Goodbye to an Old Friend

 

I am smiling in this photo, an automatic response when facing a camera, but I’m actually  sad.

Out the door on an April morning.

In my arms I am holding several volumes of the 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, leather bound, gold trim, embossed spine. I bought this set in 1980, using royalty money from the publication of my first book, as proof to myself that I was a real writer who would need this fines set of reference books to support my career.

 

 

My then partner and I had recently remodeled the attic in our two-story home, insulating and opening up space for me to have a truly elegant writing studio. It was large enough to do yoga or dance, had a desk positioned to face a window with a view of trees, and shelves for books, journals, and this gorgeous row of Encyclopedia. When sitting at my desk writing and in need of a reference, I would twirl around in my antique leather and oak desk chair and reach for whatever volume contained the answer to my quest and question.

The pages were thin, strong, felt good in my hands, and the first time a volume was opened, there was the smell of the leather releasing and the gold-leaf made a sound I can still hear in the inner chambers of my ears, though I can’t begin to put it into words: gold separating into thinner strands. I licked my finger tip, and partially dried it on the side of my thumb— a practiced hint of moisture to turn the pages searching for the reference in mind.

Sometimes my finger stopped or my gaze rested on interesting bits of information, biographies of the long dead, extraneous tidbits of knowledge that amused my attention. But eventually I found what I was looking for, took notes with a fountain pen on a paper tablet, and with a sigh of satisfaction turned back to my desk, to whatever evolution of computer sat humming there awaiting the next paragraph.

This is how “looking something up” worked before Internet, before Google, before the world changed with the unrelenting rapidity of endless and instant gratification of curiosity currently swirling around us.

Weighing over 40 pounds, I carted the 30 volumes (plus annual appendices) in boxes through six moves. In each new apartment or house, I set them out again—still a writer. Twenty years later, ensconced on Whidbey, with five books under my belt (yes, I know that’s a cliché) and even though the Internet was starting to take over the world, I loved my ritual of twirl, reach, thumb through, find, wander a bit in the vicinity of my destination, and return the book to the shelf and myself to my desktop word processor.

Then in 2007, working on Storycatcher, that ritual fell apart. I needed some information about Zimbabwe, and had to look up “Rhodesia, a colony of the British Empire.” I think this was the moment I tried Googling for the first time. Wow—who typed in all that information? How does it all get linked together? What’s an algorithm anyway.  (All things I’m still wondering.)

I looked sadly at my treasured Britannica. The volumes are beautiful and a huge amount of classical knowledge resides on the pages: certainly they deserved archiving.

In my first writer’s nook, I had made bookcases out of boards and cement blocks… why not make bookcases out of boards and encyclopedias? So, I bought several planks and stacked the books on their sides. Ahhh, preservation, respect, and practicality.

I wrote on, happily accompanied by the knowledge that knowledge was in the room with me as well as on-line. I missed the twirl of the chair, the reach and feel of paper and gold leaf, but at least I still had the Random House Dictionary of the English Language to comfort me in old routines.

Until last week.

We are in a season of simplifying. We’ve sent books to the library for resale, carted unused household items and clothes to the thrift store. We traded out furniture, welcoming a shipment from Ann’s mother’s apartment, selling and giving away what we had. And then we painted the room. The walls that had sheltered the bookshelves now looked so beautiful in their emptiness. What to do with a nearly 40-year old edition of encyclopedias?

I put an ad in the “for sale, wanted, and free” section of our local swap-list: Free to Good Home. A woman called immediately. She’s an upcycle artist, works in mixed media, would love the books. Two days later she came with banker’s boxes and a van. Her first comment was, “Oh my, these are beautiful… I’m a former librarian, I don’t know that I’ll be able to change them…” I watched her getting the feel of her new treasure, running her hands over the embossed leather, stroking the gold edging, fingering the delicate paper.

