Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sweets for the Sweets

Well, it's been a while, sorry about that. I was immersed in a copy-editing job for a university report, which meant I was swimming in a world ruled by passive voice. This voice is hypnotic and deceptive; it lulls you into believing that things happen on their own accord, with no one taking responsibility, or credit, for anything.

In this world, things just are. They are reviewed, formed, analyzed,
shifted, reorganized, studied—with no human hand intervening. I spent hours upon hours resurrecting lost verbs, animating committees, revving up an entire university on paper. I asked a lot of questions in red, most predominantly: "What do you mean by this?"

I sent off the last chapter Saturday morning. Phew. But that passive voice still drones in my ears, and I'll need to do some serious exorcizing in the next few days, to hear my own voice calling faintly, like an avalanche survivor hoping to be rescued.

In the meantime, here's a lovely recipe for Sweet Potato Salad with Chili and Lime; I made it for 4th of July, and the rhythm of peeling sweet potatoes, chopping them into uniform chunks, squeezing lime after lime, soothed me after all those hours on the computer.

It was even better the next day, with a can of black beans added to the mix! Next time, I'll leave out the red pepper and bump up the lime and salt a bit.

Sweet Potato Salad with Chili-Lime Dressing
Epicurious | March 1999
Lauren Chattman
Just Add Water
Yield: Makes 6 servings
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 medium-size red bell pepper, seeded and diced.
4 scallions, white and light green parts, finely chopped

Place the sweet potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until just tender, 7 to 10 minutes (don't overcook or your salad will be mushy and falling apart.) Drain and transfer to a large bowl.

While the potatoes are cooking, make the dressing. Whisk together the olive oil, lime juice, chili powder, cumin, cilantro, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Add the red bell pepper and scallions to the potatoes and toss with the dressing. Season again with salt and pepper. Serve warm or refrigerate and bring to room temperature before serving.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Happy Summer!

This morning, the dog, cat, and I all woke early to a room flooded with light. We looked at each other. I said, "I hope it's not 5 a.m." I turned to look at the clock. It was 5 a.m. Abbe got up and shook herself, jumped off the bed, and nosed open the door.

It's the longest day of the year today, so I thought, why not?, and followed her lead. I got up to experience this day from beginning to end. I ate my breakfast, then sat on my front porch to read.

My front porch faces east. It also faces the street where children go by on their way to school. Two teenagers floated by on their skateboards. They must have been about 14, with the lanky bodies of boys free from their parents, their houses, in that blessed in-between time from home to school. They kicked and glided their way past my driveway, not noticing me at all. They called to an unseen friend in the distance: "Hey, who is that? Who are you?" Who are you, indeed.

I walked with Abbe to meet a good friend for Second breakfast (I would make a very good hobbit), where we sat outside in the still-early sun. Then Abbe and I walked home. I read some more on the porch, wrote a letter recommending a colleague for tenure and promotion. I sent out one of my own essays. I ate lunch. I went shopping for a new sofa, then took Abbe for a walk in Hovander park.

Then I went to Yin Yoga, where my favorite teacher Michal was back from maternity leave. I actually fell asleep while doing sun salutation because we did it so slowly (a first!) Came home, ate dinner, read the paper, and it's STILL Daylight.

In my email, there was this message from the site Everyday Creative:
"Summer Solstice was thought to be a magical time when evil spirits would disappear."

So I'm not a big proponent of "evil" anything, but if we were to replace "evil spirits" with "inner problem-child spirits", and...

... if you believed that today could result in just ONE of your inner problem-child spirits disappearing, even if for just an experimental leave of absence, which one would you exorcise in the magic of the Solstice?

 What if we all picked one tantrumy spirit child, and practiced acting as if he/she was away at summer camp.

I have this Judgmental/Critical set of problem-child twins who are going to a camp far, far away.

I thought about it. And I decided I would send my work-aholic, always-needing-approval child to Club Med!

Where would you send your problem child?

It's been a LONG day, and a happy one (problem children and all). Wishing you a happy summer solstice evening, and a fruitful summer ahead.

P.S.: Drew Myron, over at Off The Page, has an interview up today with me and Holly Hughes about The Pen and the Bell. You can check it out here (and see a goofy picture of us).

Monday, June 4, 2012

Somber Heart

Photo: Todd Doherty
Well, I won't lie: it's been a tough week. Not just for me, but for all of us in the English Department at WWU.

We received word last week that our future colleague, Genevieve Critel, died in her sleep last weekend. She was only 32 years old. We had hired her for a tenure-track position in Writing Studies, and she was our unanimous first choice (something that NEVER happens!) We were all so happy when she chose us, and she was so happy we had chosen her. We didn't really know Gen, but we felt her so strongly as already a part of our community. Her death left us breathless.

Then a former colleague's husband, also fairly young, died a few days later of cancer. And then over the weekend, the entire WWU community heard of the death of a student--a young man, an English major--by suicide.

In the midst of all this, a gunman kills five people in a cafe in Seattle.

What does one do in the face of this suffering?

I found myself burrowing deep inside, and yet at the same time, hungry for connection. Wanting just to touch people, see their faces, pat their heads to remind me they're still here. And yet I wanted to be very alone. To breathe. To sit with the knowledge that all our clocks are ticking down.

The origin of the word somber means "to cast a shadow." Somber is not a word I have occasion to use very often, but it's the word that kept ringing in my head all weekend. Somber. Like a gong. The reverberations shook me. I felt shadowed.

Then, yesterday, I started coming out of it. I could feel it, literally, in my body: a lightening. I'd like to think it's because I wrote most of the weekend. Or because I gave a reading as part of a benefit concert where I heard all kinds of women singing their hearts out. Because I understood, then, art as a deep kind of solace.

But it might not have been any of those things. It might have been just the natural progression of grief.

Sorry for the morose letter to you today. But where else can I be my authentic self than here, with you? Dear reader, what do you do when faced with emotions you can't really name? How do you live within them?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Such a Deal!

Just for today, Skinner House Books/UUA is offering 20% off The Pen and the Bell. Here's the skinny:
Today's daily deal at the UUA Bookstore - take 20% off the brand new "The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World" when you enter "write12" in the discount code box at checkout! Hurry - this offer is only valid today!
Since Amazon is being slow in getting the books (they say they won't ship until September!), and since the distributor is also making it difficult for bookstores to get the book before September, here's your chance to get the book right now for $12, and support independent publishers while you're at it. 

Hope you're having a superb and mindful day,

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Eating Mindfully, Eating Well

As most of my friends will tell you, I'm a little in love with food. This is a very good thing for my friends—I love nothing more than to throw a good dinner party. And usually it's a good thing for me too, except when I emerge from the winter darkness and can barely squeeze into my summer clothes.

So, it's back to Weight Watchers for me. Actually, I kind of love being "on plan" as they say, for it gives me an opportunity to use cooking as a hobby. The key to success is planning, so I've been reading cookbooks, and my latest favorite is Serve Yourself by Joe Yonan.

