EYES OF NATURE

Nature quietly teaches us < Happy Earth Day > that nothing is as complicated as we try to make it. And yet, given the paradoxical realities of life, everything is more complicated than we assume or imagine. How do we navigate such treacherous waters — avoid the extremes, the habitual reactions, the angst and anxiety that flow from ineffective and counterproductive personal patterns?

Acknowledging paradox is an excellent initial step, but that takes awareness and presence and mindfulness, doesn’t it?

If we don’t realize that we’re always standing right in the middle of the yin and yang of things … how can we hope for insights or change or anything more than the status quo?

Each time dawn appears, the mystery is there in its entirety.
— Rene Daumal 1908 – 1944

We started this year focusing on smallish changes with life-enhancing potential. So here’s another idea along those lines — observe the paradox of any challenging situation before doing anything else. Sense the dynamics at work around you that aren’t remotely personal. Pause deeply. Step back. Reflect. Consider. Accept contradiction, confusion, the pull of opposite yet, complimentary, forces.

Just this can make a big difference in our perceptions, our judgments, and our attitudes. Even in how peaceful we feel.

  • Nature can be extremely helpful in this context. Look away from what is troubling you, annoying you, distracting you … and look into the eyes of nature instead. A budding tree. A flower in bloom. A breeze against branches. A sky that looks like infinity. When we step away from the conditioned mind, it’s easier to acknowledge a deeper reality … then paradox becomes more obvious. And we can see into situations and challenges and opportunities with a fresh sense of creative possibility. Perhaps … with greater wisdom, acceptance, and understanding. Maybe even compassion.

A good friend of mine shared these lovely spring pictures recently. She referred to them as the “night and day of tulips,” which seemed to fit this blog post quite well. The yellow ones, nearly three feet high, seem filled with light and spirit; the purple ones (queen of the night) are intense, moody, compelling. One gardening site described this variety of tulip as velvety, deep maroon-black blooms on sturdy stems.

  • However you describe themthe key is to pause long enough, look deeply enough, to describe them at all.
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©dacotahkromes
lynneapril2016tulips
©dacotahkromes

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” — Jack Kerouac

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair. C. S. Lewis

IF… you’ve noticed the repetitive nature of most conversations, along with the habitual way of perceiving the world, you’ve probably wondered how any of this ever changes. Only when there are internal changes … does the world begin to “look” different. Only by deepening our life experience can we see the paradox that is always before us. So whatever you do … try not to let a dysfunctional, malcontent culture define you. Your own innate sense of life meaning is a far better guide than a hyped up, heavily glamorized, artificial (and struggling) society. Choosing to tune it all out and look within … is the gift of a lifetime. –dh

Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
See you again Friday, May 6th.
I will always be a student of society looking for the deeper story and the universal message
to derive a better understanding of the human condition.
— D. A. Hickman, The Silence of Morning
If you missed my recent interview on Richard Gilbert’s blog,
here is the link to
We Need Memoir.
Thanks again, Richard!

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READING GORNICK & SHARPLES

I’ve just finished reading two intriguing books, both memoir, both rich in personal meaning and nuance. One author writes about her life in New York City–specifically, the streets of the city and how human contact is often her goal; the other author writes about her son’s bipolar diagnosis and eventual suicide. At first glance the topics sound dissimilar. Yet, life and death issues, along with passages of noticeable clarity amidst emotional chaos are found in both books.

  • Style and structure vary tremendously, however, making for striking examples of how memoir can be successfully written from different perspectives. Popularized expectations of memoir are extremely limiting, but from a literary standpoint, memoir can flow from the soul. Coming to life effectively in an abundance of customized, highly creative ways.
  • Vivian Gornick is actually a bit of an expert when it comes to this genre. I fist discovered her work via her wonderful book The SITUATION and the STORY: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001, Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

gornickbookcover

“The question clearly being asked in an exemplary memoir is ‘Who am I?’ Who exactly is this ‘I’ upon whom turns the significance of this story-taken-directly-from-life? On that question the writer of memoir must deliver. Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.”

