Dear Friend

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Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, on Kickstarter right now!

This is the latest installment in Tara’s monthly column about the creative practice.

If you connect with Tara’s work, consider supporting her Patreon. You can also write her a letter via The PenPalProject. 

I am just in the door from my afternoon commute. This consists of a mile’s easy walking in a circle from my house — marking the close of today’s hours at the laptop-enabled money-factory, and reminding me gently of my physical body, its welcome tether to the seasons and the earth. 

In the moment before this one, I opened the mailbox to find two letters from friends. I smiled at them — a real smile, like I was greeting the friend named in the return address. Now I fold back the top of my little correspondence desk, and lay the letters inside. 

I will wait, and shape a space to give them my full and slow attention. 


Letters, in this last apocalyptic year-and-a-bit, have become for me a particular source of pleasure and perspective — and creative ballast.

I learned to write letters the first time as an adolescent, because writing was the only inexpensive way (remember long-distance phone charges?) to keep the friends I had to leave behind every few years, when the U.S. Navy stationed my dad somewhere new. 

I didn’t learn well, though: I had good intentions, bad follow-through. For one thing, I didn’t know how to write and read letters, in the sense of understanding what I hoped to give and get from the exchange. I had plenty of ideas, but precious little discipline to help me explore them. Thus, when my mood or mindset didn’t line up with my goal, I had zero motivation. So I stopped putting pen to paper. So I lost my penpals.

Letters are a fruit of slowness and attention and care — qualities I cultivate, though often with stunted success. I have found my way back to letter-writing by paying attention to that cultivation, false starts and failures included. (I was learning to garden at the same time. This has perhaps influenced the metaphor.)

First, I noticed how much nourishment I’d begun to derive from some very long exchanges on Twitter. 

I’d ramble for days at a time with people I didn’t know at all well, about books, walking, memory, landscape. We stacked ideas on top of questions on top of enthusiasm. Our conversations were generative and exciting and connective. We lost the thread a lot, in all the excitement. I wished often for the same conversations but slower and deeper, with everyone and every thought given more time to bloom than our present suite of communication technologies allows. 

At which point, I realized I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. I asked for an address or two. 

Also, I noticed the ways I was missing my friends. These folks are many and various. They live across town, or a few miles downriver. Also in Montana, California, Iowa, Alaska, Pennsylvania, England, Germany. We used to meet at workshops, at church, on boats, on trails, in restaurants, in backyards. 

It’s not like we ever met a lot. But I think about my friends often, and I used to store up things to turn over when we saw each other next. Going nowhere and seeing almost no one has not injured me — a solitary — as it has most folks I know, but I have absolutely missed the opportunities for depth of conversation that arise from a life lived at least partially in physical community. 

There was never a time when I realized all of these connection opportunities in person. But with the sudden inadvisability of in-person contact, relying on texts and Zoom and Twitter began to feel more hollow than before. Instead of handily filling in the gaps, those tools have become primary platforms to maintain entire friendships. They’re not, generally speaking, equal to the long-term task.

Letters are.


Why is this? I’ll offer two understandings gleaned from a year and more of writing deeply and regularly to friends and strangers. 

Both understandings require creative exercise — that formative, necessary thing you (you, reading this) need, and with which I know many of my fellow artists have been struggling, as deaths and lockdowns and vaccine worries and economic pain wear us down. 

First: To write to a person, or to read what they have written you, is to spend real time with them. It’s asynchronous, yes, but I think of it as sacred time, time-out-of-time, in which clock-time ceases to signify.

It’s real time because you are focused on that person. There is no room (indeed, no opportunity) to check your DMs or switch to a different channel, and there is only this one person you can listen to at a time. The conversation is very slow. You can read or write only one side of it at once, which forces a particular kind of concentrated presence. You can pause your conversation to think or feel about something your friend has said. You have what feels like infinite space and time to respond internally, to process, to enjoy. 

You are also doing the work, all this while, of creating your correspondent there in your mind and heart. To recall or imagine a friend is a creative act, and also a specific pleasure. A letter places this work at the center of your being for as long as it takes to write, or to read.

Also: Creating a physical object is an act of magic, or an act of prayer. 

I like to understand things intellectually. I used to think of magic as something abstruse, and I wasn’t really surprised when I couldn’t make it “work.” Obviously, I was doing something wrong. I used to be frankly baffled by prayer. How do you even start? 

Sometimes the answer is just to do or make a thing. The act of creation is… creation. You are taking the materials around you, and shaping them, with your hands and whatever expertise you own, into a new object in the world. 

To create that object with a very specific recipient in mind is to direct the power of your magic, or your prayer, to them, and to the relationship between you. 

A letter, hand-written, maybe illustrated or decorated, is a powerful, non-replicable piece of art, constructed with your hands and given life by your care, your interest, your attention. It forges something, both inside the writer and between writer and reader, that a text message can’t. 


My art has been my anchor in this last long terrible year, and my strong companion. Though poetry, my primary art, cuts as deeply as it heals, still I am fortunate that it has journeyed with me. 

I have written here before that I need to commune with my places to write the deep poems I love. This type of communion has been in short supply for some time, and it has followed that most of the new work I’ve crafted feels adrift, amorphous, unspecific. Not so my letters.

I have said that a letter is a piece of art. I think it is one quite as beautiful and valid as poem. This is the end of the similarities. 

I feel expansive when I sit to write a letter. Free-wheeling, like I’m embarking on an essay — yet much less formal. I can ramble in a letter, and excuse myself with phrases like “wandered off-topic again.” I can spell things wrong and cross them out and muddle my thoughts and still feel unembarrassed to put a stamp on the envelope. A letter feels unfinished because it is. This is a feature of the genre. 

All art is a conversation, but usually we have to remind ourselves that’s true. A letter knows that in its very form. By choosing to create, and enjoy, this physical art form, we assert to each other and we reassure ourselves that we’re not suffering, enjoying, analyzing, and exploring this life alone.

The regular work of this creative reassurance is, I continue to discover, infinitely worth the considerable time and effort it requires. Full and slow attention to ourselves — each other, our world, and our shared and divergent experiences — is yet another healing friend. Speaking for myself, but knowing I am not alone, I can say that I need to cultivate as many of those as I can.

Three Healing Friends

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, which will be available for pre-order in May 2021.

This is the latest installment in Tara’s monthly column about the creative practice.

If you connect with Tara’s work, consider supporting her Patreon.

About a month ago, I had one of those days where everything feels hard. Without belaboring the intensity — perhaps you already know what I mean — I will say that the feeling is like a long and unexpected eclipse. A dark day of the soul. 

These eclipses come upon me periodically. No precipitating event is needed. No particular activity, no success, and no special treat will solve them. But I have accumulated a number of useful prescriptions for getting through them.

I recite poems. I remind myself that no feeling is final. I try deliberately to react to the day’s specific difficulties with patience, kindness, and courage. These help, over time, by building my experience of resilience. (“I knew I could do it…because I’d already done it,” as Harry says to Hermione.) It’s true they don’t make me feel better right away. This particular day, I found, to complement them, something that did. 

