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:

101

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.

029

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.

*                        *                        *                          *

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
*                                  *                                 *                               *
Photos by Chris Bradley.

 

Singing our souls back home

“Instructions for living a life:
pay attention
be astonished
tell about it.”

-Mary Oliver

Since its inception the mindful writing group I facilitate has largely focused upon the penning of haikus, or haiku-type poetry, sometimes called ‘small stones’ or ‘small findings’, either name conjuring an image of stopping, looking, noticing, each a gesture requiring long, lingering glances, drinking and imbibing images of wonder and delight, captured immediately, or stored for later translation into words dripping with sensuous detail. This is mindful writing – standing still, watching, listening, touching, tasting. Being here, now.

But, one of our members recently asked, must mindful writing focus on the poetic forms of haiku and ‘small noticings’ alone? The simple answer is ‘no’, of course not! The beauty of choosing the practice of writing haikus or ‘small stones’ is that they are both simple to learn, and easy to implement, making either the perfect choice for anyone who wishes to engage in a daily practice of mindful writing. [Next month we shall look more closely at both of these forms.]

Mindful writing is not a genre of writing, a particular form like, say memoir, or mystery, or magical realism, though the latter could at its best be mistaken for mindful writing. For, while mindful writing is not an immediately identifiable type, or format, it is recognizable by its effects. Mindful writing rings true, it shimmers with a brilliance and gloss which only the recognition of the extraordinary in the ordinary can bestow upon a subject, whether the theme is fictional or non-fictional.

There is a sense of the universal in every mindfully penned piece, the sum always greater than its parts. It is as if the simple gesture of slowing down, turning our inner faces away from the turmoil of our never-ending thoughts and fast-running streams of ideas, desires, and feelings, is enough to quieten our minds. Then we cast our gaze outwards upon a world no longer (at least for a little while) shadowed by the stains of our ego; we see with new eyes, with awakened hearts, with beginners’ mind. A peace descends upon us, enveloping our inner turbulent emotions, quietening our souls, until we are like nursing babes upon our mothers laps, a growing sense emerging that we belong to something much greater than ourselves, that we are connected to a web of life which, while we cannot properly say we can see, yet we intuit it through our awakened senses. Something deep inside begins to resonate in timeless time with the throbbing beat of the wondrous world we share and inhabit with all creatures, human and non-human, with all life which stretches riotously across the globe, its web of threads connecting even us, here, now, with all the streaming, gleaming life enveloping us exactly where we stand.

Any writing, any type, any genre, which captures this ultimate sense of meaningfulness without attempting to pin it down to any particular belief system or philosophy, whether fictional or non-fictional, no matter which, is mindful writing, recognisable always by its effects. It makes you stop suddenly in your steps, it catches your breath, makes your heart beat faster. And if you are a writer, it makes you want to write.

But lest you think that writing mindfully must result in an end product, a complete, polished piece of work, let me remind you of our discussion last month which focused upon the necessary open-endedness of mindful writing, how we always begin with no end in sight. We are simply conduits to the vibrational rhythms of a pulsing world, or rather receivers of the wonder and beauty of an earthly paradise we mostly ignore. So that at least so long as we are engaged in the practice, just that long, we are not thinking beyond the present moment. What we do later with our ‘findings’, belongs to later. Perhaps we will, after all, incorporate our mindful moments into our poetry, our memoirs, our stories. Or perhaps not. Perhaps our words will remain locked up inside our notebooks and our hearts, their only ‘purpose’ the marking of a series of moments which, arising over a period of time, ultimately enrich our deepest, inner selves, singing our souls back home.

Writing Prompt:

The following is an example of ‘mindful writing’ from the journal of artist and writer Emily Carr. Read slowly and mindfully. Then take a walk in your garden, or the woods, up a hill or down by the sea; stop, look, listen. Write.

“Everything is green….Everything is alive. The air is alive. The silence is full of sound. The green is full of colour. Light and dark chase each other. Here is a picture, a complete thought, and there another, and there……There are themes everywhere, something sublime, something ridiculous, or joyous, or calm, or mysterious. Tender youthfulness laughing at gnarled oldness. Moss and ferns, and leaves and twigs, light and air, depth and colour chattering, dancing a mad joy-dance, but only apparently tied up in stillness and silence. You must be still in order to hear and see.” – Emily Carr, artist and writer.

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. Her poetry is published in Crannóg, an Irish literary journal. Her book reviews are published in Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, and also online at the Story Circle Network Book Reviewwebsite. You can follow her musings over on her blog In a Room of My Own:  http://inaroomofmyown.wordpress.com/

Bliss + Work = Results! Case study: Women and Wardrobe: The Riehl Collection

Janet portrait

Photo by Henry Lohmeyer.  Essay by Janet Grace Riehl

“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

 –Joseph Campbell

Yes, sometimes it does happen that way. In 2011 serendipity entered my life and I followed the thread. I started making art again using the small canvas of my phone. Three years later, I’m having a show. All along the way this new art love unfolded organically. Friends saw the possibilities and flooded me with suggestions for replication and marketing. I wasn’t ready. I wanted to protect my refuge of bliss.

