A Tale of Two Projects

A  few years ago I was working on a book that took me to the west coast and parts of the Midwest to talk to people in the community resilience movement. I wrote a book proposal and shopped it around and had some mild interest from literary agents. I received a grant for research travel, and I was selected a trio of writing residencies, and I wrote a bunch of words.

P and D sawing

A photo from one of my sojourns–a Bloomington homeschooling cooperative based around permaculture principles.

I still have those words. Some of them have turned up in posts here and other places. (People seem consistently most intrigued by the Mudgirls natural building collective.) But I have yet to use them in some final-final form of Thrivalists. Every agent who loved the topic ended up declining because of my “thin platform.” They didn’t believe that I would garner enough readership, in other words, to make me worth the risk.

I began to disbelieve it myself. I added that to a bone-deep doubt that anything I could do would ever be good enough or come together coherently enough to produce a book.

I shelved the project, and began to work on another, supposedly interim, nonfiction book. It was supposed to be a six-month jaunt into something different-but-related: I would write of my own healing journey, and how it connected to the buried ruins of a 19th century women’s mental institution (“Seven Steeples”) where I was volunteering at a modern-day farm.

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Last week I toured a Traverse City, MI asylum of roughly the same era as Seven Steeples.

Two and a half years later…

Yeah.

Still working on that one. And I received a grant this year to further the project, which feels great! but also kind of heavy and dubious, since the first grant did not (yet) result in publication.

Next month I will hand my manuscript to a professional for editing services, thanks to the Indiana Arts Commission’s generosity.

In the meantime (while still freelancing in the farm profile arena) I periodically send out pieces of each work-in-progress to see if anyone is interested in publishing them as essays. Nope nope nope. (Though I’ve had a few very nice rejection notes!)

Till this month. To meet a shorter word count and fit a theme of “Roots,” I reworked a segment of Thrivalists about the role of fungi in rootedness. I incorporated some newer, slightly woo-woo material (sort of a mashup of both projects), and sent it to Topology Magazine. They published The Gift of the Fungi, which is ostensibly about what I learned at the Radical Mycology Convergence, but is also about coming to embrace a wider sense of possibility.

I felt a curious lack of enthusiasm for the news that the site would publish it. The old “any club that would have me as a member” dilemma? A sense that I could have snagged a higher profile outlet, if I’d persisted? Some of each.

Plus a sense of : “I went to California, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Illinois and Ohio and all I got was this lousy T-shirt?”

The end product is supposed to be a book, not a little online article.

Well, then a writing buddy reminded me of something Charles Eisenstein asked in a podcast : Would you write even if you had only one reader, even if you knew that that reader might take your words and change the world… but you’d never get credit for it? He wrote a piece about how this type of loyalty test first arose for him. An excellent read if you have time.

Why do we do what we do? What is our ultimate goal? If it’s about fulfilling our purpose, taking our place in the Divine scheme of things, then words like “platform” and “readership” are less important than resonating our truth.

web eagle creek park

Spiderweb photo by Barbara Jablonski, taken at Eagle Creek Park

In the world we live in, money and fame are gods. What we have to offer doesn’t count unless it brings in income or gains huge exposure. Charles and my writing buddy and I refute that story, and I suspect we’re not alone in that.

Oh and by the way, some ideas are percolating about that old project as I hit the home stretch (?) of the new one. I haven’t seen the last of the inspiring Thrivalists that shared with me. I can tell because of the way my blood hums when I think of putting their stories in a wider frame.

Maybe I just needed to expand (not my platform but my being) before I could put the work out there. We’ll see.

Sing Light

At the International Women’s Writing Guild‘s annual conference, I was drawn to a spiritual warriorship workshop. Here I found women both tender and fierce. From various spiritual backgrounds, we all were seeking to keep our hearts open in the face of the world’s pain. We meditated together, read, wrote and shed tears together.

One day the reading was Wendell Berry’s haunting  Work Song Part 2: A Vision, which speaks of “a long time after we are dead” when “memory will grow into legend, legend into song, song into sacrament.” The future, and what it might look like, if we are wise.

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Our writing prompt was : What I want to sing into this world is…

Here’s what came from that free write. (Read Wendell’s marvelous poem first!)

