Join the Society for the Preservation of Tangibility

Wendell Berry takes my breath away sometimes. In the passage below, he speaks of hope and imagination. It is from an interview he did with Erik Reece for Garden and Gun in 2011:

The barbecue is delicious, the company fine, the weather perfect. All of this seems to inspire Wendell to reveal his plans to found another subversive cabal: the Society for the Preservation of Tangibility. The tangible—that which has actual form and substance. In a culture of avatars, electronic friends, and financial “products” that have no basis in reality, such a fundamentally human society sounds attractive indeed.

We all immediately ask if we can join. “Anyone can join,” Wendell replies. “There are no dues, no meetings, no fund drives, no newsletter.” There is only a state of mind, a desire to preserve what’s authentic, what holds substance, what aspires to the whole.

The possibility that a broken world can be made whole seems to be what calls Wendell down to his riverside desk every day. “A man cannot despair,” he once wrote, “if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility.” To imagine—it is perhaps the most powerful moral force we possess because it maps a future that is worth finding. It has been Wendell’s life’s work.

Categories: Embodied and mundane, Mind, body, and spirit | Tags: , | 1 Comment

19th century asylums: a reading list

Last year I developed an interest in the stories of women committed to insane asylums. Why is this intriguing? For starters, it is important to understand the history of women’s rights in general, and of women’s power to determine their own identity and role in society in particular. The 19th century insane asylum is a hotbed of power issues and a fascinating–yet disturbing–setting for a story. You’ll see this as a common thread in these stories as women attempt to fight back against their prescribed roles.


from “The Insane in Foreign Countries” by William Pryor Letchworth, 1889. “To prevent the body strap from slipping down, a loose circular band of leather extends from the front edge over the head and lodges broadly on the shoulders, which is also secured behind by a loop-hole and small strap attached to one of the rings through which the pin is directed. By this method the whole is preserved from being shifted, and it most completely prevents the use of either hand for any injurious purpose. “


The novels on this list each create a world in which the writer can ask big questions. I’ve got a quotation from Barbara Kingsolver tucked away in my commonplace book that speaks to this:

I devise a very big question whose answer I believe will be amazing, and maybe shift the world a little bit on its axis. Then I figure out how to create a world in which that question can be asked and answered.

~ Barbara Kingsolver, on her writing process

Without further ado, here’s my list:


  1. Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. I haven’t read this yet; I’ve only just come across its existence after reading Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft blazed a path into feminist territory, introducing the concept of egalitarian relationships between men and women. I am a huge Mary Shelley fan (I believe she is the Kevin Bacon of the literary world) and have only just dipped into her mother’s work.
  2. Sarah Waters, Fingersmith. Set in the late 19th century London slums, this novel twists and turns through a broad range of emotional, physical, and ethical territory. Definitely a provocative page turner.
  3. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. I haven’t read this, but just saw that it likely inspired Fingersmith, so I’m including it. It was first published in 1860 and is a classic mashup of Victorian Gothic and Realism.
  4. Kathy Hepinstall, Blue Asylum. This one is from the Civil War period and sets the protagonist, Iris Dunleavy, in a state of powerlessness rooted in isolation, both political and geographic. The muggy swampy Florida landscape will draw you into the slow hot world of Iris’ story.
  5. Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace. This was the story that got me started down this topic path. Set in 1843 Canada, this is based on real events.
  6. Marcia Hamilcar, Legally Dead: Experiences During Seventeen Weeks Detention in a Private Asylum. This appears to be a work of nonfiction, and it’s interesting to see that the preface was written by a doctor who offers disclaimers and defense of contemporary practices.
  7. Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House. This one is also nonfiction, the work of journalist Nellie Bly who in 1887 pretended to be insane in order to report on the conditions inside Blackwell’s Island Asylum.
  8. Megan Chance, An Inconvenient Wife. Chance’s narrative gets to the heart of female identity and power in ways that modern readers will relate to. Lucy is an upper-class woman in the 1880s who longs for sex and art, both completely taboo desires for a woman in her position.

Goodness knows there are many more titles out there, and you can easily find longer, better descriptions that what I’ve written here. I’ve linked to Goodreads for most of these, so that’s a great place to start. Listopia has a list called Victorian Asylums, so check that out too. I’m planning to work my way through that list over the course of the year, but I’m terrible at recording what I read on Goodreads. If you are there, let’s connect.

Happy reading!


Here’s a bonus nugget of Quaker history from Max Carter regarding this drawing below:

The Quakers, following in the footsteps of the English Friends who established the world’s first mental hospital, the Retreat in York, in the 1790s, purposefully described it as a hospital and pioneered in using botanical therapy. The azalea gardens are still a major attraction and opened to the public each spring


Philadelphia, 1817. Established by the Society of Friends “for the care of such of their members as may be deprived of their reason.” Image from page 136 of “The institutional care of the insane in the United States and Canada” (1916)

Categories: Commonplacing and quotes, Reading, writing, and stories | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stories from the land (of Oz)

The Yellow Brick Road

The Yellow Brick Road and beyond

When I first learned about an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park in the mountains, I couldn’t resist. At the time, I was taking a creative nonfiction class and had essays to write, so I planned my adventure with an eventual essay in mind.


Afterwards, sitting at my desk, I sifted through my notes, photos, memories, and thoughts about the experience and drafted a mess to be workshopped by my peers in class. With feedback and advice in hand, I let the work stew for a while until I had some clarity regarding sequencing and organization.

View from the peak

View from the peak

Eventually, I knew exactly what to do: Rather than organizing the essay around me and my adventure there, I needed to organize the essay around the land and the stories it held. From there, reworking the narrative was simple. After sending it out to a few places I had success in October. (Yay!)

So what did I learn? Listen. Write. Share. Allow the story to unfurl. Write some more. Persist.

You can read the essay in the 2015 New Southerner Literary Edition.


Balloon frame

Balloon frame

Categories: Earth and sky, Reading, writing, and stories | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Local Quaker lands and stories

I’ve recently joined a walking group that meets on Wednesdays. We crossed paths on a September morning on the Palmetto Trail and struck up a conversation that led us to discover common friends and a shared interest in nature. Each week this group explores a different place, and one Wednesday in October we explored the New Garden Friends Meeting Cemetery and the woods over at Guilford College. Max Carter, whose mind is an encyclopedia of Quaker history, led the way. He wore his trademark sandals despite the weather, and we spent two fascinating hours under the wide open Quaker-gray sky that dripped rain off and on.

The familiar way he hopped around the cemetery from grave to grave showed his deep connection to the people whose lives played out on the same soil we walked on. We heard stories about Quaker families from Nantucket (such as the Starbuck family) and from other parts of North Carolina, families that moved south from Philadelphia then back north to Indiana to distance themselves from slavery. Non-Quakers, soldiers from both sides of major wars, mass graves, the Revolutionary oak tree, the cornerstones from the tiny schoolhouse—this cemetery offers a wide-angle lens on the long history of social justice advocated by Quakers.

Just across the street from New Garden Friends Meeting is Guilford College, once known as the New Garden Boarding School. The area was settled in the 17th century by Quakers who, according to Max, took care not to settle on land already being used by native people. The 300+ acres of old-growth forest have been a refuge for centuries, home to a variety of plants and animals that are mostly undisturbed. In centuries past, the woods were a safe haven for black people escaping slavery. Local women hung baskets of food from trees for them, and the Underground Railroad led them north to freedom.

Follow the paths through the woods and you’ll find yourself at what locals call the Underground Railroad tree, a tulip poplar with a five-foot girth, estimated to be hundreds of years old. (Here are directions to find the tree yourself.) This is the place where we ended our tour, soaked from the rain, drenched in local history, standing in awe at the power and persistence of this old tree and surrounding forest.


We followed Max out of the forest and packed into our car. On the way back up to the main section of campus, I caught a glimpse of a white animal off to the side of the road, just in the woods.

My first thought was that its ears were from a deer, but the white, it was maybe a goat? “I just saw something odd …”

“What’d you see?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a goat? I don’t know, it was white, I wonder if it was a deer?”

