A Way With Words: Writing & Meditation

My friend Kate McCandless and I will be giving another A Way with Words workshop at Hollyhock this summer, focusing once again on writing and meditation. Kate is a Zen priest, and poet, and a wonderful and compassionate teacher and friend. She be helping me lead the meditations, and Hollyhock is one of the loveliest spots on earth, so please join us if you can.The workshop runs for five days, from June 4 - 9, 2010. You can register by calling 800-933-6339, or by sending an email to registration@hollyhock.ca. You can also learn more about Hollyhock on the Hollyhock website. Here's a more detailed description of the workshop: Writing and meditation have much in common. As contemplative practices, they require a balance of relaxation and rigor, of mental focus and spaciousness of mind. As sitting practices, they train us to be with our stories, embody them, and let them go. And as transformative practices, they have the power to inspire and change the practitioner and the world.

In this workshop, we'll experience how attentive sitting can spark creativity and enrich our expression on the page. We'll work with our physical selves and senses to write in more fully embodied language, and we'll introduce guided meditations designed to support and enhance key elements of the writer’s craft, such as characterization, voice, plot, and point of view.

In a supportive and nonjudgmental environment, we'll have time to sit, and write, and read, and talk about our writing. We'll share work, receive feedback, and leave with foundational meditation and writing practices that we can take back to our everyday lives.

We'll make lots of time for being outdoors and writing in nature. Hollyhock, located on Cortes Island, B.C., is a stunningly beautiful educational and health retreat centre on the beach. There are opportunities for hiking, kayaking, and naturalist guided walks, as well as massage, yoga, hot tubs, and delicious vegetarian meals.

This workshop is open to writers, meditators, educators, and all who are interested in fiction, or non-fiction, or something in-between. All levels are welcome and no previous meditation experience is necessary.

3 things on my mind...

  Here are 3 things that are on my mind:

1) I'd like to apologize to anyone who has tried to post a comment and then never saw it published. I didn't quite realize that I had to moderate the comments, first, in order for them to show up on the blog. I sincerely hope that you are all very patient people, who take a long view of time.

2) The end page on Shambhala Sun magazine is a really nice forum, where writers reflect upon a poem they love. When an editor contacted me to contribute an essay, I thought of all the lovely poems I would like to write about. And then I thought, No, why not use this as an opportunity to learn about a new poem and a new poet? I'd just gotten back from Israel and Palestine, and so I decided to look for a poet from that troubled region. I'd read some Israeli poetry in the past, but I'd never read any Palestinian poets. So I googled around, and quickly discovered Taha Muhammad Ali, an astonishingly wonderful poet who now lives in Nazareth and also operates a souvenir stand at the entrance to the Church of the Annunciation, selling post cards and menorahs and busts of the Virgin Mary to busloads of tourists.

I read what poems I could find of his online, and then I ordered his collection "So What: New & Selected poems, 1971 - 2005." The poem I chose to write about is called Revenge, and I chose it because I found it so deeply moving, and because it expresses, in the most direct and surprising way, ideas like non-separation, forgiveness, refraining, and compassion, all of which are often talked about in a Buddhist context, too. So here's a link to the poem and an excerpt of my essay. (You can find the essay in its entirety in the May, 2010, issue of Shambhala Sun, and maybe they will give me a pdf I can post here at some point, too.)

The problem with writing, especially short essays, is that so much of the information you dig up in your research never gets used. I find this frustrating, because I'm kind of obsessive, and I want to share my enthusiasms, in all their rich and abundant detail. Most of the time, I refrain, but Taha Muhammad Ali is an important poet, and I think everyone should read him, so here are some of the links to his poetry and to other information about him.

Here's a really interesting PBS Newshour show about Palestinian identity, regained through poetry. Jeffrey Brown interviews three Palestinian poets, Samih Al-Qasim, Ghassan Zaqutan and Taha Muhammad Ali. The interview with Taha is so moving, and it's wonderful to see his beautiful face.

