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December Bloom, Minneapolis, Minnesota, iPhone Shots, December 24th, 2019, photo © 2019 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 

On Winter Solstice, after two years of dormancy and a flirt with death, the orchid bloomed. The Pacific Sunspots was a gift from Liz on a birthday that crossed decades. I remember opening the wrapper on the deck of Indria, our little cottage. We have moved into an apartment now, simplified our lives. The blooms fill me with joy.

But I have grown lax in my practices. We had been toying with the idea of meeting friends in Santa Fe this winter and signing up for a haiku retreat at Upaya Zen Center. On Christmas Eve, all the pieces came together. Plane tickets were reasonable and there were still openings. Liz and I texted our friends who were driving home from Christmas Eve dinner. We booked our flights and registered — we three were the last to sign up before the retreat was marked Full. The hair stood up on the back of our necks.

On the day after Christmas (at the New Moon Solar Eclipse), I juggled bins in the studio to try to set up a workable writing space. One old box was full of practice notebooks from Taos writing retreats. I pulled one off the top. It was marked October/December of 2006. The detail was mesmerizing; I had forgotten all the insecurities that surface in silence. It can be painful to sit with yourself.

There was a color photograph tucked into a card of a wintry gate near the pigeon roost at Mabel’s. I studied the faces of Natalie, Maria, and the 21 people who attended the four-season Intensive that year. Some have become teachers and grandparents, retired, or moved across country. Many have published their work. Several have passed on to the other side. What happens to our art and writing when we die?

I went back through the notebook with a yellow highlighter and revisited the words I had written at a different time in my life. There were writing practices about a trip to Georgia, a pilgrimage with my mother to research ancestry. We searched cemetery plots in the rain and finally found the overgrown grave of her step-sister who died shortly after birth (I’d like to turn these into a finished piece). There were practices of dribble where I never dropped down into my body. They offered up a study of the crazy minute-to-minute thoughts that go on in one’s mind.

There were writing practices about the ghosts in Mabel’s room, the four-poster bed Dennis Hopper wanted to cut up with a chainsaw, the dogs and coyotes I heard roaming the Taos wilderness at night. In the paper margins were notes on bell ringing, mudras, zafus, and zabutons, and a schedule of the day trip to the plaza and the O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe. There was scratchy handwriting, sometimes barely legible, of erratic emotions and thoughts that spill on to the page when we stop talking.

I had forgotten so much; and remembered everything.

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I’m excited for the possibilities of 2020: photography and practice, completing finished pieces, attending the haiku retreat in Santa Fe. It will be hard to drop into the discipline I once felt at the core. I could fail, but I have faith. When you look back a decade at your younger self, the creeping roots that once clawed their way into rich, black earth searching for nourishment spring forward like orchid tendrils in the sun — fortified aerial roots.

We were required to keep a log that year of our practices, a daily reminder of the commitment to ourselves and our writing. I’ll leave that practice from the old notebook in the comments below, a reminder from the ghosts of December past: Continue under all circumstances. Don’t be tossed away. Make positive effort for the good.

 

 


Handwritten notes in my October/December 2006 practice notebook from dharma talks and one-on-ones with Natalie Goldberg. I am grateful for everything she has taught me. And for the community of artists, writers, and contributors who helped create redRavine. It is a place I can return to feel grounded.

  • Follow the person behind you
  • Everyone feels insecure. It’s just what happens when we sit.
  • Rest. Make space.
  • Don’t push. Let yourself be.
  • Writing is manual labor of the mind.
  • The best kind of structure should be organic.
  • What can you be patient about? Make a list to remind yourself.
  • Crash through what holds you back.
  • Be willing to wait a long time for understanding.
  • Show first. Then tell. Don’t give everything all at once.
  • Don’t manipulate. Respect the reader. Slowly lead them where you want them to go.
  • Read Siddhartha again. His total breakdown led to enlightenment.
  • Push yourself to what you don’t know and make statements anyway. It pushes you into knowing.
  • Sometimes you tell the writing. Other times, the writing tells you.
  • You can’t just be a writer for a month. You have to be willing to go through the whole process, all of it.
  • If you get stuck, go back to basics: I remember, I’m thinking about, What I see in front of me.
  • Read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.
  • Ride on the backs of the writers who came before you.
  • You can’t read a poem enough times.
  • Writing is about receiving. Sit still so you can receive.
  • When you walk in the mist, you get wet. -Dogen

 

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Reading old journals opens up the past revealing details of thoughts and memories long forgotten. When digging through writing notebooks, I ran across this 20-minute Writing Practice from June 16, 2013. It relates to redRavine and lessons that travel with me. In 2019 I still write about the places I have lived, loved, and have yet to travel.

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Loving A Place – 20min

Second cup of French Roast. Kiev sleeps in the window on a fuzzy white cat bed piled on top of blankets. I go over to the desk, organize the pile of envelopes, advertisements, and receipts into separate categories. Then over to the table in front of the couch, an object I love, a painted table that Liz picked up at an auction many years ago. There are painted squares of eggplant, mustard, and turquoise, edged with swipes of paintbrush black. I like surrounding myself with art objects I love. She did good on this purchase.

Next, I gather piles of books from around the living room, most recent purchases, some from a few months ago. I notice that I am halfway through a couple of books, have not even started two more. There is Mni Sota Makoce, The Great Journey, She Had Some Horses, Dragonfly Dance, Twelve Owls. There is The Round House, Hawk Ridge, First Words, and Dewy, The Library Cat. A copy of Refuge that I’ve had for over a decade sits next to the Canon wireless printer. I dug it off a book shelf when Liz, Teri, and I went to see Terry Tempest Williams earlier this year.