He's funny, and he's very into making your own condiments: citrus-pickled onions; parsley-garlic dressing; salsa verde, etc. He likes eggs, and tacos, and sweet potatoes (he puts sweet potato in places you would never expect....) He's also quite clever. Tonight I made his Mahi Mahi with Kiwi-Avocado Salsa and Coconut Rice, and there were several things about this meal that made it memorable:

1. He uses coconut WATER instead of coconut milk, to infuse both the rice and fish with a subtle coconut essence (and of course reduces both fat and calories).
2. He cooks the fish in the same pot as the rice. Easier clean-up!
3. It was SO easy and SO delicious!

Here is the recipe, but I adapted a bit. I used brown jasmine rice instead (tripled cooking time, and added fish about 2/3 of the way through),  and I cut the amount of avocado in half. I also didn't have scallion so I used shallot, and I left out the jalapeno, because for me that overwhelms the flavor.

Mahi Mahi with Kiwi-Avocado Salsa and Coconut Rice
(serves one; I doubled the recipe to have leftovers)

1 (6-ounce) mahi mahi fillet
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup coconut water (pure coconut water, unsweetened)
1/3 cup jasmine or other long-grain white rice
1 kiwi, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 ripe avocado, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 scallion, white and green parts, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 fresh jalapeno chile, seeded, and finely chopped (optional)
Juice of 1 lime
Leaves from 3 or 4 sprigs cilantro, chopped
1/2 teaspoon honey, or more to taste (optional)

Pat dry the mahi mahi with a paper towel and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

In a small skillet or saucepan fitted with a lid, combine the coconut water, rice, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat until the liquid is barely bubbling.

Place the mahi mahi fillet on top of the rice, cover, and cook for about 15 minutes, or until all the coconut water is absorbed. Turn off the heat and let the rice and fish stand, covered, for another 5 minutes.

While the rice and fish are cooking, make the salsa. In a small bowl, stir together the kiwi, avocado, scallion, jalapeƱo, lime juice, and cilantro. Taste and add a touch of salt if necessary and a drizzle of honey if it’s too tart.


Another key to success is to remember mindfulness in my eating: to become aware of different kinds of hunger that send out signals in my body and respond calmly, thoughtfully, and with love.

A great ally in this has been the book Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, by Dr. Jan Chozen Bays

 What drew me to this book is the way she articulates "The Seven Kinds of Hunger." They are:

1. Eye Hunger
2. Nose Hunger
3. Mouth Hunger
4. Stomach Hunger
5. Cellular Hunger
6. Mind Hunger
7. Heart Hunger
I've only made it to Cellular hunger, but already I can feel myself differentiating a bit, able to wait and assess before eating. I'm able to sit with my meal: before diving face first into the gorgeous Mahi-Mahi, I took the time to really admire all the colors and brightness of the dish (eye hunger) and smelled it thoroughly (nose hunger) and chewed slowly to absorb the textures (mouth hunger). I felt how this food satisfied all those hungers before even getting to where we normally think our hunger lies.

Food is so elemental, in every sense of the word. May you have a week of mindful eating that brings you great satisfaction.


Monday, May 14, 2012

And the winner is....

The winner of a free, hot-off-the-press copy of The Pen and the Bell is.....

Nan Macy!

Congratulations Nan! I'll get the book to you as soon as I can.

And THANK YOU to ALL of you who helped spread the word! You're all winners. May your day be full of reciprocal good will.


Friday, May 11, 2012

The Yoga of Jigsaw Puzzles

This is what I've been doing with my evenings lately. Staring at a bunch of shapes and trying to make them behave. Trying to help them find where they belong. Trying to discern the exact point of shading from yellow to gold to brown to green.

Concentrating hard. Sinking closer and closer to the table until my head swims with jigsaw-shaped patterns. Following the slightest clue: a shade of gray here; a line of black there. Fitting one piece, then another, and then finally leaning back—always surprised to see a picture emerge from this chaos.

I blame Judith Kitchen. She gave away jigsaw puzzles a couple of years ago, with the challenge that if we finished them, she'd donate money to cancer research. So I diligently put together a puzzle of a Klimt painting; it took me weeks and a little help from my friends, but I did it and felt such a rush of accomplishment, I immediately went out to get another.

It's a little addicting: this putting back together of what's been deliberately broken.


I confess that last night I stayed up past midnight doing this darn puzzle. I kept meaning to stop, but then I'd get one piece into place, which gave me a tiny little adrenaline rush that kept me searching for just one more. 

But the law of diminishing returns took over, and in the last hour I simply stared at the pieces, which refused to budge.

And then, this morning, I walked by the table on my way outside to get the paper. I glanced at the jumble of pieces and instantly fit four more into place. Just. like. that. 

It reminded me that often our minds do, literally, get worn out. As do our spirits. We are not inexhaustible beings. We really do need to rest—and in that rest, often the most intractable problems can be solved. Just like that.


Writing, to me, is often like working a jigsaw puzzle (but, unfortunately, without the box top to guide me!). I know there's a whole picture out there—I can sense it—but at the beginning it's just a jumble of incomplete (and sometimes jagged) parts.

Sometimes, I start with the border, the frame. I figure out the shape, the form, this picture will take, and then carefully start building from the border inward. But other times I do the opposite: I just start right in the middle, clustering some bits together to see if they fit, then build outward toward the shape this picture needs to contain it.

Maybe this metaphor has already gone too far. Maybe I've already stared too long at this post and it's no longer making any sense. But there's one more thing: When it's happening, when you're in the thick of it, you feel that little adrenaline rush when the pieces start to fit. When you've discerned the pattern. When your brain has aligned with the logic of the puzzle and you can start seeing your way clear.

That's what keeps us in the writing chair. That's what keeps us up past our bedtimes.


And now, just a little Pen and the Bell news. I still have a giveaway going on in my previous post: you have until this Monday, May 14, to participate and perhaps win your very own, hot off the press, FREE copy of The Pen and the Bell.

And if you haven't checked out our website yet, please do. You'll find a "Writing Practice" section that is a collaborative blog, with stories, news, and writing prompts. You can sign up to receive "Letters from Brenda and Holly" on a regular basis.

And Fiona Robyns, over at Writing Our Way Home has published a "creativity interview" with Holly and me, where we talk about what motivates and supports us in our creative lives. It was fun to have a chance to correspond in this way with Holly again.

I hope your day is filled with fun puzzles to solve, and may the solutions arrive to you easily. Get some rest, even if it's just a few minutes between one piece of your life and the next.


Friday, May 4, 2012

The Pen and the Bell Give-Away!

I came home from work last Monday, tired (as always--I can't seem to make it past 4:00 nowadays without feeling like I need a long nap....). And peeking from my mailbox was a small, padded manila envelope, a sight that always perks me up. And this one had a Boston return address. Hmmm.....could it be?

And yes, there it was: the long-awaited first copy of The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World, co-authored with my friend Holly J. Hughes.

I don't know why, but every time I hold a new book in my hands, it comes as a surprise. Sure, I knew it would be coming, but the book had existed so long (over four years) in the abstract, that to hold the actual artifact in my hands feels a little unreal.

It's a beautiful book (if I do say so myself). It's square and small and fits in the hand like a tool kit. Which is what we hope it will be for many, many people.

We also have a wonderful new website for the The Pen and The Bell, where you can find out all about the book, and receive letters from Holly and me with additional stories, reflections, and writing prompts. We hope you'll join us there, and send your friends!

