in celebration of Wendell Berry

In honor of his birthday today, some treasures from Wendell Berry, whose words seem always timely. Every year on his birthday, I stop and give thanks for good, wise, kind, sane men. Long may they live.

From Thoughts in the Presence of Fear, written in response to September 11th:

“What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced and active state of being. We should recognize that while we have extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example, several national military academies, but not one peace academy. We have ignored the teachings and the examples of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other peaceable leaders. And here we have an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable, whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no money.”

From the essay, In Distrust of Movements (both of these essays are found in In the Presence of Fear):

“I have had with my friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about the necessity of getting out of movements - even movements that have seemed necessary and dear to us - when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a “peace movement” becomes violent. They often become too specialized, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally with effects rather than causes….Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behavior. “

One thing that makes Berry a voice to listen to is his fidelity to the ideas he espouses. His life is local, committed to community, land, and family and the good of others. His wife Tanya is a big part of making that life possible. There’s a nice essay about her in YES! Magazine:

Here’s my portrait of Tanya Berry: This white-haired 81-year-old is a fiercely independent thinker who embraces interdependence. Someone with a deep humility who gives others credit reflexively, and a self-confidence that makes her comfortable telling you what she believes she’s good at. A kind person who doesn’t hesitate to offer blunt advice. A woman who kept records of her prodigious canning in the kitchen while also serving as discerning first editor of every novel and short story written by her prolific husband.

“My mother,” daughter Mary Berry says, “is a complicated woman.”

Tanya also complicates assumptions people might make—not only about her relationship to her husband’s work, but about homemaking, farm life, small towns, and a Baptist church.


Wendell has pointed out that it’s difficult to make a public defense of one’s private life, but he asks to weigh in (the only time he does in the four days I’m there). “I want to give you a little of my testimony,” he says. Tanya’s role in his writing starts long before he reads that first draft to her, because as he writes he is thinking about her reaction. Knowing he will read it aloud to her—“to somebody I care about and am trying to impress and cause her to love me”—is especially intimidating, he says.

“I haven’t worked alone in any sense,” he says. “I’ve been by myself a lot, but I haven’t been alone. I’ve been accompanied by her, and I think our companionship has left me very willing to accept the companionship and criticism of other people.”

Wendell says his wife’s lack of interest in literary reputations also has been beneficial. He recounts a story that sounds often-told but authentic: “I brought in a review, somebody praising my work, and I said, ‘Look at that.’ Tanya said, ‘It’s not going to change a thing around here.’”

The full article can be found here.

And a link to one of his poems here.

you just need something to eat


Last night I had a dream. I was driving down the country highway that leads to tiny town.  Suddenly I realized the windows were too fogged to see out of, and on top of that, I wasn’t wearing my glasses.  I couldn’t see the road, the signs, the intersections,or anything at all.  I began to panic.  Then, in that strange way of dreams, I woke up on the side of the road, parked at a red light in the city.  Somehow, despite my blindness, I had driven myself 30 miles and arrived in a traffic jam. And I still didn’t have my glasses. Terrified, I found my phone and dialed my husband, explained where I was and what had happened.   Cars were honking, I had to drive, but I was nearly blind.  What was I supposed to do??

“Don’t worry,” he said in a calm voice.  “You just need something to eat.”

I got out of my car (dream-world, remember), went into a store and got some food and ate it.  And he was right.  Suddenly, I was not scared.  I could think.  I could see!  And I drove myself home

We laughed when I told him about the dream later that day, but I’m always astounded at the psyche’s ability to reveal its own truth.  Even though I wasn’t recognizing it yet, I’m in a time of change, pushing into new personal territory. Of course I’m a little anxious, stressed, and scared.  Leave it to my practical husband to know what will help.


Recently, Anna Lovind wrote about the myth of the “fearless” artist.  The (masculine-dominant) idea that we should harness fear and ride it like a bull into our own creative genius.  What if, she suggests, instead of shaming ourselves into action, we recognize the message in the fear and tend to the need beneath it?  I love this insight.  What if we mothered our selves, recognized that sometimes all we need is an apple and a nap to give us the strength we need to face the next task?  

