THE LENS OF GRATITUDE

WE all wonder how authors find their material, their voice, and the insight to turn meaningful concepts and words into books. So it’s a real pleasure to have Heidi Barr as my Studio Guest in SunnyRoomStudio this week. Heidi’s guest post tackles author inspiration and sustaining a career of words when it’s also completely normal to worry about “ideas,” and where the next one will come from. If at all, right? Regardless of your creative focus, I think you will enjoy Heidi’s perspective on this. She also poses some great questions at the close of her piece. We all need a meaningful prompt now and then, don’t we?

Heidi Barr lives near the St. Croix River Valley in Minnesota with her husband and daughter where they tend a large organic vegetable garden, explore nature and do their best to live simply. She authored Prairie Grown: Stories and Recipes from a South Dakota Hillside and will soon release Woodland Manitou: To Be on Earth. Heidi’s book is forthcoming (September 19, 2017), so I’ve shared the pre-order link in case you prefer a head start.

I think you’ll really enjoy getting to know Heidi. I love the quote she posted with this picture on her Facebook author page. “Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.” ―Thoreau

I asked her about this picture, how it came to be … because I thought it captured something important about her and her work as an author in today’s frenzied world. She replied that the picture was taken “out on the little lake we live on” … she was with a friend (in another canoe, hence the photo), and that it was “one of those days to just paddle around slowly, taking in the energy of the afternoon.”

The importance of time like this can’t be stressed enough. And reading a book by someone who “gets this” … could change your life perspective, or confirm it. Either way, I’m happy to share Heidi’s guest post here in SunnyRoomStudio. Welcome, Heidi!

Heidi is a mother, spouse, gardener, and writer; she is committed to cultivating ways of being that are life-giving and sustainable for people, communities and the planet. She loves putting words together to paint pictures of ideas, as well as walking with others as they explore what it means to live well on a finite planet. Hiking through forests and across prairies, wading in streams, digging in the soil and surrounding herself with natural wonder help her stay grounded in reality.

“Trust that in your head, in your heart, in your skill, there are more ideas, hundreds, thousands of them.
Some of them are half-finished on the page; some of them are hiding under the weight of that
thing you feel obligated to finish. Let it go.” ~ Allison K Williams

THE LENS OF GRATITUDE
by Heidi C. Barr

On good days, I call myself a writer. I wake up feeling like I have something to say, and I figure out a way to put words together in a way that makes sense to other people. I enjoy the work, and if it’s hard, it’s hard in a way that makes me want to keep at it. On less good days, I wake up feeling like I have run out of ideas, that my well of words has run dry, and that calling myself a writer just isn’t accurate anymore. I wonder how I ever thought of all of those sentences and ideas and posts and books, and I imagine what life will be like now that I no longer have anything to say.

Fortunately, those little negative voices on the less good days always get overshadowed by a new idea, even if it’s writing about how I can’t think of anything else to write about. Life has a way of providing material, whether I like it or not. As Annie Dillard writes, “Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”

I see my work as a writer to be that of giving voice to the beauty that can be found in the ordinary, and that of telling the truth as I see it unfolding in my own life. Many of the other writers I know have said something along the lines of “I write because I can’t not write.” I can claim the same sentiment: I write because it’s a way of wrestling with what’s going on in my own head, in my community, and on the planet. It’s a way of figuring out how I truly feel about something and putting my introverted and often soft-spoken voice out into the world.

Part of my story is writing about what I notice and sharing it.

The unexamined life is not worth living. ― Socrates

We are all on a journey – a journey of present moments that really has no end point – to figure out what it means to exist in our fullest version of truth. We all have a unique way of being that is life-giving for ourselves, our communities, and this planet that we all call home. We all have the capacity to live in a way that feels right, even though we are born into a life situation over which we have little control. Some of us have a much easier time of it than others — privilege is a very real phenomenon in our world and one that must be considered constantly. But maybe we all, somewhere inside when everything external is stripped away, have the capacity to look at the world through a lens of abundance and beauty, rather than one of scarcity and lack. Those who have little and can find the joy in what they have are some of our greatest teachers. Gratitude has saved more than one life on this earth.

