Ten Sparks: An Uplifting Journaling Exercise

By Val Walker

5DA23A988EA8488C961A390ACBC49AABIn times when we feel lonely, lost, or isolated we tend to block out the memories of the fulfilling moments of our lives. It just seems our mind is full of flat, grey images and our hearts feel empty.

When I’d like to give myself a boost of energy and brightness, I rely on a powerful, yet simple little journaling exercise called Ten Sparks. As a rehabilitation specialist for people with disabilities and mental illness for 24 years, I’ve used this helpful exercise with the individuals I’ve served and witnessed lovely memories springing back to life when they’ve shared their journals with me. I recommend doing this exercise once a month to reflect on the moments that leave a warm glow in our heart. It’s uplifting as well as revealing and can give us signs for the right path for us to take. (Some people have remarked that this exercise is similar to keeping a gratitude journal. The major difference with Ten Sparks is that we examine the patterns or themes after we have listed ten memories.)

In the following Ten Sparks exercise, we reflect and recall ten moments of warm experiences within the past few months—bursts of energy that felt fulfilling or meaningful. That moment may have been brief or fleeting but it left a lasting impression. The more specific the recollection, the better.

Ten Sparks

Over the past few months I remember these energizing moments—I felt a spark, a glow.

  1. At the river, I saw a little boy running and singing while playing with his dog. His joy was contagious!
  2. I helped my friend Doreen while we spoke on the phone about her granddaughter—felt so good to comfort her.
  3. My supervisor told me that the safety curriculum I wrote was just approved and now ready to launch—he praised me for my persistence to get that damn thing finished!
  4. When I donated my old books to the senior center, a woman shared she was a Ken Follett reader and was so happy to have my collection.
  5. My father told me he loved his handmade birthday card.
  6. I gave a simple little dinner party for two friends. We had a lot of laughs talking about how none of us could cook and chat at the same time without ruining the food.
  7. Talking to my neighbor on the patio, we paused for a moment to marvel at two butterflies that landed near us. My neighbor chuckled and said, “They seem to like us.”
  8. I took photos of daffodils on a lush, green hillside and posted them on Facebook.
  9. My niece was wowed by all my African violets blooming with pink and lavender blossoms.
  10. I love the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. I read this out loud to my pastor when I was feeling depressed, but I got chills as the words resonated so strongly.

The most common themes (patterns) that these ten sparks reveal to me are:

My love of nature and natural beauty.

My love of service to others.

My love of nurturing others.

I like feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Given these themes, a good way to build more fulfilling activities in my life could be volunteering for a nature organization such as the Audubon Society. It also might be fun, just for starters, to go to their monthly potluck dinner where I can bring my ambrosia dish.

I hope readers of the Stories Between can enjoy this journaling practice, and that it may help you as much as it has helped me. May your warm recollections give you guidance!

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, Comforting in Action. 

Turning to Others After Loss

By Val Walker

It can be difficult to break out of isolation after the loss of someone dear to us. It takes an enormous amount of courage, hope and energy to reach out and find the support we need. Typical self-help tips and quick fixes for getting “out there” and finding “your people” might not offer the best solutions for a grieving person. Indeed, we might not even want solutions at all—maybe we just want a little comfort.

As a former rehabilitation counselor for 18 years, supporting my clients as they braved through major life losses, I often reminded them to be patient with themselves. It takes time to “get back out there” and get to know people we can trust and count on. In vulnerable stages of grieving, feeling anxious, tentative and alone, it’s easy to give up quickly on new connections when they don’t seem genuine enough, or warm enough. Instead, staying home feels so much better with Netflix, a cat in our lap, and a nice warm drink. Eventually, however, bored with the emptiness of our isolation, we might muster up the wherewithal to get out again. Hopefully, each time we try a new meet-up or social event, it gets easier to make new friends.

