"Books are the liberated spirits of men."
In Conversation With Margaret Wolff, Author of COMING HOME: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda
By Norm Goldman
Published March 2, 2021, BookPleasures.com
She has written 150+ blogs, stories, interviews, and essays for outlets ranging from Beliefnet to Yoga International to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series to the Collective Women’s Initiative and Feminist.com. She earned degrees in Art Therapy, Psychosynthesis, and Leadership Studies and uses her passions for storytelling and “conversations that matter” as catalysts that help others connect with their best instincts and chart the life they long to lead.
Norm: Good day Margaret and thanks for participating in our interview. You have authored over 21 books, what motivates you to write?
Margaret: I can’t not write! It’s as natural to me as breathing. Though I am an Art Therapist by training, I am a storyteller by birth. It’s a cellular thing.
I think in stories, it’s how I see the world, how I move though my days. Sometimes, I write about experiences, events, challenges that move me; something catches hold in my heart or mind and becomes the breadcrumbs I follow into a story. Sometimes, a first sentence just drops in my mind. Once I put it on paper, it takes off—as if it has a life of its own and was waiting for me to receive it.
Norm: How do you live with the way people interpret and analyze your books?
Margaret: Happily! I’m honored to tell the stories I’m telling. I love the adventure of watching where a story goes, who it reaches and how it is interpreted in light of the reader’s own life experience.
Once I’m done writing a book, I lose my attachment to it. It’s as if the book no longer “belongs” to me. I am a good steward of the idea and the process when I’m writing something, and I do what it takes to make the book available to readers, but once it’s published and out in the world, how others respond to it is not my responsibility.
Norm: How many times in your career have you experienced rejection? How did they shape you?
Margaret: Rejection is a part of a writer’s life. I try not to take it personally. Sometimes, a book may not be right for someone (particularly a publisher or an agent) because it is not their particular genre. But if someone doesn’t like the content of the piece, I use the criticism they give me to refine my work or myself.
Norm: What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your career?
Margaret: I never think about “success.” I think about the beauty of the work—whether it’s “true” and “good”—and how to best share it with others.
I’ve really enjoyed watching what others do with what I write, how it changes or inspires their own life. For example, IN SWEET COMPANY became the inspiration for a musical benefit concert, a class at Harvard, the format for a writing program in 3 women’s prisons, and was smuggled into Afghanistan during the Gulf War so it could be read by women struggling to find a way through the horrors of the war. I love that what I write makes a difference in people’s lives.
Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today?
Margaret: In 1997, I was in a serious car accident and ended up with a traumatic brain injury. I couldn’t string a sentence together to save my soul. I had to teach myself how to write all over again. Hopefully, I’ve done a good job with that!
Norm: What is the most challenging about writing?
Margaret: As I age, my mind and body are less able to sit at the computer for hours at a time.
Norm: Has a reader ever told you something about your books that surprised you?
Margaret: It’s surprising to me that readers frequently end up telling me personal stories about their own lives that somehow relate to themes in the book. It’s the kind of storytelling that occurs between close friends. I think this happens because once they read something I’ve written, they feel close to me and want to share a bit of their own lives with me in return.
Norm: If heaven really exists, what would you want God to say to you at the pearly gates?
Margaret: “Hi Darlin’! Good job down there!”
Norm: If you can relive a moment in your life, what moment would you choose and why?
Margaret: There are things from my past I would have done differently. And there are moments that are sacred. But what really interests me is what is to come. I love the adventure!
Norm: For the past two years we have witnessed a world-wide pandemic that will have long lasting ramifications. Has this ushered in an era of renewed yearning for something to believe in? If it has, how do you believe it shaped this new sense of spirituality?
Margaret: In a recent study by the Fetzer Institute, 86% of the respondents identify as “being spiritual,” 60% aspire to be more spiritual, and 50% have regular transcendent experiences. The clarion call sounded: To thrive, we must live at the hub of the wheel—careening ’round the rim will no longer do.
All of us have moments of connection to “Something More,” experiences of grace that we let pass us by.Do we continue to wait for circumstances outside ourselves to change or do we move to the hub of the wheel and harvest the life that is calling us as the storytellers in COMING HOME have done?
Norm: If someone was interested in embarking on a spiritual path, what suggestions do you have for him or her?
Margaret: Pay attention to what you are noticing within and around you; to what rouses your curiosity; to what “calls” your name.
Take conscious, responsible steps forward. Have your “yes” and have your “no.”
Be just a titch bolder than you’ve ever been before. It feels good to stretch yourself! Every worthwhile effort is noble. Ask questions of others—fellow travelers who are actually living a spiritual life you admire.
Watch for the light in their eyes, the peace in their hearts. Listen to their stories. Tell them your own.
Visit various churches and temples. Does the sermon move you? Do parishioners seem happy? Does the organization run smoothly? Do they respond to your questions? How do you feel when you are there?
Keep a journal to your Higher Self. Tell it everything. Everyone needs a buddy you can say anything to. Why not your soul? As you step into your future self, bring your past to what cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrian called “an honorable closure.”
