Sole Survivors
It was a rainy Saturday morning when I finished unpacking from a recent business trip. After jiggling open the sliding door to my closet, I desperately tried to find space for a new pair of shoes I had purchased.

No such luck. Every time I moved one dusty old box, another fell down.

“This is it!” I huffed out loud. “This is the day I give away all of my old shoes.”

The shoes I’m talking about were not just tattered–many of them no longer fit. Why was I saving them? I got my step stool and up into the nether regions of closet land I went.

The first box contained a pair of black satin high heels. They were my favorites eight years ago when they were new. I remember wearing them the night I attended a grand performance of Swan Lake by the Joffrey Ballet. My friends and I were able to go backstage and meet the dancers.

The next box held the silver-mesh heels with beaded flowers delicately draped across the front that I first wore to our youngest son’s bar mitzvah in 1985. As I closed my eyes, I could still hear his 13-year-old changing voice chanting.

Less glamorous were my workout shoes, all tattered and torn, but reminding me of exuberant aerobics classes at the gym. Each pair of shoes was like an old photo album carrying vivid pictures of treasured moments.

When I moved from Los Angeles to Kaua’i, Hawaii, I brought all my shoes, knowing full well that many didn’t fit anymore (my feet seem to get wider with age). At the time, I didn’t know why I was taking them, but sitting on the edge of my bed, holding my black satin heels, I knew: I didn’t want to let go of the memories of parties, weddings, vacations, anniversaries.

I’d worn these shoes during some of the best years of my life. They were with me when, against the odds, I went back to school, got a Ph.D., wrote books, and built a private practice as a marriage, family therapist. It wasn’t just the accomplishments that were important. It was all the wonderful people who enriched each experience. By holding on to the shoes, I’d been trying to hold on to the memories. Even though moving to Kaua’i was a goal my husband and I worked hard to achieve, it seemed I was still spiritually linked to my 27 years in Los Angeles.

I took time to carefully dust off each pair of shoes and put them in a white plastic giveaway bag beside me. After placing the last pair inside, I twisted a wire tie around the top and reflected upon the importance of creating space in my life.

I realized that letting go of what no longer fits allows for experiences — and shoes — that fit the person I’ve become. While the memories continue to nourish my journey, now my closet has room for new shoes to travel with me on the path ahead.


It has been twelve years since I wrote this story. Sole Survivors was subsequently published in Living Fit Magazine, in the July issue of that 1997. I am now living in Phoenix Arizona and still reflect on the messages I received from cleaning my closet on that fateful Saturday morning.

After reading this story, perhaps you will also take time to reflect on the importance of letting go of what no longer fits and creating space in your life for new pathways and discoveries yet to be discovered. I welcome your thoughts and share the journey.

Joyce C. Mills PhD, LMFT, LLC

Contact Us 602.923.2704
6609 N. Scottsdale Rd. Bldg. G-103,
Scottsdale, AZ 85250

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
~ Plato.

We can hardly open our computers, read a newspaper, or watch the news without hearing about the “down economy.” We work harder, attend more meetings, seminars, and workshops that are supposed to give us the keys for turning our businesses around, and read as many inspirational books as possible, but somehow that magical “law of attraction,” isn’t creating the magnetic success we hope for.

As a Play Therapist and Creative Coach for over thirty years, one ingredient I see missing in these meetings and workshops is the profound importance of play…to experience life with a playful mind. Without it we only think in concrete terms. We all know that concrete is fixed not fluid – and we need flow in order for new ideas to develop.

In a groundbreaking book, “PLAY: How it shapes the brain, Opens the imagination, and Invigorates the soul,” Dr. Stuart Brown with Christopher Vaughn, writes “For us, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.” They go on to write “If we don’t take time to play, we face a joyless life of rigidity, lacking in creativity. The opposite of play isn’t work, but depression. If we’re going to adapt to changing economic and personal circumstances the way that nature armed us to do, then we have to find ourselves having some play time virtually every day.”

