Nov 26

Small Kindness

Dear Friends,
I’m thinking about small acts of kindness this morning, in part because Fiona Robyn, over at Writing Our Way Home, is hosting a “blogsplash” tomorrow on the theme of Small Kindnesses. I’m doing mine a little early, so that you all can participate too!

The idea is that you write a brief reminiscence of a small kindness that has touched your life in some way. Then share it in whatever way you like: on your blog, if you have one, on Facebook, sending it as a letter or email, or reading it to a friend or to yourself.  We’d love it if you shared yours with us here in the comments section!

Here’s how Fiona describes it: “Your small kindness might be an extra-thoughtful Christmas present you’ve never  forgotten, or the unexpected thoughtfulness of a stranger, or a small gesture that rescued you from a dark place. It might have happened this week or twenty years ago. It might be a simple list of the small kindnesses you’ve received this week, or today. It might be a small kindness you’ve been inspired to perform. Follow your inspiration..”

Here’s the one that comes to mind for me today:
Some days don’t start out well. I get distracted by worries, which leads to a paralyzing indecision: I’ll start a task only to get anxious that I should be doing something else. This creates a cycle of anxiety that seems impossible to break.

On one day like this, in the early afternoon, I finally decided to go shopping at Trader Joe’s (which in my town is really not the best place to go when you’re feeling anxious!) I felt grumpy as I navigated through the crowded narrow aisles. I felt on the verge of tears as I tried to decide between 12 different kinds of chocolate. It took me a long time to choose a bouquet of rather bedraggled sunflowers, something I thought might cheer me up.

When I finally made it to the checkout stand, the cashier asked me, in her professional cheerful voice: “How’s your day going?” I decided to answer truthfully. Rather than just shooting back the automatic Fine, or not answering at all, I said “Not so good. I’m having a hard time today.” The checker was just about to ring up my sad little bouquet, but she stopped to have a real look at me. Then she said, “how about if I just give you these flowers today, no charge,” and placed them in my hands.

I thanked her and made it out to the parking lot before I started crying. I wouldn’t say they were tears of joy, or sadness, but more like tears of relief. To have been seen, really seen, in that one moment of vulnerability, was her true gift to me.

For a long time, I’ve kept this quote near my computer: “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And the Dalai Lama has said: “My religion is kindness.” It can be easy to forget to be kind, especially to ourselves. Another great reminder is this song by Copper Wimmin, called “Kinder.” Take their words as a soundtrack to this season.

With love,
P.S.: For those of you in the Seattle area, Holly and I will be at Elliot Bay Books on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2:00 p.m.. Come say hello!

Nov 21

Thank You

Before you go out into the world, wash your face in the clear crystal of praise. Bury each yesterday in the fine linen and spices of thankfulness. —Charles Spurgeon

May you enjoy a delicious Thanksgiving in every way. We are so grateful for you, our readers, and your presence in our lives.
With love,
Brenda and Holly

Nov 18

Wu-Wei or The Way of Water

Dear friends,

I subscribe to Heron Dance Art Studio’s daily email A Pause for Beauty, but confess that during the busy work week, I don’t always make time for that pause. This morning I did, and what I found was exactly the reminder I need as I face a challenging situation at work:

…Taoism considers a person wise if he accommodates himself to the rhythms of the universe. Likewise, a boater is wise if he accommodates himself to the river’s flow: He must paddle with the water, not against it. Through practice and sensitivity comes an intuitive understanding of the water’s way.

One important Taoist principle is wu-wei, which literally means “not-doing.” In practice, wu-wei means letting things be themselves and not forcing them. This does not imply non-action; rather, there is an understanding of how to take the path of least resistance and apply one’s strength correctly. …

The boater who understands water does not attempt to force his way through rapids, fighting the water and seeking to overcome it. Rather, he applies his strength at the proper moment and in the most efficient way. A light stroke, executed with finesse, will do more to control the craft than any amount of determined but insensitive flailing.

The process is explained by Chuang-Tzu, a fourth-century B.C. Taoist sage. He tells the story of an old man who fell into a terrible rapid and emerged safely downstream. When asked to explain his survival, the man replied, “Plunging into the whirl, I come out with the swirl. I accommodate myself to the water, not the water to me. And so I am able to deal with it after this fashion…”

 – Christopher Norment, In the North of Our Lives

You can read the whole post in the Heron Dance Art Studio archives,  where you can also sign up to be on the daily Pause for Beauty email list.

