Apr 13

Celebrating National Poetry Month

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    Celebrating National Poetry Month

Dear friends,

In the words of T.S. Eliot, “April is the cruelest month.” Here in the Northwest, Eliot’s words ring true, where temperatures during the day rise to the 60s but drop down into the 30s at night, reminding us—and our tender plants—that spring isn’t here quite yet. But the cherry trees are in full bloom in our backyard and tulips form a quilt of color in the Skagit valley to the north.

April is also National Poetry Month, so poetry readings, like tulips, are abundant. Last weekend, I participated in a poetry event at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, a sanctuary of land set aside by Prentice Bloedel and his wife, Virginia, who resided on the property from 1951- 1986. The Bloedel family loved poetry and Theodore Roethke was a regular visitor to their home, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before the Bloedel Reserve re-connected with poets.

This year they did so by offering the first Poet-in-Residence to former Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken and inaugurating a poetry walk, curated by University of Washington professor and poet Linda Bierds and novelist and poet David Guterson, both residents on the island. In honor of National Poetry Month poems would be nominated by local poets and poetry readers and placed along the extensive walking paths, so visitors can contemplate the poems along with the gardens and views.

In February, I was invited to nominate a poem. This meant I was invited to visit the Bloedel Reserve and walk the paths with a map that indicated the poem sites, then suggest a poem or two.   I love an assignment, and especially one which gave me an excuse not only to visit the Bloedel, but also to re-visit favorite poems. Soon I was pulling books off the shelf—Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, John Haines, Robert Sund—until I had a small stack. I read through them, made copies, and took a sheaf of poems with me on my walk with my friend Heidi as navigator and guide.HeidiBloedel

A chilly February day made it a challenge to envision the landscape in spring, but Heidi, a regular visitor to the Bloedel, filled in the gaps: “oh, the cyclamen will be blooming here in April,” she said as we rounded a corner by the stream. I began to match up sites with poems and sent Linda not just one nomination, but five because I couldn’t decide.  “That’s just fine,” Linda said. “We know there will be duplicates.” (In fact, turns out we all wanted to nominate Yeats “Wild Swans at Coole” for the pond where, yes, the wild swans returned each year). I nominated poems by Denise Levertov, Tess Gallagher, Gary Snyder and Linda Gregg, as well as a poem by Pablo Neruda. They chose the Linda Gregg poem, “Praising Spring” and another nominator selected the Neruda poem for her nomination.

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Last weekend, the curators, nominators and other local poetry lovers met to walk the trails and read the poems. The weather cooperated, clearing in the afternoon as we gathered at the sheep shed. After an introduction by Bierds and Guterson, local Olympic peninsula poet and naturalist Tim McNulty read his poem that had been nominated and Poet-in-Residence Kathleen Flenniken read the poem she’d nominated by Richard Wilbur. Then we were off to walk the bark paths and read the poems, gathering after at the Bloedel residence for wine and appetizers.

This turned out to be a perfect way to celebrate National Poetry Month. While you may not live close enough to visit the Bloedel Reserve, I hope you’ll seek out poetry readings or events in your community this month. Here are links to a few ways you can get involved:

The Academy of American Poets has put together a list of 30 Ways to Celebrate <http://www.poets.org/national-poetry-month/30-ways-celebrate-national-poetry-month

For those in the Northwest, here’s a list of local readings and events put together by the Puget Sound Poetry Connection: <http://pugetsoundpoetryconnection.us8.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=035d08d1d2ea5ebc8c310a886&id=5292204498&e=1421216789> .

Thanks to the poet Drew Myron for sending the following suggestions—be sure to check out her inspiring website at http://www.drewmyron.com/, where she’s giving away free poetry books to celebrate National Poetry Month!

Twitter Poetry ContestStenhouse Publishers invites your brevity with a poem that is 140 characters or less.

Poem in Your Pocket Day : Poem in Your Pocket Day is April 30. Pick a poem, carry it with you, and share it with others.

