… to explore the heart of what matters to us as women and as writers and to support one another on life’s creative journey.
Totem: (in some societies, especially among North American Indians) an object, species of animal or plant, or natural phenomenon symbolizing a clan, family, etc, often having ritual associations
Over a period of years, animal totems frequented my dreams, cougar, bear, and eagle being prevalent. I look at my dreams symbolically and metaphorically. (see: what is the difference?) The symbol system is my own, derived from years of working with my dreams while also checking reference books such as Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small by Ted Andrews and The Books of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images edited by Ami Ronnberg and Kathleen Martin.
When I studied English literature in college, I always assumed an author's symbols were contrived and was surprised to discover that symbols occurred in my writing without conscious manipulation. Humans think in metaphor and the metaphors we choose, even unconsciously, structure our perceptions and understanding. Here's an example from theliterarylink.com/metaphors.htm. "Thinking of marriage as a "contract agreement," for example, leads to one set of expectations, while thinking of it as "team play," "a negotiated settlement," "Russian roulette," "an indissoluble merger," or "a religious sacrament" will carry different sets of expectations." When we attribute thoughts to characters in fiction or family members in a memoir, using metaphors they themselves would use deepens the reader's understanding of their motivations and world view.
Ever since I began studying dreams in the late sixties, I've been most interested in what they tell me about the issues in my current life and about the spiritual guidance they carry for me. In writing, I find that when I drop into the voice of a character, or a relative, the metaphors surface naturally and serve both the writing and my own understanding. There is no need to struggle with "trying," I can let it emerge.
"Go" Collage with Fish & Dragonflies, 1999 - PTM
I'm moving (a wonderful metaphor I won't explore here!), and moving involves sorting through each piece of paper, each book, each bottle and photo to decide what to keep and what to release. In clearing off a bulletin board I have near my desk, I discovered a poem written March 18, 1999, on the back of a collage. The poem emerged from contemplating the "message" in the visual imagery. The cougar had appeared in several dreams. The poem still speaks to me as does the image. When I removed the collage from the board, I intended to throw it away, but upon reading the poem, I knew I could not. It had served me for fifteen years; I realized it wasn't done with me yet. It had more to give.
The Cougar's Gift
The cougar roars into then night.
I wait, knowing she'll come,
seeing me in dreams,
stalking me as prey,
clawing at my door
until I claim her golden pelt and
The cave is dark and I. with
no cat's eyes, cannot see
or smell or sense what
is there, next, under my foot.
Power is a moment-to-moment thing,
the energy produced by trust.
Go. (not come and be protected)
Go. Alone. Free. Powerful.
The pelt is torn and scarred.
And it is now mine.
The cougar emerged as lions in paintings I did on cabinet doors in a bathroom. Inspired by the art of Henri Rousseau, lion and lioness seek their prey through a thick jungle. Rousseau never visited a jungle and had seen wild animals only in tableaux of taxidermy. We know that lions do not live in jungles, but on savannahs, and that lionesses do most of the hunting. However, dreams and imagination are not faithful reproductions of reality; after all, in a dream we can fly or visit with the dead.
In looking again at the collage, poem, paintings, I hear the final words of William Blake's poem "The Tyger":
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
and hear its question, "How can a benevolent creator create both the ferocity of the tiger and the gentleness of the lamb?" as it applied to myself. How can I hold both anger and love in this one vessel, within this torn and scarred pelt? The truth is that I don't know, although I know both exist within me. And I also know that from this paradox springs tremendous power, the power that motivates me to hunt through the darkness of the night for what I burns bright within me.
Power is a moment-to-moment thing, the energy produced by trust.
What totems do you carry? What metaphors and symbols appear in your dreams and/or your writing? What gifts of insight have they revealed?
It is time for me to use this blog more actively, especially to record this move from Asheville to Durham. I have been listening to Anam Cara recordings by John O'Donahue (Sounds True). He says that each of us has a gift to give. I am fortunate in that I recognized mine and pursued it. It is through giving this gift, which is our soul's dream, that we come totally alive and are ourselves nourished.
Since understanding that I could no longer give my gifts through teaching in the way that I had done, I have sought guidance--how do I continue to give, to connect with all of you and yet feed my need for silence and solitude. Spirit moves in its own time. No bolt from the blue as has happened on occasion in the past. No, the answer is seeping slowly from the many cards and emails I have received from you through the years. I have been sorting, re-reading, and coming to a fuller acceptance of what following my dream has meant to you and how it has allowed some of you to follow yours.
Wisdom comes in pieces. Here are two pieces that I'm nurturing. The bolding is mine.
