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Forever Begin: Writing to Feed the Soul
Teaching Again In Person and Rare Writing Group Openings
Before I offer my essay, “Forever Begin: Writing to Feed the Soul,” I want to share terrific news: This October I will once again teach writing groups in person here in Santa Cruz. There are TWO RARE OPENINGS—one in a monthly group and one a bi-monthly group (meeting twice a month).
I’ve been amazed how moving and intimate it has been to teach online, and some groups will happily continue that way. But the sweetness of being together in person, the thrill of writing in the same room, the way the air holds vibrations and the ceilings sing. Oh glory.
Peace and blessings,
Forever Begin: Writing to Feed the Soul
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending…
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin. —Brendan Kennelly
Twenty-eight years ago, in September 1997, I sat quietly in the garden of a little cottage in Santa Cruz and gazed inside to eight writers with their heads bent over their notebooks. The room glowed in the light of shared creativity. I was flushed and a bit stunned. It was the first writing group I would ever teach, in the tradition I learned from my long time teacher, the brilliant poet and novelist Deena Metzger. I’d left the writers alone after giving them a prompt, and now sat for thirty minutes so they could fly into psyche and soul via the written words emerging from their pens.
I took a deep breath. Everything had flowed so easily.
The year before I had taken a mythic journey to Ireland and returned knowing I was accompanied by something invisible within and around me—my family ancestors and the ancient spirits of the Irish landscape, where I had, for the first time, felt fully at home. This had given me the foundation to begin teaching, a vision I’d carried for a couple of years. I started my new venture the way one did in those times: I put together a flyer, copied it at Kinkos, and hung it around town. I took out a few lines in the classifieds of the local weekly.
Eight writers signed up and were now filling their notebooks in the cottage. Soon they would each read their work aloud, and I would facilitate. I could feel how it would all unfold. Sitting outside, I remember thinking that I had never felt more like myself.
I called it Writing to Feed the Soul. After almost thirty years, the name continues to be the essence of my life’s work. In my teaching, in my poetry, my essays and books, this has always been it: to write to feed the soul, my soul, your soul, the soul of a beloved, the soul of the world. To value and teach and foster and promote writing that feeds all of our souls. That night at the cottage I was launched as a teacher, and never looked back.
That is, until March 2020. Like all of us, suddenly everything I was about to do curled in on itself as if peering through a strange looking glass. We were to have no gatherings of more than eight people. Then no gatherings at all. Then we were to not leave the house at all, except for essential errands. And on and on. In an immediate global pivot, we all began to connect, socialize and work online.
All of it was harrowing, on every level, but the essential pivot for me was how to continue my professional life of teaching. The work had unfolded for more than two decades as if on its own. Groups often filled by word of mouth, as talented, soulful writers recommended others. Over time I added several groups.
There was a hive of humming creativity whenever we gathered. The writing flowed— and so did the profound authenticity, the act of bringing one’s true presence to witness others’ vulnerability. Most writers know that vulnerability, the shyness and sheer exhilaration of reading fresh writing to others. We sometimes discover who we are in that moment, in what we have just written, realizing what we really think or feel, encountering ourselves anew.
But now I confronted a strange futuristic-type question: Could this unique creative process possibly translate onto screens? Everywhere on earth, at the same time, we all pondered a similar inquiry in some parts of our lives. Then we all sighed and shook our heads, and tried.
I did a practice Zoom writing session with two poet friends and my daughter Emily, also a poet. I was uncomfortable and stiff, outside of my body, the opposite of present, and forgot a couple of vital parts of my teaching process. Still, they all did write, and they read, and their work was interesting and terrific, reflecting the undone and broken place in which we all found ourselves. Afterwards I talked about how uncomfortable I felt, and one friend said that if I never got any better, it would still be good. We discussed what was behind me visible on screen, the reflection in my eyeglasses, the newfangled vagaries of Zoom.
That day, as awkward as it was for me, I knew from hearing their new poetry and stories that we had to be writing during that time. And we had to be together in whatever community we could continue to create.
After my first week teaching online, I went out for a walk on a breezy spring day, the air blowing through and around me. Despite it all, I was alive. I was alive, and we’d just gathered on this site called Zoom, and it had worked. People had written and shared and drawn tears and made each other laugh. I had settled into it. We offered deep listening and the writers were witnessed and held.
My strange new teaching method meant that suddenly I could work with beloved writers who had moved away from Santa Cruz, and people from all parts of the country who had been to Ireland with me on writing retreats. What an unexpected, shared thrill it was to see them, to see all my writers during that dark time.
My new way of teaching also gave my wife Jean and me a profound gift. That Fall we were able to travel seven hours north to live in Eureka for six months to be near our daughter Emily, her husband and their precious new first son Dean. Born in late February 2020, he was only two weeks old when his parents heard they should shelter in place. Dean was a gorgeous boy, our first grandson, and now, miraculously, for six months at the beginning of his life we could see him every day. We could provide child care while both of his parents were working from home. We created a pod with them and shared Dean’s new eyes as he was experiencing the world, as we all began experiencing our own very new world.
And I could carry on teaching with no interruption.
It has now been three years since that March 2020 pivot. I think of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, the voice of the omniscient stage manager:
Three years have gone by.
Yes, the sun’s come up over a thousand times.
Summers and winters have cracked the mountains a little bit more and the rains have brought down some of the dirt. Some babies that weren't even born before have begun talking regular sentences already; and a number of people who thought they were right young and spry have noticed that they can't bound up a flight of stairs like they used to, without their heart fluttering a little…
All that can happen in a thousand days.
A thousand days. Our grandson Dean has grown into an impish, chatty three year old. A baby who wasn’t even born in 2020, our daughter Katie’s son Caleb, has become an energetic toddler who will steal any heart away. I’ve let my hair go silver and encountered all manner of new bodily limitations. I have become a grandmother and been dazzled. I have spent months in the bardo, in a broken, in-between time of not quite knowing who I was. Across the world, war has raged anew and the same. Mass shootings have begun to happen every week, including just recently in a Black community in Florida. U.S. women have lost our constitutional right to bodily freedom. The Earth’s temperature has continued to rise, and in many cities and towns has broken all records. Fire and water have once again become godlike elementals, as the world is filled with epic wildfires and floods.
All that can happen in a thousand days.
Once again, it is time to forever begin. Three years. Twenty-eight years. Soon I will see writers gathered in person again, and also online, their heads bent over their notebooks or laptops as they fly into psyche and soul via the written words flowing from their hands. We will all feel the room sing.
Writers bear witness—to the times in which we live, and the times of our ancestors. And we offer seeds for the future times of our descendents. They will want to know, they will be burning to know, what this epic time was like, for us, now.
We are part of a vast planet that is endlessly creative. Gaia fosters constant growth and new forms in the midst of turmoil, as energetic seeds burst in soil and rise through sidewalks. The universe is full of spirals and circular bodies. We live in a rhythmic world.
In another thousand days, what will unfold? It is time to forever begin.
Brendan Kennelly, “Begin,” The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems, Wake Forest University Press, 2011.
Thornton Wilder, “Our Town: A Play in Three Acts,” first on Broadway in 1938.
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