Jun 18

Technology Time Out

Dear Readers,

One day last week, I left home in a rush, leaving my laptop sitting on my desk in Chimacum, where I live with my husband John. When I arrived at my cabin in Indianola, checked my book bag and found it missing, my heart sank. Of course, all my afternoon plans revolved around it: I had to check email, grade student poems in my online class, write a blog post for the Pen & Bell. Yes, it’s here, John reported, when I called in a panic. Yes, he’d bring it down to me that night.  But what about all these hours in the meantime?  All that work I’d planned, nay not just planned, NEEDED to do? I debated driving the 45 minutes each way to get it, but couldn’t justify the extra trip when John would be coming down that evening.

Luckily, my dog Fox showed up at my studio door just then, with his best Let’s go for a walk! expression. You’re on, I said, and we headed out into the sunny afternoon together. He seemed to know what we both needed, heading down to the beach where we walked for more than an hour, soaking up the sun, running into friends I hadn’t seen in months. When we returned home, I had just enough time to weed the flower beds, plant lobelia in the flower boxes, give the garden a good drink of water. By the time John showed up for dinner—with my laptop—I felt rested and revived, ready to put in an evening of work.

I resolved, then, to take a Technology Time Out each week, to be reminded to return to my community and what sustains me. I didn’t dream I’d have a chance to try it again so soon. This week, it happened again. I was at Edmonds Community College to meet with a student in my poetry class who was having trouble with the online system, Blackboard, but when we tried to log on, found the network was down. I couldn’t work on Blackboard, I couldn’t catch up on email, as I’d intended. But now I knew what to do. I headed for the ferry and walked on the beach in Edmonds until the ferry arrived, grateful for another afternoon in the sun.

One afternoon this week, turn off your Smart Phone, your laptop, your iPad, your iPod, and spend a few hours deliberately free of technology. View this time as an opportunity to rest and renew your spirit. Then write about how it felt to be in the non-connected world, but perhaps connected in a deeper way.

May you have the opportunities for many “time outs” in your life, not just this week, but in all the weeks ahead.




Jun 10

Are we there yet?

When I was a young girl, my father liked to pack us all into the station wagon for long road trips in the summer. We didn’t have iPods, or portable dvd players, or cell phones; we didn’t even have air conditioning, which meant my father liked to hit the road at 4 a.m., to beat the heat of the day and the LA traffic. I remember this was part of the excitement: rising in the dark and stumbling in our pajamas out to the car, still clutching our pillows and blankets and stuffed teddies. My two brothers and I crawled into the way back and set up our nomadic bedroom, snuggling back down as the car pulled out of the driveway in reverse.

“Goodbye house,” my mother whispered softly.

“Goodbye house,” I echoed back hoarsely, then lay on back and watched as the sky revolved outside the long windows. I imagined our house waving back until we turned the corner out of sight. Sometimes I’d be lulled back to sleep, but often I liked to lie there half awake instead, trying to determine where we were just by timing the turns or watching for familiar billboards and signs.

It was a lovely time of day to be awake. And a lovely place in which to be awake: between my two brothers who were pretty nice when sleeping; in the care of my parents, who murmured  together in the front seat; in our familiar car, so solid, moving us inexorably forward. My father, an engineer, had packed everything just so; everything had its place, including me.

I could hear the thermos lid being unscrewed, smelled the sharp scent of Folgers as it poured into a cup. I heard the AM radio voices: announcers who were all storytellers and invited you to be part of the story as well.

In a few days I’ll be flying from Bellingham to Phoenix to meet up with my parents at their retirement home, and the next day we’ll hit the road together to drive 8 hours to my little brother’s house in Laguna Beach. We’ll pack the car with snacks and water and podcasts. We’ll have air conditioning, so we most likely won’t leave at 4 a.m. I’ll drive part of the way, but not enough to take this pleasure away from my father who, at 81, still loves to drive. I’ll love being with them this way: together in a time out of time, keeping each other safe.

In this season of vacations and road trips, it’s a great time to remember traveling as a child. Write for 15 minutes about an early childhood memory of a road trip. Allow the sensory details to emerge: the smells, the sounds. Try to evoke your child’s frame of mind: what did that child think about; how did that child feel? Do these feeling arise in road trips you take in the present?

Happy beginning of summer, my friends. Here, in the northwest, we’re experiencing our annual “Juneuary,” as we call these cold gray days, but I know these will pass for sunnier days ahead.

