Sep 15

“Half in Shade”: Writing from Family Photos


Dear friends,
My sisters and I are gathered around the coffee table, photographs fanned out like cards, awaiting placement in one of the untidy stacks. The photos are stacked by decade: some have deckled edges, some are Polaroids, and some are sepia-toned.  Here’s one from 1964:  I’m with my sister Missy, wearing my favorite blue hooded sweatshirt and holding a string of sunfish we caught, smiling proudly.

For the last four years—since our father passed away in 2009—we’ve gathered to visit and go through boxes of family photos together. When we cleared out our parents’ house—the same house we grew up in—we each took home a stack of boxes; now, we’re trying to winnow them down. This summer, we’re in St. Louis at my oldest sister Honore’s house in Richmond Heights, a lovely neighborhood of brick and stone houses, and streets lined with sweet gum and sycamore.

The first cut is easy: out go blurry images, landscapes, sunsets, endless photos of our dog. The next cut is harder: Do we throw out photos if we don’t recognize the people in them? For example, who are the people in this sepia-toned photo taken at the turn of the century? We see a baby in a dress, flanked by two stern-looking women. Judging by the date, we think it’s our grandfather, even though he’s wearing a dress; apparently, that was common at that time. But who are the women? His mother and her sister? Of course, we’ll keep it, even though we may never learn the names of those impassive faces. A good retirement project, we laugh, knowing it will likely be a few more years before any of us have time to research our family history.

Here’s where writing comes in:  we can use these photos as prompts. In my poetry class, I often ask students to bring in a family photo—and to write from that photo, letting the people in the photo speak—or write about what happens just before or after the photo was taken. Tacoma poet Allen Braden does this in “First Elk.”  (See below). And if we don’t know our family history, we can let our imagination fill in the gaps. Essayist Judith Kitchen is the master of this, and in her most recent book, Half in Shade: Family, Photography and Fate, she beautifully combines memoir and speculation to reflect on family and self, certainty and uncertainty.

This fall, dust off one of those boxes of family photos in the garage or basement and go through them. Take out a few photos that have especially compelling images and use them as seeds for writing. Let the photo trigger memories or your imagination; make up a story if you don’t know the people in the photo. Write a poem if you do. Perhaps a story will emerge that you can follow into fall. We hope you’ll share what you write with us, too.

Warm wishes as we head into fall,

img020First Elk, 1939

There’s Al Knoll and O. L. Hesner next to the carcass,
my father at eighteen and Uncle Tillman farther off.
Julian Sommers too, out of place in a raccoon coat
more accurate for downtown’s Post Alley
than somewhere above Devil’s Table in the Cascades.
This bull elk they bugled into range then fixed to the hood
of a Model A coupe was what the camera’s lens
had brought into focus and kept whole for over sixty years:
the seven point rack not yet hacksawed off
to adorn the bunkhouse back home in the valley;
the four quarters, the haunches and shoulders, not yet stripped,
soaked in a barrel of brine and cured for winter;
the prized teeth not yet gentled out of the jawbone
to pretty the watch chain of any pinstriped Mason.
Some, my father says, seem meant for slaughter,
for nothing but a slug in the head and a throat slit
to drain gallons of blood from the ready meat.
The occasion scrawled upon the picture frame is certain.
Otherwise the war would have revised the scene:
Tillman and Hesner on tour in the South Pacific,
uncertain whether only they were meant for beaches
strewn with shrapnel, wreckage and billowing smoke.
My father is, after all, no bigger than my thumb,
no more noteworthy than any of the others
except the camera captured the likeness,
for a moment, of the man he would become.

~Allen Braden


Sep 05

Sweet Melancholy


Dear Friends,
L’Shanah Tovah! The Jewish New Year holiday began last night (it kind of snuck up on me this year.) I went to my yin yoga class, where we stretched deep to our edge, while our teacher, Michal, encouraged our hearts to be light. She spoke of garnering our resources, our sources of confidence and strength. I instinctually touched my hand to my heart, in the position of avowal, and set an intention to be fully engaged with my life this year.

This intention, or “New Year’s resolution,” arose naturally, because I’ve been feeling a bit disengaged the last few days. It’s been difficult to fully focus or immerse myself deeply in any project. It could be the transition from summer to fall, the lingering regrets at all I could have done (of course, such a perspective is completely unhelpful!). I’m not quite ready to enter a new rhythm.

Or it could be that my 13-year-old cat, Madrona, is very ill and doesn’t have much time left with me; she was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer two months ago. I watch her grow thinner, but at the same time her spirit seems to grow wide.

Madrona at 6 months old, "helping" me write.

Madrona at 6 months old, “helping” me write.


Madrona 13 years later, contemplating transience.

