Nov 20

Grateful for YOU

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Dear Readers,
As blustery fall weather sweeps through the Northwest—and brings with it those long dark hours—we are remembering, with gratitude, our journey in writing The Pen and the Bell. The letters we wrote to one another became “a light in the darkness” for us and, we hope, for you.

We also have some good news we want to share! Holly received the prestigious Before Columbus American Book Award for her latest collection of poems, Passings. And Brenda received the 2017 Washington State Book Award in Memoir for her latest book An Earlier Life.

Passings-trade-cover-2-Expedition-Hughes-768x960             Front cover thumbnail for web or screen 2 inch

We’re both so grateful, not only to have our work recognized, but to know that our words have reached and touched others.

And we are always grateful for you, our first readers of The Pen and the Bell. If it’s been a while since you used the book, perhaps consider revisiting it for the holiday season, reviving a contemplative or writing practice—solo or with others. Or consider giving the book as a gift for those who struggle to find time for their own creativity in the midst of everyday life.

With love and light,

Brenda and Holly

 

 

Sep 23

Embracing the Equinox: #DarkAndLight

 

P1040027.JPGP1000151.JPGdark&lightAfter the hottest summer we can remember in the Northwest, this year’s shift into fall is abrupt, a door slamming shut. Not the lingering, slow slide into fall of years past. Clouds moved in and took up residence. Temperatures dropped. Only then did I notice that the light had been slipping away all along. Gone the late afternoon swims followed by harvesting tomatoes for salad.   Gone the lingering evenings over dinner on the deck. Hello fleece, oatmeal, ginger tea.

Once again the earth reminds us of change, impermanence. The last few weeks have brought a litany of natural disasters: Hurricane Harvey drenched Texas, Hurricane Irma slammed Florida; a devastating earthquake in Oaxaca, and yet another in Mexico City. More tragedies than we can take in, much less bear.

Several mornings ago, I turned on NPR, braced myself to hear about the children buried under the rubble, how many had died. But the commentator told us also of how the people responded, rushing into the rubble with buckets, forming human chains to rescue those still alive. With each tragedy, the darkness has been leavened by these acts of courage, of neighbors and communities pulling together. As one hurricane survivor noted, “FEMA won’t be here for weeks; we need to help each other now.”

Earlier this week I heard Kate de Gutes, friend and fellow alum from the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program, read from her book that’s just been released from Two Sylvias Press: The Authenticity Experiment: Lessons from the Best and Worst Year of My Life. This collection came out of a blog Kate began as a 30-day challenge to be more authentic on social media. Inspired by a question poet Fleda Brown posted when she returned to Facebook after time off, asking her community how they felt “when they see nothing but curated posts full of pictures of risotto, fantastic family vacations, and lots of ‘Hail, fellow, well met!’” status updates, Kate thought “Yeah, we don’t like to talk about our dark on social media, do we. In fact, you could argue that we don’t like to talk about our dark at all. . . . Fleda made me wonder if I could tell the truth—the whole truth—on social media for thirty days.” Kate did just that, ending each short essay with #DarkAndLight, “because I hoped they showed the duality—the both/and, the dark/light—of life.”

As it turned out, the dark/light of life for Kate ended up being the death of her mother, her best friend, and her mentor, who all died within 10 months of each other. Even so, she found not only that it was possible to write the truth, but that others appreciated it. Not surprisingly, if you know Kate’s writing, she soon had a following on her blog, then a book contract with Two Sylvias Press.

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Fall dredges up bittersweet emotions, and this fall, with so much turmoil in the world, the emotional chaos promises to be even greater. As we head into fall in uncertain times, let’s remember what equinox promises: with darkness comes light; with light comes darkness. They’re inexorably linked, a Mobius strip.

So, as the days grow shorter, make it a practice to be grateful for the glimmers of light, wherever you find them, whether the blazing corona of the eclipse or a stray act of kindness. Equally, as you’re sharing what’s going on in your life—in whatever form that takes—remember the power of authenticity; remember to share the darkness that tempers the light and connects us all. Just as Kate rose to the challenge, so, too, can you.

Yours in dark and light,

Holly

Jan 21

Singing in the Dark Times

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Ring the bells that still can ring.                       Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
                 -Leonard Cohen  

Jan. 20, 2017

Dear friends,

For the past two months, I’ve been silent here and on the page, a response I try to accept, though wish it were different. I wish I could post a wise or upbeat message for the new year, but not this year, not this month, not this week, and certainly not this day.

My heart is a shard, words creep at glacial speed from my pen. What do I do when this happens? I turn to nature, art, and poetry—and am grateful for all those who are able to write, to keep creating in the dark times when we need art most. I’m reminded of the line from Bertolt Brecht: “In the darkness will there also be singing? Yes, about the dark times.” Because I’m not yet able to sing or write about the dark times I fear may be ahead, I reflect on what sustains me:

  • The earth, which reminds us of resilience even as we elect leaders who will test her: the apple that held fast to its branch through fall storms; the owl that appeared out of the dark night, spreading her great wings before she hit the windshield, rising just in time.
  • The courage of friends–Morgaine can’t march, but has knit pink hats for eight women who are marching in Washington DC or Seattle tomorrow:   https://www.womensmarch.com/sisters/
  • The optimism of strangers: the man on the beach in Cayucos who spent a sunny afternoon drawing mandalas in the sand, knowing the next tide would erase them.

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer reminds me why I need to keep trying to articulate what I feel, even when it’s so deeply painful: “Our lives are filled with contradictions—from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior, to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions. 

If we fail to hold them creatively, these contradictions will shut us down and take us out of the action. 

But when we allow their tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others. We are imperfect and broken beings who inhabit an imperfect and broken world. The genius of the human heart lies in its capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, and new life.”

I’ll close with the last two stanzas of a  poem by Lisel Mueller that was shared on the Panhala listserve—with gratitude to Joe Riley for curating this site. (To subscribe to Panhala, send a blank email to Panhala-subscribe@yahoogroups.com)

cold dark forest

Hope

It is the singular gift

we cannot destroy in ourselves,

the argument that refutes death,

the genius that invents the future,

all we know of God.

It is the serum which makes us swear

not to betray one another;

it is in this poem, trying to speak.

~ Lisel Mueller ~

If you haven’t been able to write, reflect on what sustains you. March, take walks, find poems, songs, websites, or other resources to lift your spirits when the words won’t come. Allow yourself to choose the response that suits your spirit.  Let hope be your words, trying to speak.

In solidarity as we make our way together,

Holly

PS. Couldn’t post this yesterday–we’re on the road up the coast–so am posting it the day of the March, which seems fitting. Will be joining the March in Florence, Oregon…

Oct 10

Back to School Musings

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Dear friends,

I don’t know about you, but here September whizzed past!  I enjoyed a quick trip back to Minnesota over Labor Day for a reading from Passings at Magers & Quinn, where I was serendipitously paired up with BJ Hollars, author of Flock Together: My Love Affair with Extinct Birds, which is due out this winter. While in Minneapolis, I had coffee with Eric Lorberer, the editor of Rain Taxi, who handed me the hot-off-the press fall issue with a fine interview about Passings by poet Mike Dillon. The Fall 2016 issue should still be on the newsstand—check it out!

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Then home for a few chilly late summer swims, a few brisk hikes as leaves began to drift down, and the ritual of getting classes ready for fall quarter and my LAST quarter of classroom teaching. Of course I’ll keep teaching online and at conferences and workshops, but will phase out of teaching at the community college after close to 30 years so I can spend more time writing and teaching writing/mindfulness workshops. Let me know if you know of a good place to offer one!

So I’ve been reflecting, once again, on teaching, and teachers. Brenda and I have both written about teachers that have shaped our writing lives, so I was delighted to read fellow poet/writer Priscilla Long’s moving piece in The American Scholar on her first poetry teacher, Harold Bond and wanted to share it with you: “Becoming a Poet”

Speaking of Priscilla, it’s also worth noting—for those of you in the Seattle-area—that Priscilla’s celebrating the launch of TWO new books: Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators and Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?  on Saturday Oct. 15 at 7 pm at Elliot Bay Book Company.  I hope to see you there…

In the meantime, whether you’re back in school this fall, or just remembering the ritual of returning to school, the pleasures of shopping for that spiral notebook and a box of #2 Ticonderoga pencils, take a few minutes this week to reflect on a teacher that made a difference in your life. Or just have fun writing about those pencils—and that queasy mash-up of anticipation and dread that comes with returning to school each fall…

Yours, back at the chalkboard/whiteboard/media screen yet again,

Holly

 

Jul 18

On Resilience: Lessons from an Apple Tree

 

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Dear friends,

The morning I woke to the news of the tragedy in Nice on Bastille Day. I couldn’t even read the paper. The headlines the last weeks have left me dispirited, overwhelmed, as violence seems as commonplace as my morning cup of tea. Instead, I walked down to water our old apple tree that last week we thought was gone, to sit under its leafy green canopy where miraculously, transparent apples are still ripening.

Two weeks ago, we walked down to the orchard and found the tree toppled over, the weight of its abundance more than its roots could support after a week of rain. We’d been meaning to prune it, but kept putting it off until we had more time, could consult an expert, yadda, yadda yadda. You know the excuses. When we moved into this house almost ten years ago, we were looking forward to learning to tend our small orchard, but the full-throttle nature of our lives has meant that mostly, we’ve learned to look forward to the bountiful harvest of apples for baking, slicing them up to freeze for pies and applesauce since they don’t keep well.

Of course we tried to right the tree, enlisting the help of our neighbor, Jeromy, with slings, pulleys, and come-a-longs, but it only swiveled. Fearing we were damaging the roots, we stopped. I called the Jefferson County extension agent. They sent helpful handouts and suggested pruning the canopy but waiting to move it until after the apples ripened. We had a plan.

I made evening visits to the apple tree to water and sit with it, where a Douglas squirrel chattered away, lecturing me, I imagined, and a thrush called from a tall cedar. When we trimmed it, we’d found a nest hidden in its branches, though any birds had long since fledged, thankfully. Still, it was obviously a home for many species and they were all trying to adapt to its new configuration. Raccoons and deer were obviously visiting at night, delighted to find apples within easy reach.

Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer. I called the TreeGuys, who’d been out to clear a storm-downed maple in the fall. The owner, Drew, came out to check it out.   Yea, we can get it up, he promised, eyeing the tall cedars that circled the orchard.   He had a team of guys, They’d all worked the woods, logging. No problem. He walked over to the tree, pointed out how the leaves were still turning to the sun. That’s a good sign, he said. She’ll make it. They’d be here 9 am Monday morning.

Sure enough, they pulled up our driveway with a bark chipper and set to work, rigging lines to the tall cedars to support the tree, clipping branches to lighten the canopy. Finally, two of them crouched beneath the trunk and pushed it to an upright position as the other two tightened the lines that supported it. I held my breath, turned away so they couldn’t see the tears streaming down my face, let out a long sigh. They fed the branches into the chipper, piled the chips around the base of the tree, along with all the windfall apples—and posed for a few photos. Then, with a roar of diesel, they were gone.

after                       TreeGuys

I still go down to water the apple tree each evening and have become increasingly grateful for this quiet time during these last turbulent weeks. So little I can do about the violence, but I can tend my own garden, pay attention, and listen to the apple tree. In being reminded so graphically that yes, I DO need to prune the apple tree, I’m reminded of all the clutter I let accumulate on my desk, my inbox, my mind. I see more clearly now the value of clearing out the old to make way for new growth. I’m grateful for the apple tree’s forbearance, for carrying on despite my benign neglect, for reminding me what it means to be resilient. May we all find reminders of resilience in our own lives; sometimes they’re right in our own backyards.

This week, allow yourself a brief news fast. No newspaper, no radio, no Facebook feeds. It doesn’t need to be long—maybe just a day—but enough to find a quiet place where you can notice what you may have been neglecting in your outer landscape. Then write about that: what lessons does it have for you?   How are you reminded of resilience? How can you nurture resilience within yourself to weather whatever lies ahead?

As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “Restoring balance to ourselves, we can begin the work of restoring balance to the Earth. There is no difference between concern for the planet and concern for ourselves and our own well-being. There is no difference between healing the planet and healing ourselves.”

Yours, happily under the apple tree,

Holly

Apr 01

An Earlier Life

Front cover FULL for web or screenDear Friends,
It’s a lovely spring day here in Bellingham, and I’ve just returned from a 10-day writing retreat on San Juan Island (10 days seems just about the right length for me these days for anything: retreat, vacation, exercise plan….) Before I left, I had the great pleasure of seeing my latest collection of lyric essays be “born” into the world; it’s called An Earlier Life, and the book has been released by Judith Kitchen’s Ovenbird Books. I made a book trailer video that you can watch here.

Making a book trailer was an interesting experience. I needed to think about the visual and aural tones I felt would represent the book most accurately. I had to choose a small essay that would give viewers a taste of the book as a whole. I spent hours searching for images, video clips, and music, then more hours at my computer, with iMovie, fitting all the pieces together.

Though this was highly technical work, I found it to be some of the most contemplative, and focused, work I’ve ever done! Hours would go by as I worked to create satisfying transitions or to match the soundtrack, voice-over, and images exactly. I honed in on the smallest details.

This process also allowed me to see my work in, literally, new dimensions. The writing came alive in a way that could never be achieved on the page alone.

I highly recommend that you try it, just for fun. Take an already existing poem or short essay (or an excerpt from a longer work) and allow images to come to my mind. Sketch out a “storyboard”: what images would go with which words? How would you transition between them? You can start by using still images (your own or copyright free images you seek out online) in a collage-type slide show, and/or look for stock video clips or create your own video footage. (For this video, I bought the video clips, because they were so perfect.) Find copyright free music online. You can use iMovie, or any video editing program; the learning curve is a little steep, but once you get it, you have a new artistic process at your fingertips!

Passings-trade-cover-2-Expedition-Hughes-768x960Holly also has good news: She is celebrating the fledging of Passingsher letter-press chapbook about 15 extinct birds, with several readings in the Puget Sound region during April, National Poetry Month. Check out the events page to see what Holly and I are up to.

We wish you a renewing and invigorating spring season.

With love,
Brenda

Dec 22

Solstice Greetings

imgres   Dear friends,

In the Northwest, the winter solstice brings rain, though I’m heartened to hear that the rain is falling as snow in the mountains, that already we’ve exceeded last year’s total snow pack. The last few days have been full of gatherings with friends as we instinctively turn to our communities to help sustain us through these days of waning light.

Last Friday night, we gathered with friends in Seattle, a gathering that has taken place now for 34 years. We missed it last year, so were especially glad to pass the solstice candle around the circle and reflect on the significance of the return of the light. For me, gratitude was uppermost in my mind, having just received good news on a medical test. After leaving the hospital, we’d stopped at Elliot Bay Books to celebrate and I bought Oliver Sack’s latest collection of essays, Gratitude, which he’d written in the months leading up to his death.  41XOGMgVe9L._AA160_

I opened to this passage, which I shared at the gathering: “… My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have given much and I have been given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

Later that night, we were just a block from home when we saw the owl standing on the side of the road. We slowed down to get a closer look. The owl didn’t fly; in fact, its round eyes peered right back at us from within concentric circles of soft down.  Finally, it lifted its great wings and flew off into the darkness. I felt blessed by this glimpse of wildness so close to home, blessed by this reminder of the wild world I love. That glimpse of the owl reminds me of two other books I want to share with you:

51XNo09q7UL._AC_UL115_Tony Angell’s The House of Owls is a beautiful depiction of an artist/naturalist’s fascination with owls as he observed over a period of twenty-five years a family of screech owls near his home in Seattle.

61qZEur6gOL._AA160_Lorraine Anderson’s new collection  Earth & Eros brings together many favorite poems and prose about the earth with beautiful, haunting photographs by Bruce Hodge to celebrate the erotic nature of our relationship with the earth.  

