Letter from the Director – September 2022

Pause and Ponder

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m very active and busy. That’s my natural tendency. When I rest, I’m often thinking of and planning for the next burst of energy required for the next new project or idea. It’s hard for me to slow down. In fact, I rarely stop for long . . . unless I’m forced to. Funny how that works. When it’s necessary to pause, when I’m required to stop my busy enterprises, I’m pleasantly surprised at how refreshing it is to simply “Be.”

I had a triathlon race in Wisconsin this past weekend. I had a good swim and was at mile 15 of the bike when a pedestrian/spectator ran onto the bike course and we collided. The collision made me crash head-first into a parked pickup truck. The moments that followed were interesting. I was unable to say where I was or what my name was. I didn’t feel panic – just a sort of confused wonder at what I was doing on the road. I knew I was in a race, but I had no idea where. When someone told me I was in Wisconsin, I remember thinking, “How in the world did I get to Wisconsin?” Within a few more minutes, I remembered everything, and then I was whisked away to the emergency room.

I’m not badly hurt, but I will need a few weeks to heal from my injuries. It’s a forced pause, a slow-down to allow my body to heal and my concussion-addled brain to steady. Living in the still air of patience and acceptance is a lesson in a different sort of fortitude than the one I’m used to. It wasn’t in my plans to get hurt, but the hurt came anyway, and it’s my responsibility now to see what I can learn from it. Otherwise, the experience is wasted.

Here’s what I’m discovering from my forced “Pause.”


1. People matter more than anything else. So many people have taken the time to check on me and see if I need anything. Am I attentive to others’ needs when I’m in “Busy” mode? Can I take a moment every day to tune into another person’s heart and say “I see you, you matter?” 


2. Being still teaches a certain kind of balance which can lead to delight. I sat on my back porch yesterday and watched the afternoon fade into dusk. Two chipmunks were chasing each other from the porch to the grass and into the burrow under the shed. I felt like I was a crucial part of this scene. I belonged in an intricate way to the wonders of nature. I didn’t move or direct anything. I simply was there.


3. Letting go of perfectionism is the key to being satisfied. I was sorely disappointed I didn’t finish the race. I kept replaying the details of the wreck in my head over and over. What did I do wrong? What should I have done differently? Sometimes, stuff happens that we can’t control. Sometimes, we simply have to accept the drama of the day and move on with gratitude.


4. Beauty exists in every situation if you stay open to it. As I was being driven from the ER back to my hotel, I noticed the light glinting off the water of the lake, little cups of sparkle and glee. I thought, “how beautiful.” Back at home, I settled into my own comfortable bed with its floral comforter and sage green pillows and I thought, “how lovely.” Do I even notice this when I’m focused on all I need to get done?

When I think about my writing, I realize that if I get too focused on the achievement aspect and forget the beauty of each moment, I can miss the whole point of writing entirely. I write because I have something valuable to say. My writing comes from my soul, not my ambition. Remembering that is what will keep me at the page. 

A “Pause,” forced or chosen, can be a time of pondering and eventually, great insight. If we believe every situation has a purpose and a lesson, we’re more apt to let experiences teach us and take the lessons to heart. Yes, we learn a lot from work, but we learn equally from not working, from pausing our “Go” button, and simply allowing the universe to share its infinite wisdom. I would not have chosen to wreck in the race, but I AM choosing to ponder the Pause, the Moment, the Wonder of Being Here Right Now. 

It’s something I’m glad I didn’t miss.

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – August 2022

Wild Love

I like to walk beside the creek early in the morning before the rest of world stumbles out of bed and into another busy day. It steadies me, readies me for the work of the next eight hours, some of which is planned and expected, some discovered by accident and more reactive than proactive. The few minutes of calm is when I best practice the art of mindfulness, of seeing what’s before me, taking it in, reveling in appreciation and awe. 

One morning, I noticed a strip of blue bordering the creek, right where the water met the shore. It was bed of dayflowers (Commelina), those small weedy plants that have 2 ear-like blue petals rising on a slender green stalk. The wisp of color lasts only a day, but gathered in bunches at the edge of the creek, the impact was lovely. I stooped to look at one closely and noticed the stamens curved together, forming a heart – a perfect, tiny heart – tucked into the grasses. I felt like I had stumbled upon a secret, a nod from the universe that spoke love over the wide earth, that promised something more than what I might think I had earned. Love. Everywhere.

