Soul Journeys

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Writing is a vocation. But so, too, is workshop facilitation; it is not so much teaching, as inviting people to play with you. The added bonus is that you make up the game. I have led many creative writing workshops to all age groups, all men, all women and mixed groups. I’ve led workshops in libraries, community resource centres, a room above a tourist office, at a Buddhist centre, in hospitals, a yurt, and prison. But what may prove my most popular offering defies the conventional creative writing tag. Yesterday, I guided twelve brave souls through a writing process I call Soul Journeys: Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography.  I have taught material on this subject many times, within varying time slots. But what keeps getting affirmed is that people want to explore their own story of soul growth.

I am grateful that the group I met with yesterday wants to continue working with the material the workshop prompts revealed for them. I am also grateful that the individuals trusted me to guide them and trusted their fellow participants to share the process  of examining their soul’s storylines. In a safely held environmemt where trust flourishes, often the themes and plot twists of a lifetime become clear. By framing a indivual story within universal archetypes, one’s own heroism shines.

While early Quakers like John Woolman faithfully recorded their experience of The Light in journals, there are many approaches to convey and frame our spiritual sojourns on planet earth.  But because we are often ‘in the messy middle'( to borrow a phrase from Brené Brown), we may think that our spiritual life needs to look something like this to be worthy of interrogating and sharing with others.

Soul journey

When actually, a soul journey is much more like this.  A Life lived passionately and authentically is likely to have a bit of chaos and mess. It probably looks a bit more like this:

Soul journey

If you would be interested in a Soul Journey  writing workshop in your locality, contact me at dowrabeesmith@gmail.com.

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Poetry as Sacrament

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There is a point to having one day being the Sabbath, a day of rest and contemplation. There is a point to taking a tip from Orthodox Jewish women who cook in advance and leave the dishes and clearing up for twenty-four hours once a week. Leave the quotidian grind behind and contemplate the larger reality in a pause. For some, worship fulfills that pause, but organised religion and ritual left me cold years ago. Secular concerns rarely nourish the soul; at least, that is my experience, but I was brought up in a religiously observant environment. I am not alone in having a hunger for the numimous. In the absence of collective ritual, poetry offers itself as a sacrament. Even the ritual “Take this and eat in memory of me” resonates not only the nourishment offered in the sacrament of Communion, but the mentioning of memory.  In the genealogy of St. Brigid, memory is the ultimate source of poetry.

This Sunday snow falls in a desultory dance  outside my window. I went to the poetry bookcase and pulled out an anthology at random. What does Spirit want to speak to me today?  Even though I have left the spiritual traditions of the Peoples of the Book, the Judeo-Christian attachment to books remains. I pulled Risking Everything: 110 Poems love and Revelation from the shelf. Then I opened it and what a pleasure to have a David Whyte poem before me.  

Moses appears on the first line of “Fire in the Earth.” I had to smile. So appropriate for a Sunday morning reading. Secondly, the title synchronously echoes some exercises in writing spiritual autobiography I have undertaken.

Like many writers, most of my income is earned from teaching. This is no hardship and I discovered that I had a vocation for encouraging people to use words to express themselves and find greater confidence in their inherant worth. It has been my privilege to work in prison and share in profound moments of communion and revelation .  I have witnessed  the exhileration  of  those with literacy challenges seeing the words from their lips crafted into a poem. Currently, I am a co-pilot on a Cavan Youth Arts Lab project with a dozen 12-14 year old girls; already I can sense we are moving into that communion space of affirmation.

On the last Saturday of this month 24th February, I will lead a half-day workshop Soul Journeys: Writing You Spiritual Autobiography. The workshop will take place in a appropriately liminal space. The Markethouse in Blacklion lies metres from the border with Northern Ireland where Cavan meets Fermanagh.  The workshop will run from 11am-3pm. Bring a notebook and a comfortable pen with a good ink flow. Bring some food tomshare at lunchtime.  Also, prepare to enter into the sacrament that is your own life.

To book a place or get more information leave a comment. There is a Facebook event page with full details Word Alchemy Event Writing Your Spiritual autobiography

I highly recmmend a listen to this podcast of David Whyte. He has some powerful words to say about the nature of poetry, the poet’s purpose, and how e can re-frame our life story and make meaning from our lif’s experience and soul’s destiny. David Whyte RTE 1 Podcast

As you journey through next week bear in mind my friend Pen’s words to me this past week 

In theory,  every encounter – even with the postman – is sacramental. 

