Saturday, April 28, 2012

Inspiration, Expiration, and the Pause In-Between

1: a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation.....
2: the act of drawing in; specifically : the drawing of air into the lungs...

I know, I know: starting a piece with good ol' Webster's is the last refuge of the lazy. Mea culpa. But I've spent the last half hour stuck on the beginning, and I needed to get unstuck. Sometimes we have to resort to dire measures to leap over the obstacles in our path.

I'm thinking about inspiration because I've been inspired by so many things lately. But those inspirations have expired before making it anywhere near the page.

I let myself off the hook, saying, well I've been too busy to write. Well, not too busy, really, but I don't have the brain-space to write. Well, the space is there, but everything else is too important. Oh, REALLY? my muse says, tapping her foot. What's so important? Well, I stammer, I've got to balance my checkbook, and uh, figure out the chemicals in the hot tub, and you know, like, watch every episode of the The Killing. My muse gives me that look, you know, the look. A perfect blend of scorn and pity.

And then last night I went to a live recording of the radio show A River and Sound Review (part quiz show, part music, part poetry reading, part shenanigans), and I heard my colleagues Nancy Pagh, Oliver de la Paz, and Bruce Beasley read their work. NEW work. Work with such power it snuck past all the static in my brain and stuck. Became a spark. Or kindling. Or both.

Nancy teaches two writing classes. Oliver has three young boys under the age of four. Bruce deals with the intensity of his teenage boy stumbling his way to manhood. All of them are much busier than I am.

Yet each one of them manages to do the important thing: write. Write in the interstices that life offers. Inspiration, then, becomes not a mystical thing, but quite practical: sparked by a brochure, a photograph, or a treadmill at the gym. Or a Facebook posting, a Youtube video, a magazine. In a busy life, inspiration becomes truly like breath: always there, whether you notice it or not.


I'm back. I snuck out there for a couple of hours to go to my Saturday morning yoga class. A class where we spent a lot of time in pranayama, just breathing.

But in pranayama, what is usually unintentional becomes intentional. We count our inhale, hold for two beats, then count out the exhale.  We do it again, each time elongating that held space in between inhalation and exhalation. Two beats, four beats six beats, eight.

If you don't panic, if you don't insist you need to take the next breath right now, that pause in between becomes quiet, but alive. You feel the breath swirling inside you, nourishing what needs to be nourished, then nudging for the exhale when it's ready. Once you get the hang of it, you feel like you can stay there--in this little sliver of infinity--for a long time.

Inspiration is a transient thing, and can be as brief as the moment from one breath to the next. Inspiration is perishable; it has a built-in expiration date. So, perhaps it's our only task then, as writers: to elongate that space in between. To nourish what needs to be nourished. In this way we get "qualified" to receive and communicate sacred revelation.....

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Most Beautiful Thing

Over at Writing Our Way Home, Fiona Robyn is hosting a "blogsplash," in which we all write a post today about our "most beautiful thing"—in honor of her new novel of the same name. I encourage you to do the same, whether you have a blog or not!

So here I am this morning, in my writing loft, the rain tapping on the skylight, my dog Abbe leaning against my leg. I've just returned home from a trip, and as always happens this time of year, my yard has changed ever so slightly: the Gravenstein apple tree has burst into song, as has my neighbor's flowering dogwood. The lilac's even thinking about blooming.

And the containers out front have somehow regenerated themselves without any help from me: pansies that overwintered spill across their depleted soil; sedums vibrate in glossy green; zebra-striped grasses inch up from the ground.

My most beautiful thing? It's hard to choose this time of year. Everything raises its hand and says, choose me! Oh, oh, oh, it's me!

When I first heard about this blogsplash, the first image that came to mind was this:

Of course my baby girl is always the most beautiful thing, but this picture captures not only her sweet face (and her lion's ruff), but also the time of day for our best walks: Spring evening, about 8:00, when the light slants in from the west and illuminates everything.

And then, yesterday evening, after my post-trip hot tub soak in my backyard, I sat on my deck in my terrycloth bathrobe, damp, and faced the large western sky. My heart pounded from the heat, while a French-Canadian station played guitar jazz inside and soothed the air. I faced the streaks of clouds breaking up on the horizon, saw how slowly they moved, and my mind began to move just as slowly, to settle and expand. I looked back into my house, felt the calm in there, saw my little dog's face waiting at the screen door.

And I knew then that the most beautiful thing is always the moment at hand. The most beautiful thing is when the endless chatter stops—especially the self-recriminations, the repetitive judgments—and you can simply gaze at the life you've created. The most beautiful thing is gratitude. The most beautiful thing, it turns out, is you.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Vow of Friendship

Druid Vow of Friendship
I honor your path.
I drink from your well. 