Sometimes all we need are these small reminders, that quiet but decisive shift in perspective, that pause that allows us to see how we can effectively work with, not against, what’s around us, so that we, too, can “plunge into the whirl and come out with the swirl.”

This week, consider how you might use this principle in your life. Do you face any situations where the most skillful action could be discerning how to work with the forces, not fight them?   Taoism uses the metaphor of a paddler running a river.  See if you can come up with your own metaphor, then share it with us here.   

Yours in river running,


Nov 05

Open House

Dear Friends,
Today I want to share with you a wonderful quote Erin posted on her blog “Being Poetry”:

“For me, the writing life doesn’t just happen when I sit at the writing desk. It is a life lived with a centering principle, and mine is this: that I will pay close attention to this world I find myself in. ‘My heart keeps open house,’ was the way the poet Theodore Roethke put it in a poem. And rendering in language what one sees through the opened windows and doors of that house is a way of bearing witness to the mystery of what it is to be alive in this world.”
                                                                  —Julia Alvarez

This week, see what happens when you consider your heart an “open house.” Does it scare you? Free you? Exhilarate you? What kind of writing emerges when we make ourselves this lovely and vulnerable?

Yesterday I spent the day in a wild frenzy of cooking (putting in stores for the week ahead.) At one point the kitchen starting filling with smoke from frying, so I opened all my doors. The wind blew in, flapping the curtains, scaring the cat, clattering the wind chimes, and in general making the kind of ruckus I’m usually so careful to avoid. The dog started barking. I started laughing. In this season when we’re “battening down the hatches,” it can feel so luscious to just open wide instead.

Yours truly,

P.S.: If you’re in the Seattle area, save the date: Holly and I will be reading at Elliot Bay Book Company on Sunday, Dec. 2, at 2:00. Hope to see you there!

Oct 29

Creating Writerly Communities

Dear Friends,
It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, and six of us are gathered around the many-leafed wood table in the back room of The Writer’s Workshoppe in Port Townsend, each reading one of the pieces we wrote earlier: Michael describes the old gas Chambers cook stove in his mother’s kitchen; Kay writes about her dog Zoe that slept under the dining room table; Laura writes about a sand dollar, embarking on a litany of questions (how many legs does a sand dollar have?); Vonnie writes about an acorn with its small beret; Brenda writes about skipping a grade in grade school; and Holly writes about the jars lined up in her pantry in Indianola, filled with lentils, beans, and black forbidden rice.

For the last four hours of this rainy Saturday afternoon, we’ve alternated short periods of meditation or relaxation practice with writing practice, using writing prompts from The Pen & the Bell, taking breaks to stretch, do Qi Gong, refill our cups with coffee or tea, grab a few grapes, almonds, or chocolate, then resume our writing practice.

We’re tucked into the brightly-painted back room of the bookstore, where proprietors Anna and Peter Quinn have created a unique haven for book-lovers. The moment you step in out of the rain, you know you’re in the hands of people who love books. The walls on either side are lined with books, organized not just by the usual genres, but other categories:  “the best fiction with a non-linear plot” or “the best kick-ass female characters. “ The tables are covered with book paraphernalia: every size and shape of journal, coffee cups for writers (Revise: You Know You Want To), even clocks for writers (Write. Now.) hang on the walls.

This is a store that is worthy of a pilgrimage, and we’re grateful to be able to spend a rainy afternoon here, writing together.  

After the workshop, we take a break for dinner and then return to  find the space transformed; all the tables are moved back, folding chairs are set up in neat rows, and friends are already seated in them, in fact.  We perch in front on wood stools, reading excerpts from The Pen & the Bell as Halloween revelers pass by outside on the rainy street.

We’d love to teach another workshop in the spring, we tell Anna as we head out the door at the end of the evening.  We’ll let you know here on the website when we’ve scheduled it. In the meantime, you can join us by trying out one of the writing prompts we did together that afternoon:

For three minutes, observe what you see (either literally or in your memory) as you enter your home through the door you use most often. Take note of what objects or plants surround the entry point; take note of the door itself; take note of how this area of transition is arrayed. Then, write about all these details, discerning what they tell about you and your life.

