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.


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?


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.


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.


Journaling as Meditation


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.


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.


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.

Afterthought #53 Clarity by Committee

candlesThe clearness committee is one process Quakers have developed to help people discern when, or even if, Spirit is leading them. It’s like going to your favorite aunt when you’re trying to make a decision. She nods slightly as you weigh pros and cons; she responds to your wonderings with gentle questions that unlock the answers inside you.

Quaker “aunts” and “uncles” have sat with me several times as I’ve sought clarity about decisions regarding moves, work, and schooling. We’d meet together just as we do in Quaker worship. After about fifteen minutes of sinking into the silence, the clearness committee convenor would ask me to explain the decision I was seeking clarity about. The committee members would ask evoking questions, questions that only I could know the answers to. These “listening hearts” set aside personal opinions and listened deeply to my responses, supporting me to hear inward guidance.

Nearly four years ago, I wrote about my friend Jon Watts when he organized the largest clearness committee in the history of Quakerism to seek clarity about his work. Like me, Jon strives to “make decisions in a discerning way, to find the way forward that I can’t imagine, can’t arrive at just through reasoning.” A year later, I reported the results of Jon’s discernment in Afterthought #23 and announced the launch of his new work, a YouTube video series called QuakerSpeak.

And now, three years into this ministry, Jon is again exploring Quaker clearness committees with this recent QuakerSpeak video. If you’re curious about this process of spiritual discernment, this segment offers descriptions from a variety of Friends about how clearness committees work.


*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

*Afterthought #49 Going Back for More

QEarlier this month I wrote about my first time at Quaker meeting and how that experience nearly thirty-five years ago felt like coming home. That was enough to keep me going back for more, even though I left that silent worship with many questions. I didn’t know if that time of worship was typical or if it would be different on another day. I wasn’t sure if I’d broken any “rules” about where to sit or what to wear. And I wondered what the other hundred or so folks were “doing” during that hour of silence.

Over the years I’ve learned the answers to those and many other questions through reading, discussions, and by attending many meetings across the U.S. and in Latin America. And still, I never tire of hearing how people prepare for and are touched by this form of worship. Whether you’ve never attended a Quaker meeting or you are, as we say, a “seasoned Friend,” you might enjoy these two short QuakerSpeak videos: What to Expect in Quaker Meeting for Worship and What Do Quakers Do in Silent Worship?.


Big thanks to: Friends Journal for supporting this project; QuakerSpeak project director Jon Watts; and project partners Friends Committee on National Legislation, American Friends Service Committee, and Friends World Committee on Consultation.


*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.