I organize the books by size. The heavy photography books like Lightroom 3, Digital Photography, Sony Nex, Black & White Photography are placed on the solid piano bench next to the Room & Board recliner. Liz and I both still buy good reference books; though I am sure many now look online for similar information, there is nothing like a good hardcover book with illustrations. I open the window next to me, feel the light summer wind blow past my face. The cottonwood is just about done dropping her seeds. The cranberry that Liz has named Snowball is fully mature and is blooming with umbrella-shaped pods of white on the tips of her branches.

I feel like I need grounding. I remember something my writing teacher wrote to me after I told her that I was sad she no longer toured or taught in Minnesota. She said she thought I would find Minnesota in her writing. I pick up The True Secret of Writing and thumb through the book, taking notice of the chapter headings that are laced across the top of each page. Loving A Place jumped out at me. I started to read about a layover in Minnesota on the way to Bismarck, North Dakota. This looks good, I think. North Dakota for Liz; Minnesota for me. I settle in to read.

She is staying with a friend who lives near Lake Calhoun. It’s the dead of winter in Minnesota, below zero, at temperatures where ice refuses to be melted by salt.

Two women jog past me, then later a man with a dog on a leash; otherwise, I have the place to myself. I pick up my pace feeling the tips of my fingers freezing. I can’t believe how much love I feel for this place with no logic to it. Sure I met my great Zen teacher here and lived a few blocks away from him for six years and, yes, I learned a lot about writing here, teaching in poet-in-the-schools and then resident writer for two years in a multiracial, multiethnic elementary school and then finally winning a big in-state fellowship that brought me to Israel and that recognized me as a writer. But stopping by a hackberry and staring across the flat white surface of the lake as cars at my back sped by, I understand love has no reason, makes no sense.

Finally I didn’t belong here, just as some of my best loves were not practical to live with or marry, but spoke to a part of me that yearned to be met. And as the years go by I remember them with all the unsheltered love I couldn’t manage to tame. Even though no one would call Minneapolis a wild place, besides its winters, for me, a second-generation Jewish girl from Brooklyn, it was my American frontier. I met people who grew up on Iowa farms, close to that sprawling wide American river, the Mississippi. I watched as people dug holes in the ice and fished and went to summer cabins in the north of their state. I come back to Minneapolis as a seminal home where I have no family and no roots, like a stranger in a strange place.

I’ve written about Minnesota a lot, struggling to escape what I thought was a weird attachment. Most Minnesotans think I hate their state. They are wrong. When I write about a place at all, even if I make fun of it, it’s because it’s stuck to my heart.

My friend Miriam says I have a jones for place. Some people love cars, old houses, the cut and line of clothes. What does our obsession tell us about ourselves?

-from The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, Part Three: Elaborations, Loving A Place, p. 110 by Natalie Goldberg

She was right. There was Minnesota. At the end of the chapter, she completed her journey into North Dakota, teaching students, then taking a trip to Theo Roosevelt National Park where the horses run wild. I see that wild in Liz, for generations back, connected to harsh winters, unforgiving wind, broad-stroked skies. Loving a place means learning to love the people who live in that place. Because the place has shaped the people they have become. Some of us are products of many places, depending on where our lives have taken us. To live in a place is not always to love a place; we come to love places where we have not lived.

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NOTE: The name of the Minneapolis lake mentioned in this Writing Practice (Lake Calhoun) was changed in 2017 to Mde Maka Ska. The Dakota originally called the lake Mde Maka Ska (modern spelling Bdé Makhá Ská meaning Lake White Earth.
Related to the topic:  WRITING TOPIC – A PLACE TO STAND

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When my brother died last January, I started to walk the willows. It wasn’t until late July that I read our ancestors planted willows for the Dead. And if the branches form a shadow large enough for a grave, someone will die.

My brother was 60 years old. He had a chronic illness that finally got the best of him. There is something sad about a winter willow. In spring, their branches fade into yellows, ochres, and fluorescent lime. Rebirth.

At 8:35 p.m. my mother told me she felt my brother passing and started to cry. By 9 p.m., he was gone. She was miles away. She has the sixth sense. As kids we knew we couldn’t lie to our mother. She recognized the truth on a level we did not understand.

Now I understand. Because I have the sixth sense, too. An empath. Some call it intuitive. Maybe we all have the Gift. But some are more comfortable with it, push it further. You have to suspend disbelief, trust yourself, open to whatever may come.

I woke up this morning with a story in my head, a story about willows. Liz’s mom came into one of my dreams. She is 82 and transitioning in a small western town in Wyoming. We drove 1000 miles to visit her for ten days in May. It was the most intense ten days of my life. Spirits hovered in the air waiting to greet her on the Other Side. It didn’t matter if you believed they were there or not; every night they returned. Guardians, Angels, and people who had already passed, for better or for worse. Liz, her nephew, her sister, and I stood vigil. We banished those spirits who were not there out of Love.

Love. It’s about love in the end. And respect for those who have come before us. If you believe there is good and evil in the world, the Willow protects.

When I was a child of eleven or twelve, we moved from the Deep South to Pennsylvania. My new grandparents had a mature willow in their backyard that butted up against a cornfield. I would swing on the branches at a time when they were strong enough to hold the weight of my body and bones.

There is something I learned about Death this year: the Spirit has to bend, and be strong enough to hold the Soul’s weight.


NOTE: 10 minute handwritten Writing Practice on WRITING TOPIC — WILLOW, the latest Writing Topic on redRavine.

 

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Wind in the Willow, April 2019, iPhone Video, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Chaska, Minnesota, video © 2019 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 

I am drawn to the nurturing willow, especially in times of loss or grief. The willow was sacred to Hera, Hecate, Circe, Perspehone, and all goddesses of the Underworld. In Celtic mythology, the willow represents death and is good for magical work involving the dark or hidden parts of the psyche. The weeping willow is a common sign of mourning and offers protection for underworld journeying and rites of passage. Willows represent immortality, creativity, inspiration, emotion, and fertility and are known for their ability to regenerate from a fallen branch. They have been used to bind brooms and divine water. Have you heard the wind in the willows?

