A Way With Words 2010

Hollyhock Journal 5

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

I wake up at 5:00 A.M. less achy than expected after yesterday’s paddle. No one is stirring this early though it’s already light–northern summer solstice time.  I investigate the hot tubs overlooking the water.  More reminders of Japan: elegant, spare design, immaculate condition, swimsuits not required.  After a soak in the sunrise, I enter Kiakum alone and sit on the cushions, comfortable with the new method. Later I walk back to the tent through the woods and carry yesterday’s wet clothes to the Laundromat and the camera to the lounge to dry it on the mantle.   The morning workshop session begins with Kate’s guided meditation, a “body scan” isolating parts of the anatomy and their sensations.  I like being back.

Ruth and Kate offer tips on how to start writing: draw upon memory, tap your juiciest material, mobilize unconscious energy.  As a warmup exercise we’re to set down two words without thinking, and for ten minutes write whatever they call to mind through the body.  “At School” pops into my mind–followed by the names and images of teachers from grade one through college attended to by an eager pupil from a seat near the front of the classroom

Miss O’ Shea
Mrs. Victor
Not Miss Lynch
Not Mrs. Holme
Not Miss Rasmussen
Miss Bernholz
Not Miss Barbagli
Miss Lyons
And again, Miss Lyons
Mr. McConnell
Dr. Bernhardt
Mr. Caraley
Professor Mazzeo
Professor Smith
Professor Marcus
Professor Dupee
Dr. Sidorski
Professor Randall

I raise my hand to read first.  I’m allowed to take chances here, even say things I might regret. I soak up some positive feedback and I make myself listen to the others’ work: a musical riff on the sound of the two words, an elegy for a lost mother,  a chance-generated list.

Next exercise is to write a memory of childhood recalled by one of these phrases:

a bedroom you slept in
something you broke
a special body of water
something you lost
something you used to wear

I broke the camera in a special body of water.  That will be a central incident of the journal entry I’ll start in on now. Fortuitous conjunctions, says Ruth, stimulate creativity. It wasnt during childhood, but she’s assured us that her rules are there to be broken.

Only a warm-up. Not enough time.  The next exercise starts with her reading part of a poem by Mary Pipher:

I am from Avis and Frank, Agnes and Fred, Glessie May and Mark.
From the Ozark Mountains and the high plains of eastern Colorado,
from mountain snowmelt and southern creeks with water moccasins.
I am from oatmeal eaters, gizzard eaters, haggis and raccoon eaters.
I am from craziness, darkness, sensuality, and humor.
From intense do-gooders struggling through ranch winters in the 1920’s…

We are to complete the same introductory phrase.  Another convergence.  Whenever I visit B.C., the places I go or remember chart nodes of my identity over time.

I am from the satanic Powell River Mill I see from the deck at Hollyhock, where I worked during 1972, next to the hospital in which my son was ripped from his mother’s womb.

I am from Sarah Point at the mouth of Desolation Sound, which we canoed around in heavy seas with our two young kids and prayed for deliverance in 1982.

I am from Lund, at the end of highway 101, which I drive on for 28 hours to get back to San Luis Obispo, where I met Ruth in 2007.

I am from the Slocan Valley, where I spent a week in a tipi during 1976 doing Gestalt therapy with Kahuna Bethal Phaigh.

I am from Knoll House, our family retreat, where I wrote Shakespeare and the Bible during 1997 and 1998, often looking out at Mace Point, which I now see at the center of the view from Hollyhock.

I am from New York City, the birthplace of fellow emigrants whose children live there now, and Ruth’s home away from Cortes Island…

We break an hour before lunch.  I sit at a picnic bench chainsawed out of large slabs under an apple tree inside the garden, furiously recording details of the kayak trip with my nicely flowing Pentel pen. I ignore the perfectly weeded lettuces, chard, peas, beans, and garlic patches arranged among flower beds in beautiful patterns, and I refrain from exploring the inviting paths that lead into the forest and along the beach.  I will not join the naturalist’s evening kayak excursion, or the trip to Mittlenatch Island or the gardener’s tour of the greenhouse.  Every minute here belongs to writing and meditation.

To begin the afternoon session Kate tells us to experience the interdependence of our selves and the universe by contemplating the four elements within and outside of the body: earth, water, fire and air.  She sends us out in the woods with instructions to walk very slowly, observing the elements there and our sensations of them. I wander off the trail into a swamp where I sit on a log. Twenty minutes later Ruth walks down the trail ringing a bell to summon us back. Once inside Kiakum, we record our impressions for 20 minutes and afterwards read them aloud.

Ruth tells us to spend the next ten minutes reworking one piece of something we’ve written so far.  I start to mold the four elements exercise into a poem, probing for a beginning, middle and end. I see a shape emerging, but there’s no more time. Another project budding?  How many can I handle at once?

Ruth talks about the role of writing in our lives: first process.  In reply to Carol’s lament about her boxes of journals that haven’t yet issued in any finished products, she says that writing’s a messy business, the journals are compost, necessary ingredients and forerunners of the creative projects that will grow from them.  Search through them for recurrent themes, find your central issues and start from there.

