Blossoms: Consider the Lilies

It’s time to head back to Minnesota. The snows are over, so they say. The ice is melting. It’s mid-April, after all. About time!

Here in Sanibel, I look out the window on a brilliantly sunny day. Our amaryllis has surprised us with eight huge blossoms. Who knew that the ugly bulb I had totally forgotten about and left for months hidden under a palm tree in the shade could produce such amazing blooms out of nothing? Even the orchids that I tied to the trees have bloomed, thriving on air and humidity. I’m amazed that those scrawny plants that I had long ago written off have survived on nothing but air—especially considering how I had fussed over them when they tried to  live in the house. Sometimes it is good to just let things be.

Who knew these were hidden in that brown bulb?

And so we will leave Sanibel, Florida, and let it be for the next six months. I’ll leave my friends, who will head back to their respective homes too. We come here and take on new lives. No one seems to care who we were before we landed on this small island.

My “Joy of Writing” class this year was wonderful. So many writers willing to open their notebooks, uncap their pens, and write! I hope that whatever we started in the class will continue and that more blossoms (stories, poems, essays) will come. Sometimes it seems we try too hard to make things happen when all along within our bodies, minds, souls something quiet and alive is at work and just waiting for the right time to show itself.

As I write this, I’m remembering some of the writers who read their work during the last class. Molly Downing wrote about crossing the causeway bridge to Sanibel.

As I ascend the arc of the bridge to its sun-beamed zenith, I feel a palpable lightening of body and spirits. I inhale deeply the sea-sweetened air. Gentle warmth relaxes my shoulders, my neck, my face. An osprey soars overhead, flaunting the fish in his talons with loud proud whistles. Below, palm and pine lined white sand beaches offer previews of delights to come.

From “What is Paradise?” by Molly Downing

Wendy West told a childhood story about a time when she and her sister crashed a large funeral for an exotic Romany visitor to her Minnesota town.

I had never been to a wake or a funeral. I did see a dead priest once. My father had dropped me off early at school, and we had to go to mass every morning. As second graders, we sat right up in the front. The mass was going to be a funeral for the priest. I sat in the pew and looked over at the open coffin. He looked alive! I was all by myself. I stared at him for a long time and was sure I had seen him blink his eyes. What if he was still alive? Would they bury him anyway?

From “The Queen of the Gypsies” by Wendy West

Kathi Straubing’s essay, “Let It Be,” was about how so many words, sometimes meaningless, crowd our lives.

We write words. Embellish words. Impress with words. Delight with words. Dismantle with words. Curse with words. Accuse with words. Amuse with words. We read all night, rise with a crossword puzzle, talk all day, text forever. We never stop long enough to listen, to just . . .Let it be. Just let it be!

From “Let It Be” by Kathi Straubing

Speaking of words, My St. John wrote about how the single-word question What? is so prevalent among those of us who are now hearing impaired. She ends her piece with this funny anecdote:

Just the other night, I was sitting next to my friend Clare at a yacht club dinner, and I asked her who the man was at the other end of the table. I thought she said that he was an ex-convict.
“How exciting!” I whispered, “What did he do?”
Her answer, “What do you think ex-commodores do?”
This morning, I made an appointment with my ENT doctor.

From “What?” by My St. John

And so, the time has come to leave the island and our friends here. While I’m ready to go back to life in a metropolitan area, I’ll miss Sanibel, my friends, and the blossoms that surprise and inspire me.

Free to bloom on a tree

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Writing Idea:  During the Joy of Writing class, we use writing envelopes to jump-start our practice. Each person has her own envelope. Into the envelopes, we put slips of paper with a phrase, a quote, or a topic that could serve as a prompt to get us started. The idea is to pull out one or two slips and, without over-thinking, use the prompt to free write for ten minutes or to fill two pages. For example, in the envelope for this session, one slips says:  Write about pretending to like a certain food. Another says: Write about a childhood game that went bad. Another: Write about each decade of your life (or someone else’s) using clothes. The writing that comes from these can become fiction, poetry, or memoir. Anything.
Try it. Whatever happens, just let it be. Who knows what blossoms might emerge?
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“The nature of This Flower is to bloom.”  Alice Walker

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not…” Luke 12: 27

On its own…bougainvillea

On Practice and Patience

For over a year now, I’ve been trying to learn Claude Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1.”