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world that values nurturing except in lip service and product advertisement (“You deserve a break today!").   Taking the time to nurture the self (or anyone) almost always registers to us as weakness and time-wasting because our world demands visible productivity, clock-watching, schedule-keeping, busyness, and monetary reward.  We have to decide to do this on our own and recognize it as an integral part of our creative and intellectual process.

People who succeed at their goals are the people who find the way through.  But that doesn’t mean we have to push and shove and wreck ourselves.   We can still get there with intention and gentleness and maybe, at the end, we'll have kept both our dreams and our wholeness. 

I know I’ve got a long drive ahead through unknown territory, so I’m going to put my effort where my mouth is and sleep an extra half hour. Eat something from the earth.  Show up on the yoga mat. Stretch. Get outside. Back off the wine and drink more water. Turn off the internet. Wear thick socks. Stay warm. Breathe. You?

rosehip ceremony























The idea of ceremony and ritual as a vital practice came to me in my thirties when I traveled across country to visit an online friend.  Her home was a masterpiece of dedicated observation and ritual.  There were candles to light for different times of day, music to set moods, books to be read at dinner, an altar in the dining room that mirrored the seasons of the church year complete with tactile symbols for the children to handle.  When I left my friend's home after a few days, I was changed.  Ritual and ceremony, I realized, make the world of the soul tangible, touchable, real.  And oh, how we need to be able to grab hold of that soul-world in our materialist, cynical age.  We have left so little room for acknowledging mystery and wonder, or the forces that work inside and through us.  These are not things we can speak of easily, even among friends and family.  But ritual and ceremony can provide a framework for it, giving solidity to things we are at a loss to describe, binding us together by experience, lending us a shared understanding.

Last week, I was invited to join in a very special ceremony for my sweet friend Lesley as she marked her passage into the Rosehip season of her life (the time after menopause).  This is such an overlooked time in a woman's life and I was thrilled to be part of creating a tangible doorway for Lesley, a point that she can look back on, knowing she has entered into a new and vital territory.  I believe it is so crucial we honor this landscape ourselves since our culture insists on treating our elder years as a time to delay and avoid, as if we stop being vibrant, living, powerful women because our bodies have moved beyond youth.

Having said that, this was my first time joining other women in such a ceremony (though you can be sure I took notes, because I will definitely be doing this in a few years) and it was such a moving time.  Everything was planned with Lesley's characteristic simplicity and beauty, honoring the earth and her own spirit, as well as ours. We shared food and drink, moving around our host's home and yard just as if we were traveling through the stages of our lives.  At each station we had a special drink (sangria, tea, Greek coffee, wine) that represented the time of life we were remembering, and we sat for hours telling our stories and sharing our experiences.  When all the stories had been told and we had completed our circuit through each life stage, we wrapped our friend in hugs and a lovely shawl that represents her new status as a Rosehip, an Elderwoman.  (Afterwards we wore our floral crowns out on the town and celebrated with dinner.  And here, too, I had something to receive:  I was self-conscious about wearing the crown in public, but all the attention we received was joyful smiles and happy questions about what we were celebrating.  The whole thing was a lovely, transformative experience.)

There's something so powerful about women coming together to bear witness for each other, to accept each other's wisdom, isn't there?  I am full up this week, thinking about how I can honor the femininity and vitality of the women in my own life, how I can stand with them and allow them to stand with me in ways that bring our hidden experiences into the light and lend them solidity.

Just as I was getting ready to post this, a friend sent me a post on Instagram that fit so perfectly with this, I had to include part of it here:

"While talking to my therapist about why I feel such a need to complete so much so fast I realized that my vision board & 99% of images I see in media are of young successful women. No wonder I felt rushed. In media, if you aren’t successful by 30, it doesn’t count..Where are the women who have nurtured their craft for years, the women who have stepped into their success with grace and depth and time. Where are the women who have built families and homes and businesses and learned happiness and self love in a different capacity than you could ever have at 30? They are missing. And that is a disservice to all of us..I will not disappear as I age. I will only shine brighter, love deeper, become wiser, have more to give and be more free. I will be here to show young women you have a lifetime to unfold. Slow down, breathe deep, live fully."

