Fall is my favorite season, and for me it begins now, with August's slow demise: the particular slant in the afternoon light, crab apples smashed on the sidewalks, the warm press of earlier darkness, and the build up to school. After ten years of teaching elementary and middle school (which followed a lifetime of being in school myself), the last weeks of August will always feel to me like a breathless slide toward the first day of school.
Today, in honor of the especially inscrutable cliffhanger that is now, this shimmering liminal space about to evaporate, and in honor of the searing and sad events of the past week--especially the tragic death of Robin Williams (heartbroken) and the horrifying shooting of Michael Brown--I share with you an essay I wrote for the Rake twelve years ago, on the cusp of another school year, which always felt to me like another chance, and still does.
LAST NIGHT MY SON MAX got jolted awake by a nightmare. In his dream, our car got slammed from behind and Max catapulted out of his seat. His head got wedged in the crevice between the front passenger seat and the car door, and it knocked the wind out of him. “But the scariest part wasn’t that, or being stuck,” Max told me. “The scariest part was that I was screaming and screaming but no one heard me.” A few days before the nightmare, Max turned 10. Developmentally speaking, he’s been driven out from the hazy garden of early childhood and he now sees the world in an irrevocably more realistic light. It’s not surprising that it sometimes terrifies him.
I’ve been thinking about death lately. I visited my grandmother’s grave for the first time in five years, and I watched with fascination as my 7-year-old daughter Lillie and her brother and sister and two cousins placed unwrapped Hershey Kisses gingerly around the edges of the marker, because Nana loved candy. Then, in search of a way to express something she could not name, Lillie busied herself scraping the mossy growth out from the carved letters of the gray marble headstone of a woman she never knew. She had no idea how to show reverence and yet she did so with aching tenderness.
I felt the same way recently when I looked after my friend’s two children whose grandfather had died that morning. Later on, my friend and her husband came over to share dinner. I set the table, choosing the better linen table cloth with small embroidered daisies and the pretty linen napkins I’d never used before. I told my friend that I felt helplessly unable to be graceful in the face of death. It seemed somehow surreal for us to be eating pad Thai and mock duck just as if life goes on unaltered. As slender yellow elm leaves begin to litter my sidewalk, I brace myself for the irresistible beauty and melancholy of September, now entangled with painful memories of terrorism, tragedy, and war.
Last month I traveled east for an intensive training program for third-grade Waldorf teachers. The presenter was Eugene Schwartz, master teacher at Green Meadow Waldorf School and New York native. He understood the unease we teachers felt about the best way to face a first week of school that will forever coincide with the commemoration of September 11. The collapse of the Twin Towers had a harrowing impact on Schwartz’s students and school community. At the moment the news of the attacks broke at Green Meadow, Schwartz was outside with his fifth-grade class for picture day. The school administrator was advised by local district officials to keep students indoors until they could be picked up by their parents, who trickled in over the course of the rest of the day. Except for the two fathers who died.
On that same morning in Minneapolis, I got a call at school from my sister just before the morning bell rang. I picked up the phone and my sister shouted that there had been this bizarre plane crash at the World Trade Center, and had I heard from our older sister, who lives in Brooklyn? Of course I hadn’t, and it was a grueling day before we were able to get through to her and piece together the story of how she’d boarded the last train out of Penn Station on her way to teach a class at Rutgers when the first tower collapsed. She ended up stranded in New Jersey overnight before she eventually wended her way back to a dust-covered apartment in Brooklyn.
From there I slogged along with the rest of middle America through the dirty waters of a distant horror on the one hand and the need to go through the usual daily routine on the other. The daily routine prevailed without a contest, and although I cried my eyes out when my son’s parakeet died last winter, it wasn’t until visiting the memorial wall at Ground Zero this summer that I cried about September 11. But even then my tears were clumsy.
Unlike Lillie, I don’t so easily know how to scrape moss from the cracks of what I can’t comprehend. I can only hold Max tight until his silent screams fade away and he breathes peacefully back to sleep, and I can only stand in uncertainty before the schoolchildren in September, drawing inspiration from their willingness to revere a world they will understand less before they understand it more.
I've been practicing my headstand lately, and crow pose, too. I'm getting there! But I was actually flat on my stomach in a hot yoga class, lifting up into cobra pose, when the epiphany struck. It overcame me as I raised myself off the mat, tops of my feet pressing down, legs engaged as one body, thighs rotated inward and upward, little to no weight in my hands, my face in front of me in the mirror, flushed and sweaty, hair soaked, chest and shoulder muscles taut. I saw strength and beauty. It was heart stopping.
It took me until my 40s to appreciate my body, to stop the constant criticism and self sabotage. It just wasn’t necessary, all those years obsessing over this or that imperfection. For me, clumsiness, scoliosis, life-endangering shyness, sexual scars, and residual major trauma from school gym classes only made it worse. I’m so glad I’m getting a second chance; I’m so glad for that moment in cobra. To all the girls and women I know who are picking yourselves apart, I wish you weren’t, because I know the feeling, and it's a bad one.
The size of your thighs, the smoothness or roughness of your skin, the whiteness or yellowness or straightness or crookedness of your teeth, the shape of your breasts, the cellulite that you either do or don’t have on your butt…none of this is the point. None of this matters the way you think it does. The body is more than a home for spirit; it is a vehicle for joy in and of itself.
This is the great gift of yoga, the opportunity to discover our bodies not as a collection of flaws to nitpick, insufficiencies to overcome, but temples within which our infinite selves reside. Such was my epiphany during cobra, while my mind was not at all in perfect, empty stillness but instead running rampant with stray thoughts. I landed on this one. I revisit it often and would love your company.
This Essay is by Elephant Rock's new intern, Evie Samuelson. Read more about Evie at the end of this post.
WHEN I WAS in the fifth grade, my teacher was into the concept of “militant self-love.” In the middle of her lessons, she drank her tea out of Mason jars with a twisty straw, so make of her life philosophy what you will. The point is that I, at the age of eleven, came to vehemently disagree with her. What was the point of doing anything if things were fine the way they were? What was point of life if not self-improvement?
I decided to ignore her when she told us we should "respect ourselves" and "pay attention to our dreams.” It didn't help her cause that I was desperate to please everyone, or that fifth grade was the time that people thought they ought to start telling me what I should do with my life. Nevertheless, I was fairly happy with my high-achieving, eager-to-please ways, and since my elementary school is still affectionately referred to as "the hippy granola school," I got along fine.
This is the story of how, five years later, that teacher and her Mason jars proved me wrong.
I ATTEND A Catholic college-prep school in Minneapolis. It's a good school, and when they write my biography they'll say I was lucky to go there. And I am. However, my classmates and I are all unhappy, in some way. The ways we have of being unhappy are unique, yet universal. Academic and peer pressure, feeling socially ostracized, made to feel guilty for the way we present our bodies (what we call "slut-shaming"), or just plain listlessness are all common ailments. This isn’t the school's fault (at least not completely), but at the same time there's little anyone can do to help it. Some people switch schools, states, or even countries in search of greener grasses. The truth, however, is that it's adolescence, and nothing and no one (with the exception of time) is gonna make that better.
Anyway, this explains why—as I was leaving for Washington, D.C. on the eve of my spring break—self-love wasn't high on my list of things to deal with during my time off. The powers that be, however, had other plans.
FROM THE MOMENT you disembark from the plane (or whatever other mode of travel) and step into Washington D.C., the place infuses you with an anticipatory air of something really wonderfully important happening, and makes you feel that you, even with nothing more than your presence, are a part of it. I fell madly in love with the city. The independence the Metro allowed for, the gentle slope of the brightly painted brownstones on Capitol Hill, the warm spring air; all of it served to further infatuate me. And it gave me rest and a restoration of my sense of grand ambition. All of which was good. But it was not, I would learn, the end of my strange road.
I have always had a healthy appreciation for myself and my abilities. I have not always had, however, a healthy appreciation for how I appear. I hate looking at pictures of myself, mostly because how I've imagined myself looking in that moment comes nowhere close to how I actually look. I am unnaturally short, at exactly five feet tall, with terrible skin that reacts badly to anything but fresh Alpine breezes and 100% cotton. I have small eyes and a round face that doesn't quite sit right on my neck. My teeth, currently decked out in braces, are crowded, twisted, and crooked in every which way you can imagine, with a bite that doesn't touch in the front. I have large, dexterous fingers on even larger hands, with feet to match. I have wide hips and shoulders that take up far too much of my upper profile. Maybe, someday, I could learn to love these features as though they were my children, but for one problem: when I feel myself walking down the street, you know, that sense that you get of your own body as it lives in the world? When I feel that, I'm feeling a five-foot-eight ballet dancer that can kill you with her forearms.
You can imagine how viewing a picture of myself might present problems for me.
All of hit me in a spectacular fashion as I sat on the hotel bed viewing photos of my day trip to the National Mall. I had just finished talking with some new friends in an online feminist chat forum, and all through the chat I’d been running into posts about positive body image and loving yourself. It brought me back to the Mason jar-drinking teacher urging us to pay attention to our dreams. It also brought me back to every time I had ever watched the unhappy boys at my high school sizing up the equally unhappy girls on a sliding scale of "one to ten of hotness." I don't think I was even mentioned.