I took piano lessons from age ten into my teens and college years, and then off and on as an adult when my children were taking lessons. I can’t say that I have much natural musical talent, but I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of playing the piano. So for the last three years or more, I’ve been taking lessons again with a gifted and patient teacher, Matt Dorland. Little did I know that Mr. Debussy’s piece would take me so long to master—well, not really master, because that is a wishful dream. But at least I wanted to be able to play from the beginning to the final note without stopping, which, hallelujah, I managed to accomplish today.

I get nervous when someone is listening. Matt told me about another adult student who asked him to sit nearby and do something else, as if he weren’t really listening. So with Matt sitting on the couch looking at his phone, I played and, despite many mistakes, completed the piece without stopping to correct myself. I liked that Matt said nothing when I finished. He moved back to the chair by the piano. “Well, how did that feel?” he asked. “Scary,” I said, staring at the music. “I messed up the ending. And some of the usual spots too.”

There are several sections in the piece that I have trouble with and have practiced over and over again. Hands apart. Slowly. Try not to look at my hands. Just the music. Feel where my fingers should go. Keep the triplets smooth. Add the quarter notes in the left hand, so they work with the triplets. This last part, triplets in the right hand and quarter notes in the left, took me months to even begin to understand.

Why did I stick with this piece? There were many times when I wanted to quit. “I need a break from Mr. Debussy,” I would tell Matt. But the next week, I was back to the piece. Not able to let it go. Maybe I’m just stubborn. I had started it, and I would finish it.

This doesn’t always happen with writing. There are many unfinished writing projects buried in my computer. It does help to have to be accountable to someone, my piano teacher, every week. Without his patient guidance, I would have drifted away.

I remember talking with Matt one time about how writing a poem or a story differs from playing notes someone else has written. Which is more creative: writing or playing the piano?

“Well, no two people will ever play the piece the same,” he answered.

That is certainly true. My creative rendition of “Arabesque No. 1” doesn’t even come close to the ones I hear on You Tube. But it represents my own appreciation of the challenges presented by this incredibly beautiful piece of music–tonal shifts, difficult rhythms, key shifts, arpeggios.

Thank you, Mr. Debussy, for your genius.

Thank you, Mr. Dorland, for your acceptance, your talent, your insightful tips on how to learn a difficult piece—and most of all, for your patience.
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Writing Connection:

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says: “This is the practice school of writing. The more you do it, the better you get. . . . You practice whether you want to or not.” She compares writing to a run. “You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it.”  She says, “That’s how writing is, too. Once you’re deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk.” So if your writing practice has lapsed, pull out your notebook and go. Write about anything.

Here’s a prompt to get you started:

Explore a challenge involving music. Or what do you have to say about patience? Go.  For ten minutes. Think of it as practice. Is there anyone listening, it doesn’t matter. Good. No one is listening. Not even Lucy,  _______________________________

“The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” ― Rainer Maria RilkeLetters to a Young Poet

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“I Write Because” by Kathi Straubing

And so it began, that voice that nudges me to pick up pen and paper and write. It became relentless—that voice that demands time and space. And so I began.

I write because—because—?

“Why? Why do you write?” The voice would not let go!

I don’t know. I write because—because I have to!

I write because I have to!

I write because I want to understand life, my life and yours.

I write because I need to know my purpose and how dreams take wing and fly.

I write because I want to know where I came from and where I’m going.

I write because I want to know what lies beneath and what lies around and through and above. And is there a heaven? Filled with light?

