Dec 31

The Bell of the New Year

Dear Friends,
I was thinking about the phrase “ringing in the new year” and realized I’d never before  associated the transition with an actual bell (duh!) We here at The Pen and the Bell are naturally drawn to bell imagery, so I looked it up and found the beautiful joya no kane ceremony in Japan. There, on New Year’s Eve, monks and lay people ring the temple bell 108 times as a rite of purification. The bell literally “rings out” the old and creates space for whatever is new and good to arise in our lives.

This temple bell is large, and it takes some effort to strike it with the heavy wooden beam; people line up to take their turn. But it’s not a solemn event at all. People take joy in acknowledging and bidding farewell to what no longer serves them.

Tonight, I’ll have a gathering of friends, and I’ll serve Spanish tapas and cava. I’ll put Frank Sinatra and Ella Fizgerald on the iPod. We’ll play board games, and I’m sure we’ll laugh a lot. My own little bell will be on the shelf, and while I may not ring it 108 times tonight, I will be aware of the many ways I can let go of the old, cantankerous parts of the self in favor of the lighter, loving self who lurks there all along.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book called The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander. In it, they describe, through delightful stories and examples, how we can turn around “downward spiral” thinking and enter a “universe of possibility” instead. I highly recommend it as a way to recalibrate your New Year self.

I’ve also been reading the book Madness, Rack, and Honey, a collection of “reluctant lectures” that the poet Mary Ruefle has given over the years on the art of writing. It’s the kind of book to dip into again and again to gain both inspiration and insight. Here is my favorite passage so far:

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say’; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

May you hear the 108 bells reverberating, and let them guide you into a year of beautiful writing. Thank you for being here,

Dec 24

Night Light


Dear Friends,
On Solstice, my husband John and I headed into Seattle for our annual celebration with friends who’ve been gathering for more than 20 years now. As we headed across on the ferry, we watched the sun drop behind the Olympic Mountains behind us, the lights of Seattle glittering ahead, and I felt grateful for all the ways we celebrate the return of the light, somehow more welcome than ever this year.

Soon, we’ll once again gather in the living room of Anne and Cliff’s house in a circle, pass around the Solstice candle as we each share a poem, song or story. Some will share stories of a year of loss, others will pass out photographs of sunflowers, others will ask for healing for our beautiful and fragile earth.  We’ll cry, laugh and eat together, then send each other out into the night with homemade jams and other gifts, small ways we can carry the light. As my friend Marcia wrote to accompany her gift of a silver night light, “While the days remain dark, we provide light for one another.”

It’s not coincidence that all the religious traditions celebrate holidays now, the darkest time of year. As we celebrate within our own traditions, let’s remember all the ways we welcome the return of the light: whether walking in the sun, lighting candles, baking gingerbread topped with orange slices (my neighbor Mia’s ritual) or other rituals, other ways we find to bring light into the lives of those we love.

What are your Solstice rituals?  Do you have a favorite Solstice poem, song or story?  If so, please share it with us.

May your holidays be filled with light in a myriad of forms!  And in the flurry of it all, may we remember to allow silence and space for whatever feels sacred, whatever brings us deep peace.

With gratitude for you all, our dear readers and friends, for making this journey with us,



Dec 17

The Dark, The Light

Dear Friends,
Where Holly and I live, the winter solstice makes itself quite evident: in the last few days, it barely starts getting light before the light diminishes into early evening. And when it does get dark (about 4:00), the dark seems darker, somehow, though my friends laugh at me and tell me it’s my imagination. Perhaps. But perhaps the world does turn in on itself this time of year, and all peripheral sources of light grow dim.

It can be hard on us: those of us with delicate dispositions. We do what we can—turn on our “happy lights,” take our Vitamin D and B12, take brisk walks—but part of me always wants to embrace this darkness for what it is, to allow it fully into myself, burrow pathways through my fear.

Poetry is always a way to have a companion when we decide to lean into the dark. And perhaps this year, more than ever—in a week where we’ve been faced with a darkness deeper than any we can fathom—we can turn to poetry to help us also  remember glimmers of light. I’ve been receiving lots of poetry this week—from friends, colleagues, Facebook acquaintances—and I thought I’d share some of them with you, too.

From the site Gwarlingo, comes this poem by Janlori Goldman:

Winter Solstice

for Jean Valentine


O odd light
bring me the old season
that winter familiar
a slow sheathing of moon in shadow
as if sky were a gill
through which all things
flow in                 filter out
bring me a home with no right angles
a space of curling in
not too bright or sharp
and bring me the time before that
with the garden dark with broken-down
coffee grounds                 rows of flowering mustard greens
the smell of ripped roots fresh
from the pull
and then before that
to my round house a friend will come
or maybe the friend’s mother
I’ll say stay for dinner
she’ll say let me sew that button

From Being Poetry, Erin Hollowell shared this poem by Naomi Shahib Nye:

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye (from The Words Under the Words)


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

And from The Poetry Foundation, this “Winter Solstice Chant,” by Annie Finch:

Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
now you are uncurled and cover our eyes
with the edge of winter sky
leaning over us in icy stars.
Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
come with your seasons, your fullness, your end.

It’s been a tough week for all of us, dear friends. May we meet the darkness on its own terms, and yet find solace there as well.

With love, and remembrance for those who left us too soon,


Dec 02

What is Your Charlotte’s Web?

Dear Friends,
Today I was under the weather and couldn’t make it to our Elliot Bay Books reading in Seattle: a sad turn of affairs, but one that helped me practice accepting WHAT IS.

Holly, of course, did a marvelous job on her own. She did what we often do in bookstores: read from the chapter in Pen and the Bell about reading as a contemplative practice. In this chapter, we both recount our favorite books as children, but also the WAY we read as children: completely absorbed to the exclusion of all else.

In that chapter, I write about going back to re-read Charlotte’s Web , to see it through my adult eyes. And of course I find all kinds of new meanings in this simple tale of friendship, and the way E.B. White expresses a homey, down-to-earth mindfulness. At the end of the book we get this passage:

“Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”

I find that so wonderful, how this children’s tale teaches us to value the “glory of everything,” even the smell of manure and the nearness of rats.

Today, Holly had the audience try out one of our exercises from that chapter:

Write a scene of yourself reading your favorite book (or being read to) as a child. Why did you love this book? Why did you love reading? Choose one specific moment and try to suspend it in time. Where did you like to read? Describe this place as specifically as you can. Capture all the sensory details. What sounds or smells accompany you? Can you convey this as a contemplative or holy moment?

Whenever we do this exercise with a group, it’s always wonderful to hear what books people choose to remember, and how clearly they can evoke these intimate spaces where one could be in pure communion.

We invite you to try this exercise, too. Give yourself 15 minutes. See if you can discover something new about that book you loved as a child. Share it with us here!

Yours in the writing life,