The Pen & the Bell took to the road in the new year, driving east across the Cascade Mountains to teach a workshop at the newly formed Center for Creative and Healing Arts in Missoula, Montana.
At the Fishtrap writing conference last summer, I was waiting in line for lunch one day with Peggy, who mentioned she lives in Missoula. I love Missoula, I said. My sister lives in the Bitterroot Valley—and I love to get over to visit her, especially in the winter, when we can ski. She told me that she and her friend Candace were putting together a center for the creative arts, and perhaps I could come over and teach a Pen & Bell workshop? We exchanged emails, agreed to keep in touch.
We all have these conversations, right? And we’re filled with good intentions to follow up, but somehow, in the busy-ness of life, it never happens. But I emailed Peggy in the fall and we began talking dates. How about the long weekend in January? I proposed, and she agreed. So when the Martin Luther King, Jr holiday weekend came around, my husband John and I loaded our dog Fox into the Forester with our cross-country skis and headed east across the passes.
Candace picked me up Saturday morning and drove us to Fort Missoula, where the workshop was held at the Missoula Writing Collaborative: a wonderful program designed to get kids excited about writing. She plugged in her crock pot filled with soup, stashed the salads on the porch, and Peggy and I set up the room. When I rang the bell a half hour later, nine women ranging in age from 30 to 70 formed a semi-circle around me. For the next six hours, we sat, wrote, ate a delicious lunch, walked, stretched, and wrote some more, all in silence.
When the bell rang for the last time, we gathered in our semi-circle to share our respective day’s writing. As I listened to each offering, I was reminded again of the power of words and silence, how sitting, writing and walking together in silence had allowed each of us to reach deeper for what was needing to be voiced.
For example, Jen began with a description of a house at Fort Missoula—“the yellow house is afraid to open”—creating a moving extended metaphor of her own interior landscape. Kathy listened to pigeons and was inspired to reflect on the history of the Fort—did the soldiers hear the pigeons? Marian leaned against a cottonwood, prompting a reflection on trees and ending with “I know the cottonwood has my back.“
Peggy followed a set of frozen footprints across the field, writing “the ground still holds his passing,” a line that resonated with me, having learned the night before that my mentor Wilmott Ragsdale (Rags) had spent his last morning walking here before he passed five years ago. Candace wrote about Fort Missoula Road, how it held the memory of horse hooves, leading her to “a place I’ve never known.”
This is what we want our writing to do, isn’t it—lead us to places we’ve never known—or have forgotten that we know.
When we bowed after the last bell, we were bowing not just to each other, but to the power of the words we’d shared. May they continue to take root, flourish and grow.
Wishing all of us time in the new year to share silence and words,
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