“Set Your Heavy Heart Aside”

IMG_0301 It used to be on my birthday I’d take a daylong ride on my bicycle—70, 100 miles. For the last several years that’s not been possible—my body and my bike are on the outs. My feet and nature are on the ins!

Yesterday though my heart was heavy, weighing my body down, I went for a long walk. I took a new course along the trails of Jacks Peak from which to begin navigating a new year. The twin sadnesses I walked with were the murder of Maddy, the little Santa Cruz girl and the death of my old father. All day his was the phone call I waited for that didn’t come. IMG_0313What did come was a fallen flicker feather on the path right in front of me. Such a find is always fortuitous. There was further proof the bears really are wandering Jacks Peak—very fresh scat that made me cautious. Of course, people walk in lots of places where the cinnamon brown bears do and likely they aren’t afraid, but here this is new. Part of what had my hackles up wasn’t only the confirmed presence of the bears but what their arrival in the park makes all to clear—that they are thirsty. Mostly though, I felt honored to walk where they’d walked only a few hours before.

Later in the six-mile walk a noise in the brush got my attention: an antlered buck stepped onto the trail and I don’t he think even noticed me. To walk in the presence of these animals calmed my heavy heart.

What also came were many, many birthday wishes! They lifted me and reminded me of my self and of my purpose and of joy, unrelenting, coursing joy. IMG_0311

As did the words from three friends:

Julie, who was such an important teacher when I was young, who helped me set the path of my life, wrote: “Celebrating life is one of the strongest ways we can face death.”

From Helen, with whom I traveled many happy miles via bicycle, offered: “According to the Talmud when we die we will be accountable for all the joys we missed in life.”

And, lastly, from my walking friend Margaret: “Set aside your heavy heart for a few hours on this special day and enjoy the gift of life you’ve been given.”

How healing and how right. Michael walked in the door at the end of the day, his arms full of flowers—two-dozen reddest roses. He scooped me up and took me to dinner. We toasted life and love, clinking our glasses.

Honoring the Flowers

IMG_0255Chris of Valencia Creek Farms honors hydrangeas. She told me so at her Friday farmers market stand where she, a small woman, was nearly dwarfed by the buckets full of the very large, mostly deep pink globe-like flowers: hydrangeas. It had never occurred to me to honor a flower or a bunch of flowers or a field of flowers. Flowers the size of balls that children happily bounce across schoolyards. Flowers that if you feel downcast do their best to change that. A tender shade of pink my Italian grandmother would have worn.

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Chris’s honoring of the hydrangeas she grows made me think about the idea of honoring, the experience of doing so. What do I honor? Poetry and love. Fairness and justice. Kindness and memory. The imagination. Art in all its forms. The natural world. Museums and libraries. Friendship and peace. Solitude and silence. Relationships between animals and humans. Personal histories and the telling of stories. And now, thanks to Chris, her flowers and the two bunches I brought home to arrange in a tall vase as she instructed me to, “by stacking them,” I honor hydrangeas. And you?

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Writing to Discover

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Out in the woods the other day, what did I come upon? Bear scat. I was completely surprised, thought I knew what I was seeing, got down on the ground for a closer look. Yes, bear shit, I was sure. That was last Thursday. That was on the east side of Jacks Peak Park, not so very far from where I once saw bear a few hills away, but far enough. This morning on the west side of the park, more bear scat. Wait A Minute. There are no bears here. There are no bears in this park. Bears in Big Sur, maybe. The occasional lost bear who walks into a bar, maybe. But not here in so many years might as well not ever been here.

IMG_0051This is what writing is. That kind of surprise. You walk into your story or your poem armed with only a pen and a piece of clean paper, and you can’t know what you’re going to find. You might find a bear. Write to discover and not to prove what you already know. I wrote a whole book that way and found I knew more than I ever could have dreamed I did.

E. L. Doctorow said, “Write in order to find out what you’re writing.” And walk in order to find out who else walks where you do.

Those Invisible, Hidden, Important Truths

IMG_0068There’s a circle of women, heads bent down to their journals, pens in hand. Each writer is navigating her own way of living an examined life and finding the words with which to gain understanding, to make something tangible and, maybe, beautiful of her days. Sitting down, out of the bustle of the day, she can discover the stories and poems located in the mix between experience and memory, mind and heart, imagination and language, and longing, oh, yes, longing. Where is the story I am living? Ah, yes, here it is, in this word and that brought together for the first time, here. Now.

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How does what happened ten years ago connect to that which occurred just yesterday? What of the boy she can’t forget? What of the way those trees brushed against that window in that tiny cabin? The day gone but not gone. Our pens release their ribbons of ink in the notebooks we hold on our laps.

This particular group is comprised of women who are in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and one woman who will turn 80 next week. One writer has long hair and bangs that touch her eyebrows. Another has a laugh that’s chest deep and rumbles. One writer’s face is brown; the woman on the couch is fair. This writer rents her mountaintop home; another owns the house she lived in with her husband for many years and lives there still though he has died.

Here’s what never stops startling me; time and time again, through all the years I’ve offered writing workshops: the hidden, invisible, important truths that the paper will accept when we write them down. One person tells of her child who died at the age of three, recalling the smallest things about her toddler-hood, how 40 years ago, she ran so fast on such chubby legs. The daughter may be gone, but not really, she lives in a writer’s memory and story. Another writer’s voice breaks at the mention of her son who’s lived through 4 deployments to the Middle East. Someone writes of alcoholism. IMG_3906

Within all of us, there are stories of the difficulties we’ve had to work through, the sorrows we live with. How little the face may convey and how much the stories will. Then, once told, once the paper holds our truths, they live more lightly in us, making the ways of our lives a bit easier, a bit less weighted, more room for magic and beauty to get in.