Here's a link to a YouTube video of Taha reading Revenge, in 2006, for the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Taha reads the poem in Arabic, then Peter Cole, his friend and English translator, reads it in English.

Here's his page at the Center for the Art of Translation website, where some of his other poems are published. And a link to the English PEN World Atlas, with more biographical information and a video of a conversation between him and Peter Cole.

Here's his page at poetry dispatch & other notes from the underground with some more poems. It's where I found this astonishing photograph of him, reading, taken by Nina Subin (which I cannot resist republishing here, with thanks).

Here's his page at the Israel - Poetry International Web with more links to poems and to other websites with information about him.

And finally, if you become as enthusiastic and enchanted as I did, you can also order a beautifully written and exquisitely researched biography of him, "My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century," by Adina Hoffman, and published by Yale University Press. Here's a link to a review of the book in The National, entitled, "The Middle Voice." Here's another review on the BADIL Resource Center which is a website for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.

3) I know I had a third thing on my mind, but now I've forgotten what it is. Oh, well. I'll just go ahead and post this, and if it comes back to me, I'll write again...

4) This is what I want carved on my gravestone:

Oh, well...

El Al

Night flight to Tel Aviv. I had the choice of flying either Continental or El Al, and I’d opted for El Al, for the full Israeli experience. El Al flies out of Terminal 4, which services many of the Middle Eastern airlines, including Egyptair, Emirates, Kuwait, and Royal Jordanian. It’s my first trip to the Middle East, and I’ve never flown from Terminal 4 before. When the car service drops me off at Departures, immediately, even on the sidewalk, I notice a difference. It’s the same scene you’d find in front of any terminal at JFK, harried travelers wrestling suitcases from the trunks of New York yellow cabs, but it feels foreign to me. Different. Different faces, different clothes. Like I’m already in another part of the world.

Inside, I head for the El Al ticket counter, but run into an obstacle. An improbable row of black metal music stands blocks the way. There are maybe five or six of them, spaced at intervals of about ten feet, and airline personnel are directing passengers towards these. I fail to parse the scenario. The music stands are weirdly incongruous, like they’re waiting for a woodwind quartet to show up and play a little Telemann or Bach. Apparently, though, it’s not a chamber music concert, but rather some kind of security check. Even though I understand this, my mind still balks. The music stands seem too flimsy for the purpose of security, and standing next to each are very young people in uniforms, but the uniforms, too, are underwhelming. Casual and kind of sporty in a utilitarian kind of way, and the young people wearing them have the somewhat laid back appearance of scouts, or camp counsellors, or UPS deliverymen. They don’t seem like security officials.

I’d been warned about stringent Israeli security on El Al. I knew that there were going to be armed security police patrolling the terminal, that armed undercover air marshals would be on board the plane, and that my luggage would be put through a special decompression chamber designed to simulate the drop in air pressure that would detonate a bomb with a barometric fuse. I’d been told to get to the airport three hours in advance, and I’d received a security pre-clearance, arranged by my hosts at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, who were sponsoring my trip. They sent me a PDF file of a badge and instructed me to print it out and carry with me, and so now I am holding this sheet of paper in my hand as I approach the music stand to which I've been directed.

Two bland-faced youths in uniform watch me. When I’m still about 15 feet away, one of them seems to recognize me and breaks into a big enthusiastic smile.

“So, what kind of writer are you?” he calls out.

“Huh?” I’m still too far away for him to see the printout I’m carrying, and besides, there’s no mention of my profession on the badge. I never submitted a photo for the pre-clearance process. So how does he know who I am, never mind that I’m a writer?

“What kind of books do you write?” he asks, as I come to a halt by his music stand.

“Uh…novels?" I answer.

“Yes, yes,” he says. “I know. But what kind of novels? Do you write romances?” He sounds hopeful.

“Well, not exactly. I mean, they are novels, after all, so there’s some romance in them but I wouldn’t call them romances exactly…”

As I prattle on with my explanation, he smiles somewhat ruefully and slips away, putting an end to a conversation that never really was. His partner takes over, asking me detailed questions about who packed my bags and had I left them unattended at any time, etc., and eventually he lets me pass. I check in at the ticket counter, still baffled by the exchange.

