I realize it's not the last Wednesday of the month, but I haven't done one of these compilations in quite a while, and I blew right past last month's bonus Wednesday, when I fully intended to post something extra. So I owe you! Besides, I've been finding some good stuff that I really want to share.
So here you go . . .
We tend to think of consciousness as skin bound, brain tethered. However, in nature we can sense something vaster--and that something larger senses us. And from here our perception and understanding transforms. We start to think from this bigger perspective.
-- Mark Coleman, Mindful magazine, April 2019
I'd sooner exchange ideas with the birds on earth than learn to carry on intergalactic communications with some obscure race of humanoids on a satellite planet from the world of Betelgeuse. First things first.
-- Edward Abbey, "The First Morning," Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Bees teach us so many lessons. When they take all this nectar from the tree, does that deprive the tree of anything? No, it enhances it. And when you give your time and energy to helping someone, does it deplete your skills? No, it gives you something to be proud of.
-- Brother Blaise Heuke, "The Beauty of a Bee," AARP The Magazine,
Live with unremitting alertness.
-- Joseph Campbell
[W]ith art comes empathy. It allows us to look through some else's eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others. When we are without art, we are a diminished people--myopic, unlearned and cruel.
-- Dave Eggers, The New York Times, June 29, 2018
Authorship is a solitary business, always coming down to a writer and a blank page, but inevitably it becomes a social act as well, because the book is inextricably part of the world. It finds readers, it begins a conversation, it tells a kind of truth that can't be told in any other way--or else it fails to do that.
James Gleick, Authors Guild Bulletin, Spring-Summer 2018
But here's the thing: Humans are not what we do. Humans are everything we do, and feel, and think, with a dash of stardust thrown in. The same is true for writers.
-- Lenore Myka, "When to ignore good advice," Poets & Writers magazine, Sept/Oct 2018
You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.
-- Andy Warhol
Life is a great bundle of little things.
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
For a few years now, I have closed out most weeks by taking to the trails with the Wander Women, a local hiking group. We walk, and we talk, and we take in the sights and sounds along our woodland paths. But the truth is, we don’t really wander. We have a definite destination and an approximate time frame, from which we rarely deviate.
That’s as it should be. We all have post-hike errands to run or appointments to keep or evening engagements to get ready for, so it helps to have an idea just how the day’s hike will fit into all of that.
Sometimes, though, when I’m on my own in the woods—or on a city street, for that matter—I like to just aimlessly meander. That makes me a flâneur, a word I learned from a lovely article in Mindful magazine. The word has been variously defined as “an aimless idler” and “a passionate wanderer.”
I guess I’m a little of both. So, apparently, was Henry David Thoreau, who extolled the virtues of “sauntering” and letting his mind wander along with his feet.
When I worked in downtown Detroit, I spent most lunch breaks walking, usually with no particular destination in mind. I might end up strolling by the Detroit River or losing myself in the Ren Cen’s maze of hallways and catwalks or exploring Greektown or Harmonie Park or Washington Boulevard. Wherever I roamed, I always came back to the office refreshed and ready to work for the rest of the day.
Later, when I worked in Ann Arbor, my lunchtime walks took me into various neighborhoods, where I found inspiration in the creatively-designed gardens, quirky houses, and funky yard art I passed along the way.
“When you wander, the spring you tighten in order to secure your purpose and direction can unwind,” editor Barry Boyce observed in the Mindful article. What’s more, he noted, wandering can even be a kind of mindfulness practice. While we tend to think mindfulness is all about corralling our restless minds, the definition can expand to include “the practice of just noticing one thing after another as we let ourselves out to play.”
That’s exactly what I find myself doing on my walks these days. A just-bloomed wildflower, an oddly-shaped stone, a leaf floating down the creek—there’s no telling what will catch my attention and take it far from whatever minutia occupied my overloaded brain before I set out on my stroll.
I seem to wander best when I wander alone, but some folks are joining up in free “walkshops” organized by the nonprofit group Street Wisdom. On these volunteer-led strolls, participants are encouraged to tune into their senses and use their heightened awareness to sharpen their creative problem-solving skills.
