A Reflection on the Winter Solstice, by Diane Pendola.
We are at the threshold of winter. This is an in-between time, a time when what is stirring to be born is still to become manifest. The life is still germinating beneath the snow, or kicking in the womb, or agitating our minds. But our course of action is not yet clear and so we wait a little longer. Tomorrow the darkness will begin to recede. Slowly the days will begin to lengthen. Tonight is the longest night. But the turn in the season is here. The Sun is on the ascendancy. Our hearts stir with hope.
Sometimes I feel I’m writing across a desert – that vast stretch between the beginning and ending of a novel. The only way through is to take it one step at a time.
My Great-Grandmother had to do it literally. Immigrants on the California Trail would make one last water stop in their covered wagons before leaving the Humboldt Sink where the river fanned out and disappeared into the Nevada desert. Forty miles and several days of waterless, hot parched desert lay ahead and there was no choice but to roll through. Along the way animals died, prized possessions were jettisoned, despair set in. Rather like writing through the middle of a story, I’m finding.
It’s humbling to learn that a great story takes more than a great idea. Writers have to craft this passage well so the reader wants to stay with the story. But it’s also where authors can get stuck in boggy, soggy ground. Between the beginning and end, there are elements of plot and character development, back stories, turning points, cliff hangers, triumphs, setbacks, reversals, and ever-present conflict and tension. Add to this, layers of character arc, motivations, subplots, story theme, and . . . Whew! It’s why I immerse myself in writing classes, conferences, critique groups, and reading, reading, reading.
When will The Desk be finished? Well, I’d say I’m about two-thirds across the desert. Like Beulah the Ox who detected the faintest whiff of water and quickened her pace, I can feel the pieces coming together, but I’ve still many miles to go. And when I do finally tie it all together, I’ll still have a steep granite mountain range to traverse, called Revisions.
(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)
I think some beginnings are only recognized in retrospect. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll be doing, the voice in my head told me. It’s not even on your radar. I’d been pondering my up-coming retirement and heard this not once, but many times – usually when meditation had cleared my mind of clutter.
When my sisters visited me in 2008, I read them a short fictional piece I’d written about inheriting the family desk. That was it – one page. I made a few revisions and put it away. Later I wrote another short story of an ancient woman obsessed with horrific visions of the future who died holding an acorn to her breast. In one of those “ah-hah!” leaps, I knew this would be the acorn/oak tree from which the desk would be made.
Family women who wrote on the desk started lining up, starting with my activist Great Grandmother who farmed California’s north central valley after the 1849 Gold Rush, and ending with a present time woman struggling with how to live on a degraded earth. I thought that was it until the “visitation” one night from the future – Amisha, my great-granddaughter.
The mystery held within the family desk currently encompasses three women and the future. I hope that’s it! With my ending already in place (see my December 7 post), I have only to cross the desert to bridge the beginning with the ending (my next post). As I look back, the beginning of “The Desk” did sneak in under my radar, but now it’s an integral part of my life. And yes, I am amazed!
(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)
I’m often asked when my book will be finished – the novel I’ve been working on for four or five years now. “Who knows?” I shrug and sigh. It’s become a journey unto itself.
It’s not that I don’t want it to end, for I know the last scene. My friend Roger Rapp laid it out for me during a dinner conversation a few years ago. He said John Irving always writes the last paragraph first, then writes toward it as if it were a piece of music he could hear.
Roger, who understood the underlying theme of my story, looked me in the eye and told me what the last paragraph of “The Desk” would be. I remember the goose bumps. He was absolutely right on. Roger died suddenly the next month, but his gift of the ending will endure.
(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)
Looking out Amtrack’s over-sized train window, my three grandchildren and I decide what we’ll draw in the Travel Journals I gave them. I share my own tiny journal filled with ink and watercolor memories of Hawaii, Utah’s Red Canyons, Italy, friends and family. My favorite pages are scenes looking out windows.
