The Thread You Follow

I recently attended the 3rd National Journal Writing Conference— representing a 25-year cycle in my life. Kay Adams, a dynastic/prolific author of journal writing books, founder of Therapeutic Writing Institute, Center for Journal Therapy, and several other entities devoted to writing practice, has three times called together a tribe of journal writers. In 1991, she and I, Kay Leigh Hagan, and Dan Wakefield were faculty at the first conference just as Life’s Companion was coming out, and just as that book and the power of circle were about to shift my whole life into a deeper path.

In 2008, just as Storycatcher was catching fire, I showed up again as the opening keynoter, and along with Tristine Rainier, it was the closest I ever expect to come to a “rock star” moment.

Now, Kay convened us again—a dynamic event at Kanuga Conference Center in the green and blooming hills of western North Carolina. Ann Linnea and I offered three pre-conference events: Ann did a lovely morning on “Writing Nature’s Wisdom” which included rocking chairs and lap blankets on the dock at lake’s edge; I did a circle on how coherent story-line/life-line emerges from the original chaos of journal pages; and both of us taught circle process for writing groups in the afternoon.

Western Carolina vista

Western Carolina vista

By observation, the group was 95% women, 98% white, 90% midlife and older. Some exciting research was presented on neuroplasticity, on reframing trauma, on advances in recognizing writing as a therapeutic modality. It was a sweet, deep dip into my own story, carrying around journal and pens, doing an afternoon of collage. My cell phone didn’t work. The rains held us to the page. The conversations were meaningful, earnest, held with respect. I saw former students and long-time acquaintances and friends in the field.


Myself, with Sandra Marinella, teacher and author from Phoenix, AZ.

I wish there were more men. I wish there were more young people. I wish there was more diversity of all kinds. And it is what it is: this is a cadre striving to maintain a way of life where pen and paper are the primary tools of spiritual practice, where reflection is built into the heart of the day, where life questions are tracked with determination until their insights are revealed.

What I want to declare, to these mostly graying, mostly women, journal writers and journal facilitators, is to keep on trusting the value of the journal writing practice.

Keep holding the thread of meaning-making that emerges from time spent articulating your most personal experiences and the tumble of thoughts and feelings that follow. You are organizing reality: not controlling it, but practicing a resilience that comes from standing inside your story. The world needs people who can stand in the story of the times and help others around them make meaning and come to coherent action.

Be bold.

Be invitational. Share the strength of your voice and insight. Write in public: in cafes and libraries, in airports, in any setting where you have a few minutes to say hello to yourself.

Imagine taking the long flight home: the person next to you glancing at this odd behavior of spreading a notebook over the tray table, coping with the leaky fountain pen that doesn’t like the air pressure at 32,000 feet. Their eyes keep wandering toward your handwriting. You turn, and invite, “I’m writing in my journal. I do this several times a week to keep track of my life. Want to hear a few paragraphs?” They will be so surprised. They will most likely be receptive.


I heard you at the conference. I was in awe at the beauty of your personal voice, your courageous comprehension, your compassion for human frailty, the forgiveness of yourself and others. Deposit some chosen bit of that. They will hear you. They will catch the story. And perhaps their longing to know this much about themselves will awaken. Have an extra notebook and pen ready to give away. Have a question on a post-it note. Teach them five minutes of flow-writing. To put a few paragraphs of self-check-in on the page or screen could change their lives in ways you will never track. Someone did that for you…

Remember: William Stafford’s poem, “The Way it Is”–

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

(William Stafford © 1998)


Pink Ladyslippers




Can you see anything positive about this?

This is the most common question I am being asked once people learn I attended a Sea Level Rise conference in Seattle sponsored by the Tulalip Tribe, the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, NOAA, EPA, USGS, and several other Puget Sound agencies. It is an impressive list of sponsors. One hundred fifty people gathered at the Mountaineers Building on the shore of Lake Washington on April 26 and 27, 2016. I served as scribe for the scientific presentations on day #1 and assisted at the afternoon Open Space sessions both days.

