… to explore the heart of what matters to us as women and as writers and to support one another on life’s creative journey.
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.
Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be happy by filling in the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth. If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have no rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner of them with action and experience, God will seem silently to withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty.
Silence Is A Place Within Us
I love the silence of this morning’s rain. From my sofa, the color of spring grass, I imagine the raindrops whispering to each other as they leap from the clouds and slide through the air with a steady shush shush.
By removing ourselves as much as possible from man-made sounds we limit distractions. This endeavor results in a shocking discovery: the mind fills this silence with noisy thoughts. Every meditator, no matter how practiced, experiences this when she sits on the cushion. The point of meditation is not to become a better meditator, but to find the silence within and from that place to watch how the mind plays.
Not everyone is drawn to sitting meditation. Practicing silence provides an alternative. After my last blog on this subject, friends offered some resources. Poet and musician Jo Balistreri recommended Listening Below the Noise by novelist Anne LeClaire. Following LeClaire’s example, Jo has taken every other Wednesday in silence for the last six months. “I find it necessary at this point,” she writes, “— not easy, sometimes frustrating when I want to quip back about something, or check something out, etc. … But persevering is worth it.”
For her silent day, Jo listens to her body and spirit and engages only in activities they (not her mind) call her to. I did the same on my silent retreat and found myself present to the most ordinary tasks. This practice led me to truly experience the difference between washing the dishes to wash the dishes rather than washing the dishes to get clean dishes, an example of mindfulness given by Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.
We practice being in outer silence so we can internalize it. We learn to carry the silence within so it becomes a place we can retreat to at any time and in any place.
Fitting Silence Into Your Time Budget
Can’t find a full day to feed your soul? Create a way that fits into your time budget.
My artist friend Penny Sandonato, discovered the "Monk Manifesto" and the “Monk in the World Seven Day Course” on AbbeyoftheArts.com. The Abbey is an “online global monastery without walls offering retreats, classes, books, and resources to nurture contemplative practice and creative expression” led by Christine Valters Painter, a Benedictine oblate and author.
The first day’s lesson focuses on Silence and Solitude. The suggested practice is to “Just for today claim a window of time – even ten minutes is enough to begin – and rest into an experience of stillness…. The invitation is toward both an outer and inner silence.”
When I include meditation and periods of silence in my day, I experience time expanding. Since my self-imposed silent retreat a few weeks ago, I have recommitted to practicing silence during the day, usually beginning with a morning meditation. During the day, I find moments while walking, gardening, or sitting with a cup of tea. Being silent during activity requires stilling the mind so I can be present to “being in” the activity rather than focused on “getting it done.”
Writing and Silence
Consider fitting in silence as part of writing practice. Even three deep breaths before confronting the page can take us to the focus we need for writing. As with practicing silence, we don’t not need an extended period of time to practice writing. Start with ten minutes. Women with full time jobs, whether at an office or at home with children, often discover their alone time in the bathroom. I recently read of a man who wrote a novel during half hour sessions sitting on the bathroom floor before his family arose.
Some people like to write in cafés or other public places. Rather than being a distraction, the noise of the café can become a barrier keeping the outer world at bay while we focus on the page.
I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences on silence and writing. I sense a growing dissatisfaction with the "noise" of our lives, even if it's soundless. Am I the only one I feeling barraged by demands to brand, hype, and otherwise sell-sell- sell myself? I think there's another way, a feminine way. What do you think?
"Silent solitude makes true speech possible and personal. If I am not in touch with my own belovedness, then I cannot touch the sacredness of others. If I am estranged from myself, I am likewise a stranger to others."
In my just-released July newsletter, I wrote about using my absent friends' home as a silent retreat. While this retreat was not for the purpose of writing, it is for me a necessary part of my writing regimen, as important as sitting down with my notebook.