With gratitude,



Jun 04

More Tidbits to Ponder

Pink Peony I, Copyright David J. Bookbinder

Dear Readers,
Here is my semi-regular roundup of things I’ve been reading on the web. May you find something here that resonates or inspires.


From Make a Living Writing, Carol Tice writes about “What I Learned About Writing From My Lunch With a Dead Woman.” While the title is a bit blunt, it fits with the no-nonsense lessons she learns from her dying friend Linda about taking care of your creative self, which include: Keep Creating; Be Perceptive; Be Forgiving; and Be Giving.

This post was especially resonant for me, as this past week three people in my wider circle died unexpectedly: one, a future colleague, only 32 years old, who died in her sleep; another, the husband of a former colleague, only 50 years old; and another, a student in our dept, a young man. At the same time, a gunman killed 5 people in a cafe in Seattle, in a neighborhood I frequented often. I spent the weekend with a somber heart. I burrowed into myself and yet yearned for connection at the same time.

Sometimes it takes shocks like these to remember what’s essential. Here from Writing our Way Home, Fiona Robyns speaks about the “crust” that we often develop to survive, and how essential (and painful) it can be to strip away that crust:

I sometimes see us human beings as being made up of many layers. These layers form like crusts as a result of experiences. We mould ourselves & adapt within our network our relationships. We protect ourselves. We make mostly subconscious decisions about ‘who we are’. Sometimes these crusts are as tough as a giant tortoise’s shell, and sometimes they are deep deep down near our very foundations. They are often almost invisible. They can be rolled up and squashed in as tightly as the petals in that peony.

When we get close to a new crust, and as it begins to unfurl, we get to the hurt. These crusts think they are protecting us. They won’t give up the ghost without a fight.


And finally, from Rick Hanson’s newsletter “Just One Thing,” he speaks about one sure way to connect with the world, even when we’re finding it difficult: discern what’s “likeable” in everything:

Right now, through the window in my home office, I see a golden squirrel scampering atop my fence. I like the little critter, the view of the hills beyond it, and having a life that includes squirrels. This simple moment of enjoyment is the subject of this week’s practice: see what’s likable.

Notice what happens when you apply it to everyday things around you, like cups, grass, streetlights, clouds, and sofas. Also feel what happens when you focus on likable aspects of other people, from casual acquaintances to loved ones. I think you’ll find that in your body this practice is immediately relaxing and restorative, in your mind it is soothing and happy-making, and in your relationships it brings ease and comfort and intimacy. Pretty good results for something that feels so good!

May you have a likeable week, dear readers, and remember to cherish all beings, large and small—allow them to be the material of a creative life.

With gratitude for you,


May 28

Small Sips of Beauty

"Lillies in the Field" by Jane Halliwell Green

Here’s a special letter from Holly, in honor of Memorial Day:

Dear Readers,
A few weekends back, for Mother’s Day, my dear friend Sue asked me to participate in a service she put together called “A Liturgy of Flowers.” She sent us each a Bible verse that mentioned a flower and asked us to write a poem in response.

Here’s what I received: Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29)

Here’s what I wrote:

Listen, the Lilies are Shouting
Each morning when we rise, if we’re lucky,
the lilies in all their glory shout to us, that is
if we lean over, put our ear down, listen closely
enough to hear them, to see not just their flashy
mid-day glory, opening to the hot sun,
but also their quiet, shy beauty, the light
that glows when the sun’s obscured by clouds.
May we be reminded that when our spirit flags
and doubts hover like clouds above us,
that our own beauty will shine through,
that beauty can feed us, can clothe us,
can perhaps even save us if we listen.

Because it was Mother’s Day, Sue’s prompt sent me off into remembering my mother, who first taught me to love flowers. She delighted in helping us make May Day baskets of lilies of the valley, violets, and forget-me-nots to leave on the doors of our neighbors. She filled our house with flowers from the yard: not just the expected vases of tulips in the spring, peonies in the summer, but would artfully arrange dried grasses and bittersweet— what some might call weeds—all year round. They were all beautiful to her.

In her last years, as she lost her mind to Alzheimer’s disease, my mother never lost her love of beauty. She couldn’t remember the names of anything, but my mother still knew to stop to watch the sandpipers scurry up the beach, the squirrel racing to the nearest oak, the sky blossom with color as the sun sank into the sea. In her last years, she breathed in beauty like oxygen, and I want to believe these daily sips of beauty sustained her as her logical mind departed.

