A Way With Words 2010

Hollyhock Journal 1

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

After returning from Japan in early April and completing my account of the trip, I thought it might be time again to write to Ruth, who’d never returned my November’s email telling her about the recent Michael Pollan incident at Cal Poly. Before doing so I checked out her blog and discovered that she was offering a five-day “Writing and Meditation” workshop together with a Zen priest/poet at Hollyhock on Cortes Island in June.  This striking combination appealed to two of my interests. Her postings about an address she gave to the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment and about grappling with internet overload dealt with subjects I cared about. And her dual residency on Cortes Island and in Manhattan mirrored my upbringing in New York and forty year association with Lund, B.C.

Even though it was expensive and too close to our recent international excursion and our upcoming family trips to Idaho and Canada, it was hard to resist such a perfectly taylored educational opportunity.  Adding to the appeal was the workshop’s setting at Hollyhock, a legendary place I’d never visited that could be reached with a six hour kayak trip across the Georgia Straight from our place in Lund. Three years ago I’d considered making the trip in November, but concluded it was imprudent.

Ruth wrote a welcome email to the registrants, inviting us to bring our favorite writing instruments and any projects we were working on. My previous writing workshop experiences–NEH seminars at Berkeley in 1989 and Yale in 1993–took their enduring value from the clearly formulated topics and publication goals I’d come with, but this time I have no such motive in mind. “What,” I ask, as the plane finally gets airborne at LAX, “do I want to bring back from this quest?” Hints of answers coalesce and dissolve like cream on the surface of coffee. A poem or two, some experiments with forms I’ve never tried, a sense of future direction, a commitment, an adventure story?

Hollyhock Journal 2

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Peter meets me at the Powell River airport. We stop at Hindles so I can buy four Pentel pens, necessary tools since the computer’s not with me, first time in years. Over Margaret’s dinner of salmon, rice, his garden spinach salad and assorted fruit from their treasury of jars, Peter says, “There’s been quite a bit of wind lately. My friend Bob might be able to come down and pick you up at the Comox ferry and take you to Campbell River and the ferries to Quadra and Cortez.”

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That would be at least a ten hour trip from here. Peter sends me off with his Tracker.  I’ll return with it tomorrow for our hike.

Arrival at Knoll House after my long day in transit from California has the perennial numinous feel. The steep ascent of the bumpy driveway through a high green tunnel, the grassy clearing at the top, the small, windowless structure, taller than wide, roofed with a four sided pyramid. I find the key under the rock, climb the stairs, cross the lofty living space, draw the curtains on the sliders and gaze: low-lit cloud-filled sky, snow-topped mountains, expanse of water, Mace Point on Savary Island across the passage, treetops below the bluff, the opening in the woods glowing yellow and green.

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In the middle of the mossy path a softly shaped black bear returns my gaze.

I open the slider and the bear ambles off into the forest.  I head down the path to the larger clearing we’ve made on the bluff, and the prospect widens to include the Ragged Islands to the north, Hernando and Twin to the west, and at the end of the passage between them my destination on the coast of Cortes.

Water pooled in tiny terraces under the moss flows downhill. It starts to rain and I retreat under a canopy of large firs to protect my camera.  A rainbow arcs from the sea over the house behind me. As background clouds darken, its colors intensify.

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Next morning I take the Tracker over to Michael’s new homesite. Big signs on Pryor Road advertise Evergreen Creek Estates, five lots marked SOLD! The road he agonized over for years now a pleasant drive, especially that section raised fifteen feet above the creekbed. He comes out of his motor home in underwear.  I can hardly get my arms around him for a hug. Inside I ask him for a cup of coffee. “Ive got high speed internet, straight from Twin Islands,” he crows pointing out the window to the big view. “Look at these plans for the house.” A forty-year dream approaching fulfillment.

I drive down to Lund for breakfast and provisions at Nancy’s Bakery.  The sky is complex, weather changing.  At the Water Taxi office, I set up plan B.  It would cost a hundred twenty five dollars to drop me off at Cortes Bay.  That’s about equivalent to the kayak rental, for which I’ve already made a sixty-five dollar deposit.  Fifty-fifty chance I’ll be paddling.

By 11:00 I’m back at Peter’s. Up Wilde Road we park and hike on the Sunshine Coast Trail along Appleton Creek. Our endless conversation continues. He’s recently attended a retreat where they worked on detaching the busy list maker in the mind from the quiet observer.

The ground is springy.  Cascade after cascade roars through the canyon, runoff after weeks of rain.