Viewing these photos of my day in the city brought me back to every lost friendship or missed opportunity, every time I had been passed over for what I could only assume was someone more beautiful. But what viewing these photos really showed me was what I myself lacked: self-respect. That night in Washington, I recognized that all day I had been taking pictures of this beautiful city, but I was not in a single one. I was not imagining myself in it. Because the city was beautiful, and I was not. And that made all the difference in the world. I sat on the bed, dumbfounded, not quite sure what to do. I took out a piece of paper, and started to write.
I wrote, "Evie Samuelson is the most beautiful, talented, intelligent, desirable mother****er this world has ever encountered."
TRUTH BE TOLD, there was (and still is) only a small part of me that believed what I wrote. But that small part is enough. Because you've got to have something. For me, that something is the person I'm on my way to being. Through volunteer work and this internship, and maybe even real-life work, I've begun to use the incredible gifts and privileges I've been given to become a part of something greater. And who knows? Maybe it'll be my wide shoulders and crooked teeth and big hands, and my old teacher with her Mason jars and twisty straws that will carry me through.
It's not the kind of self-love anybody ever taught me, but I'd like to think that that's precisely the point.
My name is Evie Samuelson, and I'm Jeannine Ouellette's new intern at Elephant Rock. Ms. Ouellette (as she will forever be affectionately known to me) was my elementary school teacher for half a year, after which she taught my class English for another year. Since that time, she and I have kept in touch to talk about writing, books, and life. Last summer, I attended an Elephant Rock day camp for young women writers and I loved it. My internship now is in part a contribution to my attendance at the Madeline Island Writing Intensive for Young Women this July. I love the work I do for Elephant Rock, and I can't wait to write and read and learn on the lovely Madeline Island with an incredible group of people. I hope this essay helps to show that it's okay and natural to sometimes feel uncomfortable in your own body, and that self-love is not necessarily about always loving yourself, but rather, appreciating yourself however you can. I hope my story can find a place in the heart of the reader looking for someone else who has been there.
Upcoming Retreats and Workshops
In writing, it's easy to give your attention to the wrong things: description of places that aren't essential, the backstory of a character who never appears again, even the writing of the story above the story itself. In life, this is also true. You may find yourself obsessing over petty slights, untamed fears, gossip that gets your heartbeat up, even too much positive recognition for the wrong things, the things that aren't your one true thing. These are all distractions. Like little sparklers, they burn brightly to demand your attention, but the reality is they are not the main event. The more attention you grant these distractions, the less attention you have to give to tending the real fire of your story. And your life. Be vigilant. Keep your focus on the present moment, listen to your heart, lean in toward what you believe is the next right thing, and give that detail all the loving attention you can muster. Do this with as much integrity as you can--be faithful to the story, and be faithful to your life. It will be imperfect. Be sorry when you should and be as compassionate as possible. Still, not everyone will sing your praises. You will never know the reasons. And that's okay. Just keep putting one word after the next, one deed after the next, and trust that you will arrive at the destination, wherever that may be, and you will have traveled with an aspiration toward grace.
Upcoming Writing Retreats:
Listen, you know those mornings when you wake up and it's not perfect, you have allergies and your grown kids have six little crises before your coffee is brewed, and also the pumpkin enzyme anti-aging mask you put on the night before was apparently just a snip too strong, and none of the deadlines you've been slashing at are magically resolved, but still for whatever reason (is this what we call grace?) you realize you've awoken to exactly the day you've wanted your whole life, even though the path you took wasn't remotely how you expected it to be and the thing itself is also its own animal, you know, in the same family as what you wished for (a cat is a cat is a cat) but with its own character, so that if you were a little lazy in your attention, or a little stubborn in your definitions, you could conceivably have failed to recognize the total miracle of it all?
I love those mornings.
This poem was written by Esther Frantzich, a 14-year-old writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota, as part of a six-month independent writing project for which I was lucky enough to serve as her mentor. Esther created several other powerful pieces as part of her project, including a short story, an essay, and additional poems. Much of her work centered around the notion of uncertainty, and her intense experience over the last year during her mother's journey through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment with chemo and surgery. Esther has participated in workshops and retreats through Elephant Rock and will be attending the Madeline Island Writing Intensive for Young Women this July.
It was light brown, very beautiful
Not much bigger than a dime
A feathery little head and clear black eyes
Flitting about the kitchen
A small movement in an otherwise still room
I didn’t want to kill it
The word DON’T scratched
itself into the lining of my stomach
But I had promised I would
The last thing it probably saw was itself
In the underside of my sterling silver ring
I haven’t thought of it since
I want to know how others view the world
How to make Swedish pancakes like my mom
Who in the world Jon likes
What it would be like to be blind
What caused Ria’s break down
How many spiders exist
Why people keep time
I miss so many things, not all sweet
Like the hole in my wall
from when I freaked out in the rocking chair
The Florida house and family vacations
Chubby chub and a non-judgmental view of strangers
Easy friendships between guys and girls
The middle of my parents’ bed
I am a hint of rainbow on a plain white wall
I am a typewriter catching sunlight and shadows
I am a crooked line of nail holes
Tonight I will dream of a hand resting alone
upon the blue green carpet of a classroom floor,
a band of lighter skin, indented marks
where a ring once was
I am unsure of many things, but this I know:
No matter how well I hide, if I can see you, you can see me
When Wilfred J. Funk assembled this list, he was paying as much attention to the sound of words as to their meaning, which is something we tend not to do as busy humans, caught up in the use of language as a conveyer of information.
But we’ve all heard that music is the universal language. The reverse is also true: that language itself is, at its core, music. How close can we get to this core? Or, as a beloved writing mentor of mine asks, "How close up to the words can we get?" What he means is, how effectively can we untether ourselves from the bonds of predetermined meaning of words and phrases and old metaphors in order to discover something absolutely new? For most of us, this takes some effort, some openness, and a few surprising tricks--one of which can be music. Music will bring us closer to the purity of language at its source: sound. This is a powerful tool and creative doorway for every writer of every genre.
That's why I'm thrilled to announce that we will have a musician joining us at this June’s Summer Solstice Retreat. Not only will this talented guitarist and song-writer accompany some of our yoga classes and help out with campfire songs and morning harmonies, but she’ll also be working with me on some musical writing prompts, Yes, musical writing prompts! Why, you might ask, will we be marrying some of the writing to music? What benefits will that bring to the essayist or the poet or the fiction writer who never intends to write a song?
As a stimulus to our sense of hearing, music can, and inevitably does, convey information, yet it is information untethered from the meaning that we automatically associate with words. Therefore, the meaning we experience through the notes themselves and their arrangement is more fluid and more free than the meaning we experience through words for which we have already learned what seem to be (but are not) concretized meanings.
What is the nature of the information contained in music? What does it express? How can exploring this connect us more deeply to the liveliness of language itself, the music of language? How can playing with music help us capture the power of a word’s musicality rather than simply its ascribed meaning?
We’ll be immersing ourselves in these waters in June. I have no doubt that the addition of music will lead us even further into unexplored regions of our creative capacities as writers.
I’d love to hear from you if you have comments or questions. Meanwhile, here is more information about the wonderful musician who will help us unlock doorways into imagination this June at Stout’s Island at the Elephant Rock Summer Solstice Retreat.
Cat Terrones is a singer-songwriter, yoga teacher, and musician, performing music drawn from a range of folk traditions. Cat is currently working on her new EP, Soul Set Free. She is the founder of the Celtic/Folk/Americana band Sparrowhawk & The Girl. A certified yoga instructor, teaching since 2006, Cat’s experience in yoga and passion for the healing influence of music and sacred sound guides her in creating live music for yoga classes. Cat received her B.A. in music from California State University, Long Beach. She taught private voice for seven years and has recently shifted her full focus to developing original music projects and expanding her music and yoga business, Chandra’s Yoga Tree.
We are caught you, me, all of us—in a hopeless entanglement, a quantum entanglement.
We are fragile daisies in an iron chain, strung painstakingly by the hands of children at a green painted picnic table behind a Victorian house by a lake that we loved but can never find again. Our mouths bear the stains of countless red lipsticks long dissolved in the pockets of once favorite clothes ruined in the wash. Our hands tremble with passion for the violin we either played beautifully or stepped on accidentally during the year of the terrible divorce. We have no taste for piles of small talk and we devour them greedily. It doesn’t matter and it does matter and we are here to accept both truths at once, our illusory separateness and our inevitable oneness.
Quantum physics tells us unequivocally that your particles are mine and mine are yours. Before long, science will also prove, just as the Buddhists always knew, that you are me and I am you.
Actually, science has already shown this in all the ways that matter. Our thoughts, ideas, and personalities, our memories, passions, and our shattered bits are all real, but they don’t reside in any literal physical space. These intangible facets of energy are known as quantum information. And quantum information, say scientists, can get intertwined with other quantum information.
My stuff mingles with your stuff.
