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A Saga of Life and Its Lessons

Books: A sense of wonder permeates Ardath Rodale's 'Gifts of the Spirit,' and has helped her cope with heartbreak.


If there's one message that rings loud and clear throughout the essays in Ardath Rodale's inspirational book "Gifts of the Spirit," it's that life's experiences are universal. It's impossible to read it and not realize, "That's happened to me."

What makes us different is how each of us handles those experiences.

Rodale speculates that "life might be programmed--that things happen for a purpose and it's up to you to 'make or break.' "

To all appearances, Rodale might have it all, but her unqualified success in the corporate world as chairwoman of the board and chief executive officer of Rodale Press Inc.--publisher of Prevention magazine and other health-related publications--and chairwoman of the board of the Rodale Institute, as well as shelves full of awards for her humanitarian efforts, haven't insulated her against heartbreak.

She's faced the death of her husband, her son and her mother, as well as two personal bouts with cancer and one with spinal meningitis.

The saga of Rodale's life can be traced through the more than 50 essays in "Gifts of the Spirit" (Daybreak Books). Its message, she said, is "to slow down, rejuvenate our souls and bring harmony into our busy lives."

Rodale looks to nature to replenish her spirit. Her early morning walks around her rural Emmaus, Pa., farm "are a quiet time. It gives me a feeling of peace." And it's not only the countryside that holds serenity for her. She describes a recent trip to New York, where as a self-proclaimed early bird, she manages to find "a pencil of a sunrise between two skyscrapers."

The awe inspired by the miracles of nature permeates the book. On watching flocks of Canada geese fly northward, she wonders, "Are there any leaders in a flock of geese?"

Her observation answers her question. "As I watched, it became evident that they were all--leaders and followers--each one taking his turn."

But she also wonders, "How do they know the importance of shared responsibility? How do they know when the time comes to step back and be a follower? What triggers in their minds the knowledge that survival depends on helping one another?"

What if we were like the geese? Rodale asks. "What would happen in our world if we all decided to bring out the best in each other? Can you imagine the great team we would have living in harmony with each other and the world?"

The experience of watching the geese, she writes, was another "momentous day for my book of special days to remember."

In the essay "Losing Someone Close," Rodale tells of asking herself, "How do you get over the pain of losing someone you love?" To ease her sadness, on the anniversary of her loss, she displays a rose in a prominent place to remind the whole family of their loved one. She tells of marking the first birthday of her son after he died of AIDS complications. She invited 11 of his closest friends to dinner, preparing David's favorite foods and sharing stories about him.

"Treat yourself with love, care for yourself, surround yourself with beauty, give yourself love pats and dwell on the positive," she advises. "If you have any regrets, forgive yourself; we are all human and God forgives us all."

Rodale says that when cancer struck her, she had to change her way of thinking. "I was too negative. I had to learn to look toward the sun, not the shadow."

She started by walking every day, aware of the beauty around her. On her drives to radiation therapy, she tried to discover something new each day--fantastic cloud formations, the beautiful blue of the sky.

Rodale addresses the stress of life's experiences in the essay, "You Can Face the Sun." Among the ways she recommends to ease tension are:

* Visualize a box that you can put all your stress into. Then, imagine digging a deep hole and burying your box of stress.

* Clear your mind before going to bed. (Rodale's late husband Bob, who was killed in an automobile accident during a business trip to Moscow, used to keep a pencil and paper by the bed so he could jot down what he needed to remember for the next day. By doing this, he was able to relieve his mind and rest peacefully.)

* Meditate for 20 minutes each day. It can be as rejuvenating as an hour's nap.

* Take a warm bath while you listen to soft music.

* Reach out to your loved ones. Remember how soothing it was to be held by someone close when you were small? Reach out to touch one another with tenderness, and feel that warm quilt of relaxation surround you with love. Perhaps this is the most powerful stress reducer of all.

Each of the book's nine chapters is illustrated by a photo taken by Rodale's son Anthony. "They depict people from all over the world, because the message in this book is for all people," Rodale says.

"One of the great things I learned through writing," says Rodale, who also writes a monthly column for Prevention magazine, as well as a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune, "is the ability to find peace. I find it a blessing for me to heal when things go wrong."

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