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glen east books

These are the books I bought at Glen East. (This pile represents impressive self-restraint on my part. I could have bought dozens more.)

Most of them came from the Eighth Day Books room, a Glen tradition. Warren, the owner, drives a big blue van full of books all the way from Kansas. (The bottom book was a just-for-fun purchase at the Odyssey Bookshop, across the street from Mt. Holyoke College, where we were staying.)

eighth day books glen workshop east

Eighth Day Books at Glen East

More than simply acquiring good words at the Glen, though, I spent the week listening, absorbing, soaking them in. I listened to Kathleen Norris read poetry during our worship services every night, from Philip Levine to Christina Rossetti, from Mark Van Doren to (Kathleen’s late husband) David Dwyer. (So many people asked for the titles and poets that one of the Glen staffers, the inimitable Anna, typed them all up for us at the end of the week.)

I also relished the words of old, beloved hymns, including “Be Thou My Vision” and “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “Now Thank We All Our God.” I listened to Lauren Winner’s sermon on the Hebrew letter aleph, and to Kathleen’s nightly meditations on words related to gratitude, including “gifts” and “trust” and “hospitality.”

We writers also spent hours poring over each other’s words, in print and in conversation, scribbling notes and ideas on our manuscripts and in notebooks. We analyzed what the characters say in a scene, how the narrator shows us a place or describes her own feelings, what it means to speak about your past self with the wisdom of your present self. We even studied a graphic memoir and discussed the interplay of words and images. And we listened – though sometimes we interrupted one another in our eagerness to affirm or exclaim or tell our own stories. So many hours of words.

I’ve been reading Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (the top book in the stack up there) since I came home. And while Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes with grace and wit and urgency about many facets of language, what she does on every page is remind me to pay attention. To cherish good words, and sift out the lazy or weak or damaging ones. To sit in silence and allow space for good words to well up, to resonate, to take root and blossom into something rich and wholesome.

I acquired a long list of book suggestions that week (the pile above is only the beginning). But I also gained something deeper, more precious, more elusive, more vital. A reminder to pay attention, to hone the precision of the words I put together, to ask why certain words and phrases and stories move me, to read with a discerning eye instead of skimming mindlessly. A reminder that words are valuable, and that it is our deep and human responsibility to use them well.

Where do you go to find good words?

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After my rich, nourishing, thoroughly enjoyable week at Glen East, it’s been a difficult re-entry. Boston feels grey and gritty and overstimulating after the lush green cocoon of South Hadley. After a week of leisurely meals, late-night talks, blossoming friendships and so many good words, it feels a little cruel to be thrust back into commuting and email and the thrumming bass note of traffic downtown. (Though I am grateful to see my husband and catch up with friends.)

mount holyoke college gazebo

Gazebo by the lake at Mt. Holyoke

Re-entry after a powerful experience has always been a struggle for me. This was the missing piece at every church camp I attended as a teenager. After a week of fast-paced fun and emotionally charged spiritual highs, what next? Our youth ministers meant well, but I always felt poorly equipped to make the experience (or what I’d learned from it) last.

As I boarded the bus to leave Oxford in 2004 and then in 2008, the same questions pounded in my head: What now? How do I re-enter my regular life without feeling jarred, and how do I take what I’ve learned and transmute it into that life, so the changes I’ve experienced here don’t fade away?

“How will you go back and live differently?” my friend Janine asked me in 2004, as we walked in University Parks Oxford (and as I wept at the thought of leaving). I didn’t have an answer, but that is still my question after every life-changing experience, whether joyous or tragic.

This time, the question (or its permutations) has to do with both my writing and my life. How will I look at the world differently, based on what I’ve learned and thought and felt and seen? How will I keep asking thoughtful questions about my writing, particularly in the absence (or shifting) of the Glen community? What do I need to jettison or limit in my daily life, to make space and set aside energy to do the work I love? How do I let the good words of the Glen permeate my daily life, make it fuller and deeper and richer and more true?

be here now smith college

Wise advice at Smith College last week

I’m feeling the need for a few practices (writing and non-writing) to ground me, to “grid my growth,” as Julia Cameron says, and to spur me to keep a gentle discipline rather than falling back into writer’s block and laziness. Some of these non-writing practices (cooking dinner, washing dishes) can’t take shape until we return from yet more travel. But some – writing every day, underlining beautiful sentences in new books, paying attention – can start now. In the middle (this is key) of the questions and tiredness and frustration.

How do you re-enter after a life-changing experience? What practices do you use to nudge you a wee bit closer to the ideal life, to the big questions, in the everyday?

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I spent last week on a green quiet campus in western Massachusetts. I spent hours curled up on a narrow bed in a monastic, light-filled dorm room with a window onto a lake, writing and reading and relishing the quiet. And I spent many more hours sitting around tables with fellow writers and artists, talking, writing, wrestling with big questions, laughing, singing, even crying a little.

mt holyoke college lake glen east

I left with a dozen or more new ideas for the book I’ve been trying to write for four years, a mile-long list of poets and novelists and other writers to look up and try, a new band to listen to and love. I left with a series of heartfelt bear hugs and a collection of email addresses and Twitter handles and phone numbers. I left with the unmistakable feeling of having been among my people.

glen east workshop 2012 worship

Listening on the last night

This is a rare tribe: a group of Christians with diverse denominational roots, many with painful stories of having been hurt by the church. Some of them have left church and come back. All of us have wrestled, continued to wrestle, with the God who grappled with Jacob, and with the way His story gets played out in the world by groups of fearful, imperfect people.

They are also – let it be said – a heck of a lot of fun. From the opening wine-and-cheese reception (at which I had a glass of wine with Kathleen Norris, one of my heroes) to the closing dance party, from late nights in the lounge telling stories to a fun free day exploring nearby towns, we had a ball. I haven’t laughed so hard in weeks.

glen east dance party chalkboard

The inimitable Lauren Winner taught our memoir workshop class, by which I mean she led discussion of the manuscripts we had all submitted beforehand, and asked so many good questions that my brain is still spinning. She is wry, quirky, thoughtful and brilliant, and our group of memoirists shares those traits. They are kind, generous, respectful and intelligent, and the level of discourse – about writing and life – was consistently high.

Kristin (my roommate/workshop-mate) and me

I’ve dreamed about going to the Glen Workshop for years, since I discovered Image and its excellent Good Letters blog as a college student, thanks to a creative writing professor who pointed me to both (and to the MFA in Creative Writing that shares a birthplace and a lot of the same excellent people with the Glen). All the pieces – time, cost, location, faculty, emotional impetus – never fell into place until this year. But when they did, they fell into place perfectly.

I’ll be sharing more specifics in the days to come. But for now I want to say: what a nourishing community. And I am so grateful to be part of it.

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The other night, in serious need of some writing inspiration, I picked up Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. This book was J’s gift to me when I graduated from college, and it’s not an overstatement to say that it has changed my life. Julia, with her thoughtful, wise words on writing and the gently prodding exercises which accompany each essay, became a friend and creative companion, and I read and wrote my way through most of the exercises in this book as I sent out resumes and tried to figure out my life after college. (One of those exercises led to my first published article, and the beginning of my freelance career.)

It’s been a while since I’ve revisited The Sound of Paper (though Julia’s words, particularly about buds, continue to remind me, gently, that I’m not alone on this writer’s path). I decided to start going through the exercises again, and one of the first has (ostensibly) nothing to do with writing. Rather, the instructions are to gather a big pile of magazines, pull out any images that appeal to you, and make a collage with them.

I gathered my pile of Real Simple, Whole Living, Anthology and National Geographic (the standard and Traveler editions), spread out on the living-room rug, and began ripping, cutting, sorting and discarding, then arranging my finds and securing them with Scotch tape. I ended up with so many images I had to make the collage double-sided. Here’s the final product:

As I sat and looked at the collage, several things struck me:

First of all, this was fun. It’s been ages since I did anything with my hands that didn’t involve writing, cooking or knitting. How fun to play with pictures again like a kid, not to worry about white space or overlapping edges or whether anything “matched.” I chose an arrangement that pleased me, of course, but I wasn’t overly worried about how it would look.

This melange is part reality, part ideal – much like the Polyvore collages I see on others’ blogs, or the groupings of items on Pinterest, or the treasuries people make on Etsy. They’re partly things we have, and partly things we want. I own a couple of cute dresses and a few pieces of candy-colored cookware; I’ve certainly eaten my share of ice cream, gelato and sorbet this summer. But I’m longing for trips to exotic, peaceful locations, a neatly color-coded closet, a vintage typewriter, an adorable dog (maybe in our next house, when we have a backyard). Some of those things are out of reach right now, but some of them are probably closer than I think.

As a writer I’m always looking for themes, and there are several in this grouping: abundance (heirloom tomatoes and bright flowers, shelves of books and stacks of dishes); simplicity (clean lines, quiet black-and-white photos, wide blue skies with room to breathe); a bit of play (those puppies, enjoying the breeze, charm me utterly); and elegance (those dresses! Those red lips with chic sunglasses! That carafe of lemonade!). Again, it strikes me: these themes speak partly to the life I have, partly to the life I want.

The trick, as always, is how to get from here to there: how to transform the everyday grind into something charming and joyful, thoughtful and fun? How to take these images from the page and translate them into reality? Or how, more importantly, to learn to find the beauty in what I already have, the moments of abundance and simple joy and peace in my everyday?

It’s a question I’m always asking, and this collage only served to emphasize that. These photos don’t have any answers for me, of course, but it’ll be good to keep them around while I keep pondering – and writing.

What would be on your collage of wishes?

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I’ve been having a bit of museum guilt lately.

You know, the guilt that sets in when you live in a city full of amazing cultural opportunities, and yet you rarely seem to take advantage of any of them, especially on weeknights. I know there’s so much in Boston I have yet to see, so many events I’m missing every week. Yet on so many weeknights, all I want to do is leave the office, pull out a book, and ride the train home with the other tired commuters, so I can cook dinner and relax.

However, last Friday, J and I had heard the Museum of Fine Arts was free all day (as part of Highland Street’s Free Fun Fridays summer program), so after work, we grabbed a snack, hopped on the Green Line and headed over to check it out.

There were TONS of other people – which we had expected – so we only stayed about an hour and a half. But that was enough time to check out the seriously amazing exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s glass flowers:

Weird, right? But wonderful. It’s like the world of Alice in Wonderland, in vibrantly colored blown glass.

We also saw a room full of musical instruments, including a glass flute (my inner band geek was fascinated!), and gazed up through the lovely rotunda in the museum’s center. And we visited the Art of the Americas wing, which features a portrait of Paul Revere, greeting you with a slightly quizzical stare, and lots of colonial furniture and portraits and really cool models of ships, and an impressive embroidery exhibit that made me so glad I didn’t live 250 years ago, when girls were not only encouraged but expected to complete such large-scale pieces of stitchery. (I used to cross-stitch and I still love to knit – but the great gift of the times I live in is choice, at least in this country. I chose to learn these things because I wanted to, not because I had to. Ahem. Feminist rant over.)

There was, obviously, no way we could take in the whole museum in one evening – not least because we were starving around 9 p.m. and opted to go grab a burrito at Qdoba down the street instead of staying until closing time. But the MFA is there for us to go back to. And I’m thankful to live in a city with such astounding collections of artifacts and art – and to have crossed another item off my Boston list.

What quirky, fun or wonderful cultural opportunities are available in your city? (And does anyone else ever get museum guilt?)

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