I smiled with an armload and she took my photo. They will be in good hands. And I will cozy up and write, held in the arms of my mother-in-law’s favorite chair, making new paragraphs in the place where the bookshelf was.

 

Writing on

My father died.

Leo Baldwin was good at living, amazing at aging, determined to continue contributing up to his last days. He remained cheerful and present even while suffering the pain, indignities, and procedures of his final trip through the medical system. He was 98 years old and had never had an illness that he didn’t fully recover from with a little Tylenol and determination. It took him (and me, and us, and his community) a month to admit that his body wasn’t going to carry him any farther: he’d come to the end of his road.  And when he let go, he let go fully and was gone in 28 hours.

I am happy he was able to finish as himself. I am swept into waves of missing him. He was a much loved and respected central figure in our island lives. Ann and I move through a community that misses him as well. We pause and tell each other stories of his influence and friendship.

“A man and his butte,” photo by Becky Dougherty.

His local memorial service was teary and celebratory and the hall was packed with his wide range of friends. His descendants and extended family will gather in Montana next summer to bury some of his ashes in the soil that birthed him and to lift some of his ashes to the prevailing winds around those buttes and valleys.

And when my father died, my editor died.

I am writing a novel based on a fictionalized version of the town where my father grew up in west central Montana. The story takes place during the early years of WWII, when the first generation of homesteaders is ready for their sons to take over—but many of those sons are called into the war. The central story revolves around the Cooper family: an older beekeeper/Methodist minister named Leo and his relationship with his sons and their wives and the community at large.

My father, Leo, was the age of the young men in this story, and the lineage of the Baldwin family—the bees, the homespun ethics of Protestantism and citizenship, and the social justice issues that lay on this land—are a blend of family heritage and fiction. My ability to capture this time before I was born has been greatly enhanced by the spidery handwritten commentary my father added to my first drafts, and by the hours and hours of conversation at his dining table as we went through the story page by page. He found the typos, tweaked the dialogue, and dived into exploring the themes that activate the subtext of the story. He drummed into me his knowledge of bees and beekeeping.

This process was the most powerful experience of transmission I have ever received from another person. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver, in speaking of writing and rewriting said, “It is thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript.” We were pulling threads. I was writing my way forward, forging the story as the characters worded themselves into being. I was working the loom of the first draft. He was reflecting his way backward, seeing his life transformed and woven through the voices of the Coopers. It was a mystical interaction we each surrendered to in different ways.

All this past year I noticed him wearing down and wrote as fast as I could. He asked me once, “Does Leo Cooper need to die in this story? Does the father need to step aside to make room for the next generation to fully become themselves?” We talked about it as a literary device. We talked about it in terms of the emotional maturation of the story’s characters.

“I don’t want Leo to die,” I told him. “I love him…”

Blue eyes looking deep into brown eyes, he assured me “I know you have the courage to write what needs to be written.” I wept all the way home, the eleven miles between his house and mine. That was July: we had two more months before he would turn his attention to letting himself depart.

In the story, it is June 1943. The fight against fascism is not won. People don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of them. They may be far from the battlefields, but their lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift. A young war bride and her baby are making a place in the valley. Her faraway husband has just been injured in battle. The angry brother is trying to make peace in himself, his family, and the community. Under the hot Montana sun, Leo Cooper has a stroke in his bee-yards.

In my life, it is November 2018. The fight against fascism is not won. We don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of us. The battlefield is everywhere. Our lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift.

I rally my writing skills to reach back to then and to them; I reach my imagination into the brokenness and openness of the Coopers to discover the story map that can help me live honorably in our world of dire consequences in which the lives of ordinary people may shine.

Dad and I were on Chapter 42.

I am on Chapter 43.