Gratitude Journaling and Thanksgiving

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“Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse.” – Henry Van Dyke

This November has had the theme of gratitude from the start and well in advance of the American feast of Thanksgiving that will be marked tomorrow. Earlier this month, my friend and creative colleague, Morag Donald of Crafting Your Soul, co-hosted a gratitude journaling workshop with me. Combining creative writing exercises, guided meditation and craft work, we led participants to collage covers of A5 notebooks or scrapbooks where conscious note can be made of all those acts of kindness that occur in our life. I chose a scrapbook where I can paste in images to remind me of all the myriad miraculous events and details that populate one’s days. So far birthday cards, chocolate wrappers, newspaper snippets and headlines, and more have been pasted in. I also use words, but I keep it brief. It is also acts, in part, as an aide memoire.

There is anecdotal evidence that the practice of gratitude journalling greatly contributes to a feeling of happiness and well-being. Over the past decades there are any number of books and articles written encouraging people to embrace the practice of gratitude. Which is really a reminder to not take for granted all the acts of kindness, random or deliberate, from strangers, friends, even institutions.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, that great feast of family, food, football (for some) and the official opening of the Christmas shopping season in the USA on Black Friday.  I am long gone as an ex-patriot and there won’t be any turkey and cranberry sauce for us tomorrow. (Sadly, my Irish husband does not understand my liking for pumpkin and all kinds squash, succotash and sweet potatoes; this hampers any meal planning if there are no more than the two of us eating in on Thanksgiving Day.)  Since I have to post Christmas presents across the Atlantic, most have already been bought, wrapped and despatched already.

There is also the issue of celebrating a narrative that does not admit the impact of the colonising of North America and consequent displacement and genocide of its original inhabitants. Some maternal ancestors were early Quaker settlers in the Burlington, New Jersey region. At least I can say I come from people who paid the natives for their land, which was a rare occurance back in the day. The Lenape chief Ockanickon is buried in the Burlington Friends Meeting cemetary, reflecting the integration of Europeans and indigenous peoples at the beginning of the settlement. But even Quakers were slave holders in the 18th century, so I cannot be certain that all my ancestors were always on the right side of history on all questions of morality. The Burlington Quaker mystic, John Woolman, had his metanoia regarding slavery as an apprentice clerk when he was required to write out a bill of sale for the purchase of a slave. He did so just the once; he approached his employer afterwards and said he could not, in good conscience, do so ever again. His employer may not have comprehended his morality, but he did respect his ‘light’, as Quakers would call it.

So how shall I mark Thanksgiving 2017? I will be having a routine mammogram free, courtesy of Breast Check Ireland. I will cherish our old dog who is as loving as ever even in an illness that will ultimately earn her angel wings. I will bless the names of our vets, Sinead and Thomas,  who care for her.

But I will also bless those cranky colonial ancestors who braved leaky wooden sailing vessels to migrate to another world, circa 1630-something. I will be grateful that I inherited their itchy feet.

I will bless them for their idealism and their calculated risk taking. I will be thankful that I have inherited both their tendency to flinty morality and tender conscience.

But above all, I bless and thank the Lenape people, who welcomed my ancestors, sheltered them in the caves on the banks of the Delaware River, who taught them the ways of squash, corn and bean, who helped them survive in a harsher climate than they knew in their old world. For this I am thankful, for without them, there would have been no descendents born, wed, bred.

What I am most thankful for this Thanksgiving is connection. For the kinds of connections that can be made in poetry.  Also, the human kind of connections, all the little heaps and piles of kindness.  Thought of in that way, lineages are wrought from the seemingly random decisions to behave kindly, to help another human survive another day, to live and to love.

I realise that not everyone has had such a benign experience or  even expectation of life. But, I pray ‘May Love cast out Fear’ daily. Perhaps, my ancestors did, too. That is my hope this Thanksgiving.

 

 

Haiku Walk

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The date for my fools for poetry reunion was long ago set for 5th August. I proposed a haiku walk, or ginko, as a way of exploring both nature and stretching the writing muscles with a new poetry form. Haiku looks deceptively simple. No more than seventeen syllables, no need to rhyme. No conventional metaphor saying one thing is like another, or comparisons to lead the reader. Just three lines of nature description.Or not, in the case of senryu, where you look at human nature, rather than flora and fauna.

But haiku can also be a bit of a fiend. Three lines of 5-7-5 syllables flows beautifully in Japanese. In English it can seem stilted and over constrained. Also, while you might be able to write a snapshot, do your three lines convey a bigger picture? Because that is rather the point of haiku. It implies a larger, or greater truth. Sometimes with a sense of humour.

Then again, strict haiku traditionalists insist on a kigo, or seasonal word. So we started our workshop kicking around some words that would universally be recognised as signposting season of Lunasadh, as August is fashioned in Irish: rowan berries, blackberries, bilberries, mushrooms. All these anchor us to a certain point in the wheel of the year.

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Morag got to model some found kigo.

We had to joke about rain.  Which is kind of a default setting for the Irish. For Brid, living over in central County Cavan had been a bit sceptical about the walk given that floods of rain were cascading down the concrete walls of her home a couple hours before we were due to meet.  I had to explain how the mountains hemming us in on all sides gives West Cavan a unique micro-climate that often defies weather prognostications.

