The doors to the temple

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Mary Oliver, Upstream, via Jena Schwartz

“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.”

So begins Upstream, a collection of essays in which beloved poet Mary Oliver … meditates on the forces that allowed her to create a life for herself out of work and love. As she writes, “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” 

Publisher comments to Upstream, via

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a question we ask children, and I still remember some of my earliest answers to it: a veterinarian, a florist, a writer. It was a question I once thought I had to answer only once, and that once I did all the other pieces of my life would fall into place around it. I would be grown-up then, a grown-up, with the terrible wonderful question of what to be finally settled.

We should tell children that it’s a question they must answer again and again and again (just as we should tell them that commitment to a life partner is something that must happen every day, not just the one on which we slip a ring onto a finger). We should let them know that the question of what they are going to do and the one of who they are going to be have separate but intertwined answers, not unlike a DNA strand’s strings of nucleotides or a braided loaf’s baked ropes of bread.

Last week I went for a walk with my friend Sharon. We met on a busy city street in northwest Portland and sat on a sidewalk and ate biscuits, and then we walked uphill a few blocks to a staircase that took us down to the footings of a bridge and entry to Forest Park, a 5,200 acre wood within the city limits. Just weeks before, I had walked up the same hill with Cane and not seen the entrance to the stairs nor had any thought, really, of what lay beneath the hill; stepping onto the top step with Sharon felt a bit like walking into Lewis’s wardrobe entrance to Narnia. One minute we were part of the urban throng, and the next we were walking a forest canyon trail.

As we made our way along Balch Creek to The Stone House (which some, including Sharon’s granddaughters, call The Witch’s Castle), I thought of my old friend Robert and his frequent exhortations to get myself out into the natural world. I thought of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry and Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams and other writers whose work and spirituality is inextricably intertwined with their love of forests, fields, deserts, tundras, and the beings who inhabit them. I have often wished I could be such a person as they, but I am not. Although a river once helped me through the hardest decision of my life, I never came to truly know it, and eventually I left it because I knew I’d never be more than a visitor and I needed to find home.

If ever there was a house that could be home for a witch, the Stone House is it. Mossy rock walls, dark doorways, a tiny structure tucked into the slope of a hill. According to the Forest Park Conservancy site, it was “conceived as a rustic manmade counterpoint to the natural beauty of Balch Creek Canyon,” and it “emphasizes the contrast of the natural and man-made worlds.”


I expressed some dismay at the graffiti adorning it. “Oh,” Sharon said, “the graffiti is OK. We don’t mind it.”

“We don’t?”

She shrugged. “It’s how some people need to tell their story.”

For Mary Oliver, “the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” Temples, of course, are the places where we find ourselves, where we come face-to-face with the essence of things, where we seek understanding and comfort and peace. What a fortunate person she was, to have found her temple early and for it to remain constant throughout her life. There’s an enviable simplicity in that, especially for those of us who see temples everywhere and have trouble knowing where best to worship. Me, I’ve found them within the walls of a classroom, the stacks of a library, the curve of my child’s cheek. As a young girl, I found it in pencils, paper, snips of fabric, spools of thread, skeins of yarn, tiny ceramic animals I played with at the base of towering fir trees that grew in my suburban front yard. And, the other day, walking in the woods with my friend, I found one in a technicolor-painted piece of history, a decommissioned restroom that could be a witch’s castle or an architectural artifact or a monument on the other side of a portal to a foreign world.

We are nearing the day of making resolutions and setting intentions, of saying good-bye to one year and hello to another. Many are ready to turn away from this year, as if it has somehow been the source of our suffering and our pain will end when the year does, but when the clock strikes midnight on December 31 and we leave 2020 to memory, neither we nor the world will be magically transformed. We are who we are, and that is who we will still be on January 1. But think of it–how changed the world and each of us is, right now, from what and who we were a year ago at this time, even as we are, simultaneously, exactly who and what we have always been. Isn’t our hike through time, in some ways, like walking a Möbius strip?

Thirty-five years ago, when I was an undergrad, a writing instructor asked me what I wanted to do with my life.

“I want to be a writer,” I answered.

“What does that mean to you?” she asked.