Albert Einstein called quantum entanglement “spooky at a distance”—referring to how all types of particles can become linked and instantaneously influence one another from afar. My bad dream is your broken heart. And when two particles are entangled, they stay that way, no matter how far apart they get. Information still passes between them without pause. This is science. It is as real as the ugly scar on my knee that has since vanished, or the ship to a different future that I did not board, or the heart tapping steadily under my ribs.
Isn’t this understanding responsible, in part, for why I no longer regret Bob, the older, pot-smoking manager I used to sleep with when I was a confused, lonely college student canvassing for healthcare rights and the environment? Wasn’t Bob, with his blunt mustache and his tobacco stained fingernails, just another particle of quantum intelligence about myself in that particularly befuddling time and place? Whether Bob should have seduced me (and the concept of seduction could not be more loosely applied) is, for the purposes of this discussion, beside the point. The point is that it’s possible, likely, and indeed inevitable that every encounter we have is in essence another encounter with ourselves.
None of us can exist without all the others. We know this. But breathe a little deeper and open to this shimmering truth: each of us is all the others. There are no others.
As Brother Phap Niem explains: “Inside of you, you can find everything. There is only one thing you do not contain— a self.” This is the wild terrain that calls to me: the rutted, weedy stretch of dirt road between my life and somebody else’s, the space in which we are as much the one as the other.
Sometimes, we feel this oneness like thunder, like sleet, like sun on our arms, like our daughter filling up our heart just as the phone rings and it’s her. We feel our friend’s terror as our own or we know precisely what our father is going to say before he does. The wrenching news rises as a dull ache in our belly before it’s ever delivered. This happens most often with those we are closest to, because the more quantum information that’s entangled, the deeper and wider the effect. When we think of these people with emotion, our message comes through instantly.
Practice this with intention and you may be surprised by the uncanny results of your thoughts. Thoughts are feathers, pine needles, gasoline, sex. Thoughts are butcher knives and clay, unopened umbrellas, blood. Thoughts are buttered popcorn and mildewed books and funerals in empty churches filled only with prayer.
Thoughts are consciousness, and consciousness creates all things. Einstein and other scientists have proven this repeatedly. Our thoughts drive our reality. If our thoughts are filled with stress, we subject our bodies to inflammation—the proven root of nearly all illness. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed recently that grief can actually cause heart failure.
But quantum entanglement can also heal ourselves and others—even if they are far away. Michael Krucoff, MD, has been studying prayer and spirituality and using it in his patient care since 1996. “Earlier studies ... were small and often flawed,” Benson says. "But [today] we're seeing systematic investigations— clinical research—as well as position statements from professional societies supporting this research, federal subsidies from the National Institutes of Health, and funding from Congress. All of these studies, all the reports, are remarkably consistent in suggesting the potential measurable health benefit associated with prayer or spiritual interventions.”
We can access the unlimited collective consciousness and swap what we need from within the community knot of quantum information: the forgotten recipe for my great aunt’s butterscotch pie, equality for all, raucous laughter for one whose own joy has grown brittle with disuse, the solution to climate change, the perfect kiss, stars. Stars and stars and stars, the majesty. Stars in our eyes, in our palms, in our bones, on our tongues. Stars from whence we came and to which we shall return.
Upcoming Writing Retreats and Workshops
I'm writing from the Tin House Winter Fiction Workshop at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Oregon. It's beautiful and inspiring, yes. Informative, yes. Tiring and indulgent at the same time, yes. Perhaps most of all, this workshop has been a catalyst for me to clarify my own beliefs about beautiful, powerful writing. About what makes some work come alive on the page, what makes a voice fierce, and how to get there.
Here's what I've learned so far, not just here in Oregon, but over the twenty years I've been pecking away at this. If you want to write beautifully, the secret is simple and not found in any book or conference. It starts inevitably with reading. You must read greedily, discerningly, and consistently the best of the best writers, not just the classics but also the newest voices. Read as if your life depends upon it, and take pains to decode what makes certain writing wild and arresting.
Next, of course, you must also write. Write as much as you can, day after day, after day. Take one word and then another just as you would one breath after the next, rhythmically, automatically, instinctively. But there is more to it than that, because you must also write hard. Writing for pleasure and catharsis is well and good, but you must also write for the strain and difficulty of it, with discernment and precision. It is through this strain that you transform and progress as a writer, an artist, a human being. Here is where you meet yourself anew, through the arduous part of the writing, the grasping after the perfect verb, the slashing of pages of "process writing" that are important to wade through but that do not belong in the final story, the wide open and unflinching observation of yourself on the page and the willingness to dive in and try harder. This is where art happens. And it's the art that matters.
Speaking of art, notice every single thing with a sense of interest, wonder, and awe. Reserve judgment. Cultivate curiosity instead. Curiosity is the genesis of empathy, so work hard at asking why, why, why, and be doggedly interested in the multiplicity of possibilities rather than being too swift to trust what you think you know.
By all means don't obsess on publication or the workings of the industry. If you want to get published, worry about that when it's time to start trying to publish something you've written that you are about damn sure (which is as sure as you ever will be) that it's ready for publication. But in the meantime, spend your time writing and thinking about writing rather than scheming on the best strategy for breaking in. The writing is what matters, and the perfecting of the writing. This is an alchemical process. It is a process of perpetual discovery and refinement. Good writing has a raw, disobedient quality despite the fact that to achieve such abandon almost always requires untold hours of grunt work. Good writing is unmistakably alive, it breathes and even gasps on the page, and that will never come from focusing on market trends though many commercially successful books will result from doing exactly that. But a commercially successful book and a transcendent piece of writing are not the same thing. The latter may certainly become the former and it often does, but more often, it does not. This must be known and accepted from the outset.
Ultimately, you will gain the most from focusing on your writing as a practice no different from meditation--you show up, you struggle, you break through or you don't, and then you do it again, and only over the course of months, years, decades, a lifetime, if ever, do you begin to see clearly the pattern of your own intricate unfolding within the context of not just your own life, but of everything, the whole world. Which is, of course, the point.
I've neglected this blog over the last few weeks, not for lack of love for it but because since August I've facilitated two big writing retreats and finished a book (in addition to my full-time writing job and usual mix of freelance gigs). My third writing retreat in three months and the last one of this year, Mystery of Yin, starts tomorrow, up on the beautiful and rugged North Shore of Lake Superior. Oh, baby, baby it's a wild world.
So this is not going to be beautiful. It's going to be quick and to the point. Kind of like the sort of sex you are thrilled to settle for when time and energy are short but desire keeps calling. (More on that in a future post.)
For now, I want to say that last month, one of the writers at the Elephant Rock Summer Solstice Retreat died of the cancer she had been long battling. Her name is Mary Ann Johnson and both in the way she lived and the way she died, she moved me. And many, many others. This blog has two of her guest posts, here and here. It changed me to know this woman, and to briefly call myself her teacher.
That leads me to the next thing I'm burning to say, the thing that is the fiery drive behind this post, which is that death is inevitable. I imagine you've heard it before. We only have a little bit of time to do the things we envision ourselves doing. When Mary Ann contacted me last March about the Solstice Retreat, she told me she had stage 4 cancer and that the retreat was on her bucket list. I told her that was a tall order for me, but that I would do my best to live up to that high standard. Part of what Mary Ann taught me is that you can't always wait for a better time, and you certainly shouldn't wait until you have only a small amount of time left (Mary Ann expected to survive quite a bit longer than she did, and was not certain her cancer was terminal last March).
The week that Mary Ann died, I bumped up one of those things on my to-do list--"apply to a writing workshop"--from somewhere in the muddy bottoms to the very top. I had my eye on a Tin House workshop for fiction writers serious about publishing, and I sat up late one night and finalized my sample and application. I'll find out soon about the outcome, which doesn't actually matter. What mattered to me then and now is that I applied instead of thinking about applying.
I also started making a point of being more present with the people I love, however I can, as often as I can. And let me tell you, I am no guru at this. I hope you are more masterful than I am at putting your phone down, walking outside, blocking Facebook (thank God I haven't figured out Twitter yet), and scrolling Ebay. Honestly, if I could harness the sum total of my time wasting I could easily have saved the dolphins by now, or at least learned to speak dolphin. Or, at minimum, Spanish. But instead, I ordered another amazing anti-aging potion from Amazon.
So lately, as I said, I'm trying harder to be present with these people I love like crazy (just ask them about the crazy part). And by present I mean not just more texting (oh, the love-hate texting god/demon), but also in other ways. Sitting next to my daughter Lillie, the only one of our six kids who still lives at home, when she is doing her homework on the couch. Calling my husband instead of sending another email. Running to meet him at the door when he arrives at night after his brutal commute and grabbing him where it counts. Sending handwritten letters to my daughter Sophie. We email constantly because she writes for me as a subcontractor, but because she lives in Florida, we don't get a lot of those heart-to-hearts that happen when you're under the same roof or at least in the same city. So I started writing the letters. I just included them in little care packages (sending more of those lately, too), and at first she didn't say anything about them. But then, she did, and it was good. Very good. I've been trying to take this initiative with all six of our kids. While also reaching out to my friends more, even just taking a minute to say "I miss you" is better than nothing, but I'm making a point of setting up lunch dates and impromptu coffee meetings, too, instead of allowing November to pull its usual prison warden shenanigans (oh, couch, you are so tempting).