To encourage you, I'll be giving away a FREE COPY of The Pen and the Bell! To enter the Give-Away, here's all you have to do:
  • Spread the word about The Pen and the Bell. You can do this by posting a link to our website on your own blog or website or Facebook page; or tweeting about it; or sending some emails; or simply telling a friend.
  • Tell me how you've participated, either in the comments here, or on my Facebook page, or in the comments of the "Writing Practice" section of The Pen and The Bell website
    That's it! I'll be posting more about the book in the next few days. In the meantime: thank you, thank you, thank you for being here to share in the news!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Inspiration, Expiration, and the Pause In-Between

1: a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation.....
2: the act of drawing in; specifically : the drawing of air into the lungs...

I know, I know: starting a piece with good ol' Webster's is the last refuge of the lazy. Mea culpa. But I've spent the last half hour stuck on the beginning, and I needed to get unstuck. Sometimes we have to resort to dire measures to leap over the obstacles in our path.

I'm thinking about inspiration because I've been inspired by so many things lately. But those inspirations have expired before making it anywhere near the page.

I let myself off the hook, saying, well I've been too busy to write. Well, not too busy, really, but I don't have the brain-space to write. Well, the space is there, but everything else is too important. Oh, REALLY? my muse says, tapping her foot. What's so important? Well, I stammer, I've got to balance my checkbook, and uh, figure out the chemicals in the hot tub, and you know, like, watch every episode of the The Killing. My muse gives me that look, you know, the look. A perfect blend of scorn and pity.

And then last night I went to a live recording of the radio show A River and Sound Review (part quiz show, part music, part poetry reading, part shenanigans), and I heard my colleagues Nancy Pagh, Oliver de la Paz, and Bruce Beasley read their work. NEW work. Work with such power it snuck past all the static in my brain and stuck. Became a spark. Or kindling. Or both.

Nancy teaches two writing classes. Oliver has three young boys under the age of four. Bruce deals with the intensity of his teenage boy stumbling his way to manhood. All of them are much busier than I am.

Yet each one of them manages to do the important thing: write. Write in the interstices that life offers. Inspiration, then, becomes not a mystical thing, but quite practical: sparked by a brochure, a photograph, or a treadmill at the gym. Or a Facebook posting, a Youtube video, a magazine. In a busy life, inspiration becomes truly like breath: always there, whether you notice it or not.


I'm back. I snuck out there for a couple of hours to go to my Saturday morning yoga class. A class where we spent a lot of time in pranayama, just breathing.

But in pranayama, what is usually unintentional becomes intentional. We count our inhale, hold for two beats, then count out the exhale.  We do it again, each time elongating that held space in between inhalation and exhalation. Two beats, four beats six beats, eight.

If you don't panic, if you don't insist you need to take the next breath right now, that pause in between becomes quiet, but alive. You feel the breath swirling inside you, nourishing what needs to be nourished, then nudging for the exhale when it's ready. Once you get the hang of it, you feel like you can stay there--in this little sliver of infinity--for a long time.

Inspiration is a transient thing, and can be as brief as the moment from one breath to the next. Inspiration is perishable; it has a built-in expiration date. So, perhaps it's our only task then, as writers: to elongate that space in between. To nourish what needs to be nourished. In this way we get "qualified" to receive and communicate sacred revelation.....

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Most Beautiful Thing

Over at Writing Our Way Home, Fiona Robyn is hosting a "blogsplash," in which we all write a post today about our "most beautiful thing"—in honor of her new novel of the same name. I encourage you to do the same, whether you have a blog or not!

So here I am this morning, in my writing loft, the rain tapping on the skylight, my dog Abbe leaning against my leg. I've just returned home from a trip, and as always happens this time of year, my yard has changed ever so slightly: the Gravenstein apple tree has burst into song, as has my neighbor's flowering dogwood. The lilac's even thinking about blooming.

And the containers out front have somehow regenerated themselves without any help from me: pansies that overwintered spill across their depleted soil; sedums vibrate in glossy green; zebra-striped grasses inch up from the ground.

My most beautiful thing? It's hard to choose this time of year. Everything raises its hand and says, choose me! Oh, oh, oh, it's me!

When I first heard about this blogsplash, the first image that came to mind was this:

Of course my baby girl is always the most beautiful thing, but this picture captures not only her sweet face (and her lion's ruff), but also the time of day for our best walks: Spring evening, about 8:00, when the light slants in from the west and illuminates everything.

And then, yesterday evening, after my post-trip hot tub soak in my backyard, I sat on my deck in my terrycloth bathrobe, damp, and faced the large western sky. My heart pounded from the heat, while a French-Canadian station played guitar jazz inside and soothed the air. I faced the streaks of clouds breaking up on the horizon, saw how slowly they moved, and my mind began to move just as slowly, to settle and expand. I looked back into my house, felt the calm in there, saw my little dog's face waiting at the screen door.

And I knew then that the most beautiful thing is always the moment at hand. The most beautiful thing is when the endless chatter stops—especially the self-recriminations, the repetitive judgments—and you can simply gaze at the life you've created. The most beautiful thing is gratitude. The most beautiful thing, it turns out, is you.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Vow of Friendship

Druid Vow of Friendship
I honor your path.
I drink from your well. 

I bring an unprotected heart to our meeting place. 
I hold no cherished outcome. 
I will not negotiate by withholding. 
I am not subject to disappointment.

Oh dear, it's been a while since I've posted; sorry about that. It seems there are some weeks when the brain decides to do a walkabout rather than have a seat. And I've been in Ohio the last few days, leading a marvelous writing workshop with the MFA students at Ohio State University.

I love these kinds of workshops. You never know how it will go; so much depends upon the attitudes and chemistry of the people involved. And lucky me: this particular group was absolutely marvelous! We wrote, we read, we laughed, we cried.  Even I wrote and read and laughed and cried. I didn’t feel like a teacher, but more like someone who’d arrived in the midst of a really good party.

Whenever I teach a weekend workshop now, I’ve learned to start by setting intention. I have the students spend five minutes writing down their intentions for the weekend ahead of us, and I do the same. This may seem obvious: wouldn’t all our intentions simply be to learn something about writing, to improve our writing?

Sure, and that part takes about 30 seconds to write down. But they have to write for five minutes, which nudges them to dig a little deeper into their real intentions, the ones that go beyond the expected or the predetermined.

At five minutes, they set down their pens. They think they’re done. They think now we’ll get to the real work. But I look at them kindly, and say: Now write down the obstacles you have in fulfilling those intentions.

They issue a barely audible, collective groan, but they do it anyway, because I’m the teacher, and they’re supposed to do what I say. So they diligently write down their obstacles. I have mercy on them; I make them write for only three minutes this time.

Again, they put down their pens and beg with their eyes: can we get to the real work now?

Almost, I say, almost. Now I’d like you to imagine what it would take to dissolve those obstacles. What magic wand could you wave to make those obstacles disappear?

They have to write for only two minutes now. Because this is the thing: once you’ve articulated intention and obstacle, the way to fulfillment clears.

They share this morning’s writing with each other. Because it’s all well and good to articulate something for ourselves, but it’s even better when we forge the common bonds that bring us together in our work.

