Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Faith’ Category

An interview with Dr. Julia Burns: Defying Small through art

img_0098-224x300I recently had the privilege of talking with Dr. Julia Burns, a psychiatrist who has helped children, adolescents, and adults for over twenty years. When she is not working with patients, she enjoys painting, blogging, and spending time at the beach. Dr. Burns lives along New Hope Creek in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband, Andy. They have three grown children.

In this interview, Dr. Burns shares insights into Defying Small through her “healing meditations.”

Q. You call yourself a healer/artist. How did you come to see yourself in that way?

A. I stopped working as the Medical Director of a child welfare agency in 1998, and I started writing a couple of months later, and painting a few months after that. I used my artistic work to create a healing space for myself from all the trauma stories I had heard. I also painted for my patients and my friends.

Q. How have you grown artistically over the past sixteen years?

A. I wrote my first poem in the middle of the night. I was working with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and praying for a way to heal others and myself. And I wrote a poem, “I Sing a Song for the Abused Child,” the song no one wants to hear.

I kept writing and writing, and I continue to write. I may meet a person in the airport who tells me their story. I write these stories, and then paint a picture over the story of the trauma they tell me. It can be the moon rising over a lake or a beautiful scene at the ocean or the mountains. I call them “healing meditations.”

8-julia-07-2013If someone has a physical illness like breast cancer—and I happen to be working through that now myself—we might draw their breast on the paper and write affirmations of their healing. Their children might write on it.

One client picked the 23rd Psalm and so we painted the view from her lake house in Canada and wrote the 23rd Psalm lightly over the water. If you’re a couple of inches away, you can see the writing. But if you’re across the room, it just looks like a painting of the lake. And that’s how it’s evolved, and that’s how it continues to grow.

Q. It sounds like you draw a lot of your inspiration from nature. Is that true?

A. Absolutely. All of my art comes from my relationship with other people, people I that love or animals that I love. And also from my relationship with nature. We bought a house on the New Hope Creek in Chapel Hill and I did a series of paintings from my backyard called “New Hope.” I have a place at the beach and I’ve done a lot of paintings of the beach, as well. Those places are meaningful to me.

Q. How do you nurture your creativity?

A. The most important thing for me is to have a lot of time alone—in silence, meditation, and discernment with God. And then to actually make sure that I go into my studio. A friend who helped me learn how to paint told me, “Go into your studio everyday, if it’s only to sharpen your pencils.” And I try to remember that. My studio is in a loft. And I find the inertia comes from just climbing the stairs and getting started. But once I get in there, two or three hours go by and I don’t even know it. And that’s what I love about it. It’s very meditative.

Q. How do you practice gratitude in your life?

A. I do practice gratitude in traditional ways, where you get up and go, “Wow, great shower and cup of coffee! Yahoo! I’m in the top percentage of blessed people on earth!” (laughs)

I was raised by very demanding parents, so it’s easy for me to fall into that. Right now I’m working on affirmations for my upcoming surgery. And one of the affirmations is, “I let go of any harsh judgments and criticisms of myself and others, allowing my heart to soften, knowing that brings healing to myself and others.”

I’d say that’s a constant challenge for me, because in my family we really loved each other, but there were very high expectations. So I have to guard against that as a standard for others. And I really believe that people are in different phases of their journey. And what looks like a baby step for one can be a giant step. We have to suspend judgment. Always.

You can’t be gracious and grateful if you’re critical and harsh. And so that is how I constantly practice gratitude. I’d say I’ve learned even more about that in the last two or three years. I’ve changed the system of therapy I’m working in and that’s been a big leap for me.

Q. Where are you most happy?

A. At the beach.

Q. Tell us about your series “Louise and the Lewis Sisters.”

img_0421A. I don’t call them paintings; I call them “The Girls.” And it’s my mother, who was the youngest of seven, and her six sisters. They were very strong women and I had a close relationship with each one. The oldest sister lived to be 100. She started the first library in Pitt County (NC) and was the mayor of Farmville from age 65-73. They all worked and they all raised their families, some of them by themselves. Again, there were high expectations. But they loved me and gave me this wonderful feeling of support, a sense that I was put in the world to make a difference, to make a mark.

Louise was our housekeeper who was with us every day of the week. I absolutely worshipped her and loved her. What I admired most was how loving, calm, and accepting she was, no matter what the situation. My sister was always losing her library book and it was always a catastrophe, a huge whirlwind of crying and angst. We’d be running around the house looking for the book and Louise would say, “Now Jamie, I want you to just think where you were the last time you had that book.” And Jamie would mumble something and Louise would just walk over and pick the book up.

When she died, I wrote a poem about her. I wanted to know who was going to plait my hair and scrub my ribbon red knees, because I was always falling down and she was always picking me up.