Fortunately, even one solid relationship can make all the difference in making our lives feel normal again, and restoring our confidence. I’ve heard inspiring success stories of rebuilding support after loss, and learned that certain attributes in people tended to help grieving people more than others.

I’d like to offer practical wisdom from grief support group participants who shared reassuring stories of connections that helped them live with loss. Above all, they insisted, the key to choosing a supportive group or person is to feel safe, accepted and “heard.” It is a healing experience to be able to sit with a person or a group who listens, acknowledges and validates our experience. We each have a unique and personal way of grieving, and it is essential that no one pushes us to “get over it,” or go through our grief in any “right” way. According to the Hospice Foundation of America, we might never completely recover from a loss, but we can learn to live with loss in our own way. We know we are in the presence of a truly comforting person when we feel encouraged to be ourselves in times of uncertainty, doubt and transition.

Essential qualities of people who are comforting for others:

Attentive listeners: We feel heard.

Empathic:  We sense they feel what we feel. They “get it” on a deeper level.

Patient: We don’t feel rushed to “get over” our loss.

Nonjudgmental, open-minded: We feel free to express what is true for us. They don’t tell us what to think or do.

Reliable: They keep their commitments (and don’t overpromise): We can count on them.

Warm, kind, compassionate: They smile and welcome us. They put us at ease, or show affection.

Genuine: They mean what they say, even when they say, “I don’t know what to say.”

Hopefully, we might turn to a friend or family member who has a few of these comforting qualities. But if we need to find more support, there are ways to meet comforting people in our communities.

Here are two of the most effective approaches for grieving people to rebuild social support:

Grief Support Groups and Individual Grief Counseling

Hospices, hospitals, behavioral health agencies, and other centers for loss offer support groups and counseling facilitated by a licensed social worker or trained grief counselor. (At the very least, these organizations can give referrals to support groups and counselors.) In a natural, unpressured way, grieving people in a support group can meet others who have much in common, and who understand and value their experience of loss. With a support group or an individual counselor, we feel accepted, and reassured that we are not alone. Once we break through our sense of isolation, it’s easier to take the next, brave steps to reaching out to others in our community for friendship and fellowship.

I’d like to add that for me, personally, even though I was a counselor, after my loss, I needed grief support groups to restore my confidence and courage to get out and socialize again. On top of that, as an introvert, I was highly sensitive to any group of people. As superficial and cold as the world could feel, it was just too easy to give up and give in to isolation unless I had a trusted support group helping me keep the faith. Facebook, social media, and typical social meet-ups were not enough for finding solid, reliable people to count on. Being well-connected didn’t mean being well-supported. Even though I had a hundred friends on Facebook, and a hundred more colleagues, building relationships I could count on was the most difficult task I’ve had to master in life. Yet to be honest, it’s also been the most rewarding.


We can meet like-minded and comforting people in organizations where people share their compassion, wisdom and generosity. We can join a group with a sense of purpose and fellowship, even for just a few hours a month. There are hundreds of causes, missions and projects that need us. If we are still grieving, it’s important to choose a volunteer opportunity that best reflects what is truly life-affirming for us as a person. Grieving people have shared with me that what is rewarding as a volunteer is what makes meaning in their lives. “Meaning-making” activities are key. In short, whatever we do as a volunteer, it’s best when it feels authentic, purposeful and right for us. It could involve music, nature, animals, history, serving others, deeper learning, or creating community. In volunteer settings where we are “in our element,” we can meet people who welcome and engage us. And eventually, over the weeks and months, new friendships can develop.

Other Popular Ways Grieving People Rebuild Support (in face-to-face interaction):

Religious and Spiritual Activities, Retreats: Ideally, there is comfort in gathering together to share a sacred experience.

Sports: Yes, bonding surely happens as part of a team or a group of fans!

Learning: Classes, Study Groups, Workshops, Continuing Education, Community Education. When we’re passionately interested in a topic, we’re breaking through our isolation and following our calling to new people, places and things.

