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8 posts from July 2007

July 01, 2007

July: Now What?

Snapdragon

Welcome to the twelfth month of writing and healing, a month in which I'm going to explore a bit ways to use writing to look ahead--toward what might be coming next--or what you would like to be coming next. A way to use writing to explore the next chapter of one's life.

I should say here, on a practical note, that as I look ahead, one of the things I'm looking ahead toward is a brief sabbatical I plan on taking from this site. I've decided that in order to prepare for--and rejuvenate myself for--a second year of writing and healing, I'm going to take a bit of a break from adding new entries to this site: from mid-July to mid-August or so. With a plan then to do a bit of site renovation in August and then begin again on September 1 with Writing and Healing: Year 2. (A year during which I will probably post one time per week rather than three times.)

So perhaps this is also a month in which to consider the benefits of sabbaticals--and vacations--and rejuvenation.

The yellow flower in the photograph this month is a snapdragon that appeared in our yard this spring--a welcome surprise--an entire colony appearing from some seeds that fell last year. Since then, a few other colonies have shot up at different sites and are continuing to flourish. The year of the snapdragon?

I continue, as always, to welcome your thoughts and questions via e-mail. All of it, in different ways, contributes to the flourishing of this site. Thank you.

Writing and Healing Idea #43: Imagining the Future

Imagine for a moment that you’ve been handed a ticket. And imagine that this ticket grants you admittance aboard a vehicle which can then carry you to any point in your future that you desire. Six months from now? One year? Five years? The vehicle is navigated by a kind and skilled conductor. You simply need to tell him to which period of time you would like to travel. Then close your eyes. And let yourself begin to go there.

Imagine that upon your arrival at this moment in the future, you discover that everything has gone as well for you as it possibly could. Imagine that things have gone the way that in your deepest heart you have most wished for them to go. Imagine the details.

You may find that a particular scene emerges in your mind’s eye. Notice yourself in this scene. What are you doing? Who and/or what is around you? What does a typical day look like? What else do you notice? And what else?

July 03, 2007

A Research Study on the Health Benefits of Writing About Goals and Dreams

In 2001, Laura King, one of the researchers in the field of writing and health, conducted a study in which she looked at what happened when college students wrote about something she calls “their best possible future self.” By this time, a large amount of data had already been collected on the benefits of writing to work through difficult past experiences. King became interested in exploring what other kinds of writing might be beneficial to health. Her study is one that I don’t think has been written about enough.

She looked at 81 undergraduate students, randomly dividing them into four groups: a group which wrote about their most traumatic life event; a group which wrote about a best possible future self; a group which was asked to write about both; and a group which wrote about a non-emotional or control topic. Each group wrote for 20 minutes a day for 4 consecutive days.

Those students selected to write about a best possible future self were instructed to write in response to this prompt:

Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.

A couple of interesting results came out of this study. First, when students were tested three weeks after writing, it was found that writing about a best possible self was significantly less upsetting than writing about a traumatic life event. Second, the distress of writing about a traumatic life event was short-term. It had dissipated by five months. Third, both kinds of writing were beneficial. That is, when students were studied five months after writing, those students who wrote about a traumatic life event, those students who wrote about a best possible self, and those students who wrote about both—all of them experienced a decrease in illness. Only those students who wrote about a non-emotional topic showed no change.

The study is published in the July 2001 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. In her discussion, King draws the following conclusion:

The act of writing down our deepest thoughts and feelings is key to the benefits of writing. However, and importantly, the contents of our deepest thoughts and feelings need not be traumatic or negative. Quite the contrary, examining the most hopeful aspects of our lives through writing—our best imagined futures, our ‘most cherished self-wishes’—might also bestow on us the benefits of writing that have been long assumed to be tied only to our traumatic histories.

I think this an enormously interesting and useful study. What I do not think is that this study should be used as a reason to counsel anyone and everyone to “move forward” to “think about the future” and “let go of the past.” Rather, I think what this study does is offer evidence that both are fruitful. Looking back toward unfinished business in the past is fruitful. Looking forward to a possible future is fruitful.

