A Winter Solstice Message, 2010
January 1, 1970OK, try this newsletter with only one link at the very bottom-- to the Home Page of the WBH website
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Greetings from Linda Hasselstrom at Windbreak House Writing Retreats
I'm thinking of you this season of solstice, and wishing you the best.
You may find this occasional newsletter archived on my website's newsletter page, in case your e-mailed version does not format properly.
Act now and save! The rates for Writing Retreats and Writing Conversations by eMail are going up soon. Here's how to get the 2010 rates.
The Windbreak House website has some new features.
My Winter Solstice Message on epiphanies and the creative process of writing may be found below. This message includes a story about the title poem of my book Bitter Creek Junction, and a new poem that will appear in my forthcoming book with poet Twyla Hansen, Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet (Backwaters Press, 2011).
Act Now and Save!
If you're planning to come to Windbreak House for a writing retreat in the coming year, make your reservations by March 31st, as prices will rise in 2011. See my website's Retreats Page for dates and details. You may attend at any time through the year, just set the scheduling in motion by March 31st.
Writing Conversations By eMail prices will also rise after March 31st. See the Writing Help Page of my website.
The Windbreak House Website.
My website has some new features.
In 2010 I joined the rest of the cyber-world and began a blog page, adding posts perhaps twice a month. Take a look in the left-hand column of the page for the far-ranging topics covered by the blog.
The webpages about my nonfiction and poetry books are undergoing some changes in 2011. Look for a new Poetry Page where I'll post some poems and the stories behind them.
New photos are added often to the Homestead House Tour article (found on the Books & More Page) so that you can see the residence where you'll stay if you come for a retreat.
You will find the following Winter Solstice Message, complete with a handful of photos, on the Home Page of my Windbreak House website. If you haven't seen the website recently, stop by and visit.
Celebrating Winter Solstice: How Epiphanies Happen-- or Don’t
The word “solstice” means “the time when the sun stands still.” Scientifically, the explanation is simple: because of the earth’s tilt, our hemisphere is leaning far away from the sun. Therefore the sun’s arc in the sky is short, making daylight brief.
No doubt early humans feared the lengthening nights, and most civilizations we know created rituals to drive away darkness and bring back light and warmth. At the same time, though, they were evaluating food supplies, hoping the harvest would last until spring. Everyone stayed close to the hearth, drawing inward, spending more time together. As nights grow longer and days are short and gray, my partner and I read more, play more board games, talk more than we did during the busy warm months. And I find that my journal can provide inspiration, and rejuvenation.
When I begin to explore an idea as a writer, I often begin with its definitions, including its origin if I can discover it. While this information may not appear in what I eventually write, knowing it gives depth to my thinking as I work.
The word “epiphany” appears to derive from a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” or “to appear,” and carries multiple meanings.
In religion, Epiphany is “a Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi,” and is observed on January 6. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates this meaning first appeared about 1310. (I was living in poverty on beans and rice when I bought my compact edition of the OED; owning it made me, I believed, a real writer. Hauling out one of the ponderous tomes and applying the accompanying magnifying glass to its tiny print still gives me a huge satisfaction that can never be matched in joy or speed by searching for a word on the internet.)
A second meaning of epiphany is “a revelatory manifestation of a divine being.” Finally, the third meaning in my American Heritage is twofold: “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something,” and “a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.”
This meaning touches writers, and other creative artists, most closely, since it defines the moment when something we are working on catches fire in our minds, begins to burn with a light that can lead us through the darkness of multiple revisions. Very few occasions in life can match that ebullience, that explosion of delight.
Finishing a poem or essay is a long hard grind for me, but after a true epiphany, I can wade through the required hours of moving commas, looking up words, re-reading aloud to check the rhythm, as I work to convey to readers what I realized in that epiphany. Some perceptive writer labeled this divine feeling an “epiphany” with full awareness of its religious connotations. Certainly sometimes finding the puzzle piece that makes a poem work feels like a spiritual experience.
Here’s the important question for creators: Can epiphanies happen in front of a TV? With a cell phone in your hand? While texting?
For me, the answer is no. I have experienced epiphanies in a variety of situations where I was away from such outside stimuli. One of my favorite times to think is while driving; without interruptions, I’ve sorted out all kinds of problems on long trips.
The long title poem of my book Bitter Creek Junction began with the incident described in the book: nearly out of gas, I stopped at an isolated station. I felt threatened by the men inside, and believed that the Indian woman working there was abused. As I drove on, I began to work the poem out in my mind, trying to dissipate my own fear and anger by writing about it.
As I drove west, I realized that I was safe; the men I thought threatened me didn’t follow. But the woman I think was abused, and her child, were trapped in that place, and a white woman writing a poem about the situation probably wasn’t going to help her escape. So I began to fantasize about how she might really get away: the epiphany of that poem was working out a fairly logical method whereby she might get revenge for her abuse, and freedom for herself and her child. Only the sense of danger I felt, and the solitary drive into darkness on that extremely isolated desert highway, allowed me to even consider the solution I presented as logical for her: a murderous epiphany. Sitting in my light, warm study, or a motel room, or a room with a TV, I could never have come to that conclusion.
I believe that epiphanies require solitude and reflective time. Driving, I’m often alone with my cell phone off. I may play a musical tape, but not the radio with its advertising racket. I agree with a writer friend who says, “I’ve solved quite a few writing quandaries in the shower.”
Reading can contribute as well. Almost any kind of reading can allow the mind to wander down different pathways and lead to new ideas-- which you can capture in your journal if it is always beside you.
I can also attribute some revelations to sessions of doing dishes, and to cooking. Since I set my own work hours, I’ve found homemaking chores can contribute greatly to my creativity; sometimes I burn the rice when I run downstairs to the computer to record the revelation I’ve just had about that poem I started at 5 a.m., but that’s a small price to pay for the poetic satisfaction! Vacuuming floors and even cleaning toilets have led directly to poems. The mind cannot abide a vacuum, and if you deprive it of advertising jingles and chatter, it may produce something original.
Writing in the journal, too, can enlighten as well as discipline a writer. I pick up my journal as soon as I wake up, and may have no conscious idea of what to write beyond “12/2/10 4:35 a.m. 25 degrees.” Once I have recorded those traditional details, though, I may write about a dream, or thoughts from wakeful moments in the night.
I’d been trying to write this message for weeks, and produced drafts of several ideas along with several blogs but was unsatisfied each time. I needed an epiphany. Sitting at the computer on December 2, I looked out my study window at my new greenhouse. With its curved, pointed roof, it reminded me of the tiny retreats used for meditation by Eastern monks. Half-laughing at myself, I dashed into the greenhouse and sat on my blue stool.
I stared at the shells and peculiarly-marked rocks tucked into niches in a piece of driftwood, at wind chimes, and a mobile of beads and driftwood made by a friend. I took deep breaths. “I need an epiphany,” I announced, rubbing my thumb over one of the turtle figurines I collect to remind me to slow down, straightened my spine, breathed deeply, and repeated my favorite calming prayer. Black cattle grazed across the tawny field below the hill; snow lay white over the ice on the pond. A rabbit nibbled grass under a juniper tree.
And in the silence, my epiphany arrived: I could write about epiphanies!
Here’s an example. I have often remarked that one could write a poem about anything, even cleaning a toilet. Since I’d never found one, I decided to write it, and began with a straightforward description: putting on my rubber gloves, rubbing the stone on the rusty spots left by our iron-rich water. I noted that the directions on the box were in English and Spanish. I concluded I’d rather write a poem about it than actually clean the toilet-- but that touch of humor wasn’t enough to carry the poem.
Upon reflection, I wondered at the origin of pumice, so I looked up and copied several definitions and descriptions. I considered the irony that something from the fiery depths of a volcano should be used for this universal task; none of us discusses toilet-cleaning, but the necessity of toilet facilities of some kind are common to all levels of society.
And that thought became the epiphany: the mundane and the celestial came together: I was doing a common job with material from something so rare few of us will ever see it.
Pumice is igneous rock blown
out of the throat of a volcano. Open
the new package of rubber gloves,
slip my hands inside. Super-heated,
highly pressurized, pumice explodes
upward, bubbling, hissing. Kneel
on the rug. Open the cardboard box
over the toilet so the pumice dust
falls inside. Pumice is the only stone
that floats on water. Watch it bob gently.
Rub it against the toilet rim. Rust
flakes away. Pumice fibers or threads
may lie in parallel rows, with intervening
threads to form a delicate structure. Scrub
around the top edge of the toilet, grinding
away rust, curving the pumice to fit
the smooth porcelain bowl. Pumice is
produced by the expansion of the internal
gasses of lava when they reach the surface
of the earth. Take your time, as lava takes
time to form. Remember the women who
have done this job forever, without gloves.
Flush. Close the intake valve before the bowl fills.
Change hands. The word pumice is derived from
the Latin word pumex, meaning foam.
Around and around the curve of the bowl
rub the pumice, rocking it over the undulations.
Pumice is lava froth, glass foamy with air,
cut and packaged for sale with instructions
in English and Spanish. Shift from one knee
to the other. Scrub. English and Spanish.
Open intake. Flush. Close intake. Breathe.
Scrub, reaching deep. Outside the bathroom window,
a meadowlark calls in sunshine. Fine
ground pumice is used in toothpastes
and hand cleaners. My knees ache. I flush
grains of lava from the earth’s blazing heart
And here’s my favorite Buddhist prayer; I’ve found it so effective at spreading calm that, even though I have it memorized, I copy it on the opening pages of every journal as a reminder.
I am arriving;
I am home.
I am here;
this is now.
I am rooted;
I am free.
in the ultimate.
--Buddhist gatha, prayer
That’s my solstice message: may the love you give all the warm year sustain you through winter’s cold, and remind you that spring will be reborn in you.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
Windbreak House website