I think Travel Journals have a unique way of capturing memories. Photographs may mirror reality, diaries describe with word-filled pages, but with a few wispy brush strokes and well- chosen words, my Travel Journal reflects the essence of my experience.
Unlike my talent for finding just the right word to describe a scene or feeling, my drawing abilities stopped in 5th grade when art was dropped from the curriculum. As an adult, I took art classes, hoping to learn to draw something more representative than my primitive head profile with bulbous nose and thin mouth plopped on a flat face. No luck.
So I now just sketch impressions – a few brush strokes for a waving hand, purposely wiggly lines for squared buildings, a single up-curved mouth on a face, you get the idea. Like brush strokes, I add a few spontaneous words to the page and Voila! – a treasure journal of richly-remembered memories.
As our train chugged along the tracks over the Sierras to Reno, the grandchildren started their journals like natural artists and writers.
The phonetically spelled “Traval Churnals” (!) were filled with 5, 7, and 9 year old drawings of Autumn color on the Truckee River, Papa’s profiled head, distant Sierra Nevada Mountains, close-up river rocks, ducks and later, a pink sunrise through the hotel window.
No one said “I can’t draw,” or “this isn’t good.”
I’ve been working on enjoying life more with less shoulds, less structure, less control and less things. And in my writing, working on replacing wordiness with a few brush-stroked words, trusting that readers will fill in with their own experiences and imagination.
Autumn stirs a deep longing in my soul. I know it’s time to let go of my leaves, turn south, find home.
Contrary to instinct, my husband and I head north to the high desert of south-eastern Oregon. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a landing place on the Pacific Flyway, where the lake and high desert nurture birds migrating north and southwards. We were late. Most birds– Sand Hill Cranes, Geese, Ducks, Swans – had already left. We hoped to find them on our return to California’s Central Valley happily ensconced in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge for the winter. They were.
Although we found over 25 bird species at Malheur, what we really discovered was High Desert. In the absence of the usual hundreds of thousands of migrating birds, the landscape was laid bare, revealing muted shades of autumn orange, yellow and purple. We circled the perimeter of the 30 mile-long Steens Mountain one day, then drove to the 9,733 foot summit the next, crunching in the snow to peer down the glacial valleys or watch Bighorned Sheep. As Duncan, our Naturalist Guide from the Malheur Field Station, interwove stories of geological, avian, symphonic and human intrigue, I pondered that all places on earth must have their storytellers, artists and musicians.
Nine days on the road was enough for our weary bones. My friend Nancy suggested that maybe we take these road trips because it feels so wonderful to be back home, snuggled in our own beds, with dreams of the full moon rising over the desert.
“The silence in these empty lands is long.”
(Ursula K. LeGuin, from the book Out Here– Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country)
Oh, how did I sleep in ’til 8:00 am, when mornings are my best time to write? I’m into my new retreat rhythm of coffee, breakfast (eggs from my chickens), meditation then writing. The autumn foliage scintillates in the breeze outside, making me wish I’d brought my watercolors!
I’m on a roll now. Present-day Christie’s chapters are fleshing out, fueled by my conversation with Diane about seeing her through the lens of The Enneagram. I’m already familiar with this ancient way of understanding human motivation and behavior, based on nine different personality patterns. In fact, after living with my main characters for awhile, I’ve figured out what personality type they most likely are. It’s become easier to write how each might express anger, stress, vulnerability, strength, and joy.
For example: Christie is a “9” – the Mediator. She wants her world to be peaceful and serene and not be bothered by the competing demands of the world’s problems on her attention and energy. She sees all viewpoints and can’t decide, so she goes numb. Inspired by Diane’s comments, Christie will now have a few more glasses of wine and declare she’ll deal with the world’s issues tomorrow. (Yes, Scarlet).
(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020. “Christie” became the character “Harmony.”)
Oops. . . A text message beeps from my iphone. It’s my brother in law RV-ing out in the Nevada desert. They’re in Ely asking where the Immigrant Trail museum is I said they shouldn’t miss. I text back that it’s Elko, not Ely, and it’s the California Trail Interpretive Center. Good luck I think, as I sit back and mull over what just transpired – he in Nevada, me in Northern California. Being instantly accessible through technology definitely has its pluses. If my children were still teens, I’d really appreciate it. But I sense we’re slowly raising the bar of our expectations about immediate access to information and each other. Hey, after all, I’m on a retreat! (Guess I could have turned the dang thing off).
3pm. I continue writing until it’s time to pack up. I’ve got to make it to town for my cello lesson. When I close up Scrivener, I see my grand total for the two days is 3,273 words. Not quite half. I guess I’d expected that if I had unlimited time to myself with no interruptions, I could write to the sky. But there’s still interruptions even on a retreat. The difference is that here, I always went right back to writing. At home, I would have drifted off, distracted.
I’m most thankful for this time to move within my own rhythms. I also know I’ma lot further along in understanding some of the deeper currents in my story: How three family women, each living centuries apart, are bound together by an ancient woman’s wisdom for the earth’s future – a message held deep within the heartwood of The Desk.
It’s really easy to arrange your own personal – or couples – or group retreat. Diane and Teresa are warm and hospitable while honoring guest’s need for privacy and quiet. Scott and Mike are around to help if needed. Everyone’s a short walk away through the woods . Skyline’s 45 minutes from Nevada City/Grass Valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California, and a 2 hour drive from the Sacramento airport. Call Diane at 530-288-0308 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org (www.ecocontemplative.org)
I reluctantly leave my cozy down comforter, knowing I have miles of words to write today. After yesterday’s drizzle, the sun is invigorating. First, a tall mug of black coffee and a bowl of hot oatmeal, then I open my laptop to where I left off in the Scrivener program.
Hummer and Rupalini pop up on the screen to greet me. They’re the old couple who escaped the growing dystopic world of the mid-2000’s and settled in the hills. He’s saving his last 2 bullets from his now empty stockpile; her mind long gone, she’s obsessed with finding out when the world turned.
After that chapter, I return to the present day narrator, wondering what will move her from feeling overwhelmed and hopeless about the state of the world and get her motivated into action.
Scott knocks at my door with a refilled jar of brown sugar and the most recent copy of Yes! Magazine from Diane. I’m drawn into conversation with him, and write down his blog, The Rambling Taoist. He came to Skyline Harvest for a short visit and stayed. Skyline attracts such interesting people!
I write all morning, take a break for lunch and a short nap, then continue into the afternoon. My word count is mounting, but not fast enough. I console myself that the time I spend thinking through larger aspects of this project doesn’t show up as word counts.
There’s a lot of good stuff in Yes! Magazine’s Summer 2013 issue. Here’s a few notes I took:
Will we turn against one another in a struggle for the last resources, or turn to one another in cooperation and community? (Sarah van Gelder)
How to create new cultural stories and what we consider sources of true happiness? (van Gelder)
Definition of Revelation (Latin) and Apocalypse (Greek) is “A lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden; coming to clarity.” (Robert Jensen)
It’s an illusion we can maintain an extractive economy indefinitely. Our planet is not just a mine and a landfill. For some, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning! (Jensen)
“Prefigurative Interventions” – Playful Protests, Pranks & Serious Works of Imagination.” Look it up! Beautiful Trouble, a Toolbox for Revolution at http://www.beautifultrouble.org
The afternoon sun beckons me out to pick some figs from the huge tree next to the Ranch House. I also explore the other buildings for future stays. Each one is cozy in a grandmotherly kind of way.
Next time I come to Skyline Harvest, I might stay at the Cabin with its multi-level outside deck. Or if I had a group, we’d take over The Ranch House. I probably won’t have time to spend writing in the screened Gazebo, but maybe next visit.
After dinner and another session with Diane, then an hour of cello practice, I’m revitalized to write again. The moths check in on me against the lighted window, wondering how I’m doing.
When I close the laptop at 11:30 pm, I’m at 2,159 words for the day, for a grand total of 2,525. Not as many as I’d hoped.
As I turned off Highway 49 onto Pendola Road, traveling to the Skyline Harvest Retreat Center, it was like traveling through time. I followed what was once a narrow dirt road that early Gold Rush settlers had carved from the hills, scanning the downslope for vestiges of old mines and water ditches while staying alert for on-coming cars around the many blind curves. Further along, the woods opened up into the pastoral Pendola Ranch – where hillsides were once covered with vineyards until Prohibition stepped in and hacked the copper stills to pieces.
Passing through the gate to Skyline Harvest
Bullards Bar Reservoir is to my left.
I settle into The Hermitage. It’s too perfect!
A corner table for eating and writing, a futon couch, meditation chair and kitchen fill up the main room. The single bed is in an alcove tucked behind a folding wooden screen, and a modern bathroom with shower is in a separate room. Two chairs wait on the deck for watching wildlife in the small clearing outside.
11 AM. Food, books, laptop, clothes all in place, I fix a bowl of soup and watch the rain drizzle outside. After a short nap and cup of coffee, it’s time to write. I’ve decided arbitrarily to set a goal of 7,500 words for these 48 hours. Let’s see – that comes to 156 words an hour. Can I write in my sleep?
I plunge ahead, not knowing where my story is going next. Though I know the general arc of my novel, The Desk, (Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020), I’ve learned to quiet my mind with meditation before starting, then have faith that the characters will surprise me. And they do. Like today, Hummer appeared. I’m mid-way through the future section – Year 2088 – my prospective great-granddaughter Amisha’s story of struggling to survive on a planet irreparably damaged by man’s impact. Hummer and his woman, Rapalini are one of the old folks who fled to the hills early on. What do they know?
3:30 PM. I’m startled by a knock on the door. It’s Diane Pendola who (along with Teresa Hahn) founded and is Director of Skyline Harvest. I’ve asked for some of her time to help me think things through – drawing on her experience with indigenous wisdom, Gestalt Therapy, theology, The Enneagram and her mentors, Ramon Panikar, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, to name a few.
I’m interested in the questions raised in my story – not so much the answers. Diane asks if mankind can move from an era that’s been shaped by man’s ability to circumvent the natural checks and balances of nature, into one that recognizes that we are part of a universal consciousness? If not, what kind of world will Amisha live in? That’s where my story goes.
We jump up two hours later – time has flown into the dinner hour. Diane departs, and I take a cool walk along the firebreak road to watch the golden sun set into the departing clouds.
A fox scurries past as I return to The Hermitage and prepare my dinner, heating with the wood stove instead of the gas range. My gourmet husband has sent me here with a chicken cacciatora, a beef stew, garden salad, and a bottle of red wine. He’s amazing and I’m so lucky!
After dinner, I check my word count. Yikes, only 366 words!! This is going to be a long evening! But then, that’s what I’m here for.
But my cello also calls me. I unzip its case intending to practice a few scales, but instead, I play for an hour – improvising in C minor harmonic – a moody, searching key. Crickets add a chirping accompaniment, though I’m too tired to see if there’s any correlation with my playing.
10 PM. Off to bed. Got lots of words to write tomorrow!
I’m excited. Next time you hear from me, it’ll be from a personal Writing Retreat I’ve set up for myself at Skyline Harvest Retreat Center, north of Bullards Bar Reservoir.
I’ll spend several days living and writing in The Hermitage, a small, woodsy cabin built specifically for personal retreats – like meditations, dissertations, art and writing projects, or just a place to get away from it all.
As a writer, I feel it’s time to explore the deeper currents in my novel, but as disciplined as I try to be, it’s hard when the phone rings, laundry needs hanging, the garden calls me to linger – actually, it’s more like my husband calls me to linger. . . . And then there’s that familiar feeling of being stuck. How to get across the 40 mile desert of my mind?
At Skyline, I’m hoping to drop down into that quiet, meditative place and linger where the underground streams of consciousness flow. Or at least get lots of pages written!! I’ll be using my next Blog Posts to share my Writing Retreat experience and to hold myself accountable. Wish me well!