Contracting

Recently I spent some blissful days by Crystal Lake in Michigan, thanks to a dear friend’s hospitality.

IMG_6894 (1)

This was the sunset that greeted me on arrival. Photo by Julie Stewart.

The reason for my trip was ostensibly research in nearby Traverse City’s 19th century mental institution. My original plan was to spend just a night or two in the haven of my friend’s company and then head out. (On the way home I wanted to tour a Michigan farm that specializes in teff, on assignment for Acres USA. And since the farm lies halfway between home and Crystal Lake, it made sense to find lodging midway.)

But it turned out that the teff farmers were unavailable during that time, so my grand plan fell through. And I’m so grateful.

I needed those restorative days and nights to rest, integrate, and incubate. After touring the asylum as planned, I turned to my project with a fresh eye. I wrote in stints between riding my friend’s bicycle, lying in the hammock, walking along the lakeside, floating in the crystalline water, and other general deliciousness.

In the mornings I sat at the end of the dock and faced into the wind. The wavelets on the lake and the constant breeze made it feel like I was on a boat, moving steadily forward.

I thought about how we can draw to us exactly what we need, even if it feels like we’re sitting still. If we’re aligned with what wants to be born, it’s less about effort than showing up and paying attention.

Driving home, I saw this truism played out again when an audiobook I was playing refused to work. I finally gave up and turned on the radio, just in time to find a program on NPR that spoke exactly to a dilemma I’d been working out in my story.

Now, this was in a semi-remote part of Michigan, where very few stations were coming through clearly. I marveled that I could hear this piece all the way through to the end as I drove along between the evergreens. The station faded just as the next story began and I came to a well-placed rest area.

When I got back in the car, I tried the audiobook again. You guessed it: This time it worked.

It struck me that this synchronicity was a symptom of alignment, proceeding straight from my placement at the end of that dock, where I had given myself the gift of sitting still.

I forget this all the time. Part of me still believes that I have to make things happen. I was taught to keep on pushing, no matter what. Never mind that time and time again—say in a client session or on a writing jag—I find a larger truth. The “I” that I so cherish steps aside for a bit and lets something bigger take over.

When I came back from Michigan, I longed to sequester myself with my writing. I took over the guest room with its sweet view of the garden out back.

IMG_20170801_134733794_HDR.jpg

I have been spending some time each day there immersed in my work, it’s true. But I still long for more. As the magic of my little Michigan expedition wore off, the usual obligations and distractions started to intrude. I have found myself overbooked and overstimulated.

Earlier this week I dreamt of coaching a pregnant woman through labor. When I woke, I realized that I am in the midst of a contraction. I have thought of “contraction” as a negative, as in “contracted state” opposite “expanded state”—but I understand now that I need to honor my need to contract. I see that turning inward is critical to the process of labor, which is really about so much more than active pushing. I need to allow a natural rhythm to flow.

And I need to pay attention, so I can be ready for those helpful tidbits that come my way as I appear to be sitting still.

In order to cultivate more quiet in my mind and spirit, I plan to sign off social media for the better part of August. This contraction requires that I evaluate every invitation and activity carefully before saying yes. I might not blog much. But I’ll be back.

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.

IMG_20170720_173116403

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.

IMG_3691 (767x1024)

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.