I love creative retreats. It’s a time when I can escape from the nagging responsibilities of daily life and immerse myself in the creativity of some genre. In July I rejoined the Fishtrap experience, but this time instead of being in the remote grandeur of the Zumwalt Prairie like last summer, I attended the summer Fishtrap Gathering of Writers for five days at the Wallowa Lake Lodge. Wallowa Lake is nestled at the foot of the rugged, snow-capped Wallowa Mountains in Eastern Oregon, an eight hour drive frome my home in the Willamette Valley.
What is Fishtrap? Founded 35 years ago by forward-thinking writers Kim Stafford, Rich Wandschneider, and historian, Alvin Josephy this organization was created to provide support, connection, and education to West Coast writers
From their website “ Every July, readers, writers, journalists, historians, publishers, and lovers of the arts from all over the world gather at Wallowa Lake to write, to explore issues important to people of the West, and to make connections. The weeklong conference has provided hundreds of writers the opportunity to work with some of the best authors and teachers in the West including Ursula K. LeGuin, Luis Alberto Urrea, Bill Kittredge, Laura Pritchett, Anis Mojgani, Kathleen Dean Moore, and many, many others”.
Much of my time is spent with facinations that perhaps lead to nowhere. I doodle. I make art most of which is unshown and not for sale. I play music with no performing or recording aspirations, write and don’t submit the vast majority of my pieces for publication. My blog is not monetized. This is so counter to our culture’s obsession with productivity and success- but they all make me happy.
Today I read a post by Austin Kleon riding 5 miles to mail some letters rather than mail them from home because it “was something to do.” On a link embedded in this post was another post titled the same, “Something to Do.” I found this post so profound. It put into words what I have been unable to to do trying to justify my gratutious pastimes. In short, they keep me alive. To me that’s the ultimate payoff.
Last week I had the honor of reading my prose piece, “TheOrchard by My House is Gone” at the book release celebration of Paper Gardens the annual literary journal of Yamhill County, Oregon. I was joined by other local authors that had their work published along with family members and members of the community. The most memorable part of the evening was when adults shared the stage with writers of all ages including those as young as second grade. We were all writers in different stages of our journeys who took the risk to submit our work to be judged and perhaps rejected.
A close friend asked to see my entry and I emailed it to her. She read it and then responded that how much she appreciated me sharing my work with her. Doing so gave her a window into my life and how I view the world. She remarked in her email that a long-ago friend was a painter but would not allow anyone else to view her work and that “would potentially impact the way she felt about her art.” I also have an acquaintance that ceased painting her stunning watercolors as she never sold them at the one event where she exhibited. Paintings are especially challenging to sell as it’s not only if a person likes the piece, it has to fit and match one’s décor.
I find both these situations very sad. We are always under the scrutiny of others- the way we think, dress, or otherwise live our lives. I don’t make art for economic gain anymore. What is imperative is that my creativity provides a spark to my life, joy in the process of its creation, and serves as an avenue for self-expression. There lies the attitude of non-attachment. There will be some that don’t care for what I write or create, yet there will be others who resonate with it. It’s not a deal-breaker as I am out to please myself. It is the nature of bringing creation to the world to see. If I am pleased with my work and it is well-executed, that is enough. It’s like hiking. I go out and have a beautiful day among nature and if I see wildlife, so much the better.
The title of this post is the first line of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”
The poem continues:
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves……
I came upon this poem years ago. It was the first poem that I loved, that I could pull around me like a homemade quilt. It became my anthem of sorts.
Now the interesting thing is Oliver did not set out to write a greatest hit, nor any work of great meaning. According to an interview with OnBeing, she created this poem quite informally to illustrate the difference between end-stopped lines and enjambment to another poet. But words are powerful and when she released this poem to the world it spoke deeply to many people. It’s become one of her most loved poems.
For me, it permitted me to do the work I needed to do regardless that I sucked. Do it anyway. Over the years I’ve agonized over my work like every other creative, but her poem on my wall makes me understand that it’s not the likes, the money, or the accolades. I do not have to suffer for my art. Ultimately, it’s the daily practice of doing and honing my craft. It’s what my soul calls to me to do (which did not include quitting my day job).
Time is no excuse. Write the poems in grocery lines, at stoplights (using voice memo), doodle designs in boring meetings. The dream won’t happen unless you do it- unless you listen to the voice of the wild geese within.
I never was interested in poetry until I read “Wild Geese” until I read Mary Oliver and discovered more poetry. Now I write it. Here is the poem in its entirety…
“The Journey of a Thousand Miles begins with a single step”- Lao Tsu
This is one of my favorite quotes. It’s been a mantra for my life. I would add to that “keep going.”
Sitting down to a blank canvas or piece of paper can be daunting. Procrastination takes over. but it’s action that inspires creative energy not necessarily the other way around. Risk is inherent for a full life and with that risk comes failure. Any type of artist will tell you that you have to be willing to fail to learn. Just check out their recycle bins. Only their best work goes on display.
I just finished planting my native plant garden. It looks very sparse right now as the plants are still sleeping awaiting the arrival of spring. I’ve been rather awed by how this project manifested in relatively a short amount of time considering my lack of knowledge. Like the rest of my pursuits, it started with an idea followed by one action after another. I’m sure I have made some mistakes. So be it. Completion is my preference over perfection.
Commitment is a powerful force. The hardest part is starting and getting past the fear. I wrote this poem about it.
My only big regret in life is that I didn’t take the time to document my experiences more. I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was 16, which is admiral, but I wish I had expanded my entries to snippets of sensory experience and fascinations other than just emotional spew. But, in my defense, I was a teenager and I avoided language arts classes finding them tedious.
Looking back even recording one thing that made my day would have been such a precious collection to look back on. No one told me then that those little vignettes from my life in Alaska, raising my son, and those hilarious “kids say the darndest things” moments teaching 6th-grade science would be so longed for. Of course, I have hundreds of photos but without some words as accompaniment, they are incomplete memories. I was always too busy, thinking I would remember everything. Then “poof” those clear memories vanish like steam. The same goes with some solution to a nagging problem or those creative inspirations I get as I drift off to sleep.
From my journal. After a few years I’ve realized that the “new abnormal” is the new normal. As if the old normal wasn’t challenging enough! Here are my strategies to navigate this ever changing world, subject to change of course.
Two years ago I started a daily doodle practice after challenging myself to do something artful every day. I’ve written about this before on this blog but I thought it worthy to bring around again being the New Year .
I decided about the only thing I could successfully commit to doodle in the 2” square of my day planner since it wasn’t being utilized for anything else. The ground rules I made- use pen, no erasing, no self-criticism, go back over it later and add to it if you want. Be spontaneous and just see what comes up. Often I only see the merits of an entry until I let it sit for a day or weeks later. Sometimes I take the previous day’s idea and make a different version of it.
I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be”.
Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”
“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”
What is the metric of decision-making in our lives? What bearing do we follow? How do we hear our inner guidance among the cacophony of others? How does one approach risk? Navigating one’s life is tricky business.
Artist/author Elle Luna addresses this very topic in her recent book “The Crossroad of ShouldandMust, Find & Follow Your Passion.” I was listening to her interview on the Beyond podcast and perked up my ears. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone address this issue in such a concise way. Rather than head vs heart or gut vs brain she defines the quandry as what you SHOULD do VS what you MUST do. This could be as huge as choosing a profession to choosing to take a break and read for 30 minutes, or should I finish this blog post or go out and work in the garden? (I chose the former.)
I purchased the book and have been very pleased with both the content and its presentation, a mixture of type, Luna’s illustrations, handwritten text, and memorable quotes in a recycled tag board binding. It’s a quick reference to navigating the yearnings of one’s soul.
Age has made that process easier for me to distinguish between the voices of head and heart as I have the luxury of looking back over decades. Still, it is always nice to have a guidebook when you have lost your way. I’ve added it to my bookshelf alongside The Artist’s Way and Austin Kleon’s books. It’s worth a read- especially if you’re a creative type.
Check it out!
At the Crossroads
having tasted the straight, well-traveled road of should