And then, indeed, it was everywhere. I saw hearts in vines, in leaves, in rocks, in shadows, in reflections, in the hazy shimmering waves of sun after rainfall. Everywhere. I took it as a sign that no matter how unloved or unlucky I felt at any given moment, love existed around me, inside me, above me, before me. I needed only to look at the wild world for confirmation that I was loved and part of a universe of love. The best part was the ability to give back the gift of love in return – to family and friends, to the land and environment, and to myself and my writing. 

Love always has a bit of the unconventional to it, but it’s at its most radical when applied to ourselves and what we do. We want to love ourselves, love our words and our writing, but for some reason, it feels conceited to say so. What if it didn’t? What if we took the world at face value and believed in the hearts all around us? What if the signs we dismiss as simply ordinary are really the extraordinary messages of a universe seeking our highest good? Why do we worry that we haven’t seen enough, done enough, been enough, when the whole world is waiting for us to just be fully ourselves? 

There is a world of hearts out there waiting for you to discover them. Once you see one, you’ll see many, so get ready to be bombarded with wild love. Then, pass it on to the people around you, to your own dear soul, to your own wild words. 

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – July 2022

Writing Through Grief

In the last 2 1/2 years, I’ve lost two of the most important people in my life: my mother (January 2020) and my husband (May 2022). To say it’s been a difficult 2 1/2 years is a huge understatement. Navigating the emotional swells, not to mention the full-blown tidal waves, has been a lesson in perseverance – sometimes day by day, sometimes hour by hour. What sustains me in the lowest hollows and deepest aches is language. Words. Writing. When it feels impossible to speak what I feel, I can write it.

I journal every day in a notebook that has this quote on the front: “You are here. Now, anything is possible.” It gives me the courage I need to sit in the hard places of grief. One thing I realized as I spilled words (and sometimes tears) on the page is that I wouldn’t feel this grief if it weren’t for love. Love and grief walk hand in hand on a parallel path. At some point in every life, the path will intersect and the two will merge. What we do with the merging changes our life. It changes the person we are. We become a new being, rebuilt from the ashes of what and who we thought we were. 

If that feels scary, it’s because it is. Change is always a bit scary, especially when it’s forced upon us. I contend that our humanity is strong enough to face it, strong enough to stand inside it. Even in a grief-phobic world, where more importance is placed on being happy than being real, we can find ways to step into the sorrow and reclaim our hearts. Changed hearts, yes, but ours nonetheless. One way to do this is through writing. 

During the first weekend in November (Nov 4-6), we’re offering a retreat titled “Writing Through Grief, Finding the Words that Live in Loss.” I’m working with brilliant lawyer, writer, mindfulness coach, and co-founder of Thought Kitchen, Jill Carnell. Jill and I will lead 4 workshops that explore ways to express and acknowledge (To yourself! Sharing is optional!) feelings of grief. Through prompts, writing exercises, mindful meditation, exploration in nature, and moments of introspection, we’ll practice what it means to share space with sorrow and leave room for healing and even joy. 

I invite you to read more about the retreat at this link: Writing Through Grief. We’d be honored to have you join us. No writing experience is necessary. 

It’s very difficult to show up for our emotions. Avoidance seems the easier path. (I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work very well for long!) Now, I’m committed to the quote on the front of my journal. “You are here. Now, anything is possible.” We’ll stand in the “here” with you. We’ll stand together.

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – June 2022

The Practice of Stillness

My mind has been disturbed and bothered lately. I’ve had trouble remembering things and my usual decisive nature has been sluggish. We’re in a heat wave. It’s hot and uncomfortable, yes, but it’s more than humidity that is making me feel unsettled. It’s deeper. 

Whenever I’m afflicted with tangled thoughts and a jumbled spirit, I walk down the hill and along the north fork of Flat Creek. The trees and shrubs are thick, crowded along the water source. Birds linger in the canopy and turtles sun on flat rocks. Occasionally I see deer enjoying a drink in the swirling pools, and once, a raccoon exploring the bank. What I come here for is not the scenery though, but the settled sense of peace. There is no rush, no urgency, no velocity of spirit that makes me feel like I should race the water flow, or achieve any specific thing. I am still.

Let me tell you, being still is not my usual state. I’m busy and active, and I get a lot done every day. But, I know myself well enough to admit that “busy” is not always sustainable. A balanced busyness can be ok, but busyness in the sense of barely keeping up with demands is definitely a strain on the brain. When I allow myself space for my brain to catch up, I’m much more productive when I start again. 

I placed a “Believe” bench at the bend in the creek. One side of the bank angles down steeply from a high hill, while the other, where the bench is located, casually curves up from the water and flattens into a field of grass and wildflowers. A breeze funnels from the heights and cools my skin. Under an Osage orange tree, whose dark limbs criss-cross above me, I engage in the art of stillness. I sit. I “take in” the sunlight reflecting on the water surface, the gentleness of leaves rustling. I take what is offered. Nothing else. Nothing more.

