Growing and building

kings and tree

King’s College Chapel and Chestnut Tree, Cambridge, Nov. 2014

I’ve lucked out and gotten one of the best seats in Cambridge for people watching and writing.  With a pot of peppermint tea and a pocket of time, I settle in to write about whatever is right in front of me:  the eastern façade of King’s College Chapel standing side by side with a massive chestnut tree.

The chapel has parallel lines, right angles, exact geometries, and intricate symmetries.  It has been planned and crafted by hands over centuries. An alchemy of faith and mathematics, this architecture still makes me draw my breath with wonder each time I step inside.  It has been built from steel, stone, brick, iron, glass, plaster.

A refuge.  A constant.  For all the activity in the street and the endless stream of footsteps down its aisles, it never loses composure.  The inside can make you forget the outside.  It would be easy to spend hours in its cool recesses, shifting highlights from the stained glass the only hint of the sun tracking the sky.

It couldn’t be mistaken for any other building in the world. Only one exists.

And the tree?  Its shape is irregular. The branches don’t follow straight edges, but spread along paths seeking light. Supported by a central pillar of strength, its limbs radiate outwards in myriad angles.  I wonder if it could grow taller than the chapel.  It thrives in the mixed media of wood, leaves, water, air, sunlight, soil.

It is a sanctuary for birds, insects, squirrels, moths.  As perennial as the grass, distributing generous shade from wide, soft foliage in the summer, donning regal robes in autumn, offering scant shelter in winter.  Rain cuts through its canopies and wind shifts its boughs.  Although its roots go deep, in time it will fall.  All trees do.  But all trees can also recreate themselves.  They drop seeds and fruit that travel by bird and by zephyr to grow into other trees elsewhere.

There are many such chestnuts in the world.

As I look long at these two marvels, the thought arises:  One of these has been built.  One has grown.  And I wonder which is my course?

What are you growing?  What are you building?

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The main ingredient

Last night we had dinner. Just you and me. The company of together. This used to happen all the time before we grew kids.  Now we go three, maybe four, times a year: birthdays, anniversary,  just because. We went to a Greek place. I remembered my mom’s words: At a restaurant, I like to get something I don’t make at home. We ordered lamb; yours tender cutlets with capers and new potatoes, mine a slow cooked shank with bulgur wheat. We shared hummus, tzaziki, pitas, olives, Greek wine. Afterwards we ambled in fog through the city, past pubs packed with people and steamy windows, along King’s Parade, to a place with candles and couches, slate floors and low wooden tables, white-washed stone walls. Whisky and coffee. A long walk. The main ingredient is time.

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Love your sentences

Love your sentences.  Love them like your children, because they do issue from you. Love them as a mother:

Stand up straight, sentences, your verbs are sagging!   Tidy your phrases, you’re dangling modifiers! Now eat plenty of words and you’ll grow strong and flexible; new vocabulary is good for you.  Oh sentences, lose the clichés, don’t you know that you sound best when you use your own voice? Do you really need all those adverbs and adjectives?  They are like too much eye shadow and cheap lipstick.  Go brush your hair, sentences, it’s knotted with needless words. When you mix those metaphors, you’re essentially wearing a Black Watch plaid shirt with orange and purple polka dot trousers.  Well I like plaid and polka dots, too, but at the same time?  Oy! It hurts my eyes!  Please don’t be careless with your punctuation, sentences, commas don’t exactly grow on trees, you know.  Besides, your meaning might be mistaken. Yes sentences, I’ll always love you, no matter how many times you change your subject and your predicate.  You are, after all, my sentences. 


Loving my sentences

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How to approach quietness

Let yourself be loud, be loud and busy and jumpy and unsettled.  Let yourself fizz and pop and bubble.  Let the sparks of adrenaline light a bonfire. Let the clouds and rain of drama storm across your fields. Let the din of the living resound without apology or restraint.

And when the flames turn to embers, when the sky clears, when the echoes stop ringing, start to draw away from the flitter, flutter, chitter, chatter.  Take slipper soft steps from centrestage and find a seat in the darker recesses of the auditorium.  While watching the bright acts unfold, feel the dark folding its corners around your shoulders, wrapping a woolen blanket to muffle the noise, blur the action,  soften the edges.

With each exhale, a few more feathers become unruffled, the blood moves more slowly, the heart feels less need to beat its drum so loud and fast to hold your attention.  The muscles in your thighs unclench and you sink into purposeful drifting, where you can follow an idea wherever it takes you, unencumbered by the rattling tin cans of thinking.  Into labyrinths of possibility, across unexpected bridges, you trail ghosts of suggestion.  And now, with a hush, you can breathe quietness into being.

This post is the first in a new series that I’m calling ‘present not precious.’  I’m looking for a way to practice fluidity,  to get more writing out of my notebooks, but not be so precious about the words that they never fly off the page.  I’m hoping the posts become a middle ground between freewriting and crafted work.  The idea is to write it, post it, and move on.  I intend to be present, but not precious.


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Writing Circles – A few things I’ve learned so far

It’s been quiet here in the forest, but my pen has been busy this autumn!  I just finished facilitating the first round of my Writing Circles programme.  I’m loving the challenge of creating a weekly programme, getting to know and responding to new writers, and writing along with them myself.  I’ve written about some of the things I’ve learned so far over on the Writing Circles news and notes.