 

Managing my outraged heart in a time of horrors

In the back of my journal are pages devoted to news clippings, magazine articles and photos: the Parkland students, injured Syrian children, Rohingya families fleeing into the poorest country on earth for shelter, addicts shooting up on city streets on their way to work, ICE patrols breaking up families of farm workers, earthquakes and storm surges, a starving polar bear leading her emaciated cubs to suicide at sea, the destruction of our protected national wild lands. Now also the photos of children being torn from their parents’ arms and shipped around the country to secret detention centers. Lost.

I paste some variety of these pages into each journal volume. My life ramblings filling pages front to back: these wider horrors and concerns pasted back to front. To endure being informed I have to find a sacred way to hold what’s actually happening, not just toss the daily news into the recycle bin or trash icon. I am a journal writer: the journal is an archive, a document of witness.

LOOK, my journal says, while you are sitting on the deck writing the morning up, or having dinner with family or friends, or working your way through personal challenges—this and this and this is also happening.

I have scrawled in black marker on these pages: I allow myself to believe that I can live with integrity inside the territory of my personal life; but I do not know how to live with integrity in relationship to the shattering of the wider world. My privilege contributes to destruction; the beauty, safety, and love around me I offer as prayer.

Right now, with the separation and incarceration of thousands of children and parents on the Mexican/US border, I can no longer claim to live with integrity in my own personal life: certainly not in my life as an American. I cast about in anguish for something effective to do.

A few days ago I emailed all my representatives. I wrote to a list of names that I’m told are the PR folks at the contractor companies that are putting up the detention centers. I shout at the people in the news stream—the young ICE officers, border patrol guards, attorneys, social workers, food delivery truck drivers, Congress members—“Resist! Resist! Resist! Don’t leave that room without taking the children. Run with them toward the cameras, make us all look, make the media become your protector.” I send small donations. I stand in protest—but I am far away.

I am a 72 year-old, only English speaking, Caucasian woman living just south of the Canadian border. I have few skills to help in this crisis except my own grandmothering arms; how I would make dinner, how I would encircle mother/father/child and refuse to let anyone rip them apart, how I would step between… Would I? How do I?

How do I manage my outraged heart in a time of impossible horrors?

In Bob Stilger’s book, After Now, When we cannot see the future where do we begin? he explores the potent idea that disaster gives us a chance that will never come again: to create the community we want. After the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and the reactor meltdown, Bob says some Japanese were courageous enough to admit, “This disaster has the potential to release us (Japan) from a future we did not actually want and to redefine where we are going.”

The United States is in a huge reset button: the end game of capitalist corporatism is now flashing uncontrolled in front of us. This is where we have long been headed—it’s just all laid bare; this imbalance of power was already available for misuse in the system; this is the greed of the great Monopoly board turning on itself. Our current disasters—both natural and politically generated—have the potential to imprison or empower us. Inside the walls of our nation I want the world to know millions of us are stirring awake and asking, how can we use this disaster to release ourselves from a future we did not actually want—and to step boldly, humbly, courageously into the future we do want, embracing the losses and reaching for the new promises that we ourselves call into being.

I carry my journal and my fountain pen with me everywhere. The pages of my life story and the larger context story are racing toward that point where they will meet in the middle of the notebook.

LOOK, my journal says: Look at everything: do not turn away. Carry it all: release it all. Refrain from violence, especially in your own heart, and understand the nature of fierceness, of holy outrage. Then take what action you can. Now. Today before one more child suffers, before one more piece of our precious earth is destroyed.

Grandmother in the 21st Century

Jaden, age 5, meeting baby Sasha on the day she was born.

Something happened to my heart when Jaden was born. A chamber opened that I didn’t know was there: the grandmother room. He, and now Sasha, reside in this special place. I am honored to be their “Nina” and delighted to be partnering with their “Maga,” to be the nature grannies.

 

We bring them Island Life: unstructured and unsupervised time outside, time on the beach making up games with the corgi dog, constructing driftwood caves. We draw and collage and cook. We watch videos and eat popcorn in the evenings. We give their parents “Spring Break” through the deliciousness of having them with us for spring break.