My day job is editing and writing at the University of Minnesota in the School of Public Health. The route I walk to get to my office is a long and winding maze of buildings, and the door I first enter is that of Fairview-University Medical Center, a hospital. Every day that I go to my office, I see people in their hospital gowns and wheelchairs, their tall tree things on wheels with the bags and tubes and IVs coming and going. I see couples holding hands and I see people with pain and fear etched on their wide open faces. Sometimes I see people on gurneys, as vulnerable as anyone can ever be, and sometimes I see people running through the hall in the searing hope that they are not too late.
I don't want to be too late. I know I am going to die, you are going to die, we all are. We don't know how or when, that's uncertain. In fact, all of life is uncertain, every single minute of it, except death. Death is the one certain thing. The uncertainty is the beautiful wild ride of today. Now. This minute.
Doris Lessing, who died this week at age 94, said, "Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible."
Bam. Thinking about death (and not fearing death by the way, that's not what I am talking about) can frame the way we see our lives. Accepting the inherently finite nature of our time here in the "soft animal of our bodies" casts a clearer light on the series of seemingly irrelevant decisions we make each day. Decisions which cumulatively come to define us. As Annie Dillard so aptly put it, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."
So as I promised, this wasn't beautiful. It took me twenty minutes to write without stopping, a primitive attempt to capture a series of seemingly disparate but in fact finely interwoven thoughts I've been tracing the contours of for the past several weeks.
And now, I'm all fired up for the last Elephant Rock Retreat of 2013. It's been a huge honor to work with many of you this past year, and I hope to soon announce the offerings for 2014. In the meantime, keep writing ... or start writing. It doesn't have to be beautiful. Something mediocre now is better than nothing later. As Cheryl Strayed says, these useless days will add up to something. But that doesn't mean the clock isn't ticking, because it is, and today is the one day we know we have. So start now.
By David Whyte
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to the life
we have refused
again and again
This special guest blog post is by Mary Ann Johnson, a participant in Elephant Rock's Summer Solstice Retreat last June. This essay was selected for inclusion in one of National Public Radio's forthcoming regional This I Believe collections. For more about Mary Ann, see her bio at the end of this lovely piece.
Innocence is Overrated
By Mary Ann Johnson
On one of those special days when my oldest daughter was about 18, we had a heart to heart conversation. She told me, “You said something once which really made sense.”
I was surprised I had ever said anything worth remembering. Hey, I actually said something she remembered! I wondered which of my words had stuck with her. I was expecting something profound, something I had tossed out in a moment of unconscious genius.
“You said, ‘Innocence is overrated.’”
“Oh,” I said slowly. Out of all the advice, the hints, the suggestions I had given her over the years, she picked this one to emulate. Oh my God, what would my mother have thought? The world I grew up in revered innocence. I was sure my mother was turning in her grave at that very moment.
Innocence is overrated. I vaguely remembered saying this to her but couldn’t remember why. I think it was one of those flippant remarks I made one day out of frustration when talking about one of her friend’s conservative family. Innocence is overrated.
Well, innocence is overrated. After all, what is innocence but a lack of knowledge? Babies arrive in this world in innocence and we try our best to keep them innocent as long as possible; but at what price to them? As a child grows we protect them, but at some point this becomes detrimental to their development. How can we expect them to learn how to deal with the real world if they are kept from it? Perhaps I feel this way because I was raised in that mode. I remember the struggles I had when confronted with new situations for which I was not prepared.
One can never anticipate every aspect of what the world will reveal to your children. When my youngest daughter was about ten she typed girls dot com on our computer thinking she would find a website with jewelry, make-up, and other things for girls. However, when she hit enter, well, you can imagine what she saw. When I discovered this I was not angry, nor did I put parental controls on the computer. We talked about what she had seen, why some people go to these sites, and how to use search engines. Evidently I laughed, though I don’t remember it that way. She says I did.
But the point is that I helped her deal with the situation rather than make her feel afraid of it. I believe that can work whether discussing politics, controversial art, movies, discrimination, or any number of other things.
I don’t propose that we force children to lose their innocence. But an innocent young adult is naïve, and naïveté does not help a person think clearly or solve problems.
So I do believe innocence is overrated. I believe in curiosity. I believe in answering questions. I believe in respecting children and their rights to grow into thoughtful, worldly adults who can make their own decisions based on fact and not fear.
After working as a nurse and wound-care specialist for over thirty years, Mary Ann Johnson (left) has shed that role to become a full-time grandmother, traveler, and lover of life. She recently moved from Kentucky to Fairfax, Virginia, to live with her daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters.
Upcoming retreats: You can still join us this October (mother-daughter retreat) or November (mystery of yin women's retreat) to experience the rejuvenating and healing power of writing, art, and yoga on Lake Superior's North Shore.
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Draw the air into your lungs, fill them up, let the breath expand all the way down through you, all the way up to the crown of your head. Fill yourself until you cannot take another sip. Exhale, push all the air from you lungs, every last drop of air, until you are emptier than you have ever been.
Is it yoga, or is it birth? Is it both?
Did you know that yoga alters the most basic expression of who you are? Newly published research from Norway suggests that a comprehensive yoga program rapidly produces internal changes on a genetic level.
“These data suggest that previously reported (therapeutic) effects of yoga practices have an integral physiological component at the molecular level, which is initiated immediately during practice,” writes Fahri Saatcioglu of the University of Oslo. Saatcioglu’s study is published in the online journal PLOS ONE.
This does not surprise me, this yogic rebirthing. How many times can a person be reborn?
August is my personal season of birth. The signs are all around me. Mashed up crabapples on the sidewalk, the particular blue of the sky, this exact wind, the pelting and crunching of acorns, and most tender of all, the tentative concert of our neighbor’s newly planted grove of baby aspens, standing all proud and eager to please, their trunks and limbs so scrawny yet their voices oh so big on the wind.
Babies. I carry them in my heart.
I gave birth to all three of my little lions in the heat of August—which I suppose tells you something about what I like to do in November. Those three August-born babies are bigger than they used to be. Sophie, the amazing girl who made a mother out of me, just turned 23, a year older than I was when she was born. This fact seems to us just as implausible and difficult to reconcile as a Rubik’s cube or Algebra II. Some things are simply true whether or not they can be understood. Sophie’s little brother, Max, is 21, now taller than us both. And their baby sister, Lillie, turned 18 two weeks ago.
The youngest turned 18. No more babies for me. This hurts, it does.
(I carry their hearts in my heart.)
That my children are officially grown up is not easy to wrap my mind around, let alone my pen. It’s going to take a while, I think. Half my life has been soaked in pregnancy and babyness. I was born again through natural birth, breastfeeding, cloth diapers, vegetarianism, homeschooling. Stripped bare and reborn all over when divorce tore my skin off. Then came Waldorf teaching, new love, remarriage, blended family, born, born, born some more, family dinners, homework projects, Sunday brunches, road trips, years rolling along outside the window. Humbled to the bone and born all over when teenagers took over.
How many times can a person get born? How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop? Is a Tootsie Pop a sucker or a Tootsie Roll?
I remember the August Sophie was born. Heavy, swollen. Excited. Scared. Crushed crabapples on the sidewalk, acorns pelting. The smell of oats from the General Mills factory across the street. Perfect baby girl, my chin, my eyes. Features like a doll. Prettiest baby in the world, baby in my arms. I am me, not me. Mother version of me. Still swollen in the belly, and now in the breasts, milk running, sticky and clear, sweet magic. Sore. Unsure but unwavering. Hiking a thousand miles through dense warm fog. I had no idea where I was going but was hell bent on finding the way.
I remember how my young husband—we were so in love then—brought me the perfect gift a week after Sophie was born. He left it sitting on my scratched dresser top; I found it in the afternoon, when the smell of the oats was strongest on the warm August breeze. A 12-pack of Diet Coke and a box of Marlboro Lights. Vices I’d given up during pregnancy. Vices I didn’t intend to resume with a babe in arms… and yet. And yet, to know that she of the vices was still me—it filled me with relief to be reminded that I was still … me, whoever that turned out to be.
As it happened, cigarettes and diet soda fell by the wayside sooner than later. Who I was then, I’m not anymore. I have been reborn so many times since she was me, made newer and older by motherhood, made more beautiful by being loved as I’ve never known it before. Made more like love itself by living love.
This, all of this, is motherhood. This is birth. This is yoga. Love. Life. August.
I carry it in my heart.
Earlier this month, I led, with Theresa Hutch guiding yoga and art, a writing intensive with a group of outstanding young women. The nine writers ranged in age from thirteen through seventeen. Our focus was process, not product, but the girls nonetheless produced some very intriguing work. The following piece, by thirteen-year-old Moselle, was generated by a four-part exercise during which each writer: 1) conjured a powerful memory starting with a sound or a smell; 2) opened a favorite book by an admired author (to a random page), selected and recorded the first twenty words (excluding articles, pronouns, and the like); 3) folded and handed the paper with those twenty words to her left; 4) and finally, each writer then attempted to write about her own memory while incorporating the words she inherited from her neighbor. Surprises emerged, such as this sample:
Memory of a Game
By Moselle Van Santen
We were orphans, running from the witch-queen, two lost princesses, ages twelve. We were sure that our plan would be successful. We wore enchantments in our hair, silvery-white in the light of the first star. Maybe some thought us lost--but if they would just open their eyes to the world, they would catch a glimpse of two girls, running with bags in their arms.