What I want to sing into this world is…
That we must breathe our despair and eat our fear. Then allow the alchemy of respiration, digestion, and elimination to work on our pain and terror until a new thing emerges on this earth. I want to sing a song of light—and yet allow darkness to be felt and seen. (Without awareness of what is hard and mean and forced, we forget the impoverished place that births our better future.) Sing light that doesn’t fear the dark but turns toward it, welcoming the whole story of our unfolding humanity. Find a way to rock the darkness like a neglected child, to give it the kind of love it’s never known.

 

And you: What do you want to sing into this world?

Hiatus!

Time to make official what’s been in the works for a few weeks months now. I’m putting the blog on hiatus for at least the first quarter of 2016. It’s time to retool everything on my to-do list to align better with my current focus (or foci?).

In a nutshell: My work is moving more into the healing arts arena, while I continue to write nonfiction. In both of these areas, I’m part of an ever-growing “Team,” as author Martha Beck calls it—working to bring about a new Story of Connection.

Photo by Michael Lokner, via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Michael Lokner, via Flickr Creative Commons

I see energy work as a way to raise our collective vibration, which we need to do—at least if we’re going to birth a  new and resilient future. So I’m getting certified in ThetaHealing, one of the energy techniques I practice.

Here is a workshop series I’m bringing to Indy in February. If you’re interested in joining me, which would be lovely, you can sign up at instructor Jean Shinners’ website.ThetaHealing Flier

I have a series of smaller workshops planned for the coming months in Indianapolis. The first one, Empath 101, will cover how manage being “so dang empathic,” as one of my empath friends puts it.

If you’d like to have a heads-up on these opportunities, or to learn more about my work, please sign up for my (revamped) e-newsletter.

To Radiate

Sometimes it feels like so many words are written and said, so much bandwidth devoted to opinions and theories and arguments, that adding more verbiage to the hubbub is a worthless activity.

The word “radiate” came to me this morning. As a writer, I’m prone to writing, of course, but sometimes it seems more important to just…radiate.

Consider the migrant crisis. It hurts to look at it. I don’t know what to do. I feel guilty for the comparative triviality of my day-to-day concerns. In the wee hours, at my worst, I sometimes wonder if it’s shameful to feel happy and carefree when so many are suffering. I sometimes feel ashamed of the worries that plague me, because my life is as easy and free as anyone could imagine.

When this happens, as soon I remember to, at 3 or 4am, I take up a spiritual practice based on a Hawaiian system for healing. It involves holding suffering people in my heart while mentally repeating the phrases: “I take full responsibility. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.” I learned about this process first from my friend and mentor Dawn Ryan, then from a book called Zero Limits, by Joe Vitale

The idea is to take responsibility for everything in our lives, because everyone is connected. Some say “I’m sorry” instead of the first phrase, but I prefer “I take full responsibility,” and it’s how Dawn originally taught me.

This mantra gives me somewhere to channel my concern, at the very least. At the most, it clears the way for new insights and promptings to action. Or perhaps just for a few more hours’ sleep, which puts me in a clearer space to do my work in the world. (Which I so question in those dark hours, wondering about its value.)

Saying these words and sending light? It’s not nothing. Though it’s impossible to quantify, I suspect that the shift from guilt/shame to love/light has a real impact, and not just on me. IMG_20150717_110506238In any case, these last few days, riding my bike or walking my dog in the sunshine, I can’t hold back a sense of exhilaration, pure happiness. I don’t want to. A friend told me that my happiness lifts her when she’s hit a rough spot in her own life.

So here’s to radiating.

Living Proof

Yesterday at Rivoli Park Labyrinth, I met up with a riotous party of plants, insects, and birds.

The park, which formed on a vacant lot thanks to community organizer Lisa Boyles, has gotten overgrown this rainy summer—but it is also a haven for life.

"Queen Anne’s Lace provides beneficial nectar to insects during this dry part of the summer when they don’t have many options. Caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves, bees and other insects drink the nectar, and predatory insects, such as the Green Lacewing, come to Queen Anne’s Lace to attack prey, such as aphids" according to Chiot's Run. (Click photo for more.)