Related to this statement, Dr. Brown continues to share, citing a clear example when Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) built robotic probes to explore solar systems when they noticed they were having a hard time replacing the retiring engineers and scientists who had put men on the moon The company thought it was hiring graduates from the top schools such as MIT, Stanford, and even Cal Tech, but found something else was missing. These young grads simply could not problem solve like the elder engineers who came before them. What was the missing ingredient? You guessed it…play. The older engineers grew up taking things apart, seeing how they worked, making soapbox racers, and playing with their hands. Following this revelation, JPL included questions related to youthful play as a standard part of its job interviews.

Looking to other areas of business, we clearly see the indisputable success of Google. It has whole floors with games and play stations, and other forms of fun, socialization, and relaxation. Why? If time is money, why would a company invest so much space and finances in providing employees with “fun stations?” The answer is simple…it makes you feel good! In a nutshell, when we feel good, we are more productive, resourceful, creative, inventive, happier, and less stressed.

I carry this same belief throughout my personal life and business. If you look at the photos of my office on my website http://www.drjoycemills.com or click on the link taking you to StoryPlay® – you’ll see fun stations everywhere.

Play creates a joyful environment in which compassion, collaboration, and innovation can flourish. While play is not the only element we need to turn things around, my belief is when we can all “play together,” and when we open that playful nature within ourselves, we will find the innovative solutions needed for transforming down to up.

So, here’s my prescription for putting Play into your personal and professional life:

  • Be silly – blow bubbles every day. Go out and buy bottles of bubbles and give yourself a few minutes of bubble blowing time each day. If you have employees, surprise them with a bottle of bubbles on their desk.
  • Be creative – keep a small container of colorful Play-Doh® nearby and create a shape with it. Maybe by playing with Play-Doh, we’ll find ideas to create more “play dough.”
  • Be artistic – when you are looking for solutions to a problem. Use crayons, markers, and blank paper to draw, scribble, or doodle shapes, designs or images.
  • Be balanced by taking a break. Take time each day to play catch with your kids, friends, or employees.
  • Be inspired where you have coffee or take lunch breaks. Create “fun stations” with games, music, and art materials for employees to use.
  • Be imaginative and inspired by telling stories. Problems and resolutions take on a different energy when they become part of a story.

Articles jam packed with information to explore about the Play and the Workplace can be found by going to Linda Naiman’s creative blog:  http://www.creativityatwork.com/blog/2009/04/14/newsletter-the-serious-side-of-play/

I invite you to share your play ideas. How do you play?  As Plato so wisely instructs… “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” How would you have people recognize your “play factor?”

You are invited to bring more Creativity into your life and business at “Creative Leaps.”

Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D.

Joyce Mills, Ph.D.

Turtle IslandAccording to Native American legend, the back of a giant turtle supports the earth.   The Turtle’s slow and deliberate movement provides for changes of times and seasons.   An impenetrable fortress, when the turtle is threatened – it finds strength inside.  It makes progress only when it sticks out its neck.   The ancients called this whole world “Turtle Island.”

Sweat LodgeI would like to share an experience that helped me fully understand this process.  Have you ever found yourself in a moment of utter frustration over some situation that seemed totally out of your control, and only when you released that “control” did something positive happen?  My awakening to this concept happened on a cool drizzly Sunday morning, about 5:30 am, when I was awakened  and someone told me to start the fire for the Sweat Lodge, which is the ceremony culminating our annual Turtle Island Project – Women’s Healing Journey retreat in Northern Arizona.

WHJ SistersNormally I am a grumpy bear when someone wakes me that early, but this morning was different. It was the first time I was asked to start the fire for our Sweat Lodge ceremony and it was an honor to be asked.  Without any words, I was handed a small, worn leather pouch filled with wooden matches.  I quickly put on my warm thermals, zipped up my quilted ski jacket, tucked the matches and another pouch containing prayer tobacco inside my deepest pocket and out the door I went.

It was one of those amazing Arizona mornings where the ridges of the mountains seem to be painted on a background of cinnamon, plum, and luminescent haze.  The cedar and pine trees were moist and fragrant.  In the solitude, I understood the kind of quiet, where even silence can be heard, was perfect for soul-searching

As I walked up the stony mountain path towards the Sweat Lodge some hundred feet away, thoughts about our quest to move to Kauai swirled through the quiet spaces of my mind. While reviewing the current status of our dream, thoughts quickly turned to worry. It had been over two years and five real-estate agents later, and in spite of working diligently to sell our home in Los Angeles in order to make this move, not one offer had been made.