Yours in the celebration of National Poetry Month in all its myriad creative forms,

Holly

Feb 21

Letter from Grandma’s Cove

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Dear Friends,
As many of you know, Holly and I wrote the first draft of The Pen and the Bell as letters to one another. We wrote these letters from wherever we happened to be: in our homes, at the doctor’s office, or waiting for a car to be fixed in the auto shop. Once, we were able to work together at a wonderful retreat center, The Helen R. Whiteley Center, on San Juan Island, and we even wrote letters to one another while working in the same room!

Holly is on retreat this week, solo this time, at the Whiteley Center, and I was delighted to receive a letter from her; it reminded me of that year when we each had a ready audience for our thoughts as we moved through the days. I’d like to share this letter with you, since you are now part of the The Pen and the Bell family:

February 17, 2015
Letter from Grandma’s Cove, San Juan Island

Dear Brenda,
I’m writing you from a sandy beach in Grandma’s Cove, where I’ve finally landed after walking the trails along the edge of the bluffs at American Camp, past the laundry, past the meadow where I once caught a glimpse of a black fox.  Something kept me moving down the hillside, wanting to sit where the sea murmurs to the  sand, listen to her steady breath.  A few seagulls glide past, checking me out, but otherwise, the beach is all mine as the sun slowly drops behind the jagged ridge of the Olympics.  I can just barely hear the low grumble of a boat making its way west, a silhouette on the horizon.  All the stones shimmer at the tide’s edge, open to the sea’s blessing, palms up.

How is that I forget that I need this, too?  This quiet time in the warm sun with nowhere I need to be, nothing on my to-do list, no plans needing to be made.  Just here with the sand, seagulls, and stones. I go on retreat to write, at least that’s what I think, and that’s what I tell colleagues, friends and family, my cat MC who’s pouting because I’m not there to feed her the way she likes. But I go on retreat for this, too, for the chance to be reminded that I need to listen to that voice that says, at 3 pm, OK, you’ve done enough for today. Let’s get outta here—I don’t care where—let’s go!

I listened, hopped in my car and drove south out of town by instinct, following the sun south and west on Cattle Point Road.  I’d intended to go on to Cattle Point, where we once went together, but something called me here and I listened, pulling over in the American Camp parking lot, then walking until my feet found this path to the beach, slipping down a steep trail to reach it.

And now I’m here, watching the ship become a speck on the horizon, feeling the welcome February sun on my face and arms, bones soaking in Vitamin D.  Soon, I’ll rise, walk back up the trail, keeping a lookout for the black fox I once saw on this trail. Each time I return, I hope I might see it, though I know it’s unlikely.  But that’s what these days on retreat give us, isn’t it?  The belief that anything CAN happen: the words might flow effortlessly, the black fox trot up the trail, rounding the next curve in the path.

May these warm, sunny days remind us that spring’s ahead and anything can happen…
yours in blissful retreat,
Holly 

Maybe it’s been awhile since you’ve written a real letter—not a text, not an email, not a note. Perhaps you can take a half-hour this weekend and write a short letter to a friend, letting her know you’re there.

With love,
Brenda

Jan 12

Gifts from the Sea

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Dear friends,

I’ve just returned from a week on Sanibel Island with my sisters where we walked the long sandy beach each morning with snowy egrets, herons, plovers and terns, eager to see what gifts the sea might bring. On Christmas Day, when the sun rose, we were greeted by a beach festooned with shells—whelks, periwinkles, starfish, sea urchins, crabs—all scattered across the sand awaiting the return of the tide. We watched as egrets and herons paced the shoreline, seagulls dropped shells to crack them open. Then the shellers arrived, tourists like us, in search of empty shells we could take home as souvenirs.

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In the midst of all this, we watched a mother from India with her young daughter and son wade thigh-deep into the sea. The daughter picked up a shell, peered inside, shrieked, “it’s alive!” She’d found a shell inhabited by a hermit crab, its legs scrambling in the air. Not wanting to spoil her delight, we refrained from asking her to return the shell and the crab to the sea, but held our breath until she did, then watched as she picked up another, and another, peered inside each one, exclaiming “it’s alive!” with a delighted grin, then releasing it.