Perhaps if we were orphans in a fairy tale, our parents would be crying: "Alas! Alas!" But we weren't. So they didn't.
Maybe our brother, the prince (if we had a brother), would no longer wish to rule and come away with us on an adventure.
So many ifs, perhapses, maybes…
Even if they had been true--it was too late now. We were gone forever.
Theodore Roosevelt advised that if you believe you can, you’re halfway there.
Plenty of the most exciting new neuroscience on the power of the brain stands behind this folk wisdom. It’s certainly worthwhile to take a moment now and again to pull out your belief drawer and empty its contents to see what’s there. Spread your beliefs out like coins and ticket stubs on the floor in front of you and examine them one by one. Keep those that serve you and toss the rest in order to make room for a few new ones as you go.
I opened my belief drawer recently and was both affirmed and surprised by what I discovered.
I believe in letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves (thank you, Mary Oliver).
I believe in children.
I believe that yoga is a practice not a “perfect.”
I believe in being more generous all the time.
I believe showing up on my mat helps me show up in my writing (and my life).
I believe I can finish my novel—and this amazes me.
I believe in the necessity of sex, and the otherworldly dimension of lovemaking.
I believe in the sweet ache of sore muscles.
I believe learning to breathe, and especially learning the long exhale, has made me a better person.
I believe in the earth’s miracles: tall trees, saplings, overgrown gardens, empty fields, open skies, craggy ravines and dirt roads, mountains, creek beds and sage, paths of pine needles, Lake Superior, ocean waves, white sand, hard winds, cool rains, peaches and new green grass.
I believe in friends.
I believe in second chances. And third and fourth and …
I believe in forgiveness.
I believe in dental floss with a white-hot passion.
I believe that words have magic powers. Literally.
I believe becoming a mother and loving my children saved my life.
I believe—foolishly, naively, even crazily—that we can fix the most terrible problems.
I believe in a slice of lime in a glass of ice cold Perrier.
I believe in wild raspberries.
I believe in the uncombed hair of toddlers.
I believe in sweat.
I believe that the resonant layers of human voice joined together in song can heal almost everything.
I believe in the bready, hot smell of a summer day.
I believe that when art stops making you cry, this is an emergency.
I believe in little kisses.
I believe in contentment.
I believe in autumn afternoons and long walks in red sweaters.
I believe—with the innocence and enthusiasm of a child—in every new anti-aging cream, potion, supplement and gadget I discover.
I believe the phase of sleeping with apple cider vinegar in my hair was a bad idea.
I believe in green smoothies.
I believe my husband means it when he promises he’ll outlive me so I can die in his arms.
I believe I’ve tried my damndest so far in this life, with mostly good intentions even if the outcomes have sometimes been calamitous.
I believe in change.
I believe the best is yet to come.
I believe the poet Sara Teasdale when she says, “Life has loveliness to sell, buy it and never count the cost/For one white singing hour of peace, count many a year of strife well lost.”
I'm honored to share this guest post from Mary Ann Johnson, a participant on our June 2013 Summer Solstice Retreat. For more about this piece, see the epilogue at the end.
The Mayfly and the Chair
"Help!" cried the mayfly. "I can't seem to move. I am batting my wings but I'm not going anywhere."
"Stop moving," said the chair, "you are just making your situation worse."
"Well, I just can't hang here," protested the mayfly. "I will die."
"But you can't get away. Haven't you noticed all of those dead mayflies around you? My back is like a mayfly cemetery. Which I don't appreciate, by the way."
"Shit! Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! Nooooooooo," wailed the mayfly. "But certainly at least one other mayfly has escaped--please tell me one has gotten away."
The chair paused for a moment, then said, "if one has, I don't know about it. I am sorry, so sorry. Your wings are delicate, the web is strong. It is not of my doing. I am just the object on which this web was woven. If it was up to me, I would be web free, and my bright green back would be a perfect spot for you to rest your wings in the sun."
"So I am to hang here with no hope?" the mayfly asked quietly. "This is it? My life is over?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so," the chair replied.
"But I should have eleven more hours left of my life," the mayfly once again protested. "Eleven more glorious hours. I want to find love again. I want to float on a breeze. Even two more hours would be nice--just two more hours. Could I have that?"
After quite a long silence, the chair said, "it is not up to me."
After working as a nurse and wound-care specialist for over thirty years, Mary Ann Johnson has shed that role to become a full-time grandmother, traveler, and lover of life. She will soon be moving from Kentucky to Fairfax, Virginia, to live with her daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Mary Ann's essay, "Innocence is Overrated," is soon to be published in a new book collection called This I Believe, based on the National Public Radio series of the same name.
"The Mayfly and the Chair" emerged spontaneously while Mary Ann was at the Elephant Rock Summer Solstice retreat, after several related writing exercises over the course of a few days. The exercises started with a silent nature hike, then later a series of concrete sensory observations, followed by an exploration of metaphor and the relationship between inner and outer, and finally, a dialogue between two inanimate entities observed on the silent hike (plants, animals, objects, etc.). Mary Ann chose a mayfly caught in a web on the back of a green adirondack chair and the chair itself for her dialogue. As the dialogue emerged she recognized an allegory for her relationship with her oncologist. Mary Ann is fighting stage four breast cancer. She was surprised and moved by what the mayfly and the chair had to say, and so were we.
The metallic smell of dust and rain fills the screen porch outside of Mrs. Stout’s room, and a fine mist of rain sprays steadily through the screens, soothing and cool. The wooden floorboards are slick; even the old log walls are damp. Outside, the darkness of the storm is enveloping the island hours ahead of natural sunset. Intermittently the sky blazes with lightning. This--and the accompanying roar of thunder--feels perfect for what we are about to do.
Just inside the door to Mrs. Stout’s room, a fire burns hot in the hearth around which twenty-two chairs are gathered. Shadows and light leap on the worn wooden floors and sea-foam painted walls, on the high curved ceiling. One by one, we file in to take our place in the circle of chairs, having dashed across the lawn from the Ice House to this fire-lit room where anticipation crackles as palpably as the flames.
It is June 20, the eve of the Summer Solstice, that pinnacle of creative energy and wild growth. And we are writers—poets, novelists, essayists, and experimenters—gathered for a Summer Solstice Retreat for Writing and Yoga. It is the first such retreat I am facilitating, five days long, and the culmination of a big dream and a lifetime of preparation as a writer and a teacher and, from January till now, a final push of intense work to manifest the vision and make it real. I am the facilitator, yes, but also a participant, hungry as anyone to learn and expand, to crack open some newness. The retreat is at the historic Stout’s Island Lodge, an old inn and smattering of cabins perched alone on a secluded island in rural Wisconsin, reachable only by boat, and undistracted by traffic, commerce, or habitation (except for the wild kind, of course). We are twenty-two in all, mostly women (haha, okay, just one lucky man to help balance the estrogen infusion!). We range in age from 22 to 71 and come from California, Minnesota, Maryland, Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia. Most of us have never met each other until this week, but by now, the night before it’s over, we have become inextricably bonded. “Like being in a room with twenty of your best friends,” says Deb, “except that you’re meeting them for the first time.”
This is so true. Writing together, practicing yoga and meditating together, bonds us far beyond our expectations. Every day we work hard but we also laugh ourselves breathless, nearly toppling out of our chairs. (Such as during an exercise I call why/because, which graced us with such pairings as: Why is virginity so important? Because I'm better at something else). Sometimes we're moved to silence, and sometimes we cry.
The faded grandeur of Stout’s is the perfect setting for all this--a hundred-and-some-year-old lodge permeated with cedar and wood smoke, Persian rugs and antique chandeliers, warbled glass and banging screen doors, and an unending choir of birdsong, rustling leaves, crashing waves, and now rain. Part of our work has been “diving into the wreck” to pull out old stories and release them in order to make room for new ones.
This, you may
have guessed, is what the fire is for—to consume what we’re ready be done with,
what we no longer need. The papers we hold in our hands and on our laps contain
the old stuff we’ve been recording each day, for our own eyes only, during the
first fifteen minutes of our morning writing session.
The room where we are gathered for this homemade ritual got its name from the lodge’s original owners, Frank Stout and his wife, Clara. Frank, a lumber baron, was one of Chicago’s ten wealthiest men in his day. He reportedly spent more than $1.5 million—in 1915 dollars—to create this island sanctuary. And Clara Stout apparently slept in this room when the Stout family stayed on the island. Clara was a Christian Scientist, and she is rumored to haunt this room, most notably by refusing to allow the door to open for those trying to enter when she’s feeling ornery—or suspicious. We had no problem opening the door tonight, but I can’t help but wonder what she is thinking now, as we take each other’s hands to begin this healing ritual we’re inventing. Just as I give voice to this thought, Celeste points out that the music playing softly through the lodge’s speakers—so softly I hadn’t consciously noticed it—is the opera song “Time to Say Good-Bye.” Surely this is no coincidence. Perhaps Mrs. Stout is very pleased, indeed!