What small sip of beauty did you take today? If you haven’t yet taken a sip of beauty, look around and see what object offers beauty to you in the moment. For just 15 minutes, write an ode to that thing, whatever it may be.

Or perhaps choose your own “bible verse” to inspire you: this can be a snippet of something from any text you consider sacred.

We don’t have to wait until everything settles down to spend even a few minutes a day in beauty; we can consider not just the lilies but whatever flowers we encounter each day.  We, too, can take small sips of beauty daily, then rise to the challenge to create something of beauty ourselves.

With love on this Memorial Day,

May 24

Befriending Our Hunger

Dear Readers,
For the past month, I’ve been on a quest to shed a few of these winter pounds. But don’t worry: I’m still eating plenty! And eating well. Over on my personal blog, Spa of the Mind, I just wrote a post about Eating Mindfully, Eating Well, and how if we really attend to our food with mindfulness, it satisfies in so many ways.

In that post, I talk about a book I’m reading:Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, by Dr. Jan Chozen Bays

In it, she describes “The Seven Kinds of Hunger.” They are:

1. Eye Hunger
2. Nose Hunger
3. Mouth Hunger
4. Stomach Hunger
5. Cellular Hunger
6. Mind Hunger
7. Heart Hunger

These kinds of hunger are useful to think about when you’re trying to eat more mindfully, but I thought, for us, we might think about them in a larger sense. What do we hunger for, besides food?

For this week’s writing prompt, write for 15 minutes about hunger, perhaps using the 7 types of hunger as a guide. You can start like this:

My eyes hunger for……..

My nose hungers for…..

My mouth hungers for…..

My stomach (gut) hungers for…..

My cells hunger for…..

My mind hungers for…..

My heart hungers for…..

Or you can write about a time when hunger took you over. What did this hunger feel like? How did you respond to it? If you could speak to this hunger now, what would you say?

We’re eager to hear you what you come up with! (If you haven’t checked out the correspondence on previous posts in Writing Practice, take a look….)

May you befriend your hunger this week, and feel the glow of true satisfaction.

With love,

May 20

Some tidbits to ponder….

Dear Readers,
Today, I want to give you a few juicy tidbits I’ve picked up in my reading around the web. Since researching The Pen and the Bell, I receive many, many great notifications about writing and the contemplative life. Here are just a few.


Hedgebrook is an amazing community of women writers; their retreat center on Whidbey Island, WA, offers retreats for women writers at all levels of experience. Holly and I wrote part of The Pen and The Bell there, in the wonderful Meadow House. From the Hedgebrook blog, The Farmhouse Table, here is an excerpt from Kim Todd’s post, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting (to Write)”:

And what would I recommend if I were writing What to Expect When You Are Expecting (to Write a Novel, Play, Essay, or Poem)? Walk along the road to a cold October beach. Try to hear a winter wren. Waste time wantonly. Read your work out loud to an empty room, one that appears to understand you. Burrow into afternoons of solitude with no one to offend or impress or startle with your strangeness.


Dinty Moore is the editor of Brevity Magazine, and a prolific writer himself. His latest book. The Mindful Writer, makes a wonderful companion to The Pen and the Bell. Here is Dinty speaking about  the role of “listening” in Writing:

I almost never mention Buddhism or mindfulness in my writing classroom – my spiritual path is something I feel fairly private about, and I certainly don’t want to push it on my undergraduate students.  But the answer, as it is with so many things, is mindfulness: slow down and really hear what you have written.


Don’t listen to your daydreams about your writing, or your fantasies, or your intentions, but listen to the actual words on the page.  Listen to the meaning of the words you have written – do  they really tell the truth, reveal the actual, or do these words just sound good?  Listen also to the music and rhythm of the words.  Often the latter tells you more than the former.  When what you hear is rhythmically sound, smooth, satisfying aurally, then chances are the underlying meanings are also intact, but when your words jam up against one another, move haltingly and sluggishly, like an L.A. traffic jam, there is probably something wrong with the underlying sense of the words as well.

That’s it.  That’s my answer.  Listen.  Read it out loud, and pretend you have no idea who wrote it.  What do you hear?

And if you listen really hard, and relax while you are listening, and if you are mindful enough, maybe you will be able to sense that faint voice, recognize that line of poetry or snippet of unexpected dialogue, crawling down your sleeve.