Three somethings, in fact. I want to think about these three for a little while; about how they serve as healers and friends — not just on dark days, but also everydays. About how, if I invite them, they also heal and companion my practice of writing poems. About how I suspect that they, or somethings like them, are universal friends — not just to me, but to you as well.  

The first healing friend is silence.

Silence comes in many forms. I happen to have a deep need for the one form over which I have no control: silence external to me, all around me. On the particular day I am remembering, I didn’t have it. What I did have: the ability to still my own hands, and close my own mouth on sighs of frustration, explanations, and that talking-it-through-out-loud thing I often do when I feel stressed.

There’s a particular serenity that attends the arrival and settling of inner silence. I cannot compel it. But I’ve discovered that I can invite it by the practice of outer silence. The outer sort and the inner are not equivalent; one does not necessarily even lead to the other. But their substances are similar enough that it’s worth learning how to do the one you really can affect. It’s also more difficult than it sounds. Try it — for more than a minute, or an hour, or a day, whatever your threshold is — and you’ll see.

For awhile, I had a regular practice of deliberate outer silence. I moved house, the pandemic moved in everywhere, and my practice fell away. On this particular dark day, I remembered to turn back toward it, and it felt like turning toward home. 

The second healing friend is sunshine.

If the first friend was familiar, this one surprised me utterly. I have always been a shade-seeker. But this day, I sat at the kitchen table, where the sun is strongest in my house, and I shut my eyes and spread out my hands and just fully soaked in the strengthening light. 

I never do this. My skin marks, for one thing. So I was startled to find, after only a couple of minutes, that my pain had shifted, enough that I didn’t feel constantly like screaming.

I moved to the front porch, so the sun could bathe my whole self. Out of the silence I’d been holding, I sang the sun a song of praise. And then I sang another, and then some totally unrelated songs, just because it felt so good to keep singing, and to keep feeling grateful. 

Singing is the third healing friend.

“Of course,” said a human friend I told about it later. “Singing forces you to breathe.” 


Since that day, I have sought out my new friend sunshine for short soaks. This is the right descriptor — the action is like a warm bath, in its pure pleasure and slowness and physicality. 

And I’ve started a weekly practice of silence and singing. Leave me alone long enough and I’ll sing, but I forget this friend when I’m emotionally tired, or near other humans who aren’t also singing, or keeping company with too many responsibilities. So my practice is sited mid-week, in the afternoon, when I’m most likely to forget without the ritual to prompt me. I sit somewhere by myself, and after holding some silence I let a song rise up, and then another and another, until I feel even. 

Pretty often lately, I’ve been sitting outside, combining my healing pleasures. And pretty often — not always right away, sometimes the next morning, as I walk outside — a new poem leaps from the nest and tries its wings. 

My working theory is that the silence and the sunshine and the singing are key materials of the nest I am always building, to hold whatever thoughts, feelings, rhythms, and ideas become my poems. The more attentively constructed the nest, the more nourished the wordlings it incubates. 

In themselves, silence, sunbathing, and singing are just play. They have neither obvious use nor monetary value. They therefore cannot get in the way of creativity. Once you embrace “wasting” time, and not getting paid, whatever you really need to do or says starts opening up.* 

This maybe sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s not at all. It’s counter-capitalist for sure: it rubs the wrong direction across all the ways we’re trained to think about “producing” — a type of knowledge so ingrained we sometimes mistake it for instinctive or intuitive. But intuition is just experience added to paying attention. And that leads me right to silence and sunbaths and singing, and says to my poem-grasping brain: Stop talking. Start right here. 

What I am doing when I compose is breathing, praying, attending. This is the key, I think, to why my three particular healers encourage my specific work. Each of them teaches these things in the body.

To sit simply in the sun is prayer, is attention, is gratitude. 

To be silent is to attend, without trying to mediate, to the world that breathes inside you and around you. 

To sing is to breathe with, and to make an offering in return. 

Which reminds me that I recently named a particular phase of writing “The Singing.” I gave this name to the time after I’ve finished a complex work, and it’s still inhabiting me, still actively a part of my daily being. What I end up doing in that phase is offering those poems—out loud and with gratitude—to the places, and the states of mind and heart, that helped me compose them. 

I like the symmetry of this: sun and silence and singing lead to attention, leads to Shaping, leads to Singing. Which leads, when the voice is ready, back to silence. Back to sitting (in the sun, perhaps), and accepting this moment’s gift.

What is the moment’s gift, on a day such as I described above, a dark day of the soul? The spiral here is so tight it’s nearly a tautology. The moment’s gift is the sun (or the rain, or the thunder, or the warm breeze.) It’s your body’s ability to quiet, and your throat’s — or just your soul’s — willingness to sing.


*This is the part where some of you say “what a privilege, to accept not getting paid!” And yes, you’re right. The acceptance applies without the privilege, too, but it’s harder to literally live with. Give away money, join a community organization, get involved in local politics. Replace profit-worship capitalism with a system that’s based on people instead of money. Yes, yes, yes, yes this is very hard, and also we can do this.

The Singing

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, which will be available for pre-order in May 2021. This is the latest installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

Such silence. I step out onto the covered back porch and listen while my eyes adjust to the moonless dark. Nothing. Then: a car on the highway, half a mile away. A light wind, jostling the arborvitae. At last, so low and deep I have to think it first: the winter sea, resonant in the middle distance. 

It is the week between Christmas and the New Calendar Year, and I have come with my housemate-family to a little-sung slice of Oregon’s edge. We’ll spend six days reading, cooking, hiking, and playing board games, without the clock to rule us. It is the end of 2020, and Covid-19 has made the usual holiday travel ill-advised. We like each other enough to vacation together, so we have made yet another virtue of quarantine.

I am intending, this week, to write poetry. Among things I love, writing poetry ranks consistently high. Not poetry itself — though I do like that, very much — but the composing of it, the work of it. Poetry is a vocation primarily because it will not leave me alone. And fortunately I don’t want it to. We’re suited. 

Fast forward five days. I have sat down each morning to write, and I have written. It’s all bad. Beautiful words, that wander with me down lonely beaches and secret, sand-floored halls of pine, in written form decline to become other than blowsy prose. 

I don’t despair. Writing crap is an important part of eventually writing well. But I am disappointed. Such silence, such a lack of responsibility, such an enviable spaciousness of time — and I haven’t written a single other-than-ordinary sentence, even in my oldest and best companion, my journal. 

Is this writer’s block? The conflicting advice on this phenomenon (or figment, depending on who you ask) makes my head ache. My strategy has been to ignore the idea unless it becomes immediately relevant. I’m pondering it this afternoon, and deciding it’s still not applicable. I’m writing; I’m just not writing anything worth working on. I close the keyboard, button my jacket, pull on my boots. The beach will sort me out, one way or another. 


