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.
It is winter solstice today. This story came to mind of a much younger me living in Alaska…
In December, the sun dips low in the peach and lavender sky at 1 PM in Fairbanks, Alaska. Night begins to fall slowly at that latitude. When I lived there I learned to embrace the darkness lest I get claustrophobic in the small confines of our cabin. Dressed in layers of wool with a headlamp, I’d go chop firewood, shovel snow, or better yet, go out for a night ski. We lived on Yellow Snow Rd., aptly named for the many dog teams that lived on it so there were plenty of dog trails to ski on in the neighborhood.
Hoar frost was an event. At subfreezing temperatures, moisture present in the air would freeze in a crystalline structure and collect on the surfaces of branches eventually coating them in a sparking beard of white. At 10 below zero to 10 degrees above, a hoar frost provided the perfect conditions to ski.
My old writing desk needed a good sort, a good project for a chilly autumn day. Amazing what you can learn from this exercise. While cleaning out the little cubbies I came across some scribbled bits of wisdom I recorded here and there from years ago. I thought I’d share some…
Sometimes the only clear way forward is looking backward. Unknown
Freedom is what you do with what’s happened to you. Jean-Paul Sartre
Bloom where you’re planted. St. Francis de Sales
We don’t have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got- Andre Dubu
Above all, have fun- Julia Child
This is something I wrote a year ago on a loose slip of paper. I have no recollection of doing so…
If I were a brick in a hearth I wouldn’t have to wake up and wonder what the meaning of life was day after day. I would know that I had a valuable part to play in the structure of things, surrounded by other bricks, joined by latticed gray mortar. There I would remain day after day, year after year, warmed by the woodstove in winter, giving back my heat to the home.
I would watch the comings and goings of family, the bustle in the kitchen, cooking of meals, washing of dishes, the banter of daily life, the barking of the dog, the scamper of kittens.
But freedom would be wanting from my determined place on a wall
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.”
Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.Mary Oliver
I notice small things. This probably started when I started birding and identifying plants in college. Little brown birds become wrens, those spikey white flowers in a bog become bog orchids, rocks in a canyon tell stories.
As I slow down and notice things around me, the world becomes less chaotic. When my cell phone is left behind and the portal to insanity shut off I can sit on the porch step and notice the honey bees probing in the flowers of autumn joy sedum and the variety of clouds in the sky. Noticing helps me to be a more imaginative writer and artist.
A book, The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker, recently came to my attention via Austin Kleon’s blog. I checked it out from the library recently and have been impressed by the plethora of unique activities that will get the novice and experienced noticer into prime form. Enjoy taking a color walk, documenting odd things from a road trip like gas stations, writing a review of manhole covers or fire hydrants, start drawing, write a field guide to the dogs in your neighborhood, write a poem about the items for sale in the check out line of a store, stop talking and inventory what sounds you hear.
If you need help downshifting into observation mode this book has the tools to do so. Who needs Facebook and Instagram for entertainment when one knows how to notice? As a new hardback it’s around $15, or check it out from the library as I did. Everyday life will become full of new adventures.
There was this magnificent great horned owl that lived in the hayloft of the barn, part of the old farmstead that became the Nature Conservancy field station on the Zumwalt Prairie in NE Oregon. A month ago I spent a week there as a participant of the Outpost writing workshop sponsored by Fishtrap, a non-profit writing organization located in Enterprise (see my previous post, Writing the Zumwalt Prairie).
Occasionally we would see this stately bird from its perch at the hayloft’s opening scanning for prey and looking down on us sternly from above.
Owls are unique in that they can rotate their heads 180 degrees in each direction. Their feathers are constructed in such a way to facilitate silent flight and their eyes are 35 X more sensitive than the human eye needing only 5% of the light we require. Add to that their extremely acute hearing and you have an extremely adept hunter.
Since owls typically swallow their prey whole, they have a daily ritual of regurgitating a tidy package of fur, bones, feathers, and the like into one tidy package known as an owl pellet. When one dissects an owl pellet you can piece together the skeletons of the small rodents, and birds they consumed.
During our writing circles with our teacher /poet Kim Stafford, he encouraged us to always be paying attention with all our senses as we experienced the prairie around us, being mindful not to disregard the other visitors to our psyche as well. He stressed to capture those thoughts and inspirations on paper or voice memo before they escaped us- much like the owl and its prey. These morsels of observation are what feed us as writers. Kim is never without a small notebook and pen. I often saw him jotting things down as he went about his day.
To be any kind of creative it is important to pay attention from wherever our perch may be. Writing, (or sketching) like an owl is the essence of personal expression.
by Alanna Pass
I am learning to write like a great horned owl
I sit on a high perch
so that I may swivel my head in all directions
observing, listening, smelling
for inspirational prey
I leave my perch at a moment’s notice
a presence detected
with a silent swoop I spread my wings
extend my outstretched talons
and snatch my prey before possible escape
I bend head to toes
open my hooked beak, extract this morsel
and swallow it whole
repeating this routine until I feel a blissful sense satisfaction
Then I rest
to coalesce all my inspirational prey into one tidy parcel
I project my written pellet into the cosmos
to land at the feet of others
with the intention that they may also
experience the wonders, the truths, the inspirations
that I have lovingly collected, digested, and presented
In the NE corner of Oregon in Wallowa County lies a little visited wonder known as the Zumwalt Prairie. I recently returned from a five day writing workshop in this remote place and still memories swirl in my mind like the prairie wind.
This 330,000 acre bunchgrass prairie remains largely intact as the high elevation averaging 4,000 feet, poor soils, and harsh weather conditions made it unsuitable for the plow. This was a summering ground for the Nez Perce tribe before white settlers and broken treaties ultimately exiled them from their lands. This land is still home to a plethora of wildflowers, elk, deer, badgers, bird, and insect species, many of them threatened.
The Nature Conservancy owns and operates 36,000 acres of this land. It’s a nature preserve but part of its mission is to work with the local ranchers integrating them with their mission of conservation work which includes biological inventories, ecological monitoring and preserving biodiversity. It’s a partnership with conservation and private interests. Careful grazing management is part of the picture. The Nature Conservancy field station was a farmstead abandoned years ago as the harsh conditions of hot summers, frigid winters, poor soil, and remoteness made it too difficult to farm.
“a statement of the beliefs or aims which guide someone’s actions”.
Over the years I have collected some words of wisdom that have guided me through this adventure we called life. I decided to finally write them down in a format that was easily accessible. At first, I considered a small booklet but then I settled on a poster format. This would serve as a mini “Graffiti Wall” that I could access in an instant
This was a project I did not want to fuss over (avoid perfection, just get ‘er done). I grabbed a 14” x 11” piece of cardboard, painted a coat of yellow paint over it with a little embellishment, put my cartoon self in the center, and then started writing my words and phrases on the board in different colors and sizes. There is plenty of room for more guiding principles as this is an ongoing project. You can never have enough words of wisdom.
I keep this posted in my studio and glance at it now and again. It keeps me grounded as with my personal mission statement- but that’s a whole different post…
“Live by this credo: have a little laugh at life and look around you for happiness instead of sadness. Layughter has always brought me out of unhappy situations.“