Alone in the quiet, I am present to myself; the outside world with its lists vanish from my head. I come into myself and the world comes right. I can do nothing meaningful except from this inner place, my creative center, my soul. Too often I forget to feed this part of myself, my own "belovedness" and my creativity dries up.
Silence and solitude provide the basic elements of nurturing the soul. First off, we need to find a place. In part II of Wendell Berry's poem "How To Be a Poet," he describes the basics:
Breathe with unconditional breath/the unconditioned air./Shun electric wire./ Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensional life;/stay away from screens./ Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in./ There are no unsacred places;/ there are only sacred places/ and desecrated places.
No Internet, email, cellphones, television. These things were in my friends' home, but I did not have access to them or I chose not to use them. The house was clean, uncluttered, light-filled, and surrounded by nature. It was also free.
Other places I have found similar settings, not free but for minimal cost are religious/spiritual retreat centers. In particular Buddhist, Catholic, and Episcopal retreat centers, monasteries, and convents around the world offer opportunities for individual personal retreats.
At most of these centers, it is not necessary to be a member of a related congregation or to participate in any of their programs. Usually you pay a modest fee for room and board.
These settings are especially helpful for early ventures into silence and solitude. Structure and a minimal amount of social interaction alleviate some of the disorientation and anxiety that can arise when we enter a world without distraction and find ourselves alone with ourselves.
In the newsletter I wrote, "Some find solitude and silence frightening: the idea of what voices might speak if the daily tapes of the mind are shut off. I understand... And, I also know that the voice wanting to be heard is your own belovedness, your own true self that waits to embrace you and to lead you to the highest expression of your gifts. To be writers, to speak our truth, I believe we must be willing to enter this place."
(Photos (c) 2010, Peggy Tabor Millin. Please do not use without permission.)
A conference of any type is a "meeting for consultation or discussion" which can be held in a public place such as a hotel and have any number of teachers, often well known authors, and a wide variety of topics.
Writing conferences feature informational workshops by published authors, agents, and publishers. You can learn about different genres, receive tips on getting published, and learn techniques for improving your writing. These events usually provide opportunities to network with other writers and to to talk to an agent about your work (for an additional fee). Conferences are sponsored by state writers' associations and other large organizations such as Writers' Digest. Conferences are a great place for new writers to join the writing world.
A workshop is an "educational seminar in a specified area." At writing workshops, a group of people, usually 20 or fewer meet with a published author as instructor over 5 or more days. Most commonly, the individuals submit written work prior to the beginning of the class; sometimes submissions are requested as part of a selection process. The purpose of the workshop is to provide each writer with feedback or critique from each member of the group and the instructor. The critique process is called "workshopping."
When the rules for workshopping are clear and the instructor enforces the boundaries, a workshop can be instructive and encouraging. Too often, however, egos take over and at least some participants leave feeling inadequate and discouraged. Workshops maybe offered as classes at your community college or be part of a larger program such as the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. Workshops require having work that can be critiqued, but the level of expertise required depends on the workshop.
To retreat is to withdraw from the fray to a "place affording peace, solitude or security." Writing retreats are usually held in retreat centers that provide room, board, and meeting facilities and have no more than two facilitators. They vary widely is what they offer. Some provide space and time to write and offer no structured group interaction. Others combine time to write with sightseeing in exotic locations. Still others offer yoga along with writing.Here are some things I believe a writing retreat should offer:
- Silence. To write we must be able to sit in silence and listen with an inner ear.
- Solitude. Writing is done in isolation. As a result, the group's size and gender mix is important. What boundaries are in place to protect your solitude?
- Safety. Good leadership and clear boundaries provide the safety in which each member and the group can find inspiration and challenge.
- Support. At a retreat, the leader's ability to facilitate group process, maintain boundaries, and provide emotional safety and support is probably more important than his or her writing and publishing resume.
A writing retreat can accommodate people of varying levels of ability. The benefits you might expect from a retreat: Rest. Renewal. Re-creation. Community.