I bring an unprotected heart to our meeting place. 
I hold no cherished outcome. 
I will not negotiate by withholding. 
I am not subject to disappointment.

Oh dear, it's been a while since I've posted; sorry about that. It seems there are some weeks when the brain decides to do a walkabout rather than have a seat. And I've been in Ohio the last few days, leading a marvelous writing workshop with the MFA students at Ohio State University.

I love these kinds of workshops. You never know how it will go; so much depends upon the attitudes and chemistry of the people involved. And lucky me: this particular group was absolutely marvelous! We wrote, we read, we laughed, we cried.  Even I wrote and read and laughed and cried. I didn’t feel like a teacher, but more like someone who’d arrived in the midst of a really good party.

Whenever I teach a weekend workshop now, I’ve learned to start by setting intention. I have the students spend five minutes writing down their intentions for the weekend ahead of us, and I do the same. This may seem obvious: wouldn’t all our intentions simply be to learn something about writing, to improve our writing?

Sure, and that part takes about 30 seconds to write down. But they have to write for five minutes, which nudges them to dig a little deeper into their real intentions, the ones that go beyond the expected or the predetermined.

At five minutes, they set down their pens. They think they’re done. They think now we’ll get to the real work. But I look at them kindly, and say: Now write down the obstacles you have in fulfilling those intentions.

They issue a barely audible, collective groan, but they do it anyway, because I’m the teacher, and they’re supposed to do what I say. So they diligently write down their obstacles. I have mercy on them; I make them write for only three minutes this time.

Again, they put down their pens and beg with their eyes: can we get to the real work now?

Almost, I say, almost. Now I’d like you to imagine what it would take to dissolve those obstacles. What magic wand could you wave to make those obstacles disappear?

They have to write for only two minutes now. Because this is the thing: once you’ve articulated intention and obstacle, the way to fulfillment clears.

They share this morning’s writing with each other. Because it’s all well and good to articulate something for ourselves, but it’s even better when we forge the common bonds that bring us together in our work.

Okay, I say, after the hubbub has died down. Now we can begin (though they'll find out the real work has already been done).


Which brings me to the Druid Vow of Friendship.

I traveled to Port Townsend a couple of weeks ago for a few reasons:

1. to see my friend and co-writer Holly J. Hughes to check in about some ideas for the promotion of The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World.  (Coming soon: an interactive website, and a workshop near you! We'll also have "Letters from Brenda and Holly" that can be delivered right to your inbox!)

2. to see my friend Sheila Bender and her husband Kurt,and loll about on her couch, reading and writing.

3. to hear Kim Stafford read from his work. Kim is one of those people who just makes you happy to be alive. He read poetry, and he sang songs, and he recited from memory poems he had written in his head. But he began by reciting to us the "Druid Vow of Friendship."

And when he  recited this Vow, so many things became clear to me about intention and obstacle and dissolution of obstacle. I heard this vow as a way to set intention in our friendships yes, but also in our relationship with our writing, and with ourselves.

Think how marvelous it would be to arrive at our writing with an unprotected heart. How would it feel to hold no cherished outcome? Can we free ourselves from disappointment? Can we truly honor our own paths, and drink deeply from our own wells?

I'd like to find out. So I vow to remember this vow of friendship as a way to make friends with myself. And with my writing. And to deepen my friendship with you. Will you join me?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Accidental Yoga

Thursday evening I accidentally took a Power Yoga class.

Now understand: I have always emphatically said I am NOT a "power yoga person." I had a pretty clear idea of power yoga people: tattoed, lithe, ultra-serious, and out of their minds.

I arrived at the yoga studio early, pleased that I had made it to the 5:30 "intuitive flow" class with my favorite teacher, Amy. (I hadn't felt well all day, and it would have been easy enough to stay home.) And there was Amy at the front desk, checking people in, with her calm smile, her effusive greeting. I signed in, and bustled into the studio.....

....where a blast of hot air greeted me. Where there was that weird harmonium thing sitting at the front of the room. Where all the mats were lined up in an unfamiliar pattern.

I went back out front. "Amy, am I in the right class?"
"Power yoga?" she answered cheerfully.
"No, I wanted to be in your class."
"I don't teach until 7:15."

At which point my brain got all twisted up. My brain wanted to argue with Amy, to tell her she had it wrong, that she had to teach at 5:30 because, after all, I was here for her 5:30 class.  My brain clicked back through the schedule and realized I was a few days off: that Amy's 5:30 class is always on Tuesday, not Thursday. But my brain knew that my desire for a 5:30 class on Thursday had blocked my knowledge that no 5:30 class existed.

And that's when fear kicked in. That's when the brain went into heavy whining mode: I can't do power yoga. It's too hot. I'll throw up. I'll make a fool of myself. I don't want to do power yoga. Don't make me do power yoga!