Do a ten minute Writing Practice on the topic of Willow. Or you can write a haiku, poem, or do a photo practice on Willow. Drop your photo or practice into the comments here or link to your blog. I have learned over the years that it doesn’t matter what kind of creative practice you undertake, as long as you consistently feed your work.

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LESSON OF THE WILLOW

 

The watery willow encourages the expression of deeply buried feelings, easing sadness through tears and grieving, and teaching the consequences of love and loss in matters of the heart. The willow reminds us of the need to let go sometimes, to surrender completely to the watery world of the emotions and the subconscious, so that we may be carried toward a deeper understanding of our inner-most feelings, toward a better appreciation of our hidden motives and secret fears and desires. Any suppressed and unacknowledged emotions can be a major cause of stress and illness. Through emotional expression, and through the sharing of feelings of ecstasy and pain, our ancestors believed they could help heal the human spirit. The willow enables us to realize that within every loss lies the potential for something new.

-from Wisdom of the Trees by Jane Gifford

 

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Resources:

What Willow Folklore Surrounds This Beautiful Tree? by Icy Sedgwick

Willow at Trees for Life

Willow Collection at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

Willow at The Goddess Tree

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We sat in a circle around a ring of snow, inside a ring of stones, inside a ring of kindling. It was damp outside. The moon rose in a foggy black and white photo over the house to the east. The fire felt good on my bones. After a while, my feet got cold but it didn’t seem to bother me. I saw something hop and trot, then stop. Is that a fox? I said. It is, it’s coming our way. The fox stared and came right for us. It walked close to the fire, headed to the next yard, and circled back. Susan said she had put out a lamb shank earlier in the day. The fox must have smelled it. The shank was gone. The fox came close to the spot where it had been and dug up a bone out of the snow, crunched on it. The fox was small and petite. A month or so ago, I saw a fox at Lake Como near the Conservatory over lunch. I watched it for a good fifteen minutes before it disappeared into a grove of trees. After the petite fox left, we saw another fox out on the pond in the distance. Then we heard them barking to each other across the ponds that are Twin Lakes.

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-haiga & excerpt from today’s writing practice posted on redRavine, Sunday, March 8th, 2015
-Part of a yearly practice to write a short form piece of poetry in my Moleskine journal once a day for the next year. Related to post: haiku 4 (one a day) Meets renga 52

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Listen In Circles, Droid Shots, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2014, photos © 2014 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


I am reading a book of essays that Gail gave me on the different ways that artists make a living. Their studios, how they obtain money, do they have day jobs. It’s good to read because it reminds me of all the ways that artists and writers make their art and writing work with the rest of their lives. It’s humbling. And it teaches me not to give up. I’ve been experimenting with doing nothing really, nothing but practice. I keep up my haiku practice. I do some writing practice but not every day. I do no specific art, no photography, no writing. I want to see how it makes me feel inside to give these things up. It’s a long break, a hiatus from identifying as an artist. It’s good to take a break sometimes. What I am noticing is that it relieves a lot of pressure. Pressure to be something else, to be doing something else besides living day to day. It does relieve pressure. But it hasn’t brought me peace. I look to another day, a small room of my own. Maybe that’s dreaming an unrealistic dream. I don’t know. All I have is this moment. This one moment. In this moment, I end a writing practice and move on.

-from a Writing Practice with No Topic, November 30th, 2014


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When I feel lost, I go back to what I know. Back to my practices. Back to Beginner’s Mind. I am rereading Everyday Sacred by Sue Bender. She writes and sketches her journey with the begging bowl. The image of the bowl became the image of the book. The empty bowl, waiting to be filled.


Stories move in circles. They don’t go in straight lines. So it helps if you listen in circles. There are stories inside stories and stories between stories, and finding your way through them is as easy and as hard as finding your way home. And part of the finding is the getting lost. And when you’re lost, you start to look around and to listen.

-quote by Deena Metzger from Everyday Sacred by Sue Bender


-posted on red Ravine, Friday, January 2nd, 2015

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Marylin Schultz and her first bicycle outside of her North Hollywood home in 1946. She was an original valley girl!

My First Bicycle, North Hollywood, California, 1946, family photo © 1946, 2014 from Marylin Schultz & Mike Schultz. All rights reserved.


By Marylin Schultz

What pleasant memories this prompts. My first bicycle was the only one I ever owned. A Birthday present, back in the dark ages…1946. She was a beautiful blue and cream colored girl’s Schwinn. Before bikes had “models,” your bike was simply either for a male or female! I have to admit, as time went by, that I secretly admired my best friend’s English “racing” bike. It had narrow, harder tires and seemed to be easier to pedal than the fat, “balloon” tires on the Schwinns.

There were no school bus rides for daily use, only for field trips. Before we got our bikes, we walked the few blocks to elementary school. Mine was received shortly before I entered 5th grade. In the city of Los Angeles, the schools were planned so that no one had more than five blocks to walk. Our school was on Victory Blvd, and that was its name, as well. It had been built in the 1920′s or 30′s, in a Spanish style; with arches of stucco, the color of adobe, and red tiled roof. It had to be razed after extensive damage it received in the “Northridge” earth quake. Elizabeth and I rode our bikes together to Jr. High for three years, which was two miles away.

My fondest memories are of our summertime rides to and from North Hollywood Park, about a mile from Elizabeth’s and my homes. Both the Library and Plunge, (aka public swimming pool) were in the park, and we pedaled back and forth; our baskets full of library books, bathing suits & towels. Summer mornings might be for chores our Moms had lined up, but the afternoons were gloriously free.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — MY FIRST BICYCLE is a Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Marylin Schultz adds her Writing Practice to those of QuoinMonkey and Bob Chrisman.

