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Archive for March, 2016

Finding Your Way Home: Writings from a Retreat

A poet is someone who can pour light into a cup then raise it to nourish your parched holy mouth.  Hafiz

As we write, we are both describing and deciding the direction that our life is taking.  Julia Cameron

Choose a topic, any topic.  It can be a word you draw out of a bowl, or an image or phrase, or a line from a novel or poem.  It doesn’t matter.  It is just an entryway that takes you into the world you need to explore in a given moment.  And the tools you need for the journey are few and the load light.  A pen or pencil, paper of your choosing, and you are set to go — and that’s what you do, you go, full-bodied whole-hearted, into this practice.  You set the time — five minutes, ten, thirty, whatever you decide — and you keep your hand moving, no matter what.  And you don’t think and you don’t cross out and you give yourself permission to dive down deep and you accept what emerges from you-don’t-know-where and you allow yourself to be surprised and you send your inner critic away for the duration because your inner critic knows diddley-squat about the lurkings in the innermost caverns of your beautiful heart.  And you just keep going, sometimes slogging along through what feels like muck, sometimes holding on for dear life as you ride a wave that you hope doesn’t take you under.  You just keep going through it all  — until it’s over, the five or ten or thirty minutes, and then you lift your pen or pencil from the page and you sit back and breathe and move on, into the next moment and the next.

That is how you do it.  That is how I do it, this practice of writing.  And I bless Natalie Goldberg, Zen practitioner and writer, and her book from the late eighties, Writing Down the Bones, for offering these tools for the writing journey and providing an invitation to allow it to be a practice.  I accepted her invitation, and it allowed something inside me to wander and wonder and discover whole universes of possibility — it still does.  This is a practice that I have made my own for nearly thirty years.  It not only provides me with a way to write that is easy and fun; it also provides me with a steadiness and a rudder for sailing through this sea of energy in my writing and in my living.  It is a practice that I do on my own and a practice that I do with others — with a local group of fellow explorers, and with my pen pal writing sisters, as well as in the occasional workshop I facilitate.

Natalie Goldberg, our teacher at a workshop I attended years ago, told a story of a well-known writer, a keynote at a conference, who took center stage.  Those in attendance, expectant that he would read from one of his published works, were surprised when he opened a journal and began to share his rough and raw scrawls.  Natalie told us that the audience was electrified, wide-eyed, paying attention in the we pay attention when in the presence of something steaming and teeming with life, something that isn’t in any way predictable or watered down.  That is what it is like every time you pick up a pen or pencil and write in this manner.  You don’t know what will end up on the page.  And that is what it is like when you are the listener — you don’t know what world you will enter as witness when someone is brave enough to read their unbridled uncensored rough writing.  And that is what we do together when we meet as a group — we write unbridled and we read unbridled and we listen attentively and appreciatively from a place that is just as brave.  And that is what we did at a writing workshop at Joy Center a month ago.  We wrote, ten minutes at a time, and we read these unedited pieces, and we witnessed each other in the process — and then we each went home with our journals and our writings and our unique voices and stories and lives.  The process, the practice is rich, and sometimes this is enough, sometimes we never revisit these writings.  And sometimes we do.  Sometimes these writings become poems, or the seeds for stories or essays, and sometimes we share them pretty much as we wrote them, just fiddling a bit with line breaks and punctuation.  And that’s what I’m doing now, sharing with you two writings from that Joy Center retreat, pretty much as I wrote them, unbridled a month ago.



Handcrafted Life 

I want to tell you I love life

that I’m starting a new decade

and I don’t know

what this decade is going to bring

but I do know I am being reborn into it.

My friend Barb says

more light is flooding the planet

and it is time to let go of anything heavy

anything holding us back.

I want to tell you I like a lighter life

love to putter, cut out images, am an artist in my soul

that I am not someone who wants to be bogged down

that I give my best when I am spacious inside.

I want to tell you that life is meant to be savored

a slow-cooked meal, a fresh plate of fruit, a Mexican birthday cake

filled with layers of whipped cream.

It is not a rat race.  It is ratatouille.

I want to tell you I love life, my life

Its details are precious.