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The underlying  ground bass resonates in my diaphragm.  We drop down to the edge and I cup my ears.  We couldn’t be here unless Eagle had created this trail, along with hundreds of miles more: finding the routes, marking them, cutting them, maintaining them, publicizing them and defending them against the pillagers.

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When we first came there was only bush-crashing and logging roads. One or two people’s vision, grassroots power.  The Powell River story: Kathaumixw, the world choral festival, dreamed up by the high school music teacher, the local Malaspina College campus, the Lund Theatre Troupe, Lund Farm Day Camp. The B.C. story,  Hollyhock.

After we swim in Sliammon Lake, Peter drops me off at Knoll House. I disassemble and clear the deck’s clogged downspout, wander along my trails,  read some talks in the Suzuki Roshi book Jan once left here: life/death, present moment, breath in and out.  She calls. It took her five hours today to get medical attention for Claire.  Ultrasound reveals something like a ruptured cyst on ovary.  Not clear what’s next.

Hollyhock Journal 3

Monday, June 14th, 2010

I wake up at 6:00 and sort gear into three drybags, the small red one to be available in transit for camera, phone, map, compass, and snacks. Along with tent,  Thermarest, and a heavy-duty anorak left in the mudroom by a previous lodger, I load it all into my backpack. The overcast is breaking up as I walk down to the highway. This is the day.

A couple with a dog in a pickup offers a lift to Lund. The sky has cleared over the water riffled with a slight northerly breeze.  When the kayak rental place opens I’m ready, and Arlen, the boy in dredlocks, pulls out a long blue boat and shows me how to reenter it using paddle and float in case I capsize. I punch the numbers of water-taxi, search-and-rescue and coast guard into my cell phone.

Blue overhead, exuberant billowing clouds on the mountains east and west. I fill compartments, secure hatches, stuff the anorak behind the seat, put on life jacket and spray skirt, slide in the cockpit, and push off.  I try to follow the instructions I printed out from the Paddler’s website and studied on the airplane: get power not from your arms but the muscles in your core—the abdominus tranversus I’d once been taught to isolate by a physical therapist; push more than pull; alternate between sides in a single motion like peddling a bike; find the momentum of your flow through the water and maintain it.

Sooner than expected and less tired, I’m around the point and in view of the Raggeds, and beyond them, Townley, Powell and Cortes. My course angles toward a cruiser heading for Thulin passage. They’re not slowing down, so I do and wave.  They leave a fat wake that’s fun to tumble over.  I’ll stay on the outside of the islands, no need for shelter now.  The breeze dies, the surface flat and polished.  A gentle swell produced by a distant boat, the only one in sight, rocks me in its bosom, the back of my neck warmed by the sun, hands cooled by water dripping off the moving paddle. I steer further off shore, a moving point on this fluid expanse that I’ve stared at from many directions and heights for over 40 years, anticipating, remembering, and returning from other worlds.  Now only swivel-breathe, push-pull, dip-lift in a sideways figure-eight motion.

Then a muffled ringtone from inside the drybag clipped to the deck cords. I unroll the seal, grab the phone and hear Jan’s bell-like voice. “Where are you,” she asks. I hesitate, finding it hard to speak: “Outside the Raggeds headed for Powell Island.”  “Great,” she says. “I just called to reassure you about Claire.  She’ll have surgery on Tuesday.  I’m headed to Solvang for a League of California Cities meeting.  Dennis is watching both kids.”

I turn off the phone, stow it back in the drybag and take out the camera to record this moment. Instead of returning it, I leave it in the pocket of the life jacket. The straight course is shortening the trip, and my smooth forward motion is occasionally accelerated by mysterious surges from behind. Sure I want to get there, but not too soon or too easily.

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The need to pee and eat lunch along with curiosity about the view beyond the island ahead closes the reverie. I scan the rocky shore in search of a place to haul out and spot a shelf a few inches above the waterline.  Up close, I paddle along it and find what looks like a lower shelf just a few inches under the surface. I undo the spray skirt, slide my butt up on the deck and reach down, expecting a firm footing.  Instead I’m suddenly in the water, floating in the life jacket, holding the edge of the kayak with one hand and the shore with the other.  I let go the shore, swim backward a stroke and now my feet hit bottom.  I drag  the boat up by its handle, and then remember the camera, pull it out from the pocket and push the on button.  Of course it’s dead and the LED screen is fogged. I remove the batteries and card and set it in the sun to dry.  Then I pee and remove several layers of clothing and spread them on the rocks.