Whether you ramble solo or with fellow flâneurs, you can bet your creativity will get the same kind of boost, as long as you let your mind meander freely. Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology found that frequent daydreamers scored higher on tests of intellectual and creative ability and used their brains more efficiently (as measured with brain scans) than people who zoned out less.
All of that is reason enough for me to get up from my desk and wander off. See ya later!
In some ways, the third Monday in March seemed like any other Monday. Early that morning, eleven of us trooped into Fae Wood Studio, the serene space that’s been our yoga home for the past couple of years. Just as she had on so many other Mondays, our teacher, Behnje Masson, led us through a series of moves that refreshed our bodies and boosted our spirits.
Our spirits needed boosting more than usual, because—appearances notwithstanding—this Monday was not just any Monday. It was our last class at Fae Wood Studio, and for now, at least, Behnje’s last time to travel to Newaygo to teach us.
For this community of yoginis, this ending marked yet another change in a long history of practicing and studying together. More than twenty years ago, our neighbor Sally Kane initiated the class, teaching every Monday morning in her basement. When Sally went back to school to become a teacher, Ellie Randazzo appeared at just the right time. Ellie took over Sally's class and went on to add more classes, build a devoted following, and eventually open her own studio, Woodland Yoga.
As I've written about before, yoga with Ellie, followed by breakfast at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café became a can’t-miss Monday-morning routine for the group (which I joined about seven years ago), and friendships flourished in the process.
When Ellie died unexpectedly in 2016, we were adrift. Yet we kept our Monday morning yoga-and-breakfast sessions going, even when we had to squeeze into someone’s living room or loft to practice together. Then, through a charmed confluence of events, Ellie’s sister Kathy invited us to use her newly-established studio, Fae Wood, and Behnje offered to drive up from Grand Rapids twice a month to teach us. It was an ideal arrangement, one we’ve been privileged to enjoy for almost two years.
But just as Ellie always taught us, change is inevitable. Sure enough, everything has shifted again, and it’s time to readjust.
After deciding to move back to Grand Rapids, Kathy has sold her home and closed Fae Wood Studio. Meanwhile, Behnje’s studio in Grand Rapids, From the Heart Yoga, has moved into a new location and needs more of her time and attention. All of that means we’re adrift again.
But sad as we are to see this chapter close, drifting for a bit may not be a bad thing, especially with all the possibilities swirling around us: continue practicing together at a new location, carpool down to From the Heart Yoga, try out other local yoga classes.
At the end of our last class, we gathered at the back of the room, near Ellie’s favorite statue of the Hindu archetype Ganesh. Behnje talked about the importance of letting go of what you’ve lost, without trying to figure out in advance what’s coming next. She used the image of casting the old into a stream and just waiting to see what flows back to fill the space left open.
It was fitting that this last, momentous class happened to fall in the same week as the vernal equinox, a time associated with balance, but also with change, cleansing, and new beginnings. As we contemplated this latest change, we could feel winter loosening its grip, allowing us to move forward into a season of growth and beauty.
It was a good time, too, to be reminded that yoga itself is all about change. As instructor and author Cyndi Lee writes in the March/April 2019 issue of Yoga Journal, yoga “offers a myriad of experiences, many that we could never have predicted.” The point is not to nail a particular pose and hold onto it to dear life (no matter what we may think as we totter in Tree pose), but to adapt, adjust, and explore the range of possibilities.
“See how your actions come together to make certain poses, and then notice how that experience dissolves and is over. We are learning the truth of impermanence. Since everything arises and passes, we try to appreciate it in the moment that it is here.”
I’m happy to welcome Peter Gibb to HeartWood today. I met Peter when I took—and greatly enjoyed—his workshop, “The Joy of Mindful Writing,” at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference last fall.
Peter’s award-winning memoir, King of Doubt, is a beautifully-crafted story of self-discovery—a must-read for anyone who’s ever experienced self-doubt. (Is there anyone who hasn't?) When I learned he has a book on mindful conversation in the works, I cleared a space on my bookshelf in anticipation.
As he relates on his website, Peter grew up shy and isolated. Not exactly a conversational whiz. Eventually, though, he caught on to a few secrets that he honed and shared over a 22-year career of teaching, consulting, and coaching conversational skills “on 4 continents, in 3 languages, to Fortune 500 companies, to leaders of the emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, to doctors and bakers and just plain folks, hungry to learn.”