“Queen Anne’s Lace provides beneficial nectar to insects… Caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves… and predatory insects come to Queen Anne’s Lace to attack prey,” according to Chiot’s Run. (Click photo for more.)

Some plants we call weeds and others we call ornamentals. Some we consider natives, wildflowers, edibles, or another elevated status. Some we designate as invasive, others as desirable.

What I realized yesterday: These divisions are more important to humans than the rest of nature, which seeks its own balance.

The plants called “weeds” are the ones we pull out. Still, the grasshoppers, bees, and spiders find food and shelter on plants of all stripes. They are the epitome of nonjudgment, our guides in an insectile anti-labeling initiative.

Friendly pollinator

Friendly pollinator

So often I am quick to judge something good or bad.

Just now I went to strike that sentence, gauging it too trite! As testament to my new commitment to allowing things to be messy and imperfect, I am leaving it there.

Lisa and I talked about this very thing: In my writing, I declared my intent to finish my book while letting go of the need for it to be “perfect, balanced, and comprehensive.” Lisa swept her arm toward the “weedy” labyrinth and said, “Here’s living proof that a project doesn’t have to be perfect—just look at it!”

What I saw: voluptuous plants abuzz with happy pollinators. Abundant living entities in ongoing conversation, all encircling the glorious hibiscus at the center. The idea of perfection doesn’t really apply when we’re partnering with life, does it? So it can be with writing.

I told Lisa that the labyrinth didn’t have to reach some ideal in order to be a marvelous contribution to the community. Uh, hello. Maybe I should write that down and stick it on my computer monitor.

Repeat after me: We don’t have to reach some ideal in order to be a marvelous contribution!

Transition and Transformation

Every writer should have a worm colony to eat her spent words. Especially if she’s grieving the loss of her beloved dog.

His name was Marley. We named him after the great Bob Marley. This was before "Marley and Me."

His name was Marley. We named him after the great Bob Marley. (This was before “Marley and Me.”)

I feed my drafts to the shredder when they’ve served their purpose. The shredder cross-cuts everything into bits the width of a highlighter’s stroke, the length of the tiniest paperclip. When the receptacle is full, I shower this ticker tape parade over one of four worm farms I’ve got going right now.

Worm pit after ticker tape parade

Worm pit after ticker tape parade, with rainwater.

Are they actually eating my words or are they just nesting there, my happy, scrappy red wigglers, snug in moist paper and a bit of soil and leaves? With rotting vegetable parings for their buffet.

I wrote once long ago, or stole the idea, of everything in a writer’s life becoming compost. “It’s all material,” an early writing teacher told me. Now even my stilted phrases and test drafts and failed pieces have become compost.

I’m feeding the worms that in turn offer their pooped-out product to nourish my soil—soil in which we grow the food that feeds the writer who makes the words that shelter the worms. A closed loop.

Also in the worm bins? Junk mail, that clutters my desk until I go on a shredding rampage. Cardboard toilet paper rolls chopped into bits. Tea leaves from my tea ball. Shed leaves from houseplants. Newspapers. Anything else I can think of: Q tips, napkins, toothpicks, and other rarely used ephemera.

Also: Mats cut from the cat’s britches, tangled there over weeks of neglect while I worried over her brother, the dog. Tissues loaded with my snot and tears, from meltdowns over that same dog’s decline.

Moistened with rainwater, it all melts together into the special kind of slop that worms (I’m told) adore—sweetened with handfuls of veggie scraps and stale crackers and the like.

Worms at work

Worms at work

The dog died; the worms and time work together to turn something lost into something gained.

Sweet dreams, friend.

Sweet dreams, friend.

And Now for Something Completely Different

I don’t very often blog about my personal writing project(s), but the terrific nature writer Katherine Hauswirth nominated me for a “blog hop” (writers sharing about their work). So, bear with me as I answer a few questions…

What is the working title of your book (or story)?
Thrivalists: Reimagining the World in an Age of Crisis is the working title of the nonfiction book I’m currently “shopping.” It’s in research/pitching phase, and in the meantime I’ve started work on another project, as yet untitled. Also, some of my articles and essays are linked here.