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Walking The Bluff, last Midwest Writing Retreat, Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve, Grafton, Wisconsin, March 2013, photo © 2013 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Writing friends are hard to come by. Friends who are good practitioners of writing, even harder. The last time I saw Bob was at the Milwaukee airport in March 2013. He smiled and gave me a hug, then we walked to separate gates after five days of Sit, Walk, Write with Jude and Teri. We met many years ago at a Natalie Goldberg writing retreat in Taos, New Mexico. The Midwest Writing Group we formed has continued to meet every year since to practice writing. To honor silence.

For me, Bob was one of the pillars of our writing group. He held the space, led the slow walking, kept time when we wrote, engaged in lively discussions at the dinners he prepared. He was an excellent cook. I will never forget his laugh. Bob contributed work to red Ravine and continued to post practices with me after others fell away. I could count on him. Today, Sunday, August 4th, 2013 at 3:30pm, a memorial service for Robert Tyler Chrisman will be held at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, 4501 Walnut St., Kansas City, Missouri.

Bob Chrisman, born Robert Tyler Chrisman on May 3, 1952 in St. Joseph, Missouri, passed away peacefully Friday, July 12, 2013, at Kansas City Hospice following a massive stroke. He was surrounded by family and friends who sang to him until his final breath. When I was reading back through Bob’s writing on red Ravine, I realized we had done a Writing Practice together in 2011 on Death & Dying. I find comfort in his words:


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Why all this focus on death at a time of year when the world screams with life and beauty? Why must death occur during these spring months when the earth bursts forth in new life and beautiful shades of yellow-green, when flowers of all colors open and scent the air, and when we can say, “Winter is gone for at least seven months”? Why?

Maybe all this life and beauty replaces the darkness and depression of the winter and I want no more of it. Give me life in all of its forms and beauty. I suffer enough during the winter and I’m over it, but I’m not, it seems.

I notice the beauty and revel in it because I know the bleakness of winter. Joy returns to my life because I know that the good times may not last forever. The friends I carry in my heart as the treasures of a lifetime will die. I must rejoice in their being while they are with me and not put that off for a change in the season or the approach of death.

How is it that the richness of life requires us to know the poverty of despairing times? Does it work like salt on cantaloup or watermelon? The saltiness makes the sweetness that much sweeter as death makes life more precious.

If I could stop death and dying, would I? No, I would let things happen as they must. I might even bring death to those I love earlier if they desired it, but that’s not my place in life. Sitting next to the bedside of a friend who’s dying makes me aware of the value of the time we had together and what a loss their death will be. If they must die (and they must), I can spend the final days and hours with them and carry them and those times in my heart until I pass from this earth.


-Bob Chrisman, excerpt from a 2011 Writing Practice on the WRITING TOPIC — DEATH & DYING.

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GATE GATE PARAGATE
PARASAMGATE
BODHI SVAHA

Gone, gone, gone beyond
Gone completely beyond
Praise to awakening


-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, August 4th, 2013. I miss you, friend. And I carry you in my heart until I pass from this earth. I believe..

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Mr. Stripeypants wraps his feline body, a curled half moon in front of the space heater. Liz is still sleeping. Out on the deck, the bear chimes I purchased in Ely last July ripple with the wind. The sky is dark. It’s 50 degrees. Later in the day, the wind will pick up, the air will drop into the twenties. November darkness refuels my passion for the Arts. It’s a chance to reflect, to take stock of my life. Not the long term dreams and goals I harnessed as a twenty-year-old. But the smiling clerk in the grocery line at Byerly’s, lunch alone at Como Park, the smile in my lover’s eyes — minutes that end up creating years. I am grateful for each moment.

I used to dread change. I thought it meant the loss of loved ones, the fleeing of love, abandonment. Now I welcome what is fresh and new, the unplanned. Change means I don’t have to cling to what I have lost. Change means I don’t have to stay stuck where I am — emotionally, spiritually, physically. Change means I am willing to face the future. Change means I don’t have to like something or someone to accept them, or forgive. Change means the body breaks down, the mind remains stubborn, the heart swells with appreciation. Change. I am grateful for change.

Thank you to family, friends, readers, teachers, patrons of the Arts. Because of you, my life feels rich and full. Happy Thanksgiving.



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Gratitude Writing Practice 2012


A is for altitude, the steady climb before the peregrine’s dive. B, let me not be brittle, but open to the opportunities life has to offer. C is for centered, concrete, creative, cushion. D, that last cool drink of water from a mountain stream. E, grateful for all the Elizabeths in my life. F will always be for family and friendships, for those who have stuck with me, even when I hit my bottom. G, gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. So much to be thankful for. H reminds me not to hurry. Slow down. Watch for the edges. Hypocrisy, emerald hedges, the hollow bone. I, irresistible words. Letters, dots, dashes, the incurable love affair with language. J is for justice, judges, journey work. The realization that I can’t control what is just and fair. Acceptance of the slow turn of arbitration. Solomon. Did he have it right? K is for the keys to the passage, low island reef at high tide. Keystone, quoin, foundation, groundwork. L for the lionhearted, those with courage, grace under pressure, the fearless who inspire me. M, morgue, decay, melodrama, the things we leave behind. Laurie Anderson reminded me, it is in times of death that we experience the most intense feelings of love. Anyway, N is for nesting, nudging noxious thoughts away, purging what is not useful to living a full-hearted life. O, owing a debt of gratitude to those who serve humanity. Out-of-the-way places where I can be my true self, unmasked, unafraid of a face-to-face with my own shortcomings. P is for play, paper, Mr. StripeyPants, Kiev, parables forming nuggets of truth. Q, there are Questions, there can never be too many questions. Quandaries, crossroads, quagmires, quests. A call to action. R, rest, solitude, unconnected, unavailable, alone. Remember, reverberate, don’t be too rigid. S, steady, slow, steadfast. Grant me the serenity. Sugar, shug. T, the topple of empires built on shifting sands. Trounced by the tough and true-hearted. U is for unburden, unbroken, unbound. Underdog, under the weather, underestimated. V, vivacious, high-spirited, don’t play your cards so close to the vest. W, the winsome and wise do not dismiss what is wistful and wintry. A windfall comes your way. X is for seeing through the xenophobic, just in the nick of time. Y, yearning for solitude, receiving a yen, unwilling to be the yes woman, corralling the yowling, howling courage of my youth. Z, life is a zigzag of faithful moments laced with bad decisions, and wretched zaniness. A short walk through zoological gardens of wonder, a long conversation. Listen. Listen.


