Winter Solstice Greetings

Here in my neighborhood north of Seattle, Washington, we have had our second snowfall of the year—about three inches yesterday and the evening before. Today, it’s 27 degrees (low of 19!) and the sun is shining. Outside my window: glittering white.

On December 1st, despite slush and ice, I set out for a long afternoon walk, and I slipped on a patch of ice, fell hard, and cracked the head of my left radius bone, right up there in my elbow. I was in a fiberglass splint—looked like and felt like a big ol’ cast—for 7 days. The initial evaluation suggested the crack went all the way through. I couldn’t use my arm, I couldn’t get it wet, couldn’t practice my Christmas songs on the piano, couldn’t wear my Christmas sweaters. I couldn’t type! It took me four or five days just to figure out how to wear clothes and leave the house.

I saw the orthopedic surgeon on day seven, expecting to be told I’d need surgery. Instead, he said the crack was partial, and “No surgery,” plus—amazing grace—no cast! In his opinion the crack would heal just fine if I didn’t lift, push, or pull with my left arm, or fall down again. He showed me how a single week of having the arm in the splint had weakened my grip, and compromised my ability to move my wrist or do simple things like touch my head. (Try flossing your teeth when you have only one arm.) “That’s not from the break; that’s from having your arm immobilized. If you wear a cast for six or eight weeks, you’ll need physical therapy for a year!”

He said I could do “light kitchen work” and—more important—“you can type.”

I admit to having entirely lost my Christmas spirit. I’m only now getting it back. Partially.

Nonetheless, over the last few weeks I have been co-leader of an Advent study at my church. I committed to it in October, after all, and my primary role in the group is merely to bring poems. Easy peasy. I’ve collected both traditional Advent poems by well-known Christian writers such as Madeleine L’Engle and Oscar Romero, and poems that might not spring to mind when we’re talking about Bethlehem, gentle donkeys, shepherds guarding their flocks by night, and the birth of a savior in a stable.

Not that such poems can’t be wonderful. (Of course they are.) I guess what I’ve been after is to broaden our context, to make us see the Advent season in the light of our own lives.

Advent first began in the 4th century as a period of penance for new converts. It didn’t lead to December 25, like an Advent calendar with little chocolates inside, but to Epiphany (January 6). Advent comes from the Latin, adventus, meaning “arrival” or “coming,” and from the Greek, parousia, which is also translated as “presence,” especially, “presence after absence” (or second coming). Back then, Advent was sometimes referred to as “the Lent of St. Martin’s” (and began on St. Martin’s day, November 11). Also, it was considered heretical to associate the Christian season too heavily with the winter solstice—too pagan. Sorry, but for me that’s exactly what’s evoked, and why I was drawn toward wanting to take part in the class. Well, light and an adventure.

I’ve made some surprising discoveries. In the book my co-leader assigned, Jill Duffield’s Advent in Plain Sight: A Devotion through Ten Objects, the first object is “gates.” I love that—I did a little digging and learned that the word “gate” appears 418 times in the King James Bible. In my introduction to the poems, I talked about how a gate can seem to be a barrier, but it’s really an invitation. A gate marks a path to be followed.

Poems, too, are gates. In my college teaching career I often encountered students who hated poetry. They saw a poem as a gate with a “no trespassing” sign hanging on it. But isn’t a poem, like a gate, an invitation? Open this. Walk through. See the world the way I see it. The first poem I brought was Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness,” and the study group climbed onto the bus with me. “There’s communion here,” one participant gleefully noted. And another: “it’s a story of the good Samaritan!”

I found this short poem by Richard Bauckham on an Advent website, The Adventus Project. Details such as keeping vigil, a turn of the tide, and the cattle-shed roof lend it an Advent gloss, yet it’s multi-valent. A Druidic heart could be happy here. Bauckham is a theologian and poet who lives in Great Britain, but he could be my neighbor here in the Pacific Northwest in my house in the woods.

First Light

After all the false dawns,
who is this who unerringly paints
the first rays in their true colours?
We have kept vigil with owls
when the occult noises of the night
fell tauntingly silent
and a breeze got up
as if for morning.
This time the trees tremble.
Is it with a kind of reckless joy
at the gentle light
lapping their leaves
like the very first turn of a tide?
Timid creatures creep out of burrows
sensing kindness
and the old crow on the cattle-shed roof
folds his wings and dreams.

Richard Bauckham

My apologies for a somewhat wobbly, all-over-the place post. (Consider that I was told I wouldn’t be able to type for 6 weeks!)

Sunday evening at 11:00 my dog desperately needed a walk, so, despite the falling snow, we went out (with every caution for secure footing), and one reward was an owl hooting continuously from the snowy woods. No wonder my dog was restless. No wonder I love Bauckham’s poem: “We have kept vigil with owls.” Me, too.

It’s a gorgeous time of year, when you’re not all broken and needing a nap and a cookie (did you know that when you have a broken bone your body burns 20-30% more calories? Someone told me so—maybe just indulging my natural inclination).