The sharpening southwest wind drives rain into my eyes, rolls cylinders of seafoam up the winter-steep sand. I’m grounded for balance among dull-gold sedges, in the space between three big dunes. I am speaking poems. I realize I have been doing this — in my mind, under my breath, quite loudly in places devoid of other humans — all week. 

This is the same beach, in the same season, where I composed two poems from my recently finished, forthcoming book, Tell the Turning. It’s these two I’m speaking now. One’s a memorized whole; the other’s a jumble of fragments, puzzle pieces spilling from my tongue to scatter sandward. 

I have stopped trying to compose. A fierceness has welled up in me, a need to speak these poems already shaped. To whom, and to what purpose, am I telling them? Sky and sea accept them without comment. 


I have written before that the process of writing a long work has two distinct phases. The Gathering is a gentle, curious, wandery state. The Shaping that follows it is more like falling in love: focused, exhilarating, intense. Until now, these are as far as my experience went. 

Tell the Turning has been Gathered and Shaped (and Re-Shaped.) It has found a publisher (and — unexpectedly, wonderfully — an illustrator.) All of its momentum now belongs to them: typesetting, pen and ink, an ISBN. My work would seem to be finished. Today I am learning that this is not the case. There’s a third phase.

Back from the beach, this afternoon I have been in the hot tub again. (It’s a principal attraction of the house we rented.) This too summons a poem — nothing to do with a hot tub, but with a feeling I have this week, of immediate enclosing warmth surrounded by elemental chill, of surfacing to a space of quiet after a time of turmoil. 

This moment, I am bundled in blankets on the porch. I can hear the distant surf just over the pastures, feel the cold fastening down as the sky solidifies, and listen to the wind in the douglas-firs, and a gutterspout dripping with melted frost. Poems come like memories: sharp or gentle; insistent. Now that I’m paying attention to their need for it, I’m letting each one borrow my voice, and take its time to take form and flight. 

I am, as near as I can tell, incanting Tell the Turning — helping in some speak-aloud way to encourage its physical form. I did not begin on purpose, but I am speaking now with serious intention. I love these poems, these lines and lilts and rhythms already born of me. I am no longer in charge of the logistics of their physical manifestation. Instead, I am chanting them into being. 

Because poems are more than sounds, because they require also rhythm, and often feel as though they are halfway set to music — the name of this phase (it’s so obvious now) is The Singing. 


I sometimes don’t realize I’m conceiving a new project. Especially if it’s a big one, like a book — something that will begin in the amorphous Gathering stage and gestate there for awhile. I have a lot of ideas, and a need to be always creating. Sometimes it takes being blocked — as I have been these past five days — to show me that I’m trying to create something I am not yet ready to create. Intuition is telling me: this is not a project, yet. It’s telling me also: Sing the project that’s still inside your heart. 

The Singing seems to be about launching a finished work into the world, but there’s a shadowy complement to that much-admired forward movement. The Singing contains a sadness too, a letting go. It has come to help prepare me — to live in the world without having this work to do. 

There will be other work. I’ve been trying this week to get to some of it, but it’s the unfocused, Gathering sort, and it’s not yet satisfying. The concentrated work of The Shaping is a long way off again, and I miss it. I’m tripping over my longings because I still need to acknowledge and let them be. 

Wendell Berry wrote a line that comes to me often: Again I resume the long lesson. This understanding that I cannot do two, three, ten things at once without consequence is a long lesson I am learning over and over. I am done writing Tell the Turning, but it is not done with me. Before I can move on to give full attention to another project of this scale, I need to shape this one some wings and let it go. I need to shape myself some wings, too: for floating, dreaming, back toward a Gathering space. 

It seems my way of doing this is to Sing. 


I’ve brought them home from the coast, and will be incanting some of these poems publicly as well. Typically, I publish one original poem a month, with audio, at PDXpersky.com. In the months leading up to Tell the Turning’s release (so, starting now), I’m turning that practice into an extension of The Singing. You are cordially invited. 

This Is Not a Project

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, which will be available for pre-order in May 2021. This is the latest installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

My word for this year is Listen. 

Almost the moment I settled on this word, it began to resonate in ways I did not expect. It turns out that if you are focused on listening, just about anything will come to you with a message. Including things that are traditionally classified in my language as inanimate — for example, creative projects.

I choose a word every year, somewhere in the long new year season that begins at October’s end. In fact I don’t choose my word; I let it come to me. How does this work? I don’t know. Intuition. Listening. (That’s right: my present word is deeply meta.) If you pay attention — and you get a bit of a bonus when you have experience to apply to that attention — you’ll know when you’ve got the right word. 

The element you don’t have to know is why. Part of the magic — part of the utility — of having a year-word is letting is surprise you as the year unfolds. 

Which is what happened to me when my new writing project refused midstream to become a project at all. 

I think of creative projects like this: “self-directed, long-term generative exercise[s] with a unifying theme or goal. Installments are done at regular, pre-determined intervals. They’re published as I go, creating accountability for myself, and allowing for outside participation.” This definition derives from experience, and attention to that experience. But maybe in this case I’ve been letting Experience pull ahead of Attention, when really they function best as equal partners. 

Per Experience, I had outlined themes, goals, intervals, accountability, and outside participation for what I was calling The SW Portland Pilgrimage Project. Themes and goals went swimmingly in practice: there were long walks across places I’d never met. My mental map of my own city filled in appreciably. I savored the parks, the views, the wayfinding, the jaywalking, the iffy interstices and the ugly edges. Every day I got to spend on the trail was a great day. 

The writing part, though: the writing was hard. This should have been my first clue. But I wasn’t listening.

The pre-writing involved taking notes as I walked — not an unusual practice for me. But this time, it was a slog. Even as I cataloged thoughts, I got impatient. I felt rushed. Those feelings kept surfacing, because I kept ignoring them. 

The drafting involved — again, per Experience — sitting down as soon as possible to turn my notes into prose. I got anxious and annoyed when I found that this, too, was a slog. Technically, the write-ups I produced are fine: they’re well-written, they’re on-theme, they’re interesting. But they lack the spark that animates all good writing. I tried and failed to strike that spark six times. 

The presentation involved figuring out a way to model (specifically, to map, in the sense of mind-mapping) my pilgrimage. I spent whole days on this, hitting conceptual and then technical barriers that became — instead of puzzles to solve — monsters to slay. I was angry. I was staying up way past my bedtime. I was bursting into tears over bad search functionality in support forums. The message, at this point, was coming in loud and clear, and I finally listened. This is not a project.


Projects are a lens. Or a model, if you like, or a tool. A particular way of engaging curiously with the world. Using this tool has helped me accomplish goals, inhabit new ideas, meet people, play more, and become more myself. You can see why I love it — and why, perhaps, I’m liable to approach every problem or interest or idea with a project designed to explore and illuminate it. Suddenly I’m remembering that old saying about hammers and nails. 