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-related to posts: Gratitude Mandala — Giving Thanks, This Thanksgiving Weekend, Make A Gratitude Journal, A Simple Gratitude List, gratitude haiku (orange), The ABC’s Of A Prosperous 2008 – Gratitude, Feelin’ Down For The Holidays? Make A Gratitude List

-posted on red Ravine, Thanksgiving Day, November 22nd, 2012

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There is not a cloud in the sky, only a penetrating late summer haze. Who would have known the temperatures would be in the nineties this week, humid and sultry for our day at the Minnesota State Fair. I am not geared to spend time around throngs of people. It’s something I have to get myself prepared for. Once in the right mind set, an introvert can navigate dense crowds with the best of them. But at a high price.

I like learning about clouds. There are scientific details that I will never understand. Still, I like learning the science behind their magic. My vision feels clouded the last few weeks. Leading up to Art-A-Whirl in June, there is a busyness about summer that does not let go until after the Fair. It’s a steady pattern. This year I chose to work on the yard after the arborist came and trimmed the trees. It is work that is yet unfinished. We may take the rest of the mulch and level it out for a shed base where we will store the motorcycles this winter.

Winter. Fall, then Winter. I hesitate to wonder if we will even get any snow clouds this year. Last year, I only shoveled twice. It was the strangest Winter on record. There was no Spring to speak of. The weather immediately turned so hot and humid, we had to spend most of Spring inside. The air is not good to breathe in urban areas when it gets too humid. It’s like a cloud of wet towel around your head and nostrils that follows a long narrow path into your lungs.

I am not making any sense in this practice. That is the nature of practice. I am using it to ground myself this morning, a practice about a cloud to ground a day leading into the Holiday weekend. Labor Day. What is the nature of work? What is the nature of your work. I have had so many different jobs, all leading to a single goal—a creative life of writing, photography, art. There are jobs. And then there is work, a life’s work. Creative work.

I sit in the silence of morning, air conditioner humming in the background. Silence wakes me up. Thoughts penetrate and spur emotions. When I just sit, I feel at home. Thoughts are not always comfortable. Emotions rile. Silence can be lonely. But it is what it is, and on its own terms. It took me a long time to realize that I could not live life on my own terms. I had to live it on life’s terms. That means taking the good with the bad, the difficult with the joyful, and learning to sit with both.

I found an old notebook this morning, a small 4 1/2 by 3 1/2 black book sitting on the piano. Curious, I strolled through the pages of words I had jotted down in 2009. On one leaf was a note from Harpers. In small block print, it read: psychologist revealed that the secret to a happy marriage is accepting that life without suffering is impossible.

Maybe the secret to happiness is being able to hold the struggle and the joy in the same breath. Or maybe it’s realizing that we don’t need to be happy all the time. Why would anyone want that to be their goal.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — CLOUD is the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine. QuoinMonkey joined Marylin Schultz and Bob Chrisman in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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By Marylin Schultz

Clouds of black dirt rolled across the plains of midwest America in the late 1920’s and the 1930’s, giving a generic name to the era, “the dirty thirties,” as well as “the dust bowl” to the affected land. PBS has publicized a Ken Burns’ documentary on that bleak time in our country’s history, and I have a personal story to add, told to me by my mother.

My parents were married in 1932, a brave and hopeful couple, living more on dreams than dollars. Although my father was employed in the insurance company begun by his father in Childress, Texas, before the “crash of 1929,” most of his income came from commissions, and insurance was considered a luxury by many people during those poor economic times. He was in charge of the branch office in Albuquerque.

The first child was born to the couple in 1934. My mother decided to visit her mother who lived in Amarillo. She was on a bus with her infant, about halfway through their journey east, when a cold wind picked up. Off in the distance was an unbelievable sight. In the sky, to the north, a huge black wall seemed to be approaching them. A wave of darkness, reaching from the ground, hundreds of feet into the sky, was rapidly rolling towards them. The driver pulled the bus off of the road and hurried down the aisle with a container of water, shouting an explanation and directions.

“It’s top-soil, comin’ fast, and here’s what you got to do. Dampen your handkerchiefs with this water and hold it over your nose and mouth, ‘else you’ll choke to death!” My mother was terrified, especially for her infant. She carefully dipped two handkerchiefs into the offered water and tied one across her baby’s face and the other across her own. Of course, the tiny infant was upset by the unusual circumstances and began crying. The anxious mother hugged him to her breast and tried to comfort the struggling child.

“Close your eyes,” the driver continued, now back in his seat. “We just got to wait it out and hope it don’t take long to pass by us.”

The black cloud was now upon them. It was darker than a moonless night; absolute, total darkness. The bitter, cold wind shook the bus. With the eerie whistling of the wind came muffled screams and moans of some of the passengers. The few minutes it took for the cloud to move beyond the bus, seemed like a long journey down into the depths of hell and back!

The welcome relief of stillness and daylight lasted several minutes, before anyone spoke.

