Apr 14

Spring Renewal in Oregon


“Spring has returned. The earth is like a child that knows poems.”  ~ R.M Rilke

Dear Friends,
Spring has definitely returned to Oregon. Every time I turned around I saw another flower in bloom.  I expected daffodils, hyacinths and hellebores, but here tulips were in full bloom, too, unlike in Washington.

On the campus of Williamette University, as we walked along the stream that runs through the courtyard, we walked beneath a shower of cherry blossoms. The night before, we stayed with a friend who lives on a 40 acre homestead in a turn of the century farmhouse outside of Dallas. We walked at dusk in the apple orchard, blossoms sifting down in the wind, then awoke to an explosion of finches in his flowering quince.

Thanks to Lois Rosen, I was invited to teach a workshop on Mindful Writing at Williamette University’s Institute for Continued Learning program. The workshop went well—a lively and diverse group of participants—but I was eager to enjoy the lovely spring afternoon, so after it was over, we walked over to the park/art museum. There we strolled on paths weaving through fields of blue camas, found tulips marching in waves of pastels beneath spreading oak trees. That night, I met with a group of eight of Lois’ friends for more mindful writing, interspersed with mindful eating from a table of delicious desserts, including homemade apple crisp made by Lois and lemon bars made by Jane, a fellow Minnesotan. Together we sat, wrote, ate and shared our writing while white apple blossoms drifted past outside the window.


On Saturday, I returned to the First Unitarian Church of Portland, where Brenda and I had lead a workshop last June.  Ah yes, spring is whimsical—and she made her whimsical presence known by raining as I pulled up to unload the car. Since the focus of our workshop was “Mindful Writing for Spring Renewal,” I hoped we could go outside for walking meditation and writing later in the afternoon. We settled into the classroom around card tables, shared our rituals for spring renewal, remembered that the word “equinox” means “equal”—a balance of light and dark as we move toward solstice—and wrote about how spring might manifest in our own lives.

After the break, the sky lightened, so five of us headed down the street to the park outside the Portland Art Museum in search of tangible signs of spring. I’d suggested practicing “small noticing”—walking until something catches your attention.  Marcia found an immense, gnarled “grandmother” sycamore that had been planted back in the late 1880s, bearing the next generation of ferns. Tom explored the gardens with their new plantings. Susan found a park bench where she could reflect on the rich mix of the natural and human world. I settled down next to one of the garden beds where I could smell the rich, dark soil and wrote about compost, was reminded that in the natural world, nothing is wasted: the detritus of the fall is now nourishing the rose bushes.

I was afraid I’d planned too much for my spring break, but as we drove north on I-5 on Sunday, I felt renewed and refreshed, grateful for time with old friends and new, for the reminder that as the earth renews herself each spring, we have the opportunity to share in this renewal.  May you, too, feel the deep renewal of spring in your lives, the blessing of the earth’s delight, as Rilke said, “like a child that knows poems,” and may you be inspired to write a few poems, too.

Wishing you all the delight that spring brings,

Mar 24

Holly Heads to Oregon!

Dear friends,
Wishing you a warm and bright Equinox wherever spring finds you. Here in the Northwest it’s sunny but chilly; a few hardy daffodils shiver in our neglected flower beds and I’m glad I haven’t yet removed the mulch from the base of the fig tree.

As the school term comes to its usual frenetic conclusion, I’m looking forward to quiet days ahead to return to the garden, sort through stacks of mail, and catch up on reading the growing pile of books next to my bed. But not all of the break will be spent at home. This year, we have two weeks off and I’ll spend the second week in Oregon, teaching a Pen & Bell workshop and giving readings from my new poetry collection, Sailing by Ravens.