When I first began gathering poems for the Advent class, I had a notion that the study participants would want to write with me. That didn’t happen (with the addition of a co-leader and the book, it became more conventional, which is fine), but it hasn’t kept me from writing. Early on, I came across a poem by Laura Walker titled “Psalm 100” (follow the link to read it for yourself). It made me open my Bible and reread Psalm 100. And then I wrote my own poem. Is it an Advent poem? Not really, unless you see it—like Bauckham’s poem—in a tradition of praise.

So, for solstice, here’s my poem in praise of light. From here on out, each day enjoy those extra few seconds of daylight.

Morning at Glen Cove

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
–Psalm 100, NIV

After a night of wind the cove sings.
Under cold water, a skein of herring,

above, a skein of glaucous-
winged gulls. Scraw of bald eagle

and great blue heron, sky
brimming, unfurled. In the early morning half-dark

sea lions bark, hoarse with so much praise.
Sunrise offers a kingfisher

chittering down the pink light.

Bethany Reid / 2022

My Slow Christmas

I’ve mentioned before how much difficulty I’ve had getting into the spirit of the season. I know I’m not alone. And I have been “busy.” Aside from obsessing about politics (looking forward to having it all take a back seat–as David Brooks has promised), I have several different writing projects going.

And I’ve been acting “as if“: sending out a massive amount of Christmas cards, sneaking in some shopping and trying to organize gifts for my daughters to pick up at the house. I’ve been negotiating our Boxing Day Zoom for opening gifts (as our youngest daughter is working today and tomorrow). I’ve been hanging out with my old dog. I’ve kept up with my goal to walk 5 miles a day. On the Solstice, given torrential rain, and snow (!), I did almost the entire 5 miles inside the house. (Pabu and I did make it outside for a bit in the early evening–a Tibetan Terrier, he likes snow.)

But now it’s Christmas Eve, and I’m feeling that maybe an Ann Cleeves’s novel and some tea and shortbread are in order. Even if I can’t get the picture to shift.

One of the gifts I splurged on for myself recently was to sign up for BookFox’s “Master Your Writing Time” course. I’m dawdling my way through it, but finding–despite my best efforts, or the opposite–that it has helped. Some of the lessons are action tips, and adopting the Pomodoro method has worked beautifully for me. Sitting for very long makes me feel achy and stiff. But working for just 25 minutes, then spending 5 minutes moving around, doing a few chores (avoiding my phone & computer), has been pretty amazing.

Then I came to his lesson “Hasty Writing vs. Slow Writing.” As a huge fan of Louise DeSalvo, I was already primed for what Matthew Fox called a “mindset” lesson. It ended with a link to the blogpost below.

I’ll still find a way to walk my 5 miles today. But I wish us both a slow Christmas.

John L. Wright

THE LOVELINESS OF THIS WORLD, John L. WrightFinishing Line Press, PO Box 1626, Georgetown KY 40324, 2020, 36 pages, $13.00 paper,

It is always a pleasure to recommend a local poet. Wright lives in Edmonds and until 1988 was a physician at Swedish Medical Center. I’m so glad he made his way in retirement to poetry, or that poetry made its way to him.

Among many poems taking a fond look at people and dogs he has known  (and many, lost), The Loveliness of this World also catalogs Wright’s walks through a northwest landscape. After I walked at Japanese Gulch in Mukilteo this afternoon, I sat in my car and read this prose poem:

Walking in the Woods without an iPhone

–the red crest of pileated woodpeckers their drumming the whinnying flight of the flicker its white rump the call of the owl the eagle and the quail the basket bark of cedar the insipid taste of salmonberries the wild huckleberry’s tartness licorice fern rooted in the bark of big-leaf maple the purplish blush of alder its hanging catkins the Indian plum its white blossoms the leathery leaves of salal the yellow flowers of Oregon grape the fragrance of evergreen after rain.

Yes, I thought, exactly so

Let me add that this poem is not representative of the collection–many beautiful, more conventional poems I could have chosen–but I love the joyful and playful compression of this.


Writing the Circle: Prompt #3

“Your ability to make a choice and stick to it—your will—is your most powerful inner resource.” –Laura Day

Whether you used the last prompt as encouragement to generate 8 of your top writing wishes or 100, today’s prompt is all about choosing just one of these, for now, to focus on.

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around this prompt for awhile, and I think part of the difficulty for me lies in a reluctance to encourage anyone to have pie-in-the-sky dreams about their writing career.  Two books that have helped me with this are Rachel Ballon’s The Writer’s Portable Therapist and Robert Maurer’s One Small Step Can Change Your Life. 

In short, Ballon showed me how “unrealistic expectations [can] block your creativity and prevent you from ever realizing your writing dreams,” and Maurer taught me to take on the big stuff one small–really small–step at a time.

There’s (still) nothing wrong with your desires, by the way, no matter how large, but I want to give you a lesson now in imagining the smaller, moving parts to your desire. (Because before you can have a novel hit the best-seller list, you have to write a novel. Before you can write a novel, you have to develop a habit of writing that will sustain a long-term project.)

