A Fellow Bird

synchronized swans

A little girl, perhaps eighteen months old, accompanied her mom into the bank lobby where I was waiting.

The young woman seated across from me spoke to her, “Hi. What’s your name?”

The little girl didn’t answer verbally; instead she trotted the ten or so feet over to the young woman and snuggled up to her legs.  She covered her face and soon appeared to go to sleep standing up while leaning on this complete stranger.

little girl leans on stranger at Wells Fargo

We all need someone to lean on when we’re tired.

One of my favorite passages in literature occurs in Wallace Stegner’s 1976 novel The Spectator Bird (winner of the National Book Award). Central character Joe Allston narrates, commenting on the briefness of our lives and on our lack of knowledge of what came before and what will come after:

The truest vision of life I know is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark . . .

The narrator continues, reflecting on the comfort he has found in his decades-long marriage:

. . . it can be everything to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below . . . one who will . . . straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.

 We need partners with whom to share our joys and sorrows, and we also need encounters in which compassionate words from a stranger cheer us.

But to be whole, we need to be the one to speak those words sometimes, to see that we can provide a brief resting spot for someone who is tired.

In other words, we need a fellow bird, perhaps a lifelong partner as do the swans pictured above, but we also need to be a fellow bird.

Writing Practice:

Have you recently witnessed someone providing another with a place to rest?

Complete the following: “To be whole, we need ______________________.” or
“It can be everything to have found _________________________.”

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.

Desert Fairies

 

baja fairy duster (2)

As I rode horseback with my local friend Manuel into the desert mountains, I noticed lots of Baja fairy dusters in bloom. Just the name of this plant is enough to enchant me, but the brilliant red stamens arranged like tiny whisk brooms equally draw my attention.

baja fairy duster aka tabardillo or cabello de angel

I like to picture the little sprites who could use these one- to two-inch-long brooms to sweep out their magical homes.

Maybe they’d live in the sandy burrows which I’ve heard are the homes of nocturnal tejons, (native coatimundis and cousins to raccoons). Or they might commandeer the empty nests of cactus wrens and swing in the north wind as if living in a hammock house.

Perhaps they could live in the heart-shaped hole of this cordon:

Cordon with heart shaped bird home

Not knowing the Spanish word for fairy, I told Manuel that the American name of these plants which I kept noticing means in English “brooms of imaginary little people,” and he told me that here in Baja California Sur, the little people are called duendes.

In a previous house he and his wife Andrea owned, he said with a smile, duendes lived in the kitchen cabinets and shuffled through the food, snacking and making a mess of things.

That made me muse about the good humor inherent in folklore, and I was reminded, too, of the yarns my best friend Glenda and I wrote one elementary school year (was it 4th grade?) about the “flower people,” our own versions of fairies and duendes who lived among the plants, and which we illustrated on notebook paper with brightly colored map pencils.

Tall tales, stories told with a wink–even the common names of plants–serve us well, I think, giving us a way to stretch our imaginations, a droll way to practice paying attention.

Writing Practice:

What stories have you told with a wink? What ones were told to you as a child?

What plant names or shapes stir your imagination?

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.

Writing True

Mindful writing is not always easy. Sometime the mere thought of sitting down and trying to find words to express the inexpressible, is impossible, a task beyond our very human, utterly broken capabilities. I am not talking beauty here, I am not referring to those moments of near mystical experience when we try to capture a glimpse of the ineffable in rarefied language. No, I mean when we really cannot write. Those moments and hours, sometimes running into days and weeks, and G*d forbid months, when the words simply refuse to come, when language is like a sea of stormy waves roaring in our ears, a tsunami of terror threatening to overwhelm and drown us. How do we write then, when one word clangs as loudly and as meaninglessly as another? And if the words do come, they come crawling from a heart heavy with fear and dread, arriving stilted and still-born. Lifeless images collapse in a heap around us, burying us in the signs of our own ineffectuality.

So what do we do on those days when we feel as if we cannot write anything, when the Muse refuses to grace us with her presence, when in fact the Muse seems like nothing more than a silly daydream, the fantasy of former imaginings? Is this what is known as ‘writer’s block’? Perhaps it is, though it feels more like trying to scale a frozen wall of ice, no foothold on which to hoist ourselves up.