Okay, I say, after the hubbub has died down. Now we can begin (though they'll find out the real work has already been done).


Which brings me to the Druid Vow of Friendship.

I traveled to Port Townsend a couple of weeks ago for a few reasons:

1. to see my friend and co-writer Holly J. Hughes to check in about some ideas for the promotion of The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World.  (Coming soon: an interactive website, and a workshop near you! We'll also have "Letters from Brenda and Holly" that can be delivered right to your inbox!)

2. to see my friend Sheila Bender and her husband Kurt,and loll about on her couch, reading and writing.

3. to hear Kim Stafford read from his work. Kim is one of those people who just makes you happy to be alive. He read poetry, and he sang songs, and he recited from memory poems he had written in his head. But he began by reciting to us the "Druid Vow of Friendship."

And when he  recited this Vow, so many things became clear to me about intention and obstacle and dissolution of obstacle. I heard this vow as a way to set intention in our friendships yes, but also in our relationship with our writing, and with ourselves.

Think how marvelous it would be to arrive at our writing with an unprotected heart. How would it feel to hold no cherished outcome? Can we free ourselves from disappointment? Can we truly honor our own paths, and drink deeply from our own wells?

I'd like to find out. So I vow to remember this vow of friendship as a way to make friends with myself. And with my writing. And to deepen my friendship with you. Will you join me?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Accidental Yoga

Thursday evening I accidentally took a Power Yoga class.

Now understand: I have always emphatically said I am NOT a "power yoga person." I had a pretty clear idea of power yoga people: tattoed, lithe, ultra-serious, and out of their minds.

I arrived at the yoga studio early, pleased that I had made it to the 5:30 "intuitive flow" class with my favorite teacher, Amy. (I hadn't felt well all day, and it would have been easy enough to stay home.) And there was Amy at the front desk, checking people in, with her calm smile, her effusive greeting. I signed in, and bustled into the studio.....

....where a blast of hot air greeted me. Where there was that weird harmonium thing sitting at the front of the room. Where all the mats were lined up in an unfamiliar pattern.

I went back out front. "Amy, am I in the right class?"
"Power yoga?" she answered cheerfully.
"No, I wanted to be in your class."
"I don't teach until 7:15."

At which point my brain got all twisted up. My brain wanted to argue with Amy, to tell her she had it wrong, that she had to teach at 5:30 because, after all, I was here for her 5:30 class.  My brain clicked back through the schedule and realized I was a few days off: that Amy's 5:30 class is always on Tuesday, not Thursday. But my brain knew that my desire for a 5:30 class on Thursday had blocked my knowledge that no 5:30 class existed.

And that's when fear kicked in. That's when the brain went into heavy whining mode: I can't do power yoga. It's too hot. I'll throw up. I'll make a fool of myself. I don't want to do power yoga. Don't make me do power yoga!

Amy looked up from the computer. "Don't worry," she said, "You can totally do it." Then she flashed me that smile. Who can argue with that smile?

So I slunk back into the studio, set my mat in the far back corner, and waited for my torture to begin. I looked around, and sure there were some lithe tattooed people, but there were also a lot of people who looked just like me.

The teacher, Paul, started us slowly. He read Rumi to us. Something about love and wine and letting go (very Rumi). He had a beautiful voice. I began to trust a little, and then a little more. He said Yoga, no matter what style, is always about meeting yourself where you are. Hello self, I said, here we are.

And yes, there we were, together, my cranky self and I, flowing through one sun salutation then another, the heat rising through every part of me, sweat beading then flowing down my back; there we were breathing deep and bowing into child's pose for a quick rest before joining the others, then flowing easily back into camel pose and back into child.

At the end he played that harmonium and I understand harmony. I heard my own voice resonating there with the others—my self and I glowing: with sweat yes, but also with the joy that comes from doing something you never thought you could do. The accidental, the unexpected, the parting of your own stolid ways. 

When I went out to the lobby to put on my shoes, I told Amy I loved it. And with her same calm smile she said, "There must have been some reason you got confused this week."

So, here's to confusion. Here's to the accidental. Here's to finding out what happens when the universe changes your plans.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Passover Puffs

Buddha blessing the Passover Puffs
My friend Rae Gouriand suggested I do a "Soup Sunday" regular post, which I think is a fabulous idea! And I will make soup today, the "Spring Minestrone" from the April issue of Bon Appetit, and I'll probably modify it with tarragon I have leftover from a dinner party I threw on Thursday (Sauteed Chicken with herbed Tarragon-Mustard Butter, yum) and leftover peas from that dinner as well.

I'll probably add some fennel bulb, because I love fennel and it will go well with the tarragon. I may leave the parmesan out, but I'll try a dab of "umami paste" that I just picked up at the store because it looked intriguing. Instead of pasta, I may throw in the leftover quinoa instead.

So, there you have it: my process in a nutshell. Take a form, study it, and transform it to your liking. 

But right now, I want to share with you Passover Puffs (which will go well with the soup), because Passover Puffs are amazing. I make them only once a year, at Passover of course. They are little pillows of goodness. They are eggy, and slightly sweet, and full of air. They are a testament to working within restraint (no leavening) and so creating something miraculous.

They are also thoroughly addictive. I just gobbled two of them in the time it took to write that paragraph (hey, it was research!) So consider yourself warned.

Passover Puffs

Preheat oven to 375.

Boil 1 1/2 cups water, then add 1/4 cup light vegetable oil (I used grapeseed),  2 Tblsp Sugar, and 1 tsp salt. Remove from heat.

Mix in 1 1/2 cups Matzo Meal and 1 tsp cinnamon. Whisk it all quickly together, and watch it turn into a soggy mess. Turn this all into a large mixing bowl and let cool for about five minutes.

Beat in four eggs, one at a time. You may think the mixture is too thick for beating, but have faith. Faith is what Passover is all about.

Once the mixture is thoroughly combined, scoop large glops onto a greased cookie sheet. I know that "glop" is not a standard measurement, but have some fun with it. You can make large glops or small glops, or medium glops. You can make 9 large ones, or 18 small ones, or something in-between.

Flatten the glops slightly with the back of a greased spoon, then sprinkle on more cinnamon to your liking.

Bake in your preheated oven for 30-40 minutes. The smell will start to penetrate your senses after about 10 minutes. At this point it will be impossible to do anything else but stand in front of the stove salivating, so plan on taking a quick walk with the dog, or vacuum your bedroom, or wander around the perimeter of your house thinking about spring plantings.

When the Passover Puffs are golden brown and sufficiently puffed, take them out of the oven and let cool for five minutes. Resist the urge to stuff one in your mouth right away; trust me, they really do taste better when they've cooled a little bit.

At this point, it would be wise to give them away. 

Good Pesach everyone, and Happy Easter. May your spring be full of joy.

Friday, April 6, 2012

What Holds You Back? A Passover Reflection

Tonight begins the first night of Passover. When I was a kid, Passover meant squirming in my chair while we waited through the boring prayers. It meant fingerprinting the ten plagues with Manishevitz on our dinner plates and shouting in glee: "Frogs!" "Vermin" "Rivers of Blood!" It meant opening the door for the angel Elijah to come in. Passover is supposed to remind us of suffering—the Jews' enslavement, the hard-hearted pharoah, the flight into the desert, the wandering in deprivation toward the promised land—and so the seder often lasts a LONG time.

