Hollyhock Journal 5

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.

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