I’m reminded of my bewildering search for  a dissertation topic during graduate school. I canvassed all the papers I’d written and my journals and dreams to isolate the personal concerns I’d sought to explore in books. Finally I decided to research the link between longing for innocence that haunted my twenties and the literary theme of  pastoral retreat. It took thirteen years to finish the job, nine  living on the B.C. coast.

Ruth’s next discourse is on intention and commitment.  “If you want to write, you must create space in your life to do that, a regular time and a place, a schedule, even a ritual. Keep a process journal, set long, medium and short term goals, stop at a place that you know you will start again the next day, decide what you are willing to give up to fulfill your commitment, remind yourself that if you don’t pursue this path, on your deathbed you’ll regret it.”

I’ve relied on similar precepts to get me through rough spots in a project and to overcome the sense of failure I feel whenever I’m not writing.  But how different my present situation. I’ve already proved myself, citations of my published work and royalties keep dribbling in.  I’m retired from a short full career as a professor earned largely by writing, and I write regularly now on the weblog simply for personal satisfaction.

On the way out of Kiakum, I say to Ruth that this last subject is what I hope to talk about during our consult.  She says why not now, at dinner?  At the table, I sit with my back to the windows. I feel enveloped by her attention. It  surfaces an urge to confess. The story I’ve been telling myself since publication of Shakespeare and the Bible ten years ago is losing credibility.  Her challenge makes me fear that I simply lack the courage to set aside the time, put out the effort, and take the risks to go for it.

Ruth says one of her alternate careers was literary criticism.  Not surprising, I say, given the skill with which you interpreted that sonnet by Elizabeth Bishop to frame your essay on Death and Writing. Her aspiration, she continues, was to write about Shakespeare.  She’d like to read my book and also pass it on to her teacher Norman, who has  been lecturing on Hamlet and on the Bible. I admit that I’ve brought along a copy for her.

Now I’m pushed to further admissions: since 2000, I have started  and left unfinished three critical essays: one on The Winter’s Tale, another on the film Rivers and Tides, and a third on Ruth’s novel, All Over Creation related to Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, the book of Genesis and literary Darwinism.

She says she’s just emerged from a somewhat dormant period. Ten years since her last novel, she completed the first draft of her next one during a recent a six week retreat.  Such a retreat is what I’d need to produce anything for publication. Before her as witness I proclaim that I’ll schedule it as soon as possible after the coming November election. Until then I’ve committed to supporting Jan’s mayoral campaign.

I’m favored we’ve talked for an hour and a quarter.  She has another consult waiting and I want to get back to my projects.  I head upstairs to the library, where I continue the journal of yesterday’s kayak trip and fill yellow pages with drafts of the four elements exercise.

Hollyhock Journal 6

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Another early awakening next to the big cedar, a soak under a pink sunrise above the sea, a sitting in Kiakum. The pastoral of solitude: Marvell, Wordsworth, Thoreau.

Before breakfast I call Jan to hear news and report in.  She says, “you went for that workshop like an arrow to a target.”

The theme of the morning session is awakening the senses. Kate guides the group meditation.  “Move your attention now from posture and breathing to sound: sounds of the body, the room, the outdoors, the silence surrounding the outdoors, and then back step-by-step to the body.”  Then we write:

Breathing quiet after settling, throb of heartbeat in the temples, the room silent, distant woodpecker rattles outside, then speakers on inside my head: a buzz, like soft, high pitched crickets, steady current, ringing.  Spare me from tinnitus.

Kate says that the senses are the gates to awakening and being present; meditation is about awakening, being present.  We can train ourselves to extend that presence and awareness to the rest of the world.

Ruth says that the sense gates are the interpenetration of the self and the world.  Breathing involves taking in and putting out to the world; so does writing.  Open the sense gates; ground yourself. Move from meditation into writing; when you’re confused or tight while writing, move back into meditation.  Sound is essential to writing. Read what you write aloud to make sure it works. Sound bridges the gap between what I think I said and what I really said.

I’m stirred by the teacher’s presence, flickering between girl and wise woman.

The next exercise: let the memory of a sound be the trigger of what you write. Make a list of sounds, choose the most vivid, try to recall it, its beginning, middle and end, the effect on your heart rate. My list: chanting on acid in 1970, her cry, “So Strong,” Appleton Creek Waterfalls, chainsaw and falling tree. The writing:

He pulled the ripcord on the old Homelite. It sputtered and fizzled.  Once again, this time harder, still nothing.  “Flooded,” he said the to the child from the city who wanted to help with firewood.  He pushed back the choke and waited. Then he yanked again. Now the roar filled his ears with pleasure: the fury of a lion he held in submission with bare hands.

Not enough time to tell the rest of the story: his directing her to take the weight off a branch he was sawing from below, the bar lifting as the branch fell, the moving chain touching her soft forearm, the scar still there.