I’ll be returning to the First Unitarian Church of Portland  on Saturday, April 5 for a writing/mindfulness workshop  from 1 – 5 pm.  Brenda and I spent a lovely day giving a workshop there last spring—and I’m glad to be returning. Here’s the description:

Mindful Writing for Spring Renewal

“Awakened eye seeing freshly. What does that do to the old blood moving through its channels?”
—Naomi Shihab Nye from
You and Yours

Spring is a natural time for renewal, but sometimes the fast pace of our lives means we miss the opportunity to live more consciously with the natural cycle of the sea-sons. How can we make space for reflection and renewal in the midst of our busy lives?  Holly Hughes will guide us in contemplative and writing practices that can be used as tools for renewal, exploring how the equinox encourages balance. Come prepared to write, rest, reflect and stretch. No writing or meditation experience necessary. Wear comfortable clothing; bring your pen and notebook or laptop. Click here to register. 

I’ll also be giving a reading from Sailing by Ravens at the Grassroots Bookstore in Corvallis on Friday April 4 at 7 pm.  For a full list of upcoming readings, check out my still-under-construction website.

Wishing you the renewal offered by spring  and balance in the days ahead,

Mar 08

North to Homer, Alaska

homer-alaska_spit-eagleDear friends,
This weekend, when I threw open the door, the air smelled of rich, dank earth. Out in our long-neglected yard, a few crocuses have poked through soggy ground with their yellow and purple lanterns, and it feels like spring actually might arrive. In other parts of the country it may be snowing, but here in the Pacific Northwest, the air feels lighter and the days are, too. It’s March and the days stretch perceptibly longer as we march toward the equinox. I love March for leading us into spring—the first delicate antlers of daffodils and tulips appear (not to mention that it’s the month for both Brenda’s and my birthdays, just a week apart!)

March also makes me dream of Alaska. 

Back in my fishing days, we’d head north in March for the herring season, starting in Sitka, then Prince William Sound, then follow the coastline north and west to Togiak in the Bering Sea as the days stretched longer, chasing the silver glint and swirl of vast schools of herring.

I didn’t get to Alaska last summer for the first time in thirty seasons. I missed it deeply and am glad to be going north again this June. I’ll be teaching at the Kachemak Bay Writing Conference in Homer, Alaska from June 13 – 17, then teaching a Pen & Bell Workshop at the Stillpoint Lodge in Halibut Cove from June 26 – 29. If you’ve long dreamed of visiting Alaska, you might consider one of these workshops.

The Kachemak Bay Writing Conference features a wonderful slate of writers, among them Alice Sebold, Scott Russell Sanders, and Marjorie Sandor, as well as Alaskan writers Peggy Shumaker, Sherry Simpson, Nancy Lord and Eva Saulitis.

I’ll also be teaching a Pen & The Bell  Workshop at the Stillpoint Lodge, a wilderness eco-lodge in stunning Halibut Cove, just across the bay from Homer. Our days there will be devoted to interweaving short writing practices with mindfulness practice, alternating sitting and walking meditation with easy yoga stretches and Qi Gong. In between you’ll have time to hike, kayak and explore the art galleries along the boardwalk in Halibut Cove. Meals will feature healthy, seasonal, local food from the lodge’s organic garden and locally caught seafood.

For more information on my workshop and to register, click here.

Feel free to email me via the contact button if you have questions about the Pen & Bell workshop.

Hope to see you in Alaska!

Jan 28

The Power of Words and Silence



Dear Friends,
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 agreedSo 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.

WpsDwddCcPy-zu-5_61RxCLYdztdfhhoVI7VUxXH8g4When 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,

A note about the website: We’ve loved sharing our letters with you, and hearing your responses. Unfortunately, we’ve started to get hit with too many spam messages, so we’ve closed the commenting function for now. But you can always respond to us directly by using the Contact tab. We always love to hear from you!

Dec 29

A New Year


Photo by Holly Hughes–Indianoloa, WA, New Year’s Day 2013

A New Year’s Wish from Brenda and Holly:

“You have done what you could—some blunders and absurdities have crept in. Forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”  

                                             —Ralph Waldo Emerson


Dec 09

Making Room for What Matters


Dear friends,

I’ve been watching my calendar fill up with holiday plans, wondering when I’ll have time to make gifts, to listen to music, to sit by the fire and read—much less write—in the midst of all the holiday festivities. All the plans are traditions we enjoy and won’t give up: listening to the beautiful voices of the women’s Pro-Musica choir fill the lovely chapel at Bastyr, celebrating Solstice with dear friends.

But I also need to finish the quarter, turn in grades, get gifts in the mail to family on the other side of the country. So John and I will sit down and do what a friend calls “Calendar Control”—reserve time and space for us to be home together, whether reading, making gifts or cleaning house.

This isn’t a new idea, but it’s helpful to be reminded that we need to make time and space for what matters, for our calendars do fill up.  A book that can help you do this is Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters. Yes, you likely recognize architect Susanka’s name from her bestselling series The Not So Big House, in which she encouraged us to look at the expanding size of our homes—in the era of the McMansion— and see how we might make better use of our spaces. Now she’s applying this philosophy to our busy lives, showing us how we might better inhabit them.

In her Introduction Susanka describes her own moment of realization, and how that insight spurred her to begin writing books:

“…alas, the life I had fallen into, although it fulfilled one or two of my early aspirations, had no room for anything else.  It wasn’t so much full of meaning and the pursuit of my heart’s desires as it was overstuffed—so jam-packed with obligations, in fact, that I felt almost suffocated. Without some intentional shifting of priorities on my part, I realized that this is how things would continue to the end of my days….But some instinct warned me that I was missing the most important part of the journey—the part that requires alertness, awareness and full engagement…. Although I continued to work as an architect, I also started watching myself and the way I engaged my life, observing the underpinnings of its design…I began to simplify my life and focus on those things that were truly meaningful to me.”

This month, as we head into a frenetic holiday season, see if you can create space in your days for what really matters to you. It might be joining a community choir to sing the “Messiah”; it might be making jam to give as gifts. Whatever it is, try observing your life as Susanka did, and see where you might trim back a few activities so you have time for what matters. We hope you’ll share what you did with us here, so we can all be supported and inspired by each other.

May we all create time & space for what matters most in the busy holidays ahead,


Nov 28

A Day of Light and Gratitude


Dear Friends,
As you probably well know–from all the media coverage—Thanksgiving and Hanukkah align this year. At first, I resisted this merging of the two holidays: too many traditions that might be diluted. Sweet potato latkes with turkey? Sacrilege!

But today, as I sit here preparing to make pumpkin spoon bread and tangerine wild rice salad for my t-day feast with good friends, I’m embracing the way the the spirits of both holidays do indeed mesh seamlessly. Both holidays are about—or should be about, in our best intentions— gratitude, about finding the light within the dark days, appreciating all the ways we give and receive in our daily lives.

I’ll make the latkes next week, and spin the dreidle, and play the Hanukkah song by Adam Sandler. But today I’ll light candles and eat lots of food with good friends and give the dogs the scraps: saying thank you all the while.

And to you, our dear readers, Holly and I wish you the twin gifts of gratitude and light as we head into winter. Here’s a gift from Albert Schweitzer:

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

With love,

Oct 30

Season of Soup


Dear friends,
Like the fog which has settled in Chimacum valley the last few weeks, I’m settling into fall at last, grateful for a steaming cup of lemon ginger tea by the fire, even if the days are ending sooner than I’d like. For the last month, I’ve been too busy to embrace fall, and when I’m too busy I find that resistance is my default:  “Oh, if only the fog would lift” or “I wish I could go for one more hike up to Lena Lake.”  October was full with teaching, conferences, readings, family visiting. But now I’m home at last, with time to make soup, clean the house, put the garden to bed, rest and catch up with the self who’s been racing—not as mindfully as she would like—from one event to the next.

This isn’t a surprise; I know my resistance to fall is as predictable as salmon returning to their home streams. And it’s not that I don’t love fall, it’s that rituals of summer—swimming, hiking, gardening—seem to vanish too quickly, leaving me feeling adrift. For me, it’s fall foods that help ground me:  harvesting the last beets to roast, cooking squash and pumpkin for soups, making risotto.

According to the Ayervedic tradition, the food we prepare should reflect the changes we see in the outer world.  Farewell to summer salads and chilled soup; instead, we instinctively turn toward warming, spicy foods, like winter squash stew and cassoulet. (See the recipe for Thai Tofu and Winter Squash Stew below.)

So today I’ll finally put away my beach towel and swim fins, coil the soaker hoses, sow a cover crop in the bed recently vacated by the tomatoes, and make winter squash soup. Later, I’ll choose a book from the tall stack by my bed and settle down in front of the fire with tea, grateful for quiet time to read, reflect, turn inward, easing my inner life into alignment with the rhythm of fall at last.

This week, I hope you’ll join me in taking a few moments to consciously bring our outer and inner worlds into alignment.  What foods help you embrace the fall?  How are you allowing your body—like the earth—to lie fallow, turn inward and renew itself?  Please write about the rituals you use to embrace fall and share them with us here.  

Yours in gratitude—at last—for the season of soup,

Thai Tofu and Winter Squash Stew
Serves 3 – 4

2-3 medium leeks, white parts only
2 Tbsp. peanut oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 serrano chilies, minced
1 Tbsp. finely chopped ginger
1 Tbsp. curry powder
1 tsp. light brown sugar
3 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 15 oz. can coconut milk
1 ½ lbs. butternut squash, peeled and diced into ½ “ cubes
1 tsp. salt
1 10 oz. package silken firm tofu, cut into ½ “ cubes
juice of 1 lime
1/3  c. raw peanuts
¼ c. chopped fresh cilantro

Halve the leeks lengthwise, cut crosswise into ¼” pieces. Wash, then drain.

Heat the peanut oil in a wide soup pot.  Add the leeks and cook over fairly high heat, stirring frequently, until partially softened, about 3 minutes.  Add the garlic, most of the chiles, and ginger, cook 1 minute more, then add the curry, sugar and soy sauce. Reduce the heat to medium, scrape the pan and cook for a few more minutes.

Add 3 cups water, coconut milk, squash and 1 tsp. salt.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.

Add the tofu, fried or raw, to the stew once the squash is almost tender, then simmer until it’s done.  Taste for salt and add the lime juice. Fry the peanuts in a few drops of peanut oil over medium heat until browned, then chop. Serve the stew over rice with cilantro, peanuts and remaining chile scattered on top.



Oct 17

To Foster


Dear Friends,
The last few weeks have been a little tough: I needed to let go of my 13-year-old cat Madrona. She had been diagnosed with liver cancer in the summer, and over the last few months I watched her body diminish until it became clear her time had come. I still can’t believe how much I cried.


In an odd way, though, it felt good to cry, to feel this love so strongly in the body. So often, love becomes a murmur in the background; now it had become a waterfall.

A strange coincidence happened, too. While I was in the vet’s office on Madrona’s last visit, my cell phone rang. I didn’t answer it, and didn’t even look at the message until the next day. It was the rescue organization, Happy Tails Happy Homes, calling to say they had a little dog who very much needed temporary foster care.

So, a hole opened up in my home, and an animal arrived to take up some space. This little guy, Gizmo:


He was adorable in every way, but scared and confused. He settled down pretty quickly, and caring for him took my mind off Madrona for a little while. He was adopted just a couple of days later, to an elderly couple who wanted nothing more than the ultimate lap dog.

When he left, the kitty-shaped hole Madrona had left behind loomed wide, and  waves of grief washed over me again. Now this little girl has shown up, Tiny:

Rescued from a puppy mill, Tiny doesn’t know much about humans, and even less about the outdoors. She likes to skitter away and hide. My dog, Abbe, isn’t too happy about having to be the mature one around here, but she’s doing her job, showing Tiny where outdoors is and what one does there. Tiny’s going to need some time and patience, but already she’s started wagging her skinny tail and taking treats from my hand. She asked nicely to be let up on the couch, and we sat together a long time, my hand stroking her belly.

In the meantime, Madrona’s ashes sit on my bookshelf, flanked by a picture of Quan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion. I pass her several times a day and say hello. I think about the word “foster” and what it means, literally “to help grow and develop.” In this way, perhaps  I was Madrona’s foster child: in her temporary care as she witnessed me evolve over the last 13 years. Her life span marks my entire time here in Bellingham, Wa: moving from a scared and lonely new professor at Western Washington University to a more confident place, a little more sure in how I fit into the world.

How have your animals marked the time spans of your life? How have you been fostered?

With love,


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