I thank Joella Newberry for sharing this from her own experience:
I am coming to such peace...without struggle... in just being and knowing my days are mine....I just say no. No, thank you. I am working on my projects at a snail's pace because that is what it takes to think and be at peace. An article in the newspaper this morning said that to be successful in one's retirement "becoming a hermit" is not wise. I know the extreme might be true, but I need to be alone a lot more than I ever have...not to produce, but to express, to give honor to my gifts that emerge from some full place that never empties.
And yesterday, Marion Dansforth sent this from her home near Durham:
I ... am elated at even the possibility of meeting you and having the opportunity to attend some writing experience you may lead. ...It is your spiritual wisdom translated into your writings that I value.
My job is to remember these teachings and recognize that in realizing my dream of serving through teaching and writing, I increasingly forgot to serve myself. I do not think of myself as retiring, but as giving myself the gift of putting myself back in the equation.
Will I still teach? I believe so, because teaching feeds my soul. And, the form of that teaching will be different. How? I don't know, except that I want to give time and space for deeper sharing of that spiritual wisdom. I'm still asking the questions as I clean closets and tape up boxes. Currently, we do not have a physical house in move into. Our present home still has riches to give up.
I love when life so obviously provides us with metaphors!
Thinking about "being a blessing" as a life intention astounded me. I posted the quotation on Facebook and challenged people to make a list beginning "I am a blessing because..." before I began my own list.
When I did so, It didn’t take me long to have the realization that all of the answers to that “because” were add-ons. Angelou didn’t have any add-ons. I am a blessing period. No qualifications, no reasons given. “I am” is enough.
How I intend to fulfill being a blessing is answered by my own soul. Each of us knows how we might express being a blessing, no one else needs to know or even needs to see us as a blessing. It’s made me think, to stop and consider.
The hardest thing is for me to accept that I am a blessing simply by intending to be one. It’s a state of being, not of doing. There is no caveat. This is one of those tiny shifts in perception that changes not only me, but the world.
So I tell you: You are a blessing. Say aloud. "I am a blessing," while looking in the mirror. Notice what arises within you. Write it one hundred times: I am a blessing. Wake up each morning and say it to yourself. Today I am a blessing.
I think such a mantra might change my life. How about you?
What wonderful responses I received from "Right Time, Right Path: Now." Such wisdom you sent my way. I wish you could have read one another's insights and I'm working on a way we might do that. (Suggestions accepted!) It's obvious a conversation is wanting to happen--many of you seem to be at the same juncture as I.
Here are some insights offered:
One woman writes of the unfinished manuscripts under the bed. "I can't seem to get back to them (the manuscripts) and feel them growing old, not unlike myself. It doesn't feel like "writers' block," but I watch myself flitting from one thing to another, and not focusing much on anything, partly in an attempt to squeeze in experience as I approach my 70th birthday."
**I began experiencing this in my late 60s and my 70th birthday was a shock in a way I didn't expect.
Another says she is in the same place and wonders if it's from recovering from breast cancer and two surgeries.
**I have had a broken leg, TIA, and back surgery between December 2010 and January 2014. Certainly physical problems remind us of our immortality and rearrange our priorities.
A mantra like "In this moment, all my needs are met" was suggested on the basis of the experience of another writer. This particular frontier, however, has not felt like depression or even discouragement, at which times I find affirming statements most helpful. I feel more like I've crossed to a new land and don't know the territory. The experience is at once exciting and daunting.
Another woman described her life as a "sea of uncertainty." As a result she began making a list with each item beginning "I am certain..." She equated the exercise with a gratitude list or Oprah's "This I know for sure." She ended her response with these words, "...you are not alone in your waiting period. Surely there is grace in waiting and not fixing."
An author of a book of reflections about modern womanhood said she recognized the experience of which I spoke. Her underlying fear was "permanently losing my way, as well as becoming -?-obsolete." She has moved forward, with little clarity, is flowing with the river, and has "quit trying to swim upstream." She too returned to reading her own book, particularly a place in which she speaks of the importance of "internal combustion."
Another wrote that she now believes that whatever road she's on is the right road, that she'll understand once she's traveled it. She sees, when she looks back, that all the pieces of her life, good and bad, come together to contribute invaluable learning and expansion in her understanding. Her suggestion? "Stay awake, say 'yes'--if not to the experience, to the understanding."
Another comment: "Lately, I've wondered if instead of making a big splash with a book or inspiring article, perhaps it is more about being a living example. My life is all that I have and perhaps I need to be satisfied with a small drop of sharing that gives hope and inspiration to those who cross my path. Thus, I try to live more in touch with my opening heart and watch the people, events, and opportunities for connection that cross my path."
