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

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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

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/

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

DCP02896 (2)

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.

DCP02886

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.