I didn’t know. “It means, I want to write,” I said. The details of my grown-up life as a writer had always been fuzzy to me. As a young teen I hoped it might involve working in a solitary cabin on a beach, with perhaps a dog I could take for long walks when I needed a break, and a quiet sort of fame in which others knew my name but not my face. That vision hadn’t evolved much. She pushed me to define what type of writing I wanted to do, how I planned to make a living at it, what I wanted to write about, and I didn’t know how to answer her questions. I hadn’t yet gone out enough into the world to know at all who I was, what I was, and what I wanted to be. I wanted to write in the way I once created dramas for my ceramic animals and stitched together bits of cloth for my dolls: freely, playfully, with no agenda other than delight. I knew there was a living that needed to be made, and I had vague notions of children and a family, but I didn’t know how my desire to write could or might intertwine with other wants and needs.

In recent years I’ve talked with people about the shapes my life might take after teaching. “Maybe you can write now,” I’ve heard more than once, and I’ve nodded agreement, not knowing any more clearly than I did decades ago what that might mean. But as this annus horribilis draws to a close and possibilities for a different kind of life come closer, I’ve realized something important: I already am writing. I have written here, at least once a week, for the entirety of this year, the longest stretch of regular writing I’ve ever managed. As Sharon gently reminded me, there are many ways in which we might all tell our stories. For the first time ever, I have no regret about how I’ve been telling mine.

Mary Oliver tells us, in what may be her most well-known and beloved poem, that we do not have to be good, and that we only have to let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love. In my work as an instructional coach (a different kind of creative labor), I’ve learned that my role is not to author another person’s story or to impose mine upon theirs. It is to ask questions that will allow their story to emerge, and to give them space in which to tell it freely. And so, as I share my last post for this year, knowing you might be thinking about resolutions or intentions or the kind of story you want to write with the coming time of your life, I want to offer the questions helping me think about what I might make of the coming days and months of mine, questions we all must answer again and again and again if we are to heed the call of our restive creative powers and become the people we feel meant to be:

What do you want to do?

Who will you be?

What is your temple?

How do you need to tell your story?

What’s your whimsy?

“All you need to do is find and follow your whimsy.”

My uncle wrote these words to me in July–continuation of a conversation about work and retirement and possibility that we’d begun the previous Thanksgiving–and they have been rattling around in my head ever since.

The notion astonished me, really, coming from him. His field was computer science. He’s a retired Naval officer, who was a private contractor for the government for years. “Whimsical” is not a word I would ever ascribe to him, nor is whimsy something I would have thought he much valued.

What does that even mean, I have wondered, to follow your whimsy?

According to Webster, a whim is “a capricious or eccentric and often sudden idea or turn of the mind.” To be whimsical is to be “lightly fanciful,” and “whimsy” is “a fanciful or fantastic device, object, or creation especially in writing or art.”

Defining by example is a great way to build conceptual understanding, and in the months since he wrote, I’ve been on the lookout for others who, perhaps, have followed or are following their whimsy. It’s amazing what you notice when you start to look for something.

The first examples I collected are those whose connection to whimsy is obvious. I found Jessica Coffee of Jessica Cloe Miniatures, who quit her job as an art director to make miniature house furnishings.


Jessica took up renovating a dollhouse sometime in 2019, and now she and her husband make really tiny homes that look just like stylish full-sized ones. What could be more whimsical than doll houses?

There’s Brannon Addison of Happy Cactus Designs. I think I once pinned something of hers on Pinterest, and then when I decided to jump into Instagram last summer I started following her, and just this week I saw this:

Via happycactusdesigns

She reminded me of Portland fiber-artist Alicia Paulson, whose whimsy-following also began in the wake of injury. She now makes and sells creations such as this:


The more I looked for whimsy, the more I found it. A recent article in My Modern Met highlighted many. Here are two of my favorites:

Baker Hannah P. of Blondie + Rye is also a high school history teacher. See gorgeous photos of her fantastic work here.
Nathalie Lété‘s house is full of whimsy; you can see more here.

The works above are whimsical in obvious ways, but as I’ve continued to look and think I’ve realized that whimsy is an idea that can extend beyond the cute and decorative and be an entry to other kinds of things.

Also on Instagram, the poet and essayist Kim Stafford regularly shares his daily writing practice–which is really a daily noticing practice. His feed is full of photos of ordinary things, scratchy first drafts, small poems and large wonderings:

Via kimstaffordpoetry on Instagram

Is Kim a follower of whimsy? I would argue that he is; remember, a whim is an “often sudden idea or turn of the mind” and to be fanciful is to be marked by “unrestrained imagination.” I might argue that all poets, no matter how serious their subject, are fanciful followers of whimsy, ideas and feelings they trail along behind or with, to see where they might lead.

