What’s in a name?

Cherry blossom

As long as I have been writing I have struggled with the challenge of defining what exactly it means to write ‘mindfully’. In this post I thought it might be useful to attempt to tease out some of the differences between writing practice, mindful writing and journaling. At various times I have appended any one of these labels to my writing process. At various times I have been perplexed as I have tried to figure out which label best described my practice. My mother always said I liked my ducks in a row, and when I was younger I had no idea what she meant. Now I know! Perhaps it’s a touch of OCD, perhaps it’s an attempt to pin down and force meaning upon the chaos of words, or perhaps it’s simply an attempt to understand and grasp what exactly it is I am trying to do when I sit down to write; in other words, why I write.

One of my favourite personal essays is “On Keeping a Notebook” by Joan Didion. In this inspiring work of creative non-fiction, Ms Didion muses upon her reasons for writing in her journals, the explanations not always readily evident when re-reading past entries, many of whom remain a mystery to the author herself, as she wonders what on earth she meant by words and phrases which obviously struck a chord when first she wrote them down. In the end Ms Didion suggests that it’s not what the words recall in themselves, but rather what they evoke in the author’s imagination, the memories they stir, the associations they generate. The words we write bring it all back, so that it is as if we had returned to times past. With our words we can re-live previous experiences, not always in a direct relationship to the facts of the event per se, but rather as conduits of their emotional undercurrents, traces of shadows still lingering, echoes of the past. Keeping a notebook is one form of journaling, that is, a method of capturing moments in time, painting life as it happens in the raw with, hopefully, the sensuous imagery of richly evocative words. Is this mindful writing? Yes, if it is written with attention, and a deep listening with the inner ear, lingering languidly over the nuanced newness of the moment as it unfolds. Of course, some journaling is a simple noting of a few pertinent facts and no more. Then the only mindfulness required is in the initial noticing.

So much for journaling! What then of the difference between it and mindful writing? Mindful writing incorporates more than the seizing and word-capturing of an event, the apprehension of an episode or an encounter. When we write mindfully, we don’t always have a thought, (though we always have an intention, more about that below) initially anyway, with which to begin. So the writing itself is the practice, the words spin out from the initial desire to sit still, in silence and solitude, and simply write.

But what do we write? Ah, now at last we are coming closer to the heart of the matter. Herein lies the difference between writing practice and mindful writing. Though they are related, they are not quite synonymous. In writing practice we open our notebooks and set down whatever is stirring our minds at that precise juncture. We don’t edit or re-read; we just keep writing until the timer goes off, usually 10 or 20 minutes after starting. And then we stop. Writing practice, like mindful writing, is best embarked upon after a period of sitting meditation, for then the mind is open, spacious, and free; thoughts, ideas and sensations have latitude and license to rise up from the murky depths below. All of which sounds very similar to what we might reasonably expect from the practice of mindful writing.

But still there remains an important distinction. Mindful writing differs from both journaling and writing practice in one essential element – intention. Thus, before beginning our mindful writing practice, we have normally decided what our focus in any particular session is going to be, that is what the bedrock of our writing shall be, where we shall direct our concentration and attention, whether we plan to pen a haiku, or respond to a specific writing prompt, or some such other.

Is this splitting hairs? Perhaps. Perhaps too it doesn’t matter what we call it, nor even what our particular approach might be on the day, so long as we write. For it is the act of writing, the process of transferring our wild thoughts to the page that generates the alchemy, playing with the elements which serve as the foundation for future creative works, whether these manifest as transformed and transforming works of creative non-fiction, memoirs, short stories, novels or personal essays.

Each form shares one important detail in common – raw writing which awaits transfiguration through the alchemical shaping of craft. As Alice LaPlante writes in her seminal book ‘The Making of a Story’, first “immerse yourself in the intuitive creative process. That you may then take these raw, early pieces and shape them into something meaningful…”. [p. 25]

Journaling, writing practice and mindful practice then are the ‘process tools’ through which we discover what it is we wish to say. Which brings me back to the beginning – why I write. Ultimately I write to discover who I am. Mindfully.

Why do you write?

