This I Believe

  •  Books on My Shelf 2014

Welcome back to SunnyRoomStudio.  This is my final post in a 4 month series devoted to sharing a few of the books on my shelf.  This blog series began October 11, 2013, with a post called Journey of Inquiry.

At that time I focused on an essay by Gregory Orr, “The Making of Poems”, from a book called This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (Holt Paperbacks, 2007).

So today, I close out this series with another essay from the same book — yes, we have come full circle.  Exploring books, literature, authors, poets.  Voices that have reached out, somehow connected us to their lives, and to ourselves.  What greater gift?

  • By Elizabeth Deutsch (Earle), “An Honest Doubter”

In this brief essay, Elizabeth was merely 16, but she won an essay contest with it in her hometown of Cleveland.  The contest was called This I Believe and her prize was a trip to New York City to record her essay for broadcast.  She was exploring her sense of religion at that age, wondering if she believed or not.  She writes of visiting different churches, and how many of her friends had simply chosen to follow the religion of their parents.  But Elizabeth values the search.

“I have a simple faith in the Deity and a hope that my attempts to live a decent life are pleasing to Him.  If I were to discover that there is no afterlife, my motive for moral living would not be destroyed.  I have enough of the philosopher in me to love righteousness for its own sake.”

She admits hers is a “youthful philosophy” that may evolve, and closes with this: “Sometimes in a moment of mental despair, I think of the words ‘God loves an honest doubter’ and am comforted.”

0820011058In a follow-up essay, “Have I Learned Anything Important Since I Was Sixteen”, (it’s 50 years later now), she writes that her beliefs haven’t changed a great deal, and that the world still worries her.  Elizabeth also cites a phrase she’s heard, admires: wherever you are, be there.  She goes on with how it feels when she becomes deeply, acutely aware of right now.  “This is a precious experience, one to savor.”

  • It sounds like she has enjoyed her journey of inquiry, grown in the process.  And I would guess the process of inquiry is more important than trying to pin down our beliefs moment to moment.  They will all fade, then disappear, one day anyway.  But if we are “open” to learning and growth–if we aren’t sure of too many things–life will continue to unfold around us, offering new insights, new revelations, as long as we are here to notice.
  • How is your journey of inquiry going?  What are you reading, doing, imagining to help you push beyond your comfort zones?  What new beliefs have replaced the ones that no longer appeal to you — that no longer light your way in the dark?  Ideas!  If you don’t like poetry: read some.  If you don’t like books by spiritual leaders you’ve never heard of: read some.  If you don’t like to sit quietly: sit quietly.  If you think you need “more:” pursue less.  If you think you are certain of your beliefs: try uncertainty.  Let the world show you its secrets.  Let the world amaze you.
  • I’m glad you’ve been here to share this 4-month series.  And I hope you’ve enjoyed it.  As many of you know, last year, I wrote an online spiritual journal in 17 posts called Seeing It Otherwise.  Next Friday, February 7th, I’ll begin a new journal for 2014.  Title to be announced then.
  • AND since next week is the 4th anniversary of SunnyRoomStudio, I’ll share a special meditation for year 5 of this creative sunny space for kindred spirits.  I look forward to seeing you then! ~ dh

“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”
~ John O’Donohue

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Snow Tunnels

  • Books on My Shelf 2014

Welcome back to SunnyRoomStudio.  This week I’m pleased to introduce, as my Studio Guest, someone I’ve known most of my life, Nancy Sutton Smith.  We went to high school and college together and Nancy picked an incredible book from her shelf to share with all of you.  It’s winter in many parts of the world, and the book she’s about to tell you about, captures a specific winter day that will likely never be forgotten.  It was January 12, 1888.

Snow Tunnels
by Nancy Sutton Smith

One of my favorite childhood memories is sitting next to my great grandmother (in her fabulous wooden rocking chair) as she talked about living in a sod hut in the Oklahoma territory.  She told stories from the 1880s, talking about grass growing inside, animals burrowing into their walls, the cold, the warmth being underground and blizzards that forced them inside for days. So when I saw The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin on a Barnes and Noble sale pile for only $4.99, I grabbed it.  I never expected it would stay with me seven years later or come to mind every time I drive by a rural school or fence line.