Dedicated To That Mountain

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Linda, a young woman with a serious expression, a strong and pretty face, the single mother of an eight-year-old son, the sole caregiver for her ill father, told me with emphasis, “I was dedicated to that mountain.”

What mountain? Not the one pictured here, but another in, more or less the same direction, Monterey County vertical hunk of nature, Soberanes Canyon – Rocky Ridge at Garrapata State Park. I’ve walked it a number of times. If you begin hiking along the canyon it’s easy to get lulled by the ease and beauty—ferns fronds over 5’ tall, shade-making, tunnel forming redwood trees, a burbling creek at some times of the year. The uphill comes suddenly and unsparingly, at which point the walker is bare to the sun. It’s a circle walk so one could begin the walk instead by making an immediate left before the canyon, tackling the climb right away. Either way the 4-plus mile long walk is long and difficult and sweaty, no matter the weather.

When Linda told me that was the mountain she was depressed she would walk that trail alone, not once, but twice weekly—Sundays and Wednesdays. “It helped me with how I was feeling,” she said, repeating, “I was dedicated to that mountain. I ought to get out there again.”

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The Shape Of It

IMG_0178In Step into Nature I consider the imagination’s shape, I mean if it had one. Does yours? If your imagination had an actual, physical form, what would it be? Sand-grain small or world’s tallest redwood tree tall? Is it heavy to lift, requiring several sumo wrestlers to carry it home to you? Might it be a spiral surprise found on the ground?

Or flicker feather light? Where do you carry it—in a tight back pocket, in a room of your heart, or balanced on the top of your heart?

What of your imagination’s color? Zinnia red, perhaps? Wisp of cloud white?

Is it entirely silent or does it make sound—that of mockingbird, that of rushing wind, the sound of bricks falling down? When your imagination calls to you how do you respond? Do you put your hands to your ears and say, “No, no, no” or do you drop your silverware and let your napkin slip to the floor, running quick as you can? IMG_4170No better thing to do today than follow the call that whispers only your name.

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The Call to Make and Compulsion to Create

IMG_0167 When I was little, more often than not I had at least one crayon in hand, and beside me there was a box of crayons and a piece of paper, a stack of paper, and maybe a coloring book. In the chaos of my home, putting color and making shapes on paper was comforting. My home was hardly only chaotic though, it was also a fun place, a good food place, a loving place, and my desire to make came out of those experiences as well.

Now, a thousand years later, my compulsion to create is even greater than it was then. Once I met my husband and gained a new level of security in my daily life, the impulse to make increased and so did a faith, a trust, a confidence in my creative work. It’s remained pretty damn steady since then. If there is a greater joy, I’ve not encountered it, but nor am I looking because this joy, the joy of saying what’s unknown but calling to be said, to make what is unmade but calling to be given form, is enormous.

My new book, Step into Nature is, more or less, on its own now, out in the world doing its work. When I hear from people that they’re enjoying it I feel something like a flower opening inside me.

Once, long before my recent book deal, when frustrated about a lack of reception for my writing and crying on a friend’s shoulder, he asked why the writing itself wasn’t fulfillment enough. But it’s not. That’s just the first part. If some of the words or some of the images don’t reach some ready ears and eyes, it’s like shouting down a dank and empty tunnel. What the walls give back isn’t sufficient.

IMG_3713Recently, my paper and fabric collages were shown at the lovely Big Sur gallery, Studio One. Quite a few pieces sold! But hardly all of it. Oh, the time I spent cutting and stitching and gluing to get ready. (Alas, enough to injure my arm.) Now the unsold work is back in my small house with no walls on which to display it, and besides, I didn’t make it just for me, I made it for other people and their walls.

There’s the rub, and this isn’t about ego, it’s about relationship, it’s about authentic commerce, it’s about having a valued place in the world. Would I make art and write if nobody wanted any of it, not my blog readers or my book and article readers, not those who purchased the collages from Studio One? You betcha. I would, indeed, because of the unfiltered, abundant joy that comes from the wonder of conceiving and the furrowed brow of mulling and the difficulty of composing and the fear of being unable to and the thrill of being able to and the delight of making what which never was before, the touching into deepest places, the making of connections, and all the rest that making art is about for me.

Yet I come back to that question of who are we makers and what’s the totality of the why that we make, that we are driven to make. My conclusion today is no conclusion at all, just another question thrown into the air like so much confetti.

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Cathedrals in the World and the Inner Hive

Church P. TownsendTrees P. TownsendWriter and world observer, Peggy Townsend took these two photos. Nature is our greatest teacher; we don’t have to wonder which came first. The other day I walked the way the padres used to go between one church and another—along wooded trails, on and across streets—from Monterey to the Carmel Mission. Arriving at the church I had no inclination to go inside, despite having been raised Catholic and being grateful for that religion’s orienting me in realms of both the spiritual and the imagination. My church is amongst the trees; my religion is nature and imagination.

In a human made cathedral the chancel is the space around the altar that’s only for the clergy and other church officials. Unless on private property and, frankly, even then, each of nature’s sanctuaries is for all who enter; we are forbidden only by fear, poison oak, thickets too dense to enter, wild animals, and other natural occurring elements. But nothing keeps the nimble, daring imagination out.

I like how wide places narrow down leading to a center point, sometimes still, other times whirring with activity—the heart of the bees’ hive, the moment before two magnets touch, the core of grief, iris of the eye.

Two poets: American James Wright wrote about “…dancing in the cathedral of the wind…” and Polish Czeslaw Milosz wrote about the “…cathedral of my enchantment…” There the dervish whirls, his skirts spin, caught by centrifugal force like an enormous top.

Peggy Townsend’s photographs stop me, whatever I was doing, they stop and return me to my own inner hive, the calm place at its very center.