And it seems reasonable to conjecture that in the best possible circumstances, each person would be permitted to choose for themselves—perhaps at times with some guidance—when to look back—and when it might be time to look forward.

In my own experience, as a writer, and as a person who’s had the privilege to listen to lots and lots of stories of healing, it strikes me that after one has looked back and resolved unfinished business it becomes increasingly possible to feel free to look forward. This the reason that I’ve placed Looking Ahead not at the beginning of One Year of Writing and Healing but at its culmination.

I’ve often thought of it this way: that one may have to look back in order to truly go forward. And King’s research, I think, offers guidance—a starting point—a way to use writing as a tool—a kind of blueprint—when one is ready to go forward.

July 05, 2007

On Looking Ahead: Pema Chodron’s Teaching on Living Life as an Experiment

To have a vision is risky. To say aloud what one wants—or to dare to write it down—is to take a risk. This seems especially true when one is daring to find words for one’s deeper goals and dreams. And it seems to me that this kind of thing should be acknowledged somewhere at the outset.

Two summers ago, my daughter, then fifteen, volunteered for Horse-Sense, a nonprofit organization which then offered horse therapy—the grooming and riding of horses—to children and adults with developmental disabilities. It was a small operation—a pasture, a single riding ring, and a barn—fueled primarily by the sweat and energy of one woman, Kat, a woman whom we met when I first drove my daughter out one Friday afternoon in June. I was impressed that first day by how neat Kat kept the barn, how much she cared about the horses, and also her sense of vision for the place. She walked us around back and showed us trails she was clearing for clients. She told of setting up tables at horse shows on weekends to sell cookbooks and fund-raise. Later, doing chores with my daughter, she told her that she felt that God had called her to do this work.

For several weeks my daughter went out once a week, and helped with horse chores. Later, she got an opportunity to work at a clinic, this with a group of children with disabilities who’d ridden up in a yellow school bus from Salisbury, North Carolina. Susan, a behavioral therapist was there, along with a number of volunteers from Kat’s church. Kat and Susan had set up three stations for the clinic. One station in the ring, this where my daughter was working, leading children around the ring on the ponies. Another station where the children were able to groom the ponies. And a third station, this in the shade, where the children were gathered around a table with crayons and paper, drawing pictures. It was hot, but all of the children—and most of the volunteers—seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. There was a sense of purpose and energy. I knew that Kat had moved out to this space less than a year ago, and I knew that she did not yet have the number of clients that she hoped for, but on that particular day, watching the children move through the various stations and then pull out in the school bus, I could see Kat’s vision—the thriving place that she imagined, with the horses at the center and something of value being offered to the children. I was glad that my daughter could be a small part of it. It seemed all good, if tenuous, with the success of the venture resting primarily on Kat’s shoulders.

Then, some time in late July, Kat called. My daughter was out. I ended up talking to Kat a bit. “I need to tell you,” she said, “that we’re going to close.” Just like that. In order to keep the place afloat, she said, she really needed at least thirty clients a month. She hadn’t been able to reach those numbers and she’d tried everything she knew and it just wasn’t happening. And just like that. It was over.

The risk of vision is failure. This seems to me another one of those things that doesn’t get talked about quite enough.

Personally, I hate failure. I especially hate it when I’m right smack in the middle of it and it feels—for that moment—that day—sometimes that whole week—like failure just could be the end of the story. I don’t mind failure quite so much if it’s somewhere in the middle—one element in a more elaborate plot.

This is where Pema Chodron comes in. Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun whom I have never met but who I often think of as one of my teachers. And there’s this spin that she puts on failure that I especially like.

Live your life as an experiment, she says.

I like this teaching very much. I like it because it takes the whole notion of failure (and success for that matter) and simply reinterprets it as new data.

With this teaching in mind, it strikes me that vision can simply be considered as a hypothesis—an educated guess. And one can then use the scientific method—and the process of writing—to test the hypothesis.

• First designing the plan—the methods for testing the hypothesis.
• Then carrying out the experiment. Collecting the data.
• Then reflecting on the data. (What is the data saying? What might it mean?)
• And then, finally, using this reflection to formulate the next hypothesis—perhaps a slightly revised vision—or a more radically revised one.
• And then designing the next experiment, and the next, so that life might become defined by a series of experiments.