Yours in gratitude for the Writer’s Workshoppe and all who support writing in community,
Holly & Brenda

Oct 22

Take Three Minutes

October arrives in my front yard

Dear Friends,
As I write to you, I’m enamored with the Copper Beech in my front yard: an old tree that has truly embodied autumn this year. “Copper Beech” is such a beautiful name, and this month the tree has awakened to its full coppery glory. I notice it all the time: when I’m driving home and waiting at the stoplight a hundred feet my house; when I pull into the driveway and pause a moment before stepping out; when I go out to the get the paper in the cold morning air.

It’s always there, and it’s always changing. Soon it will be a cross hatch of bare branches, and I’ll forget to notice the tree. I’ll keep my head down against the dark and the cold.

Until sometime in April when, very quietly, it will nudge me out of my stupor. It will sport tiny, fuzzy, rusty buds that will keep changing and growing into the glory you see above. It does all this without a fuss. It just stands and waits and grows.

It’s easy to take notice of the the world around us when it’s beautiful. Especially in a season like fall, where the changes seem more stunning, more obvious, and we’re motivated to hang on to every moment. More challenging is the darker, slower, perhaps less noticeable season to come.

That’s why it’s so important to practice. Practice noticing. Practice gratitude. Practice acceptance. Practice taking three minutes to pause, note, bow, and continue on. Because when it’s not so obvious to us that we must take notice, our body, minds, and hearts will remember for us.

Fiona Robyns, at Writing Our Way Home, is such a great reminder of this. In her blog post today, she reminds us that we can feel better in an instant, just by taking three minutes to notice what’s right in front of us, then writing it down. After describing the busyness of her morning, she writes:

But I hadn’t looked at the browning edges of this blue-grey leaf brushing against the side of my laptop screen. I hadn’t sniffed at this cup of tea and wondered at how far the tea leaves have travelled. I hadn’t stood at our glass doors and seen the pink of a last few fallen apples, the delicate virginal flags of the cyclamen. I hadn’t let out a deep, slow breath.

I have now, and I feel better. A little more spacious. A little more grounded. A little more connected.

Three minutes. That’s all it takes.

And it’s true. That’s all it takes to connect back to the world, the season, and yourself. So try it. Practice it. Take three minutes, RIGHT NOW, and notice what’s right in front of you. Give it your full attention. Write it down. Surely you have three minutes? Tell us what you see.

Yours in the transience of autumn,
P.S.: Check out Fiona’s Mindful Writing Day, set for Nov. 1. I’ll be there, will you?


Oct 15

Fall Rituals

Dear Friends,
This weekend, fall arrived in the Northwest in a clatter of rain: rain that soaked into the thirsty earth, feeding the tangled roots of the squash, tomatoes, beans; rain that will swell the streams, allowing salmon to surge upriver to spawn at last. I spent the weekend at the North Cascades Institute, teaching a class with my old friend Kurt Hoelting called Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence. The rain became an active participant in our daily sitting practice, thrumming the roof each time Kurt rang the bell, calling us to attention, reminding us that we’ve shifted toward fall.

The rain knew when to quit, thankfully, easing for an afternoon so we could hike up to the waterfall, walk in silence beneath towering cedars, douglas firs, and hemlocks—scarlet leaves of the vine maples shimmering in staccato relief. Together, we reflected on this transition, the outer landscape mirroring the inner transition we each must make. I returned feeling renewed, energized, at last able to welcome fall with an open heart.

It’s never easy to let summer go and this summer especially—this last month of September blue skies and days still warm enough to swim —but I’ve tried to take comfort in the rituals of fall: picking the last of the raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, apples, plums, figuring out ways to preserve as much as we can. We freeze the berries, slice up the good apples and freeze them for pies and cobblers, save the rest for cooking into applesauce with cinnamon or pressing into cider.