This past week, Jena Schwartz (a serious guide for those seeking their whimsy through words) asked in a Facebook post:

My first thought was: Permission to leave my career. My second was: Permission to find and follow my whimsy. My third was: That’s a potentially problematic progression of thought.

I understand that whimsy and work are not necessarily intertwined. Although some of those I’ve shared in this post followed whimsy into work-for-pay, not all have. We don’t have to leave our careers to find our whimsy, and our whimsies do not have to become careers. In fact, I think there’s probably no better way to kill whimsy than to yoke it to questions of livelihood or talent, particularly when we are getting our first glimpses of it.

Still, there is a line between my two thoughts that’s worth following. As I’ve thought about whimsy and my uncle, I’ve realized that my understanding of him–and of whimsy–has previously been shallow. Until recently his life seemed, to me, to be testament to whatever is the opposite of whimsy–because I was paying attention to the what of his work, rather than the how and why. Reflecting on our conversation, I can see that although my uncle has spent his life in serious work, what’s essential about him is that he’s a person who gets excited about ideas and possibilities. He loves a problem that needs solving or a need that needs meeting. “Fanciful” and “fancy” are words about a stance or state of mind more than anything else, and that means there is opportunity for whimsy in everything, doesn’t it?

Working on this post, I have wondered if it might feel out-of-touch with reality or oblivious to the struggles so many are living with right now. In this darkest week of this very dark year, it’s easy to see how can musings about whimsy and the following of it might feel irrelevant, perhaps insulting, even. But as I’ve been writing, I’ve been wondering:

What might it mean to find and follow whimsy in the context of our biggest challenges? What if each of us could spend our life’s energy following notions that engage our hearts and minds? What would that do for our world?

I once shared with one of my children my hope that they would find a way to “embrace your inner nerd.” We all have one, that part of us that gets excited about possibility and creation and questions. I think, as the coming week finds us turning to days of more light, I’d like to make an argument for following whimsy, for listening to the voice that calls us to those things that absorb us–whatever they are, and to suggest that doing so might be a path to solutions, salvations, and comforts we all need, even if the only one who benefits from it is ourselves. (How many problems in this world come from the pain of those who cannot do that?)

I’m so thankful for those of you who follow along as I pursue all kinds of whimsy through this blog. I’m a person who likes company, and I appreciate yours greatly. If I could give all of you any gift in this season of giving, it might be that we could all discover ways to find and follow our whimsy.

Following some whimsy on my birthday last week.

Begin again

I wrote the first draft of this post in a way I rarely write anymore: On paper, with a pen. When I began writing, as a girl, that was the way of all first drafts; through my childhood and teen years I had a large, hard, permanently red bump on the first knuckle of the finger my pen pressed against; a remnant of it remains, a permanent disfigurement that is evidence of something I’ve always been compelled to do.

I picked up a pen because I was on a third day of avoiding screens, a third day of trying to muddle through work with a multiple-day migraine. In my migraine, there are various factors always at play: work, screens, stress, meds, sleep, rest, hydration, exercise, food. Trying to figure out exactly how to put these together is like trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle. Maybe I can get one line to work, but I can never get the whole box to add up correctly. If I take off work to avoid screens, I increase stress from falling further behind. If I exercise when fatigued, I can trigger an episode, but if I don’t exercise I don’t sleep well, which can also trigger an episode. If I spend Sunday in food prep for the week I know I will eat well on work days, but I might end Sunday fatigued rather than rested, and stressed about other things I didn’t get to do.

I picked up a pen because I couldn’t sit in front of a keyboard and computer screen, but I wanted to capture something from Katherine May’s Wintering (referenced in last week’s post):

“The very permanence of the label–of having a brain that just happened to work in a certain way–was my salvation. I had to adapt. I had to surrender. The only thing breaking me was pretending to be like everyone else” (p. 183)

I have spent most of my life powering through. Powering through was my super-power. As a young adult, I did not understand those who said there were things they did not have the capacity to do; in my world view, one just did what had to be done, whatever it was, whatever it took to do it. When I was teaching full-time and raising twin toddlers and a teen, people would say, “How do you do it?” or, “I could never do what you do!” and I would think (or sometimes say): I don’t really have a choice. In my mind, in my life, there wasn’t a choice. I was doing what had to be done.

(Of course, I see now that there were choices. There are always choices. The ones available to me, though, would have required sacrifices I wouldn’t make.)

