Contemplate the Blank Page

orchard-lodgeI don’t remember if orange and yellow flamed in the woodstove of Quaker Center’s Orchard Lodge the first night seventeen of us gathered there for a Journaling as Meditation workshop. 2016-journaling-as-meditation-flyer-draft-v3-2But I do recall the warmth and enthusiasm during introductions as participants revealed to me and my co-leader, Deborah Nedelman, their desire to begin—or resume—a spiritual journaling practice. Some admitted past “failed” attempts to sustain a writing routine; some described a yearning for new avenues to encounter the Divine; others sought the time and support to return to a familiar, but neglected, discipline.

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Most looked forward to creating their own handbound journals, but several acknowledged worry that their musings and reflections wouldn’t be worthy of the handcrafted container we proposed we’d make. We started simply, using bone folders— tongue depressor-shaped bookbinding tools—to crease creamy, linen paper in half. Once ten sheets were folded and nested inside each other, it was time to write.

Anyone who trembles at the sight of a blank piece of paper can imagine the anxiety of facing a pristine stack of pages. I reminded the prospective journalers that there’s no rule that requires starting on the first sheet of a new journal and encouraged them to leave it blank; later they could return to it and add an epigraph, a dedication, an image, a poem, or a title. I also suggested saving some empty pages to create a table of contents as their journals evolved. I more insistently advised writing contact information in the back in case, as has happened far too often, any of them left their creations on a bus, at a coffee shop, or beside a mountain trail. Fortunately, there are many “left-behind journal” stories with happy endings because a phone number or email address was written inside.

Perhaps the most useful advice we offered—many times over the course of the workshop­­—is that there’s no “wrong” way to journal. For that first reminder, I quoted G. Lynn Nelson’s Writing and Being:

“…the more I let go of concerns about form and arriving at answers, the more energy I have just to follow the river of my own being.”

Then we settled into silence, following the river of our own beings, to think back over the previous 24 hours and write in response to these questions:

Where has God been present in your life?

            How did you meet the Spirit today?

            How were you drawn to the Light today?

            Have you learned anything about God and God’s ways of working in your life?

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The next morning, we gathered in silence, examining colorful papers laid out on tables in the Casa de Luz.casadeluz

 

By the time we broke for lunch, we’d glued the papers to book board and placed them under weights to dry overnight.

And we’d written/collaged/sketched some more, this time in response to a prompt adapted from Writing and Being:

Look back over yesterday for acts of love. List kindnesses you received from others that day. Next, list kindnesses you did for others yesterday, and then at least one kindness you did for yourself.

 After lunch (just one of the delicious, nutritious, beautiful, vegetarian meals prepared by Quaker Center chef Tod Nysether), we welcomed a couple hours of free time, dodging downpours in this redwood rain forest. I found the Center’s labyrinth especially restorative.

We gathered again later in the afternoon and after dinner for times to share about the workshop experience, to poke holes in the pages to prepare them for binding, and for more journaling. Mary Morrison’sPendle Hill pamphlet, Live the Questions, Write into the Answers, served as a source for reflection:

Write, identifying the most important questions in your life right now. Don’t try to come up with the answers, but let the questions flow and let yourself list questions that are really on your mind. Then choose one of your questions and write about it, identifying and exploring as many aspects of it as you can uncover.

Open your eyes, heart, mind, to catch the significant moments, the moments of meaning, moments of being, and try to write them down in all their heightened significance. What are some of these moments?

For our final workshop session on Sunday morning, we again gathered silently, ringing the table that held the weighted book covers. In the quiet, we admired the transformation of cardboard and paper into colorful sanctuaries for words and images.

journalsAfter poking holes in the covers to match those of the interior, we secured the pages with waxed linen thread. Our final prompt was an invitation to write about dreams—or anything that was calling to us for reflection. Finally, I gave these instructions:

 Thumb through your journal. Breathe. Smile.

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I don’t know how many (or if any) of the participants have continued to journal, as a meditative practice or in any other way. I do know that I left with fewer blank pages in my own journal and feeling spiritually nourished.

 

Nudged

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Now that I’ve let my nursing license expire, and I’m finishing up two major writing projects (BOUNTY: Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community and my memoir, Hiking Naked), I’ve been reflecting on what I’m being led to next. I yearn for the kind of certainty I felt forty years ago when I sensed a clear calling (though I didn’t use that term at the time) to enter nursing school. Or the flash of insight I experienced at a writing workshop over fifteen years ago.