Lorraine just sent a blog describing December’s invitation to rest so beautifully that I’d like to pass along the link to it:  http://earth-and-eros.blogspot.com

This solstice, reflect on December’s invitation to rest deeply, and commit to doing so, even in the midst of the holidays. Take this opportunity to reflect on the balance you need in your life, whether by reading what others have written or exploring your own thoughts in writing as, together, we tilt back toward the light,

Yours in gratitude as we welcome the return of the light,

Holly

Nov 01

Being Mortal

 

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Dear friends,

Earlier this year, I turned 60. I didn’t mark the day much, other than a long soak at a lovely spa in Port Townsend—a gift from my three sisters. But the year is being marked in other ways as each month brings reminders that yes, I’m getting older, that this gift of health we’re given is indeed fleeting.

This summer a beloved writing mentor was diagnosed with breast cancer, though she is doing well as we all send her our prayers and hold her close in our hearts. A week ago, another Alaska friend and writer who I greatly admire, whose honest, eloquent posts I’ve followed closely on Caring Bridge, made the hard decision to stop treatment for breast cancer. I’ve been weeping ever since, sometimes in sorrow, sometimes in frustration at the unfairness of life, always in admiration of her strength and courage, and I’m still weeping as I write this.

In the meantime, I’ve been undergoing tests for my own health issue—not cancer and nothing conclusive—and so for the past three months I’ve been dancing with uncertainty. Of course, I’ve been writing, but not much I’m ready to share; and, of course, I’ve been reading. What’s been sustaining me this fall is Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. I’ve not yet finished it, but even half-way through, I’m reassured by his refreshingly honest tone and courage in addressing end-of-life issues that doctors so often avoid. So I wanted to share it with you, dear readers, along with a few other writings that give me hope and are reminders that as we each inevitably encounter our own mortality—in whatever form that takes—writing can be a valuable companion.

Some of you may have been following the writing of Suleika Jaquad “Life, Interrupted” in The New York Times. She was diagnosed with leukemia in her early 20s and turned to writing to help get her through, beginning by promising herself that she’d keep a journal for 100 days. That lead to another 100 days, and another 100 days, and four years later her cancer is in remission and she’s beginning a 100 Day Healing Road trip.

Closer to home, Beverly Faxon, a friend and colleague at Edmonds Community College,  just sent me this short essay, describing her recent journey through uncertainty. She’s the one who told me to read Being Mortal. I enjoyed her essay so much I asked if I could share it with you, too, and she graciously agreed, so here it is, below:

I was driving to some follow-up medical tests, the kind that can lead to another set of follow-up medical tests, and then a procedure, and then, sometimes, a long tunnel of feeling like your life has been derailed, when it has really been re-railed, and you’re not used to the new train. Or, they lead to a smile, and an open door, through which you can step out, and the sun suddenly seems quite bright, and you have an urge for a cookie, or a new pair of earrings, or something else you can buy to celebrate the feeling that you get to step right up onto your regular train.

But I wanted to short circuit all that before I even got to the tests, to be willing to just appreciate, to see whatever was in front of me. I’d been listening to the book, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande on tape. It is about our approach to the end of life, through terminal illness or aging, and how our reluctance to acknowledge our mortality often leads to choices that cause more suffering rather than more life.

So . . . sitting in my car at a red light, I opened my eyes and really drank in the soft mist rising off the burgundy roof of the car ahead of me—it reminded me of the mist on my own farm field, earlier that morning. Just rising clean, and September-silver in small swirls. And then the picture shifted, and I saw the driver’s arm out the window, and I realized that the mist was cigarette smoke drifting up and over the car. So, of course, my perception shifted, too, and for a moment, it wasn’t beautiful or clean or fall-felt anymore. Yet, as I watched I could see that the smoke was as beautiful as the mist had been, maybe more so, because it was more intricate in its twists and twirls, and I felt confused, but also entertained by this challenge to my appreciation.

At the doctor’s, I had a test, and was told with a smile that all was well, and I could go home. I stepped out lightly into the sunshine, and considered a cookie or earrings. I decided I really needed neither, but I’d like some office supplies. I drove for five minutes, and then got a call on my cell phone, asking me to come back. They had changed their minds and wanted to do another test just to be sure. It was still sunny outside, but not as light. So I drove back, unsure about whether I was railed, de-railed, or re-railed. I waited, then had another test. And it was just fine, and I headed out the door into the sun again, but decided I didn’t need the office supplies.