I think my forest is  growing – we’re making room for foxes and tigers. (Art by my seven-year-old artist in residence)

I’ve been thinking about shifting the tone of One Tree Bohemia again.  I have a lot of raw material written in notebooks and another category of writing that is part of a larger work in progress (almost 20,000 words), but I feel the blog needs something in between.   Perhaps it can become a playground or halfway house for writing that isn’t sure yet what it is going to be.  Stay tuned.


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Moon hunters

Who can find the moon? I ask at dusk.
We walk across the meadow, down the path,
hedges and brambles studded with crimson,
a dove flaps over bare furrows, rising above
hay bales, dried and stacked, whiffs of captured sunshine.
Near the river, we tug and pluck haw berries, rose hips,
toss handfuls from the bridge, plop, plop, plop,
lean over the side, waiting for the scarlet baubles
to bobble under our feet, flow away, to the Wash, to the sea.
Going home, the scent of manure like a creeping fog on the fields,
a bonfire – crackle, crackle, spit, pop, spark, hiss -
and the moon, large and luminous, coloured by flame.

I worked on this today in preparation for my Writing Circle this week.  We’ll be looking at revision, meaning seeing again. Revision isn’t so much about fixing as it is seeing differently,  from another angle, or more fully.  This started as a journal entry written after a walk with the kids when last month’s full moon was rising.  Today I took it through a few versions and it has turned into a poem. Still thinking about punctuation…

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We will sail pathless and wild seas

The two ships on the left are caravels, the one on the right is a nau.  Galleons were developed later.

The two ships on the left are caravels, the one on the right is a nau.  Image credit: “Ships from da Gama’s 2th voyage 1502″ by D. Jorge de Sousa (?) – Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

We visited Lisbon for a week this summer. I loved it. The bright southern Iberian light, the azulejos (blue tiles) on the buildings, the clattering trams and winding streets. But of all the things that captured my imagination, the one that surprised me the most was the Museu de Marinha, the Museum of Maritime History. In particular, I became fascinated with the caravel, a Portuguese sailing boat, developed in the 15th century.

Caravel. It’s a gem of a word. To me it suggests grace and elegance. These small, lightweight boats were prized for their speed and manoeuvrability. Galleons were fighters and naus were cargo ships, but caravels were explorers and scouts. The Portuguese mastered the art of sailing caravels into the wind so that even with opposing gusts, they could still make headway in their chosen direction.

And how did they choose their directions? What did those sailors, those first adventurers use for guidance? I’m pretty sure they didn’t have GPS. Reliable measurements of longitude were still a few centuries way. Maps? Not really. They were the mapmakers, defining and drawing the boundaries of a world that had only recently ceased being flat. What did they have? Stars, wind, each other, faith and courage.

Look what they did: On Vasco da Gama’s 1497-1499 voyage from Lisbon around the horn of Africa to Calcutta and back, they established the first sea-route to India, destabilizing the old world order. They started the ‘Age of Discovery,’ whose spirit still propels many of our innovations and global connections. With ports along the African coast, in India, and deeper into Asia and South America on further voyages, Portugal became a world power. Granted, these explorations were also fuelled by greed and ambition, rival monarchies grasping after spices and slaves. As well, there remain legacies of imperialism, colonialism, and other ‘ism’s that haven’t always showcased the best possible behaviour of humans towards one another.

Still, I’m drawn to those who actually boarded and sailed the boats. Despite the harsh conditions and vast unknown, there must have been moments when the sheer thrill of the possible made those sailors whoop with joy. I’d like to think so. Adventure bewitches me. This is probably why I live in a different country from where I grew up and why I have a habit of turning pay-checks into plane-tickets faster than I can pack my bags. The desire to see more of this world than a known set of boundaries has always been a driving force behind so many of my own decisions.

Yesterday was the initial meeting of Writing Circles, a writing programme I’ve spent the last year dreaming into existence and the last few months getting ready to set sail.

After we settled in with teas and coffees and introductions, we got busy with the first burst of free-writing. I looked up and saw 8 open notebooks, being filled with possibilities as I filled the middle of the writing table with prompts. A little later, we went outside to collect sounds with our pens. I recorded footsteps tapping on cement, shuffling through fallen leaves, crunching across gravel. The footsteps faded as the writers wandered through the glebe towards the church. I waited on a wooden bench in the company of a drunken bumblebee, who buzzed the praises of late summer blooms. Footsteps and voices grew louder again as they returned. Back in the hall, the community room rang with people speaking and listening as they gave voice to some of their fledgling writing ideas.

Watching the group come together, I thought again of Vasco da Gama’s crew and fleet. We, too, are sailing forth. We are on a six-week journey to lands unknown, charting and mapping the paths of stories as yet untold, weathering the storms that toss our caravel or taking refuge in the calms that lull it. With the wind and high spirits to guide us, we have begun our own voyages of discovery.

‘We will sail pathless and wild seas
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.
Allons! With power, liberty, the earth, the elements!
Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity;
–  Walt Whitman, from Song of the Open Road
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