I’m honored to have Peter as a guest today. At the end of his post, you’ll find a link to his website, where you can take a quiz to learn your dominant conversational style. I encourage you to check it out. I took the quiz and not only gained insights into my habits in conversation, but also got tips on tweaking those habits toward more effective and satisfying face-to-face communication.
Now, here’s Peter . . .
First, I’m delighted to be a guest on Nan’s blog. So much interesting talk happening here, and such important topics.
Is there any human activity that has the potential to bring us contentment and provide real connection, more than Great Conversation? Conversation is a master life skill. Essential for parenting, teaching, leading, making friends, getting along with colleagues, selling . . . you know, just about anything and everything you do will be more successful and more satisfying if accompanied by Great Conversation.
But here’s the rub. Not all Conversation. In fact a great deal of conversation isn’t conversation at all. It’s just talk. Talk that does not bring us contentment or connection.
A great deal of talk consists of what I call “Serial Monologue.” This is talk in which two people, supposedly engaged in conversation, are actually just talking heads, listening mostly to their own voices. Rather than paying attention to what the other person is saying, they are more frequently:
Further, when such talkers do respond to the speaker, the most frequent type of response is what I call a “Grabbing Response.” Here is an example:
Person A: “I just got back from a great trip to San Diego with my family. We had a terrific time.”
Person B: “San Diego, we were there in fall of ’17, but it was cold most of the time.”
Person A: “The zoo was really wonderful. My Clara left saying she wants to become a Vet. I’ve never seen her so excited.”
Person B: “Really. We take our kids to the zoo at least once a year.”
Person A is all excited to tell about her vacation, but Person B pretty much disregards everything that A says and launches into whatever story comes to mind. A conversation should be like a dance of connection, but in fact this one is more like a football game, each side trying to grab the ball and score points on some mythical scoreboard. Person B grabs the spotlight from A and changes the topic from A’s vacation to B’s cold vacation in San Diego and how one of the children is going to be a Vet.
Instead of creating connection and contentment, this kind of talk fosters isolation and frustration. Neither talker feels heard or acknowledged. There is no real connection.
What Ears Can Do
We were given two ears but just one mouth. There must be a reason. The most critical ingredient for Great Conversation is “Deep Listening.”
The first step toward deep listening is to get rid of grabbing responses and start using “reflective responses” instead.
Imagine how different this conversation might have been, had it gone something like this:
Person A: “I just got back from a great trip to San Diego with my family. We had a terrific time.”
Person B: “You sound so excited. San Diego. What made the trip so exceptional?”
This is a “reflective response.” There are many types of reflective response, too many to go into here. They all validate the speaker, mirroring back some aspect of what the speaker has said and often inquiring for further about the topic. Note that in this particular response, Person B validates a feeling (excited) and then inquires for more detail (what made the trip so exceptional?) There is no telling my own story, or giving advice, or judgment, or distraction. It’s basically listening, reflecting and inquiring. Simple? Well, not always, but what a difference it will make.
The Power of Listening
Learning to become a more conscious, committed listener is the single most important step you can take to move your conversation from talk to connection and ultimately to “Great Conversation.”
So what exactly is great conversation? Well, that’s a longer conversation. The best I can do in this short time is to say that it’s a skill we can all develop. It’s based on four values whose first letters spell the word C.A.R.E.
If you’d like to learn more about Great Conversation, please visit my web site, http://www.petergibb.org/. Scroll down a bit on the home page, and you’ll see an invitation to take the “Conversational Style Assessment,” a short survey that will help you discover your dominant conversational style. You’ll learn which of four basic conversational styles (Observer, Nurturer, Performer, and Explorer) is your default mode. You’re not locked into any one style for life. You can change your conversational style, but knowing your default style can help you to get oriented and on the path to Great Conversation. Take the assessment and you’ll get a personalized report back from me.
I also have a blog that discusses issues of Great Conversation once or twice per month, and a forthcoming (but not for at least 18 months) book, titled Beyond the Weather: 5 Steps to Great Conversation. If you’d like to be notified when the book is released, please sign up on the drop down form on my web site, or email me: email@example.com
Thanks for Listening. I hope to visit with you again.