The SW Portland pilgrimage continues. The moment I struck that word project, the pilgrimage part took its rightful place at the heart. The walking — a practice, not an analysis, of attention, locality, & fidelity — became, as it was meant to be, the purpose of the undertaking. 

I love writing. I love creating an interaction point for my online community. Those are both things projects love too. They are not what this pilgrimage wanted to be about. I was trying to analyze before the experience had time to even happen, let alone to settle.* I was trying to communicate it out without absorbing it myself. I was intellectualizing something fundamentally mysterious, materializing something fundamentally spiritual, and publicizing something fundamentally private. 


Sometimes you come up with a good idea, and you’re wrong about it. 

Listen to the idea along the way, because it’s telling you how it wants to be shaped. It’s telling you if you’re bending it a direction that will only break. This is not the end of the idea, even if you do break it. You get a choice now: adjust, have faith, and accept the opportunity to cultivate patience. Or, lament the time and the effort “wasted,” and keeping trying to hammer that thing that’s not a nail.

Fiction writers talk about this with character and plot: how they can’t make a character do anything, or the story will stall; how characters, once given life, expect a say in it. When Elizabeth Gilbert was interviewed for On Being, she talked about how ideas have lives of their own, how they actively partner with us to become incarnate. 

All of this sounds a little magical and fuzzy for our technically-advanced, bottom-line society. For me, to be awkwardly honest. But I don’t have to — I don’t get to — believe in it. It’s there to be experienced, and I just have, again. The mystical-sounding thing we call intuition is really just those two partners I was talking about earlier: Experience and Attention, pulling in tandem. 

So here I am, paying attention, applying my experience. Listening. 


* I copied out a passage, years ago now, from Jonathan Raban on exactly this — how the writer’s constant dilemma is simply: experience, or reflection? Past Me (not yet a writer) was already storing up lessons that Future Me needed. 

Photo credit: Tara K. Shepersky

Mapping the Creative Self: On Mind Maps, Play, and Broccoli

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She is also the creator of The PenPal Project, an experiment with community, sustainability, and joy. This is the latest installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

Recently I drew a map of my thoughts. It was a Monday afternoon; I was sitting outside. I started scribbling words and pictures, circling them, connecting them. Entries included: solitude, loneliness, grief, prayer, salt, Quakerism, politics, Jane Austen, “the sky right now,” and broccoli.

Do you know about mind-mapping? A book called (I am not kidding) How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci* taught me how to mind-map when I was maybe 14, and I’ve returned to the practice many times since, shifting the exact technique to suit my needs. 

Occasionally I use it to think through a problem or an important choice, but that’s not a fun use, it’s a productivity-related use, and productivity is a pursuit I mostly avoid. 

I’m told — constantly, by people or corporations who are trying to sell me aids to both — that productivity and creativity can play nice. I’m also told this by intelligent folks whose enormously productive creative output I enjoy — like Craig Mod, and Nicole Dieker

But if I’ve learned anything useful about my own creativity, it’s that it doesn’t like to be scheduled or timed or optimized. It will produce under those conditions, but it prefers — and tends to make better art on — its own terms. I’ve also learned that trying to negotiate those terms leads, more often than not, to a tangled pile of emotional exhaustion, missed sunrises, and tears.

So — I use mind-maps not as a productivity tool, but as a way to preserve and explore a moment in time. Maybe for later use in a poem or essay; maybe because my brain won’t stop spinning and I need to dump everything out to get a good look at it. Maybe as a snapshot for comparison with earlier snapshots, so I can see the way my curiosities and resonances, my reading and my thinking and my worrying, change and connect from from moment to moment.

It’s been said enough times that I don’t know who said it: all artists have a few primary themes they return to, again and again. Mapping creates a visual record of my themes: what’s stuck around, what’s refined or shifted, what’s resolved. This kind of record makes a fine place to begin — or a fine yardstick to revise — a piece of art. 

I also take notes during lectures/interviews/author conversations (like the online events Point Reyes Books and Emergence Magazine have been holding throughout the pandemic), and during those long and intense idea conversations you sometimes have with friends. These notes tend to take a mind-map shape. They’re messier, less considered, less illustrated than the free-write sort. I keep them jammed together in a tiny notebook, to see how they speak to each other. (The Florilegia Project continues to inspire.**)

Sometime I make maps for no particular reason — for play. In 2018-2019, I was very into seasonal mapping. At each quarter and cross-quarter day (Samhain, the solstices, etc), I would map the moon phase, the hours of daylight, the flowers in bloom and birds in action, dominant landscape colors, phases of tree bark, my own seasonal traditions.*** I have one of these maps for each of the eight seasonal turns. I never expected to put them to this use, of course, but here we are in this Covidtide of never traveling — and my maps have become bridges to beautiful memory, and consolations when I miss my places and people.

There’s something playful in the format of the mind map itself, maybe because it’s not my usual type of creative endeavor. My various maps are drawings, not prose or poetry. They have words all over them, mostly because I’m not technically gifted or skilled at illlustration. But those words are fragmentary, directionally wayward on the page, and their context is deconstructed. Sometimes I don’t remember what I meant by them at the time. (“Salt?” No idea.) The result, at least at the time, often matters less to me than the doing. I’m not invested in an outcome. I’m exploring.

And sometimes play is a type of problem-solving, just for fun: I enjoy the feeling of wrangling a random and fleeting moment onto a static page. 

I like to imagine mixing all of my maps together, into one very large book. It starts out looking quite normally book-like, but then pages unfold backwards and upwards and accordian-style, until what I have is an illustrated imagining of my own brain over a period of years. 

In fact, there’s interesting software that does something like this, brought to my attention by Lucy Bellwood, the kind of friend with whom I can have those aforementioned long and intense idea conversations. Lucy’s brain — in conversation, or on a screen as a bunch of connected nodes — is a fascinating place to explore.

I enjoy a useful and boundaried piece of tech, but my get-paid daily life under capitalism necessitates too much time on the internet already, so I’m keeping my own brain maps in paper form. 

Besides, I love hand-writing things. It’s something about the slowness, the physical texture and colors, the way I’m not choosing a typeface but writing in a hand that no one can standardize, the direct line from my mind to this piece of exploratory art it represents.

A couple of months ago, before the quick Monday map, I sat down with a larger page and mapped my pre-occupations, sorted (by shape of outline) into Curiosities & Experiments, Passions & Committments, Resonant Work, Places, and Worries. 

Doing this reminded me of some things I wanted to think about in essay form. You’ve seen some of the fruit of that, turned into previous entries in this column

As I’m looking at it right now, it’s reminding me of some worries that haven’t changed, but that I have some new ideas about addressing. This map is nudging me, from way back in October: it’s time to take action. 

It’s also, from the entry “gardening” (an Experiment), sub-entry “broccoli” (again!), reminding me to get outside and bring in the harvest.**** Literally this time. 


*I still have the “think like da Vinci” book, I’ve read it more than once, and there was a period where I worked very seriously through most of the exercises. (Probably the same period I learned to mind-map; that’s at least one of the exercises.) The title maybe hasn’t aged well out of 1996, but I hereby profess to you my earnest and unironic appreciation for this book. I should probably read it again to see if I still also love it and/or find it useful.