For a time, in those years, I would get up at 4:00 to either write or walk on a treadmill before my babies woke up. We’d get ourselves off to school/daycare, where I would maximize every minute of the day until it was time to leave to pick up the kids. The evening would be spent in dinner/bath/bedtime, and after I’d gotten them tucked in I would work for a few hours more to prepare for the next day’s classes, until I went to bed. I powered through, for years.

Now, I can’t.

I don’t have May’s autism diagnosis (although I may just be undiagnosed), but I’ve got others that indicate a body/brain that doesn’t work in typical ways: chronic migraine, anxiety, fibromyalgia, eczema, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, restless leg syndrome, insomnia. My startle reflex is comical, and I have difficulty with many types of sound and light. Most of the time, I cannot tolerate direct eye contact. I wear a mouth guard at night because I would otherwise break my teeth in my sleep. A person close to me has likened my brain to a computer hard drive that never stops spinning and overheats. I feel ridiculously sensitive to stimulation of all kinds. I’m often unaware of the physical and mental agitation I’m feeling until the source of stimulation ceases; yesterday, Cane turned the radio down in the car and I felt a flood of relief I hadn’t known I needed until I felt it.

In my life, I’ve seen myriad doctors (western, naturopathic, wholistic) from a variety of specialties. I’ve tried different diets, supplements, and medications. I’ve had multiple therapists. I gave up work (both teaching and writing) I loved and was good at. Nothing has really worked. The only thing that has brought consistent relief is a slower life–the life I live during breaks from school.

I don’t know why some of us need to see someone’s else’s words, someone else’s experience, to accept the truth of our own, but I am one of those people. May’s words crystallized a truth I’ve been working my way to for some time now: My life isn’t working for me, and, in important ways, never really has. It is not sustainable, and it is not something I can will my way to being different because I cannot will myself to be different. In the words of Popeye, “I yam what I yam”–and who I am simply cannot do what I think I should be able to. Not any more. Not for what it has always cost me.

At this stage of my game, it is disorienting and difficult and frightening to accept a fundamentally different view of myself. It is also liberating.

For so long, I have seen my difficulty to manage things others seem able to as a failing. The first step of any recovery program (yes, I did that, too), is to accept powerlessness. It seems I have to learn, again and again, the paradoxical truth that power comes from accepting powerlessness. Accepting where we are powerless is crucial to finding where we are not. This week, I have understood in some new way that I am powerless to change whatever it is that makes me the way I am, and accepting that gives me space to create a new idea about who I am and what I can be–and that is freeing. Instead of seeing my difficulty to manage as failure, I can see my ability to function as well as I have as, instead, a kind of strength. Instead of focusing on all the things I haven’t done or have failed at, I can marvel at all that I have done in spite of who I am. Today, my 56th birthday in this year of our pandemic–which has blown so many things open–I am finally beginning to see surrender and radical acceptance of truths I don’t like as a different type of strength, one I now need to embrace.

My task for the coming year–my gift to myself–is to find adaptations that will work for the person I actually am. First steps never have to be big ones. This week, that project for me began the way so many things in my life have: I picked up a pen and started writing.


I know we have several weeks of autumn left on the calendar, but winter arrived here this week. Wild winds tore the last leaves from the trees and sharp air bit our cheeks (when we stepped outside, which we did as little as possible).

I’ve largely made my peace with winter, with this winter, particularly, and what it promises to be. I don’t mind the dark. There’s something about it I crave, actually–the way it reveals so much by stripping life down to its essentials: heat, food, drink, touch, sleep.

After taking the holiday weekend completely off, I hurtled into the work week, all spinning wheels and pumping cylinders. By Tuesday night I was tetchy and taut; nothing but take-out pizza could be a reasonable response to the interminable question of dinner. Wednesday was no better–worse, actually, because Wednesday my primary task was bearing witness to hardship and trauma I felt powerless to affect–and when I woke Thursday to the familiar tightening at the top of my head and the stiffness in my neck and the shadow of nausea that means migraine is descending, I almost cried with frustration and fury at…everything. (No need to spell it all out, is there?)

Migraine arriving on Thursday is typical for me, usually the herald of a weekend mostly lost to lethargy and pain, a cloud that drifts away sometime on Sunday, returning me to my best self just in time to give it away to another week of work.

“Screw that, ” I said to no one but myself this past Thursday morning, still close enough to the restorative powers of the previous weekend to be unwilling to let them go. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose yet another weekend to this shit.” (No need to spell out what “this shit” is, either, I suppose.)