I do find that when I'm facing a transition or a quandary that answers and opportunities show up synchronistically. One of these was finding, in exchange for signing up for the author's blog, the free fifty-page e-book River Diary: My Summer of Grace, Solitude and 35 Geese on carolorsborn.com. Download this book! I savored every word, as did my husband. Included in Carol's reveries are the last two stanzas of "A Morning Offering" by John O'Donohue, from his To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings.
May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.
A common thread runs through my experience, your comments, the River Diary, and O'Donohue's poem: aging triggers a change, physically, mentally, spiritually that invites us to a fork in the road where we must choose between living out our past by hanging onto old images of ourselves and "risk being disturbed and changed" by shedding these images and moving into a new vision of ourselves, truly "growing" old. Although these words are mine, they are the result of sitting at the bottom of my garden, ala Carol Orsborn by her river, and reading another now favorite book, Old Age: Journey into Simplicity by Jungian psychologist, Helen Luke. (My favorite chapters are the first about Odysseus and one on T.S. Elliot's "Little Gidding".
To learn more about this part of my journey, please see my blog--and respond too!
Midway this way of life we're bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone... .
It is so bitter it goes nigh to death. Dante
I have felt stalled out on writing. If I believed in writer's block, I would call it that. But doing so feels to me like an avoidance of something deeper that wants to be recognized and embraced. Deep breath.
What is happening here? I am no longer teaching and after carefully organizing all the material I have for my novel, am not writing it. In fact, I have been procrastinating writing this piece for the newsletter and also keep pushing writing the blog to one side. I write weekly with 3 friends and that's about it.
I keep saying I'm waiting to discover what I want to be when I grow up. I laugh when I say it but I know it's no laughing matter. I don't know what is next. I only know I can't continue teaching on the schedule I had developed. I love teaching, love the presence of all you lovely, lively, intelligent women in my life, and look forward to the two retreats scheduled later in the year. Yet I can't go back. I must go forward--but to what? Retirement is not an option; I need purpose in my life and I find it through work.
"Wait." That's my body's message, and my soul's. I recall that I spent much of 2013 until very recently dealing with medical crises--my own and my family's--and that I do not have total control over the nature of "recovery" or its duration. Still I feel I "should" be able to manage it. How do we wait when everything in our culture tells us to press on, grab the bull by the horns, and make a splash.
Maybe it helps to think of "waiting until the time is right." If I treat each moment as the right time for whatever is appearing, then the right action must become evident.
"Wait and observe," another message.
From the book shelf, I retrieved When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd (Secret Life of Bees) and have begun opening my heart to the message. At the same time, my husband and I are re-reading Women, Writing, and Soul-Making together, (sometimes it is necessary to retrieve one's own wisdom!) reading again what I wrote about letting our writing rest, trusting the process, and leaning on our intuition. I have, it seems lost myself in my own life to discover, as Dante says, that I have stepped off my right road and blundered into the dark woods with the right road lost from sight. What is the underlying fear? I open Women, Writing, and Soul-Making to Audre Lorde's words: "Maybe this is the chance to live and speak the things I really do believe, that power comes from moving into whatever I fear most that cannot be avoided."
So what is the fear? Perhaps that I won't find the road again. I now recognize this place. I have lived long enough to celebrate this as a "late-life crisis," a time of facing anew the transitory nature of life and its preciousness. An opportunity to spin a chrysalis and embrace the process of metamorphosis. Who knows the nature of the butterfly that will emerge?
Ranier Maria Rilke wrote, "Patience is everything." I believe him. I will wait with an open heart. I will listen to the water in the fountain and for the song of my soul. Already the writing of this is opening me up to possibility.
I opened the Valentine from my husband this morning and read: "It is something--it can be everything--to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below, a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for, one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can't handle." (Wallace Stegner in The Spectator Bird)
This fellow bird may be a friend, a love, a parent, sibling, or a spouse. But if you have even one of these, a person who sees beyond your personality to the essence of your soul, you have something more precious than diamonds or gold. I am rich beyond measure because I can count three and I am so very grateful.
And remember, you can be that bird to someone else. Look deep, give from the heart, and love well.
Betsy Fletcher, a retreat participant, first suggested postcard poetry to me. She had learned the exercise at a workshop with Sarah Zale, a poet on the Olympic Peninsula. Betsy and a her friend, Kathy, had exchanged poems over miles and months and felt both challenged and excited by the process.