Today is my birthday! I was going to be all low-key about it—just let it slide by without a mention. But when I noticed it would fall on a blog-posting day, I couldn’t resist sharing some birthday thoughts with you.
Besides, this one’s a biggie: 70. Just typing that number makes my jaw drop. Me?? 70?? With the dicey health history I had from age 17 on, there were times I doubted I’d ever see this many candles on my cake. Yet as the years piled up, I allowed myself to hope—and then believe—I just might.
When I did envision myself at 70, I imagined I’d be living a slowed-down, reflective life, sifting through mementos and old photo albums, processing the past, while practicing meditation and yoga to keep me grounded in the present. What I didn’t imagine was that I’d be so involved in new projects and interests and so jazzed about what’s still ahead.
It helps that we live in a community of energetic, engaged people around my age and older who are doing interesting things: playing and recording music, making art, writing and illustrating books, tending gardens, devoting time and talents to worthy causes. (By the way, if you missed my post on Bea Cordle, an inspiration to us all at 90+, be sure to check it out.)
Last year, the stars aligned to make good things happen with my writing and photography. Now, looking forward to the publication of my memoir, Mango Rash, later this year, I’m loving the idea of being a debut author at 70. Toward the end of last year, I also achieved my goal of hiking 50 miles of the North Country Trail, earning that coveted patch for the vest I wrote about in a previous post. This year, I’ve signed up to try for 100 miles (and another patch!), and though sub-zero temperatures and icy trails have set me back lately, I’ve at least made a start toward that goal.
Yet in spite of my undampened enthusiasm for projects and passions, this time of life does feel different in some ways from my earlier years, and I do feel the need to take time out for reflection, for putting things in context and looking back as well as forward.
In that spirit, Ray and I have been looking through all my photo albums, in order. They start with photos from before I was born—ancestors, my parents’ early lives—and continue up to 2003, when we switched from film to digital and I got tired of sticking pictures on pages.
Though I’ve dipped into these albums from time to time over the years, I’ve never gone through them this way, one after another, in the span of a few weeks. Doing that now, I notice threads that run through the decades. One is my love of nature, from childhood romps in the woods to more recent treks on nearby trails. Another is appreciation of art, evident in snapshots from settings that range from tony sculpture gardens to funky street fairs. Travels—around Michigan and beyond, by motorcycle, RV, or other conveyance—are another theme.
Most meaningful, though, are the faces that keep showing up, year after year, in different situations and places: the friends and family members with whom I’ve shared both celebrations and somber occasions. It's gratifying to realize how many of these people I'm still in touch with and have talked to or exchanged email with in the past week alone. Remembering the roles we’ve played—and continue to play—in one another’s lives gives me a deep sense of connection.
Within the pages of my photo albums, I also find reminders of the losses that come with a long life. So many faces in those photos belong to people who have passed from this life and whose presence I miss. At this time of life, the losses come closer together, and the bonds among those of us who remain grow stronger.
When I embarked upon this photographic time trip, I didn’t give much thought to its significance. It was just one of those “someday, I’ll . . . ” things that I felt like doing now. Now, as I pore over pages, I realize what a profound experience it is to look back over a lifetime and contemplate what it's all been about. At a time when it sometimes seems things are falling apart, there's also a sense that everything's coming together.
As I anticipate the coming year—and years—it's with a keen awareness that there's really no way of knowing what may come, and no point in either worrying or fantasizing about what-ifs.
All I can say for now is, "So far, so good."
Share your thoughts about the stage of life you're experiencing.
Mālo le onosa’i
-- Samoan proverb loosely translated as “patience is a virtue”
I’ve been thinking a lot about patience—and its payoffs—lately. About the years I spent writing and revising and polishing my memoir, and the months of researching agents and publishers, pitching at conferences, and sending out queries.
Friends praised my perseverance, but I sometimes wondered if they were secretly thinking, Isn’t it about time she gave up on this thing and got on with her life? Sometimes I wondered that myself.