Sasha and Nina on beach

 

Pretending to be a cave man.

 

 

And last month, we all spent Spring Break on our pilgrimage to South Korea, when Sally returned with her entire family around her to put her feet on the soil of her birth. Ann’s blog chronicles this trip; so what is left for me is a look at grandmothering through the lens of two moments with these beloved kids on their first foray into a world way beyond America.

Sasha at Jogyesa Temple

On our second day in Seoul, we stopped to visit the Jogyesa temple grounds on our way home from the Namdaemon market—two very different scenes! The temple was preparing for Buddha’s Birthday, a major public and religious holiday in South Korea. As we stepped off the street, we were offered green tea to shift from street vibes to spiritual quiet. Noticing our foreignness, they arranged for a woman who spoke English to escort us. Sasha and I went into a little welcome room where we were handed a decorated card and an opportunity to write a prayer to be hung on the side panels of the temple ground gates. Sasha’s private prayer was so thoughtful I knew we were going to have a special time. We hung our cards and stepped under a canopy of colorful hanging lanterns that made the whole place magical.

Sasha at the Dharma Hall

We stood respectfully on the steps of the main Dharma Hall. Inside the glass walls several hundred women were engaged in chanting and prostrations before tall golden statues of the Buddha. Sasha whispered:

“Is that their Jesus?”

After a while we wandered over to the smaller hall dedicated to ancestors. Here all the hanging lanterns were white, the meditation pillows and interior walls were white. We stood in silence at the back of the room while people on cushions sat is silent meditation.

“Is Uncle Brian an ancestor?”

The third room we visited was the hall of the Bodhisattvas. A central figure, with offerings placed at its feet, was the focal point of meditation. We—Ann, Sally, Jaden, Sasha, and I—all took off our shoes and sat. Behind the large statue was a wall of shallow boxes each housing a smaller statue.

“Are those guys like angels?”

A few minutes later we were outside the room putting on our shoes. “So they believe in Buddha, and we believe in God?”

I tied my laces, “Well, all religions believe in God,” I said. “God is the Great Mystery, a Creator who made the whole universe. This idea is so big human beings can’t really understand what God is. So religions show us different ways of practicing respect for this Mystery. In Christianity, Jesus comes as the Son of God to show people one way, and in Buddhism, Buddha comes as another way.”

“So everybody’s okay?”

“What’s important is to be a good person—following the teachings that mean the most to you to your heart. They all lead to God.”

“Like all these lanterns and the tree of lights, it’s kind of like Christmas, even though it’s Buddha’s birthday.” And she was off, skipping across the temple grounds.

 

Jaden in Busan

Taller than his mom, slender, wearing black jeans and black hoodie, phone in hand and playing some kind of game every moment we weren’t “touristing,” Jaden looked the part of an Asian teen. He could fit in, slipping into the street scene at night with his dad the official trip photographer or cruising the market eating fresh doughnuts, shopping for a cool shoulder bag. It was the company he kept, the language he spoke, that made him different and set him to thinking: how would life have been different if I’d been born here?

Dusk on the harbor cruise in Busan.

He spent a reflective evening staring at the light spangled cityscape by Haeundae beach, trying to piece together an image of himself in a completely alternative reality. Well, that’s what he does all the time on the phone—play in other worlds—only this time he was his own avatar.

After listening to him think through his “other life”—the one he’d would have had if his mother had been raised Korean, and he’d been raised Korean, I said to him, “You know, this is your century. You will define it, live your whole life in it, and make the choices that create the world around you. And by your bloodlines you are uniquely positioned to discover a special kind of leadership that is uniquely you.”

“What do you mean—my bloodlines?” He put down the phone.

“You are half Korean and half Hispanic, and especially after being here, it seems clear to me that in the 21st century Asians will rule the world, and Hispanics and other minorities will pretty much rule America. Hispanics are already nearly 20% of the US population, and in some cities are at a 50% mark. You attend one of the most diverse school systems in the country. And here in Korea you get to see the determination of the people to become a nation making a global technological impact.”

