Thursday, January 31, 2013

Afterthought #13 - Nudged Along

Last weekend, as I’ve done nearly every year since 1994, I attended a Silent Retreat at Camp Huston near Wallace Falls State Park. Sponsored by Pacific Northwest Quarterly Meeting, the retreat draws 20 to 30 Quakers from Washington and parts of Idaho. Our shared silence begins after a potluck dinner on Friday night and continues until lunch on Sunday. I’ve written about this gathering before, and I plan to write more about this year’s time of retreat in the future. For now, it prompted this January Afterthought of a relevant reflection from Holly Hughes in The Pen and the Bell - Mindful Writing in a Busy World.

Holly wrote about a weekend workshop she co-led at the North Cascades Institute called “Sit, Walk, Write:  Nature and the Practice of Presence.”   As she looked at Sourdough Mountain, Holly thought of writers like Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac who spent time in fire lookouts and of all the words that had been written in and around that landscape.

I’m reminded that whenever we come together, we bring the presence
not just of those who are with us, but of a much larger community:
the books that have informed us, and the writers who’ve nudged
us along, helping to shape our views.

Last weekend, as I walked among the cedars dripping with rain and chartreuse moss, I thought of the many Friends I’ve shared silence with at Camp Huston for nearly 20 years. A number of them have died and several have moved away, but I still feel their presence and know that they, along with those I gathered with this year, nudge me along on my spiritual journey.  

Monday, January 28, 2013


Cover art work from
The Pen and the Bell

During many years of my work as a public health nurse, I started most days to the voice of Bob Edwards on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.”  Edwards’s deep voice updated me about events of the previous twenty-four hours and reminded me of my connection to the wider world. I especially looked forward to his Friday morning chats with retired baseball announcer, Red Barber. I never was much of a baseball fan, but I enjoyed listening to Red and Bob; it was like eavesdropping on a friendship.

“Good morning, Red,” Edwards would say over the phone line from his studio in Washington, DC to Barber’s home in Tallahassee.

“Good morning, Colonel,” Barber always drawled, using the nickname to acknowledge Edwards’s home state of Kentucky.  Barber usually followed up with a report about the camellias in his garden or news of his wife, Lylah.

For a number of years, my preparation several mornings a week also included lap swimming at the YMCA. I’d pack my swim cap, goggles, flip-flops, towel, and change of clothes for work the night before. Bob Edwards’s voice signaled 6 am and cheered me as I tugged my swimsuit over the goose bumps on my hips and tried to dull the pain of the morning air with socks, a pair of leggings and a turtleneck.

Usually only one other woman would be in the dressing room when I arrived at the pool. The smell of disinfectant still lingered from the night cleaning crew.  I’d shiver again as I took off my pants, shirt, and socks, flip-flopped my way to the shower, and turned the handle to hot.

Wide awake then in the cool, chlorine-scented air, I’d adjust my swim cap and goggles and do a shallow dive into an empty lane. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. All I could hear was the slap of my arms and feet in the water and my gulps for air.  At the end of the lane, I’d curl into a ball, roll my body and connect my feet to the concrete wall, push off, and resume the rhythm of strokes, kicks, and breaths. This time of quiet and routine helped prepare me for whatever challenges the rest of the day held.

Before I begin the hour of silent Quaker worship on Sundays, I need to prepare, too. I’m much more open to Spirit if I spend some minutes before I enter the worship space in quiet anticipation—that means no phone calls, no listening to the news on the radio, no checking e-mails.  My meeting reinforces the value of preparation with a sign at the entrance, reminding us to come in worshipfully.  Silently leaving my shoes at the door signals my brain to leave my thinking and fretting there, too.

A discipline of preparation also serves my writing.  There’s no pool on my island home for morning laps, so now I wake my mind and my muscles with a Pilates workout or a walk with my yellow lab, Buddy.  Bob Edwards is long-retired from NPR, so most mornings I light a candle and read a short bit of writing that inspires me. These days I’m working my way through The Pen and the Bell by Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes. I often do a 10-15 minute timed writing exercise in my journal, before opening the lid of my laptop.  A waste of valuable writing time? With deadlines and messages to be productive, it’s tempting to skip my preparation routines, to get right to the “real work” of tapping out words for the essay or chapter I’m working on. Brenda Miller writes,

“We have to do the small tasks so that the big work will emerge on its
own terms.  All of it is preparation for the work—and it’s the work itself.”

The pool, the walks in the woods, leaving my shoes at the worship room door, moving my pen across the page—these teach me that preparation is part of the work.

How do you prepare for your work?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Beginning... again

The sun burst through the heavy mantle of gray on Day Five of my writing program’s “Spring” Residency. I had been eager to begin the ten-day session that launched the new semester, but the first four days’ temperatures in the twenties and wind blowing the rain sideways had dampened my spirits. My first-ever poetry class was weighing heavy on me, too. Verse forms and rhythms with names like villanelle, sestina, spondee, and triolet made me think I was studying a foreign language.  Iambic pentameter eluded my untrained ear and my pen—I littered a fledgling attempt to write lines with five feet of iambs with either too many syllables or too few and accents in all the wrong places.

My stumble through the first assignment in my poetry class left my stomach knotted in anticipation of future tussles with this unfamiliar genre. That’s the thing about beginnings:  along with the freshness of unexplored territory comes the potential—the likelihood— of wrong turns and having to backtrack, of getting lost, of failure. My bruised ego lightened up a few notches, though, as the sunrise overcame the rain-filled clouds.  It felt like a new beginning in the midst of all the beginnings of this season—new year, new semester, new writing form.

Blazing sunrises appear intermittently during Puget Sound winters, but probably more often than memorable poetry will flow from my laptop keyboard in the coming months. In this medium, I’m a beginner, with words hidden behind clouds of insecurity and rhythms tossed by north winds. But I’ll keep at it, watching for at least an occasional slice of light to boost me through the pains of beginning.

How do you fare with beginnings?