In the car, I reached the end of my book on tape, and the narrator’s voice came on clear and bright, saying, “We hope you’ve enjoyed being mortal.”

I kept rewinding that part, playing the sentence back again and again.

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This morning, the fall winds blow the last of the shimmering leaves off the poplar trees as we head deeper into fall, the time of transition. We need only to look out the window to be reminded that this cycle of life is all part of the natural order. Today, take a few minutes to reflect on the transitions fall brings. Even better, take a walk outside and mindfully kick a few leaves to fully get in the spirit.  Then write down what that felt like, letting the description of fall carry you into your inner landscape and the changes you’re sensing may be ahead.   Whatever you encounter in the months ahead, know that mindfulness and writing will be good companions if you, too, are navigating the waters of uncertainty.

Yours in being mortal,

Holly

 

Jun 24

In Memoriam—Pesha Gertler

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Dear Friends,
I want to tell you about a class I took over thirty years ago. I’d like you to see about twenty women finding their seats, and at the front of the room, the teacher, Pesha Gertler, resplendent in her layers of flowing clothes, writing a quote on the board. That board will hold many such quotes in the years to come, as I take this class over and over: Self Discovery for Women Through Creative Writing, at a local community college. College didn’t quite work out for me, so here I am, in my late twenties, searching for something, not sure what. The tables have been arranged in a large rectangle, all of us finding our seats, facing one another, ready for anything.

I must have attended the course in many different seasons, but I always remember it as winter, driving out to North Seattle Community College on the dark and damp streets after a day working in an office for an Italian espresso company. I answered phones and typed up invoices on an old electric Remington, flirted with the salesmen and the vendors, made coffee for prospective customers. It wasn’t a demanding job, and in the intervals, I typed out stories of my own on that rackety typewriter, using wite-out to correct my many mistakes.

I came home to an old house I shared with three strangers, and my room populated with only a twin bed and a writing desk that faced a window looking out on Green Lake. I think about that person now, a young woman who has gone through five years of college, graduated, worked for four years at a hippy resort in California, then drifted her way to Seattle. A young woman who backpacks by herself nearly every weekend in the summer, a young woman who somehow keeps finding herself drawn back to writing but not really knowing how.

So this young woman drives every week to North Seattle to enter this classroom, which is transformed by Pesha’s intention, her flowing clothes, and soft-spoken voice, slightly accented like the voices of my grandmothers. When all of us arrive we know we’re entering what can only be described as sacred space, which means we leave the work-a-day world behind. We read a poem together, then write, just write, for an hour in silence, following whatever prompt Pesha has given us for the night.

I wish I could remember some of those prompts and poems now, but it wasn’t the trigger that was important. We went with it, all of us shedding our skins, writing deep, then sharing. I remember sharing something I wrote about my grandmother; I hear myself reading a line I don’t remember writing, though it was just a moment ago: “….as if her hands held a warding touch and would keep me safe forever.” The words ring in the silence, and I know I’ve stumbled onto something here: authentic voice. A voice that has burrowed out of the litter and understands the power of rhythm and cadence and image.

Sometimes the class was hard. Sometimes it was difficult and uncomfortable (so much so that one evening, when my anxiety emerged full force, I actually crawled under the table to get away and out the door; Pesha looked at me bemused above her reading spectacles, just nodding, knowing we all had to do what we had to do), but most often I was able to stay in that room, to keep the pen moving for an hour.

It was the first time I felt the solid connection between pen and paper, hand and mind. How this process of simply writing—without judgment and in the company of others—opens some hidden chamber, a place undamaged by time. A place like a cave in an Indiana Jones movie, glistening with treasure. A place that takes some ingenuity and perseverance to find: sneaking past marauders determined to foil you, swinging from vines, jumping into miner’s ore carts and careening down the tracks….