Intuitively, we allow our burnings to take place in no specific order. I don’t remember who stands first, but I do remember the quiet outpouring of relief and release as one by one we walk to the fire and speak our intentions to let go of this, whatever this is for each of us. Because what we’ve written is private, I’ve instructed the writers to choose just a word or two to represent it as they throw it on the fire with the phrase, “I release” or “I let go of…”
I let go of my shame.
I release my fear.
I release my stepfather.
I let go of my broken marriage.
I release my family’s shame.
I release my heartbreak over my son.
I release my anger.
I release betrayal.
With each release, the fire grows hotter. Debbie is taking pictures as we go, as she has been all week, which we barely notice anymore. After each release into the fire, we say in unison, So be it and so it is for Jeannie. So be it and so it is for Carol. So be it and so it is for Claudia. So be it and so it is for Martha.
So be it and so it is for us all.
Finally, when the last old story is aflame, we breathe in silence, hand in hand. We take a moment, just two breaths, to hold writer turn by turn “with all our hearts.” And then we recite Barter by Sara Teasdale together—well, half of us do, while the other half hums an undercurrent of “Amazing Grace.”
Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up,
Holding wonder like a cup.
Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like the curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.
Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.
The cleansing storm pounds softly on through the night and the rain is still falling at sunrise the next morning, the summer solstice. So we gather at 5:26 to watch the horizon lighten from the haven of our yoga room inside the Ice House, where candles flicker and the scent of palo santo (holy wood) and sandalwood hang in the air. We honor the rising sun with sun salutations, then settle in for our final session of yoga nidra, the “sleep of the divine,” which we have been practicing every day of our retreat. During yoga nidra, while suspended in the ethereal space between sleeping and waking, our amazing yoga teacher (and my lovely friend) Maria guides us in setting our sankalpa, deepest intention, and drawing it into every cell of our physical body. We believe that our sankalpa will be especially powerful now that our old stories are finished smoldering into ashes.
Of course, we each experience this in our own way.
The writing to heal exercise and the burning ritual with which we finish it off touches some of us more deeply than others, but regardless of what we experience in the moment, the exercise is shown to offer healing benefits over time. It was developed by James Pennebaker, linguist, researcher, psychologist, and author—and it’s remarkably simple. Write about a traumatic situation that’s affecting your life for 15 or 20 minutes straight, four days in a row. Don’t share what you write. Burn it if you wish. Expect some release whether you recognize it or not, because science tells us that emotional or expressive writing heals. It can reduce high blood pressure, enhance immune function, decrease the severity of asthma and arthritis symptoms, promote wound healing, increase AIDS patients’ white blood cell counts and even help young people quit smoking. And a study in the June 2008 Journal of Pain and Symptom Management reported that a group of cancer patients who spent at least twenty minutes once a week for three weeks writing a story about how cancer affected them experienced less pain and reported higher levels of well-being.
You can repeat this simple exercise as often as you feel the need. But be careful with journaling all the time. Because the thing about journaling and "free writing" is that we tend to write the same thing over and over again, and too often it's negative. Pennebaker says this can be significant downside to regular journaling, and I agree.
This tendency to keep re-telling the same negative story stems from the fact that 95% of the thoughts we think today are the same thoughts we had yesterday (and the day before, and so on). So what we think is writing from the heart is often writing from the head, recording the same thoughts and ideas with different words. This can actually cement us into our most negative emotions and concretize already stuck patterns.
This is where innovative creative writing exercises make a difference.
We spend most of our writing time doing “anti-journaling”—that is to say, engaging in writing exercises that steer you away from what you know and toward the unknown, the new. It's harder for some than others, and generally harder than you may think, because we humans crave nothing more than the familiar. But sticking to what we already know, even our usual modes and methods of writing, is very unhelpful when it comes to creativity, to writing fresh. And living fresh. For this reason, the writing exercises that most powerfully crack open creativity tend not to be open-ended prompts (write about a childhood memory …) but rather those that use specific forms and constraints popular among the surrealists and the renowned 1960s Parisian group known as the Oulipo. Such exercises aren't meant (necessarily) to generate a polished piece, but they can spur your heart to speak something new, something you haven't said before. When you occupy your conscious mind with the restrictions of the prompt/exercise, you free your unconscious mind (closer to your heart) to speak with powerful new images. I've seen it happen again and again.
One gripping example from our retreat comes from Mary Ann, who is fighting stage four breast cancer. We take a nature walk and I ask the writers to record their sensory experience in detail, using nouns and verbs, all of the sounds, smells, sights, textures, and even tastes of the wooded (and buggy!) path we explored. Those concrete observations provide the seeds for several writing prompts, including one in which the observations become a reflection of self:
I am the space between the green
I am the hidden path to the water
I am a tunnel of heat, evaporating
I am a may fly caught in a web
I am the water slapping against the boat
I am the end of the island
Then I ask the writers to
create a monologue or a dialogue between two animals, plants, or objects on the
trail. Mary Ann ends up writing a dialogue between a green Adirondack chair
that is covered in spider webs and a may fly that is caught in the silken
threads, struggling to free itself. As the dialogue unfolds, Mary Ann
discovers that it is an allegory for her relationship with her oncologist. When
she reads it out loud in our circle, we are rendered speechless with its power.
Left simply to journal, Mary Ann would never have found the same clear, potent
“voice” for this important and emotional truth of her experience. After the retreat, she writes to me to say that she is a new woman--changed.
Writing restraints also help us get out of our head and stop, as David Foster Wallace says, “getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now).” And they help us to disappear. At Stout’s, we disappear behind blindfolds, into word lists, through silence, off the dock and into the breathtakingly cold water of Red Cedar Lake, and even far beneath the endlessly complex reflection of our own eye in a hand-held mirror. We occupy our left brains with arduous and specific tasks in order to allow our right brains to work in freedom.
Laraine Herring, author of Writing Begins With the Breath, says that in the end, to write what we are given to write, we must in fact disappear. She links this concept to what happens in our yoga asanas. “In the physical practice of yoga,” she writes, “we take the time to sink deeply into positions of discomfort. We stay long enough to watch the distractions arise, get louder, get more persistent. Still, we stay. And one by one we release the distractions, and the pose which once seemed impossible can become effortless.” What, Herring asks, would happen if you allowed yourself to be stripped of your trappings? What would be left?
“This is surrender in its purest form. Not surrender to a higher power. Not surrender to another’s belief system. Not surrender of your personal power, and certainly not surrender of your fierce authentic voice. To the contrary, it is truly a surrender of yourself, you, and not you. Blow, and like a puff of smoke, you are gone, but still alive. Awake. Breathing. Detached in a healthy way. You have disappeared. Now, what does the world look like to you? What stories, ideas, poems come from this boundless space. If you as you have conceived of yourself are not there, neither are the limitations and fears held by that ‘you.’ Your writing, unencumbered by ego’s attempts to make it be something, do something, say something, is light and free and deep. Remember those times you’ve written something and later asked yourself, 'where did that come from? I don’t remember writing that!' Aha, you disappeared into emptiness and brought back diamonds."
We do that together on this island of fire and rain. We disappear over and over again, into words, into painting, into clay, into the immediacy of our senses. Into the discovery of one another. We disappear into the fire and we disappear into the secrets stored in our own bodies. We disappear into my magic bowls, where stories hover waiting to be discovered, where lives the serendipity of a world where things you wrote can mean something entirely different than and exactly opposite of what you expected. Where your ego disappears and something wider and deeper speaks instead. Sometimes we dip into this nothingness and bring back complete and utter nonsense. And sometimes we bring back diamonds.
On Friday morning, the longest day of summer, as light spills onto the water, we say good-bye, and diamonds spill out of our mouths, our hands, our hearts as we climb aboard the ferry and head toward the mainland. We are lighter and freer versions of the selves we were before as the island shrinks and disappears behind us, dissolves into the blue of lake and sky, the blue boundlessness within us.
If you are interested in learning more about or participating in an upcoming retreat, consider Elephant Rock's two fall retreats on the North Shore of Lake Superior: Beyond the Looking Glass: A Mother-Daughter Retreat for Writing, Yoga & Art, and Mystery of Yin: Empowering the Creative Feminine Through Writing, Yoga & Art.
LAURIE was changing. For one thing, she wouldn’t do our Harry plays anymore since we moved from the yellow house by Casper Mountain to the gray house in town. We moved in September right after Mafia Daddy left (like a thief in the night, Mom said), and now all we did were music shows or stand-up comedy or magic acts that weren’t very good since half the pieces from my magic set were lost. Even though I always had to be Harry, I liked those plays better. Laurie would be the wife who told Harry what to do, like turn the car around or fix the vacuum—but Harry would always do it wrong, so she’d yell at him in a high cranky voice and then order him to do something else. It was hilarious. But our plays were a lot of work and Laurie was bossy in rehearsals. I usually cried if we fought, but Laurie hardly ever did. When she cried, she’d quit the show even if she was the one who picked the fight. Lately, she might even quit the show for no reason, just walk off and say, “This is stupid. If you want to do a play you can do one by yourself.” But sometimes she was still fun, and I could pretend things were the same as always.