I ate an egg today from my friend Libby’s farm

and Libby is creating for me a hoodie made of wool

from her sheep

and the details of Libby’s life matter.

I want to tell you that life is good

when we savor the details

when we crack open our days and delight

in what we hatch.



How do you talk about a love that spans forty years?

I was eighteen, a college freshman, and he was nineteen, eight months older, and we had spent the day by the sea, the waves splashing the shore, the sky gray.  He was a rich boy from Michigan and Michigan could have been Mongolia to a Maine girl who had never traveled farther than Connecticut.  And he had a brand-new fire engine red Chevy  ’74 Blazer with a roll bar and fog lights and he wore LL Bean chamois shirts and Levi jeans and he knew the names of the ducks that bobbed in the bay — and I’m sure we kissed on the shore of the sea.  And that evening — it was a Friday — back in the dorm at the party in the lobby that smelled like stale beer and mildewy carpet, there we were.  I think I was sitting on his lap, this sweet boy from Michigan’s lap, and he looked into my eyes and we still had the sea in our eyes and he said — or I think he asked, “Am I falling in love with you?”  And honestly, I felt it, his ocean-big love, and I had never had a boyfriend who adored me before and what brings me to my knees is that it happened again last weekend.

He is sixty now — and I am too.  And this brings me to my knees.  Where did the time go?  And it doesn’t matter; it just doesn’t matter because he was still the young boy-man on Saturday, the guy who rode his snow bike on those melting can’t-get-a grip trails, who rejoiced that he had finished the race, whose voice cracked and trembled  when he spoke of the thirty-five kilometers of impossible slush and the seven hours of peddling, who didn’t hold back his unbridled joy, didn’t even try to be cool at the Snow Bowl after-party, who introduced me to everyone with pride and excitement.  “This is my wife!” he said.  “I’m so glad you came to the party!” he said.  “Am I falling in love with you?”  He didn’t have to say the words.  I felt them and I was stunned.  I love this man with heart and soul — and that brings me to my knees — that I have a love that can be as fresh as the sea breeze on a Saturday night forty-two years after that college date.

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Painting by fellow writer and artist Roslyn Helena McGrath in bookcase in Helen’s home


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Images of Helen’s home: March 2016, photos by Christine Saari taken at a  Friday writing group





Each day comes bearing its own gifts.  Untie the ribbons.  Ruth Ann Schabacker

A multitude of small delights constitute happiness.  Charles Baudelaire

You never know what will wash up on the coast, what treasures will sweep into shore with the incoming tide, what will be left behind as it recedes.  It is a daily adventure to scrounge a beach at low tide.  We didn’t take this adventure for granted when we were kids, my siblings and I, that twice each day the Fish House Cove beach just steps away from our cottage home was exposed and ready for our exploration.  We knew there always was something new, something we hadn’t noticed before — a broken piece of pottery, the rubber seal from a canning jar, a scallop shell or a hermit crab, a long-stemmed fan of rubbery kelp, a lobster trap or buoy washed  in with a storm, a sea-smoothed piece of beach glass.  And we scrambled down the flat stone steps to our own private treasure chest of a beach and we collected our shells and colored glass and polished stones in pails and canvas bags and we lined them up for display on the picnic table that sat outside our front porch steps.  These gifts, washed in with the sea, were a part of our summertime lives and we accepted them graciously.  And when the tides shifted and the winds blew off the coastal land, we threw our own gifts back into the cove with hopes that they, too, would find their way to some distant shore and some other boy or girl.

We really did this, my siblings and I, tossed the beach glass and favorite stones and lobster claws and plastic toy cars into the water, and, one time, my younger brother and I wrote a note on paper torn from our mother’s list pad with our names and address and a plea to please write us back and we folded it carefully, stuffed it in an empty plastic bottle that once had held our mother’s Prell shampoo, threw it out into the cove and watched it bob away with the off-shore breeze.  We believed in the power of the sea, and the sea, so filled with a wild richness, didn’t disappoint us.  Weeks after sending our message off in a bottle, we received our reply.  Not from another boy or girl, but from a Grandma, from Saratoga Springs, New York, who summered more than one hundred miles south of our mid-coastal Maine property and had discovered our gift washed up on a wide expanse of beach in front of her cottage.  And the Grandma and I, we  became fast pen pal friends, and remained so for over twenty years.