This is what Pesha taught us, silently, as she did her own writing with us, glasses at the end of her nose, hair big and curly around her face. She taught us the pathways to take that would lead us into these hallowed spaces and back out again. I’ve learned, since then, that nothing else really matters—not a skill with syntax or imagery, not an expansive vocabulary—if you haven’t found a way, and continue to find your way, to the source. You need to hear your authentic voice calling out to you from underground. And 30 years later, I find myself doing the same kind of work with my women writer friends, always returning to this elemental practice.

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A couple of weeks ago, Pesha died at the age of 81, and the news brought me back to those days when a young woman didn’t know what answers she wanted to find, only that she was one big question mark walking through the world. She was a question sitting at her desk, gazing out the window, wondering where she must go next.

Think about your own teachers, the ones who showed you a pathway you didn’t know existed. Honor them in your writing. 

In closing, I’d like to share with you one of Pesha’s most famous poems, “The Healing Time”:

Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
holy.

—Pesha Joyce Gertler

Jun 05

Surviving

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Dear Friends,
As some of you have noticed, we’ve been a bit, ahem, lax, on keeping up with the blog lately (we often tell each other we really need to take our own advice from The Pen and the Bell!) We’re so glad you’re interested in our missives, and one of our dear readers, Linda Kobert, has offered up a “guest blog” post for us. What a wonderful idea!  We’re always so glad to read writing that relies on patient observation of the world around us.

So, without further ado, here is Linda’s wonderful essay, “Surviving”:

I recently spent some time at Joshua Tree National Park with my son who works there. Joshua Tree is in the high desert in Southern California. It straddles the Mojave and the Sonora. Temperatures are routinely 120 degrees in the summer. The landscape looks like what I imagine the moon looks like: brown and rocky, lifeless. The mountains are granite. The dirt is sand. My son lived there for more than a year before he saw a drop of precipitation: a dusting of snow on New Year’s Eve.

One day this spring we joined a ranger-led hike to Barker Dam, a man-made construction built at the turn of the last century by ranchers and homesteaders to collect water. (It rained more than an inch in two years back then.) The ranger’s talk on this hike was about the people from the past, including Native Americans, who lived in this area. “Imagine,” she said, gesturing to the brown landscape, “what they had to do just to survive.”

2015 Joshua Tree - Wonderland of Rocks 4 - edit
Survive, I thought. Is that all there is? Perhaps I was recalling my own struggles, how hard it has seemed at times to simply survive, how useless it feels. Is that all we’re here for? To survive?

We hiked to Barker Dam, talked about where people found food, how they used what they found on the land, and stopped to see caves where people—ancient and modern—might have sought shelter and stored supplies. Afterward, my son and I kept going to wander through the Wonderland of Rocks. It’s a place that looks like giants might have played there and left their toys—oddly shaped boulders—stacked and scattered along the dry washes that run through the mountains.

2015 Joshua Tree - Wonderland of Rocks 5 - edit
My son, a climber, was up on the rocks somewhere, scrambling like a monkey ahead of me as I trudged through one of those sandy washes. It’s hard to walk in sand. It makes you feel like you’re taking two steps forward and one step back. It makes your calves hurt. And it was hot, the sun blazing. I sucked almost constantly at my water supply. It was enough to make anyone wonder about surviving.

For some reason I paused in this trudge and turned around to look behind me. And there, tucked behind a boulder, I was startled to see a brilliant flash of fuchsia. The half inch of rain that fell five months ago caused a single flower to erupt on a paddle cactus stuck in that crevice. It took my breath away. It made me ridiculously happy. It made me grateful to know there was this beauty in the world.

2015 Joshua Tree - the flower 1 - crop
This flash of color stayed with me as I trudged on through the sandy wash, trying to catch up with my son. As I plodded, I thought about surviving and why we are here and that astonishing fuchsia flower. And it occurred to me that maybe this is why human beings exist: to see the beauty. We’re the only creatures who can have that kind of appreciation.

Maybe it’s our job to recognize what is wonderful. To delight in these random experiences of splendor. To have our hearts suddenly swell with the overwhelming joy of a single flower in the hopeless desert. Maybe this is why we must survive. Maybe this is what it means to worship the Divine.

What makes you ridiculously happy?
Why do you “survive”?
What does it mean to you to worship the Divine?