And finally, Jen Loudon, at Savor and Serve the World, writes to us from her own writing retreat and has suggestions for how to create your own:

Retreat time has its own rhythm. Of course, life does too, but we I often override that rhythm. So the first order of retreat business: trusting that rhythm. Self-kindness trust through compassionate vigilance. As in: Am I walking to water again because I need to lighten up on my “agenda” to get a lot done or am I walking to the water again because I want to get away from the anxiety I often feel when writing?

Today’s a big day for The Pen and the Bell. We’re having our official book launch at Village Books in Bellingham, WA! If you’re in town, stop by to meet us at 4 p.m., for some reading and writing and community.

We’ll also be having a Seattle area book launch at Eagle Harbor Books on June 28th, 7:30 p.m. (You can always check the “News and Events” page on our website for current information).

If you can’t meet us in person, but would like to read an interview with Holly and me about the creative life, check us out at Writing our Way Home, Fiona Robyn’s amazing website that supports writers of all kinds.

And wherever you are, may you have a day that’s fruitful and delicious,



May 10

Bowing to the World

bowing tulips

Dear Readers,

First, Holly and I want to thank you for being our first wave of correspondents! Welcome to The Pen and the Bell. We look forward to getting to know you through your writing practice.

Today’s letter comes courtesy of our cover artist, Jim Ballard. Jim is a multi-talented man: he paints, writes poetry, sculpts, practices the flower art of Ikebana, and loves birding. He wrote to us after receiving his copy of The Pen and the Bell:

“The other day I was feeling depressed, not wanting to do anything, even turned down an opportunity to go birding with my wife and a neighboring couple who are avid birders. They cheerily drove off and I stayed behind, feeling a bit sorry for myself but really not wanting to be near anyone. I thought of your suggestion to “bow” to whatever is happening at the moment.

I walked into my backyard and, feeling a bit foolish, bowed to what was around me, my blossoming cherry trees, the just-planted- with- snap peas raised beds, the hanging bird feeder a few feet in front of me. I felt miserable, but I bowed to these things. I then just stood there and waited. Not really for anything to happen, but just waited.

Blossoms started floating from the cherry trees and fell at my feet. A chickadee sang its name shrilly because I was too close to her feeder, so I backed off a bit. I heard something, a commotion in my neighbor’s yard, just beyond the raised beds. I watched as a Cooper’s hawk flew from a branch and headed my way, moving so fast my thinking couldn’t keep up with its speed. It flew directly in front of me, so close (if I’d had the presence of mind) I could have touched its wings as it flew by! He landed in a pear tree about fifteen feet away. He perched on a limb and tilted his head back and forth, looking in my direction. He then flew away and landed in an apple tree in another neighbor’s yard and finally sailed off outside of my view.

I had been feeling sorry for myself a couple of minutes earlier — missed a great birding trip, would be traveling to a new, unexplored place — but I took the time to bow to what WAS there: the backyard, the cherry trees, the feeder, even to my depressed state of mind. That in itself would have been enough, but the moment exploded with a newness that startled me. Watching the hawk fly towards me and by me, moved me out of my cheerlessness and into awe.”

What a beautiful letter! And an excellent reminder that we can always bow to what IS, no matter what is happening within or around us. Such an expression can be transformative.

So, just for today, what can you bow to? Look around: what’s right in front of you? And can you possibly bow to what is difficult within you?

Write for just 15 minutes about bowing: when have you bowed before? Was it a positive or negative experience? How does it feel to bow in the present? Think about all the different connotations of bowing: bowing after a performance, bowing in subservience, bowing in thankfulness.

As always, please feel free to share your writing in the comments section. Or if you’re shy about doing that, just share with us your thoughts about the practice.

May your day be filled with many opportunities for gratitude.

Best wishes,


May 01

Our Shifting Lives

Dear Reader,

Here I am this morning, in my writing loft, the rain tapping on the skylight, my dog Abbe leaning against my leg. I’ve just returned home from a trip, and as always happens this time of year, my yard has changed ever so slightly: the Gravenstein apple tree has burst into song, as has my neighbor’s flowering dogwood. The lilac’s even thinking about blooming. Continue reading

Welcome to Writing Practice


The Pen and the Bell began as a correspondence between us, and we’re bringing that spirit of collaboration into our website, too.

On this page, we will regularly write new letters to you, our readers, sharing stories, news, and more writing prompts. Join the conversation by subscribing to our letters in the sidebar!

With gratitude,
Brenda and Holly