To add to the worry, we had borrowed money for a down payment for a small home in Kauai, thinking our Los Angeles home would sell easily and allowing us to pay off the loan within very short period of time.  But with the crumbling real-estate market, and trying to pay two mortgages on very little income, we found ourselves with but a few months’ rent left from all of the equity we had amassed over the years.  The possibility of losing our home to foreclosure was too close for comfort. I was very frightened and I found myself wondering if these obstacles were signs telling us that we shouldn’t move; that the more prudent course of action was to abandon our dreams.

Huffing and puffing, I came to the top of the hill where the sweat lodge and fire-pit had already been prepared for the morning ceremony the night before.  I stood there for a long, quiet moment – taking in the majestic view from that mountain crest before kneeling down near the logs which encased the forty-some-odd lava stones that rested within its center.

Reaching into the tobacco pouch I took out a pinch between my fingers, held it up towards the sky and then began to say a prayer for the well-being of all who entered the Sweat Lodge, as I had been taught to do. After finishing the prayer, I placed the pinch of tobacco within a small opening, a “doorway,” that is left slightly open between the logs, and proceeded to light one of the matches I brought with me. It went out almost immediately.

I moved closer and lit another match, quickly placing it on the dry kindling.  This time there was a slight smoldering and then… nothing – it went out again.  This process of lighting match after match went on and on until I just had two matches left. Feeling frustrated and very much like a failure at being able to start a fire, I traipsed back down the road and walked upstairs where my spiritual sister was beginning to stir.

“Hey Sis, I don’t think I should be the one to light this fire.  No matter what I do, I can’t get it lit. I only have two matches left.”  Offering a slight smile of reassurance my sister chortled, “Get back out there Joyce, and light that fire with whatever you have left. Just stay with it!”  So… back up the path I walked all the while thinking to myself,  “She must know something that I surely don’t know.”

Kneeling down on the cold, moist ground once again, I lit one of the two matches I had left and placed it on the dry pocket of kindling and paper, as I had done before. Small flames began to flicker and I leaned forward and blew on them in order to keep them going.  However, no matter what I did, they seemed to have a mind of their own – continuing to quickly dwindle into nothingness.

Realizing I only had one dry match left, I moved closer to the logs and maneuvered a few pieces of the wood around and carefully struck the match on a nearby rock.  Waiting a few moments so that the fire was well lit on the end of the match, I reached inside once again and lit the dry kindling. Finally, the flames grew stronger and I breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, that feeling of relief was short-lived because the flames began to steadily grow fainter until they were completely out… again!

Having no matches left and feeling very much a failure, I thought to myself, “I couldn’t even light a simple fire”. With fists clenched in frustration, and tears of desperation streaming down my cheeks, I looked up towards the Heavens and shouted at the top of my lungs, “DEAR GOD, I NEED HELP. I CAN’T DO THIS ALONE.”

Within moments, I heard a slight rustling coming from the bushes nearby, and found myself looking face to face with a sweet, dark-eyed deer. She just stood there looking at me for a few long moments, cocking her head as though to communicate some sort of understanding about my sad situation. Simultaneously, I heard a loud whooshing sound and turned to see what it was. The seemingly dead fire was suddenly blazing brilliantly within the center of the fire-pit!

What was more unbelievable to me was that, very uncharacteristic of a deer, was that it stood there – watching with me as the fire continued to blaze.  Her head still cocked with that “knowing” look, the deer slowly turned and walked down the same path she had come – conveying a silent message that I needed to hear.

I just stood there – taking this moment of magic within my being. “What had she come to tell me?” I wondered to myself.  As I began to walk back down the road to the house it began to rain. By the time I got back to the house, it was pouring. “Oh no!” I thought to myself, “After all of this and now the rain will probably put the fire out. Well, at this point it is out of my control, that’s for sure.”

When I got back into the house and dressed for the Sweat Lodge, I told the women about my morning’s adventures with the fire and the deer.  As we walked up the hill through the rain, I wondered if the fire would still be burning or had been doused by the rain. I suppose there was a part of me that wasn’t the least bit surprised by the fact that there, in front of us, the fire was still blazing.

I think what I learned from this experience is that when you believe in yourself – it takes a lot to put out a good fire. And in times when it feels like there is no more energy left to spark the flames of our desires, it is important to remember that a simple breath of faith can ignite that fire within each of us once again.

Please feel free to leave your comments about how this message impacted you – causing you to remember some similar, life transforming event.

Oh, I almost forgot, I wanted to invite you to learn more about the Turtle Island Project by going to http://www.turtleislandproject.com/whcinfo.htm


Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D. LMFT LLC
Creative Solutions for Positive Change
Registered Play Therapy Supervisor
Co-director of The Phoenix Institute of Ericksonian Therapy

By Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D.

My mother’s name was Rose; she was a woman of gentle strength, courage, and elegant beauty.  Like a rose, that blossoms stronger when pruned or encounters nature’s challenges, my mother grew stronger with every challenge life placed before her.  She believed everything happened for a reason and always took the positive point of view, no matter what was happening.

When I was three years old my mother and father got divorced.  My father was an alcoholic who was unable to receive help. As my mother would tell me when I was old enough to understand, “You’re father was not a bad person, he was sick. If he got help, I would have stayed. But he refused.”  In my mother’s wisdom, she knew it was an unhealthy choice to stay and raise me in such an environment, so she made a difficult, but healthy decision. This was in 1947 when divorce was rare and society encouraged women to stick it out no matter how difficult or abusive the marriage.

My mother and I moved from my father’s home in Norfolk Virginia into my Bubbie’s (Yiddish for grandmother) one bedroom apartment in a five-floor walk up building in the Bronx, New York.  My mother never got alimony and was my sole support.  Eventually, she got a job working in a Manhattan factory as a milliner.

When I was about six years old I started dancing lessons at Miss LaRosa’s Dance Studio.  The JOYM C HALL SMphoto at the right is of the realization of every little girl’s dream – dancing on stage at Carnegie Hall.  However, more happy memories were created in that each Saturday we would ride the subway downtown after my dancing lessons.  My mother always planned something special for us to do; we would go to a children’s ballet or a movie, and stop by the factory to say “hello.” to the women with whom she worked.

This was always my favorite part… the women would welcome me into the fold by clearing a place at their long wooden work table. They’d spread out mounds of brightly colored silk flowers, ribbons, rhinestones, buttons, and other decorations that were used to adorn the hats.  My mother and the women would show me how to sew the flowers onto various materials, making beautiful designs, ultimately to be sewn onto the hats themselves. Of course, I tried on all of the finished hats I was allowed to play with – pretending I was an elegant lady, a queen, cover girl or whomever my imagination could dream up.  What an experience, spending time in an amazing make-believe heaven!

My mother and I would share the stories of the day as we rode the subway home.  Once reaching our apartment building, I eagerly ran up the three flights of stairs to tell my Bubbie about the day and to show her the treasures I received.   As I reflect on those memories, I am aware that the real treasures were not so much in the glittery buttons and bobbles, but instead they were in the stories and experiences shared between mother and daughter.

My sweet mother died in 1997. While sitting at her bedside just an hour after her passing, my grief was so enormous I could barely breathe. Through my tears I noticed that the nurse who was telling me about the last moments of my mother’s life was gently stroking her small, blanketed feet as if she were still alive. I felt as if my mother’s spirit was being caressed by an angel. Now, I am sure that was the case

Mom & Me - 96My mother’s photo sits on a shelf where I do my writing. I feel her smile every day and know her legacy of wisdom and kindness guides me through the many trials of my life. We are daughters … all of us, and memories abound.  Some of those memories are filled with life lessons that give us renewed strength in the face of our own challenges and joy that lifts us to a better place on a bad day.  On this annual honoring of all mothers, please feel free to add to this post by adding your own beautiful memories of your own mother.

Joyce Mills

In October I had the honor of being asked to return for a second time to Brazil and teach a two- day workshop titled: Motivating the Unmotivated: Planting the Seeds and Reaping the Harvest. It was sponsored by the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Belo Horizonte. www.ericksonbh.com.br.

The first time I was in Brazil was in 2006 when my book, Reconnecting to the Magic of Life was translated into Portuguese. At the time I was invited to an amazing place, Nucleo Assistencial Caminhos Para Jesus. Translated it means the Pathway to Jesus. Celebrating its fortieth anniversary, Caminhos Para Jesus exists on donations and serves a whole community.

I was asked to be with the many precious children who had been abandoned at birth and who have advanced cases of Cerebral Palsy.  Each of the children I encountered provided a richness of experience unable to be described in lbrazil-october2008068iteral words. I call the wonderful staff members “angels,” each providing the children with physical, occupational, speech, art, education, and psychotherapy along with social work, dental and medical care and most of all LOVE.    www.caminhosparajesus.org.br.

This time I was accompanied by Gláucia Silva, and Breno Mendes, two talented therapists from the Ericksonian Institute. After being welcomed by the Executive Director, Raul Marinuzzi, and honored by being introducebrazil-october2008063d to the founder, Celio Oliveira Tropia, we were greeted by the staff and children with overflowing hugs and love. I was presented with a book with hand-drawn pictures, wishes, and joyful smiles galore.

 There was Edson, a young man who enthusiastically pointed to the pictures and words he pabrazil-october2008010sted in the book in order to communicate his feelings and blessings to me. Gabriela, used paper hearts and drew the sun, Nilo drew butterflies, Lucas left me his feet prints, Laudomiro, a beautiful design, Claudiana, a butterfly on a flower,…

and Patricia drew a smiling heart and wrote: “Joyce, I love you! Love is ALL … You are pbrazil-october2008019retty! Patricia (Paty) Your Friend.”  Of course, I brought BT, my famous turtle hand puppet to share warm snuggles and stories.  

 brazil-october2008034Among the many precious children and adolescents who touched my heart was little Kathleen, who at first was not sure of BT. She quickly brought out her puppet friend of courage, d’Artagnan and introduced him to BT. Before long, they were friends. Her courageous spirit outshined the initial fear she experienced. Child after child, BT made his way around the circle, playfully sharing his message of joy and care.

It was especially touching when little bright-eyed Rodrigo, outstretched his arms to brazil-october2008024embrace BT with loving kisses. The twinkle in his smile said it all.

Remembering how much they all loved BT, I brought a new turtle puppet to leave with the staff and children as a gift. When I kathandbryan0102introduced the new puppet, I told them that BT brought one of his special relatives who needed a good home to live with them. They were all excited to meet this new friend and relative. One of the staff said that they needed to name the turtle before I left. When they decided to name it “Todd,” after my own son who has Cerebral Palsy, I was visibly moved to tears.  

 After the storytelling, I visited all of the other children who were still in their rooms. Lying in his large crib-like bed was Dennis, a young man severely afflicted with Cerebral Palsy. Wibrazil-october2008070th a dazzling smile and outstretched arms, Dennis used every bit of his energy to slowly and deliberately bring one of his thin arms across his frail body to touch and be kissed by BT and me. We often take such simple movements for granted, but it was Dennis who reminded me about the power of “determination,” to accomplish one’s goal.

Just before leaving, I noticed a beautiful curly-haired boy about four years old flailing his arms while standing in a play pen. The staff told me that his name is Bryan and that he is also blind. As if feeling a magnetic pull towards him, I knelt down close to Bryan and gently began stoking his cheek with the soft nose of BT. I told him my name and that what he was feeling on his cheek was BT my special Amigo Tartaruga here to give him love. Almost immediately, Bryan calmed down, and nestled into the softness of BT and then cuddled in my arms. We remained embraced for what seemed like a magical time where all else disappeared.

It was soon time for us to leave, so I motioned to one of the staff members to get another stuffed animal for him to hold. At first, kathandbryan0071she came back with a doll, but Bryan rejected it, because its material was scratchy. She quickly returned with a small, soft white bunny rabbit. I slowly began caressing little Bryan’s face with the long ears. Again, he calmed. I placed the rabbit in his hands and moved away.  This precious child embraced the bunny and then sat down in the play-pen and began singing it a song. We were all moved to tears as we watched this child find comfort in the soft presence of this simple toy.

 By the time I left, my heart was full and I knew that each child was a spiritual teacher of determination and joy.  I am sure I received more than I could have possibly given.

As we move into the holidays and the New Year, perhaps it is a good time to give thanks for the many unexpected blessings we have received that inspire joy in our hearts and a sense of determination to overcome the obstacles placed in our paths. We need to remember that nothing is more powerful than the human spirit to touch and be touched, to love and be loved.