Our plum tree surprised us with a load of ripe plums this year, despite the drought, and I tried my friend Heidi’s recipe for Asian Plum Sauce, a tantalizing, complex, blend of sweet/spicy, perfect over salmon or chicken. As I lowered the jars into the water bath, counted out the minutes they need to process, I was reminded that we, too, need this processing time in the fall, need time to let go of the lazier days of summer, to shift back into work, teaching, projects, whatever fall brings. That with fall will come rain, roasted root vegetables and soup, time to gather again with friends at the hearth and around the table and yes, time to write.

All these rituals are preparation for what lies ahead. As I hang out the last load of laundry in the fading fall sun, pinning each dripping sock to the line, I let the words swirl in my head, trust that they’ll find their way to the page soon enough. That all these rituals give our minds the time they need to process, that soon we’ll hear the ping, ping, ping of the jar lids as they cool, feel the satisfaction as the words click into place.

Reflect on the rituals that help you shift into fall. Choose one to write about—giving us ALL the sensory details as if you could preserve it like huckleberry jam—and post it here. We look forward to seeing what you do to ease this transition, how words can help us process these rhythms in our lives as the earth tilts away from the sun once again.

With gratitude,

Oct 08

Inspiration, Procrastination, Optimism, Realism: The “isms” of a Creative Life

Dear friends,
For Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, I fasted from the Internet and television (you’re supposed to fast from food, of course, but I couldn’t quite make that sacrifice!). The purpose of fasting is to mark the day as “different” somehow, to remind yourself that this day is set aside for contemplation, prayer, restoration.

It worked. As I got past the jitters I found my mind returning (had a I “lost” my mind? In a sense I had…) I got reacquainted with a self who knew patience and a slow curiosity. I looked at some of my writing, and as I read got ideas for new pieces. I wrote a little bit, which led to more writing. Writing begets writing: an old chestnut, something I tell my students all the time, but can forget the truth of it myself.

And yet the Internet does often bring me inspiration too. Holly sent me a link to a blog by Star Rush, and this post is titled: “A Creative Mind Needs to Work.” In it, she speaks about how the creative mind needs regular practice, just the way we practice any physical endeavor. We need to keep the creative mind active and busy:

Creative action leads to inspiration. Inspiration leads to creative action. Waiting tends to lead to neither. By creative action I mean the task of practicing one’s creative expression as often as possible,with attention to frequency of practice and not perfection of outcome….


This is attention to practice, not attention to perfection. Each day isn’t going to yield excellence, far from it. Each day yields confidence in one’s vision, one’s ability to produce not just a creative product but produce inspiration itself: 1. To be curious about the world and one’s place in it, and 2. To cultivate the compulsive desire to investigate and express that curiosity in whatever medium one wishes.

This is a wonderful aspiration. Yet, for many of us, we procrastinate the creative life, without quite knowing why. In this article by Tia Sparkles, from the blog “A Year With Myself,” she looks at procrastination, itself, as a creative tool:

It starts with understanding why you procrastinate in the first place…Procrastination can be a fantastic tool that can help you figure out what’s really important to you, what you love, what you’re passionate about, what inspires you…. It’s a true indicator of your essential self, the part of you that doesn’t often see the light of day but points you towards your North Star….

When you stop to ask the right questions, you get the answers you’ve been seeking. Ask yourself what your procrastination is trying to tell you. What message it wants you to get. What direction it wants you to go in. Listen. Understand. Act.

And as a balance between the optimism of Star’s blog with the pragmatism of Tia’s article, I’ll share with you my Pisces horoscope from The Daily Om (their daily missives are always so right on!)

We can achieve our goals more efficiently if we strive for a healthy balance between optimism and realism. While our optimistic attitude lends positive energy to our actions, we might be tempted to believe that our journey will be smooth and effortless. Rather than sabotaging ourselves with expectations that are too high, we can instead choose to inject a dose of realism into our goals. We are then able to use our optimism to fuel our actions and continue along the path to our goals, while at the same time develop a flexible attitude that helps us to overcome challenges and persevere. With this combination of optimism and realism, the achievement of our goals becomes much more possible. Your hopeful outlook can further your goals if you choose to temper it with a dose of reality today.

May you have an inspired, optimistic, realistic week ahead.