The Seder plate holds all that suffering as symbols: the lamb bone, to remind us of sacrifice; the parsley to remind us of bitterness; the salt water to remind us of tears; the haroset, to remind us of slavery; the matzo to remind us of hardship; and the egg...well I'm not sure what the egg represents—rebirth? A nod to Easter?

I usually try to hold a seder at my house, though this year it didn't work out. So I'll show you a picture of my seder plate from last year instead:

Note the rawhide chew toy standing in for the lamb shank!
While my child self remembers Passover about suffering, my adult self has chosen to focus more on liberation. Passover comes at the beginning of spring, a good time to reflect on what enslaves us and what sets us free.

Five Things That Hold Me Back

1. My wrists. When I'm doing yoga, I can feel strong and confident and in the flow. But the first thing to give out is my wrists. They begin to ache and whimper, and I yell at them to be quiet. They seem so small, so insignificant: shouldn't it be my hamstrings or my hips that hold me back? (Well they do, too, but for some reason I don't get as mad at them as I do my wrists....) I never remember my wrists until I begin to abuse them. I never take care of them. And though they seem so small, they really can determine everything.

2. Sugar. Sugar is so small, and yet so large. Sugar is never satisfied. Sugar wants to undermine all good intention. Sugar seduces. Sugar says you're hungry. Sugar says you're mine.

3. Television. I love television. There. I've said it. I love the way it keeps me enthralled. I love the stories, the way they unfold week after week. I love the company. But television says, you never have to leave the house again. Television says, I demand nothing of you. Television says, don't move.

4. Self-Doubt.  Need I say more?

5. The Hard-Hearted Pharoah of Perfection. This unkind dictator has been with me a long time—so long, in fact, that we're quite good buddies now. We're actually in danger of merging into one being. This Pharoah cracks the whip. This Pharoah demands more and more, is never satisfied even with a good job. It all has to be perfect.

Moses demanded "Let My People Go!" and the Pharoah refused each time. Finally, Moses took it upon himself to lead the Jews out of Egypt, with some help from God along the way; you know, like that little favor called the parting of the red sea (watch this clip and hear the greatest line of all time: "God opens the sea with a blast of his nostrils....")

What holds you back? And how can you free yourself from it? What kind of miracles can you muster? 

Wishing you a good Pesach and the thrill of liberation.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Yoga of Hot Tubs--Part II

Here she is! My brand new hot tub. A little bit of ahhhhhh in my own backyard.

As some of you know from my previous post about this endeavor, it's been quite the undertaking. The electrician had to do his thing, and the handyman had to dig some trenches, and the fence guys showed up at an ungodly hour, and then the hot tub guys showed up on Tuesday just as I was leaving for the airport.

So all week, as I did my gig in North Dakota, I was thinking about the hot tub. Thinking about the way it fit so neatly on that patio, as it if had been destined to live there all along. Fantasizing about how my life might be different now that this thing had shown up.

I got home late last night. The hot tub guy had it all ready for me to go, but I was tired and strangely afraid to go out there and see  it. Not quite ready for my fantasy to meet reality.

So, this morning, in the rain, I scurried out in my bathrobe, slipped off the cover, and sunk down into the hot water. And there it was. There was ahhhhhh. Just waiting for me. It had all been worth it

The rest of the day felt pretty ahhhhh-like as well. I walked the dog, and went to yoga. Though the yoga class was not my favorite, during shivasana I felt a thrumming peace that has eluded me a long time. At the end, the woman next to me said I had a beautiful voice, a statement that startled me: my voice? And I wondered if something about starting the day in my pool of ahhhhh had somehow knocked free some loveliness deep inside.

I came home and made soup for the crew of Bellingham Review editors who were meeting at my house. It was a soup full of ahhhhh, perfect for a silver day.

Carrot Ginger Coconut Soup
(adapted from The Whole Foods Cookbook)
Melt a Tblsp of coconut oil in a large pot. Chop up a medium onion and toss it in to sizzle for about five minutes. Add 3-4 cloves chopped garlic, and a grated knob (about two inches or more) of fresh ginger. Let them all mingle for another minute or so.
Add 1/2 tsp. cumin, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. dried mint, and 1/4 tsp allspice. Stand over the pot as you stir and inhale all that spicy loveliness. 
 Add 2 lbs chopped organic carrots, and one chopped organic sweet potato. Feed your dog the carrot peels because she loves them and they keep her busy. Add 6 cups water and a tsp of salt. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it all simmer.
While the soup simmers, go out on your deck and admire your new hot tub. Or go on your front porch and admire a tree. Or look out your window and admire what there is to admire. Smell the soup becoming soup. 
 When all the ingredients have softened, add 3 Tblsp lemon juice. Then remove from heat and blend in batches with 1 can Coconut Milk, until smooth and creamy. Return it all to the pot and stir. Serve it in pretty bowls to people who need a little nourishment.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Human Animal

I'm in North Dakota at the moment, preparing to give a reading at the University of North Dakota's "Humanimal" writing conference. I've already heard a wonderful talk by Hal Herzog, author of "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat" (in which I had to answer the question "would you save your dog or a stranger from being hit by a car?" I won't reveal my shameful answer, but let's just say I had company in my moral ambiguity...).

I also heard a wonderful reading by Pam Houston from her latest book, "Contents May Have Shifted", whose very form echoes the title: she wrote the book in a series of 144 small chapters, then spent two years rearranging those chapters to create a progressive story. I felt immediate writerly kinship: I can spend hours, days, years shuffling around small bits until they coalesce into a form I could never have envisioned with my mind alone.

Today I'll be on a panel about "meeting animals on their own terms" (in which, I expect, the only thing I'll have to say is that animals have not yet expressed to me "their terms," have not proferred a contract for me to sign), and I'll give a reading of two dog essays from my latest book of essays, Listening Against the Stone: "Blessing of the Animals" and "Our Daily Toast."

These two essays definitely do NOT meet animals "on their own terms." No, the animals in these essays are wholly behaving on my terms alone, and I don't apologize for that. What made the writing of these essays so enjoyable, in fact, was the way the animal presence enabled me to go into a deeper understanding of my own story. This is what animals do for us, in writing and in life.

Abbe smiling after neck surgery
I chose these essays not only because my dog Abbe is always a crowd-pleaser (in writing and in life), but because I'd also like to preface the reading with a little bit about the writing process.

"Our Daily Toast" started as a letter I wrote to a few friends while on writing retreat at The Whiteley Center on San Juan Island. The Whiteley Center is one of those places where writing happens. It doesn't happen "magically," or even enjoyably, most of the time (see my earlier post about the agony and the ecstasy of writing retreats), but it does happen, whether you think it is or not.

I know I have to have little tricks to keep me accountable when on writing retreat, and this time I'd promised to write a letter a day to my writing buddies.

On this day I'd done no writing at all. Well, I'd done the kind of writing that involves drinking lots of coffee and eating lots of snacks. The kind of writing that eeks out your brain into ugly dribbles on the page. The kind of writing that urges you to go take a walk instead, go into town, shop for clothes online, take a break—but you can't take a break because you haven't done anything yet to take a break from.