I took her words to heart as I completed my memoir last August, reading her book to determine if I had gotten reasonably close to this lofty goal in The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone. I imagine most other serious memoirists have studied Gornick’s work, as well. I agreed with her about the need for “depth of inquiry” in any solid memoir. A story is just a story without soul-searching; a situation just a situation without depth and contemplation and vivid questions to guide us.

But the Gornick memoir I’m focusing on here is The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir (2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). I first learned about her new book on author Richard Gilbert’s Draft No. 4 Blog — immediately, I was intrigued. Gilbert, the author of SHEPHERD: A Memoir, holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College, Baltimore, and teaches writing at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. Gilbert formerly served as marketing manager of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, where he also helped acquire books.

The second memoir I want to discuss today is Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide (2011). Author Madeline Sharples is also an advocate for improved mental health services. Her mission since the death of her son is to raise awareness, educate, and erase the stigma of mental illness and suicide in the hope of saving lives. She’ll be participating in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness overnight 16 to 18 mile walk in San Francisco on May 21 for suicide prevention and awareness. Her memoir tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son–first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. She hopes that her story inspires others to find ways to survive their own tragic experiences.

full-halllight-1I interviewed Madeline here in SunnyRoomStudio in 2012, in a post called Look Again. While working on my memoir, I noticed she had written about her son’s suicide, and this encouraged me to keep working on my book. Both of our sons died at 27 years. Paul and Matt both struggled with serious issues for several years before succumbing to what many might consider inevitable. Clearly, life is a challenging endeavor for everyone, but for our sons, it was a toxic battle with life and death issues. So when it came time to decide on a cover quote for my memoir, I knew exactly who to ask. Though our path into grief and beyond tragedy was necessarily different, there are unavoidable similarities. Shock, despair, self-doubt, a purposeful search for truth, plus the inevitable discoveries and insights that arrived like gifts from another world.

In returning to my look at Gornick and Sharples in the context
of their respective memoirs, several things come to mind.

Gornick (author of 12+ books) writes in brief passages without a single chapter break in her latest memoir. When I first began reading The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir … I wondered where she was going with the narrative, if anywhere at all. Drama and tension were understated (which I liked), but I also felt like I may have dipped into her private journal by accident. Scenes are lightly fleshed out, if at all. And dialogue was scattered to nonexistent. A certain chronology was there, as if lightly sprinkled atop subtle story layers. I liked that, as well.

  • When I wrote my memoir, I wanted to avoid mainstream genre guidelines. I didn’t want a book about my son’s life journey to read like some kind of thriller. I wanted to respect his journey, and mine. And I was seeking the substance of the story, the universal, core message–the deeper story of loss, struggle, and hardship–that would resonate far beyond a single brief lifetime.

From GORNICK: “New York friendships are an education in the struggle between devotion to the melancholy and attraction to the expressive. The pavements are filled with those longing to escape the prison sentence of the one into the promise of the other. There are times when the city seems to reel beneath its impact.”

gornick memoirBook notes on Amazon

A memoir of self-discovery and the dilemma of connection in our time …

A contentious, deeply moving ode to friendship, love, and urban life in the spirit of Fierce Attachments: A Memoir (Gornick, 1987) …

Written as a narrative collage that includes meditative pieces on the making of a modern feminist …

Gornick was born in the Bronx in 1935. This memoir was released when she was 80. She clearly has mastered the art of brevity. Odd Woman is 175 pages. Yet, there is obvious substance, as well. And there is clarity, along with an ability to notice the undercurrent of life. Consider her observations:

“Release from the wounds of childhood is a task never completed, not even on the point of death.”

“My mother had heart surgery. She emerged from the operation in a state of calm I’d never known her to possess. Criticism and complaint disappeared from her voice, grievance from her face. Everything was a matter of interest to her … .”

