Once a Wasteland

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I’m a sucker for a story about renewal.  In her New York Times best-selling memoir, Wild:  From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,  Cheryl Strayed takes us along on a monumental journey, both physical and metaphorical.  (A film based on Wild starring Reese Witherspoon will be released in December.)

At age 26, Strayed is trying to find her way.  Her father left when she was six; her mother died when she was 22; now she has messed up her marriage and her life.  So she does what anyone would do; she tackles an 1100 mile hike–by herself.


She makes some genuine judgment errors, especially in her decisions about hiking boots, but she also shares wisdom learned along the way.

One reviewer says that Strayed “reminds us in every line that if defeat and despair are part of human experience, so are kindness, patience, and transcendence.”

I’m all for that reminder.  And I love it that nature’s curative power is part of the recovery.

Strayed’s description as she looks over Crater Lake near the end of her journey, one of the views that  has made me gasp, literally has taken my own breath away, follows:

This was  once a mountain that stood nearly 12,000 feet tall and then had its heart removed.  This was once a wasteland of lava and pumice and ash.  This was once an empty bowl that took hundreds of years to fill.  But hard as I tried, I couldn’t see them in my mind’s eye.  Not the mountain or the wasteland or the empty bowl.  They simply were not there anymore. There was only the stillness and silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.

Writing Practice:

Complete the following:  I’m a sucker for a story about . . .

What has been transformed by healing in your own life?


For quite a few years, Chris Bradley taught English and creative writing to high school students in the Texas hill country. She now has time to travel, garden, ride horses, and mountain bike, but she still misses those discussions with students and continues to be thankful for all the lessons which they taught her.  Chris blogs at www.practicingwonder.com
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Chris Bradley took the above photos in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California a few miles from part of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Practice of Mindful Writing

Mindful writing is a practice, which straight away places it into a psychic space that overlaps with the practical. It’s not something we just think about; it’s something we do. But more than this, we do it intentionally. In many ways much of the work or process of mindful writing happens with the silent or verbal articulation of our intention. Without the intention to write mindfully we are simply journaling. Not that I am minimizing the benefits of journaling. They are far too numerous and well documented to be dismissed. But journaling is not mindful writing.
Writing mindfully is closely aligned with a spiritual orientation towards accessing the deepest, most hidden parts of our souls, that which is capable of becoming illuminated through other practices, such as meditation, or devotional practices, or prayer. However, although there may be many overlaps between mindful writing and spirituality, they are not co-extensive; neither is mindful writing a form of some new kind of religiosity.
To truly appreciate the benefits of mindful writing we first need to establish a commitment to the practice, and it needs to be daily, or at least as regular as possible. And preferably in and around the same time each day. Somehow the discipline of establishing the practice via the setting of a specific time and turning up to a particular place, the same place and time where you arrived yesterday and will come again tomorrow, these constants set up a kind of expectation which becomes an anticipation, the silent articulation of our intention to sit still in silence and solitude and write mindfully. I don’t think I can stress this more strongly. If you wish to write mindfully, it is necessary to commit to the practice as a practice, to engage with it as a form of spiritual practice, the aim of which is to seek higher meaning for our lives through the medium of words. Words are powerful elements.
“They can be a great help – words. They can become the spirit’s hands and lift and caress you.” – Meister Eckhart
We choose to write mindfully for many reasons, including the desire to slow down, to discover inner guidance, to find our authentic voices and selves, to learn to recognize the meaning of our lives, to find our way back home. There are many forms of mindful activities we could choose to engage with, but because we are writers we have chosen to express our desire for mindful living through the medium of words. We are wordsmiths; we discover who we are through the laying down of words upon the white virginal sheets of our soul infused pages.
“Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of
another world waits. A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of
this inner world. Through the opening of the mouth, we bring out sounds from
the mountain beneath the soul. These sounds are words.”
John O’Donohue, Anam Cara
Do you have a mindful writing practice? If you don’t what do you need to do to create one? Can you mark out a space in your surroundings where you can be assured of silence, solitude and uninterrupted writing time?
The amount of time required for the practice is not excessive. It is always best to be realistic thereby saving yourself from the ignominy of ‘failure’. We have a habit of always starting out with wonderful intentions and then when we fail to reach our own too-high standards we simply give up, berating ourselves for believing we could do it, that we dared to think we might somehow change the fabric of our lives for the better. Then we leave our dreams languishing behind us until one day something strikes us, some word or image, a line from a poem or a sentence from a writer we admire, and then we feel the desire rising again within. So we try again, and once more we commit the same mistake – we aim too high, too soon.
Far better to start small and slow, and see where our words may carry us. The point of a practice is that it is just that – practice, which is another word for process. The words are what they are, our writing means what it means – it is enough for today. For mindful writing is not about results, trying to make our writing count according to some objective standard.
Committing to a regular practice sends a message to your unconscious that you are serious about your new, life-enhancing activity, so that even on the days when you don’t feel like sitting and writing mindfully, still you drag your resisting feet to the table, you pick up your pen, find a prompt to start you off, or not, and write. Mindfully.
Natalie Goldberg recommends keeping a notebook, a sort of tally of your daily practice. In this notebook you jot down the date and the times you began writing and when you finished. No evaluations necessary, just a simple recording of time and place. Oh yes, and don’t forget to make note of the days missed, eg July 25th : missed! Whether we engage with the practice or not, recording keeps a continual relationship, Natalie reminds us.
In this way, our intention is always before us. This is why intention precedes practice, and is, in many ways, more important than the actual practice itself, or rather the practice has lost its juiciness if it is not illuminated by intention.
So what’s your practice going to be?
Remember – keep it simple.
Start with 10 minutes a day, 5 days a week. This allows room for fudging and adjusting to a new life practice.
Maintain a record of days when you did and days when you didn’t.
Trust the process.
“Words are never just words. The range and depth of a person’s soul is inevitably revealed in
the quality of the words she uses. When chosen with reverence and care, words
not only describe what they say but also suggest what can never be said.
John O’Donohue, Beauty

Daddy Chat: Morning Time (the sun also rises)

February 2014 114

Photo and Essay by Janet Grace Riehl

Yesterday Pop’s walk with Charlie was cut short. He came back and crashed into bed around 3. Dead out. Still sleeping at 7 that evening. My brother Gary and I conferred, and decided to wake him up to get properly ready for bed. He took his breathing treatment, medicine, and took out his teeth. I read to him from one of the books that he’s written for ten minutes and he was off to dreamland once more. Or, maybe before

This morning as I moved through the dining room he called out, “I’m awake” earlier than he has been in quite awhile.

Pop: I had the best sleep last night.

Me: Yes, you did! You had a proper rest.

Pop: What’s happening today?

Me: Not much. Gary and Patty go home today. It’s the last day of August. Tomorrow is officially Labor Day.

Pop: What do we need to do?

Me: Let’s get your breathing treatment going. Then I’ll get your teeth and you can take your medicine. After his breathing treatment he pops right up.

Me: You’re strong today. I’m impressed.

But when I bring in the plastic container that holds his teeth and set it on his lap, he’s not so sure.

Pop: What do you want me to do?

Me: Put your teeth in.

Usually he’s an ace at this. Until a week ago he trotted into the bathroom and did this all by himself.

Pop: Where are they?

Me: Right here, Pop. On your lap.

He bumbles around. Gets them turned around.

Me: I think these are the bottom ones. Okay. The top ones. No, they go around the other way.

Each of these small markers is a tiny shock to us. A tiny grief. It’s the slow, slow fade, incremental, molecular that’s the hardest to take. Increasingly I see that courage is in these tiny daily details for all of us.

I camp out on the bed to make sure he gets all the pills down. He takes them along with tiny bites of a banana. He moves at a fast clip and gets them all.

Now to the trousers. I get the legs of the trousers over his legs–not deftly, but it’s done.

Me: Stand up now.

Pop: You want me to stand up?

Me: Yes.

Pop (grins a bit): I just wanted to make sure we were in agreement on the direction of progress.

I grin, too. It’s this mixture of confusion with droll wit that’s so endearing and slightly heartbreaking.

Pants up, shirt tucked in. I see that his oxygen tube is underneath his belt. We fix that.

Me: Off we go.

Pop: Where?

Me: To your chair.

He moves along at a fast clip for a guy who usually moves at a snail’s pace. Then he levers himself into his Lazy Boy.

When it’s time for breakfast, I outfit him with the cowboy apron I bought him so long ago. The design of the cowhand on his horse twirling his lariat is a little harder to make out with each washing.

Breakfast is standard: oatmeal with raisins. But Pop laid out the specs long ago. We have two aluminum measuring scoops at the ready that I’ve been using since girlhood (quite a long time ago!) 1/4 oatmeal. 1/2 cup water. Raisins. Two minutes in the microwave. Milk and sugar.

I serve his food on a large white enamel flat-bottom pan trimmed in blue. The iron shows through the corners. I can’t remember anymore what we used this for all these years ago. While he eats his oatmeal with dispatch, a goodly amount lands on his cowboy apron.

Me: Pop, that’s an Olympic record!

Pop: What’s happening this next week?

Me: Nothing special. All routine.

Pop: Then I can go to sleep now.

Me: Yes, and snooze throughout for the next five days.

I putter around in the kitchen until I hear my brother shaving Pop. Gary and I talk a few minutes in the kitchen to compare notes on what we know about Pop.

As Gary says good-bye to Daddy before he goes up to his house up the way, he says (with the boyish grin I don’t see often enough): “Don’t let Janet work you too hard.”

The sun shines through the window. The trees are green. Mother’s day lilies are blooming. All is well with our world.


Janet Grace Riehl lives on both sides of the Mississippi River between her place in St. Louis and her father’s place in Illinois on the bluffs that overlook the river.  Learn more about Janet’s work at http://www.riehlife.com. Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century. Creating connections through the arts and across cultures.

My Cup of Tea


My favorite daily “indulgence” is not really very extravagant; I call it my faux chai tea, which is actually spiced-up green with skimmed milk to provide the latte.  It’s pretty healthy and not much of a luxury, except in the sense that it is rich with memory and meaning.

It feels to me as though I’m starting my day with dessert.

I brew a teabag in a handmade cup, add a shake of spices I’ve mixed and stored in a small jar.  Then I stir some stevia into the hot tea for sweetening.  Meanwhile, a nifty little electric appliance whirs milk into a warm froth, and I fill my oversized cup to almost overflowing.  My first sip is all warm milk foam–making room for the rest of the froth to go on top.

Then I sit somewhere comfortable, holding the heavy pottery with both hands.

The spice mix varies by batch, but it is always primarily cinnamon, with some combination of cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, and ginger adding to the evocative fragrance.


And I sip and wake up and enjoy the early morning quiet.


But it’s more than that.

The warm milk takes me back a half century to my grandmother’s kitchen, to the late afternoons when I accompanied my daddy as he milked our family’s jersey cow.  After expertly milking into a stainless steel bucket, (once in a while offering to squirt a stream into my five-year-old mouth), he would turn the cow out to be with her awaiting calf and carry the bucket to his mother’s house fifty yards away, holding his opposite hand and arm away from his side to balance the weight as I opened and closed the gates for him.

Once in the kitchen, we strained the milk into immaculately clean Presto jars, and I was rewarded for my “help” with a bit of the still-warm milk, drinking it from a white enameled metal cup with a gray-blue rim.

Presto handled milk jar

a Presto jar from my childhood, in the days when we had a milk cow

Presto jar

a Good Housekeeping seal of approval embossed into the metal lid

Often I started those childhood days with a solo breakfast, after my three older siblings had left for school and Daddy had left the house for the unending chores associated with ranching in southwest Texas.

Mother sometimes prepared her special toast, slathering white bread with butter, topping it with cinnamon mixed with sugar, and placing it under the “In-a-Top” broiler of her 1940’s-era Chambers gas stove. The toast came out bubbly and warm and golden-brown, sweet, spiced with cinnamon and the knowledge it was made just for me.

The tastes and smells of my daily “indulgence” are reminders of both of my parents, both of whom are gone and both of whom lost much of their memory before the final leaving.  My little ritual keeps alive my own memories.

My morning tea–earthy, warm, calming–tastes like love and belonging.

Mother's teapot

my mother’s teapot

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Writing Practice:

Do you have any rituals that simultaneously place you in the present and in the past?

What scents or tastes take you to moments from the past?

For quite a few years, Chris Bradley taught English and creative writing to high school students in the Texas hill country. She now has time to travel, garden, ride horses, and mountain bike, but she still misses those discussions with students and continues to be thankful for all the lessons which they taught her.  Chris blogs at www.practicingwonder.com
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Photos by Chris Bradley.

Waking Up, Writing Down

Last month we looked briefly at what it might mean to approach our writing from a ‘mindful’ perspective. This month we shall get down to some specifics. While there are many ways of engaging with the process of mindful writing, some styles are more conducive to meditative ruminations than others. Haikus spring immediately to mind.
Most readers, I’m sure, have heard of haiku, and know that they utilize a unique and precise structure. Traditionally each haiku consists of 17 syllables divided over 3 lines of 5 – 7 – 5. There is a marvellous freedom to be discovered within the confines of such a disciplined approach. Writing haikus is my personal preferred form of mindful writing, my go-to genre when feeling uncertain and perplexed. It never fails to ground me in a broader, deeper field of light-filled consciousness. Writing haikus lands me directly in the heart of the present moment, for a haiku is always a record of what is occurring right here, right now.
Here are a few of my most recent haikus:
Waterfall of rain,
curtain of transparent lace,
streams down my window.
Winter’s cold breath still
drifts over field’s feathered wisps,
farewell kiss of frost.
Transparent curtain
envelops world in grey shroud -
rain falling again.
Sudden summer storms
blustering across the fells,
orchestrated dance.

Hills etched like blue veins
horizon melts into mist,
gale squalls whipping up.
Torn buds, white and frail,
summer tries to show its face,
battered as it bloomed.
Blowsy blossoms fall
half-drunk with fragrant splendour,
summers whispered sighs.

Similar in brevity, though less rigid or formal in intention and technique, there is another, slightly different, approach to ‘mindful’poetry. Satya Robyn [http://www.writingourwayhome.com/], refers to them as ‘stepping stones’. Sam Green, in his poem ‘The Grace of Necessity’, prefers ‘small noticings’. Names may differ but intentions remain the same. A rose is still a rose.


To take the time to write a ‘small stone’ or ‘small noticing’ is to engage in a practice which helps us to focus and observe what is going on in our worlds, both inner and outer. We begin our practice by slowing down, allowing ourselves to find the still point of silence deep within. Using our senses we turn to that which we have decided to observe, and look, look closely, listen, touch, look again, waiting to hear with the ‘ear of our heart’ the first murmurings of our souls desires. Then, with senses saturated with sensual stirrings, we write down exactly what we have seen, heard, felt.
How much should I write? The answer to this is simple – as much or as little as you feel called to do. When I write ‘small stones’ I usually write something akin to the length of a haiku, eg a few short, descriptive lines filled with vivid imagery and luscious detail. But unlike haikus, I don’t restrict the structure of what I write to any pre-ordained or set order. Essentially ‘small noticings’ capture those moments when we are fully aware and engaged with the present. Nothing more, nothing less.

There are typically two main steps in writing ‘small noticings’ –

(i) Look and see, observing what is directly in front of you very closely, perhaps focusing on one particular aspect of the object. Be careful that you don’t rush through this step. Take your time.
(ii) Write down what you have noticed. Breathe into your noticing. Enjoy the sensual experience of conveying what you are experiencing through your opened senses on to the pristine white page of your mindful writing note book. Rest. Breathe.

And that’s all there is to it! As you engage in this practice, especially if you make it a daily practice, you will slowly begin to notice something else, something about yourself which perhaps you might not have realised before. Over time you may notice certain themes, symbols, images and metaphors which continue to manifest in your writing. Welcome them, sit with them, explore them. Most of all write your way into them. This is what it means to write yourself home.
Try and aim to write something every day. Remember this is not a practice which requires a lot of time. Indeed it may not call for much more than 10 minutes each day. But if you engage with it on a regular basis, you will notice a difference in how you see the world you live in, the everyday world which surrounds you and which you normally hardly notice. Writing mindfully, we are learning to see again with new eyes, new vision, so that everything old is new again.
• Let go of trying to direct your writing and the flow of your words. Let go of judging and worrying and criticizing your work. Let go of what you think your writing should be. Let go of all the ideas you have accumulated over the years about what it means to write. In mindful writing we just write.

• Especially for this awareness practice, I recommend that you carry a small notebook with you through your day and capture those small moments of heightened awareness as you move through the hours.

• Perhaps you might like to share some of your ‘small noticings’ in the comments section below.

There is nothing to achieve here, no goals to be reached. Mindful writing has more to do with deepening and enriching our daily lived experience than in producing a body of work, though of course it is more than likely that much of what we find ourselves writing here will serve as springboards to future works, whether these will be poetry, memoir, creative non-fiction or fiction. But for now they are simply small offerings, glimpses through the veils behind which lies visions and vistas yet to be seen or even imagined. Enjoy your mindful writing, and remember that ultimately it’s a practice designed to get us to slow down and notice the world we live in!
Check out the following website for lots of examples of ‘small stones’: http://www.ahandfulofstones.com/

- Edith Ó Nualláin lives with her family in a small village on the east coast of Ireland, snuggled between the mountains and the sea, where she reads, writes occasional reviews, and spins exotic fibres into yarn. Some day she hopes to learn how to spin straw into gold.


A Star Is Born

“A Star Is Born”

Image and Essay by Janet Grace Riehl

This is my 70th Creative Catalyst  post since 2008. During that time so much has happened to me personally and in my creative life. Whether I’ve written about Daddy Care or Doodling you’ve responded and shared your lives right back. How appropriate, then, to tell you now about the culmination of artwork I began in 2011. All those doodles became a beautiful exhibit. Through Women & Wardrobe: The Riehl Collection I claimed them as digital images—fine art. And, the opening of the show opened me.

In all the arts—literary, visual, performing—there is that moment where the art becomes public. There is so much creativity advice about how to inspire, coax and sustain our practice. But, there is little that I know of to help us move through and use the opportunity of shaping and showing our work for an audience.

A mentor once told me that “Your show is really for you. It shows you what you’ve been doing. It’s a time to take it in so that you can use what you’ve done as inspiration to go forward.” With all creative work it’s like that. In studio art made of paint or clay it’s even more striking to see your work altogether in a clean space.

Three equations expressed this protected time.

Work = Play

Play  = Work

Work + Play = Joy

In making the body of work, it worked because:

1) I had no ambition beyond making each image work on its own terms.

2) I let my images do the talking.

3) I taught myself (and taught myself how to teach myself) as I went.

4) I surrendered, and entered a state of easy-going exploration.

Every event has its challenges, and this one was no exception. My framer became sick unto death and I had to find a new one—while on holiday 2,000 miles from St. Louis in Northern California off the grid. “Set up a fashion show? In a month!” the head of the design department of a nearby college wailed when I asked if they’d participate. But, I urged them to continually redefine what a fashion show is, and they hit on a perfect orchestration that blended with and augmented the artwork to make the night even more fun.

Jump cut to opening night—a rousing success! Both on the outside and the inside. On the outside, it was everything any artist could wish, pray, and hope for:

  • Lots of people came. 100?
  • Lots of people bought art. We raised a goodly sum to benefit Portfolio Gallery (all the profits went to the gallery).
  • Everyone (including me) had a good time!
  • People didn’t only raise their glasses and chat. They actually looked at the work and appreciated it.

And for me, on the inside? My opening was an opening of me. An opening of my heart and soul.  There was so much love that allowed the work to happen. To be asked to show. To have a friend who took on all the technical work. To be on TV.  To experience the hilarity of 15 minutes of fame. To have my family and friends come. To have the joy of giving to Portfolio. To have the joy of seeing my work apart from my phone or Facebook transformed into elegantly framed images. The joy of people loving the work. Validating. Affirming. Filled with possibility and a sense of rightness.


Want to read more Creative Catalyst posts about this latest art journey?

In June 2012 I described the wonderful surprise of visual art coming back into my life through “Doodling a Body of Work.”http://storycirclenetwork.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/doodling-a-body-of-work

In July 2014 I shared my happiness at my upcoming exhibit with “Bliss + Work = Results! Case study: Women & Wardrobe: The Riehl Collection.”


Learn more about Janet Riehl’s work on her blog magazine Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century (www.riehlife.com). With the mission to create connections through the arts and across cultures.



From the Tidepools to the Stars

One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the . . . marvelous structure of reality.  — Albert Einstein

A handsome dragonfly–a widow skimmer, I believe–is gracing my garden these days.  It has been much too quick for me and my camera; dragonflies are such excellent fliers that aviation engineers research them hoping to glean ideas for improving aircraft.

We humans copy many of nature’s patterns, both purposely and accidentally, I’m sure; notice the rotational symmetry demonstrated in the following cosmos bloom and in our vintage aermotor windmill.

cosmos bloom

aermotor windmill

Sometimes nature seems to have enjoyed a specific design so much that it crafted visual echoes of its own.

I can almost feel the remembered touch of my childhood companion, a pet lamb named Woolybritches, when I see this lamb’s ear leaf in the garden:

Lamb's Ear

And this bat-faced cuphea bloom on the opposite side of the yard brings a smile to my face as I compare its visage to those of the Mexican free-tailed bats which populate our Texas hill country during the summer and prevent our having a mosquito problem:


But, along with Einstein (pretty good company, no?),  I also find awe in other organic forms which nature repeats.  One pattern that particularly inspires wonder for me is the spiral repeated in nautilus shells, in some galaxies, and in cyclones.


So when I buy an organic romanesco cauliflower, as pictured above, I often think of more than its delicious flavor.  Its own spirals remind me of John Steinbeck’s thoughts on nature’s repetitions, penned in The Log of the Sea of Cortez:

 . . . all things are one thing and one thing is all things–plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together . . . it is advisable to look from the tidepool to the stars and then back to the tidepool again.

I like remembering that all is bound together.

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You can read, if so inclined, a bit about nature’s patterns on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patterns_in_nature.)

Writing Practice:

Complete the following:  One cannot help but be in awe when _________________ .

What reminds you that “all is bound together”?

For quite a few years, Chris Bradley taught English and creative writing to high school students in the Texas hill country. She now has time to travel, garden, ride horses, and mountain bike, but she still misses those discussions with students and continues to be thankful for all the lessons which they taught her.  Chris blogs at www.practicingwonder.com
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Photos by Chris Bradley.