But Robert Powell, the director of Portfolio Gallery in St. Louis, never let it drop. Finally, he simply said: “Come talk to me.” And now? We have Women & Wardrobe: The Riehl Collection—an exhibit and fundraiser.

People moved in to help me make it happen. Curiously, for this celebration of women these helper-angels were all men: printing, framing, and showing the work. If you are in St. Louis, join us at the opening. If you can’t make the opening, the exhibit runs through the end of August. Just call Robert Powell (314) 533-3323 and he’ll arrange a time for you to see the work. If you’re not in the area, go to my website to see all 30 images I’ll be showing. 

I can’t say it much better than in my press release, so here you go.

Women & Wardrobe: The Riehl Collection

 PORTFOLIO GALLERY

3514 Delmar Blvd, St Louis, MO 63103

Exhibit and Fundraiser

Opening reception August 2, 2014

7-9 p.m.

Artist Janet Riehl works big—or, did—exhibiting large-scale paintings, sculptures, and outdoor installations in California, New Mexico, Latin America, and Europe. But, sometimes things come in small packages as proved by “Women and Wardrobe: The Riehl Collection” opening at Portfolio Gallery August 2nd .

Riehl was dazzled by African expressions of beauty during her five years working in Ghana and Botswana. Thus began a love affair that still ripples through her life and art. The images in this exhibit with their creative use of color and pattern strongly reflect these African influences.

Presented for the first time these 30 high-quality framed images signed by the artist are culled from the 2,500 she’s made on her phone since 2011. Portfolio will receive all profits from the sale of Riehl’s work. Cards and books featuring women and wardrobe images ensure that something is available for all pocketbooks.  You can also see a slide show of the larger body of work.

“I’d never imagined making digital art, let alone art on my phone,” says Riehl “I started by chance when a young friend asked for something to draw with. I reached for pen and paper in my purse, and she looked a bit crestfallen.” That night Riehl downloaded her first app, called “Doodler”—thus dubbing the images “doodles.”

This unlikely media turned out to be just the right thing at just the right time. “My studio was always with me with no muss or fuss.” Whether in Illinois taking care of her father (now 98) or back in St. Louis she made art before going to sleep, when she woke-up, waiting for a doctor’s appointment, or even in the grocery line.

“It was just fun and captivating with no pressure to be great or establish an empire. It made me happy. When I started sharing the images on Facebook, I discovered they made other people happy, too.” She encouraged those she met to try their hand at doodling. “It’s such a joy to see people entertaining the notion that they have a little art in them.”

She first met Robert Powell, Executive Director and founder of Portfolio Gallery and Education Center as she explored African-American arts and culture in St. Louis upon her return to the Midwest. “I loved everything about Portfolio: its mission, the power of the art shown, Robert’s dedication to community service and talent as a sculptor, the opportunity to meet artists—some internationally renowned—and the gorgeous 19th century residence that resonates with St. Louis’ history. It was a no-brainer to use my show as a way to raise funds for this organization that has brought so much not only to St. Louis but, really, to American culture.”

Who is Janet Riehl?

Janet Riehl is an award-winning artist, writer, and educator. She describes herself as a country girl who roamed the world and then came home.  Her art is in collections in the United States, Europe, and Latin America.

In 1990 she mounted “Celebrating an African Experience,” an exhibit incorporating large-scale paintings on cloth, creative writing, chants, songs, dances, and ceremonies. The enthusiastic reception spurred her to earn a BFA from the California College of the Arts where she graduated with high distinction as a clay sculptor.

Janet’s focus on creating community through the arts led her to serve as West Coast Ambassador for An American Quilt, The Peace Project, and board member of EcoArts of Lake County. As Artist in Bioregional Residence (sponsored by University of California at Davis) she installed her art in state parks.

From large-scale paintings to sculpture to outdoor installations to digital art Riehl’s love of Africa ripples through.

 

 

 

 

Yoga Lesson

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A while back, my doubles partner in pickleball, a man I did not know, turned to me after a rousing rally and grinned, saying with good-humored sarcasm, “So–you’re not competitive, are you?”

Me?  Competitive? 

It’s been a central theme and conflict for me since second grade when I ran full speed into a tetherball pole while looking behind me at a schoolmate I wanted to out-run.

The resulting crash didn’t knock any sense into me.

Years later–years ago, now–my then fifteen-year-old daughter dragged me to my first-ever yoga class, designed to help my neck stiffness.

