Unto the Hills

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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.

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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.

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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

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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/

Daddy ‘n Me: Remembering Mother

Mother's memorial brochure

Mother’s memorial brochure

Pop and I are sitting are the kitchen table; I’m holding his hand. We’ve been singing “Remember Me (when candlelight is gleaming).” The words to our version are slightly different from the printed one.

The sweetest songs I know are songs of lovers
The sweetest days are days that once we knew.
The saddest words I heard were words of parting
When you said, “Sweetheart, remember me.

Remember me when candle lights are gleaming
Remember me at the close of a long long day
‘twoud be so sweet when all alone I’m dreaming
just to know you still remember me.

Me: Pop, do you still talk to Mother? (who died in 2006)

Pop: Sometimes. Sometimes she feels very close to me. Sometimes I just go about my business. Then something will remind me of a trip we took or something we said to each other.

Me: She’s always there with you, don’t you think?

Pop: Yes, I believe so.

Me: I think your vows went beyond “til death do you part.”

Pop: Most likely.

Me: You know that you’ve done another one of those coming back from the dead things, don’t you? You were getting so weak during the last month. Your mind went on vacation.

Pop: I guess.

Me: It was as if you were in a continuous waking dream. You were on the poetic radar of life far away from logic. You talked a lot about birds. “There’s going to be a big migration. We need to get someone in here who knows more about birds than we do.”

Pop: When did I say that?

Me: When your mind went on vacation. I felt that you were calling mother, our Master Birder.

Pop: Sounds like it.

And then we sing a bit more of “Remember Me”

You told me once that you were mine alone forever
And I was yours till the end of eternity
But all those vows are broken now
And we will never be the same except in memory.

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.

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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)

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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.

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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

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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.

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

Comforting.

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.