Q. You’ve just created a new series of paintings entitled, “What Were They So Mad About?” What compelled you to create this series?

A. The series is based on five artists that used their childhood trauma to catapult their creativity and inspire them to make the world a better place. I got the idea from my assistant, Eileen. Virginia Woolf is my favorite.









I remember years ago when Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, came out. It’s a movie about 24 hours in the life of three women. Nicole Kidman played Virginia Woolf and it was amazing. I had read the book a few years earlier and I was looking through the bibliography and it mentioned that it drew from her memoirs and her sexual abuse by her brother. I was shocked. I had studied Virginia Woolf in college and I was a psychiatrist and took women’s studies courses and I had never heard that she was sexually abused. I had heard that she was bipolar, schizophrenic, bisexual, borderline—all these diagnoses—but I had never heard about her sexual abuse.

It inspired me to do a painting of her and write a poem, “What Was She So Mad About?” and they’re both featured in the show. I actually sent the portrait to Michael Cunningham and he said he put it over his writing desk to inspire him. That made me really happy.

In addition to Virginia Woolf, we also picked Tyler Perry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Maya Angelou, and Oprah Winfrey. I believe the inspiration also came from Maya Angelou’s death. Each one has a quote from their life about how they’ve used their inner experience to write their stories.

Q. How are you Defying Small in your life right now?

A. There are two things that come to mind. The first is when I was the Medical Director of a child welfare agency. I had learned nothing about child sexual abuse in my training. To become a child psychiatrist, you have to do a four-year residency in adult psychiatry and a two-year fellow in child psychiatry. You would think that I would have had a half-day seminar on child sexual abuse, because 80-90% of children who are institutionalized in childhood are sexually and physically abused.

So when I took that job, first, I didn’t know I was going to see so much of it, and secondly, I didn’t have a clue how to treat it. And boy, was I defying small every day when I got up and went to work. The children told me their stories and I believed them when no one else did. And I learned how to try to help them. And then when I stopped in ’99, I learned how to help myself by telling the world the stories of the children through my art. So that’s the first way that I defied small, and I do that every day for the children I love and take care of.

The way I’m defying small now is that I’ve just finished 24 weeks of chemotherapy and I’m getting ready to have surgery. I’m going to defy my survival statistics by living—and living well—with great health, vitality, strength and courage. So I think that goes back to what I said about my mom and her six sisters: They all defied small and I had great mentors. If for some reason things don’t go the way I want with this cancer, the way my family wants, I’ll still defy small. I know I will. I believe in living like that. It’s something that comes naturally to me.

Julia’s art show “What Was She So Mad About?” is on display at Caffé Driade in Chapel Hill, NC, through October 31, 2014.

You can follow Julia’s blog at

Living in the Tension (or what to do when you’re terrified)

fearI hit a wall this past weekend. I was plugging along, working on my goals for the new year, and, suddenly, I became frozen with fear.

What if I don’t accomplish everything on my list? Or even half my list? Or, worse, what if I actually do all of these things and fail?

Have you ever felt that way? It happens to all of us from time to time. We’re taking a risk, pursuing our passion, when we find ourselves gripped with fear. Fear of ridicule. Rejection. Or failure. We set the bar so high (overachieving), or so low (underachieving), that it’s impossible for us to climb over or under. We get stuck and we do what is possible. Nothing.

Fear is a given. It’s inherent in anything that pushes our limits. Yet each of us is surprised when it appears out of nowhere and draws us into its icy grip.

So how do you become unfrozen? By living in the tension. That’s right. Sit in it. Feel it. Embrace it. Have a little faith. And then push through it.


I know how difficult this is to do. I have a huge fight and flight response. When I’m threatened by fear or discomfort, my first impulse is to run and hide. But with increased self-awareness and lots of practice, I’ve learned to recognize and name what I’m afraid of. Often what I think I’m afraid of is only the symptom of a deeper fear. For example, I may be afraid to write a blog post. But my greater fear, if I stop and ponder it, is that I won’t write well and that people will respond negatively or not read it at all.

A trusted mentor taught me a great technique for facing my fears. First, think of what it is you’re afraid of. Then imagine the worst thing that could happen if your fears are realized. Then ask yourself if you could survive. The answer is, of course, almost always yes. This little exercise has helped me over the years to push through my fears and move past them.

When we face our fears this way, they diminish, and we see them for what they are. They may be real, but we only give them power by holding on to them.

So the next time you’re caught in the grip of fear:

  • name it
  • imagine the worst possible outcome
  • realize you will survive it, and perhaps even learn something from it
  • push through it by doing the next thing.

If you’re on the path to pursuing your passion, you will meet up with fear along the way. When that happens, remember to live in the tension. As writer and blogger Jeff Goins reminds us, “The cost of not pursuing a dream is greater than the cost of failure.” So release that grip and get going!

How do you overcome fear? Feel free to share your thoughts, below.

A death-defying dive into life


Photo: Julia Fullerton-Batten

If you ask me, there’s nothing worse than jumping off a high dive. Unless you are pushed. And that’s exactly what cancer is like.

I wasn’t ready to dive into the chilling waters of breast cancer. Swim through weeks of radiation. Or tread through years of meds. I found myself looking out over the deep end of worry and fear, then suddenly, I was plunging in.

Growing up, I was the kid at Tanglewood Swim Club who would climb to the top of the high dive, walk to the end, and then stand there for what seemed like hours, staring at the water and contemplating my fate. Which, of course, was always death.

If you jump from something this high, I reasoned, you’ll die. It was that simple.


“High Dive” by Norman Rockwell

Day after day I would face My Giant. Today’s the day, I’d tell myself.

But no matter how stalwart my resolve, I always came to the same conclusion. And I’d climb down and make everyone waiting on the ladder behind me, climb down, too.

I knew they resented me, the girl in the pink polka-dot two piece. I was a wimp. A nerd. A scaredy cat. (It did help that my handsome older brother was a lifeguard and surely saved me from some terrible fate.)

But this post is not about cancer or dying. It’s about living. Here’s what I’ve learned.

It was my unexpected dive into cancer that taught me to have faith. To trust. When you’re on your way down, the best place to look is up.


Secondly, it taught me that there really is a fate worse than death. And that is to never really live at all.

So I began living. Wide-eyed-in-your-face-out-loud-living. And that is when some of my great adventures began.

First, there was Paris (my post-radiation trip—thank you, Stephen).


Then Rwanda, the Land of a Thousand Hills.


In a few weeks I’m heading to London for my five-year survivor trip (I fancy being the cheeky blonde, below, second from the right).


But my newest and most fearful adventure is Defying Small, the online community I recently founded for visionaries who are daring to live bigger, more passionate lives. People like Torre DeRoche (you go, girl!) the #fearfuladventurer herself.

This summer I will be writing a book called Defying Small: How Defining Life Moments Can Help You Live A Bigger, More Passionate Life. I’m terrified. I also can’t wait to get out of bed every morning.

I’ve come a long way since those climbs up the ladder of the high dive back in my hometown.

Now, whenever I look over the terrifying precipice of my latest adventure and contemplate my fate, I simply shout “Let’s go, baby!” and dive right in.

Love with a Chance of Drowning – A Memoir by Torre DeRocheThis post is part of the My Fearful Adventure series, which is celebrating the launch of Torre DeRoche’s debut book Love with a Chance of Drowning, a true adventure story about one girl’s leap into the deep end of her fears.

“Wow, what a book. Exciting. Dramatic. Honest. Torre DeRoche is an author to follow.” Australian Associated Press

“… a story about conquering the fears that keep you from living your dreams.”

“In her debut, DeRoche has penned such a beautiful, thrilling story you’ll have to remind yourself it’s not fiction.” Courier Mail

Find out more…

What are you waiting for?

We’re all waiting for something. The right job. The right person. The right time.

And, sadly, while we are waiting for ___________ (fill in the blank), most us are waiting to live.

Each of us has a passion, something that moves and motivates us. Each of us has God-given abilities that are just waiting to take flight.

It doesn’t matter what that passion is. Maybe it’s your children. Your art. Someone you see who’s in need.

What matters is that your passion can move you into a bigger life. The life you are capable of living. If you stop waiting and dare to take that first step.

The idea for the book I am writing, Defying Small: How Defining Life Moments Can Help You Live a Bigger, More Passionate Life, was inspired by the following quote by Nelson Mandela:


Listen to Nelson. I did. Stop playing small. Stop settling. Stop living a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.


Because the world is waiting.

For you. 

“What we are waiting for is for you to do what you are capable of, for you to do what all of us are here to do, which is to make a difference, which is to do work worth doing.”
~ Seth Godin, author of Poke the Box

Ask yourself these questions:

What is my passion? What difference do I long to make in the world? What work is worth doing?

Am I pursuing that passion? That work?

Am I living the life I am capable of living?

If not, what step can I take today towards living that bigger life?

What would that step look like for me?

What am I waiting for?


I’d love to hear your thoughts. Post a comment here or email me at

Follow Defying Small on Twitter and Facebook.

My Top Thirteen for 2013

Mixed media collage "Life" by Rachel Bradley

Mixed media collage “Life” by Rachel Bradley

While some of you have been making your list of Top Ten New Years’ Resolutions, I’ve been pondering My Top Thirteen Moments On Planet Earth (in honor of 2013).

This is surely a work-in-progress, but, for now, here they are:

1) Receiving the gifts of Love and Forgiveness from Above (thank you, Jesus).

2) Mother moments: Finding out I was having twins, and, later, #3. Holding Elizabeth, Hannah and Annie in my arms for the first time. And every moment since May 2, 1989, 9:48 pm.

3) Priceless moments with family and friends. Finding Fiona (my fuzzy girlfriend).

4) My first poem/published article/newspaper column/typewriter/writing desk.

5) Lunch with Ruth Bell Graham at Little Piney Cove. Weekend writing retreat with Madeleine L’Engle.

6) Lunch with handsome boyfriend on the Eiffel Tower.

7) Photo shoot in the Mediterranean with Regent Seven Seas. Standing on the balcony of the Sicilian villa where they filmed “The Godfather II” while someone played “Speak Softly Love” on a piano below.

8) Life-changing travel experiences: Rwanda (2010). Paris (2008). Turkey, Greece, Italy, Sicily, France, Spain (2004, 2006). Dominican Republic (2004). Romania, Belarus (1995). Latvia, Estonia, Russia (1990).

9) Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway for the first time in a rented convertible. Yeah, baby.

10) Moments en Francais: Seeing Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” and Monet’s “Waterlillies.” Minueting in the garden at Versailles.

11) Seeing an angel in Carrboro, NC, while tooling along in my 1968 VW Beetle. True story (I have a witness).

12) Being at the bedside of my parents as they slipped from this world to the next.

13) Finally, all the millions of unspoken, and yet, profound, moments that have shaped who I am today. Grateful for each and every one.

The end of the world. Or, it’s all about faith, hope, and love.


Well, December 21, 2012, has come and gone, and we’re still here. Honestly, Doomsday pretty much escaped my notice, except for the ground swell of sarcastic posts and tweets on Facebook and Twitter.

No, the world as we know it didn’t end yesterday. At least for most of us.

But somewhere on this apocalyptic-free planet, I assure you, it did. Like in Newtown, Connecticut, where loved ones laid their wife/mother/girlfriend/son/daughter (five in all) to rest.

When the world ends, it usually doesn’t explode in a fiery inferno. Instead, life as we know it simply is no more. It either tumbles down around us. Or quietly slips away.

Over the years I have often quoted the following line from Mary Schmich’s famous “Sunscreen” column in the Chicago Tribune: The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday. Or, for the citizens of Newtown, at 9:30 am on some idle Friday.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

Eric Thayer/Reuters

I teach kindergarten, and Monday was the second hardest day of my thirteen-year career. 9/11 was the first. And that includes the day I got the call from my doctor telling me I had Stage I breast cancer.

Every single one of us—to one degree or another—has been there. You know, on the receiving end of “the news” that changes your life forever.

What do we do with that certainty of uncertainty? Live in gripping fear just waiting for our world to implode? Or cling tenaciously to the only things that will help us survive the fallout? Faith. Hope. Love.

Faith. It was faith that helped a teen-aged virgin believe an angel’s message that she would conceive a son out of wedlock. In one of my favorite children’s Bibles it says, “So Mary trusted God more than what her eyes could see.” Believing beyond what we can see when our grief and pain make it impossible. Believing that there really is something more.

Which leads to hope. But how can you hope when all hope is gone? Often, when we lose something or someone, we also lose hope—the hope inherent in that person or thing. Things like love, security, a future. For me, faith (and specifically my faith in Christ) is the key to hope. I have this hope “as an anchor for my soul, firm and secure.” ~Hebrews 6:19. It’s what keeps me from being tossed about when storms rage.

Finally, love. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. ~John 15:13. Rachel D’Avino. Dawn Hochsprung. Anne Marie Murphy. Lauren Rousseau. Mary Sherlach. Victoria Soto. Jesse Lewis. These, and nameless others, were the heroes of Sandy Hook. It will be their final acts of love and courage that live on and bring hope to those who remember them.

In memory, 26 balloons

So, this started out being a post about the thwarted Apocalypse and ended up being my way of processing what happened last Friday in Newtown.

Because I teach 6-year-olds, my first day back at school was especially hard. Making it through that day was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. And I did so, recalling these words from President Obama’s speech given at an interfaith prayer vigil on Sunday:

There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have—for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace—that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger—we know that’s what matters. We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.

And so I kept going that day, as we’ll all keep going. Clinging to what is true, doing what matters. Faith. Hope. Love. But the greatest of these is love.

Becoming grace

God's grace is becoming

Year of All Years

A process for your best year yet.

6 Months to Live: The Experiment Continues

Life is waiting. Will you join me?