In October of 2000, instead of attending the annual fall public health conference as I usually did, I enrolled in a weeklong writing course by Tom Mullen at Pendle Hill Quaker Center. Tom was a former Quaker pastor and former Dean of Earlham School of Religion (ESR). He was the inspiration behind the ESR Ministry of Writing Program, as he himself was a writer who ministered through the written word. That’s what Tom did for me during that workshop and as he critiqued my writing.

During a group discussion about how to fit writing into our lives, I realized that a number of my nursing consultation contracts would be completed by the end of the year. I saw an opening then to try a new schedule. Why not fit consulting work around writing instead of the other way around?   I announced to my fifteen workshop classmates that in January 2001 I would start a new job—writer. Ever since then, I’ve treated writing as my work, or at least part of my work, and have made time for it nearly every weekday.

languageSo far, though, such clarity about future work has been elusive. As so often happens when I acknowledge my seeking and uncertainty, I learned about a book that intrigued me—A Language for the Inward Landscape by Brian Drayton and William P. Taber, Jr. Both authors had studied old Quaker journals in which early Friends described their inward states and their experience of faithful life. They talked of how some of the words and phrases these journalers used were “both puzzling and full of implication” and provided a rich vocabulary to describe those experiences. Taber was especially drawn to the range and complexity of Quaker spirituality conveyed in these writings and called it “a language for the inward landscape.” A couple of years after Taber died, Drayton agreed to delve into Taber’s “the Language” materials and ultimately wrote this book drawing on Taber’s notes and his own study and understanding.

I’m part of the book’s audience of modern seekers who continue to wrestle with putting our spiritual experiences into words, and this book—a combination of history, biography, and dictionary—has broadened my vocabulary to describe my inward journey. Though I don’t feel a clear leading about my next steps, I’ve had some inklings, or wonderings, about what might call to me. A Language for the Inward Landscape offers a term that describes how I feel guided right now:

Nudge – “… though it is mostly synonymous with ‘leading,’ nudge lays emphasis upon the often very small and tentative beginnings of some spiritual development. A nudge is gentle, and often doesn’t convey its ultimate meaning clearly; meaning may unfold as the path unfolds.”

Quaker Charlotte Lyman Fardelmann identified some key signs of authenticity of a nudge:

  • it leads to love and light
  • it comes with clarity, or grows in clarity as it is lived with
  • it resonates with deep desires
  • it leads into service to others
  • it requires rest
  • it leads to more love and joy.

My nudges are definitely small and tentative right now, with the strongest urge being to conserve my energy to complete the projects I’m involved in; there’s still plenty to do to bring my two books into the world. But thanks to A Language for the Inward Landscape, I draw strength and hope from the wisdom of others that my path will unfold.

Journaling as Meditation

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Wisps of steam rose from my tea cup as I set it on my desk next to my laptop. Instead of lifting the laptop lid, I reached for a handbound journal, closed my eyes, and slowly took a breath in, then let my breath out. Breath in. Breath out. And again. Breath in. Breath out. I opened to a blank page, numbered it, and wrote the date. For the next ten minutes or so, I wrote in response to the query, “How did you meet Spirit in the past 24 hours?”

When I’m at my best, this is how I center myself before starting my work for the day. I must admit, though, I haven’t been at my best for some months, having convinced myself that I’m too busy, have too many deadlines, can’t afford to “waste” valuable minutes in this practice.

I’ve felt the effects of abandoning the meditative journaling discipline that nourished me for many years. Thanks to the Ben Lomond Quaker Center, which accepted my proposal to lead a workshop about this practice, I’m once again starting most days journaling in a contemplative way.

For most of my adult life, writing has been a vehicle for me to understand what I believe, feel, question, and know. For the past twenty years, I’ve recognized writing as a Spirit-led creative process through which I come to know God and to understand God’s presence in my life.   I’ve also viewed writing as a way to minister to others, an idea that was validated in 2000 when I attended a Pendle Hill Quaker Center workshop, Writing as Ministry, led by Tom Mullen. Since then, writing has become both my work and a spiritual discipline.

I also learned the craft of bookbinding, and I’ve been making hand-bound journals, for myself and for sale, for nearly fifteen years. Through this skill, I’ve come to believe that the journal itself can be an important part of the expression of what it contains.

quaker-journals-157x245Journaling has always been a part of Quaker practice. In 1972, Howard Brinton published Quaker Journals following his study of the 300 journals in his own library; he estimated there were probably about 1000 Quaker journals, including those not in print (I suspect there are thousands more now). Brinton found all the journals had several things in common: simplicity and truth in writing; personal experiences, experiences in early childhood, and dreams were only written about if the writer believed they had religious significance; and humility. He also found they recorded similar stages of development: divine revelations in childhood, then a period of youthful playfulness (usually looked back upon as a waste of time), an experience of a divided self, and finally, following the leadings of the Light.

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Mary Morrison, a writer and former Pendle Hill teacher, has this to say about journaling in her pamphlet, Live the Questions: Write into the Answers: “A journal is an instrument of awareness, through which we can watch what we do so we can find out who we are.”

That finding out who I am has led me back to my journal. It’s no surprise that questions about calling have risen again, as I’m completing two major projects. For nearly three years I’ve been focused on BOUNTY: Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community, a book to be released in mid-October. At the same time (and for nearly two decades), I’ve worked on a memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, that’s in production with Homebound Publications for a September 2017 release. Now, I’m living the question, “What next?”

2016-journaling-as-meditation-flyer-draft-v3-2Maybe it’s not wise to admit my lapse in contemplative journaling as I’m preparing to lead a workshop to support others in this practice. Then again, readying myself to teach when I’ve been humbled by my own struggle likely will make me more sensitive to those who have resisted a journaling practice or have, as I’ve heard from many participants in past workshops, tried and “failed” at filling blank pages. The calm and centeredness I’ve felt as I’ve returned to journaling as meditation only strengthens my appreciation of this valuable tool.

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So. Tomorrow, I’ll again set my mug on the desk, plant my feet on the floor, reach for my journal, breathe in and out, in and out, in and out, and pick up my pen.

Expired

The envelope from the Washington State Department of Health arrived in April, just as it had every year since 1981. The seven years before that, I’d received a similar one annually from the Indiana State Board of Nursing. For forty years, I never hesitated to check the boxes, write the check, and mail in the renewal for my registered nurse license before the deadline of my birthday in May.

Over the course of four decades, I worked in surgical intensive care, oncology, nursing education, hospice and home health, public health, and school nursing. For about twenty of those years, I pursued nursing with passion and single-minded zeal, clear that it was my calling. Throughout the last half of my career, though, I considered (often with much angst) that perhaps I was being led to different work, or at least to a different way of working. That search has fueled much of my writing, including my first book, Hands at Work, and my forthcoming memoir, Hiking Naked – A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance.

inactiveTwo years ago, just one month after sending in my license renewal, I left the school nurse position I’d commuted to on another island for five years. The following year, when the RN license renewal notice arrived, I checked a different box—INACTIVE—and paid a slightly lower fee. The form I completed explained that with this new status, I had no continuing education requirements, and I couldn’t practice. That was fine with me, for I no longer felt called to work as a nurse at all. And yet, I wasn’t ready to entirely let go of the piece of paper that had permitted me a credential, and an identity, I’d held for most of my adult life.

For weeks after this year’s renewal notice arrived, the envelope sat in the basket on my desk. Periodically I’d read the guidance:

Avoid an expired credential: Do not let your credential expire. You must make sure we have your renewal before it expires. Otherwise, you will not be allowed to practice.

One day, shortly before the renewal deadline (and my birthday), I called the Nursing Commission to verify what would happen if I didn’t renew my license in any category at all.

“Your license will be listed as expired,” the voice on the phone replied.

Expired. My dictionary offers these definitions and synonyms:

Expired ~ verb  1 my contract has expired: run out, become invalid, become void, lapse; end, finish, stop, come to an end, terminate.

But those aren’t the words I want to use to describe my decision to not renew my nursing license. Instead, this action signifies release, transformation, and acknowledgment of a long, full, completed career. So last weekend, I asked my women’s group to join me in a symbolic “renewal” of my license. They passed the form from hand to hand, each folding or shaping it in a way that would change it to a size to fit in a small, lidded dish I cherish. For now it sits on my dresser next to a photograph of my dad and me the day I received my cap in my first year of nursing school.

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My dictionary tells me expire can also mean to breathe out, exhale. And in order to exhale, you have to inhale; to expire, you must inspire. Those are the actions and images I choose to focus on now, nearly a month after my nursing license has expired.