(Just a note: I don't believe older women are "missing" because they have hidden themselves, but because we are conditioned not to value and see the women who are before us.)

Tell me, how do you mark your own passages?  Have you ever participated in a ceremony like this?

And also, who shines bright for you? Are there elderwomen in your life that are pointing the way?

I'd love to hear about them. 

mentors: William Stafford


I first discovered William Stafford through his work as an Oregon poet.  His poem Traveling Through the Dark is probably his most well-known piece and justly so:

Traveling through the dark I found a deer

dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.

It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:that road is narrow;

to swerve might make more dead. By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car

and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;she had stiffened already, almost cold.

I dragged her off; she was large in the belly. My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,alive, still, never to be born.

Beside that mountain road I hesitated. The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;around our group I could hear the wilderness listen. I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,

then pushed her over the edge into the river.

His poetry contained an accessibility, intelligence, and gentleness that resonated with me.  Later, I learned that his writing had been developed and honed as a young Conscientious Objector interned at Camp Belden (California) during WWII.  This helped explained the strange camaraderie I felt with him, as I consider myself a pacifist of sorts.  "He believed in the fragile but essential community of the world, and he wrote on behalf of what he called "the unknown good in our enemies," writes his son, Kim.  At the heart of Stafford's work lies what I hope my own work gives witness to: a commitment to wholeness and to the dignity and humanity of every person.

(Side note:  I included a Conscientious Objector character in my first novel in honor of Stafford.)

After he was released from the camps, Stafford went on to teach at universities and write poetry the rest of his life.  Though he was well-respected, and well-known (he was the Poet Laureate of Oregon for 15 years), he refused to be pretentious.  He wrote for himself, and his vision of the way the world could be, but he carried no hubris when it came to publishing:

"I have genuinely felt throughout my life a sense that any acceptance of what I write is a bonus, a gift from other people....I've always felt the editor's role is to get the best possible material for the readers...not to serve the writer...So I never have felt that I needed to push this stuff into the world. If it's invited in, then it will come."

In art, as in many fields, it is rare to come across such humility, such self-contained awareness, and it speaks to a deep part of me as a writer.  It is vital that I believe in the work I do, that I push myself to the limits of excellence as much as I am able, but then, to let it go, to believe that it will find its place in the world without my desperate striving or need for validation.  Stafford embodied this posture and I read over his work frequently to remind myself it is possible.

He has contributed so much to the formation of my own writing, it would be difficult to record it all in this post.  His meticulous habit of daily writing; his belief that you create good writing by living a life that enables good writing to come about; his refusal to be dismissed as simplistic or sentimental by people who didn't understand his motivations; his ability to be at home within himself and in the world; his rejection of cynicism, all touch me deeply.

About the latter, Stafford says:

"Certain writers create a zone of language that deliberately offends but stays within its own invidious conventions. Challenging genteel culture, these people attain a swagger, in effect saying like a child, "Look at me, I am being bad."Indulging in this kind of affront could be temporarily interesting, but relying on it for a main accomplishment becomes tiresome and petty. And to live by it is to narrow one's ambitions, is to forsake a host of more satisfying accomplishments.These writers reveal an obsession about gentility. Most of us are not permanently shocked enough to be amused for long, but apparently these dabblers in making mud pies can derive a lifelong charge out of defying something they profess not to believe in. Further, if they can maintain their pose of being bad, they can ascribe any negative assessments of their accomplishment to the narrowness of their audience, and thus avoid being judged on the adequacy of their vision, liveliness of invention, depth of realization, flexibility of language, or other such criteria.Gaining attention as they do is as cheap as attempting such by bribery, advertising, demagoguery or any other false means. Timid critics help by not wanting to appear squeamish; they give attention to what is outlandish and fail to remark the shallowness of such attainment that lives by being bizarre."