Rather like doing a series of science fair projects, but projects in this case that you really care about, and without having to make the poster.

July 08, 2007

Stronger than Dirt: A Recommended Book [Part One]

This is a book about a flower farm. It’s written in two voices, that of Kim Schaye and Chris Losee, a married couple in Brooklyn who moved out of the city to upstate New York to realize a dream—a vision. I’m quite sure that one reason I’ve enjoyed this book so much is because I get a kind of vicarious pleasure out of reading about someone—anyone—cultivating acres of flowers. But I also like the way this book begins at the beginning—when the flower farm was no more than a notion—and it proceeds to articulate the process of going from nothing—from scratch—into the realization of a vision.

Interestingly, the story of the farm begins in failure. Chris, the husband, had been running his father’s construction business in New York for several years, business was booming, when in 1994, and rather abruptly, the construction boom busted and he found himself running the business out of his home and without the benefit of an income. In July of that year a concerned friend took him out to the tip of Staten Island to visit a place called Gericke Farm, a tiny farm which had once been a working farm and was now preserved as a demonstration farm inside a state park. They walked among the rows of crops. They picked tomatoes and zucchini and large bunches of flowers, and his friend told him he could show him how to make ten thousand dollars a year working part-time and on half an acre. The seed was planted.

Between July and October of that year, and with a stack of books about small farming growing on his nightstand, Chris became convinced that he had stumbled upon their next venture. Of note, writing played a key role in moving what began as an idea—a dream—a vision—to a thriving farm.

Chris writes:

I’m not actually sure what made up my mind, but it might have had something to do with all the paperwork I was creating. I still have a time line, printed in choppy type on my old Apple dot-matrix printer from this period. It shows the months July 1994 through December 1996, and for each quarter of the year there’s a two- or three-sentence plan of action and a one-sentence goal. My wife says that I’m an obsessive list maker. But for me there is a quality of lists that is something like magic. Items on lists can acquire a certain inevitability. These are things that are supposed to happen, that will happen if given time and effort. And perhaps the gradual accumulation of books and lists had reached some critical mass that made the decision inevitable: write something down enough times and it becomes a fact.

With writing as a catalyst, the facts begin to accrue for this couple. They find and then purchase thirty acres in the Hudson Valley with a stream running through it. Chris begins building them a house. He pores over seed catalogs. He orders seeds. He rigs up a system of plywood benches and grow lights—and a watering system no less—in the attic of their row house, and, after a decision to grow some vegetables along with the flowers, proceeds to start over three thousand tomato and pepper plants. They put up a fence at the farm, hire someone to plow. They begin laying down plastic for mulch. They plant by hand, setting individual flower seeds into holes they punch in the plastic mulch, and then, after they tire of mulching, they transplant their three thousand tomato and pepper plants into the un-mulched rows.

Then—in mid-July—now two years after Chris had visited the demonstration farm on Staten Island—he reports matter-of-factly, “we lost the crops.”

This is one of the things I like about Chris and Kim’s story. It has a plot. It has complications. It does not describe a straight line of points headed directly toward a desirable future. The story swerves. Chris and Kim are both new to farming. They stumble. Things happen. They’d planted the tomatoes and peppers in the rows without mulch and by mid-July weeds had engulfed them. They in fact lost the tomato and pepper plants because they literally couldn’t see them any longer. They also had bugs. Squash bugs and blister beetles. Mexican bean beetles. Colorado potato beetles. Luckily, at this point, Kim still had a steady income, as a journalist. And Chris was philosophic: “I was consciously trying not to have great expectations for the farm the first year, and I’ve found that if your expectations are low enough, it’s hard to be really disappointed.”

[You can continue reading--Part 2--here.]