** “Florilegia is a practice of reading and pondering, of conversing with literature by pulling out the phrases that “sparkle,” removing them from their original context into a new one. Fresh meaning may be discovered in this aggregation of sparklets, their conversation with each other. In new context they may generate new ideas, create questions or beauties or conundrums.” Source:
https://pdxpersky.com/the-florilegia-project/ 

***I believe I got the idea for seasonal maps from Sharon Blackie, who thinks and teaches about modern myth and its intersection with ecology.

****Yes! It’s January! The broccoli plants I put in as starts in July are still going. 

Virtue(s) and the Creative Life

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She is also the creator of The PenPal Project, an experiment with community, sustainability, and joy. This is the latest installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

This morning I took a walk, just a little before full dawn. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading this on a different day than I’m writing it. I will likely still have just taken a walk before dawn. I will likely still have made the following request as soon as I could see the open sky: “Patience. Kindness. Courage.” 

For someone who historically wrestles with the very idea of prayer, I’ve taken to this simple practice of it without premeditation. In three words, I remind myself to cultivate three virtues. 


I’ve had an unusually focused, connected, intense, very physically present couple of days. I find this kind of density over time clears the scattered buzzing of the brain more effectively than just about anything else. Two days is only a very little time to experience such density, but it was enough this morning to prompt some curiosity about my daily request.

Patience, Kindness, Courage. Why these three? 

A) I’m not naturally any good at them. 

B) I admire them when I see them at work in other people. Virtues are not personality traits. They’re something you can practice. They’re habits. 

C) Patience, kindness, and courage are my own application of the cardinal Stoic virtues.* I have a long-standing interest in Stoicism — Stoic like the school of philosophy, not stoic like the modern adjective — owing at least partially to my argumentative acquaintanceship with a dead Roman Emperor named Marcus.** 

It’s a Stoic practice to account daily for the ways in which you did or did not follow the cardinal virtues, since that (and not the rest of the world) is what lies within a Stoic’s own ability.

I’ve been realizing lately that the part of my life where I can most clearly observe and cultivate patience, kindness, and courage at work in me is in fact my creative practice. So let’s take these one by one, and maybe we’ll learn something together. 

Patience

I usually have at least one creative project going that is meant for my own growth or learning or play — something that stays focused on curiosity and not “work.” All of these projects to date have been designed to last a year. Occasionally that gets to feeling ridiculous, especially when they involve doing literally the same thing every day. 

So far, anyway, there’s always been discernible value in sticking it out. I can’t predict what that value might be, and there are absolutely no shortcuts: time in is the thing. Completing year-long projects is teaching me — is allowing me to practice — patience.

As are the fallow times. Between projects, when I’m tired or sick or too busy, I tend to get anxious. It’s hard to shake that cultural+generational inculcation that we should always be producing. I’m learning, though. Non-linearly, of course; the lesson never endeth. This time last year, I finished a manuscript I was completely in love with, and immediately started panicking in the sudden vacuum. A year later, I’m similarly lacking for active, sustained creative project-work — in the midst of a pandemic, which my country is loudly Not Handling. I’m okay.

I mentioned “time in” a minute ago. This is a key teacher of patience in itself. I’ve learned — by doing — that the words will (probably) come. 

Something similar applies to the specific process of writing a poem. Not poetry. A poem. Sometimes I write ten lines I love, that I know are on fire — and a concluding two lines that are… fine. I go back and I poke at those two lines (and the other ten, for good measure), as long as it takes to light them up, too. Once it took two years. An unknown number of times, it’s never going to happen. “Things take the time they take.”

Kindness

Two very dear friends of mine have just moved to Canada. (They are married, and one of them is a Canadian citizen — which is why Canada let them in right now.) As one of these friends said the other day, when we sat masked, 10 feet away, and outdoors in 45-degree Fahrenheit sunshine to say goodbye: “I want to live someplace just a little more kind.

I cannot stop thinking about this. It’s never occurred to me that America, as a whole, might not be kind. Nor that we might be; I’ve never thought about it at all. I was born here, I’m a citizen, and I’ve never lived anywhere else longer than a month. Which makes my understanding of our national character subject to a particular sort of innocent insider’s bias. America is… America, and for the first time I’m thinking about what that means in daily practice. 

I’m on a bit of a mission these days to bring more kindness to my own daily living. I can’t change my country wholesale — I ought not to try if I could; I’d surely miss something critical. But I can shift myself. Creative practice is a useful place for an artist to actually do this. 

I started something a couple of months ago called The PenPal Project. It has multiple goals, one of which is community. I know lots of people. I’m also 37, have lived in one metro nearly my whole adult life, and have a decided social point of view. So I want to make sure I have, and contribute to, authentic conversation with a wider circle of folks than I’ve grown used to. 

Whatever you believe, wherever you’re from, and whoever you voted for federally and locally in this last election, I think you and I can exchange mutually interesting letters. I think we have something good to say to each other. I think kindness is based on caring, and caring can be created more easily than you think: by just getting to know folks.

Courage

Of the three, courage is the virtue in which I feel most persistently deficient. How we need it, though!  The practice of patience, and the practice of kindness, require also the practice of courage.

In 2015, I decided to do something about my fear of showing my writing to other people. “Fear” is an understatement, actually. I created my first public project, which I called TrailAWeek

The number and quality of lessons that I have learned since then — about writing, about people, about online presence, about the more-than-human-world — is directly the result of gathering the courage to try something that felt, to me-then, strange and audacious. 

And courage, it seems, begets courage. You learn that you will not die of embarrassment. You start to think — especially as your country’s political situation deteriorates — about what you could die for, and what you are learning about whether and how you could meet that. 

To make art is to stand for something. At the least, it commits your time, your talent, your thought and your conversation toward particular projects, which are never just frozen in paper or stone or pixels. They are living, and they are constantly shaping you back. Art narrows the field of possibility that is your public — and increasingly your private — face. It exposes you: to you, and to anyone else. You learn to be ready to meet that exposure. You learn to be curious about the fresh paths it might show you. You learn when fear is useful, and when it will only hold you back. You learn how to stand for other things than art.


My husband and some of my other friends are pretty into Dungeons & Dragons. They introduced me to the prototypical character alignment chart, where one axis is Lawful—Neutral—Chaotic, and the other is Good—Neutral—Evil. So your character can be Lawful Evil, Chaotic Good, True Neutral (Neutral/Neutral), etc. Simplistic, right? But this very simplicity is a useful model for extrapolating to the complexities of actual living people, and how and why they choose to do what they do.

We got into a protracted discussion once, in which we argued each other into an understanding that’s become a tenet of my daily life: there is no such thing as True Neutral. Neutral trends Evil. 