So, I tell myself, pride comes before a fall. The minute things go my way, on to the next thing, off the attention.  Just like last week, after the problems with the slide construction in the backyard were solved, when I hastened to install it and chopped a hole in the irrigation pipe.  Well, no point in beating myself up.  Maybe the loss of the camera, along with the lack of a computer, will strengthen the focus on writing.  I enjoy the lunch of a leftover empanada from Nancy’s smeared with goat cheese from Hatchabird Farm and afterward climb up the rock bluff wearing only crocs to have a look.

Around the point, in the direction of Cortes, the wind has picked up considerably. There are whitecaps on the waves, a sign that would have sent me to the water taxi in the morning. My confidence shaken by two mistakes, I recognize that there’s no longer a plan B. But I’m not feeling fear or the approach of panic or even an impulse to pray, just eagerness to get on with it. On the way back to the picnic spot, from high on the bluff the kayak and my drying clothes look small next to the calm water in the lee of the island. I clamber down, pull on my merino  longjohns and slip into the heavy windbreaker, which feels like armor before battle. With my socks, I sponge out the water left in the cockpit, pack the camera ruefully into the drybag and carefully seal all hatches. I slide the paddle under the elastics before dragging the boat into the water, telling myself there now can be no excess of caution. But as I tighten the sprayskirt over the lifejacket, I remember Arlen saying you don’t need to bother with the suspenders, so I let them hang.

It feels good to be afloat again, and soon I’m bobbing, a little out of control. I yank the cord to lower the rudder, but it doesn’t give. Time to steer with the paddles, to really dig with the muscles of the core. Clearing the point, I’m going perpendicular to the wind, parallel to the waves, which push me sideways faster than my forward motion. Nevertheless I’m making progress away from the island, breathing hard, pumping adrenalin. Without a rudder, I need to angle away from the direction of the swells and keep on course with extra strokes on one side or another.  A wave breaks gently across the bow and covers the deck with a couple of inches of water, but the boat feels stable, and the spray skirt keeps it from filling up. Then, another one creeps up beside me, leaks into the cockpit soaking my pants, and makes a pool in the sag of the skirt. I stop paddling to tighten and hike it up, and try to attach the suspenders, but they’re snagged.

I’m well out into the channel now and realize that despite the additional two mishaps, this is what the kayak is made for.  Whitecaps are fine, at least at this size.  I give another yank on the cord and the rudder drops.  The pedals slide, the bow turns in the direction I want, I’m no longer breathing hard and I have options which way to go. I’d planned to make the shortest crossing, toward Mary’s Point, but that’s not in the direction of my destination and it’s where the wind is heading, so I pick the longer crossing toward Twin Islands, which will put me in their lee and be both safer and quicker.

Feeling the second relief and triumph of the day, I reach the narrow channel between Twin and Cortes and greet flocks of geese on the shore and wood ducks afloat. I fantasize approaching Hollyhock and being welcomed by people at the beach.  But where is it? It’s not marked on my chart and there are places all along the shoreline that look like they could be retreat centers. I’d only glanced at the map on the website and once spotted it on Google Earth. I paddle up to a sandy spot in front of a group of houses and yell, but nobody’s home. I pull back into the channel, continue another quarter mile and ask two people building a new house, is this Hollyhock? One answers that it’s the neighboring property, just across the fence.  I leave phone messages for Jan and Peter reporting safe arrival, tie the boat to a rock, climb over driftwood logs to a path up the hill, pass through an amazing garden and enter the office. Ruth and her co-presenter are coming through another door.

Hollyhock Journal 4

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

After greetings and introductions I’m assigned a host to help me get settled. A kindly gray haired woman takes me back to the beach in a golf cart. I unload the kayak and bring it up on logs, and she shuttles me to a quiet campsite at the base of large cedar.  She’s retired to Cortes from Salt Spring Island and knows Jeanne L., a sculptor and midwife we visited there recently who once lived in our barn in Lund.

I pitch the tent, change into dry clothes, and return through a wood-latched gate and across the great garden to the porch of the lodge. The request to leave shoes outside is familiar after Japan. The building’s wood interior is immaculate, graced with local artists’ watercolors on the walls and large windows oriented toward the water. Through them I see the southern peninsula of Cortes on the right, beyond it Mittlenatch Island and beyond that Vancouver island, to the left the channel between Cortes and Twin through which I paddled, and in the center the passage between Twin and Hernando opening to the wide water outside Lund. In the middle of the prospect, crouched on the horizon, I recognize Mace Point, eastern tip of Savary Island, the center of the view from Knoll House on a sightline shifted 120 degrees.