July 10, 2007

Stronger than Dirt: A Recommended Book [Part Two]

In early August, in spite of obstacles, Chris Losee and Kim Schaye harvest at their flower farm for the first time. They cut zinnias and cosmos along with a scattering of wildflowers from the roadside, and they drive down to the city in a van loaded with five-gallon buckets of cut flowers and zucchini. They’re headed for a market in Greenwich Village where they’ve reserved a space. They’re optimistic. They don’t think they’ve harvested quite enough to make the one thousand dollars they’d hoped for from a first market, but they figure they’re probably carrying eight hundred dollars worth of produce, give or take. They arrive in Greenwich Village at the greenmarket, set up a card table, put out their sign and they begin making and selling bouquets of flowers. And people buy them. Things seem to be moving. They’re a little thrilled—understandably. Then, at the end of the day they count their money. 160 dollars. That’s their gross take. They subtract the day’s expenses—the market fee and gas and the money they paid a friend to help out—and their net take is zero.

Zero. Their expectations have been confounded. Which provides yet another plot point in their story, and is yet one more reason why I like this book.

Chris’s stated vision all along has been “to create a situation in which the land could support us.” They’d borrowed from Kim’s retirement fund to make a downpayment on the farm. They’d grown those three thousand tomato and pepper plants in their bedroom. They’d invested two years of their lives, and a fair chunk of their savings. And the net take on their first market day: zero. Kim admits, in the book, to some panic after this first market. Perhaps Chris was panicking too, inwardly. But what he also does is to make another meticulous notebook entry. In this entry, “First Greenmarket,” which he includes as in illustration in their book, he lists the date of the market, the location, the contents of the buckets, the market conditions, the gross take, the expenses—in other words, the data of the first market. Then, at the very bottom of the entry, beneath the data, he writes a terse reflection: “Conclusion: Bring more good flowers.”

At the next market they take in three hundred and twenty dollars. By September a few cherry tomatoes have managed to ripen, and a variety of wildflowers had come into bloom around their cultivated crops. One Saturday in September they manage to take in six hundred. At the end of the season, after the first frost, Chris makes a final tally: a total gross for the first year of 4435 dollars. Before expenses. Chris’s first response? “. . . you can’t support a family of hamsters for a year on that sum of money.” His second response? He begins figuring out a plan for the next season.

This is what I like about this book—the way they keep reflecting on their data—and revising their plan—and the way they’re able to make this process so transparent in their book.

They build a greenhouse so they can start crops earlier. They choose flowers and vegetables that they know now will grow well and sell well. They become more skilled at cutting and arranging flowers. The second year they take in a net of 7000 dollars—a significant improvement but still not enough to support a family. And there’s a new wrinkle. Kim is trying to become pregnant and she’s come to suspect that the stress of her job at the newspaper might be contributing to her infertility. She’s seriously considering quitting. And with only seven thousand dollars in annual income from the farm in its second season, and with expenses cut to the bone, Chris writes of having to take a hard look at the dream he’d had for the farm. His initial vision had been that they would support themselves—and possibly children—entirely from the land. But four years from the time he’d first conceived the notion of the farm, and with two arduous growing seasons behind them, he realizes he’s going to have to amend their original vision: “I had to face the possibility that the farm alone could not support us.”

And so they continue. They revise their vision a bit. And they keep going. If I continue writing now I’m going to end up telling you the rest of the book. So I won’t do that. I’ll simply say that they keep going----

July 12, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #44: Rest Hour

When I was at summer camp as a girl we were required every day after lunch to go back to our cabins and take a rest hour. I didn’t like rest hour then as much as I would probably like it now, but I did like it that before rest hour was Store, and this meant that you could prepare for rest hour by lining up at the small store window and buying one of those long flat striped pieces of taffy, and then, if you wanted, you could make the taffy last most of the hour.

For this particular writing idea, consider giving yourself a respite---a reprieve—a break---from writing----or from healing—or from something. Consider a Rest Hour. Or a Rest Day—or a Rest Week—you get the idea. You can launch this rest time by first writing about it—what you would most like for it to be. Or you can launch this by going to the store and laying in a few key supplies. Taffy? A good book? Lemon-ade?

Or you can launch this time of rest by, well, resting.

Respite

9_respite_vt

[graphic courtesy of Visual Thesaurus]