What does this mean? Neutrality is the attempt not to take sides in a conflict — ideological or moral or physical or whatever. Rarely is a conflict evenly matched; there is nearly always a more powerful party, perhaps because one person is physically stronger (or more skilled at verbal persuasion). Perhaps one point of view has the law on its side, and the other is fighting for legal recognition. By choosing no side, the neutral party implicitly chooses to aid the side that already has more power. Doing nothing is a vote for the status quo. And the status quo — because power corrupts, and corruption fears justice — trends evil.***

Your job, as an artist, is to resist evil. I realize this is a controversial statement. Remember, I have learned some hills I’m willing to die on, figuratively and also possibly otherwise. Your job, as an artist, is unequivocally to resist evil, and to co-create good. 

Paying attention to the virtues of your regular creative practice is one way to learn how to resist evil and work towards good. Giving some thought to the virtues you want to cultivate****, and how you might practice or explore them in your art, sets you up with solid coordinates. Once you know what those are, you might find they’re far away, over difficult terrain. But you’ve got a map: your art. 

I’ve found that having specific virtues to navigate by gives my art a better chance of spotting neutrality, interrogating its intentions, and bending it toward good. Which teaches me how to pay attention and uplift the good in the rest of my life, too. 

I’m going to mess up, my friends. Maybe every day. Working hard to find a thing does not necessarily deliver it into our hands.

There’s a walk tomorrow morning, though. There’s always the chance to step under the open sky and remind myself: Patience. Kindness. Courage.


*The more usual translation of the cardinal Stoic virtues is Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation. Wisdom and Justice are part and parcel of spending enough time with Patience and Kindness, as far as I’m concerned, and I end up kind of lumping Moderation in with Patience. Translation! It’s neither exact nor simple, between languages or between minds!

**At one point, Marcus references “poetry, and other such lapses of taste,” and it makes me laugh at both of us every time.

***Justice in the deepest sense, which is not to be mistaken for mere adherence to Law.

****They don’t have to be Stoic virutes. Equity is a fine one, for example. Simplicity. Truthfulness. Conscientiousness. Et cetera. You probably already know what you value. If not, ask yourself what you admire, what you wish you could be like. You probably can. 

Writing in Place

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The PenPal Project, an experiment with community, sustainability, and joy. This is the relaunch of her monthly column about the creative practice.

I took the day off yesterday. Instead of work, I had a long drive through the cloud-bound autumn forests draped around the feet of Mount Saint Helens. The forecast called for partial sun, mountain views. I drove in rain that was quiet and soft and curled up close, like a cat. 

At the shores of a reservoir, at official viewpoints utterly wiped by fog, at a nameless trail, I got out to walk. Within minutes of the nameless trailhead, alderfall had broken and partially blocked a wooden footbridge. I crawled beneath it, crouched in half and pivoting sideways — toes, then heels — my back brushing life and death. On the other side, half an hour of maple-carpet trail time, so silent I could hear my weird brain-creaks, like the rigging of a tall ship, and the hushed irregular mutterings of my digestion. 

I have eaten and spoken and slept and watched a film, but I am still inside that forest. I’m a human-shaped spell. Or a human connected by blood and air to the other-than-human. Or a human lost, and reclaimed by the wood. 

This is the space from which I write my poetry. Like most places I routinely traveled in the course of my pre-covid life, I hadn’t been there in many longing months. 


Before covid, I could have told you I write in place. I can revise a piece anywhere, but new poems grow from the ground I’m resting on, the trees I walk among, and the creeks I wander. 

Last fall I spent a week in rural Tennessee, intending to finish a manuscript that was composed entirely in the place I call “the fields,” near my home in western Oregon. I did that, but I kept getting interrupted by the much more urgent work of shaping sentences to the gentle hills and deciduous woods around me. Poetry and walking are how I talk to a place, and I like to think my poems are also, partially, a translation of what the place speaks in return. 

This year I’ve been nowhere. Well, I’ve been home. High-risk family, work-from-home, cancelled all our plans: you know the story. And I know that I have been a fortunate narrator. Not least because my home — rented before the pandemic, and moved into in the very teeth of the first days of lockdown — is quiet and beautiful. And private, for all it’s in city limits, next to a park. Its neighborhood, and the network of them that spread from here across my city’s wooded hills, is pleasant to walk. So that’s most of my needs covered. Except travel. Since when is travel something a person can need?

This year, I’ve written plenty of poems. As far as I know, it’s impossible for me not to. I compose if I’m conscious, the way I bleed if you cut me. But until this homebound year, I hadn’t fully understood a conflict at the center of my life, which is this: I like my home landscape just fine. And I’ve never learned to love it. We hang out all the time. And we don’t connect. 

If I want to connect, to write in place where I connect, I need to travel. In service of that connection, I tend to re-travel, to places where I have experienced communion. I need communion.

So when I write poems from my home — low inland valleys and cottonwooded rivers, a littleish metro increasingly packed tight in its urban growth boundary — they tend to be poems I like, and I’m not in love with. They come from a state of being I like too, and am not in love with. They come from practicality and settledness, from work and repetition. Never from ecstasy or untranslatable depth, never communion. 

Until this year, it seemed reasonable to stay with a place that keeps me (or I keep it?) at arm’s length. Within a few hours and a tank or three of gas, or an airplane ticket, I could be somewhere that gets me. And I made those journeys, often. I was high when I traveled and low when I got home. Now I’m sort of… tranquilized. Not tranquil; it feels like something done to me, not organic. I’m wondering if I need to break up with my landscape.

Poetry is an interesting road in to this question. With a smaller and less dazzling pool of inspiration, I’m forced to new thoughts. Pretty often, unwelcome ones. 

A particular landscape shapes (scapes!) thought and expression the way a specific language does. The thinking I can do in this landscape where I live creates work that is less satisfying to me. Why is that? What am I learning from it? And… is this ever going to be okay?

One of my specific frustrations has to do with my limited walks. I wander the same neighborhoods, with their seams and pass-throughs, their curving streets and mountain views and occasional anxious dogs. And I get bored with this place, beautiful as it objectively is. It feels like a failure to admit this. I believe in re-walking, for the same reasons I believe in re-travel. Craig Mod wrote, in one of his wonderful newsletters, that “re-walking is as important as re-reading,” and I got that little electric zip! of recognition. I re-walk because it takes time — days or seasons or years — to get to know a place, to let it work on you. I don’t dislike what this one has worked in me. I just don’t desire it. 

To learn and grow is maybe the best we can ask from non-optimal circumstance. Though it’s possible, too, to realize a circumstance is better than you thought. This is a shape of my hope. But I’m skeptical. I miss my places as much as I miss my human family. I miss my ecstatic work maybe more. 

Maybe some of what I’m learning is how to be faithful. 

Is it fidelity if you’re physically stuck? I think so. Faithfulness is a habit of discipline, perhaps, rather than a wild inspiration. And a habit of mind, embodied through physical practice. I am faithful to this place because I still go out to meet it, every day, with my heart as open as I can make it. I am faithful to my creative life, because here I am, writing in this place. 