I invited everyone at a seven-day retreat to bring picture postcards from home. We paired up so each of us had a writing partner. Our task was to write a poem on the message portion of the postcard and give it to our partner, one a day during the retreat. Moans of “I can’t write poetry” arose from some until I suggested they think of a poem as an observation, something they experienced with the senses. It could be from a memory or something in the moment outside the window: The neighbor’s black cat sleeps in a circle of sun. Only his tail twitches when a squirrel runs by. Nothing fancy, just an image. That’s enough. A moment is noted and captured concisely. By the end of the week, everyone enjoyed the exchange of poems.
A month of so after the retreat, I decided I wanted a poetry book by Ted Kooser (US Poet Laureate, 2004-2006; Pulitzer Prize 2005 for Delights and Shadows). In making my choice I discovered a book entitled Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison. In the preface, Kooser explains that after completing treatment for cancer:"…I began taking a two-mile walk each morning. I’d been told by my radiation oncologist to stay out of the sun for a year because of skin sensitivity, so I exercised before dawn…. I’d all but given up on reading and writing. Then as autumn began to fade and winter came on, my health began to improve. One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day.” Kooser began pasting his morning poems on postcards and sending them to his friend, Jim Harrison.
The idea that there could be an entire book of postcard poems delighted me. I bought the book and suggest you might want to do the same.
The only sound against this stillness:
A crow flaps through our Norway pines,
its wingtips brushing snowflakes from the needles.
You don't need to match Kooser to do this exercise (remember, he has had years of practice!). You needn’t buy postcards or exchange poems with a friend, though doing so might keep you writing. I think I will send mine to you via Facebook. You can return the favor, it you like! Or, write them in the comment bar here.
First, of all Happy New Year! I have been writing this letter in my head for several days, but today I read my horoscope and that has made me go to the keyboard. It read: “Can you give yourself what you want? You would have to completely rearrange your priorities, putting yourself higher on the list.” That is the crux of this letter.
In 2013, you may remember, I supposedly took a sabbatical…except I didn’t. In April my grandson’s birth and in October my son’s surgery necessitated my spending more time in Durham than could have been foreseen. Interspersed with those trips, I was beset with back problems.
I didn’t listen to the message my body was giving and planned to go full throttle into 2014. The truth is, I cannot do that. I am not ill, but I do have a back issue that will require surgery. In addition, my intuition and spiritual guidance says that I must quit teaching in the way I have done in the past. This is difficult advice for me to follow because I love my work and feel it is a gift I’ve been given to pass on.
It’s clear to me that I will continue my work, but not in the same way. I do not know precisely what form it will take, although I suspect I will, at least in part, be doing some classes or coursework online. The first that has occurred to me is a training course for those who would like to learn my methodology for teaching. If you have ideas or interest in such classes, I would like to hear from you!
Meanwhile I have cancelled the four retreats planned for Montreat Conference Center in 2014. I will still lead the August 1-3 retreat at Great Tree Zen Temple (registration in not open yet). Last year’s Lake Logan 7-day retreat for alumni was cancelled because of a calendar error; I plan to offer this again only for those alumni of Lake Logan and Seabrook who registered last year. Please do not inquire about this retreat. If by any chance spaces open, I will send out a notice.
I intend to continue the writing prompts, and am asking for your support. I know from email I receive that the prompts and quotations support many of you in your writing practice. Sending the prompts out daily has costs and I am asking for contributions toward their continuation. When people pledge a set amount automatically sent in monthly through PayPal. This helps me with planning and also helps you to contribute regularly. You can stop your donation at any time.
The newsletter will continue bimonthly and my blog will soon reappear under a new name: A Woman’s Way with Words.
With these changes, I’ve moved myself to the top of my priority list. It is definitely a leap off the cliff into the void, waiting for the net to appear. I am looking forward to staying in touch and letting you know what I will be up to next.
Now, freewrite to this New Year's prompt: What would happen if I gave myself what I want?
"Birthday" was the prompt that day in the writing circle. I put my pen down on the lined paper and it moved, pulling out the truth from my cells. The words spoke to me and to all women of the process of reincarnation that I now believe is what we experience as aging.
So what is it about 70 that stands up, shrieks out, spins around, and falls down not laughing? What is it that started at 69 and shook me up? Till then I was looking ahead, marching on, ready for more, then slowly an ebbing tide. Stop. Look. This is your life. Where has it gone and for what? Stop. Breathe.
I’ve talked to other women experiencing this and it seems to happen between 65 and 75, if my limited statistics are valid. I don’t want to collapse into Leisure World or spend my days on cruises to avoid watching the calendar.