I write because I feel the grass under my bare feet and, well, why is it soft and green? And why does the tree grow tall and straight?

I write because the bird’s song astonishes me. And I want to know how does a bird know how to choose a mate? And how to build a nest? And when is it time to fly away? And how does it know where the cat lurks?

I write because I want to know where God is and what God is. God is everywhere, in everything—or so they say, and how is that possible?

I write because I want to hear the voice of Spirit. Because I want to know its touch. Because Spirit must be one with poems and prayers and blessings. Oh yes! And in kind words spoken gently.

I write because I want to make sense of confusion, of madness. The world does seem maddening, chaotic some days—when simplicity would be so easy. Or not.

I write because words can be so quiet, and life can be so loud. And why are people afraid to touch or be touched? Why is everyone running so fast?

I write because I want to know why fear is so easy, and love can be so hard, since that’s what we want the most—love.

I write because I want to know how we ask for what we need. Why that scares us so! Knowing that you might say, “No!” because you may not understand my need.

I write because I want to know why it is so difficult to lay down judgment and criticism and just breathe for a minute or two—together.

I write because I want to untangle the knots of unknowing, of misguidance, and reweave the yarns into a tapestry of hope.

I write because I want to know, because I need to know. Don’t you? Because I have so many questions and, regrettably, so few answers. And because life is so damned short and what does it all mean anyway?

I write because I need to know that it is okay to be afraid sometimes, to not know the answer, let alone the right question.

I write because I want to meet my hunger, my thirst for life and love, for joy and beauty, and to begin to satisfy them.

I write because I believe—because I believe, that somewhere out there God is listening—that someone, somewhere feels my words, my longing—to be.

I write. I write because I have to! Because it is like breathing air. And so, I write.

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Kathi Straubing, the guest author for this post, has been a participant in my “Joy of Writing” class here on Sanibel these past six weeks. Kathi read this piece during our final class, and I asked her if she would be willing to share it on this blog. Thanks, Kathi.

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Writing Idea:  Using Kathi’s writing for inspiration, how would you answer the question: “Why do I write?” Or take one line from her writing and use it as a prompt for a ten-minute free writing to explore a story from your own life. For example, write about a time you tried to “untangle the knots of unknowing” or why “fear is so easy and love can be so hard.” These big, universal questions are often the ones that hover around and above our writing and bring us to the page.

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“Why do I write? It’s not that I want people to think I am smart, or even that I am a good writer. I write because I want to end my loneliness.” Jonathan Safran Foer

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”  Flannery O’Connor

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Starting All Over: Spiders, Webs, and a New Year

Here we are ready to start again. A new day, a new calendar, a new year. A few months from now we will have forgotten how fresh our world seems today, but for right now all is well.

One of my friends sends out a poem every Monday. I particularly like the one she sent this past Monday, January 1, 2017.

New Year’s by Dana Gioia

Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
Eternity has festivals enough.
This is the feast of our mortality. . . .

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along—to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.

As the new year begins, we see “a calendar with every day uncrossed/ A field of snow without a single footprint.”

My January calendar already has a few prospective footprints. In a few days, my friend Mary and I will head to Key West for the much-anticipated writer’s workshops, sponsored by the Key West Literary Seminar.  Mary will be working with the poet, Rowan Ricardo Phillips; and I, with Dani Shapiro, who has written novels and several memoirs. I’m hoping to take a few small steps toward the completion of a collection of short prose pieces I’ve written over the years.

Key West Schooner

While we will be going to Key West for the workshops, we will also stroll along Duval Street, eat fresh fish in our favorite restaurants, enjoy the people we always meet at the Key West Bed and Breakfast, watch spectacular sunsets, sail on a schooner, and maybe even leave a few footprints in the sand. Going to Key West is truly “a feast of our mortality”–a carpe-diem sort of place.