Even the “baby steps” can turn out to have smaller moving parts. If you need to learn how to write dialog, you’ll have to figure out the steps for how to learn to write dialog. (Buy a book? Take a class? Study authors who have killer dialog? Join a writing group and practice? All of the above?)

I learned this the hard way. If you look at my 10-year planner (or the one before that) you’ll see that I’ve been writing “Take a walk every day,” or “Be a person who walks every day” (and other variations) ever since my kids were small. For a short time I was able to muscle my way through this and actually do it, but then I missed a few days, and soon I was back to almost never taking an intentional walk.

Then I decided to make my goal of walking more specific and way, way smaller. I committed to taking a 5-minute walk each day (click on the link to read my blogpost about this), and just like Maurer promises in his book, accomplishing that small goal led me to increasing my minutes until now it’s a rare day that I don’t walk 30 or 40 minutes.

This achievement made me wonder if I couldn’t use the same strategy to move closer to one of my big writing goals, which was to write a mystery novel. (Something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid!)

Unlike earlier attempts at writing novels, this project was not going to be open-ended. I set myself up for failure to start with by saying I’d write my mystery in a month. I had to regroup at the end of the month, but it worked to an extent–I had something tangible by the end of 40 days of writing, a working premise, a cast of characters, and about 100 pages. It was enough to give me forward momentum. Despite being a rather slow writer (and my mom…and teaching fall quarter…) I kept the project inching forward and by December 31 I had a complete if very rough draft. And on January 1, I turned my sights toward revision. I am still working on the steps: I enlisted another wannabe novelist to revise with, creating our own very small mastermind/encouragement group, and I set some interim goals (submit to PNWA in February) to motivate me.

So, to return to Laura Day, she gives very clear advice about how to word your desire in positive, present-tense, specific language, and why that’s important.

1) To start with, narrow your focus to a single wish. Yes, you can take on more, but for now you’re practicing focusing–and focus requires us to, well, focus.

Distinguish, too, between the things you can control, and the things that are better given over to God or the universe. You have no control over the whims and moods of the editors at _______ poetry journal, but you do have control over how many submissions you make this year. You have no control over whether your book will be a best-seller, but you do have control over writing the best book you are able to write.

“One of the most profound traits that distinguishes you from other animals is your ability to imagine things that do not yet exist; your ability to envision future possibilities and to choose among them; in short, your ability to create.” -Laura Day

2) State your wish in positive, present-tense language. Not, I will no longer suck at dialogue, but I write AMAZING dialogue!

Stating your wish positively simply means saying what you want, not what you don’t want. While you’re at it, you also need to give up the word “wanting.” There’s a little psychological roadblock here (think of it this way, want = lack), and I think it also has to do with our deeply engrained language patterns. In essence, I’ve come to feel that a “want” list is often a “can’t list” in disguise. I want a new car, but I can’t have one. I want to get my novel published, but it can’t…. I want to have a better marriage, but there are all these reasons that I can’t. (Wah, wah, wah!)

Of course you want it, but let’s try putting it into different language. Not I want to write a mystery novel or I want to walk every day, but–

I am writing a mystery novel.

I walk every day. 

3) Finally, be specific! I’ve already addressed this above, but I want to emphasize the power of breaking your wish into smaller parts, and making it visible. Even “write a novel” is on the vague side (and so large it is more the universe’s job than yours). But you can write an outline of a novel, and then a paragraph and a page and a chapter. You can decide what sort of novel it is, who your readers are, and how long you want it to be. All of these things are specific and they’re 100% in your control.

I am revising my first chapter so I can read it aloud to my Wednesday writing group. 

I’ve used this strategy, by the way, on poems, too. This summer I was invited to write a poem for an Orca anthology, and–given that my mother was dying–I just couldn’t seem to do it. But I knew that writing a single poem wasn’t an unrealistic desire, and I truly wanted to write it. So I began drawing my circle in my journal each morning and writing inside it: I am writing a poem for Tahlequah and her calf. I built that poem image by image and line by line, but I managed to workshop it with an amazing group at Litfuse, and I submitted it to the anthology editors five days prior to the deadline–and three days before my mother died. I didn’t know if they would accept it or not, but they did. The poem, as it turned out, is as much an elegy for her, as it is for the orcas, and I’m grateful that I made time for it.

Here’s your assignment:

I’m a little worried that all my qualifiers in this prompt will be discouraging. They’re not meant that way. What I wish for you is traction for your writing dreams.

Whatever you’ve come up with–this wish that you know you can turn into reality, given the focus–your job right now is to draw a circle in your journal (the bottom of a coffee cup or a lid or a round coaster work great for this), then to write your wish in that space (in positive, present-tense, specific language!). You may want to write it on another sheet of paper to post above your writing desk.

I’d love it if you’d take a picture of your circle and send it to me!

On this first time through The Circle, this is a free series, and I plan to continue with emails to a small group of subscribers, so comment below or email me at — I’d love to have you on the journey with me.