Madeline, in contrast, lives in California. But New York was part of her son’s story, a place where his ability as a jazz musician began to solidify. Yet, Paul also seemed somewhat adrift in New York because of an emerging bipolar disorder, indirectly reminding me of Gornick and her story of the streets, the people, the place, and how these influences shaped her as a woman, a person, an author. The role of “place” is an interesting theme in many memoirs. Madeline’s son makes several cross-country trips trying to outwit his mental health and nurture his considerable ability and musical ambition at the same time. And then there was his love life.

  • Gornick walks the streets of New York City to find herself, her friends, and to encounter humanity in its many guises. Missions of personal exploration are everywhere in memoir. Most authors … urgently wishing to explore life meaning and purpose.

From SHARPLES: “I think the reason I felt so little grief about Mom’s death was because I compared it to Paul’s. She lived a long life, and she made her own decisions about wasting it the way she did. I felt no remorse in that. It was all her choice. The only bad part was all the people she affected along the way with her miserable attitude and sharp tongue.”

  • Gornick also writes about her mother — their ongoing relationship and snippets of their unique history.

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I took this picture when walking through the cemetery where my grandmother is buried. Living nearly 99 years, Anna was a beacon of light in my life. I wrote about her in both of my books, because her memory looms large and bright. Still.

What memoirists choose to write about varies tremendously. The way our stories come together also varies. In the end, though, we are all writing about the mysteries of human existence. And that is why memoir is such an extremely important genre. What could be more important after all than the relationship between the deepest life mysteries and the delicate unraveling of human lives?

On the back cover of my memoir, I posed key questions that felt extremely important …

How do we better understand the human condition, the quest for inner peace?
How do we tap into the deeper mysteries, embracing challenge and loss as we go?
How do we distance ourselves from a malcontent culture focused on excitement, escape and excess?
And despite it all, how do we deepen our perspective … commit to sustained personal growth?

When I can pick up a memoir that touches any of these subjects, I’m pleased. These are things I want to know. These are subjects I find compelling and hopeful. On page 279, I wrote: “As my awareness expands, I peer ever more intently through the veil of time, daring to inch my way beyond a murky trail of human suffering. In moments of deep silence–vast, comforting–I also sense I am intrinsic to a captivating fantasy, a sacred play of infinite energy. Aren’t we all just riding some incredible wave?”

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I’ll leave you with that question — that sense of infinite possibility. And since we’re also talking about the power of small changes this year, why not consider picking up a book that has been on your “to be read” list for way too long. I always feel a noticeable sense of gladness when I finally get to a book I’ve been wanting and waiting to read … ♥

Until my next blog post on Friday, April 22, I hope you are reading at least one memoir … if not several. When it comes to literature and the hubris of a superficial celebrity culture, a strong memoir, in welcome contrast, artfully reminds us of the true nature of the human condition in insightful, memorable ways. A world born of connection, yes, but we are also a world sustained by understanding, compassion, peace. IF we are to be sustained at all.

By the way, I’m reading another memoir, and will bring back a few remarks to SunnyRoomStudio. Patti Smith writes in her 2015 memoir, M Train, “How is it that we never completely comprehend our love for someone until they’re gone?” If you’ve already read this book, or any of the books covered in this blog post, please share a comment about one of them. Readers are always looking for their “next book” …

The failures of other genres to provide an emotional connection with
some of their characters and narratives gives memoir a toehold.
Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits.
I will always be a student of society looking for the deeper story and the universal message
to derive a better understanding of the human condition.
— D. A. Hickman

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A MOMENT IN THE SUN

Why is “today” so wrong, or “yesterday” … or perhaps, “tomorrow” … ever wondered about this? What happens when you don’t constantly spin stories in your mind? They often dissipate. The mind is a relentless story-maker, and some of this is necessary … in terms of giving our lives meaning and a sense of continuity. But this tendency is best balanced with an ability (and a commitment) to peer beyond heavily personalized stories that are a serious impediment to deeper self-awareness and liberation from time.

“The day that you’ve been waiting for is today; the moment that you’ve been waiting for is this very moment. You must pierce the veil of time and space in order to come to the here and the now. In the now, you will find what you have been looking for.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, “Inside the Now: Meditations on Time” (2015)

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It seems nearly every book written is about this kernel of truth … the journey to see beyond ego and a plethora of self-limiting personal stories. Another common thread in books is the ongoing search for happiness. A search that is often launched from a faulty premise: that “others” can bring me happiness, that “others” are somehow responsible for my suffering, that “others” have failed, yet again, to deliver what I expected and deserved.

What if we released those “others” from our very own well of personal suffering? Released ourselves from make-believe stories of woe, contrived drama, and a curious need to take everything personally? (And I’m referring to smallish situations here, not life events that are more like earthquakes … )

This year we’ve been exploring how small changes have rich and lasting potential. In my last blog post … I mentioned trying to let go of “time” … its many dictates.

What is the deeper story, after all? Don’t you want to know? 

The smallish change I want to suggest today is simple: whenever you find yourself feeling dissatisfied, at odds with people or the planet, release the thought — fully, immediately, without strings. Keep a journal of what happens next. Do you feel more expansive, more peaceful, more joyful? After you’ve done this for some time … did you notice something deeper edging its way into your awareness?

What was it? Can you describe it? Have you perhaps created space for personal growth, for something new to emerge within — for a stronger connection to all things unseen? Maybe this is how spirituality is discovered in the first place. 

springblossoms2012

The beauty of this kind of transformation will be apparent. Now you can be more of a “gift” to others instead of just another person filled with negative energy and forever looking for “something” nameless and nonexistent.

I explored this transformation in many ways during the aftermath of my son’s death … my memoir (written over seven years) shares the details of this unexpected journey … and eventually, I realized that we all have our moment in the sun … and it IS enough.

This moment of awareness, of complete awakening, may take us by surprise, but when we commit to living from a deeper perspective our efforts won’t go unrewarded.

Unfortunately, many seem unwilling to make the commitment or don’t even realize how bogged down they are in a narrow, superficial life path. One that makes them miserable, along with those they interact with. Whenever you sense a “complaint” arising from within, just stop, ask yourself if the so-called complaint is about YOU or someone/something else. Face the inner music, in other words. Faulty perceptions easily turn into complaints. We can explore this pattern, or continue to walk a dull, lifeless path  focused on making “others” wrong, deficient, or guilty of “something.” The choice is always ours.

Instead of mostly “taking” (or insisting on) what you think will make you “happy” … consider asking yourself how you can bring peace and light, even a deep sense of spiritual maturity, into the lives of others. But, first, you have to be filled with peace and light to make this a genuine offering. It’s really up to us. We can be a drain on others, or we can be a meaningful source of inspiration and well-being. We can be filled with understanding (a generous spirit), or brimming over with dissatisfaction, selfish “wants” and “needs.” Criticism, demands, and perpetual neediness. Only when we take responsibility for our own inner world can we truly be present to others. And only then … will we “find” what has long seemed out-of-reach.

As spring approaches, I hope these insights are useful: a small gift with the potential to open doors and change lives. ~ dh

See you again in a few weeks (April 1, 1016). Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits. ♥

  • My memoir, THE SILENCE OF MORNING, is now available in paperback and KINDLE formats. This deeply moving story emerges from the ashes of a tragic ending … loss from suicide, profound grief, unresolved spiritual questions, a powerful and revealing appraisal of our addictive culture, and even the greatest life mysteries … a compelling and timeless memoir by an author who cares deeply about humanity, the universal struggle to find peace within chaos and discord.
    • A poignant, courageous narrative; a book for all seasons that forges lasting bonds of connection and understanding; a determined and inspired spiritual journey.    

    ” … a new path. Holy and beautiful and heartbreaking.” –Susan Hall Pohlman, author of Halfway to Each Otherthesilenceofmorning14-HiRes

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JUST A FOGGY MORNING

WE’VE had some foggy mornings recently when everything seems hidden by a thick winter blanket. Looking out a window reveals familiar landmarks still recognizable despite a shroud of white-gray fog. How do you react to foggy mornings? Or do you really notice them?

We know they are temporary. The sun will burn through eventually, the fog will lift. Yet, somehow it’s easy to let a dreary morning seep into our veins … when we aren’t mindful.

I began this shiny new year in SunnyRoomStudio by considering how smallish changes can deliver significant impact, often in ways that surprise us with their staying power. And already we’ve considered a couple of things that fall under this lovely umbrella: taking frequent sky breaks and giving something away as often as possible. Small changes really are the magic of our lives.

JewelsPhotography2016
Photo, Julie Kingery-Conner *

So today I wanted to suggest yet another smallish change that came to me when I woke up to the fog of a mid-February morning that included a dense-fog advisory from the weather channel. Instead of pining for spring flowers or a bright summer sky … let “what is” become a welcome point of surrender, in a deep kind of way.

“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.” ― from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours

We waste so much energy “wishing it otherwise” … so much energy pining for a different reality. Something we are certain is “better than” whatever is right in front of us. But when something is deeply accepted, without reservation, a degree of emotional liberation is attainable. Some call it liberation from suffering … even from smallish things that simply drain our energy.

So the third smallish change for 2016–something we can easily build into our spiritual practice–is just this: stay mindful, peaceful even in the face of what seems “negative.” Try to allow “what is” to be enough, and to be okay. When we remember to do this we are less likely to cut ourselves off from the very life force that is inherent to each breath, each ray of sunlight, each moment in time.

And if it helps … consider what is still possible given the circumstances. If it’s the dead of winter, for instance, there are still great photographs of flowers, green grass, sunny skies. Seek them out. Enjoy them fully, not as “it’s just a picture,” but in terms of “this is beautiful.” The colors are vibrant and full of life; there is “completion” of something glorious right in front of me.

Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.
— Theodore Roethke

When you try this, let me know how it goes. I’ll be back Friday, February 26th with another smallish change that holds the promise of something more. And if you have ideas along these lines, please share them. Thanks so much for dropping by!

I’ve always loved taking pictures growing up in South Central Illinois, but the love of photography came to me after transplanting to Sioux Falls. I became inspired with the state, and claim it as my own now.” — Julie Kingery-Conner, Jewels Photography 

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THE GOLD STANDARD

“Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren’t turned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote of sources.” ― William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways 

  • As his fans likely recall, the first edition of Blue Highways stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 42 weeks in 1982-83. Not bad for a first book. Of course this was just the first of many for Heat-Moon.

It’s my pleasure to share a short interview with the prolific author, William Least Heat-Moon. Many of you know his work from the wonderful classic, Blue Highways. I recall reading somewhere that Heat-Moon was a “travel writer” because his books often focus on geography. But this isn’t remotely accurate in my estimation.

Heat-Moon’s books (including: PrairyErth, River Horse, Roads to Quoz, Here, There, and Elsewhere: Stories from the Road, Columbus in the Americas, and Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened, etc.) are an in-depth look at significant experience as framed by a certain geography. The “sense of place” is nearly a central character in many of his books, as he (birth name, William Trogdon) deftly weaves intriguing layers of perception and knowledge into a cohesive, often revealing, statement.

“Literature that keeps employing new linguistic and formal modes of expression to draft a panorama of society as a whole while at the same time exposing it, tearing the masks from its face – for me that would be deserving of an award.” — Elfriede Jelinek

WilliamLeastHeatMoon

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Heat-Moon attended the University of Missouri where he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in English, as well as a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism.

“Memory is each man’s own last measure, and for some, the only achievement.”
William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways

  • I hope you enjoy the brief Q & A that follows.

1) Would you still become a writer IF you knew then what you know now … about the process, the time, the politics? Yes indeed.

2) When Blue Highways enjoyed such lasting success, how surprised were you? What did your success tell you about your readers, the world itself?

Beginning writers, in their innocence commonly imagine  their first effort as drawing massive sales. I was an innocent when BLUE HIGHWAYS appeared, but twelve previous rejections of the manuscript  tempered my expectations. The world of readers contains enough intelligent people who will seek out quality writing, even  quality writing that challenges. It’s agents and young editors who lack foresight about the possibilities of  a truly well-written  book.

3) Your book about writing Blue Highways is a wonderful take on the realities of the writing process. When you spoke about your commercial publisher not “getting” the book … I can imagine your frustration. Luckily, University of Missouri Press had a different vantage point. But in many ways, wasn’t this development simply part of the Blue Highways experience, as you continued to chart your own course regardless of what others labeled significant, important, or worthy?

covershotamznbook

Big commercial publishers, especially today, are transfixed by the greed  to find a potential blockbuster (and that usually translates to schlock). Too often their goal is for fast, mega sales, even though history shows the longevity of a book to be the true gold standard.
SIDEBAR: I reviewed this book here in SunnyRoomStudio in 2015 in a blog post called FIRST OF MANY.

4) As you know, I have prairie roots in Dakota … geographic roots that evolved into spiritual roots, such that I wrote about in my book about prairie wisdom … which is really a kind of life wisdom. If you were to live in the middle of nowhere at this point in your life, would you miss the rest of the world? Or would you just sit down and write another book?

I’ve spent time in many places across America that could be called pockets of deprivation. For dozens of reasons, they are not for me beyond a  week or two–but that week or two can be highly informative and often damn delightful.

5) Last question, is writing a lonely and isolating occupation OR is it the grandest form of freedom available to us? Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, notes: “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.” Does this description resonate with you, or not really?

Annie’s description does not resonate with me except by reversal: I see writers as midwives helping new life come healthfully into the world. If I become hospice care to what I’m writing, then I need to find an undertaker for my writing. ~
TO READ my review of Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened, here’s a link to FIRST OF MANY.
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Photo by Don McLeer, Missouri River
“All of those things – rock and men and river – resisted change, resisted the coming as they did the going.
The nature of things is resistance to change, while the nature of process is resistance to stasis,
yet things and process are one, and the line from inorganic to organic and
back is uninterrupted and unbroken.” ― William Least Heat-Moon
  •  I began this shiny new year in SunnyRoomStudio by considering how smallish changes can deliver significant impact … often in ways that surprise us with their staying power. Looking upward more frequently to study the sky, for instance, can yield a needed change in perception, a calming pause in a hectic day, a chance to connect with nature and something beyond our immediate environment. It doesn’t require a financial investment or ask to be scheduled into our day.
  • So, today, I wanted to mention another smallish change with wonderful potential. Give something away as often as possible. Big or small … make it a spiritual practice. Find things around your home that someone else needs more than you do. Letting go of “things” can remind us of the temporary nature of life, and help us build a bridge to others at the same time. Let me know how it goes, what ways you find to extend or refine this idea. Small changes are the magic of our lives!
Book update … 
My memoir, The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone, will be available in KINDLE format February 10th, which is my son’s birthday. The print edition has been released.
A poignant, courageous narrative; a book for all seasons that forges lasting
bonds of connection and understanding; a determined and inspired spiritual journey.  
thesilenceofmorning14-HiRes

“When I began writing this book I wondered what was left to say, to do, after a sudden death.
When everyone had returned to schedules, routines, and responsibilities that were insistently framed by
calendars and clocks, not by the stirring passion of grief–and I felt alone like never before.
Is that where the conversation ends, I’d wondered.”

  • I’ll be back on Monday, February 15th with another smallish change that holds the promise of something more. Thanks so much for dropping by!!

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About my 2014 book release …

Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place is about digging into our surroundings to unearth an organic, timeless wisdom. If you’re looking for inspiration or want to lean more about a landscape, a place, that helped me to unearth my spiritual roots, this is a book you’ll enjoy. We are much wiser than we imagine; it’s only a matter of tapping into what we already know. ~ D.A. Hickman