The question of whether this is “okay” might be answered by saying that none of us are okay right now. Even when I’m having a good week, feeling healthy, finding tiny joys all over, the most honest way I can ever answer that bugaboo “how are you?” is a rueful smile and my husband’s phrase: “apocalypse-okay!” 

This might pass. For better or worse, humans are great at adjusting. 

It might not pass. Our world’s immediate future is a mixed bag that includes some serious horrors. These lead in to the smaller, more personal horrors: restricted travel, et cetera. To all of this, difficulty, depression, and grin-and-bear-it catchphrases are a reasonable response. 

So the real question, as usual, is how to balance. Maybe a personal silver lining of this year is getting a look at this need, getting clarity on what I think I require to write, and why. 

I can’t help longing for this spellbound forest-feeling to remain, because who knows when I can leave my city next? Though settledness is good too, I sometimes think. Calmer, anyway. Rooted, even if it’s not the soil I think I grow best in. A phrase from Teilhard de Chardin, that I heard probably ten times before its seed got through my tarmacked brain, is suddenly resonant:

“The world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it.”

The creative life — life, an inherently creative state — is capricious and random and unfair, as well as joyful and rewarding. “Stuck” in a place I both brush aside and automatically claim as home, I can learn to live — to walk and to write and to talk — with my unwanted new clarity. 

I’ll certainly write poems within it, unecstatically. Faithfully. They’ll companion me and they’ll question me and they’ll teach me, like they always do.

Photo credit: Tara K. Shepersky

How Valuable It Is, in These Short Days

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the final installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

I have in mind a new project. It involves embarrassing myself in public. You can help. 

I don’t mean a book (although I absolutely have more than one of those in mind). I mean a creativity-adjacent practice that I’ll commit to doing regularly, in the spirit of discovery, for a specified period of time. Not a hobby so much as a ritual of creative play. 

I’ve discussed previously how projects unrelated to the daily work of writing can function as both structure & impetus for creative practice. Since 2015, I’ve had one going most of the time. Sometimes it’s a daily thing, sometimes weekly, etc. Always, there’s an element of public accountability, because that’s motivating for me. 

My current practice of play is The Florilegia Project, which is still going strong, and daily. (Well, mostly daily. Sometimes I am—or I was, before COVID-19—far from home and it slips my mind, as my routine slips with the different delights of travel. And sometimes I’m just busy, quarantine or no quarantine. So I make it up later. Daily-ish.)

Meantime, I have started copying down, in a small blue book, the poems I know by heart. This is not the project. I’ll get to that.

Okay, but—why copy poems down if I have them by heart? The most immediate reason is that I forget, sometimes, which poems I know. There are more than the four or five things most humans can easily hold in mind at once. And no one else knows my mental library, so it’s not as if I have someone to prompt me with a title or a first line. Now I have this book.

Another reason is that someday I will die. If I am very lucky, it will be when I am old and happy and finished living, and I will slip peacefully to rejoin earth and sky and river. It may not be like that. Regardless, I hope that someone I love is there when it happens*, and I imagine, because our culture is terrible at death and also because death is just hard, that person may have a difficult time knowing what to say and do. I want them to have a ready helper: this book to read aloud (or at least the knowledge of it to rely on) to comfort both of us.

(Less finally, I may have injuries or incapacities yet ahead of me in life. It seems to me that such a touchstone might come in handy for less mortal circumstances too.)

There’s a third reason, connected to the last. 

The book doesn’t have a title, but it has a quote on the flyleaf, a sparklet from The Florilegia Project, in fact: “how valuable it is, in these short days.” It’s from Molly Fisk’s graceful poem “Winter Sun”, which I discovered in this beautiful collection**. 

We never know how short or long this individual day might be—or our own days generally, or (there’s so much of this in the air now, living as many feel we do at an end of the world), our culture’s or even our species’ days as we know them. And there’s so much of value and of joy inside those days to celebrate. This book—a single copy, written by hand, of the particular poems that allow themselves to echo in my particular memory over time—is one such small and quiet celebration. Fragments I have shored against my ruin—or something like that. (See, that one I do not have memorized.)

_______

I said I had a new project, and I said that this memory-book is not it.

The book’s creation is, however, the genesis. It got me thinking along several specific lines, and out of those is born the project, which does not yet have a name. 

I.

Poetry is for reading, sure, but also, often, for speaking. That last is certainly its older form. I speak poetry to myself quite a lot, out solitary-walking.

Occasionally I’ve been asked to read my own poetry aloud. I love doing this. I’m also scared of it, and not terribly assured in the doing. My poems sound different out loud than in my head; once they’re written, I mostly read them silently. So translating aloud, sometimes I stumble. I need practice.

II.

Most of the time, I connect most deeply with words I hear, rather than words I read in silence. (Sometimes I read aloud to myself to effect this.) I may repeat and ponder them silently later, but to graft them onto my heart, I use speech.

III.

I have hundreds of songs and hymns memorized, plus several liturgical settings from the church I grew up in, and many of the various spoken formulas of my faith.

The holding of these in memory is a formative experience of my life. Not just back in the day when I first did this memorization (mostly unconsciously), but now, every day: an ongoing formation. They’re a background, a lens, and a part of my identity. They’re quite often a comfort.

IV.

The poems I have by heart function like that, too. But there are far fewer of them.

Partially, this is because I didn’t memorize a lot of poetry in childhood. (I did memorize some delightfully silly Shel Silverstein poems for campfire recitation; ask me to recite “Warning” sometime; it’s my favorite.)

So, in the last couple of years, I’ve started intentionally adding to my mental collection. 

It always sounds daunting—at least to me—to commit whole poems to memory. Turns out, though: I can still do it. You can too. The human brain is amazing.

V.

I love the practice of sitting with (walking with, breathing with) a single poem.

I am one of those people who wants to read everything, learn everything, more more more. Lately I have been learning to do less, and do it deeply.

Even writing those words, I can feel my greedy brain hasten to smooth over the actions they imply: the magazines I love and don’t get around to reading; the books I buy and don’t read, sometimes for years; the ballet class I won’t be going back to when it restarts, because it’s too late at night; the places I don’t travel and films I don’t see. Hush, brain. This is ok.

One thing about doing (and, specifically reading) less that’s better than ok: it clarifies my thinking by giving my thinking space. Yes, I know this is nothing new, but it is new to me, and I am in love with it. One reason I’m writing these words is to remind my future self: rediscover this love.

VI.

One thing I don’t have in memory is much of my own poetry.

I have, at this point, written plenty of poems. Certainly over a hundred that are “finished” and that meet my standard of beauty and value; about 30 published or about to be so. And I could not, as I was making the cover of this memory-book, call to mind more than one in its entirety. (Is that odd? Do poets today, working mostly in writing and not in speech, usually memorize their work?)

Anyway, I want to commit more of my own work to my heart as well as my voice, alongside much more poetry I love by other people. So this (at last!) is my project:

Twice a month, for one year, I will learn a new poem (or revisit an old one). I will spend time with it every day: learning it, maybe writing it out, turning it over like a small river stone in my pocket. And at the end of a couple of weeks I will recite it.

