I realize the past couple of months have been anything but a holiday for many people: those who’ve faced illness themselves or cared for ailing family members, those who’ve lost loved ones, others who have lost their jobs or whose professions put them in harm’s way. My heart goes out to all those people and everyone else who has been negatively impacted by COVID-19.
I feel fortunate that so far, at least, this time of isolation has been a kind of respite for me. When it all began, back in mid-March, I thought to myself: Well, I always wanted to go on a creativity retreat in some peaceful place. Here’s my chance!
And for the most part, that’s how I’ve approached it. Here in our quiet patch of woods, with no outside commitments, I’ve been free to focus on projects I find it hard to concentrate on when I’m always on the go. And a funny thing has happened: The further we get into Stay Home – Stay Safe, the more protective I’ve become of my free time and solitude.
Like most people during this time, I’ve been deluged with a mind-boggling number of invitations to Facebook Live events, Zoom gatherings, free webinars, and other virtual happenings. My internet service’s dwindling data allowance won’t permit me to join in most of those, and while I truly regret having to turn down some invitations—especially From the Heart Yoga’s Zoom classes and chats with my yogini sisters—I haven’t minded passing up the rest. They’ve felt like distractions, in the same way that outside commitments often do.
So how have I been spending my precious retreat time? Let me count the ways . . .
I’ve been working steadily on my novel-in-progress. Rather than spinning out pages, I decided to take a more disciplined approach, guided by the process Lisa Cron champions in her book Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). The title itself was enough to sell me on the book, and as I work my way through it I’m becoming even more of a fan.
It’s hard work, requiring a lot of thought and a lot of writing, followed by digging deeper, thinking more, and writing more. Being able to spend hours in concentrated work, not just stolen minutes here and there, has led to much-needed breakthroughs. Finally, I’m getting some clarity on how to achieve what I’m trying to achieve in the story I’m working on.
Early in our Newaygo life—around a decade ago—I scoured flea markets, antiques shops, and ebay for interesting picture frames, visualizing a gallery of old family pictures in our upstairs hallway. Those frames have sat in a trunk in the guest bedroom all these years, waiting for me to fill them. Every month of every year I’ve thought I’d get to it, and every month of every year has somehow gotten filled up in other ways.
Finally, I gathered frames and photos, did the necessary prep work, and with Ray’s help, hung them in the hall. Here are the pictures that now have homes:
While I was at it, I framed a few more of my nature photos to hang in my studio and the guest room. I’m happy seeing the empty spaces filled and even happier having done something that had been on my to-do list far too long.
3. Lending a (Virtual) Hand
A volunteer opportunity cropped up: entering data for a ballot initiative for which I’d helped gather signatures. I thought, Why not? I certainly have the time! It’s a simple task—just taking names, phone numbers, and email addresses from cell-phone photos of petitions and entering the info onto a spreadsheet. A little hard on the eyes, but easy on the brain, which suits me fine right now.
Every spring, one of our tasks is cleaning up downed trees and branches in the patch of woods around our house. Ray cuts up the wood and runs the small and medium-sized pieces through the chipper. I gather up the chips and spread them on the paths we’ve made around our property. This year has yielded enough chips for me to create a new path or two. In the process of making many chip-laden wheelbarrow trips, I rack up an astonishing number of steps, according to my Fitbit. Between that work and my wanderings in the woods (see item #4), I’ve been covering some serious miles.
Enter the North Country Trail Association’s Hike 100 Challenge. The idea is to hike 100 miles in a year. Normally, those miles have to be on the North Country Trail (though it doesn’t matter whether you hike the same mile 100 times or cover 100 unique miles of trail). But this year, in response to shelter-in-place directives, the association bent the rules to allow all miles walked in April and May—in your backyard, around the house or neighborhood, on the treadmill—to count toward the total.
I’ve been keeping track, and I’ve already passed the 60-mile mark. I could very well hit 100 by the end of this month.
5. Woods wandering
True, I do this all the time, not just when we’re on lockdown. But spending time in nature has been particularly restorative during this time of unprecedented events and uncertainty. I hauled out my cameras, which I’d been neglecting while busy with book promotion, and discovered anew the joy of wandering around, photographing flowers, flowing water, and woodland creatures.
Here are a few shots from my wanderings. You’ll find more at the end of this post.
6. Trying something new
I read an article by nature photographer Melissa Groo about an unusual technique for photographing fast-moving birds in flight. Intrigued, I tried it out that very afternoon, trying to catch chickadees and nuthatches coming and going at the bird feeder.