So 8:00 rolls around, and I still hadn't written the damn letter. I was grumpy. Mad at myself. I didn't think I'd have anything to say in a letter. But a promise is a promise. So I sat down and pounded out a confession: "Dear Kim: Today for no good reason I ate two slices of cinnamon-raisin toast at 9:30 a.m., a mere two hours since breakfast."  This one line led me on a reverie about my love for toast, and my dog's love for toast (we are enablers in the toast realm, she and I), and then it became about something I didn't know was lurking there beneath the crumbs: a history of love and the small things that bind us to one another.

I wrote the letter quickly, and it turned almost verbatim into the essay "Our Daily Toast."  Which just goes to show: it pays to keep your promises. It pays to have a form (in this case: the letter) to get you onto the page. It pays to have a little dog waiting in the wings, ready to show you something that has been obvious to her all along.

"Blessing of the Animals" was also written at Whiteley, a few years earlier. This time, my friend Lee had accompanied me, and while she worked industrially on her book of poems, I lazed about on the couch in front of the fire, doodling. (You're getting a pretty clear picture of my writing process by now: it involves an awful lot of avoidance and indolence....) Desperate, I turned to my notebook and typed up a small image that had been hiding there: a description of a moment with my then new little puppy, Abbe: "When I sit next to my dog Abbe just before she falls asleep, and I stroke her fine-boned head, she turns just enough so that her nose somehow nuzzles between my wrist and sleeve."

Being a new dog owner, I behaved much as a parent does with a new child, marveling at every little encounter. And I kept telling myself, "you can't write about your dog, no one wants to hear about your dog." But in the writing of that scene, for some reason, this line came out first: "Here's the first thing you should know."

It's a commanding line, with a commanding voice, and it puzzled me. The first thing you should know? Why? What's the second thing, then? and the third? What is it we really need to know?

With this strange voice as my guide, the long essay gradually unfolded, using an extended scene of bringing my dog to the Unitarian church to be blessed, interspersed with scenes from my childhood with animals. What I didn't expect is that this narrative arc would lead me inexorably to my father and the emergency heart surgery he needed to have at the same time I had acquired my dog. The two strands come together in the end, as Abbe knew they would.

Again, the lesson I keep learning in my writing: let the writing itself tell you what you need to know. Turn to it again and again, even when you feel like a total loser (maybe especially then). You never know what kind of voice may emerge. You never know what animals wait there, ready to guide you in the dark.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Yin Yoga

First, a note about the future of this blog. As some of you know, I started this blog as part of a class I was teaching this past winter: "Living Writers: Online Writing as Literature." It was both one of the hardest and one of the most delightful classes I've ever taught. The students made blogs ranging from life in the roller derby to living in a "kinship family" to the hilarious reality of being a college student. One student wrote about being a trans lady while another wrote about wanting to be a dinosaur when she grew up. These are just a few of the many blogs I had the pleasure to witness during the last three months.

I started this blog because I'm a firm believer in making yourself go through whatever torture you're inflicting on your students. I had never blogged before (begging the question, "so, um, why are you teaching a class about blogging?" Chalk it up to a moment of unbridled enthusiasm). I knew only that I was increasingly drawn to the writing I was seeing unfold online, and I wanted a reason to participate.

And so I have. And so I've come to love it. I love the discipline of posting three times a week. I love the way a blog post will unfurl in my mind while walking the dog. I love the community that has expanded way beyond my expectations. Thank YOU, dear reader.

Now the class is over, the grades are in (have you ever tried "grading" a blog? It's not something I recommend...), and I'm left with me and my little blog, trying to decide the best way to continue.

What do you think, folks? What are your favorite types of posts? More about writing? about yoga? about dogs? about food? What days do you like to read blogs?

I will probably cut back on my posting to once a week (unless I feel inspired at odd moments). Fridays will most likely win out as posting day, since I'll have Fridays technically "off" from work (if I can ever figure out how to be really "off" from work).

 And with that, the gist of this post: yin yoga.

I felt like I worked harder than I've ever worked before this past quarter. In addition to teaching a new class, I also taught another full writing class, and worked my new job as Director of Graduate Studies. We conducted two job searches, and I had two books to shepherd into being, proposals to write, laundry to do, garbage to take out, etc. etc.

Yesterday, spring break began. Yesterday I took a breath.  And in that breath, I felt vulnerability flood through my body. An ache that makes your heart tweak. An openness that scares you. A trembling in your upper arms. A twinge behind your eyes.

This is what happens in yin yoga. In yin yoga, you hold a pose for a long time, maybe 5 minutes, maybe 10. You breathe deep and settle in. You find your edge. You surrender and let the body do its own yoga for a while. The connective tissue stretches. The body unwinds, unravels. Your teacher tells you stories to keep your mind out of it.

And then you slowly come out of the pose. Your limbs remember they are part of you. And a vulnerable ache will often bloom there, right where you opened up.

It passes. You go on to the next pose. But you remember it, deep in your cells. You remember the space that exists there, below the level of bone and flesh. It beguiles and scares you at the same time.

This is the consequence of opening. 

My work often feels like this. As if I've been holding a pose for a long time, pressing myself to the edge without quite being aware of it. It's only when I stop do I realize how deep I've gone. And when I come back to myself, it can be a little scary, as if I don't recognize this self that has returned.

I have to be gentle with myself. Move slowly. Resist the urge to create work in order to avoid this vulnerable space. Just breathe. Look up. Go out on the deck. Walk the dog in this air that is bright, but still cold. Notice. Simply notice that I am back in the world, and say, "Welcome."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday--A Dinner Party

Last night I threw a dinner party. Moroccan Chicken with lemon and green olives. Date/orange couscous. My friend Lee brought Beets with cumin and mint. Lysa brought spinach salad with lemon vinaigrette. Bruce brought "crack pie." Suzanne brought chocolate/stout brownies (in a nod to St. Patties day). Simon and Ed brought their wicked senses of humor. Kristin and Kaveh (the guests of honor) brought their wonderful selves; we were here to celebrate their recent promotion and tenure, an event that had slipped by in the busyness of this quarter. 

We toasted. We ate. We laughed. We ate some more. We laughed some more. We lingered at the table a long time. The conversation took bizarre twists and turns. The circus got brought up a lot, for some reason. So did raisins.

I thought I was too busy to throw a dinner party. A dinner party takes a lot of work. You have to decide on a menu. You have to make a shopping list. You have to shop. You have to clean your bedraggled house. You have to cook. You have to make a last-minute run to the home store for more wine glasses and forks (where DO all the wine glasses and forks go?) You have to open the table wide enough to seat 10. You have to take a shower, make yourself decent (not an easy task at the end of finals week....)

And I loved every minute of it.

It's a simple truth: the things you love best give energy, rather than deplete it. It's certainly one way to know when you're on the right path.

Another thing: NEVER pass up an opportunity to celebrate. 