Where did the idea come from for these books?
Thrivalists came about when I realized how little media attention goes to the people who are pulling together to make a major shift on our planet. I’m so inspired by the community resilience movement and all its permutations. My goal with the book is to shine a light on folks working toward greater ecological/economic/social balance. (Secondary goal and total bonus: to get to rub elbows with fun people and learn all kinds of mad skillz.)

A sister volunteer/learner at an Olympia Mycelial Network project in Washington State

A sister volunteer/learner at an Olympia Mycelial Network project in Washington State

The second project is a work of creative nonfiction exploring my 15-year recovery from fibromyalgia, culminating in emergence of my own healing abilities. Part of my inspiration came from Seven Steeples Farm, where I’m helping to grow produce right where an 1880s-era women’s mental institution once stood.

What genre do your books fall under?
Creative nonfiction, tending toward memoir on the new project. Thrivalists is closer to immersion journalism, still with an element of memoir, and the book would be shelved under Green Living/Activism.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’m thinking Julianne Moore could play this Mudgirl, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten on that question!

Rose (inside wall) facilitates a Mudgirls workshop.

Rose (inside wall) facilitates a Mudgirls workshop.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Oof. Can I buy a sentence?

During a season of tending crops at Seven Steeples Farm, where the tomatoes and peas grow from ground that once held a 19th century mental institution for women, Shawndra Miller explores the turn in her own life from a 15-year bout with a debilitating mind/body ailment. While working the land she reflects on a wider societal transformation embodied by Seven Steeples, where something new is growing on the shell of the old.

Will your book(s) be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m open at this point. My book proposal for Thrivalists has been making the rounds of agents and small presses. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the process of discovery on the new project, while continuing to explore and highlight the community resilience movement.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The original Thrivalists book proposal, with a couple sample chapters, took about six months, but I keep adding to it as I travel and research, so it’s a moving target. The new one is still very young.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Thrivalists is a bit like Omnivore’s Dilemma in the way that the author’s process of research and discovery pulls the reader along. In subject matter, it’s close to Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze.

It’s hard to say on the new project since it needs more time to bake, but it might be compared to When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’m inspired by Charles Eisenstein’s work, in particular The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Without a massive consciousness shift, no amount of environmental activism or social change work will alter the bottom line of a culture built on dominance, control, and fear. That’s part of what I want to explore in the new project.

Thanks to Katherine Hauswirth for tagging me with this assignment! I nominate Julie Stewart, writer-and-farmer-in-residence at Urban Plot, to do the next blog hop.

“What the World Needs”

I can always tell when I’m overloaded with the news; that’s when I start to despair. So much mess to clean up. It seems ridiculously tangled-up and tiresome, painful to look at.

In my own state we are attempting to disentangle from newly passed legislation designed to show my GLBT brothers and sisters that we are not welcome. Elsewhere, of course, there’s worse news. In Kenya suicide bombers caused untold anguish. In California the drought is now so severe that the governor mandated water restrictions. Then there’s the German pilot who decided to fly a planeful of people into the side of a mountain. For what?

Time to turn off NPR. When I get overwhelmed, this timeless advice from theologian Howard Thurman is a comfort:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

By psyberartist (amaryllis  Uploaded by russavia) via Wikimedia Commons

By psyberartist (amaryllis Uploaded by russavia) via Wikimedia Commons

Definitely the needs of the world are bottomless, and the conflicts seem never-ending. So this question is a good barometer, an antidote to paralysis: What renews my heart? For me it is things like making meaning, being of service in small ways, reflecting, putting some hard-won learnings to use for others.

Sometimes, though, all that seems ever so small, and the question becomes: How do we renew ourselves, in this season of renewal, to continue with our chosen work?

Then a member of my extended family gives me a tremendous gift. She tells me that she regularly shares my reflections with her four teenagers. Some years back when I coauthored a book called Sudden Spirit: A Book of Holy Moments, she started the tradition of reading aloud from this work and discussing it with her children. Now that the kids are older, she’ll print thought-provoking blog posts and passages (mine among them) and ask them to initial when they’ve read them.

You can bet I was touched when I heard that! (And maybe she had told me before but I forgot; sometimes it’s hard for me to receive stuff like this.)

Knowing this totally refuels me. Because so much of what I do is basically invisible, it’s hard to know what kind of impact I’m having. But apparently, my little musings are helping the next generation of leaders.