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Of course I’m reminded of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Seawhich was written nearby on Captiva Island sixty years ago in March. I first read it when I was in high school, but try to re-read it every decade. She focuses on one shell in each chapter, exploring it as a metaphor for the stages in a woman’s life: Moon Shell for solitude, Double-Sunrise Shell for relationships, Oyster for growing old, among others.

As we watched the delight of the young girl on finding live shells—mixed with the delight of the tourists finding dead shells and the seagulls dropping shells to crack them open—I’m reminded of the many forms gifts can take.

Now that the holidays are over, I hope you’ll reflect on an unlikely gift you received, one you didn’t expect, one that delighted you. I hope you might be inspired to read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea if you haven’t already—or re-read it if you have.

I’ll be writing more about that morning and hope you’ll join me. Here’s a poem by Eleanor Lerman that begins with a description of a fisherman’s account of seeing starfish and is a beautiful reminder of gratitude as we enter a new year together: “Starfish

With gratitude for gifts in whatever form they take,

Holly

Dec 23

What makes your heart leap?

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Dear friends,

At this time of year, I always like to take an evening to reflect on the past year. I do this to try to corral where the time has gone (where has the time gone?), but also to discern patterns that have played out, and perhaps subtly changed. It’s always best, and much more fun, to do this in the company of my women friends.

This year we gathered at my home at sundown on the solstice (4 p.m. where I live!) and I made vats of hot cocoa with all the accoutrements: whipped cream, shaved chocolate, orange zest. Others brought cookies and crackers and cheese. I gave out party favors of palm-sized embossed notebooks, and this poem, by W.S. Merwin:

To The New Year
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

This big guy was allowed into the ladies’ circle, my latest foster dog, Mr Bear:
1901269_10204322735502780_3483638063099660207_nAnd of course, Abbe was there, at our feet, in all her finery:
1507939_10204423808429540_6258588108522892375_nAs a way to begin reflecting together, I handed out this writing prompt, by Pam Houston, taken from the website Tracking Wonder:

“Sit quietly and ask yourself, what in the last day or week or month has made your heart leap up? Not what should, or might or always had, but what did. Make that list. Be honest, even if it surprises you. Keep the list with you this month. Add to it when it happens. Train yourself to notice. Then ask yourself today, how can I arrange my life to get more of those heart leaps in it?”

We wrote for a little while in our new notebooks, then shared what we had written. You might think of “heart leaps” as moments out of the ordinary, and yes, there were a few of those. But the deepest, most authentic heart leaps came in the ordinary moments that are looked on anew: a sip of homemade chantrelle soup; the cocoa right in front of us; a passing moment of kindness.

You might try this on your own, or with a few friends. What makes your heart leap? How can your life allow for more of these moments of quiet joy?

To aid you in this last part, here are two episodes of the Ted Radio Hour I listened to while happily doing housework in the last week: a show on finding quiet in the midst of busy-ness,  and a show on the nature of happiness. And (surprise, surprise) both shows explore how staying fully present in the moment, no matter what we are doing, is the “secret” to happiness.

May you have such moments again and again, during this holiday season of light and into the new year.

With love,
Brenda

Fall in the North Cascades

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Dear friends,

I wrote this several weeks ago. I’d hoped to post it sooner, but wasn’t able to do so, so am posting it now…

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I’ve once again returned from a deeply renewing weekend at the North Cascades Institute with Kurt Hoelting, where we taught a workshop together called: Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence. This is the fourth time we’ve taught this workshop together and each time, I’m reminded of the value of providing space and time for us to gather together and re-affirm what we know in our bones: wilderness matters and meditation and writing can help us remember this, remember that we need to pay attention to both our inner and outer landscapes.  I’m so grateful to Saul Weisberg, who co-founded the North Cascades Institute in 1986 for his vision.  Here’s an interview with Saul, where you can find out more about all the wonderful programs NCI offers.