While my results aren’t quite where I’d like yet, in terms of sharpness, I was happy to at least capture a complete bird—not just tail feathers at the edge of the frame—on a fair number of attempts. I’m showing you these not because they’re anything to brag about, but because they represent the kind of patient, try-try-again attitude that’s easier to adopt when you’re not trying to fit so many things into your day.
7. Resting and reflecting
Emptiness is the pregnant void out of which all creation springs.
-- Wayne Muller
The above quote is from an article titled “Fear of Rest” in the May issue of The Sun magazine, excerpted from Muller’s book Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest. As so often happens, I came across the article at precisely the time I needed to read it. Musing on the necessity of rest—and our resistance to it—made me more appreciative of having time to intersperse rest with periods of activity. The older I get, the more I respect rest, but I still need reminding sometimes that it’s a legitimate use of time, not only to restore the body, but also to feed creativity.
How have the past couple of months been for you? How are you feeling about re-entry?
Enjoy a nature break . . .
What's your favorite cabin fever cure? For us, believe it or not, there's nothing quite like a mid-winter car show. The bright lights and shiny surfaces seem to work wonders for our spirits. For decades, it was the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that gave us a lift every January. Starting this year, however, the Detroit show will take place in June, not January. Fortunately, there's still the Michigan International Auto Show in Grand Rapids. So this January, we gave that a go.
If you're not a auto buff, you may wonder what could be so interesting about wandering through aisle after aisle of cars and trucks. Well, it all depends on your perspective. Being a car guy through and through, Ray focuses on the technical aspects: horsepower, miles-per-gallon, that kind of stuff. I, on the other hand, am fascinated with the play of light on fenders, the shapes of headlights and taillights, the wardrobes of the spokespeople, and so on. I can entertain myself for hours taking photos from various angles and vantage points.
After going through my photos from the Grand Rapids show, I decided to look back at all my auto images--from car shows, museums, and roadsides--and share with you some of my favorites. As you'll see, rust and ruined paint catch my eye as much as polished chrome, and often it's the details that draw me in.
Do you find beauty in unexpected places? Share what you find, using the mail icon at the top of the page, and I'll post it in an upcoming blog.
Outside my window, the maples are beginning to blush. Soon, the whole woods will be bright with scarlet, gold, russet, and burgundy. In such a dazzling display, it's easy to lose sight of the individual colors.
Life can be like that, too. With so much going on in the real and virtual worlds, not to mention our own imaginations, it's sometimes hard to narrow our focus. Yet often that's exactly what we need to do to feel calm and grounded and to nurture our creativity.
I recently came across an intriguing exercise that reminded me of the benefits of concentrating on one thing at a time. In her Writing and Wellness newsletter, author Colleen M. Story wrote about boosting creativity with color walks. You pick a color before heading out on a walk and then let that color lead you as you search for objects of that hue.
Colleen's article goes into more detail, with tips on how to get the most from the practice.
I'll let you read that on your own, because I'm eager to show you what I found on my color walk. On the summer day I chose for my walk, everything was green, so as a challenge to my powers of observation, I picked yellow. I was surprised how many yellow things I found and how paying attention to them helped me see my familiar environment in a whole new way.
I hope you'll try a color walk, too, and tell me how it goes.
In this week’s blog, you’ll meet Mark Andrews, one of my favorite West Michigan photographers.
Born and raised in Newaygo County, Mark got the travel bug early in life on trips with his family. He went on to work in the travel industry, for airlines and tour companies, including a stint in Barbados.
“I started with photography in the 80s with an old film camera and fell in love with taking pictures,” says Mark. “I worked for Kodak in the early 2000s as a sales rep selling digital cameras and had some training over the years with them. Most of what I’ve learned has been over the internet and practice, practice . . . ”
Mark is especially fond of photographing places that evoke a sense of the past – Cuba and old Route 66, for example.
In addition, he has visited and photographed Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, Greece, Turkey, China, Russia, Philippines, Mexico, much of old Route 66, Hawaii, and National Parks including Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Arches, Grand Canyon, Zion, Great Smoky Mountains, Canyon Lands, and Monument Valley.
Where hasn’t he been, you might ask. Well, still on his list are the Amazon, Ecuador, Israel, Italy, Spain, Lisbon, “and a whole lot more.”
In this post, Mark shares tips for taking better travel photographs, as well as advice on finding travel deals to your dream destinations.
Tips for Taking Better Travel Photos
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.