Animal Companions and Therapy Animals: Shy or anxious people can connect better with humans when their animal companions are with them.

Exploring, Traveling, and Hosting other Travelers: A sense of wonder and adventure has a way of connecting us with others.

Social Activism, Advocacy:  There is plenty of injustice, stigma and inequality we can face when we team up with fellow activists and advocates. We don’t feel alone when we come together for a cause.

Expression through the Arts or Arts Therapies:  Joining in a song or dance, we lose ourselves in the magic of the moment. Before we know it, we’re feeling better.

The list above is not complete, but many grieving people I’ve known have transformed their lives by taking part in any one of these social experiences. Hopefully, we find the right, comforting kinds of people as we step into our new endeavors with an open mind and a willingness to explore and learn.

The most comforting people I’ve ever met have lived through great losses in their own lives. Those who have learned to live with loss are the ones we are fortunate to meet in our quest to rebuild our support networks. Whether we are singing in a choir, or volunteering at a food pantry, or watching a ball game with neighbors, comforting people are often there to help us break through our fear and awkwardness. They come from all cultures, backgrounds and ages. We might be surprised. They will welcome us with a radiant smile, and recognize us because they have been through grief and loneliness themselves.

Hopefully, we won’t shy away for too long.

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, Comforting in Action. 

You ARE Beautiful The Way You Are

“You’re beautiful just the way you are!”

Kimmie and Keats
Kimmie Meissner and her dog, Keats

What a disgusting, overused cliché. I loathe the way it rolls off peoples tongues so easily – too easily – as if the very words are weaving some perfumed heart around my face with a green check mark by it. Congratulations, your personal weirdness has alerted fellow humans in the general vicinity that you need to be swaddled with the token perfumed heart. I have such a strong dislike to these clichés that I sometimes spend time ruminating on why they are still used. Amid one of these sessions, a very vivid and admittedly strong life event, presented itself to me. My youngest older brother, Luke, reassuring me of a mole on my face, and without saying explicitly, telling me that I was beautiful just the way I was. And with this memory came a flurrying of warmth and happiness and confidence. Everything that aged, general saying should do.

Kimmie and Luke 3
Kimmie and her brother, Luke

Now, before I delve any further into my childhood story and the impact it had on my life, I must first explain why I chose to write about Luke. You see, I’ve had an extraordinary life thus far and there are, quite frankly, a multitude of people and events that have shaped my life. I struggled for months deciding who has impacted me in such a significant way that I wanted to put the story into ink. This I know for certain; everyone who came to mind is somebody I am extremely grateful for. You all surfaced in my brain holding a film of memories that I hold close, as well as different pieces of what makes me this unique and beautifully flawed human that I am. I’m not sure exactly what it was about Luke that stood out the most however. Perhaps it’s the fact that he is a soon to be father and I’m so incredibly happy thinking about how great he will be at this new role, or maybe it’s because I’ve recently reminded my figure skating students to embrace their individual quirks in a hope to build the fragile confidence of teenagers. Whatever it may be, Luke unknowingly helped me to embrace and love something that I formerly hated.

Kimmie alone
Bubbly days with the barely existent mole.

Growing up I was an energetic and bubbly kid, not lacking any drop of self-confidence, until I hit middle school. Even now at 26, just thinking back to my middle school years makes me cringe. Let’s be real though, we probably all do. You wander the halls with braces, blooming pimples, and a rearranging body. How do any of us even walk away? On one of those glorious, middle school mornings I experienced my first ounce of conscious self-doubt. For some reason in my science class we were filling out sheets about what we believed were positives and negatives about ourselves. One section discussed moles, birth marks, and other variations of the sort. All my life I’ve had a small mole on my lip, but on this day that mole was about as big my entire face. I immediately lifted a hand over my mouth to cover this hideous marking. I mean, why me? Why was this thing – this disgusting distraction right under my own nose – not somewhere less noticeable? I began thinking that people probably always talked about that mole and that most likely they didn’t even notice the rest of my face because it was all your eyes could focus on. I grew to hate it. I grew to think it should be hidden and I should feel embarrassed by it.