Ann scribing at Sea Level Rise conference

Ann scribing at Sea Level Rise conference

The facts are indisputable. Our Puget Sound region faces increased frequency of severe storms, melting glaciers, sea level rise, warmer winters, and extreme alteration of our shorelines. This is documented in a November 2015 University of Washington Climate Impacts Group State of Knowledge report for Puget Sound:

Don’t stop reading, please. What was different about this conference was the caliber of interaction between all parties—local government officials, scientists, agency personnel and tribe members.

Terry Williams, Tulalip tribal leader and conference organizer, opened with these words, “Our intent in this conference is to look at all the issues together/to gather information that is usable and workable for all.” He introduced a tribal elder and we all rose for the opening prayer.

Terry Williams, center, Conference organizer and Tulalip tribe leader

Terry Williams, center, Conference organizer and Tulalip tribe leader

Format for each of the two days was: Power Point presentations by experts in the morning, Open Space sessions in the afternoon inspired by the morning presentations. “Experts” included scientists, tribal elders, county officials, and case study reports.

Opening keynote presenter Dr. Philip Mote, regional climate change leader from Oregon State University, said Native Americans understand consequences in a spiritual way and he understands them in a quantitative way and “both are important”. Mote looked at historical trends in sea level rise and then presented graphs for sea level rise for C02 levels if the Paris climate accord of Nov. 2015 is implemented to C02 levels if no changes are made. He carefully outlined the components of global sea level rise: thermal expansion (absorption of heat by the ocean), glacier melt, Greenland melt, and Antarctica melt and explained the biggest unknown is the irregular melting of the uneven Antarctica ice sheet. He carefully documented that the main prediction is for seas to rise about an inch a decade with much variability locally depending on how we control C02 levels and the always variable shifting of plate tectonics. In the final analysis, he stated that sea level rise for the rest of this century in Puget Sound is likely to be about three feet.

Open Space small group session of county employees, university professors, and tribal leaders talking about Dr. Mote’s talk and how sea level rise will affect them in their places of work

Open Space small group session of county employees, university professors, agency personnel and tribal leaders talking about Dr. Mote’s talk and how sea level rise will affect them in their places of work

Mark Labhart, county commissioner from Tillamook County, Oregon, used the tiny coastal community of Neskowin as an example of how rules and regulations work best when they come from “the bottom up”. He explained that the community was seeing how many bluff view properties were precariously perched and vulnerable to increasing numbers of slides. Citizens approached their county officials and pushed for the county to draft a “coastal erosion adaptation plan” that requires, any new structure to be set back at a location representing 50 times the annual erosion rate, plus 20 feet.

Another Open space session at the conference which was forming working groups for post conference connection

Another Open space session at the conference which was forming working groups for post conference connection

A representative of the Jamestown S’Kallam tribe on the Olympic Peninsula gave detailed information on how they are working with predicted sea level rise and storm surges in their master development plan. U.S. Geological Survey scientist Dr. Eric Grossman documented the March 10, 2016 storm in Puget Sound as creating a new definition of the 100-year storm, something they are seeing more and more frequently. He is working to help create a coastal storm predicting system (CoSMoS) that incorporates tides, atmospheric pressure, wave height, winds, stream flow, and storm surge barometer readings so that there might be a 48-hour warning system for these big storms which cause extensive coastal flooding, landslides, road destruction, and property devastation.

My abstract for day one of the April conference was a 4200 word, 12-page document. My greatest excitement is that people are talking to one another about this. Really skilled people are working on our behalf to figure this out. I invite each of you to pay attention to climate change information. Ask what your community leaders and scientists are doing about this.

As Larry Campbell, Tribal Elder from the Swinomish Tribe said in his address to the conference, “When climate change started hitting the news, our people decided not to get into the argument about whether or not it is happening. We focused instead on how to mitigate what is coming because we noticed 100-year storms happening every 5 or 10 years.” Traditional native blankets were presented to each of the presenting scientists at the end of the conference.

Larry Campbell, Swinomish tribal elder, addressing the whole conference

Larry Campbell, Swinomish tribal elder, addressing the whole conference

Change has always been the norm on earth—change of seasons, change of day length, change in weather, change in tides, etc. To live consciously on this planet requires being alert to changes, planning for them as best we can, and practicing preparedness.


Rainbow at the end of a storm

Rainbow at the end of a storm on Puget Sound