Jul 31

Tomato Bliss


Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweet fern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end…”   —E.B. White, “Once More to the Lake”

Dear Friends,
Ah, summer.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve had more sun this July than I can remember in the thirty years I’ve lived here. Though the sunny days have meant vigilant watering of the garden, the tomatoes—which usually wait until September to ripen—are already blushing red, and I’m giddy with their delicate, distinctive scent, which is for me the true smell of summer.

This week, I’m re-reading my favorite writers, just to make sure I’m wringing every last drop out of summer before it vanishes. I still love reading my favorite passages from Ray Bradbury’s classic Dandelion Wine and E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.” Also, here’s a wonderful NPR interview with Verlyn Klinkenborg reading from his most recent book, More Scenes from the Rural Life. He talks with Susan Stamberg about the importance of trusting our own observations and perceptions.

Summer’s the time for living in our bodies, paying attention to all our senses.  What smells, tastes, sounds and sights signal summer for you?  Please send us yours. Please share your favorite summer writings, too.  Which writers do you re-read each summer?

Yours in ripe tomato bliss,

Jul 17

What the River Says


Dear Friends,

I’ve just returned from a week at the Fishtrap Writers Gathering on the shores of Wallowa Lake outside Joseph, Oregon. I’m too wound up to sleep, even though it’s 11 pm, and my husband John and I have just driven for nine hours in 90 degree temperatures with our dog, Fox, wrapped in wet towels, ice packs tucked under his belly to keep him cool.

The theme at Fishtrap this year was “Breaking Trail: Off the Beaten Path” and that’s exactly what it felt like, not just because of the long drive to Joseph and back, but for the rich discussions, inspiring readings by faculty and students, and, of course, the daily workshops.

I taught a workshop called “Poetry of Practice, Poetry of Witness” using some of our contemplative and writing practices from The Pen and the Bell. Each morning we’d gather in the living room of my 1950s era cabin, I’d ring the bell, and we’d sit together in silence before beginning our writing practice. Later, we did walking meditation together, ending up perched on logs and rocks along the river to continue our writing practice, the rush of the river a counterpoint to our words.


At the end of the week, we gathered one last time on the deck behind my cabin to share our writing.  I listened intently as each participant shared his or her words, describing the taste of a strawberry or a reflection it evoked—living close to the California strawberry fields, where the workers suffered health issues due to the pesticide use—or the loss of a mother who’d never been fully mourned, or the challenges of caregiving a spouse or father with dementia.

As each shared his or her words, I was struck by how many had, indeed, “broken trail” this week and how essential it is that we have opportunities to come together to support each other in this challenging work.

After packing up on Sunday, I walked down to the river to say farewell and was reminded of a favorite poem by William Stafford: “Ask Me.” Serendipitously, when we gathered in the lodge for the final closing, Ann Powers, the executive director of Fishtrap, announced that because 2014 is the William Stafford Centennial, the theme for next year will be “What the River Says,” from the last line in “Ask Me”: “What the river says, that is what I say.”

Kim Stafford, William Stafford’s son, who’s on the faculty and advisory board and was a co-founder of Fishtrap, told a beautiful story about that poem: A literary group was meeting in a Portland library to discuss plans for an event to honor Stafford’s work; this was a library where many homeless people spend their days. Kim recounted how one had asked what they were doing there, and when he mentioned William Stafford, the homeless person said, “Ask Me.” He knew the poem and proceeded to recite the first lines of it. This reminder of the power of words to build community seemed the perfect closing to our week together.

In the spirit of Fishtrap, I encourage you to find a group in your community that supports writing—and find out how you can help support them. Or consider attending Fishtrap next year or a writing conference in your community.  For a good list, check the Poets & Writers Guide to Writing Conferences.

 In the meantime, visit your local river and listen carefully to what it has to say, then write a poem in which the river speaks. If you don’t have a river nearby, remember a time you were in the presence of water and allow that water to whisper in your ear.

With gratitude to Fishtrap and my students this week,

Jul 09

“Without Hindrance…”


“We are the landscape of all we have seen.” -Isamu Noguchi

Dear Friends,
Holly and I have just returned from a marvelous visit to Portland, OR, where we led a lively workshop at the First Unitarian Church, gave a well-attended reading at St. John’s Booksellers, and returned to the church the next day for a casual reading/reception. It’s so wonderful to meet our readers!

Some of the audience at St. John's gamely writing about an early book they loved.

Some of the audience at St. John’s gamely writing about an early book they loved.

In between we had the chance to visit Portland’s world-class Japanese Garden, with my old friends Pat and Nancy. I’ve always loved Japanese gardens, and the way they use the space in-between plantings as much as the plantings themselves. As you stroll in a garden like this, you notice the way a certain maple is angled toward the sky, and how the light expands within its leaves. The gardeners are aware of all the perspectives by which something can be viewed—and, working with natural forces, they make each aspect beautiful.

We happened to be at the garden during an exhibition by acclaimed design artist Isamu Noguchi; his sculptures dotted the rock garden, while inside the hall we admired his elegant furniture and lamps. Large woven paper banners hung from the ceiling, printed with some of the artist’s most famous quotes. Holly and I both stopped at one that told us: “Everything is sculpture… Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.”

That’s it, we both said, nodding in agreement. That’s what art is all about. Allowing our ideas, our memories, our stories to emerge without hindrance into the world.

I know I create all kinds of hindrances that make the artistic process difficult; art, itself, does not concern itself with such things.  What kind of hindrances keep you from your writing? How can we lift them gently away, at least for a little while?

Perhaps you’d like to write this week about a garden you love, or a garden from your past, or your ideal garden, one that emerges “without hindrance” to offer beauty with no strings attached.

Wishing you mid-summer peace,