Sep 26

Tapping Into Our Collective Creative Energy

Dear friends,

I’m just back from teaching at the literary conference LitFuse, and I should be asleep, but I’m too wired; LitFuse did just what it promised. I’m reminded why we go to conferences: Writing is a solitary act and we need the energy and inspiration from others in our tribe, need the reminders that we’re not alone in this sometimes lonely pursuit.

I’d been hearing about LitFuse for years, since it was launched in 2006 in Tieton (near Yakima, WA) and was glad to have the opportunity to experience it myself. I knew it would be exhausting—the three-hour drive over on highways dense with smoke from the fires to the north—and it was. But I wasn’t prepared for how much I received back.

I taught two workshops: “Making Room to Write in a Crowded World: Mindfulness and Writing Practice,” using The Pen and the Bell,  and a workshop on revision. Since I didn’t have much time to prepare, I decided to call on my former teachers—and all the collective wisdom in the room. It worked. I put together a list of revision strategies from workshops I’d attended and that spun into a lively discussion, everyone in the room bringing their own questions, examples, and strategies to the conversation. (I’m happy to send my list of revision strategies to anyone who asks for it.)  

To prepare us, we read together a few lines from a poem by Jane Hirshfield, reminding us that revision is an opportunity to “re-vision” our work,

Toward the end, only revision mattered:
to look again, more deeply, harder, clearer,
the one redemption granted us to ask.
   — “History of the Painter Bonnard”

Here are a few of the many suggestions from faculty and students in the workshop, with a deep bow of gratitude to all:

Karen Finneyfrock, a  wonderful spoken word poet, took the important strategy of reading the poem aloud one step further: Memorize the poem! She finds that when she stumbles in a poem, that’s often a line that needs re-working. Along this line, Terry Martin, of Blue Begonia Press, reminded us that it’s helpful to hear your poem read aloud by someone else.

Katharine Whitcomb, a fine poet who teaches at Central Washington University reminded us of the importance of the integrity of the line and the importance of a strong title, one that adds tension to the poem. (Check out her poems for great examples of this!)  Marjorie Rommel suggested looking at the poem as a musical narrative, even applying musical terms like adagio or legato to focus on the pacing, specifically. Dana Guthrie Martin suggested trying different sizes/shapes of paper to shift to a new perspective.

I hope you’ll visit the LitFuse website and check out the writing that will be posted from Dan Peters’ workshop, where participants wrote about the glittering sculpture pieces on display in the Mighty Tieton Warehouse. Many thanks to Ed Marquand and Michael Longyear for the vision of Mighty Tieton, and to Michael Schein, Carol Trenga and Sylvia Imbrock for the smooth execution of LitFuse 2012.

This week, tap into the creative energy in your writing community by checking out writing workshops or signing up for a class.  

For writing this week, choose a poem or prose piece that’s stalled out, and try out one of the revision strategies listed here, then send us both versions.   Or send us YOUR revision strategy to add to our list.  

May we all find ways to be re-energized and to “look again, more deeply, harder, clearer” as we head into fall…


Sep 17

Happy New Year!

Dear Friends,
We have just started Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year. It’s my favorite holiday, as it comes just at the time of year when everything begins to shift: summer into fall, the school year beginning, evenings growing short but luminous.  We say to each other L’Shana Tovah: May you have a sweet year ahead.

The foods we eat reflect this yearning for sweetness. Traditionally we eat apples dipped in honey, and make sweet challah bread braided into a round. We eat dates and pomegranates. We enter into a period of reflection: thinking over the past, making note of when we’ve been unskilful in our dealings with ourselves and others, and how we might learn from this, move forward with good intentions. We symbolically throw bread crumbs in a creek or a stream to let go of what we want to let go of, to make room for goodness and sweetness to enter.

I’m having several friends over tomorrow night and I’m making Moroccan Chicken with Dates; Sweet potatoes with orange zest; and a braided honey-curry bread. Someone is making an apple-honey tart. Someone else is bringing wine. Together we’ll make a meal that is more than just a physical repast; it will be a way to welcome sweetness into our lives and our hearts.

For 15 minutes, write about a meal that is more than just a meal. What kinds of meals in your past or present represent something beyond the physical? Or write about your favorite holiday: what is it that brings you joy about this day?

May you have a sweet, sweet year ahead, full of love and good cheer,