The Children’s Blizzard chronicles a colossal storm that rolled in on an unusually warm winter day, January 12, 1888. The Great Plains had a lot of snow earlier in the week, then brutal temperatures like our current polar vortex.  Arctic air collided with the humid warmth from the Gulf of Mexico and a once in a century blizzard roared in from Montana.  According to Laskin, eyewitnesses said it was like a solid black wall that came on with a furry, belying the early morning’s 30-degree temperatures. Unaware of what was coming, children walked the many miles to country schools in much lighter coats than they would have in the previous week’s bitter cold. Just as my great-grandmother said, any break in the weather brought people out to do chores, tend animals and breathe fresh air after days of being inside.

The storm came on so fast and temperatures dropped so low, that those without shelter didn’t make it. More than 500 people died in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Minnesota which would be massive in any storm but doubly so considering the sparse and rural populations of the time. The heroines were very young country schoolteachers; many still teenagers themselves, in whose hands rested the fates of their frightened students.

Laskin masterfully weaves historical weather data with state and county records, pioneer accounts, local newspaper stories, and chance meetings with relatives of survivors and victims.  He highlights the incredible strength of these brave pioneers, many who had just arrived from Europe hoping to carve out a better life on the harsh prairie. It is clear from his writing that he fell in love with these people who, without technology, vehicles, or provisions saved the lives of many in their charge.

As I was reading The Children’s Blizzard, I couldn’t believe this part of the country still has population. Their daily lives were so difficult that you would think a storm that life changing, would end their determined resolve.  I was filled with gratitude, awe and wonder at a people who frantically dug snow tunnels to try and keep the children alive, hugged the fence line trying to find a farm in the blinding white, and who had to make the devastating decision to stay in a frigid schoolhouse or set out for home.  Calling them brave doesn’t quite do these people justice.

If this feels like a horribly sad book, it really isn’t and that is a credit to Laskin. It is the historical perspective of a devastating event, yes, but it is also an incredibly well written chronicle of that time period. His description of their lives and the countryside are so vivid, it feels as if he actually interviewed them. He included weather service information, offices in Huron, South Dakota, and the Twin Cities that relayed information back and forth without the Internet. 

As I said, the book never leaves me. I have no idea how they built homes without supplies, hauled equipment for miles without trucks, and persevered under such hardship.  We are spoiled and would have been ill equipped to live their lives. I highly recommend The Children’s Blizzard as a great read, a history lesson and a nod to our ancestors who made it against impossible odds.  ~

Nancy Sutton Smith grew up on a ranch in central South Dakota and attended a one-room schoolhouse.  Studying Mass Communications at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, provided a fascinating career in television news in Dallas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. Tired of cities, Nancy started teaching media arts and television to high school students in Sioux Falls, South Dakota — a position that led to her incredible position as the Mass Media instructor at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska.  Nancy advises the online student newspaper, teaches media, video production and script writing to students who will need to move to cities to work in media.  If you would like to leave Nancy a question, please feel free to comment below.

Thank you, Nancy, for being here in SunnyRoomStudio.  This book also stands out in my memory.  Where would we be without the bravery of these people?  Strangers, yes, but without a doubt, we are all connected by a shared story of survival  against all the odds.  And though many children perished in this blizzard, they are not forgotten, as here we are, still reading about them today.  This was a great choice of books for January.  A reminder of what happened 126 year ago.  A reminder that my grandmother was born in 1889 in the very same area.  What a story her parents, John and Hannah, could tell.  ~dh

more 2010 winter shots 3Thanks for visiting SunnyRoomStudio: a creative, sunny space for kindred spirits.

  • Looking for book suggestions? 

     I maintain an informal list here in SRS.  See top menu or click here.

     See you again Friday, January 31st.

    I hope you are also digging into your books.  Why not dust off a few?
    Open to any page, read a passage or a chapter you loved but have forgotten.
    Maybe one you skipped over … seems especially relevant now.

     A book is just a book until you read it for the second time.

     faviconBlog by SunnyRoomStudio: all rights reserved.

Stay Alert

  • Books on My Shelf 2014

Welcome back to SunnyRoomStudio. This week I picked a fun, amazingly worthwhile book from my shelf to share with you.  I’ll also be sharing a few thoughts on creativity from author Laura Munson.  Recently, we talked about a favorite book from her shelf, one she points to during her Haven Writing Retreats.

But first of all, I want to tell you about Hugh MacLeod’s timeless book: Ignore Everybody And 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  Published in 2009 (Penguin), Hugh’s book captures the importance of being original and retaining your creative authority.  From his website: Once a struggling young copywriter living in a YMCA, Hugh began to doodle on the back of business cards while sitting at a bar — thus, launching a popular blog and a reputation for pithy insight and humor in words and pictures.

  • If you try to make something just to fit your uninformed view of some hypothetical market, you will fail.  If you make something special and powerful and honest and true, you will succeed.

I found this advice in a chapter called: Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten.  It’s chapter seven, and it’s three pages long.  There are 40 such chapters.  Brief, yet, exacting.  You have the feeling MacLeod is hitting the target with his message.  Read on …

Chapter 23: Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.

Chapter 27: Write from the heart.  “There is no silver bullet.  There is only the love God gave you.”

Chapter 36: Savor obscurity while it lasts.

Chapter 40: None of this is rocket science.

  • It’s the last chapter, and Hugh writes: “If I had to condense this entire book into a line or two, it would read something like, Work hard. Keep at it. Live simply and quietly. Remain humble. Stay positive. Create your own luck. Be nice. Be polite.”

In other words, he’s telling us to listen to our inner wisdom. Ignore crowd mentality.  It’s old news.  Has been done before — many, many times.  Be attentive to your inner world.  What is seeking expression in unique ways?  Even if your ideas are sketchy, or happen to show up as a doodle on the back of a business card, forge ahead.  Pay attention.  Listen.  Don’t think or immediately evaluate; don’t analyze the idea away.  Let it simmer and lead you into new terrain.

photo zen“When I retreat into the haven of my writing, mind meets craft meets heart language.”
~ Laura Munson (author, teacher, speaker, creative spirit, visionary)

Laura published a memoir a few years ago that attracted millions of readers: This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness.  In many ways, she’d turned to personal creativity to successfully navigate a significant personal crisis, and then wrote about the journey (that became a life-changing experience) in a soulful way.  Her book resonated with readers who had unknowingly been looking for just such a book.

Discovering she wasn’t alone in the experience of coping with relationship challenges, Laura’s story elicited the support of women and men who read the book for its wisdom, its universal message.  Its courage.

Now, though hard at work on a novel, Laura also hosts writing retreats in Montana.  Haven Writing Retreats.  There are  times when we yearn to focus deeply, and exclusively, on our creativity; when we want to learn something from those who carved a path in the wilderness despite a plethora of killer obstacles.

  • I wondered what was on her book shelf that she might share with us here in SunnyRoomStudio.

Laura eagerly mentioned a book of poetry that touches on nature, life, and friendship.  A book called Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser

The book contains some 300 poems in a lengthy correspondence between the two men, but they let the work speak for itself — they don’t tell us who wrote the individual poems.  What a lovely and lasting collaboration.           

I love this book. It’s an exchange between two of my favorite authors, Jim Harrison, and Ted Kooser. It is stunningly honed writing, and I use it at my Haven Writing Retreats as an example of the flickering energy of words. We think we need to use big words and a lot of them to be smart writers. It’s quite the opposite. Read Braided Creek.  Open it the way some do the Bible. You will be astounded how the poems feel their way into your deep knowing.” ~LM

Braided Creek (Cooper Canyon Press, 2003) does sound intriguing.  I was glad to learn about it, and happy to share it here in this sunny space for kindred spirits.  The cover is beautiful.  Not that you can always tell a book by its cover.  But in this case, I have a feeling the cover and the contents merge in a credible kind of way.

Each time I go outside the world
is different. This has happened
all my life.

Who can’t relate to  that sentiment?  Good poetry seems to have the ability to bring us closer to ourselves by illuminating what we rarely articulate.  Either we don’t notice, or we can’t find the precise words to convey a feeling that might be tucked in the shadows or lurking under layers of routine and rushing.  Good ideas–even life-changing insights–are like that, too.  They rarely arrive with sirens blaring or bells ringing.  Stay alert to your inner world.  Stay alert.  ~ dh

zenstonesNo one can tell you if what you’re doing is good, meaningful, or worthwhile.
The more compelling the path, the more lonely it is.
~ Hugh MacLeod

 Thanks for visiting SunnyRoomStudio: a creative, sunny space for kindred spirits.

Looking for book suggestions? 

 I maintain an informal list here in SRS.  See top menu or click here.

 See you again Friday, January 24th. 

I hope you are also digging into your books.  Dusting off a few.
Open to any page, read a passage or a chapter you loved but have forgotten.
Maybe one you skipped over seems especially relevant now.

 A book is just a book until you read it for the second time.

 faviconBlog by SunnyRoomStudio: all rights reserved. 

The Inscape

  • Books on My Shelf 2014

Welcome back to SunnyRoomStudio.  During January I’ll be sharing a few more books from my shelf, along with a couple of upcoming Studio Guests.  February is a month of celebration, as it marks the beginning of year 5 in this sunny creative space for kindred spirits.  Launched February 2010, I hope it continues to offer a peaceful and welcoming presence in the world by focusing on something besides headlines, drama, controversy, conflict, and strife.  We are all burdened (and needlessly distracted) by an endless stream of “breaking news” bulletins.  From spirituality to literature, to meditation and reflection, to imagination and creativity, there is a great deal more to life than we are led to believe by popular media and mainstream culture.  So thanks for being here.  I wish all of you the best in the new year.

This week, from my shelf, I selected Fifty Days of Solitude (Beacon Press, 1994) by Doris Grumbach.  Written in the winter, the book seems timely.  But most of all, it’s a wonderful read.

  • Grumbach is the author of eight novels, six books of memoir, and a biography of Mary McCarthy.  Her essay “The View from 90” in The American Scholar (spring, 2011) was from a larger memoir, Downhill Almost All the Way.  (apparently a work-in-progress)
  • Born July 12, 1918, Grumbach also taught at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, and was a contributing literary editor of the New Republic and a nonfiction columnist for the New York Times Book Review.  Since 1985, she has had a bookstore, Wayward Books, in Maine.

I read Fifty Days of Solitude to explore the merits of solitude from another perspective; it was wonderful to read the details of her personal experience.  Chosen as a New York Times Notable Book, she wrote the book when an opportunity to live in solitude presented itself.  Seizing the moment, Grumbach resided in her coastal Maine home for fifty days, rarely speaking to anyone else.  It’s described as “a beautiful meditation about what it means to write, to be alone, and to come to terms with mortality.”

Written during the winter of 1993, the 75-year-old author, teacher, literary critic, surrounded herself with silence and music, with books and an empty journal, with paintings and the view out her window of a bare winter landscape.

According to one description, the book is a memoir of what Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “inscape”: the deep, meandering landscape of an interior life.

  • I found this book at a used bookstore in Columbia, Missouri.  Probably about 1997 or thereabouts.  But like all good books, I’ve never quite forgotten it (or wanted to donate it).

From page 15, “SNOW: In mid January it arrived stealthily during the night while I slept.  The first storm was merely half a foot, but it covered everything except, of course, the gray water of the cove and the protuberant rocks which were now black.  It was as if a curtain had fallen on a colorful stage set and then risen on one entirely devoid of color, with only shapes to break the white monotony.”


I love the word “inscape.”
We complicate life needlessly when we fail to honor our inner world.
When we simply project everything going on within us,
hoping someone or something else can provide all the answers.

Grumbach writes on page 72: “Feeling overwhelmed by what Simone Weil called ‘interior solitude,’ I took a walk along the icy path to the beach, clinging for dear life to my cane in one hand, my pointed stick in the other.  The snow was a perilous disguise for the hard crust that covered the grass, the field, and then the pebbled shore, as though the earth had shrunk into its elderly self leaving this skin of ice to protect it.  I felt threatened by every step.  Wherever I looked there was nothing but hard white surfaces and featureless whitened trees.”

  • Even if you can’t manage 50 days of solitude in the literal sense, winter (depending on where you live) can be a good opportunity to look within.  What stories have you made up about others and the world to soothe your own ego, for instance?  Do you really know the people you have such solid opinions of and about?  Do you have any idea who you are … in the spiritual sense?

This gem of a book closes like this: “Like Don Quixote, I have learned that, until death, it is all life.”

 Thanks for visiting SunnyRoomStudio: a creative, sunny space for kindred spirits.

Looking for book suggestions? 

 I maintain an informal list here in SRS.  See top menu or click here.

 See you again Friday, January 10th. 

I hope you are also digging into your books.  Dusting a few of them off.
Opening to any page to read a passage or a chapter you loved but have forgotten.
Maybe one you skipped over.

 A book is just a book until you read it for the second time.

  faviconBlog by SunnyRoomStudio: all rights reserved.