Amy looked up from the computer. "Don't worry," she said, "You can totally do it." Then she flashed me that smile. Who can argue with that smile?

So I slunk back into the studio, set my mat in the far back corner, and waited for my torture to begin. I looked around, and sure there were some lithe tattooed people, but there were also a lot of people who looked just like me.

The teacher, Paul, started us slowly. He read Rumi to us. Something about love and wine and letting go (very Rumi). He had a beautiful voice. I began to trust a little, and then a little more. He said Yoga, no matter what style, is always about meeting yourself where you are. Hello self, I said, here we are.

And yes, there we were, together, my cranky self and I, flowing through one sun salutation then another, the heat rising through every part of me, sweat beading then flowing down my back; there we were breathing deep and bowing into child's pose for a quick rest before joining the others, then flowing easily back into camel pose and back into child.

At the end he played that harmonium and I understand harmony. I heard my own voice resonating there with the others—my self and I glowing: with sweat yes, but also with the joy that comes from doing something you never thought you could do. The accidental, the unexpected, the parting of your own stolid ways. 

When I went out to the lobby to put on my shoes, I told Amy I loved it. And with her same calm smile she said, "There must have been some reason you got confused this week."

So, here's to confusion. Here's to the accidental. Here's to finding out what happens when the universe changes your plans.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Passover Puffs

Buddha blessing the Passover Puffs
My friend Rae Gouriand suggested I do a "Soup Sunday" regular post, which I think is a fabulous idea! And I will make soup today, the "Spring Minestrone" from the April issue of Bon Appetit, and I'll probably modify it with tarragon I have leftover from a dinner party I threw on Thursday (Sauteed Chicken with herbed Tarragon-Mustard Butter, yum) and leftover peas from that dinner as well.

I'll probably add some fennel bulb, because I love fennel and it will go well with the tarragon. I may leave the parmesan out, but I'll try a dab of "umami paste" that I just picked up at the store because it looked intriguing. Instead of pasta, I may throw in the leftover quinoa instead.

So, there you have it: my process in a nutshell. Take a form, study it, and transform it to your liking. 

But right now, I want to share with you Passover Puffs (which will go well with the soup), because Passover Puffs are amazing. I make them only once a year, at Passover of course. They are little pillows of goodness. They are eggy, and slightly sweet, and full of air. They are a testament to working within restraint (no leavening) and so creating something miraculous.

They are also thoroughly addictive. I just gobbled two of them in the time it took to write that paragraph (hey, it was research!) So consider yourself warned.

Passover Puffs

Preheat oven to 375.

Boil 1 1/2 cups water, then add 1/4 cup light vegetable oil (I used grapeseed),  2 Tblsp Sugar, and 1 tsp salt. Remove from heat.

Mix in 1 1/2 cups Matzo Meal and 1 tsp cinnamon. Whisk it all quickly together, and watch it turn into a soggy mess. Turn this all into a large mixing bowl and let cool for about five minutes.

Beat in four eggs, one at a time. You may think the mixture is too thick for beating, but have faith. Faith is what Passover is all about.

Once the mixture is thoroughly combined, scoop large glops onto a greased cookie sheet. I know that "glop" is not a standard measurement, but have some fun with it. You can make large glops or small glops, or medium glops. You can make 9 large ones, or 18 small ones, or something in-between.

Flatten the glops slightly with the back of a greased spoon, then sprinkle on more cinnamon to your liking.

Bake in your preheated oven for 30-40 minutes. The smell will start to penetrate your senses after about 10 minutes. At this point it will be impossible to do anything else but stand in front of the stove salivating, so plan on taking a quick walk with the dog, or vacuum your bedroom, or wander around the perimeter of your house thinking about spring plantings.

When the Passover Puffs are golden brown and sufficiently puffed, take them out of the oven and let cool for five minutes. Resist the urge to stuff one in your mouth right away; trust me, they really do taste better when they've cooled a little bit.

At this point, it would be wise to give them away. 

Good Pesach everyone, and Happy Easter. May your spring be full of joy.

Friday, April 6, 2012

What Holds You Back? A Passover Reflection

Tonight begins the first night of Passover. When I was a kid, Passover meant squirming in my chair while we waited through the boring prayers. It meant fingerprinting the ten plagues with Manishevitz on our dinner plates and shouting in glee: "Frogs!" "Vermin" "Rivers of Blood!" It meant opening the door for the angel Elijah to come in. Passover is supposed to remind us of suffering—the Jews' enslavement, the hard-hearted pharoah, the flight into the desert, the wandering in deprivation toward the promised land—and so the seder often lasts a LONG time.

The Seder plate holds all that suffering as symbols: the lamb bone, to remind us of sacrifice; the parsley to remind us of bitterness; the salt water to remind us of tears; the haroset, to remind us of slavery; the matzo to remind us of hardship; and the egg...well I'm not sure what the egg represents—rebirth? A nod to Easter?

I usually try to hold a seder at my house, though this year it didn't work out. So I'll show you a picture of my seder plate from last year instead:

Note the rawhide chew toy standing in for the lamb shank!
While my child self remembers Passover about suffering, my adult self has chosen to focus more on liberation. Passover comes at the beginning of spring, a good time to reflect on what enslaves us and what sets us free.

Five Things That Hold Me Back

1. My wrists. When I'm doing yoga, I can feel strong and confident and in the flow. But the first thing to give out is my wrists. They begin to ache and whimper, and I yell at them to be quiet. They seem so small, so insignificant: shouldn't it be my hamstrings or my hips that hold me back? (Well they do, too, but for some reason I don't get as mad at them as I do my wrists....) I never remember my wrists until I begin to abuse them. I never take care of them. And though they seem so small, they really can determine everything.

2. Sugar. Sugar is so small, and yet so large. Sugar is never satisfied. Sugar wants to undermine all good intention. Sugar seduces. Sugar says you're hungry. Sugar says you're mine.

3. Television. I love television. There. I've said it. I love the way it keeps me enthralled. I love the stories, the way they unfold week after week. I love the company. But television says, you never have to leave the house again. Television says, I demand nothing of you. Television says, don't move.

4. Self-Doubt.  Need I say more?

5. The Hard-Hearted Pharoah of Perfection. This unkind dictator has been with me a long time—so long, in fact, that we're quite good buddies now. We're actually in danger of merging into one being. This Pharoah cracks the whip. This Pharoah demands more and more, is never satisfied even with a good job. It all has to be perfect.

Moses demanded "Let My People Go!" and the Pharoah refused each time. Finally, Moses took it upon himself to lead the Jews out of Egypt, with some help from God along the way; you know, like that little favor called the parting of the red sea (watch this clip and hear the greatest line of all time: "God opens the sea with a blast of his nostrils....")

What holds you back? And how can you free yourself from it? What kind of miracles can you muster? 

Wishing you a good Pesach and the thrill of liberation.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Yoga of Hot Tubs--Part II

Here she is! My brand new hot tub. A little bit of ahhhhhh in my own backyard.

As some of you know from my previous post about this endeavor, it's been quite the undertaking. The electrician had to do his thing, and the handyman had to dig some trenches, and the fence guys showed up at an ungodly hour, and then the hot tub guys showed up on Tuesday just as I was leaving for the airport.

So all week, as I did my gig in North Dakota, I was thinking about the hot tub. Thinking about the way it fit so neatly on that patio, as it if had been destined to live there all along. Fantasizing about how my life might be different now that this thing had shown up.

I got home late last night. The hot tub guy had it all ready for me to go, but I was tired and strangely afraid to go out there and see  it. Not quite ready for my fantasy to meet reality.

So, this morning, in the rain, I scurried out in my bathrobe, slipped off the cover, and sunk down into the hot water. And there it was. There was ahhhhhh. Just waiting for me. It had all been worth it

The rest of the day felt pretty ahhhhh-like as well. I walked the dog, and went to yoga. Though the yoga class was not my favorite, during shivasana I felt a thrumming peace that has eluded me a long time. At the end, the woman next to me said I had a beautiful voice, a statement that startled me: my voice? And I wondered if something about starting the day in my pool of ahhhhh had somehow knocked free some loveliness deep inside.

I came home and made soup for the crew of Bellingham Review editors who were meeting at my house. It was a soup full of ahhhhh, perfect for a silver day.

Carrot Ginger Coconut Soup
(adapted from The Whole Foods Cookbook)
Melt a Tblsp of coconut oil in a large pot. Chop up a medium onion and toss it in to sizzle for about five minutes. Add 3-4 cloves chopped garlic, and a grated knob (about two inches or more) of fresh ginger. Let them all mingle for another minute or so.
Add 1/2 tsp. cumin, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. dried mint, and 1/4 tsp allspice. Stand over the pot as you stir and inhale all that spicy loveliness. 
 Add 2 lbs chopped organic carrots, and one chopped organic sweet potato. Feed your dog the carrot peels because she loves them and they keep her busy. Add 6 cups water and a tsp of salt. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it all simmer.
While the soup simmers, go out on your deck and admire your new hot tub. Or go on your front porch and admire a tree. Or look out your window and admire what there is to admire. Smell the soup becoming soup. 
 When all the ingredients have softened, add 3 Tblsp lemon juice. Then remove from heat and blend in batches with 1 can Coconut Milk, until smooth and creamy. Return it all to the pot and stir. Serve it in pretty bowls to people who need a little nourishment.