Note to self: Remember to tell people I appreciate their work! (I think I’ll start with Roy Ballard and Michael Morrow, the men behind Hoosier Harvest Market. This online virtual farmers market brings me lovely salad greens, eggs, quail eggs, apples and so on—all locally grown and delivered to order to a business near my home.)

Because maybe it’s less a matter of renewing ourselves than renewing each other. Maybe then we can remember what exactly it is that makes us come alive, and have the courage to pursue it. Who in your life could use some of that fuel?

Wild Geese Wisdom

From Wendell Berry’s poem “The Wild Geese” comes this steadying stanza:

…And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

I found his poem in a new essay collection called Sustainable Happiness, edited by the staff of Yes! Magazine. It reminded me of my introduction to the poet Mary Oliver, whose poem “Wild Geese” begins:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves…

This was my first Mary Oliver experience years ago: having this poem recited just for me by my Rolfer while he worked the fascia of my feet to smithereens. (Rolfing is a super-intense type of bodywork that pairs well with poetry.)

I give you the lovely Mary Oliver, reading her poem.

How I Spent my Summer Vacation

After traveling for nearly a month, this homebody is glad to be back to my little haven of domesticity. This time I visited Washington State with a side trip to British Columbia.

If you follow the blog, you know a little bit about my adventures, but here are some more highlights.

In Bellingham I learned about Sustainable Connections’ Think Local First campaign. This ingenious program rewards local businesses for earth-friendly business practices by raising their profile in the community.

We decided to experience this local biz thing for ourselves.

Checking out goat cheese options (that's our old friend Laurie in the foreground.)

Checking out goat cheese options at the Bellingham Farmers Market (that’s our old friend Laurie in the foreground.)

Craft beer, ice cream made from local berries, a killer bookstore, and a festive Saturday farmers market showed us a bit of the region’s specialties.

Biggest raspberry evah

Biggest raspberry evah

From Bellingham we ventured north to Denman Island in British Columbia for the Mudgirls workshop.

My new friend Millie, tamping slip straw at the Mudgirls workshop.

My new friend Millie, tamping slip straw at the Mudgirls workshop.

Then it was back to the U.S. for a two-week writing residency at Hypatia-in-the-Woods in Shelton, WA. This experience was a bit different from previous residencies which I shared with other artist types: I was the sole resident of a lovely cottage nested deep in the cedar forest.

The labyrinth on the grounds, a magical place

The labyrinth on the grounds, a magical place to commune with deer, birds, trees, and insects

The solitude gave me lots of focused time to write. I also learned how much I value having someone within hollering distance, as I had a few challenging moments in the intense isolation. I was thankful for the board, who kindly made sure I had some conviviality to balance out the quiet.

Other people's dogs, such as the director's Sheltie, Ceela, helped me deal with the lonesomeness of not having my dog with me.

Other people’s dogs, such as the director’s Sheltie, Ceela, helped me deal with the lonesomeness of not having my dog with me.

A high point: connecting with Olympia Mycelial Network, a group I’ve admired from afar. I helped them with an installation of bioluminescent mushroom mycelium, which was a thrill.

We gathered by the cob oven on the Commons at Fertile Ground. After a quick tutorial, we created a path from wood chips inoculated with panellis (bitter oyster) mycelium. The hope is that this path will glow in the dark as the mycelium gets established.

Peter McCoy, who blogged here about starting the Radical Mycology project, walked us newbies through the process for growing mycelium.

Peter showing me grain spawn and mycelium sugar that he propagated at home. Now I want to try it!

Peter showing me grain spawn and mycelium sugar that he propagated at home. Now I want to try it!

After that inspiring evening, I had to visit Olympia Food Coop, where the group earlier helped install mycelium that consumes petrochemicals.

I feel so lucky to have had the chance to learn from such innovative people and projects. I’m glad to be back to my laundry-hanging, solar-cooking, dog-walking routine though. I have several fun writing assignments coming up that I’ll tell you about later.

Note: Speaking of solar cooking: We’re offering a workshop this Sunday from 2-3pm at Pogue’s Run Grocer on that very topic. RSVP here if you can make it!