I wish I could have bottled the air and brought it home with me. The beautifully maintained 110-year old Elizabeth Park in West Hartford, Connecticut hosted its Rose Sunday on June 15. Here are some images from that day. Inhale.
Can you smell them?
Recently the stomach flu that’s been making the rounds hit me. Being ill for three days gave me an opportunity to practice dying, (yes, you read that right), and to cultivate a more Buddha-like temperament.
On the first day, I am pinned to the bed, unable to lift my head. I have to surrender to what my body demands: total rest. Since I’m a healthy, productive woman living in the go-go-go, connect-connect-connect twenty-first century, it’s a complete change to be barely able to make the necessary phone calls and emails to cancel my day’s work schedule. But I’ve learned that the quickest path to feeling well again is to allow my body to do its natural - and miraculous - healing.
I usually take my body for granted, although I do occasionally have moments of appreciation. The pulse of its natural, unerring urge to life was demonstrated when my mother was dying of lymphoma. During her last few days, I watched her twitch and toss, under the influence of morphine, as her body slowly gave up its grip on life. The only thing she was able to say when conscious was “I know, I know”, which we took to mean she knew she was dying and she was alright with it. But her mind accepted before her body was willing. The need for surrender does not come easily to our physical vehicles, which cling to life with ferocity.
I think about my attachment to not just my physical existence, but all the things in my world which form my identity and which I rely on to bring me comfort and beauty. I consider what it’s like to say goodbye to my home, to the people I love. I wonder about the moment of death, will I be aware and step willingly into the mystery of it? These are thoughts I usually don’t ponder, and I touch the freedom - and fear - of letting go. Maybe death is like taking off a tight shoe, the soul sighing with relief.
Untethered from my daily routine, I become more present. I take in the view out the window, which I’ve seen a thousand times, with new eyes, eyes that don’t breeze over details. I notice the shape of the trees, the branch that was torn off in the last storm, the way the tops of the pines are loaded with tiny pine cones. And I tap into a well of gratitude for the world I inhabit. On the second day, I wake up with a little more strength. I stare at the blue walls of our bedroom. The blue paint - Windmill, it’s called, although I wonder if the windmills in the Netherlands are painted blue - appear alive to me, so alive I consume it through my eyes. It travels into my body like ephemeral nourishment. I experience the energy of color in a new way and I promise myself I won’t forget.
Later that day I feel able to step outside on the porch and sit in the sun, or rather lie in the sun on the long porch step, while I lazily toss a tennis ball for the grateful dog. I cover my eyes with my arm and allow the sun to warm me. It feels like a gift. The dog is happy, and I’m content with this simple moment. I’m not thinking about what I need to do next.
When I return to bed, which has become a cozy nest, with pillows surrounding me and the afghan my mother knit me while I was in college covering me, I am thankful. I finger my mother’s handiwork and wonder how many times she ripped out rows to achieve the perfect result which, four decades later, still warms me. Some of the fringe was braided by one of my college roommates, and here is her hand, too, which I now have time to remember. I recall something endearing about her, how she didn’t know how to finish her laugh. One evening we taught her how, practicing the tapering end of a good laugh. I wonder what her laugh sounds like now.
On the third day I venture into the yard. In the garden, last night’s rain is puddled in the umbrella-like leaves of the Lady’s Mantle, the rain drops nestled symmetrically in the leaves’ folds. I see the world anew, stop to examine the buds on the dwarf cherry tree, listen to the hum of the bumblebees, notice their number - hundreds - turning that tree into a hovering hub of activity. I experience the world with the sense of wonder and innocence of a three-year old and although I know it won’t last, that within a day or two the spell will wear off, I appreciate it and want to retain it. Decades ago my first meditation teacher counseled his students to let death be our counselor. He introduced us to the the idea that in welcoming as companions the impermanence of life and the unpredictable nature of death, we could become more awake, aware, and alive. Being temporarily sick can be an opportunity to step closer to death, and to life.