Not many people saw our shows. Mostly just Mom and her boyfriend, Dennis, nicknamed Spider, and Spider’s brother Mike, or Mike Smith, actually. That’s how Mom said his name, probably because our stepdad’s name was also Mike, even though we wouldn’t have mixed them up because our stepdad was Italian and got called Mafia for a nickname. We liked Spider fine, but we liked Mike Smith better, and we were glad they mostly came over together. We didn’t wonder why they did that and we never asked. They lived together in a trailer that Laurie and I cleaned every other week. We got ten dollars each—a lot of money. But we dreaded that trailer. It was weird picking up men’s dirty clothes and wiping off hairs in the bathroom. And we couldn’t believe the first time we found their magazines. I hated even touching them, and when I had to pick one up, I would just pinch it between two fingers and then accidentally on purpose drop it behind a dresser or an armchair. At first I was scared I’d get in trouble for doing that, but no one ever said a word. I liked my other job better, even though I didn’t get as much money. Every Saturday Spider and Mike Smith dropped off a big load of work shirts that I washed and ironed for 25 cents each minus what I paid Mom for soap and water.
We liked having new people at our plays. Before, only our mom and stepdad came. With Spider and Mike Smith watching, we figured we should make everything more professional and realistic. We needed to come up with better costumes and practice harder on the acting. And we had to choose the right topic, or at least not the wrong one. That’s why Laurie said we couldn’t do the Harry plays. The wife and the husband fighting the whole time could remind mom of getting another divorce. Laurie was twelve and I was ten, so she always thought she knew more. That’s why we had to do a play about Jimmy Carter now, because Laurie thought she was so hot for understanding TV news and all that stuff about inflation and the Middle East and the oil shortage. But I knew she thought the news was just as boring as I did. Why else would she change the channel during the news whenever we were the only ones watching?
The other problem was that Laurie was prettier, which I could see for myself even if everyone didn’t s ay what a beautiful girl she was right in front of me. Laurie’s hair was long and shiny and mine was short and cut in a choppy style Mom called a “shag.” Mom said I didn’t look nice in long hair and that shags looked better on people with narrow faces like mine. But I wanted to be more like Laurie, which she knew and used against me by calling me “parrot” and “shadow” and “tape recorder.” There was no point in telling on her, because Mom thought I copied Laurie, too.
People act like you should automatically know the right things to do, but it’s not that easy. Like right after we moved into the gray house and I put on my orange calico Holly Hobby dress and bonnet to go to Safeway. As soon as I came down the stairs Laurie said, “I will not be seen with her in that. Mom, please make her change!” It was actually Laurie’s old dress that Mom sewed, not in the yellow house or the house before that, but the one in Douglas. That’s where we lived first when we moved from Duluth to Wyoming for all the oil jobs. I liked Douglas best because I had my own room with a slanted blue ceiling and a pine tree that touched my window. At first I thought Mom’s feelings were hurt by what Laurie said about the dress, but then she said, “Grab my cigarettes from my nightstand when you go up, will you?” So I changed into my corduroy pants. Laurie also told me that President Carter could solve the energy crisis with my oily hair, and that made me even madder than being called a copycat. But I started washing my hair every day. And now Laurie said we should do a play about Jimmy Carter.
“You should slick your hair back,” she said. “And talk with a Southern accent.”
“Why do I have to be Jimmy Carter?”
“Because you look like Jimmy Carter. You have short hair, and a manly face.”
“I do not!”
“I’m not saying you have a totally manly face,” she reasoned. “Just more manly than mine.” I glared at her as she studied my hair. She opened her mouth, then shut it again. “Come on,” she said. “You know you’re better at being the man. And we don’t have much time to practice.”
You could never tell if Laurie was telling the truth or trying to trick you into doing what she wanted, like collecting for her paper route on the dark windy streets downtown, going in and out of Casper’s only apartment buildings with their heavy front doors and strange smelling hallways. We almost always collected at night, because people were home then. The time and temperature light of the Casper Bank sign—taller than anything else downtown—would flash on and off against the big night sky, and we could see the black shape of Casper Mountain jutting up in the distance. I hated collecting. But if I went along, I got the Doritos and Coke Laurie bought on the way home. If I didn’t go along, she might tell on me for something or start a wrestling match. It always ended the same. So usually I gave in and went collecting, just like how I gave in now and played Jimmy Carter.
“Your hair’s not slick enough,” Laurie said when I looked out through the cardboard box we’d made into a TV screen by sawing out a square with a steak knife. I was trying to balance the TV, which looked pretty good because it was about the same size as a real TV and we even glued on some cardboard knobs. We tried to bend a hanger and tape it on the top for an antenna, but that was too heavy to stick. I knelt down behind the TV and started into my speech about peanuts and how much I loved them. I planned to go on and on about how salty and delicious they were and how we could use peanut oil to solve the energy crisis.
“You have to slick your hair back more,” Laurie said again. “It doesn’t look right.”
“I already slicked it a hundred times.”
“Then you have to put some gel in or something.”
We looked at each other and laughed. The only person who had hair gel or other fancy make-up was Karen, our upstairs boarder who paid rent to store her things in our back bedroom so her parents wouldn’t find out she lived with her boyfriend. Since Karen hardly ever slept in her room, Laurie and I loved snooping through her stuff. We knew everything she kept in her dresser and closet, which was just enough to make it look like she lived with us in case her parents ever checked. Laurie even borrowed Karen’s bras, which I thought was going too far, but Laurie said that’s just because I didn’t need one. Our other boarder was Derek, who rented the add-on room next to the dining room downstairs. Derek wasn’t home much either, but his room was boring except for the bacon-flavored crackers he kept in his closet. Those weren’t too bad—better than we expected.
When Derek left, Diane moved in with her son Joshua. They surprised Laurie and me by actually spending time in our house, something we hadn’t realized boarders might do. While Mom was at night class, Diane would cook in our kitchen. We whispered about how she put tomatoes on her grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes she would sit at the table with Joshua eating vanilla ice cream right in front of us. Weren’t grown-ups automatically supposed to share? And her long prayers gave us the heebie-jeebies. We didn’t say a prayer at supper anymore, but even when we did it was a normal one, like, God is great, God is good, let us thank him for this food.
It turned out that Diane thought lots of things were sinful but Mom didn’t know that until after Laurie told Joshua to “shut up you little brat” and Diane made a big stink about it. Diane told Mom that God didn’t approve of divorced women with boyfriends and Mom told Diane not to let the door hit her in the ass on her way out. Then it was Karen who made a little stink when she came to pick up some clothes and complained to Mom about how someone was digging through her things and stealing her socks. Laurie and I were sure we were going to get in trouble. We hunched at the top of the living room stairs listening as Mom insisted that no way had anyone gone in Karen’s room let alone gotten into her things. We knew we had to be more careful after that, and that’s why Laurie said we better not get into Karen’s hair gel. “There’s Vaseline in the upstairs bathroom,” she said. “That’ll probably work even better.”
She was right. Not that I actually looked like Jimmy Carter or anything, but the Vaseline was a good touch. The best part, though, was my peanut speech. I worked really hard on my accent and you could definitely tell I was being Jimmy Carter. The audience loved it. Laurie hardly had a part since she was the newscaster. I played the star. But Laurie had the idea about grown-ups liking a play about the president, so we were pretty much even.
I didn’t think about my hair again until the next morning, when I bent over the sink to wash it. I felt how the Vaseline didn’t come off with the water, or even with the shampoo. My hair felt just as slick as last night. I dripped through the hallway into Karen’s room for her Head and Shoulders shampoo. I’d used Head and Shoulders before at other people’s houses, and it was grittier than regular shampoo. I hoped the grit might rub off some of the grease, like sandpaper. But it didn’t. I washed my hair so many times that I was late leaving for school and had to run the whole way. Some of my friends noticed my greasy hair, but at least they didn’t say anything about the oil crisis. Neither did Laurie after school, when she saw what happened. “Maybe Comet cleanser would work,” she offered.
I stuck with the Head and Shoulders. It took the whole bottle before I decided you could barely notice the Vaseline. I hoped Karen wouldn’t miss her shampoo and tell Mom, even though I knew she would. Some things you just know are bound to happen. Like I knew Karen would move out of our back bedroom, and we would move out of the gray house, and Laurie would keep changing, and I would start changing, and one of these times we would do our last play.
Maybe we already had.
by Malena Morling
You know that moment in the summer dusk
when the sunbathers have all gone home to mix drinks
and you are alone on the beach
when the waves begin to nibble
on the abandoned sand castles—
And further out, over the erupted face
of the water stained almost pink
there are a few clouds that hold
entire rooms inside of them—rooms where no one lives—
in the hair
of the light that soon will go
grey and then black. It is the moment
when even the man who mops the floor
in the execution room of the prison
stops to look up into the silence
that grows like smoke or the dusk itself.
