May 12

A Weed By Any Other Name….

Forget me Nots

Dear Friends,

Summer weather arrived in the Northwest this weekend and my husband John and I finally made it out into our too-long neglected garden. In the meantime, the weeds had grown like, well, weeds, and we spent hours pulling, hoeing, cussing and clipping in an effort to reclaim our garden.

Some weeds pose no moral dilemma. The pernicious buttercup, for example, or the promiscuous morning glory.  Clip and yank—into the compost with them—no looking back. But this year, conditions were just right for the forget-me-nots to thrive and there they are, their blue eyes winking at me as I wade through them, trying to decide how many to yank, how many to leave.

I’m reminded of the classic definition of weed: a plant in the wrong place. One person’s weed is another person’s beloved flower—or a bee’s source of pollen. John and I stopped mid-yank when we saw all the mason bees circling above the forget-me-nots, dipping in for a quick dusting. We realized we needed to leave some forget-me-nots for the bees.

Now, when we walk out the door, we can hear them buzzing, hovering above the forget-me-nots, and we can imagine that we’re helping to support them in their pollinating efforts.  If you want to help support bees, you can put up a mason bee house in your garden  or sign the petition to ban the pesticides that are wiping out the honey bees.

Consider the lesson of the weed, both in your life and in your writing. Do you swear at weeds you could simply move to a better place?  Could you—or someone else—make use of those weeds? Consider sending work to a new journal, finding the right home for that odd essay or poem. Or consider pruning and thinning what you you’ve written to let in more light, to allow for something else to take root.   

We hope you’ll share your “weed” stories with us here—and will find good uses for whatever looks, at first glance, like a weed. Beauty is in the eye of the bee.

Yours, pondering the complexities of weeding,



Apr 28

Spring Clean Your Writing?


Dear Friends,
Today I attended a “spring cleanse” workshop that combined yoga and ayruvedic medicine; I went immediately to the groovy store afterward and stocked up on all kinds of greens: bok choy, fennel, cilantro, tatsoi, chard. I bought organic turmeric and fenugreek seeds. I made a stir fry with so many greens it seemed impossible that I could eat them all, but I did—oh yes, I did. I could feel my body soaking them up.

In the list of things to do for this 7-day cleanse—which includes drinking some vile tasting powder in water every night before bed, and eating Kitchari (mung bean and rice stew) every day—is “mindful, deep breathing.” To cleanse means to give the body and the mind a little break. It means to create optimal conditions for healing.

On my way home, I wondered how this might apply to our writing. What would a “spring cleanse for writing” look like? This is what came to mind for me: making a plan to get control of my notebooks from my weekly writing practice. Type up what calls to be typed up, and let go of the rest. Organize these snippets by theme. Go through my writing folders and store away those documents that are no longer relevant or useful.

If I think of this as a “cleanse” rather than a chore, I think my attitude toward it may lighten; I’ll be friendlier toward both myself and my writing, knowing I’m giving both the respect they deserve. I suspect that, with this frame of mind, I won’t torture myself with indecision. and it will become pretty clear what stays and what goes.

What would you do to “spring clean” your writing? What small step can you take to spruce things up a bit in that part of your life?

With love,


Apr 21

“Calling the Choir to Sing”

photo: Dan Kowalski

photo: Dan Kowalski

Dear Friends,

This week, I find myself at a one-day conference on Whidbey Island: Calling the Choir to Sing: An Invitational Gathering of  Northwest Climate Leaders. I’m here to read a few poems and talk about the role of the arts in witnessing and speaking out.

It’s been a full day of talks, discussion in small groups, punctuated by walks on winding trails under dripping cedars, and at last I’m feeling present, able to contemplate the difficult questions of climate change. This afternoon, we watched a video clip called “Numinous Waters” shot in Alaska by my old friend Dan Kowalski. As we watched a massive chunk of glacier calve into the sea, with the haunting notes of Tchaikovsky’s “Hymn of the Cherubim” as a backdrop, I heard a collective inhalation—then together we sat in deep silence.

