This Is Not Beautiful

Mary Ann and me sitting side by side and having a laugh during a writing circle at the Summer Solstice Retreat.   

Mary Ann and me sitting side by side and having a laugh during a writing circle at the Summer Solstice Retreat.


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).

My daughter Lillie in November, seizing the moment.

My daughter Lillie in November, seizing the moment.

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 
until now.
Until now 

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Change   covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence "Before I die I want to ..."    which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. 

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Change covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence "Before I die I want to ..."  which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. 

Innocence is Overrated

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.

June 1930-Day trippers give the bumps to the birthday girl at Brighton seaside resort in East Sussex-Fox Photos-Getty Images.jpg

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. 

The Mayfly and The Chair

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. 


Mary Ann Johnson recording observations during the silent nature hike. 

Mary Ann Johnson recording observations during the silent nature hike. 

After Ristos

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.

Esme's Box

For ten years, I taught elementary and middle school at a small private school in Minneapolis—an arts-based school where teachers stay with their classes from grade one through eight. The gap-toothed kids who were my first batch of first-graders, and the only group I taught for eight years, are now in college. As they were graduating from high school last spring, I came across an essay I had written about one of them. It was published originally in The Rake Magazine in 2004, when the student was in fourth grade and changing schools so that she would no longer be in our class, and I would no longer be her teacher.

Read More

One Life, Wild and Precious


I first discovered the poet Mary Oliver about eight years ago,  when I was teaching sixth grade in a basement classroom in a small school that I loved and  that my children also attended. During my years teaching there,  I went through a difficult divorce, a complicated new relationship, and--just before sixth grade--a second marriage. I was in my late thirties and experiencing the kind of identity questions many of us face in those years, but perhaps substantially intensified by a half-decade of rapid-fire life changes. In addition to my teaching work, I was also writing and publishing a lot of material, but not the kind of material I was most called to be writing.  So although I no longer know with certainty which of Mary Oliver's poems was my "first ever,"  I do recall the one that first gripped me and sucked me under and tossed me about like an ocean wave-- again and again--until I found myself altered, however slightly. It was "The Summer Day." This poem snuck up on me, with its series of childlike questions followed by meticulous, contemplative, nearly scientific observations that build gradually to its breathtaking turn at the eleventh line. Its last two lines have seared a permanent mark on my psyche, one that continually compels and encourages me anew as I forage to find my way in this maze of a lifetime. I love this poem. Perhaps you will too.

The Summer Day

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Easy Peasy 1-2-3: How Child's Pose Helps Unlock You

Novelist Ananda Leeke describes beautifully and in specific detail how her yoga practice helped support her with the creatively arduos task of novel writing.


AL: Yoga has helped me surrender my ego and need to control the creative process. Whenever I find myself becoming anxious about the process (... especially now that I am in the final days of completing this project), I take a deep breath, raise my arms above my head in worship pose with my hands in prayer. As I exhale, I chant the Sanskrit mantra "Namaha" which means surrender. I take another deep breath and lower my arms slowly while chanting Namaha. My teacher Debra Mishalove taught me this exercise. It helps center me and calms my need to push for things that are out of my control.

Whenever I have writer's block, I come into child's pose on my yoga mat or in my bed. Most times, I stretch my arms out in front of me. My fingers are widened and get a nice web-like stretch. Generally, I hold this pose for a long time (i.e. fifteen to twenty minutes) because it relaxes me and releases stress from my lower back. I love to focus my breathing on opening my third eye, the sixth chakra which governs my intuition and allows for clarity and understanding.

Another pose that I like to do when I have writer's block is forward fold because it creates a blood rush in my brain. It gives me a little buzz. I also enjoy doing downward facing dog for the same reason.

When I am not in the mood to write, but know that I have to like this morning, I do a series of four to six sun salutations. The series awakens my mind and warms my body. It becomes a magical elixir.

If I have nonstop mind chatter that prevents me from focusing, I come into easy pose and cleanse my chakras by chanting each seed mantra (lam-vam-ram-yam-ham-om-soham). I close the experience by chanting one of my favorite enlightenment mantras such as Om Namah Shivaya, Om Mani Padme Hum, or the Gayatri Mantra.

When things are really tight and I can't breakthrough with any of these exercises, I lay in corpse pose and breathe deeply while giving myself Reiki healing touch. This always does the trick. It refreshes me and allows me to come into my higher self.

Yoga has taught me that I am a vessel for the creative expression of the Divine Spirit. It has allowed me to get out of the way of my ego. With it, I am learning to live as my true self.

Searching for Agates

for Jon Zurn, Pebble Beach, Lake Superior, 2000


In the dream I take you
to Pebble Beach
where earth’s fresh water
heaves and falls

This beach is pure rock
a stretch of dull gray pebbles
dark and flat
oven-warmed and
just the size to hold in your hand

Muted beauty such as this was once enough


But then I take you
barefoot into the icy water
where the steady tide of Superior
breathes in and out

I show you how to reach down
behind the wave
and scoop away
the top layer of wet stones

Exposed pebbles seem the same
dull gray–but smaller, finer
and the next lip of the lake fills in
the dent

We continue: wave, back, search
wave, back, search

The sun is white overhead
and seagulls pick their way
along the beach, swooping
gracefully behind us

The wave recedes and
I reach my hand into the earth
revealing something blood red
shiny, beautiful

The first agate, for you

If we stay, we will uncover more:
tiny fragments of brilliance

We can dry them in the sun
for keeping or
throw them back like fish

Maybe you think there is a difference

But in the dream we have seen
what lies beneath,
and the memory of its haunting beauty
will never be silent

Always it will be here, searching

for agates



Have a peek at the reading list for the spring session of the Elephant Rock Writing Salon. In addition to imagination-building writing exercises, we'll be discussing some elements of craft, inspired by reading short excerpts of the material below. The hardest part by far was narrowing down the list for our "reading light/experience heavy" approach. Still, this series should generate some lively conversation!



Vivian Gornick (from The Situation and the Story)

Atul Gawande (from Complications)

Natalie Goldberg (from Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life)


Various Writers (from Naming the World, on plot and narrative)

William Zinsser (from Writing About Your Life)

Jeannette Walls (from The Glass Castle)


Walter Mosley (from This Year You Write Your Novel)

Anne Lamott (from Bird by Bird)

Jane Hamilton (from A Map of the World)


David Sedaris (from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim)

Louise Erdrich (from The Blue Jay’s Dance)

Annie Dillard (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)


Various Writers (from Naming the World, on dialogue)

Harper Lee (from To Kill a Mockingbird)

Annie Dillard (from The Writing Life)


Cheryl Strayed (from Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar)

E.B. White (from Letters of E.B. White)

Oakley Hall (from How Fiction Works)


Claire Kehrwald Cook (from Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing)

Jeffrey McQuain (from Power Language)

Goldberg (from Writing Down the Bones)