Meditation, Writing

Finding focus

I begin my days most winter mornings sitting in my living room next to a south facing window. My back is to the window; I look across the room and out of the north-facing window at rhododendrons and behind them tall evergreens that mark my back boundary. On a clear morning, the sun, sitting now in the southern sky, warms the room and cascades over my shoulder and arm. But today is cloudy and I’m warmed only by the heat blowing through a nearby floor vent. 

Snow sifts down. The shrubs and trees are pocked with clumps of snow from a recent storm. It’s a gray, green, and white world. I took a picture yesterday of the snowy view out my front door. I’m struck by how muted the colors are—the faintest hint of green on shrubs, a brown house down the street. 

Winter. Part of me wants to hibernate, avoiding the cold, the low light, the snow-constricted, icy walkways; another part feels a deep restlessness. I’m like the cat who sleeps for long hours and then wakes to scrabble at the front window—let me out, let me out.

This restlessness interrupts my writing and editing. I told myself that yesterday would be a day to sit at my desk and focus—my own writing in the morning and then some editing in the afternoon. But the online crossword puzzle beckoned, and then scrolling through social media, which led to a couple of interesting articles. Some phone calls. A load of laundry. I finally settled enough to work on an essay about my mother. But after lunch procrastination once again took hold. 

I made a grocery list and headed to Trader Joe’s. When I was checking out, the cashier asked how my day was going. I said something about restlessness, about difficulty sitting down at my desk and getting to work. “I know how that feels,” he said. He scanned a couple of items, then looked at me and asked, “So, what would help you focus?”

“A cup of tea,” I said. “Tea is good,” he responded. 

“And then I need to just do it, don’t I?” 

“Good luck,” he said as he plopped the filled grocery bag into the cart. 

I’ve been watching videos posted by a British woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail this year—one video a day as we follow her through water-starved desert terrains, treacherous snowy passes, dripping rain forests, sometimes with companions but often alone for days on end. She’s charming, likable, ordinary and extraordinary.

Yesterday was the last video, marking her completion of the six-month long trek. And this got me thinking about how we applaud people who take on these big challenges—hike the PCT or the Appalachian Trail, write a book, solo travel around the world, run an ultra-marathon, etc.—enduring hardships, reveling in small triumphs and joys, countering fears to reach the big goal.

But doesn’t the real challenge lie in how we live our day-to-day lives? Staying in the here and now even when the weather is cold, the world is icy, the cat refuses his medicine, our work feels bumpy, and our sinuses ache? Isn’t the real challenge waking up to our lives, moment after moment? Finding our center, point of focus, passion, our guiding star, and returning to it again and again, no matter how strongly we’re pulled away?

What will help me focus, keep me grounded and awake? The answer changes moment to moment. This morning I picked up my laptop and started writing about my here and now. I’m now at my desk in late afternoon light, one lamp on, a clock ticking, the cat curled up in a corner of the room. On the desk is a rock with the word Breathe printed on it. And so I breathe and I write. 

Nature, Writing

Wildness brushes close

Over the years I’ve been a member of or led in-person writing groups in which the goal is to generate new writing. In all of these groups, I’ve relished the synergy of sitting with other writers, each of us deep in our creative worlds. On a good day, the generative hum can be almost palpable, a shared electric current.

Writing group time doesn’t always flow smoothly though. There are days when I’m distracted by the click of keys or scratch of pens on paper, days when I’m restless, the prompts don’t speak to me, words don’t come, and I just want the writing time to end. But my commitment to the group and to the process helps me sit through this edginess; I make false starts but eventually words become sentences that become a paragraph or two. And I am often surprised when I read aloud, hear what resonates with listeners, and discover a thread to develop, an idea to pursue. 

I wrote the following on one of those restless days. I’m sharing it here mostly unedited—I corrected typos, cleaned up verb tenses and punctuation, put in paragraph breaks but didn’t “fix” anything else. The prompt was to choose a word, write a sentence, pause, and continue with “What I mean to say is…” I chose two words—owl and brush—and this is where those words gradually led me.

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I haven’t seen the barred owl since sometime in January. What I mean to say is my life hasn’t been brushed by a glimpse of that still presence, that beautiful bird of prey that sits and observes, warming its feathers in winter sun. 

What is it about birds of prey that fascinates me? The owl, the peregrine falcons that swoop on their target at 200 miles per hour?

I first spotted the owl a few years ago on a cold winter morning. I saw it fly across the yard and land on a branch of the yellow pine. Every morning it appeared and then just as suddenly disappeared. The clamoring, cawing crows let me know when it arrived—I’d look where they were gathering and yelling and there, through the branches, still but for its swiveling head was the owl. 

I’ve only heard it a few times, the distinctive “who cooks for me” call echoing at night. But all too often outside sounds are muted by the sound of the furnace or the air conditioner, the house living and breathing around me. 

One year I heard the distinctive call of a great horned owl, the deep call and then an answering call. I was glad the cat was inside. I saw a great horned owl one late summer day. Two friends and I were walking on a path in a wooded park outside of Chicago. We heard the whoosh of wings and looked up to see this large creature eyeing us as we scurried past. 

Wildness brushes close. Wildness which so many people fear and destroy.

A few years ago, in response to the disappearance of nature words from a children’s dictionary, English author Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris collaborated on The Lost Words: A Spell Book, a book of acrostic poems and art that conjures these words and keeps these bits of nature alive in our hearts and minds—dandelion, raven, lark, thistle, owl, conker, hare—the list goes on. 

If we lose these words, they say, we no longer see and value the species they name. The book has become a best-seller in England, curricula have developed around it, crowdfunding campaigns have thrived with an aim of getting it into schools throughout the country, a group of musicians created a song cycle based on it, other composers have used it as inspiration. I listen to the CD of the song cycle and my heart aches for the disappearing species. 

So I revel in the wildness that trots and soars and lumbers through my suburban yard. The family of raccoons that loll in the crook of the pine on hot summer days; the possum that noses at the cat door and on occasion takes up residence in the garage; the skunk with its plumed tail that ambles through early in the morning; the coyotes I’ve seen in late winter when lingering snow cover shrinks their hunting grounds; the bobcat that posed in the back corner of the garden one summer; the hummingbirds and wrens and orioles and cardinals and jays and crows; the butterflies and moths and bees and wasps; the tree frogs and crickets that fill the summer nights with music. 

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Listen to “The Lost Words Blessing”

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