She wants to be cuddled now more than she ever did (she was always a rather feisty and standoffish cat). We spend a lot of time together on the coach or in bed: she lies on my chest and stares into my eyes, purrs so deep and so loud it rumbles through my own body. When I pet her, I can feel every vertebra and rib. Yet she eats lustily, and enjoys sitting on the deck, in the shade, tail twitching, swatting at the occasional dragonfly. I trust that she will let me know when it’s time to go.

I suppose what I’m feeling is sweet melancholy, a state that is neither joyous nor sad, but somewhere in between. In this between-ness, I drift and settle. It’s a gift, in its own way, bringing with it watchfulness and gratitude.

For the New Year, I’ll be making a saffron-honey chicken for five of my dearest friends. We’ll eat the round challah that symbolizes the spiraling of the year; with each turn comes the potential for change. We’ll eat honey and apples to ensure sweetness to our days. I’ll read to them this quote from Kate Christensen’s memoir Blue Plate Special:

“To taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to complexities and truths—good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in; there can be no hiding or sublimation when you’re chewing a mouthful of food so good it makes you swoon.”

May we all live fully in this moment, whatever it holds.
With love for a sweet new year,

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.

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,

Jun 16

Summer Draws Near

Dear Friends,
Here in the Northwest, summer draws near softly: sometimes whispering with rain, at other times beaming with pleasure. Winds ruffle the chimes. For me, it becomes a little easier to stop during my daily wanderings and just listen, or look, or breathe. The sky keeps changing, and I feel myself changing too, shucking off a little the “to do” mindset in favor of a more spacious perspective.

And yet, of course, a different kind of “to do” sidles in: the “to do” of writing, of art. If I let it, this artistic “to do” will become just as onerous and stressful as the challenges of my workday life. There are so many “shoulds” that get in the way. The added challenge for us Northwesterners is that when the weather is nice, the pull to be outdoors is strong, strong, strong: an urge that can be the opposite of what’s needed to hunker down and write.

So, it was with great pleasure and relief that I received Midge Raymond’s summer newsletter from her website Remembering EnglishAs soon as I saw the subtitle, “How to Keep Writing Even When the Weather is Too Nice For Writing,” I was able to take a deep breath and say Hallelujah! Here is the tip that made me relax:

Aim to write for just 15 minutes a day. The idea here is that this is a commitment that’s too short to stress about, but just enough to get a little bit done, and it usually ends up being more than you think; I now aim for 30 minutes a day (if not even more). Granted, there are always a few things that don’t get done if the writing goes long, but it’s usually worth it! 

Midge also provides weekly writing prompts; here are her first summer prompts:

  • Describe the first time you saw the ocean.
  • Write for one minute about each of the following: firefly, watermelon, lake, sand, ice.
  • Describe your first sunburn.
  • Write about a summer night.
  • Describe your favorite summer food/drink.

Also, check out our Events and News page, for all the latest doings of The Pen and The Bell.
Here’s hoping your summer is both relaxing and fruitful,

Jun 02

And the winner is……


Dear Friends,
Thank you so much for all your lovely anniversary wishes. It’s so nice to hear from you.

And the winner of a free copy of The Pen and the Bell, chosen by a random number generator, is…..

GAIL VERSCHOOR!  (Gail, you can contact us via the contact form to give us your mailing address.)

In other news, The Pen and the Bell is hitting the road again and will be in Portland, OR, June 29-30.

  • We’ll be starting with a 2 1/2 hour workshop at the Portland First Unitarian Church, Saturday, June 29, 9:30-12.  In this workshop, we’ll be leading you in some simple contemplative practices and writing prompts to get you started on fruitful new work. $25 for church members; $35 for others. Details here.
  • Saturday night, at 7:30 p.m., we’ll be giving a reading at St. John’s Booksellers, 8622 N. Lombard St., Portland, OR 97203, 503-283-0032. We’ll share our writing from the book, as well as lead you in a simple writing exercise.
  • Sunday morning, June 30, we’ll be back at the Unitarian Church for a free reading and reception (with refreshments!) from 11:30-12:30.

Hope to see you in one way or another!  And as we enter the summer traveling season, here’s a wonderful quote I received from Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project:

 “After all, a vacation is not a matter of place or time. We can take a wonderful vacation in spirit, even though we are obliged to stay at home, if we will only drop our burdens from our minds for a while. But no amount of travel will give us rest and recreation if we carry our work and worries with us.” –Laura Ingalls Wilder

Happy trails,
Brenda and Holly

May 22

Your Brain on the Internet


Hi everyone,
I just had to share this video that I came across while (you guessed it) mindlessly surfing the internet. It’s a hilarious and wickedly insightful view into what happens to our brains in this distracted world. It’s based on the wonderful work of Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, and I love the way he concludes that Attention is the Key. Enjoy!

P.S.: And remember to leave a comment on last week’s post for a chance to win a FREE COPY of The Pen and the Bell!