Hollyhock Journal 6

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.


[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.

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