In the spirit of the season, look for the Holiday Special of the Butterfly Wisdom Transformation Kit.



Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D. LMFT LLC
Creative Solutions for Positive Change
Registered Play Therapy Supervisor
Co-director of The Phoenix Institute of Ericksonian Therapy



It was a toasty-warm Arizona day in June when my husband and I took a trip up to the little old mining town of Jerome. After wandering through the various art and antique shops along the narrow winding streets, we suddenly became aware of the sumptuous aroma of chocolate wafting through the warm summer air.  Following the scent, we wound up in a small shop devoted to making fudge. The main source of the aroma was coming from a hug vat of warm chocolate being stirred by a young teenage boy.


The boy was gazing down into the large copper vat, with a very bored look on his face. Round and round he stirred the thick dark simmering chocolate without ever looking up at any of the customers.


After sampling tidbits of the shop’s luscious offerings and purchasing a piece of their pecan dark chocolate fudge, I couldn’t help but be drawn back to the boy.


“I think you have the best job in town,” I said to him. The boy looked up as if awakened from a deep sleep. I continued.  You stir chocolate.  People come into this shop because of that wonderful aroma you are creating.  Once entering through the doorway and sampling “a little chunk of heaven,” it’s a sure thing they will purchase some fudge to take home.  In a way, you are like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Yes, as I think about it, you truly have the most important job in town… stirring chocolate and bringing smiles to the faces of all who enter this shop.”


“As you grow older and perhaps wonder about your life’s purpose, always remember this job of making fudge and take some time for yourself to smell the chocolate.”


The boy’s affect clearly changed. His eyes brightened, his stance was upright, and he was grinning from ear to ear.


Yes, as I think about it, we all have times in our lives when we feel bored, unappreciated, and invisible. Perhaps remembering this little story could remind us all to “stir chocolate” as a way to reconnect to a deeper purpose and self appreciation. So dear friends, go get yourselves a big chuck of rich, yummy chocolate, melt it down, and stir it – all the while smelling the sumptuous aroma.  Make fudge, and enjoy the deliciousness of life!


By Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D. ©2008 All Rights Reserved

An Angel in the Mist


Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D.

Have you ever met someone that changed your life in a split second? Meeting Tim, a Fireman (one of Brooklyn’s finest), provided such an experience for me.   


It was early evening on Sunday, January 6th, when I first saw Tim. I had been hired as a consultant and program developer on a special project with a team of trauma experts designed to help the children and families that were affected by the tragedy of 9/11.  My contribution to the team was based on a three part healing project I created nine years earlier for the children and families on the remote west side of the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i in response to the devastating experience of Hurricane Iniki. Ironically, the hurricane hit the island on September 11, 1992.  Rather than the typical forms of debriefing, the program was based on natural healing abilities and resilience.


After nonstop days and sleep-deprived nights of eating Dunkin’ Donuts, drinking coffee, and taking “Emer’gen-C” vitamins – while developing, redeveloping, and refining this special program – I knew that I had to go to Ground Zero to meditate and pray. There would be no way I could work with the families and children without visiting and paying my respects prior to our first meeting.  And so, on January 6th, my dear friend and colleague, CharlesEtta (Charlee) Sutton and I bundled up and drove into New York from New Jersey – to the site of Ground Zero.


As we drove, Charlee and I talked about our feelings of sadness coupled with fears related to what we were expecting to see or feel. When we arrived, the lines of people waiting to go onto the platform set up to view the actual site were endless. One police officer told us that the wait to walk onto the platform was over three hours. Knowing we were unable to wait that long, we decided to walk on the sidewalk around the site and pay respects in another way. I had brought a braid of sweetgrass with me, which is a Native American sacred herb used for healing and prayer.


Tears filled our eyes as we silently walked by the thousands of letters, cards, pictures, posters, candles, flowers, teddy bears, and religious articles that were left by people from all over the world.  Many people obviously had visited to pay their respects and offer prayers to those thousands of innocent relatives and friends, whose precious lives had been so senselessly and tragically taken in a violent act of terrorism. For some reason, I could not seem to find the area where I wanted to place the sweetgrass.