Ruth lectures now from a three-hole binder with typed notes for each session separated by dividers. “If you get bogged down or bored with where the writing is going, stage an intervention.  Say ‘What I really want to say is…’.”  Not my problem, I just want to get back to the writing.  She moves on to an explanation of synaesthesia, a way to make sensations sound fresher and reads us a poem by Donald Lawler, “With Amy, Listening to the forest.”  Very appropriate, but I’m thinking about how to convert my little four elements project into a sonnet.  Her talk is interrupted several times by the noise of a rat rapping in the wall.  I feel unsettled by the sense that she is struggling to stay in character, no longer priestess but vulnerable colleague.  This frees me from a thrall but heightens my empathy.  I recall the flush of fatherly love I experienced for her two novels’ pained protagonists.

The next exercise is to go back outdoors and this time write in situ. I’m relieved. My own immediate task is to plausibly describe the growing ends of cedar branches, the destination of water sucked up from roots in the ground. There’s a large boulder just outside Kiakum surrounded by saplings. I scramble up it and find what I’m looking for, “tough top tips.” I sit on the rock and start arranging the sentences on my yellow pad into quatrains, discarding material, redoing lines from the rhyme end backward.

The hours after lunch are unscheduled. I walk to the Sanctuary back behind the orchard.

hollyhocksanctuary.jpg

[picture credit]

From the outside it looks like an awkwardly designed set for a hobbit house, but the interior space feels sacred.  The thick walls are contoured white plaster, the window frames and beams irregular unmilled wood. The light descends from a transparent cupola at the top of a dome that’s both circular and tilted, creating two focal points–one at the center, the other at an altar extending from the perimeter wall, above which a small window opens on dense forest.  I’m here alone.  A dozen round pillows and mats are arranged in a circle on the carpeted stone floor.  I sit on one for half an hour. This is how it’s supposed to feel.

I walk back through the blooming orchard to the library in the lodge and grapple with the sonnet.  By three p.m. it’s finished, the couplet almost writing itself, and in the last minute, an epigram popping out of nowhere.  A voice inside says “These could be published!”  With beating heart, I walk downstairs and see Ruth in the dining room still in a consult with another workshop member. I imagine she must by now really need a break. Nevertheless I wait until she heads back to her quarters and thrust the yellow pad in her way.  She reads the poem and asks me for a copy to post on the workshop website she’s in the process of assembling.  Placing my arm around her shoulder, I declare “You’re my inspiration.” She makes her escape, and as I walk down the path to the shore, I’m stopped by the fragrance of wild roses.

I could paddle back to Lund now, I tell myself, trophies in hand.  As a reward, I’ll break my five-day computer fast.  In the basement of the lodge is an ugly cinderblock cubicle known as the Chat Room.  It’s equipped with a few older machines and high speed internet. When I enter, a woman on one of them asks for my help.  She can’t download a Word document that she tells me contains some divorce papers that she came here to try to get away from.  After I succeed she strokes my arm. I log in to my blog’s posting page and copy out the sonnet, but when I press “publish,” the machine crashes.

I arrive early in Kiakum for our workshop and find Ruth and Kate conferring about their presentation at the upcoming evening program that’s been advertised all over the island. The session begins with reading the products of our afternoon’s labors. The response to my sonnet is muted. The topic moves to publication strategies. Ruth says that blogging is easy to do and a good idea, and that these days self-publishing in hard copy with a company like Lulu or Trafford no longer has the stigma it used to.  She reads “Berryman,” a tribute to the suicidal alcoholic poet written by his healthy disciple W.S. Merwin.

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips …

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write.

After dinner, Kiakum fills with “Islanders,” the residents of Cortes. Some settled here when we did in Lund, during the late sixties and early seventies. Others are later immigrants of succeeding generations. A number are Hollyhock staff.  They seem like invaders to the space we’ve claimed for two days, but of course we are the outsiders and Ruth is more theirs than ours—a celebrity member of a remote community of artists, environmental activists, and back-to-the-landers, akin to the one I belong to peripherally over on the mainland.

Ruth appears energized by the crowd that packs the room. She and Kate are introduced by Dana along with the editor of the island’s arts and ecology magazine, Howl, who thanks her for contributing a poem headlined in the current issue. They explain the format of our workshop and lead everyone in a meditation. Dressed in her monk’s robe, Kate reads some of her own poems—reminiscences of an alienated childhood in New Jersey and elegies for a lost sister—and Ruth presents a section of her powerful essay on Writing and Death that I’d read twice before arriving.  The audience is invited to participate in a writing exercise of the kind that we’ve been doing, and most people seem deeply engaged, but I’m pleased that my appointed partner wants to talk about kayaking instead.

Walking Meditation: Earth, Water, Air, Fire

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

This flattened trail gives softly to my tread
As cedar trunks suck water from below
Two hundred feet high where new shoots are spread
And, pointing to the sun, tough top tips grow.

With winks of shade and light the slovenly bush
From off the beaten path calls me to turn
I stomp on brittle twigs and logs of mush
I stroke slow swaying fronds of unfurled fern.

Up and down the dance of feed and kill
To music of the robin, jay and gnat
Warble, squawk and buzz. Then all is still
Till shattered by woodpeckers’ rattatat.

Summoned to return, as from a dream
My offering left: a sparkling golden stream.

Intention

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

“You get what you pay for,”
My momma used to say.
But shopping for bargains
Was how she spent her day.