At the same time, I kept reading about authors—many of them famous now—who traveled the same plodding path, encountering rejection after rejection until finally they hit publication pay dirt. So I waited . . . and waited . . . and kept doing everything I could to improve my odds until, miracle of miracles, I had my own book contract in hand.
And then I found out still more patience is required. My memoir, Mango Rash: Coming of Age in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta, is due out in October of this year—a wait of another nine months, made up of a multitude of mini-waits. Right now, I’m waiting for my editor’s notes so I can begin another round of revisions. Then I’ll be waiting for more editorial input on final tweaks. And so on, and so on.
Meanwhile, I’m suppressing the urge to fire off nervous-newbie question after question to my editor, knowing that she’s swamped with other projects right now and trusting that she will provide whatever information and guidance I need as I need it. Patience. Patience.
In that spirit, I’ve rounded up an assortment of wisdom on the subject to share with you today.
Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.
- Samuel Johnson
Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy.
The creative people I admire seem to share many characteristics: A fierce restlessness. Healthy cynicism. A real world perspective. An ability to simplify. Restraint. Patience. A genuine balance of confidence and insecurity. And most importantly, humanity.
- David Droga
I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.
- Lao Tzu
Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.
- John Quincy Adams
The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.
- Arnold H. Glasow
Having patience is one of the hardest things about being human. We want to do it now, and we don't want to wait. Sometimes we miss out on our blessing when we rush things and do it on our own time.
- Deontay Wilder
Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself.
- Saint Francis de Sales
If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees.
- Hal Borland
Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.
- May Sarton
Patience is the companion of wisdom.
- Augustine of Hippo
Despite the common misconception, having patience doesn't mean making a pact with the devil of denial, ignoring our emotions and aspirations. It means being wholeheartedly engaged in the process that's unfolding, rather than yanking up our carrots, ripping open a budding flower, demanding a caterpillar hurry up and get that chrysalis stage over with.
- Sharon Salzberg in “The Power of Patience,” Awakin.org, February 10, 2014
The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others.
- Erik Erikson
We’ll replace our old, slothful habits with shiny, new diet and exercise regimens. We’ll be kinder, calmer, more generous and patient. We’ll work harder, or work less, depending on our situations and motivations. We’ll see new places and learn new things.
In short, we’ll be far more fabulous in 2019 than we were in 2018.
It’s an appealing fantasy, and I’ll admit, in past years I’ve made long lists of goals that ranged from personal improvement (find positive ways to deal with conflict; let go of resistance and cultivate lightness) to artistic (make a dozen new collages; take a dance class; write a poem every day) to niggling tasks (keep up on paperwork and email; sell or donate excess stuff).
The trouble was, year after year, I grossly overestimated the amount of free time and energy I’d have to devote to all my aspirations and underestimated the time that would be taken up with doing the same old, necessary things week after week. I also tended not to take into account how little enthusiasm I'm able to generate for such tedious tasks as the aforementioned paperwork and email.
Reviewing my list at the end of each year became an exercise in frustration. While I made progress on a number of projects and even finished some, I found myself carrying many of my goals forward onto the next year’s list, year after year after year.
So just as I scrapped my bucket list, I resolved to stop making resolutions.
Still, a new year seems to warrant some kind of intention-setting ritual, even if it’s nothing more than a mental exercise. In that spirit, I’m making a new kind of list, a modest tally of five things I want to carry forward with me from last year into this year and five things I want to let go because they no longer serve me (if they ever did).
Here goes . . .
FIVE THINGS I WANT TO BRING WITH ME FROM 2018:
FIVE THINGS I WANT TO LET GO OF:
What do you want to hold onto and get rid of in 2019?
Do you have your own year-end or year-beginning rituals?
All images used with this post are free-use stock images.
When was the last time you wrote a letter? Not an email, not a text, but an honest-to-goodness, pen-on-paper missive of a full page or more, folded, sealed, stamped, and placed in an actual—not virtual—mailbox. When, for that matter, was the last time you received a letter?
That old-fashioned mode of communication seems to be a vanishing species these days. The average American household receives only ten pieces of personal mail per year (not counting holiday cards and invitations), according to a New York Times article by Susan Shain.
That's a pity. Letters have worth far beyond the paper they're written on, offering intimate musings and glimpses of everyday life that can't be found in brief dispatches or even impassioned Facebook posts.