And eat as much Date/orange couscous as possible:

Boil 2 cups of water, with 1 Tblsp. oil, 2 Tblsp. fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a bunch of grated orange zest. Chop a handful of dates and throw them in there too.
Pour in 1.5 cups dry couscous (I used Trader Joe's whole wheat couscous.) Add a palmful of salt.
Give a good stir, then take off the heat and let steep, covered, for about 10 minutes. 
Take the lid off the pot and smell the orange essence. Fluff up the couscous with a large fork. Transfer to a pretty serving dish. Garnish with twists of orange.
(I ate the leftovers for breakfast today with yogurt and maple syrup. And I just had some for a snack just now, with yogurt and almonds. It's a magical never-ending pot of goodness....)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Practice Thursday--The Yoga of Hot Tubs

Oh lord, I'm buying a hot tub.

I finally knew I would get myself a hot tub after my trip to Palm Springs in December. As many of you know, I used to live at a hot springs resort in Northern California, and ever since I've been a hot springs hound. I never feel more relaxed, more healed, more at peace, more myself than when I'm outside, neck deep in hot water.

So I came home and I said to myself: "Self, why have you denied yourself a hot tub all these years?" and Self replied: "Because you haven't let me."

So I'm gonna let me. I'm gonna let me have the one large, expensive item that I think will change my life. Even while I know it really won't.

The above picture is NOT my hot tub, though I dearly would love it to be. No, my hot tub will be much more pedestrian—a good ol' Sundance Burlington 680. It has a lot of bells and whistles. It has many, many adjustable jets. It has lounge seating, and Clear Ray filtering, and LED lights, and all kinds of other specifications that had me dazed minutes after I entered the showroom.

The salesman jabbered on while I got the glazed look that appears whenever someone's trying to sell me something that costs a LOT of money. I started daydreaming about a wooden tub heated by fire, surrounded by a Japanese Bamboo fence, night-flowering jasmine in a glazed pot. I imagined walking barefoot on a stone path at nightfall in only my robe, stepping into the tub and sinking, feeling that elusive ahhhhhh take over my body and mind.

I imagined the night expanding around me, the silence revealing a rustle of wind, a gull still still circling, the trot of my dog coming out to find me. She'd stand guard, sniffing the wind for coyote, deer, and wild rabbits, barking at the errant plastic bags blowing in the wind. The tub would smell of old cedar; the water would trickle in by gravity; it would remain a perfect, quiet 104 degrees. I'd steep in that tub, and feel all my stumbling blocks dissolve....

That's what I imagined anyway, while the salesman kept talking, and I kept nodding, and then found myself writing a check for a LOT of money for a hot tub that in no way resembles my fantasy. And then I had to call the electrician to find out it would cost a LOT of money to even get electricity out to the hot tub site, and that doesn't include trenching, so I have to call another guy, and then there's the matter of fencing for privacy, and so on and so on.

But I know at this point it's all inevitable, and it won't be worth it to fret (my dining room remodel taught me something about the nature of fantasy vs. reality, after all....) It should all happen in a few weeks time, and while my bank account will be bruised, I'll be giggling with anticipation, planning the hot tub's christening. Self will be very happy, I hope, with this gift she so rightly deserves. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Pen and the Bell—almost here!

As many of you know, I've been working on this book with my friend Holly Hughes for over four years. Now, after an incredible collaborative process, The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World is about to emerge into the world! It will be published by Skinner House Books in May 2012.

We just received the cover image Friday. Phew. Waiting to see the cover of a book after one spends so long writing it is always a little nerve-wracking: will the cover really echo the voices inside? Will it draw the reader in? Will it welcome the reader to its pages?

We think it does.

Would you like a little sneak peek? Here's some excerpts from the Preface. Enjoy!

The Pen and The Bell

"A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me—a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic—or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can."
    —Denise Levertov, “Variation on a Theme by Rilke”

Denise Levertov’s poem describes a state of mind many of us would love to achieve in our daily lives. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel that each day we’re granted an “honor and a task,” and each day to know that we can easily do this work—with pleasure, focus, and joy?

This book is about how to carve out  space for writing in a world crowded with so many distractions. It’s about how many of us long to be “a bell awakened,” and yet how difficult that state can be to achieve in the face of our massive to-do lists. It’s about being able to gain access to our deeper selves in the work-a-day world, and to bring forth this authentic self in our writing.

We spent a year writing letters to one another about the twin subjects of writing and contemplation, about how these processes have manifested and evolved in our own lives.

And the most wonderful thing happened: the letter-writing, for both of us, became a deep and rich practice. The letters took on their own life, showed us details or memories we never would have found otherwise, because the simple words—“Dear Holly”, “Dear Brenda”—became our bells of mindfulness. And we had each other as an audience to these thoughts, a listening ear that helped us settle down.

We came to fully understand that all those interruptions are really life itself, not something apart from that life. Contemplation and writing do not happen only in quiet places, in sanctified rooms. In fact, we need to be in contact with the world, to feel ourselves in dialogue with our ordinary lives, rather than resisting them. If we train ourselves, we’ll see that our writing material, and our contemplative state of mind, can be found anywhere: in the Volkswagen repair shop, at the doctor’s office, in a traffic jam, at PetSmart.


At the moment, as we write this introduction to you, we have been lucky enough to work in a quiet place, where the day begins with the ringing whistle of red-winged blackbirds in the marsh, and ends with Great Horned Owls calling for us to pay attention for just one more minute before the day is done. Here, we really feel ourselves imbued with Levertov’s mantra: I can.

We pulled a book of Levertov’s poems off the shelf at dawn, opened it serendipitously to this message that reminded us why we are here, what our “honor and task” might be for today. Levertov wrote her poem in dialogue with the poet Rilke, and so it seems even more fitting as our opening “bell.” Because through writing the stories that make up this book, inspired and supported by one another, we realized that we are—all of us—truly writing together, in dialogue with one another, even in the midst of stillness and solitude.

We hope that you will find yourself whispering I can, I can, I can when you next sit down to write.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Funny Friday-Cats and Dogs

Sorry, I just needed some cute cats and dogs today (and evidence that we can all get along....)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Practice Thursday--Who's Writing This, Anyway?

No, this is not a confession that my dog, Abbe, has been writing this blog all along, though I'm sure she has plenty to say to all you lovely people. I know she'd be full of gratitude for your interest in her small but significant life. She would say, I really like you, whoever you are. She would say, got anything good to eat? Salmon skin? A bit of bacon? A little crust of toast?

My dog would pant happily at the keyboard, and watch expectantly for your comments—as she thinks you're the most fabulous writer in the world! She might close her eyes for a minute, and roll on her side for a belly rub while waiting.

She wants to be wherever you are. She'll follow you from room to room. She'll stare at you until you think of something good to say.

She'll tell you: yes, the week's been hard. Yes, life's tough sometimes. But look, the full moon just rose on the horizon. It's the biggest moon we've ever seen, and it hangs there—fat and gold—for just a minute before disappearing behind the clouds. Slow down and watch it. Gasp. Let out a howl, because such a moon deserves praise.

And so do you, Abbe says. Praise you. Praise the hand that doles out the treats. Praise the leash that says we'll walk. Praise walking. Praise the water bowl that's always full. Praise the fleece bed and the toy that squeaks. Praise popcorn that falls from the sky.