I was reminded once again of the power of art, of image, to reach our hearts. I recently listened to an interview with the poet Jane Hirshfield in which she said, “when we think in metaphor, we think with the whole world.”  Of course, and that’s the power of poetry and image. In Dan’s video,he asks, “Can beauty and presence save us?”

As I stroll under the tall cedars, I believe in my heart that it can—and that as artists, we need to continue speaking up on the issues we care about, that will affect future generations, even these issues that too often feel overwhelming. In an article in Grist called, fittingly, “What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art,”  Bill Mckibben makes a plea to artists and writers:

“Therefore, it falls to those of us alive now to watch and record its flora, its fauna, its rains, its snows, its ice, its peoples….We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices.”  

Later, as we stand in a closing circle, united in our resolve to take whatever actions we can in our own lives and work, I’m reminded that we can’t address these challenging issues alone—we need to gather as a community.

On April 22, Earth Day, we have an opportunity to do this. Find out if there any Earth Day events happening in your community, and see if you can join them. If not, take a moment to reflect on your place, your natural/human community, and what you can do to ensure its continuing quality of life. It doesn’t need to be climate change, which I know feels daunting—and it’s fine to just choose one small action.  We hope you’ll share your commitment or your reflections here. 

Yours, believing in the power of art and community,




Apr 13

The Ten-Minute Rule



“I suppose the more you have to do, the more you learn to organize and concentrate—or else get fragmented into bits. I have learned to use my ‘ten minutes’. I once thought it was not worth sitting down for a time as short as that; now I know differently and, if I have ten minutes, I use them, even if they bring only two lines, and it keeps the book alive.”
  —Rumer Godden, A House with Four Rooms

Our lives are made up of ten minutes here, ten minutes there. The above quote came into my inbox from Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project just when I needed it the most. In the midst of a chaotic schedule—one in which I wear too many different hats—I’ll often find myself with ten minutes here, ten minutes there, and fritter them away with Facebook, email, Internet surfing, or television, rather than simply taking a breath and being here. What is it I’m afraid of? What am I avoiding?

So, with Rumer Godden’s quote in mind, I vow this week to use my ten minutes wisely. Whether it’s to write, or read a poem, or do some stretches, or call my mother—I know that by valuing these small bits of time, I value myself. And I come back refreshed into the madness of the world.

Will you join me? Just for ten minutes at a time?



Apr 05

“Dispatches from the Garden”


Dear friends,
Today dawned clearthe third sunny day in a row in the Pacific Northwestand we’ve spent the last two days in the yard: cutting back plants that didn’t survive the winter, turning mulch into the soil, spading compost into the planting beds.

A month ago, even though it was still raining, we optimistically poked a few snow-pea seeds into the soggy earth, dug in potatoes, and are now lining up four-inch pots in the greenhouse, a colorful deck of seed packets at the ready.

Gardening’s been on my mind for a few reasons. Serendipitously, Charles Goodrich,  a colleague and friend, shared poems from his wonderful book Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden at a reading a few nights ago in Port Townsend. Funny, wry, and filled with insight into what makes us human, his prose poems arise from close observation and are steeped in the beauty and muck of the earth. Charles worked as a professional gardener for 25 years before taking his current post directing the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word, so it’s no surprise that gardening metaphors show up in his writing.

charles_jestureHere’s what he says about ritual in one of my favorite poems, “Interstition:”

Sticking to ritual makes things tick. Ask the robin sitting on her nest. Ask the lilacs beginning to bud….You might think its superstition, but it’s actually interstition, acting on blind faith that the individual things we see are all stitched together by something potent and invisible.  Better not ask what it is. Just dig.

Here’s another timely poem from his collection:


            Into each cell of the egg carton I tamp an egg’s worth of soil, then press into each seed-bed three seeds. I spritz them with tapwater, and place the carton on the windowsill above the kitchen sink.

            A week later, the seedlings have arisen, every one. Twelve groves of tiny plants, each sprout just a pair of seed-leaves on a slender pinkish stem, succulent and alert.

            But now I hesitate. If I really want full heads of lettuce, I have to thin these plants, have to pick up the scissors and kill two of each three.   In the everlasting tussle between spirit and matter, no one knows when his time is up.  I feel the blade at my own neck. 

Goodrich’s collection of poems is a reminder that these rituals—the work of our daily lives—are always good fodder for contemplative and writing practice. If spring finds you with your hands in the warming earth, please share the poems you’re reading for inspiration—or write one of your own. Try using Charles’ prose poem as a model: begin by describing your gardening task in all its sensory, earthy details, then let the words carry you into metaphor or reflection.

Or, with spring cleaning in mind, think about what you can “thin” in your own life. How does it feel to let go of what impedes growth?

We hope you’ll share your poems here, too.

Yours, grateful to have her hands in the earth again,

Mar 27

“Let My People Go!”

photo 20-57-17
Dear Friends,

This week we celebrate Pesach, or Passover: a time of liberation. Though it’s really a joyful holiday, because we’re Jewish we have to bring a little deprivation and suffering into it. We’re not allowed to eat leavened bread, a reminder of the Israelites’ passage through the desert on their flight toward freedom. Thus, the ubiquitous package of matzo makes its appearance, a foodstuff that, as Jon Stewart of The Daily Show puts it, tastes like the cardboard box it comes in.

Yet, we’ve come up with all kinds of way to bypass the suffering while sticking to the letter of the law. Case in point: Passover Puffs. Passover Puffs are little miracles. They are sweet and light and airy, with nary a leavening agent in sight. They are eggy and delicious, especially when you stuff them with your Passover dinner: a chuck roast stewed in oranges and dates, say, or chicken roasted with apples and onions. You could even pump them full of whipped cream (if you forego the meat dinner) and call them cream puffs.

I make Passover Puffs just once a year, at Passover of course, and they are what make the day particularly special. They are especially good just out of the oven, when you pull apart a test puff to release the steamy goodness. Sometimes you have to test two or three to make sure you’ve gotten them right. They disappear in your mouth.

You still have several days left of Passover to make these, even if you’re not Jewish. I think they’d be great with an Easter meal too. They remind us of how we can combine the right ingredients in just the right way to make for transcendence.


Passover Puffs
Preheat oven to 375.
In a medium saucepan, bring 1 1/2 cups of water to a boil, then add 2 Tbsp. sugar and 1/2 cup of vegetable oil. Bring back to a boil and remove from heat.

Mix together 1 1/2 cups of Matzo meal, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp cinnamon, and add this to the pot. Stir together to moisten and let sit for five minutes. Transfer dough to large mixing bowl, and let cool for five more minutes.

Beat in four eggs one at a time, using an electric mixer at medium speed. The mixer will clog up with the thick dough. You have to be patient. Think of your ancestors in the desert. Persevere.

Using two spoons, drop ball of dough on greased cookie sheets (it’s supposed to make 18, but I always only get 12.) Flatten each ball slightly and sprinkle liberally with cinnamon-sugar.

Bake for 40-45 minutes, until balls are puffed up and golden. Eat a few right away to experience the miracle. Save the rest for your good friends.


What kind of food do you make this time of year that makes the season special? Please share with us in the comments!

Happy liberation,


Mar 16

Pen and the Bell comes home

Dear Friends,

The sun made a rare appearance on March 9 in Seattle—how could P & B possibly spend the day inside?  But P & B did, along with the 2500 participants who turned out for the Search for Meaning Book Festival 2013 hosted by Seattle University. It’s true that free admission helps, but so did the many stimulating authors, panels, discussions and beautiful gardens at Seattle University where we strolled between sessions.

DSCN5460 DSCN5459

We had over 60 participants show up for the Pen and Bell session: Making Room for Creativity and Contemplation in a Crowded World—and a crowded room it was, indeed. Thanks to many who were willing to sit on the floor, we shared a brief contemplative practice, followed by writing practice, then read and discussed a short poem in the spirit of Lectia Divina. We concluded by affirming one strategy we’d each use to carve out space in our lives for contemplation or creativity, whether it’s not checking email until noon or meeting friends at a local café to write together each week.

We ran out of time to share our writing with each other, but I hope some who attended might be willing to post what you wrote here, especially if you responded to the writing prompt about balance as we approach the Spring Equinox next week:  What might balance look like for you as we head into a new season? Write a poem or a scene in which your life is in balance.  

Thanks again to all who joined me in that crowded room—I wish there’d been time to meet you all, but I hope you’ll continue to stay in touch through this blog—where we’ll be posting information on Pen & Bell workshops in the upcoming months.


And from the other coast: Here’s a great video interview our publicist, Ben Jackson, did with Brenda in the midst of the wonderful chaos that was AWP.


Mar 02

The Pen and the Bell Goes On the Road!


RoadTripDear Friends,
Usually,The Pen and The Bell likes to stay put. The Pen and the Bell is a homebody, likes puttering around and being quiet. You might say The Pen and the Bell is an introvert.

But occasionally, The Pen and the Bell likes to hit the road. Get up and see what’s out there. Visit with friends. Chat about the things that make us feel at home in the wider world.

This week, The Pen and the Bell is going bi-coastal. Brenda and Skinner House Books are escorting The Pen and the Bell to Boston, where they’ll be holding court at the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) Book Fair, at the Hynes Convention Center, March 6-9. The Book Fair is a wild, energetic festival of riches for book lovers, and it’s open to the public for free on Saturday, March 9.

Closer to home, Holly will be squiring The Pen and the Bell to Seattle University’s Search for Meaning Book Festival, Saturday March 9. Holly will be giving a talk based on The Pen and the Bell. Tickets are free, but required in advance.

The Pen and the Bell would love to see you. But if you can’t make it to either of these events, this week might be an excellent time to take a mini road trip of your own. It doesn’t have to be far. It could be around the block or to the next town. It might be to an art museum, or a shopping trip in the mall. You can make anything into a road trip by simply being present, aware, and excited about where you’re headed.

Safe travels!
Brenda and Holly

Feb 24

Retreat with Your Writing


Dear friends,

I’m writing from the study where Brenda and I worked together a few winters ago on The Pen & the Bell. From where I sit, I can see out the sliding glass doors to a stand of madronas, their curved trunks glinting in the fleeting spring sunlight. Beyond them, the waters of Puget Sound ripple, a ferry marking the passage of the day.

Hanging on the wall are three photographs of owls, and they seem to bless my words as they come in fits and starts—more fits than starts today. Some days are like that, and today, I’m letting that be OK, knowing that the perspective I’ve gained by spending a few days in retreat will serve me well in the busy weeks ahead. I may not have written as much as I’d hoped, but I’m able to see my projects with fresh eyes—and to see better what’s needed.

This room holds good memories, good writing energy. I remember when all the letters Brenda and I wrote to each other were laid out in piles on the heavy oak tables, and we walked among them with Sticky Notes, mulling on all the possibilities for order. So it’s no surprise that I hear Brenda’s encouraging voice, laugh when I remember the day we wrote letters to each other even though we were working in the same room!


While we all know it’s often not possible to get away—that’s why we wrote The Pen & the Bellthere are times when just a few days in solitude can give you valuable perspective on your work, your life, your relationships. 

Consider if you might be able to design such a retreat in the months ahead.  You can apply for a residency at one of the many artist/writer residencies throughout the country—or even the world!  (Remember, a girl can dream, right?) Or find a house or cabin to rent in the off-season and create your own writing retreat, alone or with friends (the website VRBO is wonderful for finding low-cost options). We hope you’ll tell us about the writing retreats you create!

With gratitude for this time and place—and for you, dear readers, for being here with me.



Feb 14

“Friends Make Us Fuller”

Blue-Sea-Ocean-HDAnd here’s a Valentine from Holly….

Dear Friends,

I’m choosing to spend Valentine’s Day on retreat—more on this next week—and in doing so, am  feeling grateful  both to those I love and those from whom I’ve been drawing inspiration this week.
Here’s a poem by Northwest poet Robert Sund that I offer as my valentine to you, dear readers.

Friends Make Us Fuller

Friends make us fuller.
When friends leave, their light stays behind.
It is like the blue sea
that supports the white breakers
that come and go.

No matter how far I go
I long to return and be with friends.
It is never the same fire I left,
but beneath it are the ashes
of all our meetings that have gone before.

For more of Sund’s poems, check out the Poet’s House Trust website.

May your Valentine’s Day be filled with love in its myriad forms…