Aug 24

Remembering our Elders

August 19, 2013
Dear Friends,
I’m looking out into a tangle of green leaves, the blue waters of Hammersley Inlet  glinting below, thinking how my former journalism professor Wilmott Ragsdale—who was known as Rags to all his friends— would have loved this view. (For those of you who have read The Pen and the Bell, you’ve  become acquainted with him!) Today would have been Rags’ 102nd birthday, and I’ve come down to Shelton, where he grew up, to be with my memories of him and see old friends on Harstene Island, where he had a cabin.

I’m fortunate to be staying at a lovely retreat center for women: Hypatia-in-the-Woodsa place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. Hypatia was the vision of Elspeth Pope, who I met through Rags, and who passed on earlier this year, but like Rags, whose spirit is ever present. I feel it in all the artistic touches here, the brass sign at the door: Peace to all who enter here, the bronze sculpture of a young girl, an Italian painted vase, a soft handwoven throw on the couch. Elspeth’s vision lives on, thanks to the board and a dedicated group of volunteers who are keeping the spirit of Hypatia alive.

One of my projects here is to put together a collection of Rags’ poems, which he wrote over many decades, but especially after he’d retired at 77 from his career as a journalist and beloved teacher. In the last two decades of his life—he passed away at 97— he climbed Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo, sailed to Antarctica, lived in Spain, and traveled to Mozambique.

I’m working on a preface and to do so, I’m re-reading some of the remembrances that were sent when he passed in 2009. Here’s one that resonates more with each passing year: “Because of Rags, we know we can live our years as elders delighting in life’s adventures, continuing to see the world with new eyes. That part of Rags will always be alive in us.” 

Like Rags, Elspeth lived fully, creating Hypatia-in-the-Woods after her husband passed away to provide women with space to honor their creative lives. The Holly House—named for her husband Jim Holly —is just a stone’s throw from her house, and for the many residents who’ve come here over the years, one of the highlights was sharing an evening glass of wine and good conversation with Elspeth.

I turn back to my words, filled with gratitude for our elders who remind us to live fully while we can. May their spirits always be alive in us…


Here’s an excerpt from a poem by Rags that he titled “Mindless” and which offers a great description of how mindfulness practice moves us into our senses:     

Traveling alone dislocates my mind.
This is how it goes at first; my mindfall rushes on:
salmon leaping one another, ideas splashing.
A shadow of exhaustion unfocuses my mind,
my eyes tire into slow time. Freed,
I live in the world again, senses only.

From the railroad window: green fields,
stone walls, a white, white house.
What I see totals my mind:
green, stones, roofs, clouds.  Perhaps a stream
passes like a quiet exclamation in a sentence of
pure description. All the senses locate…

Nothing exists but my steps, glints
from paving stones, tweedy texture of brick wall.
How valuable they are, for they are now, now.
Each glint, every rough texture,
motionless yellow light that slants
into the street. I remember nothing.
I am almost there.

Wilmott Ragsdale


Aug 15

The Direction of Kindness


Dear Friends,
I’ve just returned from my annual teaching gig at the MFA Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. This is where Holly and I met up so many years ago, the birthplace of The Pen and the Bell. 

It’s a stimulating 10 days of classes, readings, lectures, meals, conversations, music, hilarity, and inspiration. I always learn so much from both my colleagues and students, and I even did a little bit of writing! But my absolute favorite activities are the guided relaxations I lead in the few slots of “free time” I’m able to slice out of the busy schedule.

Only a few students make it each time. But in that 1/2 hour we pay attention to our breath and our bodies: those poor bodies that have spent hours sitting in hard chairs; those brains that are trying to take in so much; those spirits that are reaching outward almost continuously. We take these few moments to recognize the still center at the heart of it all, so that we can return to the fray refreshed.

As I’m leading these sessions, I return to myself as well. And this time, what kept coming to me was the necessity of calm compassion: for ourselves, for our tired brains, and for those around us. Calm compassion: even just the words help me settle down. And then I’m able to take in what I need to take in, and allow the rest to slide away.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this speech that has been going around the internet. It’s George Saunders’ advice to graduates:

“… to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

May we all be “graduates,” moving on to wherever we need to be ,and while doing so, aiming  “in the direction of kindness”: toward others, toward ourselves, and toward our writing.