Don’t run from your past; make peace with it. Withhold self-judgement, blame and guilt. Make whatever reparation is appropriate. Do your best, say thank you for the lessons and gifts your life has given you, then let go.
Seek until you find what you are looking for. Writer Anais Nin said, “And the time came when the risk it took to remain in a tightly closed bud became infinitely more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
Norm: How did you begin your own spiritual path and how did it lead to Yogananda?
Margaret: When my mother died in 1974, I began asking The Big Questions: What happens when we die? What is life all about? Who am I really?
A children’s book I wrote to untangle my mother’s death for my daughters was picked up by a prominent agent, then dropped out of the blue on the day I delivered the final manuscript. I was stunned. After I left her office, I had a strong pull to go to the American Bookseller Expo held that year, that week, at a hotel down the street. I walked the floor hoping to find a publisher for my book and at the end of the afternoon, found myself standing in Self-Realization Fellowship’s exhibit space starring at Yogananda’s face on the cover of AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A YOGI.
I read the AUTOBIOGRAPHY in two days and all my questions were answered. Signs and wonders ensued that convinced me I had “come home” spiritually, and I began practicing Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings. And do so to this day. It’s the best decision I ever made in my life.
Norm: How did you become involved with COMING HOME: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda? What criteria did you use in your choice of writers that have contributed to the book?
Margaret: COMING HOME is a book I felt compelled to write. One minute I wasn’t thinking about it at all, the next minute I was immersed in it.
I focused on telling the story of what it feels like to find the spiritual path that is yours to follow – the power and joy and adventure of that. I told that story through the lens of Self-Realization Fellowship because it is the path I know best. I knew I wanted to interview people of all ages, races and backgrounds, but I did not choose the storytellers, I recognized them as the right people to be in the book. It was a very intuitive process. They were the ones who ”belonged” to the book.
Norm: If someone can only buy one book this month, why should it be COMING HOME: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda?
Margaret: Every human being, whether they realize it or not, is waiting for the moment when they can finally say a resounding “Yes” to the Beauty inside them—to the Joy, the Peace, the Truth of who we really are.
No matter what your path is, no matter who you turn to for support, the “coming home experience” confirms that you are part of Something Greater, that you are cherished, that your life has been and can continue to be—come what may—meaningful.
The reawakening and reinstatement of your soul, that familiar Self you always knew was there but could not corroborate, is a profound and sacred validation of who you really are. As Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.” If this speaks to you, read the book!!
Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them? As a follow up, what purpose do you believe your collections of stories serve?
Margaret: People have been looking for answers to big questions since the beginning of time. COVID showed us that all the external things we thought answered those questions are transitory. We are a nation now examining “what matters most.” And we have begun to look inside ourselves for answers.
My intention was to present other options. The narratives in COMING HOME are not just stories, they are actual experiences of Divine Grace. They create order: build bridges of thought (synapses) within us and to new opportunities in the world. They create a joyful detachment that allows us to mythologize rather than catastrophize our challenges. They give us courage. They prove we are not alone in our sorrow. These are things we all need now.
Stories are richer than explanations. COMING HOME demonstrates that when we let our stories happen to us as the storytellers in the book did, we can grow into the “depth, and breadth and height our souls can reach.”
Grace can happen to anyone who sincerely wants to change their drifting into pilgrimage, their fear into confidence and calm, their questioning into the self-realization that finally satisfies the soul. Readers love the book, so it seems it hit the mark.
Norm: What is the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) and how does it help individuals search for God and find the divine potential that exists within every human being?
Margaret: Known as the "Father of Yoga in the West," Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) came to America to Boston in 1920 and spent the next 30 years bringing India’s ancient meditation techniques to thousands of seekers of all religions who—then as now—were searching for the true meaning of life and the means to live from one’s highest potential. Regarded as one of the preeminent spiritual figures of our time, Yogananda’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A YOGI is hailed as one of the 100 Best Spiritual Books of the Twentieth Century and continues to inspire millions of spiritual seekers around the world 70 years after his passing.
Yogananda’s work continues under the auspices of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF)—the non-profit, non-sectarian spiritual organization he created in 1920 “to disseminate among the nations a knowledge of definite scientific techniques for attaining direct personal experience of God.” (www.yogananda.org) Meditation is not just something SRF members just do twice a day, it’s a way of life, a way of looking at the world that empowers you, that gives you hope. Day by day, step by step, breath by breath SRF members still their minds and open their hearts to God. The deeper you go, the richer the harvest. Meditation is the adventure of a lifetime!
Norm: Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
Margaret: Thanks for asking. I always have ideas cooking. I’ll keep you posted.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Coming Home: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda?
Margaret: Please visit my WEBSITE
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, if you could invite three writers, dead or alive into your living room, who would they be and why?
Margaret: I’d have tea with Paramahansa Yogananda, with the Persian mystic and poet Hafiz, and with poet and philosopher David Whyte. I’d also invite YoYo Ma to play his cello. All for the joy of it.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors