This capacity to understand ourselves as in and of one another, shot through with divinity, and sourced in our beloved planet, is available to everyone. It’s deeply comforting. And it’s the only starting place for the healing we—and our ...

 

Not Other Than Earth and more...




Not Other Than Earth

On a long plane ride yesterday I skimmed the magazine-length New York Times article about how we could have stopped global warming forty years ago. We didn’t, and now the planet’s prognosis is grim. Heck, the present is grim. We’re seeing extreme storms, wildfires, drought, and all the consequent disruptions for people, mostly poor, who are effected. My daughter will know a significantly harsher, less-trustworthy earth than the one I know. I closed the magazine, feeling sick. There I was, looking down on shimmering Lake Michigan with its glorious, populated shoreline—looking down on my beloved, fragile planet, from a plane spewing exhaust and contributing to its demise so I could visit my father. My despair was immense.

From the air, borders between countries are meaningless, divisions between people seem silly, and our earth is stunningly united. The first photograph of earth from outer space was taken the year I was born; mine was a generation blessed with consciousness that our home is a big blue marble hurtling through space. Fifty years later, we still can’t take that truth in. We still imagine that we’re individuals separated from one another, striving to be important, and that the earth is incidental, and that we can stop global warming with a fix. Our eyes are egoistic, short-sighted, small, and dualistic.

What if our biggest job as humans now is to finally see the singularity of our planet and all its inhabitants? When we change the way we look at the world, the things we look at change. And we desperately need change. Suspended 10,000 feet above the ground, my heart sick with how I and the industrialized civilizations are devastating the planet, I located my hope in our human capacity to see with new eyes. We can learn to see our unity and let all our actions spring from that unified vision. My teacher Jim Finley, student of Thomas Merton, says:

Though I am not God, I am not other than God either.
Though I am not you, I am not other than you either.
Though I am not the earth, I am not other than the earth either.

This capacity to understand ourselves as in and of one another, shot through with divinity, and sourced in our beloved planet, is available to everyone. It’s deeply comforting. And it’s the only starting place for the healing we—and our planet—need.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

**************************

Are you ready to head back to school?  September brings lots of opportunities to practice seeing with new eyes!

September 14, 1:30-3:30, Spiritual Memoir drop-in Session at Wisdom Ways.
We like to say that accomplished writers “have the gift.”  What if instead of talent the key to effective writing is the writer’s capacity to receive?  And what if we reframe the final stage of writing (sharing, publishing) as passing this gift along?  We’ll launch our fall spiritual memoir series by tracing the generous, life-giving energy that moves in, through, and beyond the creative process.

September 15, 9:00-12:00, Writing the Sacred Journey, an introduction to spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

September 24-28:  Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

October 27: The Launch: Reimagining Publishing with Integrity, Freedom, and Generosity at the Loft Literary Center, 1:30pm-4:30pm.

November 16: Living Revision: The Writer’s Craft as a Practice of Transformation at the Loft Literary Center, 10am-4pm.

 

Praying Like a Novelist

The most well-known fiction-writing exercise comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in which he asks us to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war—but without mentioning the son, war, or death. The goal is to inhabit a character so completely that you see how they see, and you bring to bear on your seeing their history and loves and losses. It’s a great practice. When I’ve used the exercise in classes, I add other scenarios as well: Now describe the barn as seen by a teenage girl who’s just developed her first crush. Now describe it as seen by a weary farmer who’s recently gone bankrupt. Now by a weary cow…

Fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, or perhaps a state beyond that—a thorough imagining our way into the lives of others. Scientific experiments prove that reading fiction increases our empathetic capacity, and certainly this is even more so during the writing. Whether we go on to exercise this capacity in our interactions with others is another story, but at least the potential’s there.

I’ve recently caught myself praying much like Gardner’s exercise. I’m not big on praying for any particular outcomes for others—that’s their business—and instead “hold them in the light,” as the Quakers say. Up until recently this meant imagining the person surrounded by healing, loving sunlight. Who wouldn’t want that? But something shifted and now, instead, it seems I am that person warmed by God’s grace. I am my family member struggling with addiction; I am Donald Trump in all his angry bluster; I am my exuberant daughter; I am those children separated from their parents at the border. And for that instant, in some small way, I look out at the world—at the red barn on the hill—through another’s being, and there receive mercy.

The more I pray this way, the less it seems like an imaginative exercise. I really am these people. The boundaries between myself and others, even others I fear or despise, are an illusion. A person is a person through other persons, as the Nguni word ubuntu reminds us, or, as Thomas Merton wrote, “This inner ‘I’ who is always alone is always universal: for in this inmost ‘I’ my own solitude meets the solitude of every other man and the solitude of God.” We’re far more connected than we know. The boundaries of our identities are permeable.

This is, in fact, why fiction works. The secret to fiction is that the writer “turns from everything to one face…to find oneself face to face with everything,” as novelist Elizabeth Bowen put it. This is why the particulars of one character’s story can matter to a person reading it centuries later in a very different culture. If you wish to evoke the universal, describe the particulars.

Give it a try. The benefit of this way of praying is that belief is irrelevant and intention is everything. At the very least, our capacity for empathy increases. And who knows—maybe we’ll become better writers, too.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

*************************

Fall is just around the corner!  Looking ahead, here are a few opportunities for you to move deeper into your writing practice.

What might it be like to dedicate a whole week to your writing project?  Bliss!  Join me from September 24-28 up at Madeline Island School of the Arts.  You’ll have plenty of time to write, good company, a beautiful place, and a few hours of class time to reconfigure your thinking about revision.  This retreat is for anyone engaged in a big project who’s comfortable with lots of writing time.  You don’t have to be ready to revise.  Here’s the link:  Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice retreat.

The second Friday spiritual memoir writing sessions continue at Wisdom Ways!  I’m especially excited to welcome Sherrie Fernandez-Williams as a guest writer in October.  Drop in for a dose of inspiration on the following themes:

September 14: Re-Imagining Gift
We like to say that accomplished writers “have the gift.”  What if instead of talent the key to effective writing is the writer’s capacity to receive?  And what if we reframe the final stage of writing (sharing, publishing) as passing this gift along?  We’ll launch our fall spiritual memoir series by tracing the generous, life-giving energy that moves in, through, and beyond the creative process.

October 12: Re-Imagining Prayer
“The more we come alive and awake,” writes Brother David Stendl-Rast, “the more everything we do becomes prayer.  Eventually even our prayer will become prayer.”  By writing about our past, we wake up to what happened and are enlivened by the process—in other words, we pray.  Together we’ll write memories of our experiences of prayer, explore the evolution of our thinking about prayer, read spiritual memoirs that include prayer, and write as a prayerful gesture.
*Sherrie Fernandez-Williams will be a guest writer at this session.

November 9: Re-Imagining Loss
Writers cavalierly say there’s no such thing as a bad experience; there’s only good material.  We’ll explore the redemptive dimension of writing—how revisiting memories of loss and hardship might not alleviate our suffering but can make of it a gift.  How do we practice self-care and reader-care as we write hard memories?

December 14: Re-Imagining Revision
Revision—literally seeing with new eyes—is rewarding.  But most of us come to revision with all sorts of mental blocks.  Today we’ll revise our ideas about revision, exploring it as a form of play, as a means of listening, and as our central work as human beings.

Finally, a big THANK YOU to everyone who has reviewed Living Revision online (or any of my books, for that matter).  I appreciate your help in spreading the word.

Here’s hoping you’re soaking up all that summer sunshine!

Elizabeth

 

Writers, This Is Our Moment.

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job! … There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”  –Toni Morrison

Writers, this is our moment. Artists, truth-tellers, beauty-makers, people who make parts into wholes, all of us who connect the private, hidden stirrings of the heart to our complicated human communities, history now calls us. Now is the moment to put everything we’ve got into creative engagement. Why? Creativity is an act of love; it teaches us to believe in possibility, it trains us to revise (re-see) the world. It demonstrates that “the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world,” as James Baldwin wrote. We need all this. Now.

When I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, like many kids I was fascinated by the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s diary was for me a trustworthy window onto the dark underbelly of humanity, so very different from the assumed safety of my white middle class childhood. Evil seemed obvious on the streets of occupied Amsterdam. Hitler was the embodiment of evil. In my young mind I placed on Hitler and the Nazis and everyone who was complicit in their atrocities the heavy burden of evil, and in this way separated myself from it. That was another time, another place. By reading about it obsessively, I kept that possibility an ocean and decades away.

Today I see that those stories are also my story, that I am and we are and any time is capable of horror.

This is a “time of dread.” Humanity is knowingly destroying the planet. Our country forcibly removes children from their families and incarcerates them. Our police force regularly, routinely kills innocent Black lives. We Americans increasingly express our despair with guns, addiction, and suicide. The darkness that Anne Frank knew in Amsterdam and that Tutsi knew in Rwanda and that Native and African Americans have always known—this darkness is seeping down every street in our country.

I hesitate to write all this because we’re all exhausted from the daily bombardment of bad news. But I need to write it because today “there is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.” In the face of all this, it’s time to go to work.

The work for writers is two-fold. First we must heed our inner creative stirrings. Like Anne Frank, we have to trust our artistic impulses, cultivate inspiration, listen deeply to what’s moving in us, and open ourselves as conduits of creation. We have to work, and to the world outside this often looks like idleness. So we have to trust that the work works and not worry about it any more. And we have to give this work as much time as it takes.

Second, we must share our work so that it can work in the world. Whatever we’re given by inspiration we must augment with effort and then release to move and heal and connect and transform the wider world. We need to do this generously because there’s no time for personal gain. We need to do this with love, trusting our own creations’ power to create change. And we need to do it now.

This is our part in the healing of civilization.    –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

*****************************************

Need time to do this work?  Join me September 24-28 for a week on Madeline Island!  Experienced and beginning writers alike are welcome.

Revision is a practice of transformation—of seeing text, and therefore the world, with new eyes.  Done well, revision returns us to our original love.  This week-long immersion, based on Elizabeth’s latest book, Living Revision, will reframe writing as a spiritual practice.  “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” Robert Frost wrote.  How can we continue to open our hearts to surprise through revision?

Save second Fridays from 1:30-3:30 through the fall for Wisdom Ways’ spiritual memoir drop-in sessions.

I’m also excited to teach two workshops at the Loft this fall.  On Saturday, October 27 from 1:30-4:30 I’m sharing a brand new workshop called “The Launch:  Reimagining Publishing with Integrity, Freedom, and Generosity.”  This is a test run of some ideas I’m currently working into a booklet for writers.

Then on Friday, November 16 from 10-4, I’ll once again offer the successful Living Revision:  A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice immersion, an introduction to revision as a transformational practice.  Registration for both will open soon.

 

Open My Ears That I Might Hear

This morning I woke up in a cloud of birdsong. It was 5 a.m., already light out, and the air was filled with otherworldly music. I went downstairs, poured my tea, opened all the doors and windows, and sat for a while. The robins, orioles, finches, and who know what else poured their sparkling soundscape into me, into my home. So much chirping! The twitters seemed to resonate and carry, as though early morning acoustics were different from other times. All together, the sound felt round. It encompassed the city like a mystical, golden secret. I listened, and the chorus erased me.

I say “otherworldly” but these are the same birds that peck my strawberries and nest in the English ivy and leave streaks of white shit on the windows of my car; they’re very this-worldly, and to describe them otherwise puts a wedge between divinity and creation. The songbirds bless us. The ordinary house sparrows chip-chip-chipping into the air are the soundtrack for domestic life around the globe. The chickadee-dee-dee might as well be my mother singing it’s so dear. The cardinal’s frantic pulse is a car alarm turned holy. The robin’s sing-song always reminds me of the squeaky chains on the swing sets of my childhood, and seagulls will always be the sound of summer, even here in Minnesota. The weird monkey-call of the pileated woodpecker conflates time and space.

We don’t hear the birds until we do. Sometimes I sleep through the concert; most times I sleep through it even when I’m awake. This morning I heard. Who knows why? Maybe the fact that I heard is what’s otherworldly—the real miracle. Awareness changes a dull gray sleepy morning into mystical immersion. I want my ears always opened to this constellation of sound. I want always to become more aware. This is why I pray.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

 

Finding Value in your Creative and Spiritual Endeavors

I can’t tell you how often writers hand me pages and ask, “Is this worth it?” All creative and spiritual endeavors ask of us time and energy. In our outcome-oriented way, we want some sense that our work (both the process and the product) will have value.

Ken Wilber, Buddhist and Integral Theorist, recently turned my understanding of value on its head. I suspect that, if we apply his ideas to our creativity and our spiritual practices, we’ll radically shift how we think about their worth.

Rather than thinking about value as singular, Wilber distinguishes three different kinds of value. I picture them as two ladders hovering within a brilliant sphere of light. The first ladder he calls “intrinsic value”—“the value a thing has in itself.” Intrinsic value is ranked according to its degree of inclusiveness and wholeness. Climbing up the ladder, the more “being” something has—the greater its depth, wholeness, and agency; the more levels it contains; the more of the universe it enfolds in its being—the more value it has. A cell has more intrinsic value than a molecule, a human has more intrinsic value than a plant, and a developed literary work has more intrinsic value than a journal entry. As we develop a project, each draft transcends and includes its predecessors, giving drafts a natural, intrinsic ranking—a ranking of wholeness and depth.

Strangely, the second ladder works in the exact opposite manner—we must climb down to find value. Extrinsic value “is the value a thing has by virtue of being a part in communion (and the more things it is a part of, the greater its extrinsic value).” So atoms are more extrinsically valuable to creation than molecules, and plants are more extrinsically valuable than humans. Does this mean Tolstoy’s private journal has more extrinsic value than War and Peace? Strangely, yes. Why? The answer rests in that trusty bit of writing wisdom from Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” The basic building blocks of literature aren’t words; they are silence and sound and internal stirrings that give rise to emotions, ideas, observations, questions, and images. These take form in a draft and become the foundation for all that follows. The more we show up on the page, the more we muck around in our humanity, the more we write from what’s true and universal at the core of our particularity, the more vulnerable and courageous and honest we are, the more our writing is a “part in communion.” As Ken Wilber says, “It is not the object expressed, but the depth of the subject expressing it, that most defines art.”

Now for the glowing sphere that encompasses both ladders: The third measure of value is Ground value, “the value all things have by virtue of being manifestations of Spirit.” Intrinsic and extrinsic are relative values, Wilber writes, while Ground value is absolute. “All holons [units of creation] have absolutely equal Ground value: they share equal Suchness, Thusness, Isness, which is the face of Spirit as it shines in manifestation, One Taste in all its wonder.” With the decline of the great religious traditions and our culture’s disregard for spiritual practice, we’ve lost sight of Ground value. But it’s precisely what we creative types need to reclaim for our own well-being, for the sake of our work, and for our communities.

Yes, there’s a hierarchy of writing that goes from rough, immature scrawling to transcendent, lasting literature. Yes, we can and should learn and grow as artists. At the same time, a similar hierarchy uplifts raw, powerful presence in the creative act—the basic union between interior impulse and exterior expression. No bound book lauded for centuries is as wondrous as the moment when one soul puts pen to paper and finds there an epiphany.

Encompassing these hierarchies is a generous, radiant worth. Everyone who writes is a writer. The process of transformation, of creation, of loving and giving and moving and sharing, is shot through with significance, regardless of outcome. Every writer is dependent upon other writers and on readers for our well-being, for our selfhood, for our wholeness. We write within a vast web connecting those we’ve read and those who’ve come before us and our writing colleagues and our readers and all we love; this web forms the ground of our being, it moves through us and beyond us. It does not discriminate. It simply radiates life, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. But we can welcome it and cultivate it and learn to trust it. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

All quotations are from Ken Wilber’s One Taste.

********************************************

Happy summer, people!  I’ve two opportunities to offer you before vacation mode sets in.  Please join me for the final Spiritual Memoir dr0p-in session at Wisdom Ways on June 8 from 1:30-3:30.  We’ll be exercising our “letting go” muscle on the page, directly experience how death and release are an essential part of creation.

On Tuesday, June 5 at 7 p.m., members of the Twin Cities Authors’ Circle will give a reading.  The public is welcome!  Please join us at 2615 Park Ave S, Minneapolis.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to sink deeply into a longer project, please join me from September 24-28 for the Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts.