Tell Me What You See

Rose

The full experience of a rose requires that we see with our minds the inner energy, the hidden origin, the radical form, and not simply the manifested colors, shapes, and proportions.
– Thomas Dubay

Let’s begin this month with a little experiment. Sit comfortably, back straight, feet on the ground. Allow your gaze to settle upon a single object right in front of you. This can be anything, your pen, the mug of tea you carried with you to your writing desk, the flower you picked this morning and placed in a vase upon your table, the tree outside your window, the rain dripping from your leaking gutter. Picking up your pen, describe exactly what you see.

When you have finished, put your pen down and sit comfortably again. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, settling yourself into your body. Continue breathing slowly, gently, allowing your breath to breathe you into a space of stillness and quiet. Continue for however long it takes to let go of the world around you, to sink into the depths of your quietened mind, to become one with who you really are. When you feel fully rested and relaxed open your eyes and look again at the object. What do you see now, in the very moment when first you see it again? Can you try to describe what it is, what it looks like, not just its appearance, but its essence too. Try to see how its inner reality, its inner being, what Buddhists call its “suchness”, shimmering around the edges.

The purpose of this exercise is to encourage you as a writer to identify and understand the essential difference between writing as descriptive writing, and writing as mindful writing. There are not just worlds of difference between them, but universes, whole galaxies of intuited meaning, and not meaning as ‘truth’, but as spaciousness, vast landscapes, the vision or seeing of which can only be grasped by the inner eye, the quietened mind, the ‘weaned soul’.

Learning to see how things really are, not just from a superficial glance, but what they are beneath the surface of their appearance, takes time and practice to cultivate. Still you may be wondering, how do we capture this experience of the ineffable, that which we intuit as present but cannot find the words to describe? How often have we pulled back our curtains, still sleepy and warm from our night time dreams, only to be stunned into wakefulness by the beauty of an early morning sunrise? How do we even attempt to capture that immediate sense of shocked wonder, the sharp intake of our breaths as we are jolted awake and aware by the vision of beauty which we almost missed, and would have if we had lain on a few minutes more? Yes, we can describe the physical contours of what we see, but can we catch in words the way we felt when first we were surprised by this superfluous gift from the skies above?

Our presence to the moment means something; we feel it in our bones, in our guts, that this vision is more than a random array of colours brushed across a pale grey and icy blue canvas. We may feel a vague sense of frustration as we succumb to the silent muteness which accompanies some of our almost ‘religious’ experiences of the ineffable, what Nina Wise calls “the realm of sensed reality that refuses to be reduced to words.” [‘a big new free happy unusual life’]

Return to your writing desk and look again at the thing-as-it-is-in-itself. Breathe deeply into the present moment and take this thing-in-itself into the depths of your own being, until you reach a point where it and you are no longer subject and object, but all of a-piece, something single, unified, one. Peter Levitt in his marvellous book Fingerpainting on the Moon tells us that “the Sanskrit language came into being when the essence of each thing first made its sound known to human beings. When people heard these primordial soundings they realized they were witnessing the self-naming of the physical world, and so the sound each thing made became the word by which it was known.” The tree whispers to us that its name is “Tree”, by which it means “I am This.” And the stone tells us that its name is “Stone” meaning too that “I am This.” And so we listen to everything and we catch the whispers of the world as it tells us, one thing at a time, that it is This, that this is its name, its essence. And then, because we are writers, but most especially mindful writers, we pause long enough to look, listen and hear what the thing-in-itself is telling us, and we write it all down.

Mind, Give Me

Mind, give me
the exact name of things!
…that my word may be
the thing itself,
re-created by my soul.
So that all who do not know them
go through me
to things;
all who have forgotten
go through me
to things;
all those who love them
go through me
to things…..
Mind, give me
the exact name, and yours
and theirs and mine, of things!

-Juan Raón Jiménez

-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.

My Life in Passports

Photo by Janet Riehl

Photo by Janet Riehl

Essay and photos by Janet Grace Riehl

A post on Facebook inquired “How many countries have you been to?” Okay, let’s count.

Europe = 11

Mexico & Colombia = 2

St. Vincent & Barbados = 2

Asia = 4

Africa = 16

For a grand total of 35

Photo by Janet Riehl

Photo by Janet Riehl

Top photo: high school year book photo Bottom photo: the world traveler sets forth

Some of these countries I merely passed through on my way to somewhere else.  In some I was a tourist. In a handful of countries, I was really there.