He was still listening, so I added—“Who will you be? How will you use the incredible diversity of your upbringing to be a 21st century citizen? What wisdom lives in your bones that can guide you?”

My dear grandson is a sweet-natured young man, thoughtful when probed and prodded, both shy and gregarious, newly elected to his middle school council, a kid who hangs out in his science teacher’s classroom after hours because the teacher is cool and an informal mentor. He’s piecing himself together in a world I barely comprehend. It’s like a video game—fast action, options coming and going, opportunities morphing. My role, my love, is to provide a thread that weaves through all this action, a whisper to the inner boy. I watched my comments sink into his thinking… Where are they now? I don’t know, and probably he does not know. What I do know is that they are working in his giant jig-saw puzzle of putting himself together.

Oh so thirteen.

I am grateful both these children are willing to listen to their sometimes so serious Nina, to allow me these moments.

And then…we change the story!

Story is a map; and the story that gets one person through helps to get the next person through. (C. Baldwin in Storycatcher.)

Winter sunset from my desk.

Scattered across my laptop screen are files that contain opening paragraphs of my autumn’s attempts to write a blog entry. The happy reason for blog silence is my commitment to writing a novel in the creative hours I carve out of a week. An unhappier reason is how easily my attention has been engulfed in our great catastrophes. After awhile I’m not sure what more to say.

When a Canadian friend visited recently I cautioned her, “Crossing into the US right now you are entering a trauma-field of constant media overwhelm. Across a broad spectrum of politics, race, gender, religion, we are aware of the distress we’re in, and how little we seem able to manage it. It’s like the whole country is driving on black ice: we feel the vehicle of our civil life veering out of control. We may have our hands on the steering wheel, but we’re not the ones steering. We may want to hit the brakes or accelerate, but we know that any misaction will throw the car (and country) into total skid. Multi-vehicle pile-ups are everywhere. Most people are just trying to get ‘safely home’—whatever that means—but we are driving through our lives in growing panic.”

Our hearth in winter

I have been hyper-aware how almost every conversation diverts into a downward spiral. Talk about the weather— it spirals into climate change. Talk about sports—it spirals into protests and corruption. Talk about men in public life—it spirals into sexual harassment. Talk about politics—it spirals into despair. There is no “happy place” in these conversations, and I fear we are entrenching ourselves in defeatism.

In my 30’s, I was in a group of several women who met monthly to discuss each other’s dreams. This meant unpacking the imagery, often dialoguing between characters (aspects of self), and sometimes finishing an interrupted storyline, or creating a different ending so that we could imagine a way out of a situation.

Around that time I had a recurring dream of a bear chasing me across my yard. I would make it safely to the house and lock the door and then realize it was just a screen door. The bear would arrive, start to claw at the screen, and I’d wake up. So I finished the dream by dialoging with the bear: “Who are you and what are you in my dream to tell me? Why do you want to catch me? What will happen if I let you in?” I created an ending to the dream: I let the bear in. We danced. Years later, when I was writing Life’s Companion and exhausted during the final chapters, I remembered the bear and called it to my back, leaned into its strength, and typed my way to the final page. Susan Seddon Boulet, who illustrated the cover and inner section pages, drew this image for me.

Susan Boulet, Woman in Bear Hug, collection of the author.

This is what we need now! We need to end every dive into the nightmare with a new ending: a story that inspires us forward. Talk about the weather— it spirals into climate change—and then we talk about the healing capacities of Earth and our love of nature. Talk about sports—it spirals into protests and corruption—and then we talk about human strength and the wonders of our bodies. Talk about men in public life—it spirals into sexual harassment—and then we speak of the men of integrity we know. Talk about politics—it spirals into despair—and then we imagine a revitalized democracy emerging.