“Everyone okay back there?” the driver called out. Then, like a flood, the comments came forth. Exclamations of the incredible experience filled the air. Dirty faces now emerged, but with grins that showed how no one minded “a little dirt,” because they all survived the momentary terror!

Many years later, my mother and I were tourists in the Black Hills of South Dakota, being guided through a deep cave. The tour guide, as part of his usual lecture, turned off the lights to let us experience the total darkness. However, he did not tell the group ahead of time, that this was his intention. The result of being plunged, once more, into total darkness, my Mom grabbed my arm and screamed! When the light was turned on, she gave a brief, embarrassed explanation of the fright she had experienced so long ago.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — CLOUD is the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Marylin Schultz is joining QuoinMonkey and Bob Chrisman in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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By Bob Chrisman

Clouds disappear in the night sky here in the city. Before the sun sat, gray clouds had covered the sky and now I can’t see anything except a dark gray sky. If I go outside and sit on the steps I’ll be able to see the cloud cover because the spotlight from the disowned Frank Lloyd Wright on the Plaza will shine off the clouds and I’ll know if the clouds have gone away.

The summer has been free of cloud for the most part. We look with anticipation at any cloud that floats across the sky. Rain? Will it bring showers? The cloud floats by and leaves the ground dry.

The clouds have passed over us, except for a rare sprinkle here and there. You can almost hear the trees sigh with relief as any water, no matter how little, falls on them. They swallow it up and beg for more, but this summer, more has not come their way.

The edges of the leaves have dehydrated as though the moisture had leaked out of them—some leaf vampires have attacked all the leaves on every tree. The victims of these vampires turn brown and fall to the ground. Color has left the leaves and turned them to a dull green. A few have turned a pale yellow, but for the most part only shades of brown are visible on the trees.

We will have rain tonight. That’s what the weather people say. Showers. But, at almost 9 p.m. the air is warm and still. The cicadas saw away in the trees outside, a deafening chorus that arrived early this year.

Everything has come early this year: the heat, the drought, the turning leaves. The only thing that hasn’t come at all is a cloud to relieve the thirsty earth.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — CLOUD is the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman is joining QuoinMonkey in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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By Elizabeth Statmore


Fromage died on Saturday, May 12th 2012 at 11:30 p.m. at All Animals Emergency Hospital, surrounded by us and our love. He was dehydrated and disoriented, with a temperature of 105.6. Normal temperature for dogs is 101-ish, with 102 being in the high fever range. So Fromage had a raging fever, probably from a combination of a brain tumor (or nervous system tumor) and end-stage kidney disease.

We knew it was serious when he couldn’t do anything with a Beggin’ Strip — his favorite treat in the universe. And I’d dreamed Wednesday morning that he died. I knew it was a precognitive dream, but I didn’t know how or when the end would happen.

He did his utmost to stay alive for me — to support me and love me through this disorienting chapter of my life. He showed the same heroic courage and love he had shown us all his life. He was an impeccable warrior to the end, but in the end it was time to let him go.

It was the night before Mother’s Day.

It’s the little things that really punch me in the gut — the moments that interrupt my conditioned habits, such as automatically tucking the newspaper bags into the plastic bag collection next to the front door, only to realize that I don’t have a need to save dog poop bags any more.

I put his sterling silver tag on a chain and started wearing it around my neck last night as I went to bed.

He was the only being who has ever called me his mother. On our first Mother’s Day he bought me a pair of dog socks.

He was the dog of my life.

He was the dog of my heart.

I somehow left my favorite fountain pen at school on Friday, but I was too stressed-out and worried yesterday to deal with it. But this morning, all I wanted to do was write, so I drove down to school and back to retrieve it.

When we got to All Animals, Fromage had a fever of 105.6. This was a raging brain fever. He couldn’t even walk down our front stairs. I carried him in my arms down the thirteen front steps — all 60+ pounds of him. David carried him into the car. He was dehydrated and disoriented and scared. He was dying.

I held him in the back seat while David drove. He lay quietly on the back seat, watching where we were going.

He had kept himself alive so he could support me. And now I knew it was my turn to support him by letting him go and by easing his passage into the next world, into his next life.

Fred always said that Fromage was my spirit guide.

Now my heart just aches. David’s too. Fromage loved David so much, even though David felt hurt that Fromage was always so freaked out and demented these last few years. David hugged him and loved him too, even though there was so much dog hair. By last night, no one cared.

I can’t put away his old beds or mats yet. I am still processing the fact that he is gone. There is a giant Fromage-shaped hole in my heart — one with one stand-up ear and one flappy ear. The stand-up ear is his right one. It has a bite taken out of the tip. My lips and fingers know the shape of that missing spot instinctively. Completely. Like a fingerprint.

He’d been staying alive to get me through this tough time. On Wednesday night I got the word that my layoff notice had been rescinded. He went downhill fast from there.

I loved that dog so much.

He loved me more purely and wholeheartedly than I had ever been loved before. It was a healing kind of love. He healed me. He made me whole.

When Crystal and I saw Mary Oliver the first time at the Herbst a few years ago, Mary had recently lost her longtime partner, Molly Malone Cook, and had been writing about it for some time. A woman in the audience asked how she’d gotten through the devastating loss. “Well,” she said, first you go a little crazy. You go nuts for a while.” That thought comforts me now. I am going to have to go a little nuts for a while while I grieve.

The loss feels cavernous.

It’s also tinged with fear and shame that I might not be experiencing appropriate gratitude for the gift of his life. I *do* feel a bottomless gratitude for his life. It’s just that right now, this is the part where I have to take in and let out the hurting — the loss and the groundlessness of impermanence.

In legal terms, I rescued him, but the emotional truth is that he is the one who rescued me.

He was a magical dog, a magical creature. In mythical terms, he was my magical helper-being.