We backed up the car and looked: a young albino deer was grazing the hill to the side of the road. Flanked by siblings, it was shy but not scared. We must have watched that white deer for nearly five minutes, as it worked its way deeper into the woods. In many cultures, white deer are considered sacred, as harbingers of change and messengers from the divine. So, it felt entirely appropriate that we’d experience this magical ending to our morning, to feel steeped in the refuge offered by Quaker grounds.


photo credit: Mary Luckhaus

Categories: Connectedness and community, Curiosity, learning, and purpose, Earth and sky, Reading, writing, and stories | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Good human work


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Due out in November: History Will be Kind: An Anthology of Historical Fiction

history-kind-sml-2My days of writing fiction feel like history, yet I’ve got a story floating around still. My short story “Into the Forest” has been included in The Copperfield Review‘s first anthology. Books are now available to order! And if you’re on Goodreads, go visit our page there.

This gorgeous cover was designed by Robin Ludwig–I love its warmth. Special thanks also to Meredith Allard, the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review and of this anthology.

“Into the Forest” is based on one of my husband’s ancestors. According to family legend, Mourning Medley was a Cherokee woman who, along with her children, was rounded up and taken to the holding pen at Fort Butler. That was one of the places where the United States soldiers took the captive Cherokee people to await the long journey that would later come to be fortbutlerfortbutler2known as the Trail of Tears.

She was later rescued from the staging area by a man named Samuel Medley, but no one has been able to discover any records to find out who he was or why he did it. I had so much fun looking and talking to family in other parts of the country, but we all reached a dead end.

Fort Butler is now a small park in Murphy, North Carolina.

A few years ago, I decided to find it. I asked around town to find the park, but few people there knew what I was looking for. Eventually I found some women outside at a yard sale who were able to point me in the right direction. The park is up on a hill overlooking the town and surrounded by littered woods and poverty. At some point, it seems that someone cared enough to create a monument and set aside this space, but the neglect left me feeling sad and angry. Has history been kind to the Cherokee people?

Categories: Connectedness and community, Reading, writing, and stories | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

Surrender to nature’s time

Every now and then a theme bubbles up from my thoughts out on the trail. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the shared agency we have with nature. About how once we enter the forest, we’re experiencing life on mother nature’s terms.

Spiders have woven webs across the trail, not to make a sticky mess for me, but because that’s where they live and what they do. Herons are out on the lake fishing for their lunch–not posing for pictures. Our experiences in the natural world are necessarily passive, if we’re to respect the sovereignty of other species and their homes.


I hiked a trail recently looking for a particular tree, a trail marker tree, but along the way I allowed myself to see and discover other interesting things happening. I spent more time than I intended, but the hike refreshed me and in the end I was full.

David Abrams writes about our embodied experiences in the natural world in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous:

This wild expanse has its own timing, its rhythms of dawning and dusk, its seasons of gestation and bud and blossom. It is here, and not in linear history, that the ravens reside.

Are you craving a slow afternoon with nature? Cyndy Wolfe and I are planning a Nia and Nature Journaling event on OCTOBER 4TH. We’d love for you to join us out at Timberlake Earth Sanctuary to dance, make a nature journal, and spend solo time with nature. (Click on the image for a larger view.)


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Follow the topic trail

Two months into grad school to study writing and editing I discovered commonplace books and fell in love. I started out


Throwback Thursday

looking into the ways they feed creative output and moved into the history of the genre and the ways the genre split and fed other social forms. I discovered a group of Quaker women in colonial Philadelphia who got together for teatime and commonplacing. Thoreau and Emerson got involved when I read their shared commonplace book. The subject snowballed into material book culture, reading habits, and brain science.

It was my first semester back in school, and I initially chose this topic because I wanted an overlapping topic to use for my two seminar papers. In one class I studied the Quaker women and their writing, and in the other I studied the genre in a more holistic manner.

For the two years that followed, I pulled more and more into this topic, and towards the end of my program I wrote a nonfiction book proposal. Today I’ve started pulling out files and putting some thoughts together.

Fun fact: Women in colonial Philadelphia (as well as in other places) raised silkworms to support the colonies in their fight for independence. By producing silk and other fabrics, they reduced the need to buy from England. Only tangentially related to commonplace books, but still interesting I think.

July 1749, from a magazine titled

July 1749, from a magazine titled “Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure”

In fact, the trail of topics is precisely what makes a commonplace book interesting, entertaining, and useful. Who out there keeps a commonplace book? Who wants to start one? 