Story is a map. We are at the end of the known story and it is our work now to map our way forward through imagining the possibilities into being. We can change the ending of this nightmare and dance with the bears, transform the dragons, rest in beauty.

Once upon a time… and then…and then…and then.

Original cover of my book, Life’s Companion, Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest, Bantam, 1991.

 

 

 

 

Half-mast in sunlight

Friday afternoon in my little village by the sea. Second Street is closed for a summer market: flowers, vegetables, crafts, bread, the stalls are lined up and people stroll through. Dogs on leash are everywhere. Two friends have a new puppy they are carrying in arms. Sunshine and a refreshing breeze off the water.

My father and I are sitting at a patio table in front of the Commons coffee shop chatting about his upcoming 96th birthday. He wants a pizza party on our patio with his four children, three in-laws, a friend or two. He wants this—all this: a village around him, a street full of familiar faces, people waving to us, some stopping to say hi, to bring their own story into the ones we are telling each other. He wants this—his daughter, his daughter-in-law at the next table talking with friends from our decades of work and travel. We all want this—peace amongst acquaintances, friends, strangers, the earth’s abundance spilling over our shoulders. Ice cream cones and coffee. Our corgi, Gracie, wanders back and forth under the two tables seeing who might be eating something, who might have a dog biscuit to share or a cookie crumb. Safety. Peace. A couple of young musicians playing acoustic guitar and familiar songs about love.

It is a moment of complete refuge and beauty.

On the other side of us a group of several women and a man are finishing ice cream cones. One gives her waffle-tip to Gracie to finish. The man asks, “May I pet your dog?” Gracie snugs her back up to his legs and he begins massaging her: both of them blissed, his fingers in her luxuriant fur. A few minutes later when they are ready to stroll, he speaks to me again, “Thanks for letting me pet her.”

We really look at one another. I reach for his hand, strong brown fingers, in this moment his eyes bright with ease in a dark face. I am a seventy-year-old Caucasian woman: he is a middle-aged African-American man. We are in the village together. There is sunshine. Refuge. Beauty. I say back to him, “She loved it. You take care, now. Have a good day.” We smile. He’s gone.

My father and I look at each other. Tears rise in our eyes. What is happening in our country? In the world? In the unspoken chamber of my heart, I want to shelter this friendly stranger, be ready to push him under the table, wrap him in my white skin. “Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t drive too fast or too slow or with a tail-light out. Don’t get shot.” In various ways, my father has worked for social justice all his life. My first memories are of living in downtown Indianapolis where he was a social worker in what was then called a “neighborhood house.” It was the early 1950s, Negroes were streaming North from the rural South looking for work and needing to learn the ways of the city. My brother and I, at four and two, unaware of race or skin tone or poverty, were just kids on the block, racing around in summer heat, days like this. Eating ice cream cones, our mother would strip us down to our white carter spanky pants so that she could just hose us off afterwards, not have to do a load of clothes. Little half naked kids, vanilla and chocolate, all sticky chested.

The seed of my gesture, white hand and brown hand, resides in those days. So do the seeds of our current violence. We talk about then, and now. I am facing the end of my work life. He is facing the end of his life-time. We have done and are doing all we can.

IMG_6408We walk slowly through the middle of the market toward the post office. The flag is at half-mast. Orlando?—where 49 died and 53 were injured dancing at the Pulse? Istanbul?—40 dead and 230 injured? Baghdad market?—where nearly 300 die from a truck bomb? This week’s police murders of black men: Baton Rouge? Suburban St. Paul? The sniper murder of five police in Dallas? The flag is at half-mast. My heart is broken for the world.

Social trauma at this scale is incredibly hard to hold. We are surrounded by problems for which there are no resolutions. How do we help one another not go mad? Not get utterly lost in despair? Find moments of sweetness such as this summer afternoon?