In the buffet line several people ask if I’m the guy who came here by kayak. Dinner is gourmet vegetarian, largely supplied by the garden, the tables adorned by its flowers. Afterward we hear a welcome talk by Dana Solomon, Hollyhock CEO.  She tells us a little bit about the place: “Hollyhock exists to inspire, nourish and support people who are making the world better.” It offers programs on spiritual development, nature study, corporate and non-profit capacity building, bodywork, photography, environmental activism, gardening, cooking as well as writing—well targeted to my demographic.  Hollyhock was created in the early ‘80’s on the site of the Cold Mountain Institute that I knew about in the ‘70’s, but at the time wasn’t confident or prosperous enough to visit.

The first session of the workshop convenes in Kiakum, hardly distinguishable from the surrounding forest on the outside, but inside a spacious dome with a transparent central peak above which tree branches are silhouetted against the sky.  In the middle of the floor stands a vase of flowers surrounded by a circle of burning candles and cushions with seatbacks for the six participants and two leaders. We begin with brief introductions, Carol from Victoria, Fran from Vancouver, Brenda from Calgary, her sister Laurel from Courtenay, and Michelle, who works in the kitchen and is here on a long-term retreat.  She’s the only one that’s not retired. I’m the sole male.

Kate and Ruth make sure that everyone is appropriately seated, two of the group in chairs, the others on cushions with the pelvis tipped forward, shoulders back and spine erect, in a half lotus or supported by pillows under the knees to provide a stable and relaxed three-point posture.  With eyes closed, I follow Kate’s instructions, uttered quietly but forcefully, punctuated by long pauses.

Breath awareness is fundamental to meditation practice, to awareness of body and mind, to cultivating the stillness to see into the true nature of existence. Once you have settled into your sitting posture, bring your attention to the sensation of the breath passing in and out of your body. Once you have located and settled into that sensation, begin to follow the breath for its entire duration, coming in the nostrils, filling the lungs, lifting the diaphragm. Note the moment the in-breath turns into the out-breath, the diaphragm contracting, emptying the lungs, air flowing out the nostrils. You may want to use phrases like, “Breathing in, Breathing out,” to support your practice, letting them quiet as the mind quiets. Follow the breath with ease, not forcing the breath to be other than it is, experiencing each breath just as it is. In this noble posture of stillness, the mind naturally quiets, and the breath naturally deepens and slows. [text provided by Kate]

This is somewhat different from my habitual 20 minute morning practice, when I sit in a chair  and maintain focus with a mantra.  The voice, the presence of the group, the space, my sensation of passing from one stage of a voyage to the next another heighten the energy.

Afterwards we each talk about our experience with meditation and writing and our purposes in attending. One has written small town newspaper columns, another has done public relations and journalistic work, three people belong to meditation groups. Everyone wants to work on memoirs and poems. I mention complacently that I’ve written three books, but haven’t published anything in ten years, preferring to write regularly on my blog without further aspiration. As I say it, I sense this may be changing.  An appointment schedule for individual consults is passed around and I sign up.

Ruth introduces a talk about the interplay of meditation and writing by distributing little two-by-three inch pads with the black and white mosaic covers of old fashioned school books. They are to keep handy for jotting down ideas and phrases worth saving before they float off on the stream of consciousness. Writers are always trying to snag thoughts.  In meditating though, we observe them floating by. Each complements the other, both are grounded in the awareness of the body, sharpening the senses, paying attention. Both are cultivated habits.

This place and mood take me back to a rainsoaked week on a mountainside above the Slocan Valley in 1976.  I was crammed into a tipi with ten other people and an open fire for warmth in a Gestalt workshop led by another inspiring teacher, Bethal Phaigh, a disciple of Fritz Perls.  Richard Weaver, also his disciple, founded Cold Mountain Institute.

Ruth says that it’s crucial for writers to maintain a questioning attitude rather than looking for answers, just as it is for practitioners of meditation.  She reads part of a poem by her teacher, Norman Fischer, a Zen master and disciple of Suzuki Roshi. A few lines pop out for me:

Why are you and I both “me” to ourselves
Though we refer to different people?
How is it we don’t get mixed up about this
Or are we mixed up about it
But we don’t know we are
And if we don’t know are we?

I say, “That reminds me of something I once wrote for an English class on grammar”:

In the mirror
I see me.
How can the subject
Object be?

I feel like a kid in grade school hoping to please.

The session ends at 9:30. In my sleeping bag, by the light of a headlamp, I jot reminders of the day’s events into the little notebook.