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On another carpe diem note, I’ve resolved not to watch (and read) so much news this year. Alain de Botton concludes his 2014 book, The News: A User’s Manual (a serendipitous find yesterday at the Sanibel Library book sale) with these words:

We should at times forgo our own news in order to pick up on the far stranger, more wondrous headlines of those less eloquent species that surround us: kestrels and snow geese, spider beetles and black-faced leafhoppers, lemurs and small children–all creatures usefully uninterested in our own melodramas, counterweights to our anxieties and self-absorption.

Our Spider: Crab-Like Spiny Orb Weaver (Wikipedia)

His words make me think of the spider I have been watching build her sturdy web across the corner of our deck here on Sanibel. The web is an engineering marvel spanning a five-foot corner. It has withstood rain, wind, and my sometimes awkward maneuvers to water the plant that anchors one of her filaments. I accidentally knocked it down a couple of weeks ago, but the next day she started all over–swinging on her almost invisible silk threads, like a tiny, skirted acrobat in mid-air.

 

And there are our five grandchildren: each one a delight–any day spent with one of them is the best day ever. They help me see an ordinary spider web and lots of other small (and large) wonders I might not notice. With them I also do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do, like trying to fly a kite with Lucia in Dalkey, Ireland, on a cold, not-so-windy December day.

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On Writing:  Here’s hoping that you will find new life and happiness in the words you spin in the coming year. You never know what you might catch. An idea you didn’t know you had? A moment easily forgotten?  A story to hold onto? A sense of your own self?  Maybe we can forget the news for a little while each day and settle into a chair with a notebook and a good book. Or take a walk in a park. Or by the beach. Or watch a spider. Or talk with a child. And then come back and write about it.

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“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”
“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle-it’s just a web.”
“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.”
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

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Sachiko: A Story of Hope and Peace

I recently had a conversation with Caren Stelson, the author of Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (Carolrhoda Books, 2016). We had just learned that her book was on the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. “I’m flabbergasted,” said Caren when I offered my congratulations. “This is so affirming.”

We met in a Minneapolis suburb at a Panera restaurant amid the big box stores of Home Depot and Costco, a place far away from Nagasaki and Sachiko Yasui. Yet as Caren and I talked, the incredible story of Sachiko began to come alive for me. It was almost as if Sachiko herself were the third person at our small table.

Sachiko, who is now 78, was six years old on August 9, 1945, the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Because she was a child on that day, she wants children everywhere to know her story. “I think it must be very hard for you to feel what happened because you are so very young,” she said to the children of a sixth grade class, “but I’ll try to speak about how strong you can be as a human being when you encounter difficulties in the future.”

Sachiko’s story is told in short chapters that cover fifty years of her life from the day of the bombing, when she went out to play with friends, to the 50th anniversary of the bombing when, at age 56, she was invited to speak to a sixth grade class about her experience as a hibakusha (“explosion-affected people”). Between Sachiko’s chapters are interspersed sections of supplemental material about such topics as the history of World War II, the bombing of Japan, and the long-term effects of radiation.

The writing is straightforward, never preachy, with quick, punchy sentences appropriate to the reading level of young people, yet not condescending, as readers of all levels can appreciate the concrete details that bring the story to life. Camphor trees, cicadas, and Sachiko’s grandmother’s green bowl found in the ruins of their home work as recurring motifs and metaphors to illuminate connections to nature, the past, and re-birth. They also serve as touchstones for the reader to navigate through a fifty-year time span.

The arc of this story takes readers on a journey from great sorrow and massive tragedy to incredible hope and the wish for peace. The story is personal and yet universal as Sachiko, who was inspired not only by her parents, but also by Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, comes to find forgiveness and the courage to tell others about the power of healing. Her talk on the 50th anniversary of the bombing was the beginning of many years of telling her story and advocating for peace. “What happened to me must never happen to you,” she said.