This is a practice, much like meditation or yoga is a practice. I like the dual meaning of the word. I practice: verb, meaning a repeated action to improve. I perform the practice: noun, meaning routine or usual procedure. Allowing oneself the gift and the discipline of stillness requires both the verb and the noun. 

Last week, as I walked quietly to my bench, I saw 4 otters playing in the dark pool at the creek bend. They swam to their den when they saw me. I sat down and quieted my body and mind. I was still. After about 30 minutes, they came back out and resumed their play while keeping a watchful eye on me. When they decided I was not a threat, they felt comfortable in my presence. I, in turn, was delighted by their presence. Who knows what we miss when we forget how to dwell in silence. It is a practice worth the discipline to master it. 

For me, writing poetry comes from observation and action, but also from a deep quietude inside me. I cannot force words to come, nor a poem to rise perfected from the ashes of my thoughts. Sometimes a poem is born out of surrender. Sometimes it takes its form because I’ve given it space to become what it needed to become. That means I take my busy mind by the hand a say, “be still.”

Try it. Be still. 

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – May 2022

Joy Moments

A few weeks ago, I was running along Flat Creek Road about to turn onto Giles Hill Road. I was in the middle of my first interval in a 55-minute interval run, feeling pretty good. I saw a car stopped by the bridge, and a person sitting on the edge of the road. The bridge goes over Flat Creek. It’s not a high bridge – probably 10 feet to the water and the grass slopes gently down on both sides. The stance of this person spoke “sadness” to me though I couldn’t see their face. I was running well and didn’t really want anything to mess up my pace. I said to myself, “I bet they want to be alone.” I almost ran past them. But then I thought, Giles Hill is my road and Flat Creek is my creek and I can’t run past and leave somebody sad. So I stopped my watch, stopped running, and said to this person, “Are you ok? Do you need help?” And then I saw the person was crying. 

I asked them what was wrong and at first, they just shook their head, but then they said, “I try to do all the right things – at work and at home – and nothing ever works out. Things are so hard sometimes and I just feel so sad.” And I thought, “Been there, I know that feeling. I know that sadness.”

Flat Creek is special to me. It has large flat rocks that lay across the width and when the water is low, those rocks are dry and the water curves and splashes around them. I sit on those rocks sometimes and pray. I call them “soul keepers” – those rocks – almost magical. I said to the person, “This is Flat Creek. Let’s go sit on that rock and talk.” And we did. We talked about life, how hard it can be, and how we can still find moments of joy even in the middle of the pain if we look for them. You have to look for them. You have to pay attention because the joy moments are out there. We talked about tattoos – this person had many, many cool ones. We talked about hair – this person had purple and green hair – also very cool. 

Then I pointed to my arrow tattoo with the word “believe” within it. I said, “This is the word I hold on to.” And the person smiled, a real light-filled, open-hearted smile, and they turned to show me a wide tattoo across the back of their shoulders. “BELIEVE” in all caps! Bold and bright and beautiful. We laughed and said, “There you go – a joy moment!”

We stood up and hugged each other – standing on a rock in the middle of Flat Creek – a long, tight, soul-keeping hug. Not two strangers, but two humans who claimed what the universe offered that afternoon: a chance to share our humanity with all its aches and miseries, and within that, find something so strangely wonderful it has the power to save us. 

Is that not what we do when we write? We share our humanity with our imagination and creativity via the bridge of language. It is a joy moment when a reader connects with what we’re doing, when they find meaning within the words we write because of the human connection that says, “Been there. I know that feeling.” 

Sometimes we’re the person crying on the bridge. Sometimes we’re the person too busy to stop because we’re doing something we deem more important. The joy moment occurs when either person or both people dare to trust the other one with what it means to be human. That saves us. Words save us. Keep sharing your words. 

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – April 2022

The more I read about trees, the more intrigued I am. The more I walk the property around RWC and study the trees, the more I am convinced that these complex organisms have an intelligent Spirit and communicate. I recently came across a book called Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard. According to Simard, “Mother trees are the biggest, oldest trees in the forest. They are the glue that holds the forest together. They have the genes from previous climates; they are homes to so many creatures, so much biodiversity. Through their huge photosynthetic capacity, they provide food for the whole soil web of life. They keep carbon in the soil and aboveground, and they keep the water flowing. These ancient trees help forests recover from disturbances. We can’t afford to lose them.”

