For the Week of February 21, 2016: First You Must Have the Quiet

I enjoyed a few days of solitude this past week, rare since my husband retired from academic life.  He traveled to Sacramento for the week for a short-term consulting project while I rediscovered the joy of a morning routine which began before sunrise and the solitude to write undisturbed in the morning stillness.  Without distractions, I found I was paying attention, being fully present to my outer and inner worlds.  It was a gift and a reminder of how important it is to sit in silence and be present to what is right in front of me vs. letting the day’s demands rush in to consume my thoughts.  I began each day in gratitude instead of worry or running through the list of tasks that needed attention.

I’ve written before how our attention and energies can be pulled in many, and often conflicting, directions by the  demands of a busy life or times of of illness, pain or hardship.  The solitude of writing offers a respite for me.  I quiet an overactive mind, reclaim a sense of calm, and find solace and healing.  Without it, I feel incomplete, or slightly off-center.

Writing has always been a refuge for me, particularly in difficult times, but not every kind of writing helps us heal. It’s not uncommon in times of serious illness, pain or suffering, that what has happened to us seems to defy understanding.  “An unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart,” Joyce Carol Oates has said.  And some thorns in the heart may defy removal.  I remember how, in the first tumultuous years after my husband died in a drowning accident, I filled my journal pages night after night with a barrage of unanswerable questions, sorrow, anger and self-recrimination.  At first, the outpourings gave temporary relief from the turbulence of my conflicting emotions, but before long, I was a broken record, my notebooks filled with a vicious cycle of rumination.  I didn’t feel better.  I felt worse.  I finally put my journal aside and sought the help of a therapist.

At first, I did little more than weep and grieve in the safety of a supportive other, but soon, I began again to write, and as I did, my healing began.  It was different this time.  I wrote poetry—raw and wordy at first—and each week, I shared a new poem each with my therapist.  To his credit, he never attempted to dissect, interpret or question, instead, he simply responded with gratitude.   “Thank you,” he said.  Nothing more.  It was enough.   I felt affirmed, and I felt heard.  My poems took on new depth, descriptive quality and insight.  I began to get outside of my suffering and awaken to the world around me.  I re-discovered gratitude and a deep and abiding sense of what was most meaningful in my life.

It’s something  poets and writers have written about many times.  We write ourselves into knowing, discovery and healing.  Ted Kooser, cancer survivor and poet, writing the introduction to his book, Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison said:

“In the autumn of 1968, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”

In his book, we find a touching portrayal of a poet recovering from the ravages of illness and treatment, whose spirit and sensibilities were reawakened in his solitary walks and captured in short, yet profound, poems.  He noticed life and the beauty of the natural world around him once more.  

I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival.  Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
this world.

Kooser reminds us of the importance of noticing, of paying attention, being fully present.  Through his poems, we witness his recovery, but it’s the spiritual recovery we are most touched by, not the physical one, and the friendship exemplified in the sharing of poems between friends.  Harrison and Kooser had long exchanged poems in the letters they wrote to one another, but after Kooser’s cancer diagnosis, Harrison described Kooser’s poetry as “overwhelmingly vivid.”  They began a correspondence made entirely of short poems “because that was the essence of what we wanted to say to each other,” Harrison said.  (From the book jacket of Braided Creek:  A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser, 2003).

“Poetry…,” Robert McDowell states in Poetry as a Spiritual Practice “leads to stillness, the calm center where you are most open and alive.  Poetry…makes you more mindful, and as you become so, you gracefully reconnect with the natural world.”  The great poet, Robert Frost, according to McDowell, said that “poetry doesn’t so much tell us anything new, but reminds us of things that we need to know but forgot” (p.6).

Things we need to know but forgot… And I was in danger of forgetting  why I need the solitude to write each morning.  I don’t think of myself as a poet—far from it—but in the stillness of early morning, the ritual of writing helps me pay attention and appreciate the beauty of life happening just outside my window—a hummingbird’s frolic at the fountain, the swoop and glide of a red tail hawk over the canyon, the call and response of the doves as mating season nears.  Writing has become my meditation, a kind of prayer.  Through it, I am constantly reminded of how we are simply a part of something greater, of all living things.

In her poem, “Gratitude,” Mary Oliver, asks–and answers—eight simple questions.

What did you notice?

The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark…


The poem continues, in a pattern of a question of the narrator and her response, a treasure of richly described observations of the natural world.  At the end of the poem, she poses one last question:

What did you think was happening?

And answers: …so the gods shake us from our sleep.

(From:  What Do We Know: Poems and Prose Poems, 2003)

The poet Wendell Berry often spent his Sunday mornings in a walking meditation, observing the world and writing poetry which ultimately became his collection of  “Sabbath poems” spanning two decades of his Sunday morning walks.  In the preface Berry writes, “These poems were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors…the poems are about moments when heart and mind are open and aware…”

Best of any song

is bird song

in the quiet, but first

you must have the quiet.

(In:  A Timbered Choir, 1998)

Paying attention, “capturing moments when heart and mind are open and aware” helps us rediscover and reclaim the sacred in our lives.  As Oliver and others remind us, it’s  about slowing down and being attentive to the present, to what’s inside or right in front of our eyes, opening ourselves to a process of spiritual exploration.  These past few days alone served as a reminder to me how very necessary it is to “have the quiet,” the solitude, to open my heart and mind and truly pay attention to what is around me. Although my husband has retired and is now at home in the mornings, his presence is not an excuse for not preserving my period of solitude and the quiet in my morning writing practice.  I was, I realized this past week, letting that precious quiet slip away.  I am grateful I had the chance to reclaim it.

Writing Suggestion:   Reclaim the sacred and spiritual in your life.  Embrace the quiet, the stillness.  Meander along a trail, near the sea, the woods, a long walk along city streets.  Take in the sights, sounds, smells, and movement.  Write about what you see—one single observation.  Describe it and let it take you wherever it takes you.

          “At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world,
Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
You empty yourself and wait, listening.”

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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