Around this time, Botox and different surgical procedures were prevalent in the news. I was so excited. This was it! I could get the mole removed and my face would be normal like everyone else. I started to throw in jabs at my mole through jests and jokes, but never let on that I was one hundred percent serious. A classic trait of mine is to use self deprecating humor to distract from what is bothering me, so I truly feel bad for my family and friends who have no choice but to navigate this minefield. This is why I turn to writing or dance and art to decipher and express what I really feel. It comes more natural than hearing the harsh sound of truth said out loud. Almost like when you quickly switch the lights on in a dark room. Everything is too bright, the pulsing as your eyes adjust too loud. Nevertheless, my family soon began to note the sudden shift in confidence that I had when it came to the tiny mole residing on my lip. After working hard with constant reasons why I should get it removed, though she was against it, I somehow managed to convince my mom to take me to the dermatologist to discuss what could be done.

Kimmie and Luke 1There I was in horrifying embarrassment as the dermatologist laughed. She couldn’t believe I’d want to remove a mole so small, so unassuming. “It adds character”, she joked. Needless to say, she didn’t find any reason to remove the mole and really didn’t understand why I would go through the process. Walking out dejectedly, I began to imagine what life would be like when I started dating (insert auditory gulp of a middle schooler). When we arrived back home, I slumped on the couch with tears wetting the edges of my eyes and blurring the book I clutched pretending to read. I could hear my brother Luke asking my mom what had happened and I dutifully ignored the attempts he made to talk with me. Hearing the “you’re like Cindy Crawford” comments as one hears with headphones on; muffled and muted. One wobbly tear escaped and drew a salty path down my cheek, wetting the page I had opened. Just like that, I lost it. “I hate it! I hate everything about this mole! It makes me look ugly!” A heavy silence, interrupted only by my prominent sniffling, followed. “Well, I like it. I think you are beautiful.” Luke’s voice sounded steady through the unequal air. With that, he got up from the kitchen table and walked upstairs to his room.

Kimmie and Luke 2This is a moment that changed my life. It was the first moment I felt truly comfortable with myself and really began to embrace any ‘flaw.’ I was happy to be me, to be in the skin I was growing up in, and I began to notice the unique features everyone has. These details made a person enthralling, and still does all these years later. What Luke taught me that day was the foundation for everything my body image is built upon. Middle school is a trying time for everyone, and young girls/boys are faced with a society that will encourage them to change. It will tell them they are too heavy, too skinny, too ugly, too pretty, etc, and these constantly changing ideals will not stop once middle school ends either. It will escalate. And if someone does not have a foundation strong enough to withstand every subliminal, frontal, and unexpected attack it will be a devastating hit. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that loved me and encouraged me to be who I am. I was lucky enough to have a brother step in when my confidence broke and remind me that I was beautiful, mole and all.

So maybe I don’t dislike the saying, “you’re beautiful the way you are” in itself. Maybe I loathe the fact that someone has to be told and reminded of the power and beauty they hold. Because every creature, every windblown hair, and every colorful mind is more than beautiful. It is exquisite, it is beyond words. It is what every writer, poet, artist, and musician have been trying to replicate. It is an essence. And it is a privilege to have these ‘flaws’, and I am thankful for all of mine.

Kimmie skatingDespite her barely existent mole, Kimmie Meissner went on to become a World and US Champion Figure Skater and represented the United States in the 2006 Olympics at the age of 16, the youngest US athlete at those games. She was the second women to land the triple axle in 2005 and is currently the last United States woman to win the World Championship.  In the ten years since she has continued to skate professionally while graduating from college. She currently leads skating seminars and coaches young skaters as well as working at Johns Hopkins Hospital in physical therapy. She is also taking prerequisites to become a Physician’s Assistant. The mole is “still there” but is still barely visible.