“A dog lives fifteen years, if you’re lucky,” Mary Oliver writes in one of her dog poems. In so many, many ways I’ve been very, very lucky. Fromage was in good health and good spirits until this very last week. He enjoyed long walks and Trash Night and giving David five and ten and eating Beggin’ Strips until the very last day of his life. He watched for my return through the glass in the front door every single day of our life together.

As we left the hospital room after it was over, I kissed him behind his flappy ear — where, even in death, he still smelled like a puppy — and I whispered to him, “Okay, Puppity, guard the house.”

Then we left the treatment room and closed the door behind us.

I did not look back.


Fromage at the Dog Garden, Dog Garden, San Francisco, California, April 2004, photo © 2004 by Carlos Hillson. All rights reserved.


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About Elizabeth: Elizabeth Statmore is a San Francisco-based writer and teacher of writing and mathematics. She is a long-time practitioner and teacher of Writing Practice, which she learned from Natalie Goldberg. A frequent contributor to KQED-FM, Elizabeth’s last posts for red Ravine include Seed Starting, a piece about writers as gardeners, and Writing The “Remembering Grace Paley” Piece — a step-by-step tutorial on how she turned a raw piece of writing into a finished radio commentary. Elizabeth was also one of our first guest writers, contributing the post Abandoned Is… Fromage was her dog and spirit guide of almost fourteen years.

Long is Part I in a series of three Writing Practices about the love and loss of Fromage.

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By Bob Chrisman

I believe that I will never know the meaning of life, where I came from, why I’m here, or where I’m going when I die (if anywhere) because I can’t know those things from my limited perspective of the universe and how it functions. I believe that my not knowing doesn’t matter because I can’t and won’t know everything in this world or in the cosmos. It doesn’t work that way.

I believe in the inherent goodness of all people which somehow gets mucked up along the way by the environment in which they live, the people who raise them, and their capacity to endure hard times without being embittered. I believe we all start out life as innocents and the world around us works hard to turn us this way or that depending on so many factors that it’s pointless to worry about what one person did to influence someone.

I believe I will die. My personal experience tells me that everyone I know who has died is really dead and not faking it. Some people think they won’t die and I’m willing to hang around and see if that’s true or not. I can’t imagine anything more horrifying than living forever in this world or in another.

I believe I was meant to be a happy person—actually that we were all meant to be happy, but the world of illusion works to convince us we are not happy and are incapable of being happy without something else. We are constantly assaulted with the idea that if we have this pair of jeans, that pair of shoes, this religious faith, that spiritual practice, this deodorant, that breath spray—that something will allow us to live in eternal bliss. We have all we need right now to be in a state of bliss. Easier said than experienced in our world.

I believe the things that happen to us are neither bad nor good, that we don’t “deserve” to have certain events occur in our lives, and that life is random with no “cause and effect” in play. And by that, I mean we aren’t the victims of some karma or some deity who wants to even the score or restore the balance. I do believe there are consequences of our actions, but we can’t always know what those will be.

I believe for every drop of rain that falls…time’s up.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — I BELIEVE… is the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman joined QuoinMonkey, Laura, and Sandrarenee in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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I believe the sunrise I saw this morning holds the same rank as the snowflake that dotted the tip of the windshield wiper at noon. I believe I feel best when I am rooted where I stand, when the frozen cedars whistle in the wind, when the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven slips through a hole in the screen and calls me to attention. I like to believe I will live a long life, foolish to ponder. There are no guarantees and that takes me back to the sunset, the flip side, the underbelly of a Moon on the rise.

I believe it’s 30 degrees colder than it was yesterday. I believe the crow I saw on Highway 10 mixed it up with a flock of sparrows making me pay attention to the dew tipped grasses on the edge of the bowling alley parking lot. I believe I’d like to go back to St. Simons Island, the place I walked with Liz and Mom, the lighthouse, the restaurant where we ate fresh shrimp and Liz ordered a Po’ Boy and the sweet tea melted in my mouth. The shore was flat and hard, stiff enough for bike tires to travel. There was one lone white chair against the horizon. We ran down by the Atlantic and slipped our hands in the undercurrent. I felt the pulse of the world.

I believe in time I’ll accomplish my dreams. They seem simple to me now, simple minded, not complicated. I’m not looking for fame or fortune. I want to be content with what I have. I believe we will move to a new home in the next five years. I believe in my dreams even when I don’t know exactly what they are. I believe in the circle of life, in living and dying and living again in some kind of spirit form. I believe I carry the dreams of my ancestors. Their sins, too. Not in a heavy way, but in the way all cultures pass down their dreams and sins and complaints. I believe in 7-year cycles, 7-year itches, 7 months and it’s summer, 7 months and it’s my birthday, hottest time of the year.

I believe in deja vu, rules of thumb, the law of threes, not superstition, but belief. I believe in the weather, not in the scientific sense, but in the long extremes that happen in places like Minnesota, the middle land, the hinterlands, the mountainless bowels of America. I believe in working hard at every turn. A work ethic passed down to me, the same one that takes parents out of the house, trying to make a living for their families. I believe it should not be so hard to make enough to pay the mortgage, eat well, and have good healthcare. Access to good healthcare should not decide where a person works. I believe the richest country in the world can also be the most benevolent, gracious, and kind. I believe in the Wind that chills me to the bone. The cold exhale of the Dragon, breathing down my neck.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — I BELIEVE… is the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine. QuoinMonkey joined frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman, Laura, and Sandrarenee in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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By Mike Carter


So thinking about some early memories of chocolate, I am reminded of going to Mabry’s store as a kid in Vancouver, Washington. I was maybe ten years old and they used to have these little bars called “7-Up” which had seven kinds of little chocolates in them. 7-up, there was one piece that was a chocolate covered Brazil nut, and one that was like a chocolate covered section of an orange slice candy. I always have had a thing for nuts, especially cashews. Mom would send me to the store for cigarettes and she would give me a dime for a candy bar. Yes, a dime. I don’t think these little 7-Up bars were around very long.