As Sachiko stood before the children on that day, she was reminded of her three brothers and sister. Toshi died the day of the bombing; her brothers Aki and Ichiro, who suffered from extensive radiation injuries, died shortly thereafter; and her sister, Misa, some years later from leukemia. Sachiko herself battled thyroid cancer that took her voice until she fought to regain it. Both her mother and father were gone. She alone had survived.

“This is an important day to talk about peace,” she said. “I hope to give you something to move your heart, to make you think of our peace for the future by telling you about the real misery that happened in the past. To make it happen, I have to share my heart . . . with you.” And so she told the children her story. It began the way this book opens with a six-year-old girl who was hungry because of the long war, who waited for the family hen to lay an egg, and then went out to play with her friends. Above them, the children heard the sound of a B-29. At 11:02 when the bomb exploded, they were just half a mile from the hypocenter. Her world was demolished. “Roaring winds ripped the bark off the camphor trees and split their trunks . . . .Dust erased the lines of the earth. Day turned to night.”

Sochiko lay under the rubble until her uncle found her and pulled her out. That evening the family buried her four friends. Sachiko’s little brother, Toshi, who was killed by a sharp stick to his head, was dead in her mother’s arms. He also was buried near the four friends.

During our conversation, I learned that Caren was inspired to write about Sachiko after hearing her speak at a Minneapolis ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We talked about Caren’s five trips to Nagasaki to interview Sachiko and her extensive research (evident by the notes and bibliography in the back of the book). Sachiko came to find her own voice because of what she learned from Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King—and her father, who said to her, “This is the only world we live in, Sachiko. Never say evil words; otherwise, we’ll not see peace. Hate only produces hate.”

It has been a long time since I’ve been so moved by a story. The book, although written for young people, helped me to better understand a war I was born into. I would have been about the same age as Sachiko’s little brother, Toshi, when the atomic bombs exploded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When we began our conversation, Caren said she had learned how much we don’t know or remember about that horrible day and how the national narrative we are told is not the only one to examine. “We have to be careful,” she said, “about the way we read our history because there is much controversy over the dropping of the bombs. It is relevant today. We must choose our leaders carefully.” By focusing on the story of one person, Sachiko, a habakusha who was shunned, Caren said she could explore how a child of war finds her way to peace.

“How does one get there?” she said. “How can this help our young people? I had to find the layers. What was happening in her life, the world, the war? I had to explore all the ways one person came to tell this story.” She paused and continued, “I don’t want this to be an apocalyptic story. I want it to be about a child, a story of hope. ”

One of my questions for Caren  related to the name of this blog, “The Joy of Writing.”   “Since I call my blog “The Joy of Writing,” what have been the joys (or not) of writing this book?” I wondered. Our time together ran out before we could talk about my question, but later Caren sent me this note:

It was a pleasure to meet you this afternoon to talk about SACHIKO. I never really answered your question about the joy of writing SACHIKO. The real joy of writing SACHIKO is connecting with others in friendship. I thoroughly enJOYed being with you this afternoon.

Then she added:

I forgot to say—now we have a child’s voice rising up through the three darkest holes of World War II. We have Germany’s Anne Frank and her diary. We have Hiroshima’s Sadako and her thousand paper cranes. And now we have Nagasaki’s Sachiko and her story. I feel in my bones if Anne Frank and Sadako had been allowed to grow to adulthood, they would have become wise peacemakers, like Sachiko, sharing love and hope with the world.

Thank you, Caren Stelson, for bringing Sachiko’s story, this beautiful book of forgiveness and peace, to us.

Sachiko Yasui and Caren Stelson at their first meeting. Nagasaki, 2010

Sachiko Yasui and Caren Stelson at their first meeting. Nagasaki, 2010

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Writing Idea:  No matter what your writing project, try doing research or interviews to connect your story or subject to a larger historical perspective. Another idea: how would you write the story of a difficult time in your life (or another person’s life) for a child you know?

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“When you grow up, remember to tell my story.”  Sachiko Yasui

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

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