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 sits at her spinning wheel, spinning dreams with words and fibres. Some day she hopes to learn how to spin straw into gold. Her poetry is published in Crannóg, an Irish literary journal, and her book reviews are published in Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, as well as online at Story Circle Book Reviews. She writes occasionally on her blog, In a Room of My Own

Mindfully Mining Memories

Memoirs are a strange, unpredictable beast. They cover the gamut from straightforward linear autobiographical writings, to carefully crafted works of creative non-fiction, where impressions are gently set in shimmering juxtaposition, like grace notes, suspended between intermediary paragraphs of glistening prose. Memoirs such as these necessarily border fictional re-creations of past events hardly remembered, except perhaps, in the lingering echoes of the lithographic pressings which weightless remembrances lay down, like feathers, upon the susceptible sub-conscious mind. The best memoirs, or at least those I favour, combine a sense of truthfulness not always co-extensive with actual factual events. Sometimes there is more truth to be found in the lies, or imagined re-constructions, than in the quotidian details of the happenings themselves.

Is it not precisely this which we do when we dive in deep to the subterranean depths of our murky memories? I mean, of course, that we lie, if lying it is to try and understand, to impose meaning upon the unfettered chaos of the past. The best, the most potentially fruitful of these reminiscences are the ones we cannot quite grasp or understand immediately. Before we can even begin to penetrate their meaning, we must first wipe away a little muck here, a dirty mark there. We brush and burnish, shine and polish, until the insignificant stone reveals its precious bejewelled kernel, irradiated with suggestions of symbolic significance.

Mining memories takes time, lots and lots of what Brenda Ueland called ‘moodling’, resting in the moment, sitting in silence and solitude, waiting and not-waiting, still, yet simultaneously alert to the inner rumblings of possible internal volcanoes. Mindfully mining memories demands oodles of time from its devoted practitioner, what the ancients called ‘kairos’ time, the non-ticking clock of eternal time, that ever present moment which our most assiduous words transport us towards, allowing us to hover above the chasm, an invisible border between perceived chaos and imposed order. Now and then, mindful writing simply drops us into the furnace, that place of mystical burnishing from whence we re-surface altered, a little transformed, not enough that anyone might notice, but carrying traces of another way of being, of see-ing, shifting our vision just a little off-centre. Yes, we might forget what we experienced, but never really fully. We always emerge from our pilgrimage through the meandering, labyrinthine corridors of our minds a little different from before. Bit by bit, like snails and mosses and the soft, contemplative contours of Japanese bonsai , in ever expanding circles of slow time, we begin to intuit the way back home. We follow the path we knew, and not-knew, was always there. And in our knowing, and even more in our not-knowing, we begin to understand what it means to write mindfully.

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 sits at her spinning wheel, spinning dreams with words and fibres. Some day she hopes to learn how to spin straw into gold. Her poetry is published in Crannóg, an Irish literary journal, and her book reviews are published in Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, as well as online at Story Circle Book Reviews. She writes occasionally on her blog, In a Room of My Own

Winged Glories

roadrunner, catalina state park

As we sat outside with friends one evening with spring surrounding us, the conversation turned to birds.

Mary Ann had recently seen and photographed a special “triple” here in the Texas hill country:  a painted bunting, an indigo bunting, and a lazuli bunting.  I would love to see all three of these gorgeous birds together.   We chuckled that it’s a sure sign we’re getting older that we’re so interested in watching birds now.

But we’re in good company.  Henry David Thoreau wrote:

I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.

I think that’s how Mary Ann felt when she spotted the buntings.

It’s how I feel when I listen to the descending songs of canyon wrens, when I watch a golden-fronted woodpecker land in the Spanish oak tree near the garage, and when I spot the bobbing flight of a vermilion flycatcher along the creek.

I even agree with what Charles Lindbergh is supposed to have said:

If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.

Can you imagine days without birdsong?

One of the secret glories of a February bike ride with my husband in Baja California Sur, Mexico, was the sight of a roadrunner crossing the singletrack “Quail Trail” just in front of me.

No–not the one pictured at the top of this page, who approached us at our campsite at Catalina State Park in Arizona a couple of years ago.

And not this one either, shown below, who perched on the birdbath and peered at me through the window of our dining room at home one morning in 2011.

roadrunner on birdbath

February’s Mexican roadrunner was too quick for cameras, one who showed himself only to me, one I considered to be one of the day’s ordinary miracles.

And one which I believe Thoreau would have counted as an honor.

Writing Practice:

Have you felt honored by something as Thoreau was by the bird lighting on his shoulder?

What things do you pay more attention to now than when you were another age?

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.

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.