It was getting darker, when Charlee and I decided to walk down Church Street and offer prayers by a barricade which blocked one of the entrances to the site. Just as we got there, Charlee got paged and had to answer an important call. Because of the noise coming from the huge cranes still working at the site, Charlee moved away to make her call, while I remained standing by the barricade to wait for her.  I found myself just gazing at the on-going work that was ensuing through the curtain of dusky light. It was during this very quiet and private moment, that I saw “him.” Like an angel in the mists, a tall, dust-cloaked firefighter in full gear slowly lumbered his way across the fallen debris towards the opening in the barricade.


As he approached, I wondered if it would be appropriate to talk with him at this time. He looked so tired and worn from his daunting task. As he turned to leave the site, I saw his name written on the back of his jacket. Reflexively, and almost in a whisper, I exhaled his name.  He immediately turned and slowly walked towards me. I extended my hand and introduced myself.  “Good evening, my name is Joyce Mills, and I am very happy to meet you.” I then reassured him that I wouldn’t take up much of his time, because I knew he was probably exhausted and wanted to get home. With a warm smile and an Irish-twinkle in his blue-grey eyes, he took off his work-worn, dust covered glove and extended his right hand.   “Tim,” he said.


It was then that I knew why I had brought the sweetgrass and to whom it was to be given. Reaching inside my purse, I took out the braid and told Tim that I had brought it from Phoenix to be offered in prayer for all of those who had been lost in the attack and in honor of those who were working so hard to help. I told him that we were not able to get onto the platform, but that I now knew why… it was because I was to give the sweetgrass to him.  While still holding it, I explained that sweetgrass is considered to be a sacred healing herb by many Native American tribes – that it was braided together as mind, body, and spirit.  I suggested that he should use it to help himself, his family, and his buddies through these many challenging times. He asked if I was Native American, and I told him no, that I am a Jewish kid born in the Bronx, but that I am a spiritual relative to many Native American People for many years and now live in Phoenix.


Tim smiled and extended his hands, palms up, to receive the small gift.  He gently handled the braid, almost as if one would hold a newborn baby for the first time.  Tim asked more questions about how to use it. I told him that I have been taught by Native people to use it to bring a sense of sweetness into life.  It is also used to purify a place when something painful happens. I went on to say that there are many places he could use the sweet grass – such as in his fire truck, at the fire station, in his own car, truck, or home. I explained that he could keep it the way it is, or burn it from time to time. The sweet smell could help remind him of the sweetness in life even when there is tragedy.  Tim said that he would definitely use it and thanked me for bringing it so far. I told him that it is he who needed to be thanked for all of the work he was doing.


Tim then started talking about his buddies who died and the many others who were killed. Tim’s eyes were soft and tender as he shared his story; he was clearly not in a hurry to leave. Tim said that firefighters usually “get in and get out of a site rather quickly, but this was different.” With conviction in his voice, Tim said that he and his buddies were not leaving until every bit of debris was cleared. He said there were over 3,000 bodies including 125 firefighters, somewhere in there, and that he was going to do what he could to recover whatever or whomever possible.


Tim talked for some time, while I stood and listened. I knew that meeting Tim was the reason I was there. He was the human platform from which I could view the site and offer prayers.  While just one person with great humility, Tim embodied the strength, sensitivity, fortitude, and courage of every person who was working to help.


As I write this story, I question what is it that Tim came to teach me that night? Perhaps it was about finding the inner strength and courage to go on when life strikes the most challenging of blows. For each of us the challenges will be different. For some it will be the loss of a loved one, for others it may be the loss of a job, or a personal confrontation with illness. We must each search our hearts in the quest for healing. Like Tim, it is in the service of a greater whole that we find the inner strength and meaning to face the fears and find healing.


As I leave you with this story, I also want to encourage you to take it into your heart and ask yourself how it impacted you.  Did it remind you of someone who forever changed your life?  Did you get a renewed sense of courage yourself?  Did it cause you to consider searching you own heart in the quest for healing?  Or did you, perhaps, find a personal revelation about your purpose in the service of helping others to heal?   


Be inspired!







Thanks, Joyce
Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D. LMFT LLC
Creative Solutions for Positive Change
Registered Play Therapy Supervisor
Co-director of The Phoenix Institute of Ericksonian Therapy