These walls, which seem to rise spontaneously, relentlessly, coming and going as they see fit, are part of who we are, they are those sides of ourselves we like to try and forget, or at least ignore, and our best attempts are our most favourite mindless distractions. Depth psychologists call these shrouded parts, our ‘shadows’. If we are writing mindfully as a daily practice, it won’t be long before we are forced to face these scary and hidden sides of our natures.

But how to write them into being if the words refuse to come? How do we acknowledge their presence if we can do little more than sit, stuck, staring at the blank page which blinks back at us accusingly, mocking our feeble attempts at openness and truthfulness?

Perhaps this is the point where our practice of mindful writing truly becomes a practice. Certainly it doesn’t feel like we are playing a game anymore. The veil of pretence is lifted. Now the work grows serious and deep, and scary too. The gloves are off. And so we do the only thing we can do. We go to our writing desk, pull out a sheet of paper, lift our pen, and begin.

Can we listen to ourselves in the silence? Can we sit and wait for the whispers of our souls to come creeping, slowly, falteringly, letter by letter, through our pens? Can we allow our truest selves to tell their stories through the gateway of broken language, a stuttering love poem to our deepest being, that part of us which we feel most intensely on the other side of feeling nothing, numbed by the weight of existence? What a paradox this life we wander though is, what a charade, a carnival of masks, a ballet where the dancers laugh and mock at us, and yet just there, just beneath the surface, pick at it and it will start to bleed, and in the bleeding will come the words, the agony, the truth, but only for now, only for what it is in this moment of mindfulness. Catch it before its gone, capture it in a jumble of letters, and when you’re done, screw it up and throw it away. Another day of practice is over.

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, and spins exotic fibres into yarn. Some day she hopes to learn how to spin straw into gold. You can visit her here:  https://inaroomofmyown.wordpress.com/

Reminders of Generosity

flame vine, restaurant La Pila

A few years ago, my husband and I stopped for lunch at the little restaurant in Baja, Mexico whose sign is pictured above, and I immediately noticed the prolific vine covering the fence out front. Its orange blooms overpowered even the adjacent bougainvillea, and I snapped several pictures.

As I approached, I noticed some Queen butterflies nectaring on the blooms and loved the brilliant tone on tone effect:

queen on flame vine, baja

Once we entered, the roadside restaurant was quiet, the inexpensive food turned out to be delicious, and its proprietors were quite friendly, and I asked–in my ungrammatical and faulty Spanish–if I could purchase some of the basil I’d also noticed growing outside. We love to make pesto and basil is not always easy to find in Baja.

They said they’d be glad to simply give me some and sent their daughter (and waitress) outside with me. She started to pull up an entire three foot tall plant by its roots to give to me–such was the family’s generosity–but I stopped her and explained I only wanted a handful of leaves for my “salsa italiana.”

The nearby poinsettia plants were impressive as well:

poinsettias

I treasured the photos from that day’s visit, and I kept thinking of that beautiful vine, believing that, like the poinsettias and bougainvillea, it would be too tropical a plant for my zone 8B garden back in Texas, until months later I ran across a mention of it in the wonderful gardening blog Digging written by Austinite Pam Penick. (http://www.penick.net/digging/?p=9908)
From her post, I found out its apt name: Mexican flame vine.

And I started to think, maybe . . .

Back home during springtime, while browsing plants for my backyard landscape, I visited a local nursery and was delighted to see Mexican flame vines for sale, so I brought home two specimens to plant.

By fall, not only did I have two vines which had thrived in the heat and strong sunlight of summer, I also had Queen butterflies visiting their bright blooms as well.

queen butterfly on Mexican flame vine

All that warm orange reminds me of Baja and the hospitality of its people, speaking to me of the bright flame of their generous spirit.

WRITING PRACTICE:

Do you have associations with certain plants? Do certain flowers remind you of particular people, for example?

Whose generosity has surprised you in an unexpected place?

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.

Sweet Mystery of Life: the scent of possibility, naming, responsibility & choice

Essay by Janet Grace Riehl

This is the 75th post for Creative Catalyst.

The Power of Possibility Photo by Janet Grace Riehl

The Power of Possibility
Photo by Janet Grace Riehl

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible… what wine is so sparkling, so fragrant, so intoxicating, as possibility!” ~Søren Kierkegaard, Diapsalmata

 As the holiday season recedes, a time devoted to reveling segues to a time of resolutions. As we know resolutions for a new year or at any time require resolution.  I want to write about that.

Where do we find this resolution in the reaches of our being? How do we greet the New Year with courage and vulnerability? I want to write about that.

But then, I also want to write about:

The power of possibility. It would be so easy to write a tips article: 15 Possibilities for the New Year. What are yours?

I also want to write about:

  • The power of naming. It would be so easy to write an article challenging you to investigate how the power of naming holds you back and propels you forward—both in your work and in your life.

It would be so easy.  But sorting through this list of possible themes—and so many others—is not so easy. Possibility confers power, yes, but to harness that power requires responsibility. The pull of putting possibility into form requires choice. Oh, goodness, how can we possibly resist the pull of the plethora of possibilities that beckon? It would be so easy to write a tips article: 15 Possibilities for the New Year. What are yours? What choices will you make?

But, I don’t what to write a tips article. Is it possible to write something thoughtful and insightful that brings together:

  • Possibility
  • Naming
  • Resolution
  • Choice

I don’t know. Let’s see. I’ll do my best. That’s all I can promise.

Oh, wait! I also want to write a review of “Birdman” which I saw last night and continues to reverberate within me. So many layers! So many themes: art, identity, reality, social culture, sanity…that’s a Master’s thesis for literature, philosophy, sociology. This is just a column. Isn’t that asking a lot of a column? But, that would definitely bring together possibility, naming, resolution, and choice.

Heck, that’s beyond me. I want to write about my father. That’s always a crowd pleaser. I could tell the story of how my father views my smart phone.

1) A thing that finds out what you don’t know when you don’t know what that thing is;

2) A jukebox

3) A mystery

4) A magical something that does things impossible to understand, but grants wishes.

Before our New Year’s family brunch he sat in his lazy boy recliner with his eyes closed. Is he asleep? Is he dreaming? Is he ruminating? These days it’s hard to tell because he can barely see. Then, he eyes opened, and he said, “Janet, have you ever heard the song ‘Louisiana Purchase?” It’s from the light opera ‘Naughty Marietta.’ I haven’t heard that in years.”

I hauled out my smartphone and inserted a quarter into its jukebox app. I found the song he wanted and held the phone up to his ear. His face relaxed; its lines of character and strength softened and purred.

I could also look up it history on this piece of equipment that grants his wishes.

  • The operetta opened on Broadway in 1910
  • Which led to the classic 1935 MCM film version that first paired Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Never heard of them? Look it up on the time machine, and listen to their fine duettes.
  • I could find out its plot and the history it was based on as reported by that invaluable tool “Wikipedia.” (Don’t forget to donate!)

 Set in New Orleans in 1780, it tells how Captain Richard Warrington is commissioned to unmask and capture a notorious French pirate calling himself “Bras Priqué” – and how he is helped and hindered by a high-spirited runaway, Contessa Marietta. The score includes many well-known songs, including “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life”.

  • I could find out if “Naughty Marietta” continues to be taught, performed, and sung today. It does! It’s a staple of light opera workshops even today.
  • I could look up the lyrics of “Sweet Mystery of Life” one of the best known songs from “Naughty Marietta.”Ah, sweet mystery of life
    At last I’ve found thee
    Ah, I know at last the secret of it all
    All the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning
    The burning hopes, the joy and idle tears that fall
    For ’tis love and love alone, the world is seeking
    And ’tis love and love alone that can repay
    ‘Tis the answer, ’tis the end and all of living
    For it is love alone that rules for aye
    Love and love alone, the world is seeking
    For ’tis love and love alone that can repay
    ‘Tis the answer, ’tis the end and all of living

    For it is love alone that rules for aye.–Music and lyrics by Victor Herbert

 Now I think that’s all I have to say for now about the power of possibility, naming, resolution and choice.

___________

Creative Catalyst is written by Janet Grace Riehl. She does her best to choose among the possibilities and impossibilities of her life. Sometimes she can name them. Sometimes she responds to them and chooses. See her blog-magazine Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century  with its mission to create connections through the arts and across cultures.

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