These moments exist in every life: when we trust the friendliness of public spaces, when we pet one another’s dogs, smile at one another’s children, hold one another’s gazes, smiles, and hands. This is what I call a stackable moment: a choice to remember something, to stack it into our memories. We can stack trauma: we can stack healing. We can stack violence: we can stack love.

I choose to stack this moment, to savor it, roll it around and around in my mind until I can call it back to sustain me. There was sunshine. There was my father alive in his stories. My beloved was next to me. There were friends. Dogs. Fruits and flowers. There was a kind man who trusted to put his brown hand in my white hand. We were in the weave together and the world was whole and holy.

The flag is at half-mast. My heart is broken—and open. This is how I stack the day.

 

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.

IMG_6200

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.

Read.

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)

IMG_6195

Pink Ladyslippers

 

 

 

My life is a full-time job

Just before heading back to airport.

Just before heading back to airport.

I emerge from two weeks of “Grandma Camp” and family time, and realize that it’s April and I’m about to turn 70 years old! The world is greening around me— asparagus is up, tulips are peaking, and our flowering crab apple tree is having a glorious bloom after soaking winter rains. I am profoundly thankful to be surrounded by this beauty; and I know it is impermanent, and I know I am impermanent.

The old tree still blooms

The old tree still blooms

Turning 70 is a big deal—and a privilege. Not everyone gets here… mortality is more real to me than in the decade behind me when I jokingly said, “Every year is like a speed limit—life seems to be moving faster and faster.” Well, 70 is a shift into the larger mystery. I intend to use it well—the day, the year, and (with health and good fortune) the decade.

Last August, when my friend Barbara Borden turned 70, I began thinking of the nine months preceding my own 70th birthday as a gestational time. Barbara and I proclaim that she was born on the day I was conceived, so I anticipated a period to reflect, assess, and set goals. I imagined the winter of handing on The Circle Way as a moment of breath and redefinition, exploring how our educational company, PeerSpirit might articulate its own transition. I began a correspondence with several friends in the turning-70-cohort exploring the meaning of this passage for us. I thought I could hang on to this thread, but life happened and took up all that contemplative space. Mom-care and other family concerns, the work and complex communication required to serve on the neighborhood association board as we face repairing the bluff/beach access, the ongoing transition needs of work, and and and…

It seems there   is no easy fix to anything anymore.

I want to think of this coming decade as a golden era in which I can bring together my two life passions of activism and story. I want to be a walking/talking/writing antidote to the frenzy of tweets and texts and fractured sound-bytes that stream off the devices we now carry with us everywhere. I seek opportunities every day to practice transforming experience into story and making a narrative that leads to greater civility and cooperation. Hey let’s just be us: listening, speaking, framing a world we can stand in together.

I am writing a book because the story keeps welling up inside me in spite of everything that calls me away and pulls at my time and attention. These characters are my birthday present. I don’t know what will come of it, only that I am dedicated to this particular story. I want to live long enough to tell this tale. I don’t know why it’s important beyond my own creative fantasy, just that it is.

When acquaintances ask, “So how’s retirement?” I don’t know how to answer. The word seems irrelevant and meaningless to my actual life. I don’t know what to say because saying anything is a much longer story than they may be expecting in a brief encounter, so I just smile and tell them, “I’m not retired. Being myself @ 70 is a full-time job.”

This blog entry is the beginning of a longer story that I intend to dip into this year: what does it mean to turn 70, to stand in the privilege of age and aging? What do I choose as I face into a decade that may well be my last full-on shot of contribution and energy? What remains mine to do now in regards to the larger issues around me? How will I expend and celebrate the strengths I have and admit the fading of strengths as I notice them? How do I come home?

Self @ 69...

Self @ 69…

To begin, Ann and I are heading into a five-day birthday retreat—off line, just us and Gracie, and a nearby island to explore. Alone and together, in silence and circle, turning a funky beach cabin into sanctuary. My gestational imagery returns… along with the labor of giving birth to myself in the new now.