"A letter is, after all, a piece of writing in which we give ourselves the space to reflect—to distill our emotions and reactions, to choose the things that are important and flesh them out in detail," writes Cristen Hemingway Jaynes in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine. "Without the more intimate form of writing letters, I drift apart from those who are not in my daily life."
Reflecting on her communications with one friend who still writes letters but never sends emails, Jaynes observes, "I know more about her thoughts and her relationship with the world—how she is actually doing—than I do about most of my other friends."
I thought about that kind of connection recently, when my friend Laurel gave me a packet of letters I'd written to her in the 1970s and '80s. Reading through them, I found verbal snapshots of that period of my life: vivid descriptions of my friends, amusing anecdotes about everyday incidents, accounts of the books I was reading, ramblings on romances, ruminations on my college and grad school anxieties.
For instance: "I'm feeling very anxious about my entomology project and I want to make sure I have something done before Dr. Hurley gets back. I'm trying to get my equipment together this week so I can start the project next week. So far my equipment is a cake pan with the bottom cut out of it and a sieve. I have fears that the whole project is going to be about that sophisticated. I'm very nervous about it. I will enclose some of my bitten off fingernails if I remember."
Segues were seemingly unnecessary. I followed a discussion of travel plans with this news flash about my cat: "Ooooh, the most creepy thing just happened. Zeke has been sitting next to me on the couch, watching the birds outside and chattering his teeth at them. Then he lay down and went to sleep and chattered his teeth in his sleep. I CAN'T STAND IT!!!"
Some letters included funny drawings; others carried silly variations of my return address: "Sunset Avenue Circus Museum," "Sunset Avenue Center for the Development of Better Sleep Habits."
Reading the Laurel letters inspired me to haul out a box of letters that friends and family members had written to me over the years. Just the act of taking the letters out of the box gave me a deeper satisfaction than I've ever gotten from an email popping into my inbox. Seeing my brother's artsy, backhand cursive trailing across an envelope; recognizing a friend's old return address, noticing the stamp she selected, the kind of paper she wrote on, all felt like little homecomings. And the contents of those letters took me to times, places, and crannies of my friends' hearts and souls I couldn't have visited—and revisited—any other way.
Among those treasures was a note written on a Buckaroo Club napkin by my friend Darwin in 1981, shortly after he'd completed a 300-mile kayaking odyssey on the Yukon, Porcupine, Sheenjek, and Kongakut rivers, culminating at the Beaufort Sea.
"Though very maladjusted and in a state totally unfit for normal upright society except for that of Alaska, which I hate the city part of, I'm alive and back in Anchorage," he wrote. He went on to recount seeing hundreds of caribou, five grizzlies, two moose, and one gyrfalcon; tipping over twice, but righting himself before swamping his kayak; and sharing bowhead whale meat and blubber with local indigenous people on Barter Island.
Even accounts of my correspondents' less adventurous experiences were a treat to read. My friend Barry's dispatch from college in 1969 was just as keenly observed:
"Right here you have a prime example of a Communications 301 class," he wrote. "Notice the yawns and the chins propped drowsily on hands. Notice the blank sheets of paper without any notes. Notice the guest speaker getting shook. Notice chair #213 back there writing a letter to some girl in Oklahoma."
Old letters preserve daily details that now seem quaint. Writing in 1971 about her employment woes, my friend Wendy lamented "I really want to get out of the $1.65/hr range. It's a drag." In the same letter, she included sketches of a denim coat and paisley dress she'd managed to buy on those skimpy wages, and added, "I've ordered rain boots from Sears (pg. 555, Fall-Winter book, item 5, on sale for $8.94 in one of their sale books)."
Over the years I've sometimes chided myself for holding onto mementos like these old letters. But a single snowy afternoon spent reading them—even if that happens only once a decade—is more than worth the closet space my box of letters occupies. I'm reminded of how long my friendships have endured and how they've sustained me.
Letters enhance connection and contentment, to be sure, but they're also good for creativity.
"When I write longhand each pass of the ink on to paper is a physical creation. And as with sculpture, textiles, painting, and furniture, it contains remnants of myself," notes Jaynes, whose great-grandfather Ernest Hemingway was also an inveterate letter writer. "The exercise of writing, whether it be in the form of a letter or a story, is all good practice. As my great-grandfather demonstrated in his colorful letters to friends, there can be just as much creativity in letter writing as in any other form. Similar to freewriting exercises, writing a letter loosens the knots in neural pathways, leading to subjects and characters lying just below the surface."
I know it did for me. I learned to write largely by crafting letters to everyone from grandparents to pen pals with whom I connected through a kids' magazine.
After all I've said in praise of letters, you probably think I'm going to end this post with a pledge to write more of them. I could, but I know it would be a hollow promise. Truth is, I've never been that great a correspondent, even when letters were my main form of communication. I wrote tons of them, but I always seemed to have a stack of unanswered ones nagging at me (kind of like my email inbox these days).
So rather than make a promise I'm not likely to keep, I will resolve to keep writing an occasional letter, and I'll encourage you to do the same.
After all, as Hemingway once wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "it's such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you've done something."
Need more inspiration? Check out Letters of Note, a website that "offers an intimate window into history and the characters who shaped it."
Or write a letter to a stranger who could use an encouraging word. Find stories of deserving people, along with where to send letters, at More Love Letters.
My bucket list's got a hole in it. Things that once seemed vitally important to see or do before I die have dribbled away—some replaced by new must-dos, others simply discarded because my interests and circumstances changed.
I came to this realization after unearthing some of my old lists. It was enlightening to see which things on those lists I had ended up doing, which things I'd lost interest in along the way, which things just didn't happen and probably never will, and which ones still call to me.
My "101 Things I Want to Do Before I Die" list, dated October 20, 2002, includes item number 75: "Have a pet donkey (maybe)."
A few years earlier, I had become fascinated with donkeys during a long motorcycle trip down south, on which we saw scads of donkeys—miniature and full-sized—in fields and farmyards. I dreamed of having a donkey farm, then scaled that dream back to just one donkey (or two—I'd heard they need companions). By the time I made the 2002 list, though, the parenthetical "maybe" suggests I already harbored doubts about my commitment to caring for a large animal.
By the time I revised my list in March 2006, donkeys had disappeared, replaced by a number of items related to writing, publishing, and attending various writers' conferences.
One gotta-do item that did carry over onto the 2006 list was "Learn to play steel guitar," a burning desire since my grad school days in Kansas, when I worked off stress by dancing to western swing tunes and came to love the twang of pedal steel.
But that long-held aspiration had sloshed out of the bucket by 2009, when I again revised and pared down my list. By then, we had bought our Newaygo house and were making plans to move. While the idea of learning a new musical instrument still appealed to me, I wanted to devote more time to outdoor activities, travel, and getting to know our new neighbors and surroundings. I already had one time-consuming, indoor pursuit: writing. That felt like enough.
Then there's the category of things that just didn’t happen and probably never will. Ever since my youth, when I never missed an episode of "Then Came Bronson," starring Michael Parks as a disillusioned former journalist wandering the West on his Harley-Davidson Sportster, I'd dreamed of riding those same roads on my own motorcycle. I got the motorcycle (several, in fact, over the years), learned to ride, and made shorter trips on my own bike and longer ones on the back of Ray's, navigating so he could focus on the challenges of the road.
But my own westward odyssey never happened, and at some point it became clear to me that it never would. While it's true that ever since I turned fifty, my motto has been, "It's never too late," I've recently come to realize that for some things, it kinda is. The prime time for me to have made such a journey was ten or twenty years ago, when my riding skills, reflexes, and stamina were at their peak (and other drivers on the road were not as distracted as they are these days). I could still do it now, but I wouldn't enjoy it as much as I once would have.
I'm a little sad that it didn't happen, but when I remind myself of other experiences that did happen (including several meandering trips out West in vehicles other than motorcycles), the sadness dissipates.
That brings me to the mind-shift about bucket lists that happened not long after I drew up my last one in 2010. I realized that focusing on things still undone made me feel restless and disheartened at the prospect of time running out before I accomplished them all. So I sat down and made a list of all the things I had done over the years—both things that had been on my bucket list (writing a book, making collages, learning to kayak, hiking sections of the North Country Trail) and things that arose out of unexpected opportunities or spur-of-the-moment whims (joining in a 60-mile fundraising walk, taking a motorhome trip to Alaska, moving to Newaygo).
That list went on for pages, and as I looked it over, I could see that everything I'd listed there had brought me some kind of satisfaction, whether or not it had been on my official bucket list.
So I scrapped the bucket list and decided to take a different tack. I looked back at the various iterations of the list and tried to identify threads that ran through them. The result was a different kind of list that I titled "The Themes of My Dreams." Among the entries on that list were:
Now, instead of trying to tick off accomplishments, I just try to align activities with those overarching themes, and I feel far more content as a result.
I was surprised to find a similar approach advocated in—of all places--MotorHome magazine. In an article titled Trimming Your Bucket List in the magazine's September 2018 issue, author Mary Zalmanek ends with these suggestions (condensed and paraphrased here):
Finally, Zalmanek closes with this sage advice: "Today, do what will make you feel like you've lived a full and worthwhile life. That way your bucket will never seem empty."
In the two-and-a-half years since I started this blog, I've written about dozens of creative people, some here in Newaygo County, others as far away as the U.K. But it struck me recently that I've never written about my favorite creative individual, one who's right here at home: my husband, Ray Pokerwinski.
Since Ray has a birthday coming up next week, what better time to celebrate his talents?
One of the first things I appreciated about Ray (after his green eyes and engaging personality) was his imagination and ability to apply it to all sorts of projects. When we first met, twenty-six years ago, he was remodeling a house, transforming a cobbled-together lakeside cottage into a stunning, open-floorplan, contemporary home, complete with boat house and tiered decks. He envisioned the whole thing, then set about gutting the place and putting it back together in an entirely different conformation. (That house, by the way, was the fifth house he had remodeled, all with self-taught skills.)
As time went on, I discovered he was equally adept at re-imagining all sorts of things, including two of my motorcycles. With my input, his skills and artistry, and a little help from a custom painter, Ray turned stock bikes into head-turners.
Now he's turned his attention to a hot rod, the design of which has been incubating in his brain for a few years. Finally he's found time to start chipping away at the project as time permits.
Ray's genius for innovation applies to more than making things; he's a whiz at coming up with out-of-the box solutions to all sorts of problems. I can't tell you how many times I've been stuck, unable to figure out how to deal with a complicated schedule or some other seemingly intractable situation (like keeping squirrels out of the bird feeder). When I outline the problem to Ray, he instantly sees a simple fix that I was too mired in details to discern. (So far, he's winning the squirrel battle.)
So yeah, his ingenuity makes everyday life more efficient, but it also makes life a whole lot more fun. I never know when I might find a funny face on my lunch plate. Or fashioned out of folded laundry.
When we bought an adjacent piece of property with a weathered shed, Ray amused the whole neighborhood by decorating the shed for holidays with mostly Ray-made adornments.
For my birthday a couple of years ago, he gave me a gift card to a local camera store, but instead of just sticking it in a greeting card, he presented it in a camera-shaped, wooden box that he had made.
And one Valentine's Day morning, I stumbled into the kitchen to find a wooden heart Ray had fashioned from a piece of the towering oak we'd had to cut down. That's the heart you see in my HeartWood logo. Another year, I found a bouquet of wooden tulips he had made in his workshop.
It's been a pleasure, too, to collaborate with him on creative projects, like fairy houses for Camp Newaygo's annual Enchanted Forest event. Ray dreams up the creations; I just help with a few finishing touches. And it's Ray who makes up the fairy stories to accompany each house; then we work together on the wording.
Seeing how Ray makes creativity a priority emboldens me to do the same. What's more, he actively encourages and celebrates all my creative undertakings, from my memoir to this blog to photography projects and other artistic dabblings.
It's inspiring, as well, to see that he's still trying new things, with youthful enthusiasm that belies the number of candles on his cake (or pie, as that was his request for the upcoming birthday). His latest venture: hand-turning wooden pens and mechanical pencils for friends, relatives and fundraisers.
I could go on and on singing Ray's praises, but I've gotta go now—I have a pie to make.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.