Categories: Commonplacing and quotes, Curiosity, learning, and purpose, Reading, writing, and stories | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Nature journals for the rest of us

I didn’t realize how badly I needed a creative outlet until I started putting together the journals for a recent workshop event. I’d been stashing away ideas on my Pinterest boards, and pulled together a set of journals to celebrate the Full Flower Moon on May 3rd.

For my first trick, I cut paper bags into long sheets, soaked them, and hung them to dry. Finally, a chance to do something cool with those Trader Joe’s bags I’ve been hoarding! Once they were dry, I ironed them (if you try this at home, cover the paper with a cloth) and cut them to size.

traderjoesbagI used the paper bag pieces for journal covers, gluing on another paper printed with the event title and a wonderful passage from Peter London’s book, Drawing Closer to Nature.

The text block was mainly printed pages I created with InDesign, with a few pages cut from discarded books and other papers from my stash. (I’m an avid collector of found paper. I’ve even got some wrapping paper decorated with events from the 1976 Olympics! I’m sure someday it will fit a project, right?)

I set up the nature journals in landscape format, using half a page of standard letter-sized paper. Since I used a variety of materials, I didn’t even try to match up the edges and sizes of all the pages perfectly. I bound the journals using a tortoise shell pattern, a new one for me. (I’ve been playing with Japanese stab bindings for a while now.)

finished flowermoonjournal

The end result was a nature journal that we felt comfortable using. When I teach a nature journaling workshop, I try to reach people where they are. Most of us aren’t experienced artists, we’re just regular people who want to sit and pay attention to what’s happening on our small patch of earth.

I’ve been to a few classes in nature journaling, and while I did pick up a few neat tricks in terms of drawing technique, most of what I’ve read and seen has been fairly intimidating and a tad beyond the reach of my current skill set. You don’t need a fancy journal to collect your nature experiences.

I added a small wax paper pocket for us to save a leaf or other item. Over the course of my wanderings that evening, I found the item my pocket was meant to hold — a wedding favor that had dropped on the ground the day before. A simple thing: a toothpick with the date on it. (Probably also courtesy of Pinterest?)


On the other side:


So of course, after a bit of reflection, I concluded that the day was mine. That was the message I took to the bench overlooking ferns and beech trees: My journal is mine. My day is mine.

That is how a nature journal should be — make it yours.

Categories: Earth and sky, Material book culture and bookmaking | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

One notebook to rule them all

Maybe you’re like me and you keep a paper planner, a writing notebook, a nature journal, scraps of shopping lists, index cards with quotes on them, and so on. I’ve tried to go paperless using Google calendar and Evernote, but the truth of the matter is that I love paper, fancy pens, and all that. Material book culture pleases me.


You know what else pleases me? Meeting the carpool on time. Meeting my copy-editing deadlines. Removing apostrophes from plural nouns. Watching the ants circling peony buds. Enjoying a meal cooked by my teenage son. Doing all the things.

You may be able to relate to the long list of scattered tasks. Especially if you’re an entrepreneur. Chris Guillebeau writes articles that resonate, in particular this one from February: “How to Run a Business and Still Care for Your Family.”

Priorities are not just a question of time, in other words, they are also a question of focus and intention. I think it’s important for each of us to be able to say:

This is what I am living for.

This is what matters.

I will select these values and allow them to be my compass.

The way this is lived out may be different than how other people live, or it may even be totally unique.

So what are you living for? What matters? How do you translate these things into a life?


My friends, here’s an idea: Focus your scattered paper energy. Ditch the dozens of notebooks, planners, journals, scraps, and rubber-banded index cards.

Two words: Bullet Journal.

I started one in March and fell in love immediately. One notebook to rule them all. It’s indexed, so I can find my quotes, my reading list, my nature drawings, my lecture notes, my essay starts and story maps, and my daily schedule. I use a Leuchtturm1917 medium-sized book with dotted pages.


Granted, it’s not as neatly written now as when I started, but it’s highly functional, and functional is what I’m after.

naturejournalpageGo find a notebook and try a bullet journal. Like all systems, it’s tweakable. Make up collections as you go. Make it do what you need it to do. Make a mess.

Just don’t lose it!

Categories: Commonplacing and quotes, Curiosity, learning, and purpose, Embodied and mundane, Material book culture and bookmaking | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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