When we gathered Friday night, we asked what drew the 28 participants to this session, and for most it was the combination of meditation, writing and being in the natural world that appealed. And that’s what we did, rising before dawn to greet the day in silence together, walking and writing together in the morning, then returning to share our words in a circle around the classroom. After lunch on Saturday, we were blessed by a break in the rain and headed up the trail to the waterfall, lead by our intrepid naturalist Katherine, where we enjoyed the fall sun on our faces, listened to the waterfall, and wrote in our journals. On the way back down, we encouraged participants to peel off from the group and find a place to write and explore more deeply—responding to whatever spoke to them along the way.

On the way up the trail, I’d been astounded by the variety and abundance of mushrooms bursting through the dark hummus with the return of the rain, so knew I wanted to spend more time with them. Write from the point of view of what you’re seeing, I’d encouraged. Try to go inside whatever it is you’re observing and write from its perspective, see what it might have to teach us. Here’s what I wrote in my journal after sitting for ten minutes with a red Lobster Mushroom:

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“Burst through the earth when the season is right, after the rains have nourished. Dwell at the feet of the cedars, your elders, nourished by their wisdom. Make use of it all: the green fir needles that fall to the forest floor, scarlet vine maple leaves, ghostly shreds of lungwort that sail down from high in the canopy. Embrace your neighbors—even though they may be different from you—all the forms of fungi that inhabit this earth. Be bold— wear red —even though you once thought it too loud. Hold hands with your family under the earth, even if no one sees or knows. Remember that we’re all connected in all ways, always.”

You don’t have to go up to the North Cascades to do this, though I hope you will someday. Just find a quiet corner of your yard or a park and sit in silence until something speaks to you. Pay attention, using all your senses and enlist your imagination, too. Then write what it might be saying.

yours in fungi fellow feeling,

Holly

Oct 27

This One’s For You

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Dear Friends,

I’m in Port Townsend on a little 3-day writing retreat. My dog, Abbe, is with me, providing good company and a fine excuse to get up several times a day to go outside, where the fall weather has turned cool and blustery. It’s the kind of retreat where I’m not doing much of what we actually think of when writing—hands on the keyboard, words stringing out along the page. It’s more of a “reconnecting” kind of work: reading over bits and pieces I’ve written in the past, remembering what’s there, feeling tentatively for the shape of what’s to come.

This kind of work can be difficult, as it’s not very concrete. It can be easy to give up, and play solitaire, and eat chocolate instead (though I’ve always maintained chocolate is an essential writing tool…) But I just keep breathing through it, and reading, and allowing myself to drift off as the rain hits the windows.

Luckily, many of my allies are here to support me: Abbe, and Holly who joined me for dinner one night. And my friend Sheila Bender, whose life revolves around writing and helping others to write. And serendipitously, one of my favorite writers, Kim Stafford, was here in town and gave a reading Saturday night.

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We often quote Kim in The Pen and the Bell because his work is so much about connecting with what’s essential in our lives. He emphasizes the holy practice of writing for writing’s sake. And the minute I saw him in the wonderful bookstore The Writer’s Workshoppe (where Holly and I have also given workshops), I felt renewed and inspired.

He talked about the importance of a daily writing practice, a way to bypass the “percussive of the everyday” and tap instead into the gentle flow of creativity that always threads beneath this racket. He read several new poems that are part of his latest practice—what he calls “Citizen Poetry.” In these poems he writes for instead of about. He writes poems for people, for places, for animals. They are small gifts. He even wrote a poem for the Writer’s Workshoppe, which included these lines:

“….it is a chapel where pilgrims
murmur their prayers for being
known, understood, accompanied,
invited to join the bookish tribe.

I have seen saints come forth
no longer alone, carrying a new
gospel, a personal testament,
a passport for the new life.”

Once you set yourself assignments like these—such as to write a poem “for” something each day—your writing can take on a new focus. You now have a task to hold lightly through the day.

Try it: if you were to dedicate your writing today as an action of “for” rather than “about,” what might shift in your tone or perspective?

This blog post is for you, dear reader. May you have a day of good work,

Brenda

 

 

 

Oct 08

Fall Gatherings

Can-Dogs-Eat-Apples

Dear friends,

Windfall apples diced and simmering on the stove. Chard and kale in leafy abundance for sautés and smoothies. Sungold tomatoes sweet enough to eat right off the vine. Delicata squash still ripening as its vine dies back. Raspberry canes still bearing a few red jewels when we remember to check. All the gatherings of fall, the gifts that make it possible to let go of long, sunny summer days and turn again toward the hearth.

And so we let go of eating summer salads outside on the deck, swimming in lakes, pulling weeds after dinner as the sun goes down. We light a fire in the wood stove, dust off the books in the library, make soup, roast beets and squash, welcome the return of the salmon.

As we gather the harvest, fall reminds us of the importance of gathering together with friends again, too . I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to stay inside long enough to write in the summer. Instead, I carry my notebook with me, filling it with notes and sketches of what I observe. Now, I pull out that notebook, transcribe the notes, see if I might find the seed for a poem or two. As I work on those poems, I turn to my writing friends for feedback and our workshop starts up again after a long summer break.

Other gatherings happen in fall. In late September, I made the trek across the state to teach at Litfuse, a poetry gathering in Tieton. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Michael Shein, Carol Trenga and Ed Marquand, among others, Litfuse has become a vital celebration of poetry in all its diverse forms. I taught a workshop called “Words from the Land: Connecting with our Common Ground,” which seemed appropriate since Tieton is in the heart of apple orchard country. We read poems from the anthology: In Praise of Fertile Land, published by Whit Press, then wrote about our own connections to the land.

One of the participants was inspired to write about the apples she grew up with back east: the MacIntosh.

My Vagabond Song

“The scarlet of the maples can shake me like  the cry of bugles going by”
A Vagabond Song, Bliss Carmen, 1894

A Macintosh Apple doesn’t travel well
across the country.
It needs to stay home in New England

in the crisp autumn nights that
turn leaves red and gold

in the black soil full of humus
and colonial history

crisp thin skin with
tang and tartness
cut with sugary juices to the snap bite.

Last year on my birthday
Kathy sent me
in an envelope
some Macintosh seeds
from an apple she had just eaten.

The smell of wood smoke
down Frost’s country road
thick in mudtime

past  orchards getting smaller
as they are everywhere.

I want to feel its dark red roundness
warm in my palm
so I can put my head down
and smell it
and go home.

                  Peggy Barnett, 2014

I’ll end on a quote from a book I’m reading by Julian Hoffman: The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World. He begins with a line from Rilke: “Everything beckons us to perceive it, murmurs at every turn,” then goes onto remind us that “the art of perceiving is more about reception than it is vision. We don’t have to struggle to see things, Rilke suggests, for they are already there, calling us. The difficulty lies in unlearning our tendency toward indifference….There is possibility in the smallest of things, the most innocuous of moments. More mystery can be found in a few moments spent in a stand of trembling reeds than a lifetime passed in an unperceived world.”

May fall bring you many opportunities for noticing the beckoning world—see if you can notice some small natural detail you’d overlooked before—and for gathering together to share what you notice with friends.  You might also consider attending a writer’s conference in your area or creating your own writer’s gathering.  It could be as easy as inviting a few friends over for tea and sharing your fall harvest of words.

yours in gratitude for the abundance of fall,

Holly

 

Aug 24

The Summer of Puppies

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Dear Friends,
At the beginning of this summer, I took in a pregnant foster dog, Becky. She was little more than a puppy herself: nine months old, a stray, with a golden coat and the brindled markings of a shepherd mix. She had an open, friendly face, eyes alert for whatever will happen next.

As soon as she arrived, the house took on an aspect of waiting. I found myself watching her belly, placing my hand there to feel the puppies moving inside, while Becky and I gazed at one another: a vast, reverberant silence between us. This waiting—it felt like a kind of worship.

A week later, she gave birth to eight puppies. While I was in my office, looking up signs of imminent labor on the Internet, Becky jumped up on my lounge chair and started delivering the first puppy. I rushed out to find the first pup still emerging, nestled in the amniotic sac, and Becky gazing at it with puzzled focus. Then her instinct kicked in, and she began lapping with deep moist strokes to free the baby from its watery sac and chew off its umbilical cord.

The puppy—wet and slick and free of her mother—began to chirp, and Becky curled her front paw and pulled the baby deep into the cave she made of her abdomen. Only then did she look at me again, panting, and again some wordless communion passed between us. I’ve got this, she seemed to say. Trust me.

For the next four hours I sat by her side as more pups arrived, each puppy a surprise, the coloring apparent through the amniotic sac. Each one stretched its small limbs and chirped once free of the sac and under the care of its mother’s tongue. People came to help, and left. The mailman brought the mail. My cell phone beeped. The workaday world carried on around me, but Becky and I had entered a space both separate from and connected to that world.

 

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As Robert Vivian said in his book The Dignity of Crumbs: “The strings tying us to each other are everywhere.” This sentiment becomes more obvious when in the presence of birth or death, when all the portals are open.

I spent the next eight weeks in the presence of puppies. For the first two weeks, they were still embryonic, with eyes shut tight and little wax nubbins for ears. But soon enough they grew into full-fledged, rambunctious kids, taking over my home, a little like a swarm of piranhas. I felt a strong responsibility and love for them all, but also felt a deep relief when they were all gone and safely adopted into their new homes.

 

10593009_10203492332503224_4826831124899776780_nSo, for me, this summer will always be known as the “summer of puppies.” What name would your summer have, if you could name it? What has marked the season? Have you been able to take a real break from your “ordinary life?”

In this article from the NY Times, author Daniel Levitin writes about the importance of hitting the “reset button” in our brains, in whatever ways that might manifest. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a herd of puppies yapping for your attention. It can be as simple as absorbing yourself even for just a few minutes a day in something you love—a book, a craft, a special picnic breakfast outside.

Write for 15 minutes starting with the title “My Summer of _______. ” Capture on paper whatever has been capturing you.

Yours in the aftermath of puppy love,
Brenda

 

Aug 15

Raspberry Picking Meditation

red-raspberries-636Dear friends,

For the last few weeks, I’ve started each morning with watering, then raspberry picking meditation. In the winter, I want to go to my cushion, ease into the day as the heat from the wood stove warms the house. But in the summer, the sooner I can get outside, the better I feel. We’ve been blessed by a string of sunny days here in the Pacific Northwest—with temperatures edging up to the 80s—and so the garden needs regular watering.   When I headed out the door this morning, fog still hung in the cedars. But by the time I finished watering, it was lifting, and the sun shone warm on my arms as I stripped off one layer, then another.

I must confess we have a laisse faire attitude toward our raspberries—we water them erratically and don’t weed much—but that doesn’t stop them from producing a steady crop of thimble-sized berries each morning. I move down the rows, tugging gently to see which are ripe, amazed at how many come off their stems, filling the bowl even though I’d picked just the day before.

As I do, I remind myself to be in the moment with each plump, juicy raspberry. As soon as my mind starts to wander, I pull too hard, picking one that’s not quite ready.   I try not to dwell on the berries that shriveled while I was in Alaska, despite our invitation to the house-sitters to pick them. As soon as I begin to rush, I don’t see the berries hiding below the leaves. It’s only when I slow down, crouch down, that I see more scarlet berries hanging, ripe and juicy, ready for eating.

This reminds me of a story my husband tells of picking raspberries with his niece Isolde when she was just 4 or 5. Of course, he was standing up to pick the berries, had just concluded that they’d picked them all, when she reached up to hand him her own small bowl, full to the brim.  From her much lower vantage point, she was able to see all the berries he’d missed.

When I stop finding berries, I crouch down to see if I might see a few more—and there they are. Sometimes this slight shift in perspective is all it takes for our writing, too. When you stop seeing the words on the page—try approaching them from a different point of view. Sometimes a new perspective is all that’s needed.

Consider how you might make such a shift, either in the way you view your life or in your writing.   Write about it, recreating the scene both before and after the shift, showing us the hidden berries you discover.  May the fruit of our lives ripen into an abundant harvest in the days ahead and may we learn to shift our perspective when needed so we can see each berry…

Yours, crouching in the raspberries,

Holly

Jul 06

Still Point

July 3, 2014
Stillpoint Lodge
Kachemak Bay, Alaska

Still Point Lodge“At the still point, there the dance is…
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

—T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton” from “The Four Quartets”

I ring the bell and together, we sit in silence for the last time. Even though we’ve been here just two full days, we’ve entered a slower time as we settle into a daily rhythm of writing together in the morning, kayaking or hiking in the afternoon, sharing our writing in the evening. When the bell rings again, I’ll invite each participant to share a few lines from our afternoon writing practice—to look closely at the natural world, being on the alert for larger patterns that link us all together—and how those patterns might be mirrored in our own lives.

We’re at the Stillpoint Lodge in Halibut Cove, a small community just across Kachemak Bay from Homer, Alaska. The lodge where we gather has floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the Kenai mountains in one direction and the sparkling waters of Kachemak bay in another. From the deck we can see the organic garden, where the cook snips greens for our morning smoothies and evening salads. An indoor stream runs through the adjoining room, designed by a local artist, who also designed the fireplace that features local stones. Every detail here has been thoughtfully chosen by the owners, Jan and Jim Thurston, to remind us of our connection to the natural world. In addition, the beautiful ceramic water jug in each of our small cabins that is refilled daily helps make us aware of our use of precious resources that we can too easily take for granted.

We’ve spent the last two days bringing mindfulness to all our activities: sitting, walking, eating, and seeing– and I’m reminded how much more I see when I finally slow down. This morning, on the way to yoga, I strolled through the organic garden, watched a hummingbird hover over a scarlet nasturtium blossom, its wings a blur of iridescent light and motion as it dipped its long beak into the heart of the blossom for sustenance. It seemed suspended in time & space as it hovered—and that’s how I’ve felt, too, these past two days on retreat.

Retreat: from Latin retrahere, to retract, means, literally, “the act of going backward or withdrawing.” This retreat doesn’t feel like going backward; indeed, it’s what will allow us to move forward. The next two definitions describe where we are both in space and time: “a quiet, private or secure place; a refuge” and “a period of seclusion, retirement or solitude.” Even though we’re only here for three days, we’ve shared silence and heart-felt words, forging bonds that will last beyond our short time together. Because our time together is so fleeting, we’re aware that it’s precious, even as we sink more deeply into it.

I ring the bell again. As it reverberates, I invite the participants to share what they observed: Sharon writes about the wood chips under our feet, linking them to the trees overhead; Sally sees a face in a driftwood log; Justin shares a Robert Frost poem that also shows patterns. Later, we’ll talk about how to carry the insights we’ve gained on retreat home with us. I’ll pass out index cards and invite each person to write an affirmation, a commitment to carve out time and space for his/her writing practice. This time we’ve shared will allow us to remain connected, to support each other. Just knowing that others will be sitting down to write will help us each remember not to get distracted by all the demands of our lives, I will remind them.

Tomorrow morning, we’ll share our last breakfast of granola and homemade scones, mango-kale smoothies, hard-boiled eggs and rye toast, then load our gear onto the boat for the fast ride back to Homer and our respective destinations. I will watch the lodge recede from view in our frothy wake, the quiet morning swallowed up by the whine of the outboard motor. But I’ll know in the midst of all that noise and movement, there is always the still point, and that I can return to it whenever I wish.

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May we each carry this still point within us and seek out opportunities to retreat when we can. Take this invitation to plan a retreat for yourself—perhaps just a day at a friend’s cabin—so you can be reminded of the value of stepping out of your daily routine to reconnect with a slower, natural rhythm that’s always here.

Yours, with gratitude to Beka and all the staff at Stillpoint Lodge and to Kathy, Joe, Karen, Sally, Sharon, Larry, Don and Justin for sharing their words,

Holly