Now we come to My Life in Passports. In my collection I hold 8—including my current passport. These contain untold stamps and multiple extension pages.  I have 3 of the older, bigger, green ones which I used from 1968 to 1977 as I went to Europe twice and then later lived and worked for 5 years in Botswana and Ghana. I have 5 of the newer, smaller, blue ones spanning 1982 until now.

It’s the 3 green ones that draw me most strongly, for between 1968 to 1977—20 years old to 29—I grew more fully into my womanhood as I morphed from Janet G. Thompson (my maiden name) to Janet Grace Clark (my married name) to Janet Grace  Riehl (my grandmother’s maiden name, and the one I’ve kept since 1975).  Only three things stay the same. My hair and eyes remain recorded as “brown.” My height stays 5’4”. And the emergency contact is always my father Erwin A. Thompson always living at R. R. 2, Box 117, Godfrey IL, 62035. Through all my meanderings it’s family and the home place which anchor me.

Of these three green passports the 1975 one is my favorite.  It records my journey into the unknown—a true leap of faith—as I left Peace Corps after 3 years of teaching in secondary schools in Botswana and Ghana—to strike out on my own. Alone. I traveled on foot, public transport, and hitchhiking equipped with a small canvas rucksack holding one change of clothing and an orange nylon tent strapped to the top. The tent was secured with Ghanaian strip cloth I’d sown on in preparation for my journey.

Photo by Janet Riehl

Photo by Janet Riehl

I would travel from West Africa to Southern Africa where I found my calling back in Botswana working with villagers to set up a sewing center.  In Fall of 1975 I set off from Ghana traveling through Togo, Dahomey (now Benin), Northern Nigeria, and Cameroon in West Africa where I then caught a plane to Zambia. I continued overland through Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) entering Botswana on foot through the northern Botswana border gate of Kazungula on December 19, 1975. Then, my adventure began in earnest. After my work was done of launching the village sewing center (which later became a multi-village vocational-technical college), I went back to the United States via Malawi, Kenya, and Ghana. From fall of 1975 to fall of 1977 I lived on my Peace Corps re-adjustment allowance designed to cushion me during my transition back to America. I carried this money in my “bank.” The sheaf of travelers’ checks snuggled in a hidden pocket sewn into a long skirt of my design.

No wonder my parents worried about me. No wonder that they arrived to visit in 1976 begging me to come back home. In the 1970s security and job stability with a pension was real, not an illusion. How could I carry on in my adult life if I didn’t get started on that? And, most compellingly, my father told of his difficult adjustment coming back from World War Two.  If I didn’t come back to the United States soon, I never would be able to come back in any real sense inside myself. That clinched it, and I agreed that when my work was done I’d come home.

Photo by Janet Riehl

Photo by Janet Riehl

The 1975 passport photo shows a saucy young woman looking off to the side at someone outside of the frame. I no longer know who that was. She is wearing an outfit she designed and sewn by a local tailor made from traditional Ghanaian waxprint cloth. On the outside of her blouse she wears a necklace made from beads bought in an outdoor market. We can see the cord of a leather pouch tucked inside her bodice. She did well, this young woman. I send her my love across the years. She lives in me still. She shaped me into the woman I am today at nearly 66. She stepped out on space. She lived on love and fresh air. And, most importantly, this country girl who roamed the world found her way back home.

________________

Janet’s blog “Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century” is dedicated to creating connections through the arts and across cultures at www.riehlife.com

For the Depths

                                                   . . . We can sit still,
keep silent, let the phoebe, the sycamore,
the river, the stone call themselves
by whatever they call themselves, their own
sounds, their own silence, and thus
may know for a moment the nearness
of the world, its vastness . . .

                                     –Wendell Berry, from his poem “Words”

To me, that seems like a worthy occupation for a few moments each day, to notice the silence of natural things.

My home’s setting in the Texas hill country provides opportunity, if I take time to notice.  The stillness of the small lake pictured below speaks through its quiet.

stillness of lake

An autumn full moon whispers through fish-scale clouds:

fish scale clouds and moon

Layers of leaves tell of the passage of time:

layers of leaves

One of my favorite literary passages opens the poem “Silence” by Edgar Lee Masters:

I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea,
And the silence of the city when it pauses,
And the silence of a man and a maid,
And the silence for which music alone finds the word,
And the silence of the woods before the winds of spring begin,
And the silence of the sick
When their eyes roam about the room.
And I ask: For the depths
Of what use is language?

There is irony, of course, in Masters’ use of language to ask that question at the end of the stanza–and more irony in my own attempt to describe an affinity for silence by using words.

Communication is difficult; language is an imperfect tool.

And sometimes, only silence will do.

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Writing Practice:

What things have you noticed in silence today?

When have you found language to be inadequate?

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.

Why I Write

Portal to the sea

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” –Rainer Maria Rilke

I do lots of things – I embroider, I spin yarn on my spinning wheel, then dye the hand spun in a vast array of hues, before knitting it into hats and scarves, sweaters and mittens for family and friends. I love crafting, losing myself in a universe of texture and colour, dreaming about what to create next. I love to cook too, rustling up dinners and treats for a family whose hollow legs always seem to be running on empty! Gathering the ingredients, peeling, chopping, arranging in little dishes, splashes of colour which I can’t help but set out like the spectrum of a rainbow, anticipating the promise of aromas floating through the house, waiting to greet the hungry travellers when they fall through the door, back into the warmth and security of home.

The days simply aren’t long enough to do all the things I like to do, which means I have to choose. Trying to choose between crafts and writing is like attempting to decide whether to engage with left or right brain based activities. Except that it’s not, because both types of pursuits incorporate aspects of each side of the brain. Still there is a difference. And that difference manifests in the ‘felt-sense’ of these very different activities. Much as I love the sensuous nature of crafts and colour, it is only when writing that I feel most alive. Then, it is as if my senses have become hyper-vigilant; mindfulness is no longer a word or a movement, it is a state of being.

Mindfulness is a concept which can apply to any aspect of life. It is more an attitude than a process. It constitutes a way of seeing, a way of being in harmony with the world as it manifests in both the inner and outer realms. That writing mindfully is a practice becomes evident when we approach it as a method, a set of precepts on how to ‘do it’. And yes, the process is important, the practices we incorporate develop into habits bringing with them a sense of rightness as the rituals gradually become embedded in our practice, one writing session at a time. The practice then develops into a kind of trellis, a supporting structure, a habit we can rely upon to carry us from the minituae of everyday distractions to the heart of what lies directly in front of us. Still, important and even necessary as it is, the ritual of the practice can only ever be like a finger pointing to the moon. The essence, or juice, of the practice lies curled up within our intention as we sit at our writing desk yet again.

When we first begin to write mindfully we notice an ever deepening sense of catharsis. It is as if our souls slowly begin to trust that we are listening to them, and so over time, we discover something changing deep inside. This sense of catharsis bears only a passing resemblance to that experience of release we sometimes notice when we write say, our memoirs, divulging our darkest secrets and our pain to the waiting blank page, (though of course, in practice the two experiences often overlap). Mindful writing takes us to a different place, and it is because of this that we refer to it as a practice, akin to meditation practice. For mindful writing is indeed a meditation practice, like sitting practice in Buddhist meditation for example. The similarities become most evident in their effects, both dependent upon the attitude and intentions we carry into our respective practices.

Writing mindfully generates a kind of wondering about the world, about ourselves, about everything which surrounds us. From this pondering emerges a sense of something that has been closed and locked away which just now is opening, like the petals of the lotus extending outwards, reaching up to the aery spaces above. We feel as if our souls are enveloped in a lightness of being, as if everything is just as it ought to be. Questions emerge and then disappear; answers are neither sought nor required. Doubt and scepticism have slipped away, leaving in their wake the beauty of pure wonderment.

“Every day, every day I hear
enough to fill
a year of nights with wondering.”

Denise Levertov

It is as if our minds are floating in a sea of light-filled consciousness, as if our entire beings are resting in this unseen, but deeply felt, space of awareness. From this perspective we intuit what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘beautiful’. We may not be able to quite articulate in words what we are experiencing, but we ‘know’ with a kind of ‘womb-knowing’ that all is good, even if outwardly it may appear to be anything but! When we hit this ‘zone’ we know we have written our way back home.

Mindful Writing Prompt:

See this month’s prompt below. Take your time, read it a few times, listening to the sounds of the words as they roll around your tongue. Breathe into the question, slowly. Allow the question to unfurl its meaning, to roll in front of you, to offer itself to you as a gift, a grace, a gratuitous opportunity to lift the veil between what you think you see, and what is really in front of you.

All of life, all living is held within the space of a breath. To remain still, to sit in silence and solitude, breathing, just breathing, envelops our consciousness in peacefulness and an all-abiding sense of calm, peace comes dripping slowly, permeating each fibre of our being. Breathing mindfully into the present moment opens us to seeing with new eyes, which we can then carry into our writing.
Take a deep breath. What do you feel rising in you with each breath? When you look, what do you see? What changes? What remains the same?

“How Do You Heal a Broken Heart?” by Erwin A. Thompson (for his youngest daughter)

Heart Springs Image by Janet Riehl

Heart Springs
Image by Janet Riehl

 

My father woke up in the night last week with part of this poem in his mind and walked into his dining room office to write it down on a construction clipboard on blue-lined paper. Where I found it the next morning.

As we chatted about it, I suggested it might be fun to try as an exchange of letters between the father and daughter. I’m so pleased that Pop agreed to experiment with my idea, yielding the poignant result below.

I particularly thrill to the lines: “Each task you did with love and skill/ Was like a work of art” as that exactly expresses for me the way I see my father approaching his work, and his love for fixing things. 

How do you heal a broken heart?

by  Erwin A. Thompson

For Janet, my youngest

Dear Daddy,

My dolly, when her arms came off,
You fixed as good as new.
And then you fixed my roller skates,
When they lost a screw.

Each task you did with love and skill,
Was like a work of art.
I’ve got another job for you.
What do you have to heal a broken heart?

Dear Daughter,

Well, Honey—I don’t righly know.
That’s a bigger job, by far.
You need to crawl up on my lap,
Or listen to my old guitar

There is a song for everything,
Sorting through the pile.
Soft, sad music for the heart break
And some will make you smile.

You always loved with all your heart,
You gave your treasure to a friend.
You gave your heart to careless hands
With heart break at the end.

I cannot change this careless, thoughtless world
Or its people, and the things they do.
Just come on home, and rest awhile;
And be ready when it’s time to start anew.

Unto the Hills

005

A century ago, John Muir asserted that “going to the mountain is going home” and that “wildness is necessity” for “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.”

And doesn’t that last phrase describe us all even more now than then?

When I was growing up in the Texas hill country, the words most often repeated at graveside funeral services were those of the psalmist of the Old Testament, who wrote: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

As we mourners stood in the picturesque Sabinal River Canyon, we could see blue hills against blue sky in several directions.  That sight and the  poetry of the familiar words comforted us.

Not all cultures through the ages have respected hilltops; John Donne is supposed to have called mountains “warts upon the landscape”.  But, along with the ancients who visited mountaintops as part of a religious or ecstatic experience, many others have found both comfort and exhilaration in the heights.

What’s not to like?  We gain both a view of the mountains and a view from the mountains.

black canyon of the gunnison

Mountains serve as metaphor for both the trials we face and the heights we reach.

Sometimes the peaks are shrouded in mist and mystery.

079

We have a delightful array of words to describe aspects of mountains: crags, hillocks, foothills, buttes, rises, bluffs, crests.

The names of specific mountains, actual and legendary, paint rich images. Speak these names aloud, hearing them as they roll off the tongue, and think of the associations each name conjures: Olympus, Caucasus, Ararat, Sinai, Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro, Popocatepetl, Machu Picchu.

Different shapes display their own personalities, and often it seems as though the earth itself is trying to speak to us.

003

view from Shout of Relief pass

baja california sur

Muir promises us further rewards if we can just let go of our tunnel vision and lift our eyes–and perhaps our feet–unto the hills:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

Autumn strikes me as a fitting time to lift our eyes unto the hills, when our days and nights exchange their balance, when a subtle adaptation of light highlights hill against sky.  There was a brief moment of stasis a month ago, as we reached a sort of pinnacle of barely perceptible time, and now we continue on toward more darkness than light.

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Photos above, starting at top, were taken by Chris Bradley at: Taylor Reservoir, Colorado; Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado; Dillon, Colorado; Colorado National Monument; Shout of Relief Pass, in the Sierra Nevadas, California; Baja California Sur, Mexico.

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Writing Practice:

Think of names associated with hills and mountains that are meaningful to you.  Describe them.

Do you have associations with equinoxes or solstices or other seasonal changes?  Do you think of the earth as it completes these cycles?  Write down your thoughts.

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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

The Transformative Effects of Words

Fragonard
As a child and teenager I read voraciously. Finding a quiet place in my rambunctious household wasn’t easy with six children milling around, fighting, jostling for their own space. Yet somehow I always found a corner, a seat to curl up upon. Head leaning downwards towards the words which held my attention, I was lost to the outer world, immersed in another realm, a combination of the author’s imagination and my inner response to the magic he, or she, was creating. My siblings often wondered how I could lose myself within a book to the extent that harrass me as much as they would, they failed to get my attention. I simply didn’t hear them. I remember when finally I raised my head , I was amazed to find I was still sitting in my living room, enclosed by familiar walls. It was disorientating to realize I wasn’t sailing the high seas with a pirate queen, or walking the moors in the company of a wild and tempestuous woman.