In my work, writing novels and stories, I often wonder where I fit into the publishing world.  I dislike naivete in writing, I abhor moralism and sentimentality, and yet I find I naturally write of goodness that rises out of darkness, of redemption, healing, love that endures.  Is there a place for my work in a cynical world that seems to hunger mostly for the kind of realism that shatters hope rather than guards it?  I don't know yet, but Stafford holds a lantern for me:

"What if we could all hold in mind the same good dream? That is what a literary work accomplishes momentarily...The myth I hold is not that of the curse on the family, the guilt hovering forever as a result of a bad deed; but instead the vision of life haunted by some unerasable good deed: a life that can’t lose for long, or at least forever. Not Oedipus doomed, but Aeneas bearing the unshruggable potential for later life - this is the pattern I note."

The pattern I note in Stafford's life: peace-making, humility, optimism, dedication, goodness, vision, and excellence, have impacted me greatly.   I'm incredibly thankful that his work was invited into the world and I was allowed to learn from it. 

Recommended books:

Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford You Must Revise Your Life*

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains*

Down in My Heart: Peace Witness in War Time

Every War Has Two Losers(There is a 30 minute film related to this book here.)*

Both these books have a rambling, organic style which can be hard to follow, but they are littered with gems.  I look through them regularly.

 Stafford's son Kim has written a fabulous book on writing as well:The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft   

mentors: the body


The quasi-Pentecostal world I grew up in was a world of the spirit, of feeling.  Our bodies were present of course – our legs carried us to church, our hands leapt skyward in worship, our voiceboxes grew hoarse with singing – but the body was only a container for the spiritual.  And it was easily led astray, easily tainted, and destined to be abandoned one day.  The idea that the body itself had wisdom,  that it, like the rest of the physical world held old echoes of order and knowledge, or thrummed with the power to guide the spirit, was completely foreign to me.

On top of that, I was a sedentary, bookish girl.  I got an F in the one Physical Education class I didn’t manage to avoid.  If ever there was a person disconnected from their own muscle and bone, it was me. The discovery of my body as a wise mentor has been a slow one.  I’m sure it began with a connection to foods and nutrition, but I think my real awareness came when I began to do yoga daily.   The quiet focus, intentional alignment, patient postures, slow breathing, all began to work on me, ironically, in a deeply spiritual way.  One morning, my online teacher said,  “Breathe deep, spread your arms wide, take up space,” and something clicked for me.  I could take up space in the world.  I didn’t need to apologize for my belief or unbelief, for my difference, for my feeling.  I could stretch my arms, speak out, inhabit the ground where I stood.  Trying to hold a balancing posture gave me an idea of how muscles can work in opposition, one leg pulling, the other pushing, but both aimed at creating a beautiful form, a powerful line.  It’s the embodiment of what I’m constantly facing with my work – the push of family against the pull of words.  Tension, the body is teaching me,  is not the enemy, but a friend.  The lessons are plentiful, and every time I roll out that mat, I learn more.

Yoga gave me confidence to push my body even further.  I took up running in January, something I’ve tried and given up on about every two years since high school.  But the strength and balance I found in yoga helped me confront the challenges of running in a new way.  And as I’ve stuck running out, my body has responded with more to teach me. For example, the beginning of a run is always terrible.  Every single time.  But it gets better, and thirty minutes later, I feel like the Queen of the World. Progress is made incrementally.  I’ve worked my way up from couldn’t-run-a-full-minute to three miles straight by going just a little further each day.  First I make it to that post, then the next day, the tree, the next day the stop sign.  It’s not that much different from writing a novel: press through the mental blocks, each day get a little distance, and the results will come.  I never saw it so clearly until I’d practiced it with my own legs and lungs.

As Jigar Gor, an Ayurvedic physician, says, “Yoga is not about touching your toes, it’s about what you learn on the way down.”  One of my most important mentors lives with me every single day and I'm pretty astounded by that.

I’ve got another couple mentors I want to share, so more to come.  Feel free to add your own thoughts about the body as a teacher, or to share the mentors you’re encountering in your own life.

As Adriene Mishler says, “The awesome in me bows to the awesome in you.”