Weather gods!

Sunshine shall be had!

Haiku poets walk

Forest bathing

(That’s a nod to Anne-Marie’s and my mutual friend, John Wilmott, who is a great promoter of Japan’s shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, in Ireland.)

Glenfarne Forest Demesne, just over the boundary in North Leitrim, was the venue I chose for both the shinrin-yoku and the ginko.

We followed the trail and took in some of the sculptures that grace the forest, which also offers views across Lough MacNean to Fermanagh. We stopped and looked; the benefit of being in a group is that one of you is likely to know the name of the species that has caught your attention. Thank you, Christine!

shield bug haiku

Forests always feel magical and a bit mystical to me. I had wandered a bit ahead of the rest who paused at a boulder. “I see a face!”

Green Man leers

Now you see him! Now you don’t!

Sinks back into moss, bark, tree.

No, the photo does not convey how we all saw what looked a bit like a skull, or like Edvard Musch’s The Scream, peering from the tree.  But we all saw it!

If you would like to join me in the future on other guided haiku walks, email me dowrabeesmith@gmail.com.

Finding Your Purpose

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When I began to write this blog back in 2014, the purpose was to document the progress of a creative writing program sponsered by Cavan Arts office with EU funding. A group of us spent a week at the Arvon Foundation’s Centre at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire, and a week in Manchester. Once back in Cavan it was time to give back to the community. (Thank you, taxpayers!)  Cavan’s Office of Social Inclusion asked if I would be willing to give a workshop in the nearby Open Prison, Loughan House. I said yes. And that has made all the differance.

Purpose, at least for me, is linked to a sense of vocation. After facilitating two workshops at Loughan House,  I realised I had a passion for working with beginner creative writers. They are inspiring examples of ‘first thought, best thought.’ I had facilitated a few workshops in a past lifetime when I lived in England. But I was still too uncertain of myself then. My boat was pretty rocky and the sea rolled beneath me.  Cavan living has been good ballast to my boat.

What is such a privelage in working with beginners, whether they are living ‘inside’ or out, is communing with virtual strangers on a soul level.So my passion and purpose unite when I lead these workshops. They may be called ‘poetry workshops’ or ‘creative writing’, but really they are held spaces where the participant can listen to that still, small voice inside and begin to record what their soul wishes to speak.  I have worked with women only, men only, young people, literacy challenged, Travellers, the settled and everything in between. They all shine on the page as they (metaphorically speaking) clear their throat and tell the story of their soul journey.

I recently posted about a workshop I facilitated at the Wise Woman Ireland Weekend last month.  Last week the feedback sheet comments popped up in my email Inbox. Here’s a sampling:

  • A wonderful workshop given by an amazing women. Got over my anxieties and learned some great tools Thank You Bee.
  • Bee is very patient and caring,her workshop inspiring. I can write a poem.
  • Fabulous got so much out of it.
  • I actually ended up in the wrong workshop, but it was the right one for me. I got a lot from the writing exercise and finding my omen Thank You Bee.
  • I wrote 3 poems fantastic energy!
  • Really lovely! A lot of thought and energy had gone in to creating it. Facilitator very responsive and able to handle what came up with gentleness and attentiveness.
  • Nice structure for us newbies.
  • I really needed this workshop it was the reason I came I know this now. Thank you so much.

In 2015 I was accepted on to the Irish Arts Council’s Writers in Prison panel. Prison work isn’t for everyone, but I have witnessed a great deal of soul getting a buffing up in a workshop. I love these guys even though I am aware that they have done harm. They are often vulnerable in their writing, so doubly brave given their circumstances.

This poem appears in my collection “Brigid’s Way: Reflections on the Celtic Divine Feminine.” (The Celtic goddess Brigid presided over justice.)

For the Lads at Loughan House

The poems always start outside.

The lough is a wind rippled plain,

Open expanse with nowhere to hide.

 

Matt blue sky forms another side,

Slant of October’s light a golden vein.

The poems always start outside.

 

Starlings scythe the sky then abruptly divide.

Loneliness could drive a soul insane.

Open expanse with nowhere to hide.

 

A way to be free. A place to abide.

The dock stops here. With that I have no complaint.

The poems always start outside.

 

Freedom is a grace, just as the swan pair glides.

Time well spent is eternity’s gain.

Open expanse with nowhere to hide.

 

Behind and beyond no escaping  inside;

A way to be free, the words are that golden vein.

The poems always start outside.

Open expanse with nowhere to hide.

 

© Bee Smith 2015

Writing isn’t about fame or fortune. It’s about these precious moments of being. Also, those precious moments of being shared with others as they break through into that state of excitement when the words and emotions meet on a page, the elation of finding voice.