We were told to stretch ourselves to our limits with hands outreaching, fingers interlaced, index fingers together, pointing upward.  I eyed the form she used, lengthened myself, exposed my Achilles heel.

“Breathe with depth.  Rid your lungs of all that stale oxygen.  Fill yourself with fresh air, wringing your lungs like a wet washcloth,” the instructor said.

I smirked a little when we had to pant like dogs, and, as I hiked one leg, growled at my own lack of balance, worrying the bone of ineptness.

In a paired technique, my daughter pulled.

I resisted.

Our sweaty hands slipped apart, and I toppled backwards, an overturned turtle.

I righted myself, strained again to stretch, forgetting to breathe deeply, in a hurry to relax.

My daughter reminded me of what I now try to remember about life:

“M-o-o-m, this is not a competitive sport.”

*                 *                  *                    *

The photo at top shows a ceramic piece my daughter made in college, illustrating a yoga pose.  She is still teaching me lessons about life.

Writing Practice:

Write about a time when competitiveness helped you–or a time when it caused you pain.

What lessons have you learned about yourself from someone close to you?

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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Photo by Chris Bradley.

 

Easy livin’

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…” So, is the reading. The warm, slow moving days tell me to put away those serious, ‘important’ books and do something fun.

            I was at my book club this morning. Yes, this book club meets year ‘round. But we adhere to summer reading rule. Fun stuff. We’re saving Nietzsche (I’m not kidding) for November.

            Today we took up Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark. I’m embarrassed. I’m about the biggest reader I know. Once when I said I was going to read more, my daughter snorted, “More! You already read more than anyone I know!” But with all that reading, and growing up in the middle of the country just as she did, I’d never read Cather. Now I have. As soon as I finished the book, I chased down some short stories. She captures our land.

            But it’s not just book club reading I’ll be doing this summer. Finally, I’m going to get to The Goldfinch; Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature and here is Dear Life waiting for me. I love history, especially the WWII period and The Last Train to Paris waiting to get underway!

 

 

Image

It’s going to be a fine reading summer. And I will have a tiny bit more time for it, because I won’t be sending out this blog every month! No! It’s time for a new voice and you will see it here next month! I can’t wait to hear how someone else feels about books and reading. Don’t think you’ve heard the last of me though. If you want to know what I think—check out the Comments section. I’ll be there!

Happy summertime reading!

Walking mindfully through the world

Tulip

Mindful writing is essentially writing which wakens us up, which asks that we open our eyes to what is right in front of us, here, now.  Through our engagement with the process we will learn to see with new vision, to explore our world with ‘beginner’s mind’. Day by day, moment by moment, we begin to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. We no longer see a tangled mass of flowers, bruised and almost dead after the storm. Instead our attention is captured by the curved contours of a single quivering tulip’s stem, pausing to watch in wonder at how something so fragile could hold the weight of something so beautiful.  A pink tulip whose petals, on close encounter, are not florid pink after all, but flushed with deep crimson and carmine tones rising from a dark maroon centre, like a monk’s begging bowl, then shading into tones of cerise striped with threads of ruby-coloured claret, before paling to a tinted blush of watered-down pink along its outermost extremities, as if astonished by its own superfluous beauty.

Walking mindfully through the world, our perception of everything we encounter is altered, so that what had previously seemed so complex and difficult and even harsh at times, is, after all, utterly simple and beautiful. It all comes down to the one thing which lies beckoning, waiting, calling to us to come and look. Or maybe not quite calling, but just here, simply present. And we too can learn to be present to what is here, now, in this place, at this moment. All we need do is open our eyes and hearts and look. Be. Here. Now. Gradually, bit by bit, the manner in which we write is altered too. By its very nature this is a slow process. In all things mindful there is never any need to rush.

Mindful writing reveals what is hidden in the deepest recesses of our unconscious minds too, bringing to the light what has been lying hidden in the darkness, leaving traces of its unacknowledged presence in the detritus of our lives. We feel its presence, we sense it’s there, but we have yet to recognise it for what it is. Through the process of writing mindfully we pay attention to all our inner voices, whether they are whispering or clamouring to be heard. And gradually our thoughts, feelings, perceptions are enveloped by an ever widening circle of openness and inner spaciousness. We let go of our ego mind, our over-thinking and conceptual mind, and instead learn to go with the flow. Writing mindfully, we follow our river of words wherever they take us. And it is often a heady ride!

A few points to bear in mind when writing mindfully:

  • Mindful writing is directed towards process rather than product, although you may discover much rich material for use in your other writing, especially for memoirs and creative non-fiction.
  • Try not to allow your critical mind to take over. If your Inner Critic starts shouting too loudly, then stop and take a moment to return to your breath and, without trying to force it to be quiet, simply sit still and wait for it to dissipate. Do not re-read as you write for this invites your Inner Critic to take control. Just write. Let your words spill out on to the page. Words lead to more words which lead to sentences and paragraphs. Just keep writing.
  • Writing mindfully is a meditation practice.
  • Over the next few months I will include some simple meditative breathing practices to incorporate into your mindful writing practice. However please remember that these suggestions are not necessary to engage in mindful writing. They will simply be offered to you as an additional practice for those who might be interested in exploring other avenues towards deepening their mindful writing experience.
  • You might like to develop some simple preparatory ritual/s which you engage in every time you sit down to practice mindful writing. Apart from serving as definite markers separating your solitary silent mindful writing practice from the rest of your hectic day, such rituals serve as bells of a sort, like those in a monastery calling the monks to prayer. Your writing ritual will be your call to write mindfully. They can be as simple or as complex as you like, eg light a stick of incense, or a small candle, or perhaps burn some aromatherapy oil in a burner, or drink a cup of herbal tea while pondering and observing the world.
  • Choose to write either with a pen and paper, or on your lap top. If on your computer, then set up a special folder for your mindful writing exercises. Personally I prefer to use a pen and notebook for my mindful writing even though I can keep up with my thoughts more easily on the computer. The beauty of a simple method is that it can be used anytime, anywhere. This dovetails perfectly with my personal concept of mindful writing as a spiritual practice.
  • Mindful writing comes in many guises. It is more disposition than method or technique. Next month we shall look at one particularly fruitful approach to writing mindfully. Over the next few months we shall explore many potential options to choose from.
  • Finally, I would strongly recommend that you consider making some sort of personal commitment to your Mindful Writing practice. Make room for writing every day, or every second day, or three times a week, or whatever you decide will work for you. But whatever you decide commit to it. Make your writing practice a priority in your life. Doing this will reap benefits not just to the quality of your writing, but to your life.

Until next month, I wish you the blessings of many peaceful hours of mindful writing. And if you care to share some of your experiences, please leave your comments below. I’d love to hear how you are getting along!

Link to last month’s introductory post to mindful writing:

http://storycirclenetwork.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/on-mindful-writing/

-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. Her poetry is published in Crannóg, an Irish literary journal. Her book reviews are published in Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, and also online at the Story Circle Network Book Review website. You can follow her musings over on her blog In a Room of My Own:  http://inaroomofmyown.wordpress.com/

 

Warning: Poems Save Lives (“Live in the layers. Not in the litter.”)

Fly Away Home  “Fly Away Home”

Image and essay by Janet Riehl. Poem “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz.

This morning readying for June’s Creative Catalyst post I opened a notebook  which turned out to be from 2008-2011. It fell open at page 31 to reveal Stanley Kunitz’ fine poem “The Layers.”  Ah, there’s the poem copied out in my own hand from a Memorial Booklet. It’s a poem of wisdom and compassion for self and others. Very much where I am now (and perhaps always have been).

I read the comments posted after the You Tube video of  Stanley Kunitz reading his poem “The Layers.” [Click to see.] People focus on how this is a poem of an older person. Some say what the heck is this about? Help me out here.

This poem is as close to my life story as anything  can get. It’s been the story of my life since my 20s. Now at 65 it’s still my life story. I believe our deepest life stories stay with us and do not change that much. I need no college course or poetry commentary or poetry discussion group to know in every syllable, word, and line  what this poem is about.

It’s about hope and heartbreak. It’s about the courage of not knowing. It’s about the fruits–both bitter and sweet–of a nomadic life of constant re-invention. Here you go.

Stanley Jasspon Kunitz (July 29, 1905–May 14, 2006) was a noted American poet who served two years (1974–1976) as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a precursor to the modern Poet Laureate program), and served another year as United States Poet Laureate in 2000.

THE LAYERS BY STANLEY KUNITZ

I have walked through many lives,

some of them my own,

and I am not who I was,

though some principle of being

abides, from which I struggle

not to stray.

When I look behind,

as I am compelled to look

before I can gather strength

to proceed on my journey,

I see the milestones dwindling

toward the horizon

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

over which scavenger angels

wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feast of losses?

In a rising wind

the manic dust of my friends,

those who fell along the way,

bitterly stings my face.

Yet I turn, I turn,

exulting somewhat,

with my will intact to go

wherever I need to go,

and every stone on the road

precious to me.

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

“Live in the layers,

not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

Stanley Kunitz, “The Layers” from The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. Copyright © 1978 by Stanley Kunitz.  Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Source: The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2002)

_________________

Janet Riehl is a country girl who roamed the world and then came home. So many countries, so many homes, so many heartbreaks, and so many hopes. You can read more at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st century  where the mission is to create connections through the arts and across cultures.