To you, if you want to hear it.

This is the accountability bit: there it will be, in my voice, posted on my website semi-regularly for anyone to hear, scoff at, comment upon, puzzle over, whatever you find yourself doing with both the poem and my voice speaking it. 

I promised in paragraph one that you could participate. I’d be grateful indeed if you did, and here are three ways you can:

1) Take a chance on listening to my (short! I promise!) recordings. Send any thoughts or questions or suggestions my way via comment or email.

2) Help me name this undertaking. Right now it’s getting vaguely called after the memory-book. If you have a suggestion, please leave it in the comments. 

3) Suggest some poems to me. I can’t guarantee I’ll love them or that my brain will want to learn them, but I will be glad to read them and find out!

So what do you think, friends? Come listen to some poems with me? Maybe memorize and record one of your own? (I would love to hear it!) We all need something to get through this present moment. I’d be pleased for you to join me. 

_________

* I conceived this project, and wrote the first draft of this introduction to it, before COVID-19 changed all of our lives. How and with whom folks are thinking about death these days has shifted. But I didn’t change my words above, because this pandemic is not the only reason to think about what it means to have a good death, or to set things in order for the loved ones you hope will survive you. “Things in order” is poetry, in this case: a little piece of comfort and ease in a big and difficult transition. But of course I also mean your will, your advance directive, your spiritual practice, your worldly affairs. 

**Since many of us are buying more books these days, can I make a plug for purchasing from your local bookstore instead of Amazon? Amazon has deprioritized books anyway. Please help your local small businesses stay afloat in this Interesting Time. If you don’t have a local bookstore, might I suggest the excellent Fact & Fiction in Missoula, Montana? Or my own local, Annie Bloom’s in Multnomah Village, Portland, Oregon?

Your Own Holy Text

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the third in an ongoing column about the creative practice.

Sometimes I hear someone talking about a thing they love or watch them doing a thing that’s part of their identity, and I imagine them writing a poem about it.

My friend, for example, who shapes and measures and tests recipes with the kind of minute attention I give to the placement of a comma. 

My mom, who is some kind of sorceress of flora. (The most practical kind imaginable: magic is work, and sometimes it hurts her back and her getting-older hands.) 

My dad, who has a hundred aviation adventure stories that light up his voice when he tells them.

My cousin, who not only sets out to read the entirety of Shakespeare’s work in a year, but also writes essays about each encounter, occasionally drawing some startling connections.

My husband, who listens for ways to bring friends, family, and perfect strangers joy, and crafts accordingly. (He is such a Hufflepuff.)

I don’t want to write a poem about these things in the voices of their particular humans. I know that’s a thing poets do, especially with historical persons or our own ancestors. It’s a function of poetry, maybe: lending our voices in attempts at understanding. It doesn’t feel right here.

For one thing, I’m talking about living people. You all have your own voices. They’re beautiful. I guess I’m a little drunk on that right now. 

For another, this is a metaphor. The way certain folks lavish the same physical and verbal care on their enthusiasms as I do on a poem — I guess the thing my poet-brain does is immediately imagine them actually writing a poem.

All of this is to say — I don’t know, what am I saying right now? Your life is a poem? Some motivational-poster noise like that? (I mean, that stuff is on motivational posters for a reason, and no, that reason is not only consumer capitalism.)

Maybe it’s to say you should write a poem. If you want to. It’s hard, sure. Sometimes. It’s kinda mystical, sometimes. Equally, it’s not difficult at all, and equally, it’s just another way of making beauty and/or sense of the world, of telling a moment — or a relationship, or a flower, or a lifetime — as you experience it.

You might be perfectly content writing poems by digging in the dirt, or carefully leveling a cup of flour, or teasing out and tying together threads from Through the Looking Glass and Henry VI

So, not writing poems. 

The phrase “you do you” covers a multitude of vaguenesses, but this is the kind of application where it shines. The world is slightly terrifying right now. I love watching people put beautiful, creative, utterly themselves things into it. Balancing the scales.

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This is one reason I write poetry, of course. It’s my gift, and I’m often frightened, too. My poems are my feather on the cosmic scale. 

Another reason: because I have to, because to do so gives me a joy I can’t live without. (I could exist without it, but that is not the same.) Writing poems cuts me open, also, quite often. This is not incompatible with joy, which gathers pain and sadness as close as it does contentment and exhilaration. 

But there is doing a thing because you have to, viscerally, and there is figuring out how doing that thing dovetails with your philosophy of life: what you want to give, what you want to achieve, who you want to be and why. When I started to think about it seriously, I realized I write poetry* because, on one level, figuring out life philosophy is my life philosophy. So really what I’m doing is writing my own holy text.

A number of extant texts are important enough to the ongoing formation of my identity to be called, for me, holy. The Psalms. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (a hymn and liturgy book), and its predecessor, which has a name but which I mostly call The Green Book. Most of Mary Oliver’s work, and Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poems. Guy Gavriel Kay’s fiction, Robert Macfarlane’s non-fiction. 

For the rest, it’s inside me. Or the inside of me interacting with the outside of everything else. And as someone who doesn’t garden, or cook, or story-tell, or gift, or critically assay to discover and nurture my place in the world, I do instead what my particular joy dictates: I compose. 

Holy texts, flawed and fragile as any other human endeavor, have bits and pieces of rubbish left in them. The Psalms, for example. Some of those singers turn pettiness and vengeance into high art, and I read those lines with distaste. And… this is also part of what I connect to in those rousing appeals for deliverance from suffering. I, too, often write poems to companion myself in difficult moments, times when I’m being tugged out by the tide. 

And I also hope, of course, that my own low tides will speak to a reader somewhere, some other when, and bring them comfort, or strength, or a feeling of being seen and understood. I often revise for that person. But I don’t compose for them. I do that to fill my own depthless well of unknown longing. To conjure something beautiful from the nothing-times. To make an honored guest of that lonely, that particular echoing pull.

Granted, I write poetry from a place of contentment, too, very often. Though even that tends to illuminate shadows at its edges. That’s part of my life philosophy: in all experience, its opposite—and from this understanding I try to live toward kindness, appreciation, and generosity. I try to do this because I am not gifted at it. Poetry (among many teachers) is mentoring me toward it, showing me how I need to grow. Other people’s poetry, most certainly, and also the process of writing it myself. Writing my own holy text.

You are doing this too. (I guess I’m bringing us back around to those motivational posters.) Possibly you don’t know it, but that’s life, so often: you create the type of work you practice.

So maybe that’s what I’m trying to say: practice, with an intentional heart. Gift to yourself, and the rest of us, your joy. Your holy text.**

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*And everything else. But poetry, for me, is a distilled form of literature, the most potent. Your milage may vary. 

**And, you know, if you feel like it, go write a poemYes I know I linked that twice. Because it’s great.