And your mind becomes almost visible
and you know there is nothing
that is not mysterious. And that no moment
is less important than this moment.
And that imprisonment is not possible.
I am seven months pregnant, slithering along my kitchen floor. The ruler I clutch is for retrieving small objects lost in the dust jungle beneath my refrigerator.
After several swipes I come up with a pile of dirt and a petrified saltine, so I get serious and press my cheek against the floor, positioning my left eye just inches from the target zone. I spot it—the letter "G," a red plastic refrigerator magnet. "Here it is!" I cry, hoisting myself up to offer this hard-won prize to Sophie, my momentarily maniacal toddler. Her face collapses into a sob as she shrieks, "NO! NOT THAT ONE!"
Sophie is 22 months old, and in the final stages of potty training, which I remember as I feel a gush of warm and wet on my outstretched leg. Wet clothes bring more tears (hers, not mine), and I quickly strip off her clothes, then pull off my own with one hand while I slice and peel an apple with the other. I might have barely enough time while she eats to run up stairs, grab dry clothes, and toss the dirty ones into the basket before I'm urgently missed.
That was how I came to be standing in the middle of my kitchen with the magnificence of my naked abdomen hanging low and wide on a clammy June afternoon. The sweat of my exertion had just begun trickling between my breasts when the phone rang. It was an old friend, with whom I'd been out of touch for a while. I panted hello, eyeing Sophie as she climbed up and out of her booster chair to totter precariously on the table top. "What are you doing home?" my friend wanted to know. "Don't you work at all anymore?"
Don't you work at all anymore? Again and again since entering the life phase that positioned my work in the home, I have encountered the assumptions, however unconscious, of those whose definition of work excludes most of what I do. The same system that discounts my labor scoffs at its rewards, which, like my productivity, are impossible to measure by conventional standards.
Like most labels applied to women's roles, "working mother" is inaccurate and defeating, because it foolishly implies that there is another type of mother: The non-working variety. Being a mother is work. On the other hand, it is equally absurd to call mothers who are not employed outside the home "full-time mothers," as this unfairly suggests that employed mothers are only mothers part-time. Faulty as they are, these labels go largely unchallenged. Meanwhile they can trap women in feelings of inadequacy about whatever roles we have chosen or been required to perform.
Before motherhood, I sold advertising at a newspaper, with hopes of working my way into editorial. Little did I know that the last place publishers look for writers in is the ad department. Plus, I was surprisingly good at ad sales (who knew?!) and I was quickly promoted to a well paying position in management that required me to build a classified department from the ground up. I forged ahead until my daughter was born, when, after reexamining our options, my then-husband and I decided one of us would stay home with her. Although he was happily working in his chosen field, John's income as a schoolteacher was half that of mine, which made him the financially logical choice for at-home parenthood. But I was the one who jumped at the chance, albeit scary, to shift the gears of my career and of my life.
Why? Because for one, I wanted to, deep, deep down in my gut. And two, my husband was working in a field he enjoyed and had spent years preparing for. In contrast, I had never really wanted to be an advertising sales manager and didn’t enjoy the work despite my success at it. What I had always wanted was to be a writer.
So when my maternity leave was up, I told the publishers that I wouldn't be returning to the office. Surprisingly, in order to entice me to stay, they offered me the chance to bring my daughter to work with me. Being parents themselves—and unusually open-minded—they were happy to experiment with whatever might work for all of us. I was thrilled. Although I loved being home with Sophie, the strain of living on one income was already frightening. Plus, I was rapidly discovering that my idealized image of leisurely days at home with a baby really didn’t exist. While my sister spoke with unveiled envy about all the reading and writing I would now be accomplishing, in reality I was lucky if I brushed my teeth. So I took the deal.
Seven weeks old on her first day at work, Sophie fascinated the staff as only a newborn can. A two-minute trip to the copier often turned into a half-hour social ordeal as one person after the next stopped to exclaim over her. She was a great diversion for a young and predominantly single staff. I had no idea, as a new mother, how fortunate I was to have an extroverted baby. It was my own introverted nature that suffered from the constant sensory bombardment. I was uncomfortably aware of my special status, and fighting a losing battle to hide how much time it actually took to care for Sophie on the job.
For six months, I toted a baby, a brief case, and a diaper bag back and forth from home to my office, which at first housed the crib and swing, after which came the walker, the play gym, and the toy box—not to mention the breast pump equipment and mini-diaper pail. I could hardly see my desk, let alone get to it. Not that it mattered, because by that time, I wasn't doing any work that required a desk. It had gotten crazy, and I knew it. The circles under my eyes and my continued weight loss told me it was time for a change.
Offering my resignation was a tough decision, particularly in light of my gratitude for the progressive opportunity to have my daughter on site, and the fact that cutting our income by more than half wasn’t going to be any easier now than it had been six months earlier. Ultimately, my employers and I finally agreed to view my departure as the beginning of an indefinite unpaid leave that left the door open for my possible return at some unpredictable future date.
A two-month notice allowed me to finish up the last big sales project of the quarter, while my daughter was cared for by a neighbor. I got an unforgettable taste of the superwoman syndrome, rising at 5 a.m. and dashing out the door by 6 to drop Sophie off and commute an hour to the office for a grueling nine-hour day. This was followed by a long drive in Minnesota winter rush-hour traffic to pick my daughter up and go home, and topped off with a couple of frantic hours that my husband and I spent getting everyone fed and Sophie bathed and to bed so that we could start all over again after what felt like a quick catnap. Relief overcame me as my last day at the office arrived, and I packed my diaper bags for good.
Our plans had always included my return to full-time paid employment upon our children's entry to school, which meant that, for the benefit of our financial solvency, we should have another baby quickly if at all. We chose "quickly," and shortly after our daughter's first birthday I was pregnant again.
I started stringing for our local newspaper, rushing out to city council and school board meetings as soon as my husband dragged through the door at seven o'clock. I got paid a measly 25 dollars a story, but since the meetings were at night and I could write the stories at home, I didn't have to pay for childcare. Moreover, it was the first time I saw my writing published, and it signaled a turning point for me as I finally made the leap from advertising to editorial.
Since then, I've stuck to what I'm passionate about as I navigate the uncertain waters of motherhood and work. I've redefined my priorities, and am using this time of mothering small children to lay the groundwork for a career that is going to work for me long after my children are grown. Like the many women who grow home businesses while growing young ones, I've discovered meaning in my personal work that was previously absent.
These days, since I do perform paid work from home, I could have an easy answer to "Don't you work at all any more?" I could say that I am a freelance writer, working at home. It's true, and since I know based upon my own “research” that it gains me more respect in the eyes of the asker than saying that I'm home with the kids, I'm tempted to offer it up. But I won't, because every time I do, I'm perpetuating a system that defines work only in terms of what men have traditionally been paid to do, and discounts most of what women have traditionally done for centuries.
I have to make perfectly clear when I say that I work at home, I'm talking caring for children and everything that entails, including full use of my talents as a manager, nurturer, healer, wise woman, acrobat...and retriever of small objects lost in the dust jungle beneath my refrigerator. Otherwise, people automatically dismiss these activities, and conjure up a false image of an orderly day spent at the computer doing paid work. This strain toward clarity requires a lot more effort than calling myself a "full-time mom," or proclaiming that I'm taking "time off" to be with my kids (motherhood is not a vacation), or, worst of all, concurring that no, "I really don't work at all anymore."
We need new words, or new combinations of and meanings for old words that more accurately reflect our reality. Because when we resign ourselves to the old words that apportion us less worth than we deserve because it's less awkward and just plain easier—we validate a description of ourselves that we know to be false. This danger is like that of looking into a fun house mirror, without challenging the falsehood of the contorted stranger staring back at you. Eventually, you're going to believe what you see is you, and that twisted version of yourself becomes the only truth you know.
I originally wrote this piece in 1993 for On The Issues Magazine, under the title “Reflections of a Feminist Mom.” It has since been reprinted in several anthologies including Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives (McGraw Hill). Today, Sophie is 22 years old, her brother Max is 20, and Lillie, who wasn’t yet born in 1993, is 17. The employers who so generously allowed me to bring Sophie to work did in fact re-hire me later, in 1995, this time for a job that I truly loved, as editor of Minnesota Parent Magazine. And they let me do most of the work from home. In 2002, they gave me yet another break as contributing editor and writer for Rake Magazine and allowed me to do that as a freelancer while I taught full time at the small independent school my children attended. Later, these same publishers introduced me to people who would hire me for other writing projects who in turn introduced me to others who needed books written, and so on and so on and so on, leading (via a winding and often blind path) right up to where I am today.
For me, sticking to what I was passionate about—the right combination of work I cared about and being with my kids—paid off. My early efforts have in fact blossomed into a career that does indeed seem as if it will work for me “long after my children are grown” (did I really believe when I wrote those words that such a day would ever come?). But that’s just me, and I’m just one person. On a larger scale, I’m not sure language and logistics have changed a lot since my days as a young mother. For my own daughters and stepdaughters, I want more, including paid parental leave policies like those of the European Union. What will it take to get us there?