a linear story, is now a complete universe with a working prequel, sequel, and a bridge between the original and sequel following a new character and his overlap with the main plot. In addition to this, I’m working on a complete summary of the series, starting with all relevant background information of the universe, following into the prequel and going from there.

Kyle, the good news is that you are doing all the right things, and I believe you have a bright future ahead of you. Let’s break this down and see why.

Traditional publishing is getting harder to crack every day. You would think just the opposite would be true, as so many people are turning to Print-On-Demand (POD) and digital (eBook) publishing. Surely the traditional publishers would be searching far and wide for writers to stick with the “old way” of publishing books, wouldn’t they?

Well, it all comes down to numbers — dollar signs, to be exact. The increase in digital publishing also means a decrease in readers actually buying print books. The Go Green movement has made it fashionably correct to stick to the digital downloads and avoid the bulky books that get tossed on a stack of other used books somewhere in the corner of your bedroom.

Therefore, traditional publishers are being very choosy about what and who they publish. Here’s why Kyle is doing all the right things.

First, he is young. At 19, Kyle is seen as a long-term investment for an agent who wants to establish a relationship with an author. The younger the talented writer, the more opportunities for multi-book deals, which leads us to the next advantage.

Second, Kyle has a four-book plan to pitch. In fiction, agents want to see a polished manuscript of at least one book in a series, with detailed outlines of subsequent books in a trilogy or series. The outlines must demonstrate to the agent that the writer understands the bigger picture of a four-book deal, where he can see a greater story spanning four books, yet each book has its own self-contained story. The multi-book deal shows the agent and the publisher that this is an investment. Think of the hottest books on the market in the last ten years; most of them are part of a series, and serial books mean big money in merchandising, film, and (of course) digital downloads.

Third, Kyle understands the game. He knows that he has to stuff a folder with “clips” of published stories to demonstrate two things: 1) validation from other reputable publications and 2) continuity and consistency. Kyle should be sending out shorter works of fiction at least every other month, if not more frequently. He needs to demonstrate that he can manage the business side of writing as well as the creative side. This is where most writers fail. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to see that this is a business. There is no such thing as “Writer’s Block” to a professional writer. As David Simon once wrote about his own father, I have no more right to say that I have writer’s block than my father has to say, I have milkman’s block. He would never get away with skipping a delivery because he couldn’t find his creative muse; not delivering means not working; not working means not getting paid. If you want to be a writer, you have to work hard and deliver the product. Consistently.

Fourth, Kyle has created a universe that opens up endless possibilities with spinoffs, sequels, fan fiction — you name it. Agents and publishers love it when the author makes it this easy for them. Kyle and his writing have dollar signs written all over them.

Of course, without saying, the writing has to be very, very good. Not great, but very very good. Clear, crisp, and concise writing sells books. Tell a good, clean story, and demonstrate the ability to do it again and again, is the golden ticket to success in the traditional market.

Now, Kyle would be wise to consider both traditional and digital markets for getting published now. Many reputable traditionals publish additional works online, and many more reputable journals have gone all digital. It does not mean that their criteria for publishing have changed; it just means that they have the opportunity to, perhaps, publish a few more works than they might have had the money to publish traditionally.

Also, Kyle needs to begin networking at local and regional conferences, where agents are sitting on panels, serving as keynotes, or leading strategic workshops. He needs to pitch his ideas concisely and convincingly. He should have business cards printed with his contact information, and the card should pop, but in a professional way (in addition– Kyle needs to make sure that all of his contact info is simple and as close to his name as possible; abandon creative email addresses that have nothing to do with you [and thus won’t ever be associated with your name]).

As Kyle gains momentum in getting his work published and finds an agent, his works will logically flow into a hybrid stream of publishing opportunities in both traditional and digital platforms.

Good luck to you, Kyle, and all others who still believe in traditional publishing. It’s still possible to make it as a full-time writer; it just takes a lot of work and a good amount of talent.