I inherited the chocolate tooth from my mom who liked all things sweet and on Friday nights would beat homemade fudge with a wooden spoon, in a Revere Ware copper lined one quart saucepan, while watching T.V. in the living room. We would take turns beating and it took some time, like an hour. Your forearms would get a nice little workout. Yea, chocolate is always an essential ingredient and one of my top 10 essential foods. I don’t like being chocolate deprived and there was this one time in junior high after not having chocolate for four months, dieting all through wrestling season, when my little sister was selling these boxes of chocolate covered almonds for a class fundraiser. I took a whole box and devoured it in a closet in one sitting. I think it was like a pound. I hid in the closet. Guilty pleasures. I always had a sweet tooth and, by the way, pecan pie is foremost on my list.

Living this past year in Hawaii, I got to see an actual Cacao tree which has these red-cinnamon colored pods that grow from the tree. These pods look like a pointy cucumber and are five or six inches long. Inside these pods are the little chocolate beans. They have to put up these big fences around the chocolate trees or people will steel the pods. If you go to the Ho ‘omaluhia garden you can see them. It is on the windward side of Oahu close to Kaneohe. It is a REALLY cool garden and it has lots of one of a kind trees, like the amazing blue marble tree. I think they have two chocolate trees in the garden. And if you get there, also try the Roselani brand chocolate macadamia nut ice cream, which is to die for and has a strong dark chocolate flavor and a very creamy texture. It is a little pricey at 9 dollars for a half a gallon, but sometimes you can get it on sale at Foodland for 4.50/half price. Best ice cream ever, to die for.

Actually, the best ice-cream here is Haupia, which is a very tasty coconut custard ice cream confection. Amazing stuff. The last month I lived there, I ate nothing but ice cream. Other favorite chocolates, well Mr. Goodbar is also on my top ten list, but it is hard to match my mom’s Friday night fudge. Grandma Carter also made some great fudge around Christmas time and she also made Divinity, which I miss. Chocolates I have known. And chocolates I have remembered.

Also cool are the little bars of Madeira Mexican chocolate which we can get in Seattle and you break off a chunk of these and mix with milk and sugar for amazing hot chocolate. I don’t go in for the high percentage chocolate bars like 60 or 70 percent —is a little much and too bitter for me. And what is the name of the little chocolate shop at Pike’s Market where you can get the bacon chocolate? Seattle Chocolatier or something like that. It is on the Seattle Food tour if you get there. Beer, bacon and bratwurst. These are my three essential nutritional building blocks.


NOTE:  Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden is one of the five main botanical gardens on Oahu. Ho’omaluhia means to make a place of peace and tranquility.

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About Mike:  Mike Carter has been living in Kaneohe, Hawaii for the last year, working at Hawaii State Hospital. He will be returning to Seattle next month, and would like write a memoir of his year in Hawaii. Inspired by  WRITING TOPIC — CHOCOLATE, the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine, Mike joined Bob, Teri, and QM in a Writing Practice on the topic.


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I’m staring at the leftover box of Mrs. See’s chocolates. When I lift the lid off the pure white box with the gold script, I see there are five pieces left. Well, make that four and 3/4, one with a bite out of it. One of the three of us must not have liked the flavor. Now I’m thinking of my mother-in-law who boarded a plane for Wyoming this morning. The See’s was a gift from her the first night she arrived in Minneapolis. If I remember correctly, she has three layovers and may not be home until very late. She flies into the Twin Cities once a year to see Liz. Her brother flies in, too. I look forward to their visits. We go out to eat, a play at the Guthrie, watch a few movies. It feels like a vacation for me, too.

I’m wondering what flavor Mary See has left in the box for me. I just took a nibble. Hmmmm, chocolate flavor bursting on the tongue. It is nutty, minced nut with a hint of almond? Creamy, and milk chocolate, my favorite. I run my tongue over the back teeth to grab every morsel. There is a patch of chocolate stuck to a filling. A nut wedged between two teeth. I have maybe three bites left. I’m one of those people who savors. As a girl, I was the type to keep my Easter basket around for weeks. I’d take little bites off the rabbit head, nibble away on an ear of white or milk chocolate. Some used to say that white chocolate wasn’t real chocolate. But I disagreed. I went through a white chocolate phase around junior high age.

Nope, never been a gobbler. Always a savorer. Hmmmm, last bite of the piece with the jagged dip out of it. It’s gone. And now there are four pieces of See’s chocolate left and Mrs. See is staring up at me from the edge of the box. She’s got glasses like John Lennon’s, gray hair, a kind smile. She’s wearing a knitted shawl. The photograph is tinted brown and shaped like a cameo. Did Mrs. See live in San Francisco?

Liz will be home from work soon. I want to see which piece she chooses from the box, her next to the last. It’s not like the boxes of Whitman’s chocolate where they print each type of candy on the inside cover so you can see what you are choosing. Do they still do that? I’d rather have the surprise. Last night, I bit one, and then asked Liz if she wanted it. Tasted too rich for me, too much like licorice. I don’t like the flavor of licorice all that much.

Chocolate reminds me of all the good things in life. It’s sweet, creamy, something to be shared, something that people are happy to share. We’ve got a bag of bite-sized Snickers in the fridge. I like them frozen. Liz has a bag of Dove almond dark chocolate, silky smooth promise next to the Snickers. A piece of chocolate lifts the spirits. A box of chocolates makes me feel rich, nectar of the gods. What is it about chocolate that is so satisfying?


-related to Topic post and practices: WRITING TOPIC — CHOCOLATE, PRACTICE — CHOCOLATE – 15min, PRACTICE –CHOCOLATE – 15min

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