Turning to Annie Dillard’s wisdom again, “We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even of silence—by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting.”

When I can stop fighting with myself and just let the words come when they come, I find myself living in a way that feels right because I am able to be fully in my life, instead of trying to force an outcome that I think I should want. Yielding to what wants to speak through me has allowed me to plug into that pulse and tell the stories that want to be told.

How about you?

Whatever your creative practice might be, from writing to sketching to gardening to caring for children, how do you stay present to what your life wants to speak through you? How do you ‘stalk your calling’ and yield to it? What helps you stay in the conversation (with yourself), while avoiding the fight? 

Here is the beautiful cover to Heidi’s forthcoming September release. When asked to read the manuscript for a possible cover quote, I was happy to do so. My first book, Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place, was written straight from the heart about the prairie landscape and lifestyle I’d grown up with. I sensed we were moving away from the wisdom of our hearts when I published the first edition of this book in 1999 (William Morrow, Eagle Brook imprint), and when I noticed that this trend was merely intensifying over time, I decided to publish a second edition in 2014. As a 15th Anniversary edition, the ideas still ring true, even more so with the passage of time. Long story short, Heidi’s new book immediately resonated with me.

Living deeply maybe isn’t for everyone … but those of us who value it and find a way to manifest it … can’t imagine living any other way. Thank you so much, Heidi, for being my guest here in SunnyRoomStudio.

Here, by the way, is the cover quote I had the opportunity to write, along with a brief excerpt from Heidi’s book.

“To the extent it is ever possible to make sense of the human condition, Heidi Barr has done an incredible job within the illuminating pages of Woodland Manitou. The search for life meaning is never simple but, in adopting a seasonal theme, Barr provides a context that will enliven your search. Her heartfelt perspective about the challenges of the human story bridges moments, days, and years in a beautiful and compelling way. With nature as her touchstone, the author sheds a timely light on issues and dilemmas we are destined to encounter. A dynamic and inspiring book for today’s world!” –D.A. Hickman, author of Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place

“Ah, summer. The time of the year when the days are long and life seems to somehow speed up and slow down at the same time. The work around the land and garden is demanding, but the days are long and support our efforts with the grace of lingering light and warmth. There is time to play and rest amidst the needs of caring for the garden and household. The cool rush of water over bare skin in the evening, the feel of the warm wind whistling the scent of hot pine down into the valley, the way a tomato tastes like a burst of sunlight straight off the vine…these details bring out the color of the days and remind me that the earth does indeed laugh in flowers, as Emerson wrote all those years ago. Summer is paddling and running through forests, sleeping outside and slapping at mosquitoes. It is finding ticks and going back outside anyway. It is the neighborhood buzzing with activity because everyone is outside more than any other time of the year. It is feeling bone weary at the end of a long hot day in the sun and collapsing in gratitude for the opportunity to be alive. It is thunderstorms and picnics, nurturing and sowing, and giving and taking in the dance of abundance.” –Heidi Barr, Woodland Manitou: To Be on Earth.

“Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.”
Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.

I’ll be back soon with more about my summer poetry release: ANCIENTS OF THE EARTH — Poems of Time.

Until then, please check out Heidi’s blog and leave a comment for her … whatever comes to mind or offer your thoughts on the questions she posed. Thanks again, Heidi. Best of luck with your September release!

SPECIAL NOTE: Heidi’s guest post will always be easy to find … just visit the Studio Guest tab above.
She is my 46th guest in SunnyRoomSudio!

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NOT THAT MYSTERIOUS

IF you could go anywhere … do anything at all … where, what might it be? Does the notion of a “fantasy land” intrigue you? A nirvana, or a utopian culture, perhaps? The desire, overt or implicit, to escape “whatever is” absorbs a great deal of humanity’s energy. I wonder how this could be quantified. I have a feeling statistics would reveal a great deal if this sentiment were truly measurable.

So this fine month of May, what are you wishing to escape, or change, or somehow avoid? Too many things to count, perhaps?

The endless political drama is at the top of many lists right now. The comedians are having a great time with all of this, and though clearly funny and important (comic relief is a necessity during stressful times), it really is more information on the very same topic. Escape, in this context, is short-lived and perhaps not terribly constructive over time. Other “escapes” can be equally superficial, less than inspiring, or clearly unsustainable.

For me, the secret is finding or creating meaning in whatever context I find myself in. By choice, or otherwise. That is the real key, isn’t it?

When personal meaning can be identified, amplified, or shared, we automatically open ourselves to a more peaceful way of being. We also tend to live from a deeper perspective, overall, while anxiety, depression, or a heightened interest in conflict/drama/controversy often dissipate. Patterns of old are boring, in other words. We then seek new ways of being, new ways of perceiving and engaging with others.

Often those “others” in our lives don’t understand the shift. A personal shift toward greater consciousness and deeper awareness is lost on those who are clueless about such things. And when others remain firmly mired in age-old values or highly commercialized mainstream priorities, the gap between people can become enormous. I see this happening in our world all the time. Yet, we never seem to see this dynamic for what it is — instead we imagine and use curious and inaccurate labels, which only complicates things.

“Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”
Voltaire

The one thought I want to leave you with today is just this: Don’t give up on building personal meaning into your life. Don’t settle for chasing trends, pleasing others constantly, and getting bogged down in all things irrelevant. Many out there will NEVER be happy, or content, or peaceful. Never ever. They haven’t been motivated to shift to a broader vision, one built on a deeper life perspective. Many still think happiness depends on all things external, but some of us are coming to understand that most (if not all) of the work of happiness occurs within.

Contentment can’t be purchased at the local store; nor can joy or peace.

It can’t be forced or demanded, because it flows from somewhere deep within.

But once you tap into a deeper spiritual awareness, you will more easily find meaning in every life moment, and when that happens, a more profound contentment arises on it own accord. Have you experienced anything like this? The shift can be subtle initially, but it’s definitely something to build on to see where it takes you.

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”
[The Science of Second-Guessing (New York Times Magazine Interview, December 12, 2004)]”
Stephen Hawking

Thanks for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
See you again in a few weeks.

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WRITING WITH PURPOSE

WHEN a poem, a chapter, a book begin to take shape … it can feel like a revelation. “Something” is there … but what? We wait. And wait. And most of all, we listen. To the wind. To the silent clouds. To the birds or the voices in a dream. To whatever seems suddenly … there. Where were those insights before? What is it about time that causes the wind to shift … internally? Or … do we imagine the entire process in the first place? Questions of time and awareness may not be on the minds of too many people, but, perhaps, they should be … perhaps.

“If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”
Leo Tolstoy, Essays, Letters and Miscellanies

Maybe, however, those of us called to the writing table are simply more persistently drawn to the mysteries of life.

The existential. The vague, the fleeting, the profound. The intuitive nudge. Nascent, yet, compelling ideas that seem to defy expression on the page.

The motivation to explore the poignant depths of the human experience flow, for me, from a desire to escape the trite, repetitive nature of generic information that seems to be everywhere. Surface analysis. Superficial analysis. Nothing that actually manages to penetrate the darkness of existence. The interminable suffering. Or human nature and how it never seems to evolve, not much … anyway. Layers of unspoken observations no one dares to “see.” Ideas of “polite” conversation bordering on ridiculous, boring, artificial and compliant, even nonsensical.

“Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in Eternal awareness or Pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.” ― Voltaire

Writers are gardeners.

Always tending to a sentence, carefully choosing words, lest confusion or misunderstanding flow from the page. An urge that seems to beckon from somewhere beyond time itself, the need to write can feel like being trapped in a funny dream that won’t let me wake up until the story (nonfiction, fiction, memoir, poetry, essay) is told.

What to make of all of this?

“What makes you think human beings are sentient and aware? There’s no evidence for it. Human beings never think for themselves, they find it too uncomfortable. For the most part, members of our species simply repeat what they are told-and become upset if they are exposed to any different view. The characteristic human trait is not awareness but conformity … .” ― Michael Crichton, The Lost World

Yes, conformity is clearly something most writers shun.

While formula fiction exists and certain themes are grossly overworked (just walk through any bookstore or browse online), when I set out to write it’s because I want to find the creative edge. The place I haven’t gone before in the creative sense. It’s an adventure, a challenge, an opportunity to explore the depths of the soul.

“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.”
Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose

What questions motivate you to dig deeper, to move beyond the repetitive dictates of your mind? How might you explore them anew? While this kind of thing may not be at the top of your to-do list, why not put it there … why not?

Maybe that is the secret to life. We’ll never know, for certain, but I can’t help but believe that our true purpose is something other than we think it is. So each time I encounter the blank page, I write with this in mind. Try to push myself to find the kernel of truth in an experience, an encounter, a feeling that comes and goes so quickly, I can’t quite catch it. When I write poetry, for example, the last line often comes to me just when I think the poem will never fully reveal itself. To me, to readers. A fascinating process I could never tire of or take for granted. One that begs for patience and persistence. One that honors the mysterious layers of intelligence that surround us.

The funny thing is that seeking awareness doesn’t require a great deal of “seeking.” It simply requires an openness to encountering whatever is unknown, and that is nearly everything. ~ dh

“All it takes for generosity to flow is awareness. By actively pursuing awareness and knowledge, we can make choices that cause less harm and greater good to others in the global community of our shared earth.”
Zoe Weil, Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life

Thanks for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
See you again in a few weeks.

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IN HASTE

WE all do some things a bit too quickly. Our timing is “off” … we rush to complete something, to get somewhere, or maybe we speak so fast a genuine conversation is impossible. Examples abound; it’s not difficult to see this dynamic at work, is it? I notice myself doing this when I’m overly focused on getting to the “next moment,” as Eckhart Tolle often calls this subconscious rush to the future. Once you pause to consider how this subtle force works in your life, you may decide to slow things down.

Consider the moments you don’t really “see” because you’re already halfway to the next moment. How about the people you don’t actually “hear” because you are locked in your own mind, pushing the moment to complete itself so you can rush forward … once more?

Going to an art museum or spending time with nature are great ways to test yourself on this dynamic. Feel uncomfortable with a slower pace, running to-do lists through your head at the same time, checking your phone? Looking for a few brief seconds then “moving on” or skipping entire sections of the museum or the garden so you can quickly get to the next thing you want to say or do?

But … you may wonder … what’s the real harm in this? Isn’t life a race that requires selective attention and effective time management? Sometimes, yes, we simply have to hurry. No way around that. However, accessing the deeper side of life (the very mysteries of existence) and possessing an ability to reflect, meditate, and contemplate are linked to the ability to stay in the moment. FULLY.

While haste can feel natural to us because of the world around us, dare to challenge this. Dare to walk a path that creates an opening in your awareness, allowing for fresh insights to emerge. Otherwise, the race we’re quietly running may end badly. Otherwise, and probably. There is no medal for getting through life more quickly than the next guy. There is only a final breath waiting for all of us. That’s it.

So drag your feet a bit more. Don’t let subtle pressures to hurry impact your peace of mind, your sense of purpose. Imagine a world that isn’t half-crazy with visions of “getting to the future” just as quickly as possible. Experiment a little, see what happens. When I’m writing I can feel myself wanting, for example, the “complete the project.” The book, the article, the story, the poem. But I try to catch myself. Remind myself that a belief in time is at the root of this strange dynamic.

Spring is a good opportunity to let go of false notions. To see what life feels like without time calling all the shots. It is an illusion. And there is much to be discovered right here, right now. Thanks for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits. See you again in a few weeks!

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BEHIND THE SCENES

IF this were any other month, I wouldn’t be wondering quite so much about what is going on behind the scenes in many homes. But in all reality … many families are seriously stressed this time of year. Winter weather for one thing. The weight and the joy of traditional holiday expectations. Intense emotions that surface unbidden. A plethora of memories that frantically swim in the background as though seeking immediate expression. Insistent feelings of wanting to find the perfect balance between commercialism and the more devout aspects of the season. Under the best of circumstances, that’s a lot to contend with.

Yes, the season can be delicate and beautiful and motivating and inspiring and joyful. 

But December, and all that it entails, can also become a mixed bag of frustration, sadness, stress, and confusion. Our beliefs and values may point to one thing; society may suggest something else entirely. Cultural expectations may run deep in us, especially if we have never confronted them directly. All of this can lead to inner conflict, which is painful for many. Some, when they really stop to consider it, may realize that serious inner conflict is another form of personal suffering. A rather insidious form, at that.

“It came to him that he didn’t like holidays. . . .
They bore down on you. Each one always ended up feeling like an exam . . .”
― Lily King, The English Teacher

Sometimes we are so accustomed to our own suffering, we don’t recognize it for what it is … we brush it aside as feeling tired, disinterested, or curiously negative. Maybe we blame ourselves for our lack of enthusiasm, or force ourselves to embrace what feels robotic, senseless, redundant. If personal suffering is extremely pronounced, it wouldn’t be unusual for someone to relapse into some form of addiction (deadly or otherwise). Some individuals, as we know, even resort to suicide this time of year.

Isn’t it funny that at Christmas something in you gets so lonely for —
I don’t know what exactly, but it’s something that you don’t mind so much not having at other times. ~Kate L. Bosher

December is a tale of many realities, and so much happens behind the scenes because we’re not always eager to verbalize hesitant or painful feelings. Easier not to admit such things and risk a negative reaction from someone, right? Maybe that is why the season can start to feel like a “requirement” more than a meaningful celebration of life. On the surface … we all see the bright lights, the festive colors, the dazzling ornaments, the rush to “get everything done” in time. But the bigger story lurks in the shadows. The unspoken. The undone. The regrets and resentment that are well-hidden or even denied.

To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year.
~E.B. White, “The Distant Music of the Hounds,” The Second Tree from the Corner, 1954

Can you envision a unique (pleasantly tolerable) path through the December wilderness? Can you imagine a month that loses its dark shadow and becomes something less cumbersome or anxiety-filled? Most of all, can you chart a course that truly honors your life journey and those around you? Can you try to extend your “idea” of December madness, so your personal evolution isn’t completely mitigated by unseen rules of tradition (yes, tradition can begin to feel like an icy fountain of deadening rules quietly outgrown a long time ago).

Conversely, I think it’s possible to keep something of the past that also honors the present.

And that may be how the magic of the season can be teased out once more: with a new vantage point, by an updated perspective that liberates and enlivens, by letting go of what has become quietly reflexive, as opposed to “thoughtful and genuine.” Realistically speaking, habitual behavior that originated long ago may no longer communicate anything of value in the present tense. Acknowledging that dynamic can open the door to something new and creative, something that feels much more meaningful and appropriate. Not everything has to change, of course.

Which Christmas is the most vivid to me? It’s always the next Christmas.
~Joanne Woodward

      Part of our holiday tradition is putting up a tree so our 16-yr old cat, Lola, can enjoy napping under it.
She must think she is outside, because she loves having a real tree in our living room.
Wrapped packages can be nice, too, but seeing her there every morning when we get up is much better.

December can feel more viable and less onerous … it really can. Try a “less is more” approach.

Leave some room for change. Turn down the noise of the season.
Spend time in quiet reflection.
Avoid what has become tired, overworked, dull and cumbersome.
Make the holidays resonate with peace and gentle moments that will long be remembered.
Skip buying the sweater gift that is purely obligatory.
Even if it means saying “no,” find a way to integrate a deeper perspective into your activities so something new can be born.
You don’t need direction as much as the willingness to listen to the nudge within.
Honor the truth of the moment in simple ways that don’t demand more than you are able to muster.
Faking it takes great energy; authenticity creates energy.
My best to everyone this season of peace and goodwill. ~ dh

 “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.
I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.
The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.
I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

See you again in a few weeks!
Thanks so much for stopping by this creative sunny space for kindred spirits.
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