I have been a beach-comber, a tide pool explorer, a mermaid swimming in a cove — I have been a lover of the sea my whole life and I treasure its treasures, and yet, until a few weeks ago, I had never heard the word, “flotsam,” a word that describes these treasures that wash up on the shore.  Flotsam.  I like the sound of it.  At a writing workshop I facilitated at Joy Center in late February, we were talking about words and a power beyond words, and wordless books.  And that’s when a woman who is a mother of small children mentioned the book Flotsam by David Wiesner.  “You’d love this book, Helen!” she said.  And that evening, I scribbled the word on our flip chart and we wrote about “flotsam” and, the next day on three different planes, I carried this word and the magic of the sea and a longing for this book out west with me over the plains and the mountains to the panhandle of Idaho, to a week-long stay with my kids and my grandkids.

And I want to tell you that the sea breezes blow across this vast continent of land and lakes, that I could feel them, the onshore winds, the treasures that the sea leaves when the tides turn, even as we, my family and I “beach-combed” in ways different than we would have on the coastal shore.  But our gifts were as rich as the ones I gleaned at Fish House Cove when I was a child.  And we placed these gifts in our metaphoric canvas bags and pails, the meals we shared, the playtimes at parks and city squares, the jumping over cracks in sidewalks and traipsing on trails through forests of those ever-so-tall western cedar and pines.  There were the alone times with each of the grandkids, the package delivered by a tiny mail truck right to the door of baby Addie’s house while her parents were out and the dogs barking and Addie and I excited with all the commotion; there were the everyday smoothies that Viren and I sucked down with straws at the local co-op and the night that he and I spent in the motel alone.  It was all treasure, and flotsam was on my mind, the word and the book.  I told my kids about it.  I told the next door neighbor, too, as  she walked by our table when we were eating lunch at the Co-op on Day Two of my visit.  “We’re going to the bookstore,” I said.  “We’re looking for Flotsam,” I added.  And that’s what we did, we beach-combed the bookstore in the center of their small college town, collected gifts for each of the kids, and I talked to the owner about Flotsam.  She knew the book; it had won the Caldecott Medal, was beautifully done.  She didn’t have it in stock, but she did look up the word for me, broadened my definition.  Flotsam, the treasures that float into shore.  Flotsam.

And that evening, three days after the workshop at Joy Center, we brought our new books to the home of one of my son’s and we settled into the bustle of family with small kids and dogs, the dogs that had been barking earlier that day.  It had been in the morning and my son and daughter-in-law were out riding their bikes and the two dogs had been asleep in their crates in the loft, until they heard it, the teeny-tiny mail truck that might have been out of the pages of a children’s book if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, bumpity-bumping up the driveway.  I had plopped baby Addie on my hip, had opened the door as the chipper mailman handed me a package.  It had been addressed to me.  I remembered that now as we prepared our dinner hours later.  “What’s in the package?” I asked.  “We have no idea,” they replied.  “Open it!”  And so I did.  I opened it, this package addressed to me.  And my mouth, it hung open.  I felt like Viren must have felt when he had opened his Christmas present a few months earlier and it had been a storm trooper mask.  “I couldn’t believe it!!!” he had said when remembering how surprised he was.  And now, I couldn’t believe it either.  There it was, delivered to me in a teeny tiny mail truck in Moscow, Idaho, this gorgeous hardcover book.  Flotsam.  None of us could believe it.

And this could be the end of the story.  It’s a good ending, that this world is a place filled with such moments, moments when something floats into shore — or is delivered by a mail truck — something that makes your heart sing with wonder, something that you didn’t expect, but maybe wanted really badly.  But I also want to tell you that Flotsam itself is a treasure, that the book is a magical story portrayed in gorgeous full pages of beautiful paintings, a never-ending journey that takes you deep, into the sea and beyond, connects you with eternity.  And maybe that’s how I want to end this story, that there really is no ending to the power of the sea and to the treasures that come our way with the daily tides.


Grandma Helen looking at Flotsam with Viren and Addie: February 27, 2016


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Tide Pools and Flotsam: Helen Haskell Remien, March 2016

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