I’ve heard repeatedly from other writers that at some point in a birth of a book, it’s helpful to get away for a few days and focus solely on the project. I’m at the tail end of doing just that and I’m here to say it works.
Since I started writing seriously in 2001, I’ve attended different writing conferences and workshops, such as the Wesleyan Writers Conference, International Women’s Writing Guild Conference, Ridgefield Writers Conference, as well as workshops at theHudson Valley Writers Center, Westport Writers Workshop, and various local classes. All of them were helpful and enlightening in different ways. This workshop was different and in many ways, more valuable than any of those.
Eric Maisel is a writer, creativity coach, and family therapist (www.ericmaisel.com) His 40-plus published books deal with the artist’s life. I’m familiar with Fearless Creating, Living the Writer’s Life, and Deep Writing. His gift is applying his skills as a cognitive therapist to the creative life, which he does in a gentle, wise way, while hewing closely to certain ideas which support a life in the arts.
At our first session on Sunday evening, Eric immediately began to use the language he has created around creative work. As writers, we write because it’s a “meaning opportunity” in our lives. He suggested that we take this week, while we’re away from the demands of our usual routines, to establish a first-thing-in-the-morning writing practice. Making room for a meaningful experience before the rest of our day descends on us allows us to deal with the other parts of our life while knowing, okay, I’ve got my writing done. I can deal with the other things in my life, some of which have meaning, and some of which may not.
And we were all to try out sleep thinking.
Sleep thinking (Maisel wrote a book about this called The Power of Sleep Thinking) begins by going to bed with a question in your mind about your project, a “light wondering” about some aspect of your book, e.g., I wonder how the next chapter could be shaped; or I wonder what my main character will do when faced with his loneliness, etc. The answer may not appear when you first open your eyes, but I did find that answers came to me about my wonderings, sometimes later in the day. And, as Maisel said, wondering is better than going to bed worrying.
Every day, after Eric talked a bit and took some questions for about 45 minutes, he glanced at the clock and said, “Okay, now write for 40 (or 50 or 60) minutes”. And we did. It didn’t matter if we were finishing a draft, in the middle of project, not sure what we were writing about, or uncertain if we wanted to write at all. We just wrote, knowing, and this is the important part, that we were not going to read our work to anyone, not going to get any critique, nor need to give feedback to anyone else.
What freedom! It was a relief to sit in a room with twenty other writers and just work, with the knowledge that what you wrote was for your eyes only. The silent energy of minds engaged was supportive and sustaining.
And so our days went: three-hour morning sessions with a “lesson” each day, then a writing session, a break, some discussion, another writing session. After a two-hour lunch break, we had an afternoon session in the same format. We averaged three solid hours of group writing each day.
Not to say that it was all easy. Sometimes I sat down and didn’t feel like writing, or wasn’t sure where to begin, or was just tired. I never sleep well when away from home and I was sharing a dorm room with seven other women. But I stayed with it, as he encouraged us to do, and found it easier to drop into the work. I came up with a tactic I learned from my years of studying piano and cello: when I end a practice session, I make a note of where to begin the next day, providing me an easy entry point for the next writing session.
The group results were excellent. By Friday people worked out whatever they were grappling with. Some figured out what form their project would inhabit; others discovered that they wanted to continuing writing; one person finished his ten-minute screenplay. Along the way, Eric offered us bits of wisdom from his life as a writer and as a creativity coach. He understands the anxieties artists face and has tactics for dealing with them all.
I brought to the workshop a rough draft of my biography of mantra musicianGuruGanesha Singh, hoping to pull it together, find places to incorporate research material, and bring the draft closer to completion, so I can hand it to my first reader. I’m going home happy with the results. And I started writing for an hour every morning, with the intention to continue this once home.
There was only one downside: I knew Eric offered these Deep Writing Workshops around the country. What I found out after I arrived was the June session is in Paris. If only I’d waited.