The departure lounge for the El Al red-eye to Tel Aviv is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never been in an airline departure lounge where everyone else is identifiably religious. There are Catholic nuns in habits, and Protestant pastors in tidy little dog collars. There are hooded Armenian priests and Dominican friars in brown tunics with ropes around their waists. There are Muslim women in hijab and men in turbans and tunics. There are Jews of all persuasions: Ultra Orthodox women in long skirts and snoods and Orthodox men in broad brimmed Homburgs and long black frockcoats covering the tassles of their tzitzis; Conservative and Reform Jews sporting minimalist kippah; and Secular Jews, conspicuous for the lack of identifying vestments, but religious-seeming nonetheless, because in Israel, even Secular seems like a religious denomination. And finally, there are the somewhat generic and nondescript large-bodied American Christians, dressed in bland colored casual wear and identifiable primarily by the plastic tour group tags that they wear on strings around their necks. They huddle together, looking pale and nervous and excited.

I’m excited, too. I’m going to Israel to give a keynote address at the First Israeli Food and Sustainability Conference, but I have a secret agenda for going to the Holy Land. I want to try to learn something about religion.

Let me explain. I’m getting ready to ordain as a Zen Buddhist priest next year, and recently two things have begun to dawn on me: one, that that Zen Buddhism is a religion; and two, that for most people, “priest” is a pretty loaded word. This may seem incredibly obtuse and dull-witted of me, but I can defend myself. I was raised by vehemently secular social scientists, an anthropologist and a linguist, and I grew up knowing nothing about religion. In our family, religion was something that, as anthropologists, we might study, and liturgy was something that, as linguists, we might analyze or parse, but, God forbid, we would never practice these kinds of things. Religion was something that other people did, and my parents were kind of pathetic when it came to ritual of any kind. We couldn’t even do Christmas right.

So I grew up with no operational framework for understanding what religion might mean to others. To me, growing up in the west, Zen Buddhism always seemed more like a philosophy, or even a psychology or neuroscience, and I’d made the decision to ordain much in the way one might make the decision to go to graduate school. I’d been studying intensively for many years, and I wanted to intensify my commitment to my discipline. Somehow (and here’s the incredibly obtuse part) I’d managed to spend hundreds of hours in silent meditation, chanting sutras and services, lighting incense and ringing bells, vowing and confessing, wearing vestments and prostrating in front of altars, without quite getting it, that I was participating in a real (gasp!) organized religion.

The realization has come as kind of a shock, a betrayal of my secular roots even, and it’s begun to occur to me that if I’m going to go through with this ordination, I better learn more about the larger field of religion, and not just my practice of Zen Buddhism. So, as the dutiful offspring of academics, I’ve embarked on a crash course of study in world religious cultures and beliefs, and the Holy Land seems like a good place to start. I just finished reading two memoirs by Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned religious scholar, about her life in and after the convent, and found them riveting but also quite disturbing. I have a copy of her book about Jerusalem in my carry-on bag.

So this is what I’m occupied with in the midnight departure lounge of the El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Anthropological field work. The departure lounge is full. Furtively I study my fellow passengers. I feel conspicuously secular, very much the odd one out, nervously fingering my mala, which was a gift from my Zen teacher, and which I always wear…oh, right…religiously around my wrist. I push up my sleeve, in case anyone happens to be looking.

When the time comes to board the aircraft, the youthful security officer with literary tastes is standing at the end of the jetway with a clipboard in his hand.

“I hope you have a wonderful trip,” he said, checking me off. “I hope you find much to write about in Israel.”

“Thank you,” I said. “And, by the way, I just have to ask. How did you know I’m a writer?”

“Oh,” he shrugged. “We have this information.”

It was not really an answer.

“I thought maybe you were reading my mind,” I persisted, jokingly. “I thought it was telepathy.”

He didn’t smile. “We are Israeli,” he replied. “We do not need telepathy.”

I wish I could say that this made me feel safe. I should have felt safe. Between the stringency of Israeli security and the volume and diversity of religious faith represented here on this Boeing 747, we pretty much had all bases covered. By anybody’s reckoning, this flight should be amongst the safest in the world. The chances of us crashing or being hijacked seem slim, but still, I feel uneasy, and it takes me a while to figure out why.

I don’t remember much about the flight, only that it was long, the food was terrible (note to self: never order the asian vegetarian option on an El Al flight). A young Orthodox Jewish man in front of me was perusing a glossy magazine filled with numerous photographs of bearded Orthodox Jewish men, wearing enormous fur shtreimlech on their heads. I was sitting in what appeared to be the Orthodox Jewish quarter of the economy class, and it had taken quite a while to get seated because every one of my neighbors seemed dissatisfied with the seats that had been assigned, and they were all trying to negotiate better ones, so there was a lot of shouting back and forth in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Even after the plane started to move toward the runway, there were still passengers in frockcoats standing in the aisles, refusing to sit down.

The young man with the magazine was traveling with an ancient patriarch of impressive girth and stature and a massively long white beard. He’d been one of the last to be seated on account of the large carry-on suitcase he was hauling up and down the aisle, trying to stash in an overhead compartment. There was much fuss with these suitcases amongst the male Jewish Orthodoxy during the embarkation, and midway through the flight, I discovered why. They needed access to their contents, to the tefillin and tallits and Torahs and books for prayers, which they conducted in the narrow aisles of the economy section, and also in clusters at the rear of the plane, blocking access to the toilets. I remembered a story that an Israeli friend, who is a Secular, told me about how, once, she had gotten stuck in an airplane washroom on an El Al flight. She'd flushed the toilet, washed her hands, and opened the door to leave, and ran smack into the middle of a tight quorum of Orthodox men, davening and shukkeling in the narrow passageway near the galley of the aircraft. One of them raised his eyes from his prayerbook and frowned at her, wagging his finger and shaking his head, which set his peyos swinging. She retreated obediently back into the toilet, where she proceeded to kill time by cleaning the stall, wiping the mirror and all the surfaces, and tidying the roll of toilet paper. Some minutes passed before the absurdity of the situation hit her, at which point she slammed open the door and forced her way through the obdurate and disapproving circle and returned to her seat, shaking with outrage. When she told me the story, she marveled at the authority she so readily relinquished to the male religious figure, ceding to him the power to chasten, intimidate, and reduce her to an obedient girl cleaning the public toilet.

And that’s when it hit me, what it was that made me so uneasy about the tight Israeli security apparatus and this flight full of the faithful. The fact is, I have always been uneasy in the presence of cops and believers, and this anxiety stems from a fundamental problem I have with authority, particularly the kind of authority that sees itself as absolute. I grew up in a generation that was influenced by the Sixties, but that’s only part of the explanation. This problem with authority is also peculiar to my vocation.

Vladimir Nabokov, in his anti-totalitarian novel, Bend Sinister, wrote “Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.” I like this statement a lot, and I feel it says something important about my job as a writer. As a writer, it’s my job to be curious, and moreover as an author, it’s my duty to question authority, certainly my own, but also the authority of others. Authors have some insight into the workings of authority, and I suspect it’s in our nature to be insubordinate. So I’m naturally suspicious of any person, or power, or government, or god who claims authority, particularly those who inspire righteousness and zealotry amongst their followers or functionaries. Religions and nation states are the worst offenders, which is why my radar gets triggered on a flight like this one.

So, to answer, belatedly, the young security officer’s professed hope for my travels: Yes, thank you. I feel pretty sure that this visit to Israel, a nation state defined by a religion, will give me much to write about, and I hope that along the way I will gain some insight into my personal questions about belief and faith and religious vocation as well. Because the question dogs me: if I have such a problem with authority, and if I’m still so easily triggered by the presence of officials and devotees, how, then, can I ordain as a priest, invested with the authority of a lineage, and serve as a functionary of an organized religion?


Back in the World

After a wonderful monastic retreat, I’m back in the everyday world. Here’s a report on activities, thus far: The “Way with Words: Writing & Meditation Workshop” (see below) was awesome, thanks to all the amazing participants who wrote beautifully, shared generously, and supported each other wholeheartedly. Kate and I are looking forward to offering this workshop again next summer at Hollyhock. We are also thinking about offering a shorter, non-residential version of the workshop in Vancouver or in Bellingham, WA, so if you’re interested, please check back here from time to time.

I just got back from Victoria, where I gave a talk for The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. I mention it here because I had some more thoughts that I wanted to share with the folks from the conference, so if you’re a member of ASLE and you happen to see this, please check out my weblog posting on the conference for some resources on introducing contemplative practices in the classroom.

Also on my weblog is a new del.icio.us feed, so if you’re interested in what stories I’m tracking on line (providing I remember to post them!), check out the feed in the right hand column, under All Over Creation.

Between email and all my other on-line networking outlets (this news page, my weblog, my facebook page, my del.icio.us feed, flickr, twitter, not to mention everydayzen.org, etc.), I’m getting very confused as to what I’ve posted where, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. The retreat made it clear to me how hooked I am on this wired world, and how, while it’s great to be in touch, it’s also interfering with my ability to write and read and sustain my focus and attention. However, the good news (at least for those of you with Mac’s) is that I have found a solution, of sorts: FREEDOM. I don’t usually endorse products, but this one is terrific. It’s a small Mac application that you can download for free (and if you like it you can make a donation), and when you open it up, it asks you, “How many minutes of freedom would you like?” You can enter any number from 10 minutes to 480 minutes (8 hours), and Freedom will disable your computer’s networking for that length of time, making it impossible for you to go on-line, check your email, or be distracted by some piece of missing information or research or consumer item that you absolutely must have or tend to immediately. It’s possible to disable Freedom and get back on-line, but it requires that you reboot your computer, which is a big enough disincentive to keep me from cheating. This small intervention has really helped me focus and write. I think it’s effectiveness lies not just in the mechanical disabling of your internet access, but also in the power of intention that you engage when you open the app and commit.

So that’s what’s new. I’m going to post this and sign off, and enjoy a good long stretch of freedom.

ASLE - The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment

Another cool morning in Victoria, BC, after a week of unseasonable heat. I came down to do a talk for the 9th biennial conference of ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, which is an international academic association of scholars, educators and environmentalists working in the burgeoning field of literary eco-criticism. The theme of the conference was “Island Time: The Fate of Place in a Wired and Warming World,” and the conference offerings reflected the astonishing international polyculture that’s grown up around “environmentally inflected” literature. (This is a phrase I read in the Association’s call for papers, and I liked it. “Environmentally inflected” -- the tone is light, understated, discreet. What would its opposite be? “Environmentally loaded”? “Environmentally charged”? “Environmentally fraught”? Hmm, not half so inviting...)

It was interesting to get a sense of how eco-criticism, by focussing its lens on the role of environment and ecology in literature, has elevated the status of “nature” from mere setting or background of story to that of the protagonist, or even the story, itself.

Here are some examples of the conference offerings:

• What Are You Doing Here? Environmental Justice, Inclusivity, and the Question of Community
• Fact and Fiction: Bruno Latour and the Representation of Nature
• Nature and Human Values: An Ecopedagogical Model
• William Wordsworth: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Authorship
• The Textual Animal: Birds, Pets, and Wildlife on the Page
• Get Outside, Get Dirty, Get Smarter: Ecopedagogy and Three Examples of the Outdoor Classroom
• RT: Returning Home: An Emerging Landbased, Ecofeminist Environmental Ethics in Taiwan
• Disaster! Collapse! Writing on Radical Change
• Globalization from Below II: Resisting Corporatization and Commodification
• Aves Triumviratus: Three Chicks Writing About Birds
• (Un)Natural Visions: Ecocritical Perspectives on Film and Visuality
• Environmental Identity: Sexuality, Disability, Ethnicity
• Let the Water Hold Me Down: The Poetics and Politics of Water
• So Descartes, Darwin, and Basho Walk into a Forest: Practrical Models for Science /Humanities Dialogue

…etc., and there was so much more. Six hundred and fifty plus scholars from around the world. Seven concurrent sessions, three times a day, for four days, plus plenaries, roundtables, workshops, pre-conference seminars, receptions, poetry readings, caucus meetings, and, well, you get the picture. It was intense. A bristling forest of ideas, a veritable storm of words. By the time I spoke, at the final banquet, my head was spinning.

So I decided to start with silence. With stillness. I asked everyone to get comfortable and then introduced a short “thought experiment,” directed at watching the mind, watching the body, watching the breath. You could call it a thought experiment, or a meditation, the words are not important. There had already been so many words, and I felt it would be interesting to try a more direct way of exploring the conference theme of "place," to create a direct experience what it is to be in place, exactly where we are.

Silence—alone, but especially in large groups—is such a profoundly powerful and intimate experience, and I really believe it's the basis for intelligent action, and speech, and engagement with the world. We need to learn to take a backward step, away from all the clamor and content and information coming at us, competing for our attention, and instead, from time to time, to direct our attention inward, carving out the space necessary to reflect and make intelligent decisions.

I wish I’d thought to end my banquet talk with a challenge to the members of ASLE. They are educators, and it seems to me that in order to counter the cacophony that is our wired world, they could make the time in their lives and classrooms to share some silence with their students. I’ve done this frequently with groups at colleges and universities, and the students are almost always astonished by the experience. Some find it uncomfortable, but most find it interesting, and many of them report that it feels really good. Their lives, they tell me, are never silent or still, and so it feels amazing to just sit. I'm always reassured that even if they forget the words I've spoken in my talks or classes, they will, somewhere in their bodies, remember that feeling of sitting in silence.

So if any of you ASLE folks out there are reading this and want to take up my challenge, here’s a great organization to check out. It’s the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, whose mandate is to work “to integrate contemplative awareness into contemporary life to create a more just, compassionate, reflective, and sustainable society.” And a great thing is that you can download MP3's of short guided meditations for free, to share with your students and to put on your iPods and practice with at home.

And if this interests you, you can also check out The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, part of the Center’s Academic Program, which “is committed to transforming higher education through the creation of a community of contemplative teachers, scholars, administrators and students. It supports the emergence of a broad culture of contemplation in the academy and the development of contemplative pedagogy, research methodology and epistemology that will be of value to students, teachers and researchers.”

I’m more and more convinced that we need to cultivate mindful silence, and share it with others whenever possible, if we are going to be able to make the careful and difficult choices we will need to make in order to survive in a wired and warming world. This seems to me to be a key piece of activism and eco-pedagogy that we can all learn to cultivate.

Finally, as a footnote to this theme of Island Time, I wanted to mention an interesting article I came across in the Telegraph about homo floresiensis, a now extinct and miniature member of the genus Homo, whose fossilized remains were discovered on Flores Island in Indonesia, and to whom we modern humans are closely related. The article, entitled "The original hobbits whose brain shrank due to remote home, cites a recent study which suggests that living on a remote island might have been the evolutionary cause of their brain shrinkage over time.

For those of us who live on remote islands, this comes as no surprise...


The last day of January. I’m leaving for the monastery in 4 days, and everything feels vivid and transient and a little sad. In the morning when I open my eyes and see my husband sleeping next to me, I find myself holding very still so I can watch him breathe. Then, when I get up, I notice that it is 8:00 and I’m well rested, and I’m aware that soon I will be achingly sleep-deprived and getting up four hours earlier at the sound of a bell. I make a pot of sencha and come upstairs to write, and I appreciate the stillness of the house in the morning, this solitude, and the green bitterness of the tea. I am grateful for this unstructured time alone to track my thoughts; at the monastery I will have very little privacy, and my days will be lived by the schedule, which sounds rigid, but I look forward to the containment. As I sit down at my desk, I feel a fierce appreciation for my computer, and this keyboard, and the way my fingertips translate thoughts into words and put them up onto the screen, letter by letter. This keyboard is especially precious to me right now. Of course I can do more or less the same thing with my fingers and a pen, but this interface is familiar to me and has many advantages. I'm leaving my computer behind, along with my cell phone, and it is both scary and exciting to think about being without these devices for two months. I’m especially interested to see if the absence of a digital interface will change my thoughts and the action of my mind. Will my thinking feel different? Will my mind feel less agile? More fixed? Less fragmented? More cumbersome? Calmer? More agitated? Will my thoughts feel more tangible? Will they feel fast because handwriting is slow? Or slow because the computer invites leaps and quick re-adjustments? Will I go through withdrawal, or the bends? And how will this make time feel? Will the days be long or short? And what about my social networks? Will I be lonely without email and my twittering friends?

I had a disconcerting experience the other day while reading a book. I wanted to recall something the author had written several chapters earlier, and I experienced a shuddering jolt of cognitive dissonance when my mind reached for the global search function and almost simultaneously realized that no, this was a book, with pages. It struck me as wrong, somehow, that the only way to find the reference I needed was to flip through pages.

And there was another incident, during a conversation, when I needed a fact about something--the scientific name for a banana slug’s blow hole (the pneumostome), or the previous role of a supporting actor in a TV show I was watching (Justin Kirk in Weeds and Angels in America)--and for a brief and jarring moment, my mind actually mistook itself for Google. The question arose, initiating the search, and then…nothing. My mind just hung there, like a frozen drive, or a system crash, spinning like the pizza of death.

No wonder I feel stupid all the time. (I remembered pseumostome, but I had to Google Weeds to find Justin Kirk.)

I’ve been worried about my memory ever since my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but it’s quite possible that the lapses I experience are not lapses at all, but rather phantom gaps created by the very technology that was invented to fill them. There’s an article in my De.li.cious feed from the Journal of Higher Education, called The End of Solitude, which talks about this phenomenon, how technology creates the problems that it’s designed to solve. Thus, television creates boredom by alleviating it, eroding the skills we need to entertain ourselves. The Internet creates loneliness by enabling constant connectivity with our social networks, thereby defamiliarizing solitude and turning it into something to fear and avoid, rather than to savor.

I think something analogous is going on with my experience of the way my mind conceives of memory and information. My cyborg mind has melded with these digital interfaces and become so conditioned by access to these certain types of information, that it now compares itself to Google and Wikipedia, and finds itself continually wanting.

So, it will be interesting to see if my experience of my mind changes, and if the conditioning can be reversed. This monastic retreat is an experiment, one I’ve always wanted to perform on myself, and right now I’m caught between leaving and going. It is an unsettling time, and I’m enjoying it.

... and what isn't

Well, I'm finally going to do it. I'm taking two months off from secular life and moving into a zen monastery. I know I've threatened to do this many times. It used to be kind of a joke, my fallback plan, or Plan B, for when things got really tough, but somehow over the years it's edged its way up into the Plan A position...and this is not just about the recession, either. I'm truly excited to have the chance to do this. One thing, though. I'm not allowed to bring my computer with me (gulp), which means that I won't have much chance to access my email for the months of February and March. If you're trying to get in touch with me, I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you. If it's any consolation, the inconvenience I will be causing myself must surely be far greater, so please enjoy that thought as you wait patiently for me to rejoin the world in April.


Took the Cathay Pacific red-eye from Vancouver to New York last night. It’s always strange, and also not strange, to make this trip.

Strange because at home in Manhattan, I sit in Taralucci e Vino, a small crowded cafe in the East Village, drinking latté and trying to decide which movie to go to and where to eat, and less than 24 hours ago, I was at home on an island in the middle of Desolation Sound, walking through a mist-shrouded rain forest, in the company of eagles and cougars and wolves. On the island, there are not so many humans and at this time of year no restaurants at all.

Not strange, because New York is a part of me, and I’m part of it, and the minute I set foot on the sidewalk, I know where I am. I am intimately familiar with the sidewalk, the cracks and stains, the odd, irregular grey dots that look like age spots on old skin, but are probably from chewing gum pressed deep into the cement by other soles. I know how to jaywalk here, how to gauge the lights, cross in front of cabs, cut through crowds. I know which stores are new, and which have folded. I am dismayed at the introduction of Muni parking kiosks on every block. It’s the East Village, and now you have to pay for parking?

And yet, even while I’m happy and engaged here, I’m missing the dripping cedar boughs and the lapping tides and the cries of the bard owls at twilight. In New York, you pay three dollars for an oyster on a half shell. At home on the island, oysters are what you collect and eat when you run out of cash to pay for groceries.

I have friends here who are my family, my history, who are as much a part of me as blood and bone, and I have new friends there, whom I am growing into, my foreseeable future.

Strange and not strange. How much longer will I be able to straddle these worlds? I love it here, and I love it there. I know that flying back and forth is not ecologically sustainable, and I feel guilty about the carbon costs of our vacation, but soon I’m afraid this will not be a problem, because soon it will not be economically feasible for us to make a trip like this. Am I sad? Of course I am.

Tonight, as we walked down Broadway to the Angelica theater, we were struck by how empty the sidewalks were. It was five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, with only 10 more shopping days ‘til Christmas. The stores were advertising deep post-Christmas level discounts, and there should have been throngs of shoppers, yet so few were out and buying. Is this what the Depression will look like?

Yesterday morning on the island, my cat, the little murderer, killed a pygmy owl and laid it at our bedroom door by the suitcases. It was his gift, a last ditch attempt to convince us not to go. I’ve never seen a pygmy owl before. Oliver brought it in to the bedroom to show me. Its eyes were closed and its neck was limp and broken, but otherwise it was intact. A tiny owl, only six inches long. Not officially endangered, but probably ought to be. Oliver put it in a Ziplock bag and stored it in the freezer.

We love our cats. They kill rats, vermin, they are symbionts and they help us. But they also kill song birds and pygmy owls and endangered shrews. Are domestic cats wrong? Should we not have them? The wolves are out in numbers this year, in packs, roaming the island, making humans nervous. Some of the old timers are calling for a wolf cull, like the one in the 70’s. I heard about it from an islander who was a child at the time. There was a bounty. She saw a pick-up truck go by, and the bed was filled with the dead bodies of wolves, stacked like cords of firewood.

Sometimes I feel, deep in my bones, that it is not natural to have so many choices, so many identities, and places to be, and lives to lead, and foods to eat, and things to want. And yet, having so much, having had so much, I am exceedingly reluctant to settle for less. Of course, when the time comes, I will settle. I’ll have no choice. Am I sad? Of course I am.

Pygmy Owl from The Why? Files

A Way With Words - meditation & writing workshop

Last month's writing workshop was wonderful! We decided at the last minute to do it as a non-residential workshop and to hold it at the Whaletown Institute. We had a full house, and it was intensive, like a writers' boot camp. We focused on the foundations of story: what triggers a story, and how do we bring it to life on the page. We worked extensively with character, location, voice, point of view, and authorial stance--what John Gardiner calls "psychic distance," or the level of intimacy a writer maintains in relation to his or her characters. It was so much fun, in fact, that I've decided to do more workshops, and so the next one will be in Vancouver, on October 17 - 18, in association with the Hollyhock Foundation. The title of the workshop is "A Way With Words" and this one will focus on meditation and writing, and the ways these two contemplative practices enhance one another.

Fiction, but also literature in general, trains us in empathy by requiring us to inhabit another's experience. To read literature successfully, we have be willing to enter our characters' minds and skin, to see with their eyes and to feel with their hearts. This is the prerequisite of the writer's work, too, and I'm particularly interested in exploring how traditional Buddhist meditation practices can support our experiences as writers and readers.

You can read more about the workshop in the What's New section of this site, or at the Hollyhock website. To register, please contact Hollyhock at 800-933-6339, or send an email to registration@hollyhock.ca.

Here's a pdf poster of the event: WayWithWords

I hope you will come!