And so I took first a pill (eschewing the mental dance in which I pretend/hope the migraine isn’t coming or hem and haw about whether or not I really need it) and then a sick day. I called in for leave because I wanted a day entirely off screens, and there is literally no part of my job I can do now that doesn’t involve being in front of a screen. I often take my meds and then go ahead and work because, well, I can, and it feels necessary. Thursday I decided it wasn’t. Thursday I decided it was most necessary to give my body what it was telling me it needed.

I made a mental list of all the things I could do that were possible while on meds and didn’t require screens: decorate the Christmas tree, sweep and mop the floor, clean the kitchen, sew Christmas stockings, take a walk, bake cookies, read a print book.

After registering my absence, I made a cup of tea and settled in with Daisy and Katherine May’s Wintering, so we could be quiet while Cane continued to sleep. After breakfast I swept and mopped the floor, and that wore me out so I decided to lie down on my bed for just a minute. I listened to an audiobook, then turned it off and drifted in and out of consciousness for a while. Then it was time for lunch, and after lunch we went for a walk and picked up some groceries and then it was time to make dinner. And that was the day.

Other than cleaning the floor and grocery shopping, I didn’t do any of the productive things on my list. I only did being things. I did not sew or decorate or clean or bake. After dinner I just sat on the sofa for a bit, listening to music and appreciating the warmth and soft lights of the living room. Just being felt strange, as unusual things do, but also good.

It was a very winterish kind of day, and it restored me. It broke my usual migraine pattern; I woke up Friday with no sign of illness and had a productive day. I moved slowly and steadily through it. No spinning, pumping grind. Did I accomplish everything I “needed” to? No. Would I have if I’d pushed in the usual way–gutting through both Thursday and Friday, overdosing on meds and feeling sick and wrecking myself for the next two days? No. So what, really, was lost? Nothing of value, I think. What I gained was my health and my weekend.

In Wintering, May reminds me that humans sleep more in the winter, and that in earlier times, when artificial light (among other things) didn’t shape our days in the ways it does now, we commonly experienced periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night–a time for drinking water, peeing, contemplating, wakeful dreaming, lovemaking, quiet talking–before returning to more sleep.

I’m wondering now how life might be if we viewed the winter season as a metaphor for sleep, and our winter days as those periods of middle-of-the-night waking. How might we spend them, then, these hours of scant light, if we could view them this way?

I know it’s not possible to live such a vision completely. I did work all day Friday–because I have to work–and I could work as I did because I had no pressing external deadlines that day. But I moved through the day differently than I have been, and I realized that the pressing deadlines are often finish lines of my own making. Friday, I chose to move some ribbons further down the track. Friday, recognizing both the arbitrary nature of perceived needs and my actual physical need to work and live differently, I ran my race at a different pace. I took time for conversations with colleagues. I got up periodically and moved my body. I took a full lunch break, reading a book while I ate at the kitchen table. I did what I could and accepted what I couldn’t, and I let all of it go at the end of the day when I closed my office door and turned fully to my family and the rest of my home.

What I felt the most, in those two days of stripped down living, was a kind of abundance. It’s not the abundance of spring or summer, days lush with fresh leaves and vibrant grass and birdsong. It’s an abundance of space, the kind you feel standing in front of a fallow field or at the top of a mountain.

Not everything that comes in to fill winter’s emptiness feels wonderful, despite what some carols would have you believe about this time of the year. This past week tears rose in response to the scent of my great-grandmother’s spaghetti, the sound of Elton John’s “Levon,” and the sight of a nearly 20-year-old Dollar Store tree topper. But there’s a gift in those moments, those tears: clear sight.

Oh, the things we can see when we’re not rushing through chock-filled moments of our lives, when there is white space enough to highlight what’s at the center of our pages. Written on mine are nourishment, history, connection, tradition, love.

One morning this week, I stepped out my back door and realized that the vine I planted two springs ago had shed most of its leaves. We built a fence and planted the vine to obscure the view of the rest of the yard, which turns to a field of scorched grass by mid-July. This past year, it did just what we hoped it would, creating a cozy backdrop for summer visits with friends and family.

Part of me longs for those days right now, but another part of me is just fine with where I am, in this season and in my life, which, like the year, is also on the cusp of its winter. Part of me misses the season of supple blooming, but another is grateful to look out the door to see the vine’s tangle of naked sticks weaving in and out of the fence slats, its exposed network of branches clinging to what supports it, and to know that the vine, like my life, is still here, still alive, still growing.