Fascinating! I wanted to find a Mother Tree on RWC land and it didn’t take long. I’ve been walking beside the north fork of Flat Creek, examining the water flow and the sturdiness of the creek bed after rain. Along the water’s path grow several creek-loving sycamore trees. I’ve always loved sycamores for their stark white bark, large leaves with five lobes, and their prickly round seed balls that hang like ornaments in fall and winter. They are magnificent trees. About midway along the section of creek bed I walk stands a Mother Tree. Mother Sycamore. She measures 13 feet in circumference and is probably 80 feet tall. There are at least 10 smaller sycamores growing near her. This Mother Tree not only holds the bed of the creek in place, but provides shade and shelter for insects, birds, and other animals that live nearby. She is doing her job as Protector and Helper, just like any mother.

I like to think of the writers’ colony as Helper and Protector too. If we truly believe in the power of words, which is our tagline, we also have to make the colony a safe place in which to write and speak those words. If “place” can be a positive influence, a nurturing zone, an area safe enough to risk sharing the heart and soul of the language inside, then writers (and their words) can be what they are meant to be. As the calendar fills for spring and summer and I get ready to welcome a rush of both new and returning writers, I hope writers feel the love poured into this place – love that manifests through the walls of our old farmhouse and along the paths in the gardens and trails. RWC was built to help, protect, and bless so that all the important words are sheltered and guarded until they are ready to fly. Kind of like what mothers do, right?!

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – March 2022

In Between Black and White

The first weekend of this month was special. We hosted a new retreat inspired by a conversation I had during the Goals Retreat in January. We were talking about personality and how that relates to the personalities of the characters we write. That led to a discussion about the Enneagram which led to a thought about an Enneagram Retreat which led to me writing a post on Facebook. (I know this seems crazy, but that’s how we roll here!) I asked the social media universe if anyone knew an Enneagram teacher in the middle Tennesee area. Enter Sue Mohr, Certified Life and Business Coach/Consultant, recommended by a friend of a friend, and one of the reasons why the first weekend of this month was so special. 

We hosted the “Enneagram for Writers: Unpacking the Power of Personality for Yourself and Your Characters” retreat and Sue facilitated. I was drawn to what Sue said about the 9 main personality types in the Enneagram system. It’s not about comparing the types and thinking one is better than another. It’s about discovering something about yourself and the people you interact with so that you can respond in a manner that is helpful and loving. 

As a One (I bet you could have guessed that, right?), my personality tends to see things as black and white, wrong or right. I want to be moral and I want things to be fair. Yet, the world doesn’t operate in fairness and many situations are tinged with such nuances that make it hard to demand absolutes. It’s like photographs in grayscale. The darkest possible shade is black and the lightest is white, but there is a range of shades of gray that play upon the eye to create an image. Everything in between the absolute of black and white matters too. 

In my relationships, I’m learning to see things differently and respond differently. I’m opening my eyes to all that’s between my standard right and wrong way of interpreting the world. Sue shared with me a black and white photo she took at the colony of a tree and a barn. Because of the white, the darker shades stand out and deepen the whole. Because of the black, the lighter shades highlight and brighten the whole. The elements work together to create a scene more interesting, more powerful than any single element could produce by itself. 

Isn’t it interesting how a change to black, white, and gray allows for a new perspective? My wish for you this month is this: dare to see something differently, in between the lines of how you might otherwise see it. Maybe you, as I did at the Enneagram Retreat, will realize something important about how you see the world. 

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – February 2022

Listening to the Land

I’ve wanted to build a labyrinth at the writers’ colony for a couple of years now. I’m not a labyrinth expert by any means but I’ve enjoyed meditative, prayerful walks around the circuits. I’ve steadied my mind, asked questions, listened for answers as my body turned the path to the center. It felt restorative, a gentle connection of myself to myself within the settled holiness of the labyrinth’s route. I liked that.

However, as I continued to make plans, I began to doubt myself. The labyrinth experience, at least in the way I understood it, didn’t mesh with the way I understand Rockvale. The more I looked into the “rules” and “procedures” for building a labyrinth on RWC land, the more I felt the land calling for something else. My habit is to let the land speak. In order for this to happen authentically, I have to be quiet and listen. I have to be open to the possibility that “my way” is not necessarily the only or best way. I was determined to build a labyrinth until the land whispered another, better idea. It started with a fallen oak tree.

A mid-sized oak fell across one of the wire fences separating field from forest. In my work to repair the fence, I wondered what I might do with the oak. On a whim, I began to chainsaw cross-sections of the wood. They began to look like stepping stones. An idea, that the land hinted at and gifted, began to take shape. 

A true labyrinth felt too structured, formal, and rule-oriented. RWC is about freedom, not formality. Adjacent to the area in which the tree fell is a section of relatively flat, thinly forested land that has, for a good while, intrigued me. I decided to build a “meditative path” in that section of woods. It’s labyrinthine but not really. Structured but not really. It’s wild and free. It enters the doorways between trees and marks the curves of limestone faces. It is becoming real as it unveils itself. One entrance, one exit, no getting lost.

The purpose: to ask questions and find answers, to discover something real about yourself by being open to the language of the land, to know you’re safe on the path so you can dare to face the unsafe spaces in your life. This will be finished soon. It’s a gift to writers from RWC.

Blessings,
Sandy

 

Letter from the Director – January 2022

Balance and Soul Keeping

My birthday comes at the first of the year and I like it that way! I get to celebrate a new calendar year (and try to remember to write the correct date – like 2022 instead of 2021!) while also recognizing a new age and a new year of my own life. I have two new “starts” simultaneously. Everything is fresh and bright, a clean slate and a blank canvas – and I get to direct the decorating however I like. 

I’ve said before that I am an “idea” person and never is that statement more true than at the start of a year. My mind untangles from holiday busyness and begins to look forward to the days and weeks ahead. I write goals, yes, but more inspiring than that for me is writing a new list of ideas for the year. The thing about ideas is that they are fluid, amenable to change or re-evaluation. They also never die. I write my ideas on a whiteboard in my office so that I can see them daily. Whenever I feel stuck, I read them. Admittedly, I sometimes mumble to myself, “That was a dumb idea” but often I say, “Yes! That’s brilliant! Let’s go for it!” 

Last summer, a poet in residence at RWC introduced me to the term “Soul Keeping.” I think it’s important to not only do things that support our work but also things that support our soul. Soul Keeping is about listening and being open to experience. It’s about allowing yourself to pivot from your structured plans and follow the random spur-of-the-moment notions that soothe you – like lying down in the middle of a field and letting the winter sun warm your face, or standing still by the creek and listening to the tumble of water over stones. 

On my “idea” whiteboard, I have a lot of work-oriented thoughts, but I also have this: Attend to Soul Keeping. This is one idea that can’t ever be considered a waste of time. In fact, its brilliance has already generated many, many new ideas, and those ideas keep moving out into the wild unknown of the new year like waves. 

In this new year’s new start, I offer you the idea of Soul Keeping. May you allow space in your 2022 goals for your soul’s good dreaming. It will lead you well. #RWCbelieve

Blessings,
Sandy

Letter from the Director – December 2021

Holiday Wishes from Rockvale

It’s the last month of 2021, as the Christmas song declares, the most wonderful time of the year. While we’ve taken the month off from residencies and retreats, it’s a busy time for us as we plan, repair, and reorganize. We’re settling into the long winter with dreams of a robust and active 2022. Here are a few things we’re looking forward to:

1. Heather is coming back! Heather Burch, Assistant Director from 2018-2020, has been working behind the scenes for the past year and a half as our social media and communication liaison, but she’ll be back at the colony in person starting in January. She’ll help lead the Goals Retreat and play a more active part in the day-to-day operation of RWC. 


2. We have a new hiking trail. The “Wounded Tree” trail is almost finished and it’s a beauty. This trail traverses the southern part of our land, meandering through cedar glades and alongside limestone formations. 


3. We have seven, possibly eight, brand-new weekend retreats scheduled. Four are open for registration now and the others are coming soon. Here’s your teaser: Goals, Reading, Enneagram, Poetry, Old Photos, Women Veterans, and Grief. Our retreats typically fill up, so make plans to join us if you’re interested in these offerings. Also, these are all-inclusive weekends and we take good care of you!


4. I’ve made some good synchronistic connections with people who know labyrinths. It’s long been a dream to build a labyrinth on the property and now I have a little more guidance. This is a long-term project, but it’s highly possible it can get started this summer. 


5. We’re planning our next fellowship contest. If you’re a poet, stay tuned. This may be something you’re interested in!!

Despite the forward focus, I also find myself looking back at the past year with awe. When I think about the writers who came to stay at the colony in 2021, I feel the turning of something bright and meaningful, that perhaps the goal to “put something good into the world” has come a bit closer to fulfillment. That’s because of you, Friends! That’s because we all believed together and the universe said “yes!”

I wish you the blessings of this most wonderful season. I wish you joy and peace. I wish you time for writing and time for resting. I wish you the resolve to believe in the power of your words. And, if you want a place to nurture that belief, we’re here waiting for you. 
 

Blessings,
Sandy