Here we are, she says, you and I. Isn't it grand?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday—"Be a person"

Sorry for the late Sunday post; I've been in Chicago, at the annual Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference. Now there's a test of Mindfulness, if ever there was one: 10,000 writers all in the same hotel, buzzing and bumping and endlessly talking; 15 panels and readings every hour; the Bookfair, with its endless rows of tables chock full of swag to give away, to lure you into their clutches.

I was at one of those tables, dear reader. I wanted people to stop, to look at the magazine I edit, the book I wrote, the blog I write. Hundreds of people walked by with their gazes aimed at chest level, reading name tags, determining who was worth talking to and who was not.

And there were SO MANY panels and discussions about one's presence as an author, about how to promote oneself and keep building your audience, especially online. It seemed like we were talking more about how to market our writing, than about doing the writing itself.

So, the best advice I heard—in a panel on online writing and literature—was simply: "Be a person." The guy who said it, Blake Butler, is the editor of HTML Giant, one of the most popular online aggregation sites out there. He said it in response to a question about networking online, and all the advice we'd been receiving about blogging, twittering, linked-inning, Goodreading, and the rest of it.

He shrugged his shoulders. He said "Just be a person."

Forget all the rest of it. Do what comes naturally. If you read someone's blog and like it, tell them so. As a Person, not a "networker." If you have something to say in your blog, do it As a Person, not as a promotion hound. If you friend someone on Facebook, be a friend—As a Person, not someone padding their database.

It seems so simple. But as I sat there in the grand ballroom of the Palmer House Hilton—surrounded by people staring at their cell phones or listlessly flipping through the weighty conference schedule—I knew how easily our personhood gets squashed in this life. And yet how easily we can resurrect it, if we're reminded to do so.

So my motto this year is Be a Person. Be a Person first. In my work, my writing, my friendships, my life. And all the rest will follow.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

And the winner is.....

The winner of a free copy of the 2nd Edition of Tell it Slant is......


Congratulations Jack! I'll bring you your signed copy next week.

And thank you to all of you who showed such kindness and enthusiasm for the book.  Yeah!

Happy Birth Days!

Today is my birthday. I love birthdays. I'm not one of those modest types who fails to mention her birthday is coming up, who wants no fuss or bother.

Give me fuss! Give me bother! It's a wonderful chance to celebrate all of us being alive.

And so, for my birthday, I give you a present, my favorite poem by Czeslaw Milosz. May it bring you a little moment of beauty in a busy day:


A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over the honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday—Goofing Off

Bat Abbe

I tend to be a little, uh, serious about my life. I take everything "to heart" as they say, a phrase that really nails it: the world worms its way inside to the center of me. So, I'm a taskmaster, never quite satisfied, even when I've done my best. I cross one thing off my to-do list, and immediately search out another.

At the same time, people always tell me they love my laugh. I laugh easily and heartily at anything remotely amusing.

Laughing Brenda and Serious Brenda need to have a little heart-to-heart talk. These two women need to get some coffee, try to be friends. I think they'd get along quite well. Together, they could write a book called The Fine Art of Goofing Off. 


Last week I went on a mini writing retreat with my friends Nancy and Rae-Ellen. While they sat at the dining table typing away, I lounged on the couch and made comments from the peanut gallery. I read my book. I knit a scarf. I stared out the window. I ate copious amounts of chocolate.  

When they took a break, we fooled around with Photo Booth on Nancy's iPad.

Nancy says: "The result of writing too much"
We laughed so hard. We laughed and laughed until our stomachs hurt. We couldn't stop laughing. There was something about seeing ourselves so twisted and unarmed. I won't even tell you how many pictures we took, and how many times we looked at them and just shrieked with laughter each time.

And then they went back to the dining table. Nancy finished writing her novel. Rae Ellen made headway on new work. Somehow I crossed four writing-related tasks off my list with ease.

The poet William Stafford has said that the cure for writer's block is to lower one's standards. This might be the cure for life as well. And we can sometime put everything in (twisted) perspective with a little goofiness, some unrestrained laughter.

What's your favorite way of goofing off?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Funny Friday: Cat Yoga!

Pure awesome....

Practice Thursday—The Yoga of Clutter

"Three Rules of Work:
Out of clutter find simplicity;
From discord find harmony;
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity."
—Albert Einstein

Somehow I’ve come into possession of a large supply of paper clips. I find them everywhere: in the washing machine, in the vacuum cleaner, in the silverware drawer. There’s always several in my jacket pockets. As a writer, teacher, and editor I put myself in the way of paper clips all the time, but there seems to be something unnatural in the way they stick to me this way (I once even found a paper clip neatly attached to the hem of my good trousers).

The paper clip deluge came into stark relief recently when I cleaned out a feral drawer. After excavating layer by layer, I came across a  strata of paper clips a good inch thick: big clips, teeny clips, binder clips, and pink clips. I tried to collect them up in one fell swoop, but they resisted, kept scattering in all directions. The dust on them felt sticky, almost like soot.

I would never have even approached this awful drawer on my own. But I had two professional organizers in the house, a team from a company called "Organized at Last" (yes, dear reader, it had come to this....). I hired them to help me deal with what I’d come to call my “room of shame”: the 2nd bedroom, overflowing with ancient files, used books, out-of-season clothes, broken speakers, chargers to things that don’t even exist anymore, dog crates: everything that couldn’t seem to find a place elsewhere. That room was making me grumpy. I knew I had to do something.

The organizing ladies dove in cheerfully, in their spotless blue aprons. They  boxed up papers and books, coached me as I cleaned out that horrifying desk drawer: how’s it going in there? they chirped, but by that time I was speechless, buried in an avalanche of paper clips intended to hold things together.

The ladies got me through it. They held open a plastic bag while I dumped in the paper clips. They hauled out over-sized furniture into the carport. They grouped “like with like,” and by the time the women were done, I felt as though  the room were really breathing for the first time in ten years. This company’s motto is “Experience Clarity,” and it’s true; I felt like I could now breathe easier—freed from the weight of all those unruly things.

For about a month, I felt in control: I bought a new white desk for the room, filed the mail when it came, kept the surfaces cleared. I had new floor-to-ceiling bookshelves built into the nook and organized them by genre. I framed the many broadsides I’ve collected over the years and hung them by the bookshelves, so that I could be reminded my business is words. My business is organizing words into clean patterns and shapes.

But gradually disorder crept back in. First one stack of mail on the desk. A couple of files pulled out and not put back. Recycling overflowing its box. A jacket I wanted to give away; a pair of boots that were never comfortable. Even the rug seemed to rumple itself, refused to lie flat. And because of this, the rest of the house began to follow suit: dog leashes hanging over the back of the chair; the dishes go undone one night and breed. Impatience is what does it: moving too quickly from one thing to the next.

Time behaves like this too. I start with all good intention to organize, to set aside dedicated times for writing, for exercise, for teaching prep, for internet—but before too long those boundaries blur, and I’m doing twelve things at once, and none of them well, none of them with the presence of mind I desire.  

On my writing desk I have a postcard propped on the lamp: a serene Thai Buddha head, surrounded by the floating words: Calm, Clear, Happy Mind. I’d love to call the organizing ladies back, have them lay hands on my mind— clear it out, box up all those dusty regrets, those heavy memories, those clattering paperclips of doubt and fear. I’d like to tag them with the labelmaker just in case I happen to need them again.