Feb 14

Partner Yoga

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Dear Friends,

Remember sitting at your desk in grade school on Valentine’s Day? Remember the agonizing rituals? The way your heart thumped as kids left small cards on each others desks? The way you surreptitiously counted those cards to see how much love you were allotted that year? The decoding of  messages on candy hearts, wondering if “be mine” really meant be mine.

No? Was it just me? Well, much as I would like to proclaim otherwise, I really haven’t grown much emotionally in all the years since then. The hearts. The candy. The special couples dinners at restaurants. I’ll admit it: Valentine’s Day can be hard on us single folk, much as we might scoff at it. Not even the day itself, but the days leading up it. The reminders everywhere that you’ve gone solo.

I’d been so busy these past few weeks, that I thought Valentine’s Day might fly under my radar this year. But then I went to my Yin Yoga class last night. And about halfway through, I had a sinking feeling in my chest. Oh no, I thought, she’s going to make us do partner yoga.

In Partner Yoga, you team up with someone about your same size. You go through a series of poses together, creating counterbalance and traction. Your partner’s presence makes it easier to go deeper than your ever could on your own. It involves trust. It involves getting over yourself.

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I didn’t wanna. As I stood on my mat and my teacher’s words reached me—sometimes it takes a partner to help you learn your true self—I wanted to bolt. I wanted to opt out. I wanted to take my teacher aside and say “I really don’t feel like connecting with anyone today.”  But of course I couldn’t. And I resigned myself as I turned to the woman on my left, a woman I’d never met before. A stranger.

We laughed nervously then sat facing each other, knee to knee. And the first pose we did was quite simple: I sat with my palms face up, and she put her palms face down on mine.

We sat together with eyes closed and breathed. Holding hands, but in the most vulnerable, open way possible. I felt a soft energy flow between us. It’s been so long since someone held my hand. And I started to cry.

Not with sobs or tears. The kind of crying that happens all on the inside: a welling up from the chest. A tingling behind the eyes. A dissolution of boundaries.

And then it passed. And what followed was a peaceful opening. We switched our hands and I gave her my warmth. We did straddle split forward bends together. We sat back to back, leaning against one another, and simply breathed. We reached back and found each other’s knees and twisted deeply.

The whole room grew….how can I put it? The only way I can say it is: in love. Our teacher looked around, her smile wide. It was a big class, had felt crowded when we started. And she said: See how it doesn’t feel like a big class now? It felt like there were so many of us, and now it feels like there’s just one. We all sighed our agreement.

This Valentine’s Day, may you find the love you seek deep in your own heart. And reach out to all the partners—inside and out—that support you in this devotion.

Many blessings,
Brenda

 

Jan 27

A Girl Can Dream…..

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Roald Dahl’s Writing Hut

Dear Friends,
On the website Apartment Therapy, they’ve got a wonderful feature on “Famous Writers’ Small Writing Sheds.” As I eagerly browsed the pictures, I felt a mixture of admiration, excitement, and envy. Though I have a wonderful writing spot in my own house (actually several of them), I’ve always dreamed of having a little writing shed out back. There’s something about having a completely different space to go to, one that requires you to cross a threshold into a different frame of mind.

2011-2-4-gbs_shed_rect540This is a picture of George Bernard Shaw’s writing hut, which he named “London.” According to Apartment Therapy, he called it this “so his staff wouldn’t be lying when they said he had ‘gone to London.'”

Many writing friends I know have created their own writing huts—whether from a kit they bought online, or by refurbishing a garage or existing garden shed. It’s quite an investment of time and money, but one that really shows a commitment to one’s art.

I don’t have the resources for such a thing just yet, but I’m thinking of naming my writing room something like “Vancouver” or “Seattle,” so that I won’t be lying when I say “I’ll be in Seattle for the day,” when I’ve committed a day to writing. It might even keep me there a little longer, knowing I’ve journeyed somewhere else.

What is your writing space like? How do you make it “separate” from your everyday life?

Yours, in daydreams,

Brenda

 

Jan 21

Mindful Procrastination

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Dear friends,
The end of January is coming, which means we’ve all had a few weeks now to make—and break—our New Year’s resolutions.  I’m not opposed to resolutions, but I’m trying to learn to cut myself some slack if I don’t manage to keep them.  Stop Procrastinating is usually near the top of my list, and sometimes I can do it, start right in on whatever task I’ve been avoiding.  Some things are easier than others: emptying the compost, cleaning closets, purging files.

But when it comes to writing, I’m learning there’s sometimes a reason I’m avoiding it, in addition to my usual “I want it to be perfect” tendency; sometimes I’m just not ready. Is it possible to procrastinate mindfully?  As much as it may sound like an oxymoron, I think we can. I’ve learned to have other writing projects on deck so I’m not dead in the water, and sometimes these projects move forward more quickly than the project I’m procrastinating.

For example, I recently completed a poetry manuscript while I was putting off working on a collection of essays. In the process of doing this, I wrote about emotions I’d been reluctant to address in prose and now feel more ready to return to the essays. Brenda and I wrote the letters that became The Pen & the Bell as our “fun” writing, when we were both supposedly working on our respective Sabbatical writing projects .

I was heartened to read in a recent column by John Tierney in The New York Times that I’m far from alone. According to the article, Piers Steel, a psychologist at the University of Calgary, calls this strategy “productive procrastination” and says it’s his favorite of the techniques he studied while researching his 2011 book, The Procrastination Equation:

“For most of us, procrastination can be beaten down, but not entirely beaten,” Dr. Steel said. “My best trick is to play my projects off against each other, procrastinating on one by working on another.”

Dr. Steel, who has surveyed more than 24,000 people around the world, says that 95 percent of people confess to at least occasional procrastination. (You can gauge yourself by taking his survey at Procrastinus.com.) About 25 percent of those surveyed are chronic procrastinators, five times the rate in the 1970s. He attributes the increase to the changing nature of the workplace: the more flexible that jobs become, the more opportunities to avoid unpleasant tasks.

So, rather than berate yourself for being part of the 95% of people who procrastinate, procrastinate mindfully—with full awareness of what you’re doing and why. Remember that part of trusting yourself is having compassion when a writing task is difficult, that sometimes the muse responds more readily to gentle words than a whip.

This week, pay attention when you feel tempted to procrastinate and reflect on that urge. Sit with it, befriend it, fix it a cup of tea, wrap it in a shawl and listen carefully, intently. What can you learn from it?  Why are you avoiding it?  What can it tell you?  Then gather your courage and plunge in. Or decide you’re not ready and let that be OK.

In the meantime, make a list of projects you can work on until you DO feel ready.  Keep the list at your desk, so the next time you’re avoiding sitting down to work, you have a list of projects at hand you can complete.  In doing so, you’ll join the ranks of the “positive procrastinators.”

Yours,  procrastinating mindfully,

Holly

Jan 14

The Power of Your Word

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Dear Friends,
I had a marvelous winter break, mainly because I did some writing. And the only way I did my writing was by making a contract with my writing buddy Lee. We agreed to each write one short piece a day and send them to each other. They didn’t have to be good pieces; we just had to write them.

When I returned to teaching, I started out by asking my students to tell us something fun they did over winter break. We heard stories of cross-country train excursions, indoor sky-diving, and a trip to India to help with waste-water management projects. We heard about movies and meals and time with family and friends. Finally one of my students asked what fun thing I had done. What came out of my mouth: “I wrote ten new pieces.”

I used to think I could write all by my lonesome. I used to drag myself to the writing desk and dutifully plug away until something not-so-awful emerged out of the mess. And I never called it “fun”; I called it “work.” And I often said the phrase: “I’m trying to write,” which is worlds away from actually writing.

When I enlist allies—in the form of contracts or writing groups—the “trying” part disappears. I no longer have to “try” to write; I simply write, because I’ve given my word. When you “give your word” you are essentially honoring the most authentic part of your artistic self. Your word, as they used to say, is your bond.

Some days during this contract period were easy; new pieces seemed to simply appear with little effort. Other days it might take me until late at night to come up with something, It didn’t matter, though, because I was writing. And Lee was writing. Our pieces crossed mid-air. We met a few times to discuss what we wrote, having lunch in our favorite cafe downtown. This was our reward, but the compensation of the contract was truly the writing itself.

The meaning of the word “contract” comes from the old French “to make narrow, to draw together.” By establishing a contract with a writing friend, you narrow down the possibilities for your time. You draw together your intentions and, paradoxically, multiply them.

Do you have a writing ally? How do you give each other support? Consider drawing up a short-term contract with someone else, even just for a weekend’s worth of writing, and see how it feels to give your word to another.

Strength to your writing arm,
Brenda

Jan 07

“Memories and Meditations”

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Dear friends,
This year, one of my resolutions was to spend more time with art.  So, last Saturday, I saw photographer Michael Kenna’s retrospective exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum. I’ve long been a fan of Kenna’s work and knew I’d love seeing the actual prints—not on a computer screen or in the pages of a book—but I wasn’t prepared for how they transported me within just a few minutes of entering the gallery.

His black-and-white fine art prints are small, intimate, inviting the viewer in. Yet the landscapes they capture are vast, lonely, evocative. The images are stark, yet somehow transcendent: the delicate branches of a single tree in winter, 50 fences in a field of snow,  pilings rising up out of a serene sea. His images aren’t just of the natural world; he also shows the beauty of rain-slick streets and city skylines lit up at night, the stunning architecture of bridges and, in one of his most evocative images, nuclear reactors with their halos of steam.

Because these images invite reflection, many are, fittingly, called meditations. But these prints are anything but static, capturing in deceptively simple images the complexity that is our natural/human world. Because I wanted to linger in their spacious complexity, I used Kenna’s photographs as my contemplative practice this week, each morning choosing an image to respond to. Here’s a short one:

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Posts suggest stasis, clouds motion.
Who says we must decide?
Like the horizon balancing between
We can live in both worlds. 

 

 

You can do this, too.  Of course, you can find many images online, but even better if you can visit a gallery, stand in front of the work and be transported. Choose a photographer or artist you admire and respond to a photograph or painting as your morning practice this week.

If you write a poem, you’ll join the time-honored tradition of ekphrastic poetry. At the Poetry.org website you’ll find some famous paintings and the poems they’ve generated.

But it’s fine to just use the image as a meditation, with no pressure to produce a poem, just to let the image take you where it will.

For those in the Seattle area, consider attending the Hedgebrook Salon offered by  poet Susan Rich and playwright Amy Wheeler at the Seattle Art Museum next Saturday January 12  1- 6 pm. You can find the registration information here.

With gratitude for all the artists who transport us,
Holly

Dec 31

The Bell of the New Year

Dear Friends,
I was thinking about the phrase “ringing in the new year” and realized I’d never before  associated the transition with an actual bell (duh!) We here at The Pen and the Bell are naturally drawn to bell imagery, so I looked it up and found the beautiful joya no kane ceremony in Japan. There, on New Year’s Eve, monks and lay people ring the temple bell 108 times as a rite of purification. The bell literally “rings out” the old and creates space for whatever is new and good to arise in our lives.

This temple bell is large, and it takes some effort to strike it with the heavy wooden beam; people line up to take their turn. But it’s not a solemn event at all. People take joy in acknowledging and bidding farewell to what no longer serves them.

Tonight, I’ll have a gathering of friends, and I’ll serve Spanish tapas and cava. I’ll put Frank Sinatra and Ella Fizgerald on the iPod. We’ll play board games, and I’m sure we’ll laugh a lot. My own little bell will be on the shelf, and while I may not ring it 108 times tonight, I will be aware of the many ways I can let go of the old, cantankerous parts of the self in favor of the lighter, loving self who lurks there all along.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book called The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander. In it, they describe, through delightful stories and examples, how we can turn around “downward spiral” thinking and enter a “universe of possibility” instead. I highly recommend it as a way to recalibrate your New Year self.

I’ve also been reading the book Madness, Rack, and Honey, a collection of “reluctant lectures” that the poet Mary Ruefle has given over the years on the art of writing. It’s the kind of book to dip into again and again to gain both inspiration and insight. Here is my favorite passage so far:

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say’; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

May you hear the 108 bells reverberating, and let them guide you into a year of beautiful writing. Thank you for being here,
Brenda

Dec 24

Night Light

 

Dear Friends,
On Solstice, my husband John and I headed into Seattle for our annual celebration with friends who’ve been gathering for more than 20 years now. As we headed across on the ferry, we watched the sun drop behind the Olympic Mountains behind us, the lights of Seattle glittering ahead, and I felt grateful for all the ways we celebrate the return of the light, somehow more welcome than ever this year.

Soon, we’ll once again gather in the living room of Anne and Cliff’s house in a circle, pass around the Solstice candle as we each share a poem, song or story. Some will share stories of a year of loss, others will pass out photographs of sunflowers, others will ask for healing for our beautiful and fragile earth.  We’ll cry, laugh and eat together, then send each other out into the night with homemade jams and other gifts, small ways we can carry the light. As my friend Marcia wrote to accompany her gift of a silver night light, “While the days remain dark, we provide light for one another.”

It’s not coincidence that all the religious traditions celebrate holidays now, the darkest time of year. As we celebrate within our own traditions, let’s remember all the ways we welcome the return of the light: whether walking in the sun, lighting candles, baking gingerbread topped with orange slices (my neighbor Mia’s ritual) or other rituals, other ways we find to bring light into the lives of those we love.

What are your Solstice rituals?  Do you have a favorite Solstice poem, song or story?  If so, please share it with us.

May your holidays be filled with light in a myriad of forms!  And in the flurry of it all, may we remember to allow silence and space for whatever feels sacred, whatever brings us deep peace.

With gratitude for you all, our dear readers and friends, for making this journey with us,
Holly

 

 

Dec 17

The Dark, The Light

Dear Friends,
Where Holly and I live, the winter solstice makes itself quite evident: in the last few days, it barely starts getting light before the light diminishes into early evening. And when it does get dark (about 4:00), the dark seems darker, somehow, though my friends laugh at me and tell me it’s my imagination. Perhaps. But perhaps the world does turn in on itself this time of year, and all peripheral sources of light grow dim.

It can be hard on us: those of us with delicate dispositions. We do what we can—turn on our “happy lights,” take our Vitamin D and B12, take brisk walks—but part of me always wants to embrace this darkness for what it is, to allow it fully into myself, burrow pathways through my fear.

Poetry is always a way to have a companion when we decide to lean into the dark. And perhaps this year, more than ever—in a week where we’ve been faced with a darkness deeper than any we can fathom—we can turn to poetry to help us also  remember glimmers of light. I’ve been receiving lots of poetry this week—from friends, colleagues, Facebook acquaintances—and I thought I’d share some of them with you, too.

From the site Gwarlingo, comes this poem by Janlori Goldman:

Winter Solstice

for Jean Valentine

 

O odd light
bring me the old season
that winter familiar
a slow sheathing of moon in shadow
as if sky were a gill
through which all things
flow in                 filter out
bring me a home with no right angles
a space of curling in
not too bright or sharp
and bring me the time before that
with the garden dark with broken-down
coffee grounds                 rows of flowering mustard greens
the smell of ripped roots fresh
from the pull
and then before that
to my round house a friend will come
or maybe the friend’s mother
I’ll say stay for dinner
she’ll say let me sew that button

From Being Poetry, Erin Hollowell shared this poem by Naomi Shahib Nye:

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye (from The Words Under the Words)

 

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

And from The Poetry Foundation, this “Winter Solstice Chant,” by Annie Finch:

Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
now you are uncurled and cover our eyes
with the edge of winter sky
leaning over us in icy stars.
Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
come with your seasons, your fullness, your end.

It’s been a tough week for all of us, dear friends. May we meet the darkness on its own terms, and yet find solace there as well.

With love, and remembrance for those who left us too soon,
Brenda

 

Dec 02

What is Your Charlotte’s Web?

Dear Friends,
Today I was under the weather and couldn’t make it to our Elliot Bay Books reading in Seattle: a sad turn of affairs, but one that helped me practice accepting WHAT IS.

Holly, of course, did a marvelous job on her own. She did what we often do in bookstores: read from the chapter in Pen and the Bell about reading as a contemplative practice. In this chapter, we both recount our favorite books as children, but also the WAY we read as children: completely absorbed to the exclusion of all else.

In that chapter, I write about going back to re-read Charlotte’s Web , to see it through my adult eyes. And of course I find all kinds of new meanings in this simple tale of friendship, and the way E.B. White expresses a homey, down-to-earth mindfulness. At the end of the book we get this passage:

“Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”

I find that so wonderful, how this children’s tale teaches us to value the “glory of everything,” even the smell of manure and the nearness of rats.

Today, Holly had the audience try out one of our exercises from that chapter:

Write a scene of yourself reading your favorite book (or being read to) as a child. Why did you love this book? Why did you love reading? Choose one specific moment and try to suspend it in time. Where did you like to read? Describe this place as specifically as you can. Capture all the sensory details. What sounds or smells accompany you? Can you convey this as a contemplative or holy moment?

Whenever we do this exercise with a group, it’s always wonderful to hear what books people choose to remember, and how clearly they can evoke these intimate spaces where one could be in pure communion.

We invite you to try this exercise, too. Give yourself 15 minutes. See if you can discover something new about that book you loved as a child. Share it with us here!

Yours in the writing life,
Brenda