This ability to lose myself in a book is a gift I don’t always allow myself the time to indulge. I do want to try and make it a more regular part of my life again. Books written by authors in recent years extolling the benefits of a year devoted entirely to reading regularly, such Nina Sankovitch’s inspiring account of her decision to read a new book every day for a year in her ‘Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, my year of magical reading’, thrill me with their recounted tales of the transformative effects of reading. They remind me of how I used to read long ago.

But regularly or not, getting lost in reading remains a favourite pastime. Nowadays a new element has been added to my reading routine. Invariably reading the words of master writers impels me to pick up my pen and start placing my own words upon the page. I find myself responding to the authors whose works I love, by writing my thoughts down, generating a kind of dialogue with the book itself. Sometimes all it takes is an image or a phrase, and this is enough to set me off on a new journey through the corridors of my mind. Wherever it takes me it is always thrilling, as exciting as the days when I curled up in my parent’s house lost within the covers of my grandfather’s books. Mindful reading gives way to mindful writing.

Last month a reader of this blog asked for a list of recommended readings and resources for mindful writing. What follows is a compilation of the books and web sites which have informed much of my own attempts to write mindfully. Of course any one of these titles (or blogs or web sites) can only ever offer the perspective of a single practitioner. The best approach to any source is to read it (mindfully), consider its suggestions, reflect upon it, perhaps through writing, and most important of all, engage with it.

One approach is to read until you feel called to lay down the book and pick up your pen and write. What better hymn of praise to sing to an author, especially one who has penned a tome on writing mindfully, than to respond to her/his words with an equally mindful response. Undoubtedly you may begin with a thought gleaned from your reading, but very quickly you will find yourself in realms previously unknown to you, which up ‘til now, you had yet to explore.

Of course buying or reading any titles on this list is not necessary – the guidelines offered in these blog posts are enough to enable anyone interested in writing mindfully to do just that. Still the wider our reading, the deeper our perspective, and I have always been a great believer in dialoguing with the authors whose books I have devoured.

On the other hand, some of my own favourite sources don’t have a word to say about the act of writing at all. These include works of creative non-fiction, novels, and of course, poetry and haiku. Any book which sparks a response and invites you to ‘dialogue’ with it is perfect food for the transformative practice of mindful reading and writing.

For this month the writing practice I offer you is very loosely based upon an ancient form of sacred reading known as ‘lectio divina’.

1. Begin by choosing a book whose themes resonate with you. Select a paragraph or short section to read slowly and meditatively. Read the passage aloud, notice the rhythms and tone of the language, how the images and metaphors become alive in your imagination.

2. Keep reading the same section over and over (four times is often recommended initially) until a sentence or phrase begins to resonate with you. In lectio divina you don’t analyse why this particular phrase seems to call out to you, its words shimmering and overflowing with meaning. Instead you simply let the words wash over you, bathing you in their light. Feel your heart and mind expanding into the message. Sit with it for a while.

3. When you feel ready to respond, pick up your pen and begin to write whatever thoughts come to you, whatever it is that begins to emerge from the depths of your being . This may, or may not, have anything to do with what you have read. No matter. What matters is that you respond at some level. Allow complete freedom to whatever thoughts emerge from your heart and soul flowing through your pen on to the page.

4. When you are finished, often a cathartic experience of feeling utterly emptied and exhausted (which might take 5 minutes or 20) lay down your pen, close your eyes and breathe deeply into the space where your heart continues to resonate in time with the gift of the present moment.

And now for the promised list. Enjoy!

RESOURCES FOR MINDFUL WRITING

BOOKS:

The Pen and the Bell by Brenda Miller and Holly J. Hughes

The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the WritingLife by Dinty W. Moore

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg

The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg

The Intuitive Writer by Gail Sher

One Continuous Mistake by Gail Sher

Writing Begins with the Breath by Laraine Herring

The Writing Warrior by Laraine Herring

Writing Wild by Tina Welling

Fingerpainting on the Moon by Peter Levitt

Writing Your Way by Manjusvara

BLOGS AND WEB SITES:

Karen Maezen Miller http://www.karenmaezenmiller.com/10-tips-for-mindful-writing/

Writing Our Way Home http://www.writingourwayhome.com/

The Mindful Writer http://www.mindfulwriter.org/

Mindful Writers http://www.mindful-writers.com/

Brenda Miller + Holly J. Hughes http://www.penandbell.com/

Dinty W. Moore http://mindfulwriterbook.com/