I want to go into the forest, become the Forest Dweller*, the last phase of life described in Hindu philosophy , to go deeper more honest, more investigative than ever before.
I want to dwell in silence that is deep and still, still as the lily pond that holds in its depths the golden mud of knowledge and wisdom.
I want to be still as still and sit on the porch counting goldfinches and Be.
This is an interesting turn I didn’t expect. No one spoke to me of it, this place where doing seems to hold little attraction. And yet I need to earn a living (do I really?), cannot rest on my laurels (then what are laurels for?).
Birthdays. Yes. This is a birthday of sorts, one of transition, of birthing a new life, one that fits the new person held in this old skin.
What is the birth process open to me now, one that takes courage, daring and all the intelligence of surrender I can muster?
This birthday shouts renewal — renewal and not knowing, and not knowing and trusting, and trusting and surrendering, and surrendering and being open, and receiving without question and above all, facing the future unafraid.
*Hindu philosophy delineates four stages of life, although not all people go through all stages: Student, Householder, Forest Retirement, and the Forest Dweller.
The Forest Dweller or Ascetic Stage--(begins by leaving home and carrying out a spiritual existence in the country).
1. The man and his wife together (if she wants to go) move to the forest to begin in earnest the path of self-discovery.
2. Most men defer the Forest Dweller Stage to another future life.
3. The forest dweller works out a philosophy of sannyasin--one who neither hates nor loves anything. A sannyasin is completely independent and is beyond dharma (the structure of moral and social obligations) and so in a sense is "beyond good and evil."
a. There are no social pretensions--things simply are what they are (cf., Vasudeva in Hesse's Siddhartha).
b. Once detachment, mental and economic independence, is achieved, the sannyasin can return to the town or city.
c. This stage of life is a necessary condition for the attainment of salvation; once achieved that soul will never individually return to this world.
For another exploration of aging, read Joan Dideon's latest book, Blue Nights. My favorite passage in that book is her recounting of her physician's comment to her that she was experiencing "an inadequate adjustment to aging" and her unspoken response that his assessment was not true because she was not willing to make any adjustment at all! A marvelous honest book.
What is your experience of significant birthdays after 50? I'd love to hear from you. And I promise you will be hearing from me more regularly.
An email exchange—
How do I trust the process in terms of developing a story? Or can I trust it? In other words, I've spent time on a scene and it's just flowing--but that's all I have--a scene from this story in my head. Can I stop and start this? Or do I link scenes and pieces together as they come to me? Or--is this just about the individual way each of us writes--and I will have to stumble blindly until I find what works for me? I know it's probably the last answer but I don't have to like it!
Does this make any sense?
(signed) Groping My Way
Dear Groping My Way,
As long as there is "juice"/energy to your writing of this scene keep going, it may continue until the story/book is complete.
Most importantly, don't start editing the story until you have it all down.
If something occurs to you that needs to be changed in what you wrote, make a margin note.
The writing of the note may turn into another scene and if so, follow the energy.
So you may have a contiguous story or you may end up with disconnected scenes that you piece together later.
So yes, you will have to stumble some to find what works for you. But notice that I left out the word "blindly" -- remember that a blind person employs other senses for guidance; all women have or can develop what I call in my book, the Muse Collective (Imagination, Intuition, and Inspiration), as guides. This Collective leads us into the dark depths. The less we resist going there, the more likely we are to emerge with inspired prose.
I'd suggest having some visual image or object or a mantra as a touchstone to remind you that you are not blind. You have a light inside shining on the path. This does not mean that you won't stumble or that the way will be easy (the light usually shines on the next step, not on the whole journey), but YOU CAN TRUST IT. We are called to surrender what we think our writing (and our life) should be and open to what is revealed.
Honoring your words,
Thank you so much for such a thoughtful (and encouraging) response. I will take your suggestions to heart and continue to "feel my way" (both literally and figuratively) along the path. I'll also be interested to hear if others struggle with this same question--it was very difficult for me to even articulate the problem. This "trust the process and yourself" stuff is not for sissies!
Groping My Way
Dear Groping My Way,
You are right. It's a spiritual journey; one I suspect that is all about surrender.
The great thing is it radiates out into all aspects of your life in a beautiful way.
My correspondent made this request: I'll also be interested to hear if others struggle with this same question. Post your responses to her on the blog so she can engage in the conversation.
I really enjoy responding to your questions. Please send me more via the blog or email. I'll answer questions posted on Facebook directly on Facebook.