Author Archives: Heidi Stahl

About Heidi Stahl

I am a writer and editor. Thanks to the miracles of modern-day technology, I earn my daily bread by working for the University of Washington in Seattle, while living in one of my favorite places in the world: Cape Cod. Occasionally, I post my reflections on other people's words here.


My practice is writing. My practice is paying attention, observing, noticing what changes within in response to what changes without. My practice is sending love to the natural world. Is that true? I think so. Feeling kinship with trees.

I like to observe the small details: the light on the plants that thrive on the edge of the woods. The water stains from years of rain on the nail heads on the side of the shed. The quiet signs of life.

Of course the usual doubts arise: Is this practice enough? How does it compare to others’? Does it look magical enough? It doesn’t involve scrying into a crystal ball. I don’t adorn myself in special clothes. My practice isn’t tipping Donald Trump off the public stage.

But my practice does involve ritual, and when I think about it, I do use a magic wand (a BIC Round Stick, blue, medium point).

Even though those thoughts arise, I have enough curiosity to combat the habitual doubt. I have enough experience, enough time with good teachers to recognize the habitual doubt as little more than a well established reflex, real but not true, to quote Tara Brach.

Part of my practice, therefore, is practicing trust, practicing imagination — trusting and imagining that my presence and intention and loving observation and even my restraint make a difference. That my showing up wherever I show up — at work, at the printing press, waiting in line with a crowd of restless fellow humans — makes a difference.

Part of my practice is abiding with uncertainty and an absence of proof.

Some of my practice these days is discernment. Listening and feeling for the words and thoughts that most want to take form. Listening. Staying present for the sometimes long spaces of quiet between impulses to write or speak.

Part of my practice is recognizing the power of written and spoken words to open new possibilities, new worlds, and therefore to respect the necessary silence and to choose with care.

Part of my practice is noticing how doubt can be an unintentional ally. How it spurs me to articulation.

Part of my practice is noticing how I tumble into another world as I move the pen across the page.

Part of my practice is letting go and allowing something else like comfort or spaciousness to arise when I cease needing to know my impact.

Part of my practice is recognizing my practice.


coda: As I feel myself propelled into another world by these words, I notice how confident it sounds, more confident than I actually usually feel. And that is part of the power of word making, spell casting. The process of writing is a building, a forming, a casting. And that’s probably why I love to write, why it is my practice. As I discover what words lie in wait, and write them, I am filled with whole sentences of clarity and purpose.

“Tell me if I finally did something right”

I originally wrote this in response to an invitation to reflect on spending time with kids. A post on Facebook today reminded me of it, so I decided to post here. Enjoy.


Not having kids of my own, nor being a teacher, I don’t spend a lot of time around children. But this past year I had the opportunity to go into schools and lead a couple of poetry workshops to middle school students. The faces and spirits of some are with me still. A few of the boys, tender and vulnerable as they teeter on the threshold of adolescence, continue to teach me.

There were the boys at Carver Middle School who could barely contain their astonishment when I prefaced a poem by telling them that I’d spent 10 days being silent on purpose. Their questions came thick and fast. “Whaaa?? I couldn’t do that for five minutes!!” “Would you get in trouble if you talked?” “Did anyone get kicked out?” “How did you eat?” “Why did you do that???” For a moment I thought we would spend our entire hour together talking about meditation. Their open amazement at encountering something so weird and new was a delight to behold.

And there was the 6th-grade boy at the School Day of Poetry in Fall River. Small for his age, he appeared even smaller next to the 8th grade girls who chattered happily before class about make-up, hair, and “pre-nups.” Feeling my own fear of these brash sophisticates, my heart went out to that small boy at the next table shrinking into invisibility and I wondered if he’d remain silent the entire class.

So I was stunned and thrilled when, at a particularly chaotic, boisterous moment, as all the students were supposed to be writing, he raised his skinny little arm and waved me over. Looking up from under his Patriots ski hat, he thrust his paper at me and asked, “Would you look at this and tell me if I finally did something right?”

In response to the prompt to write about a special place, he’d written a simple, wobbly, hopeful, naive, beautiful poem about a world of justice, freedom, and peace. A world that we would surely have one day if we worked hard enough.

I leaned down, gently patted his back, and said, “You did something really right. This is beautiful.” And he nodded and mumbled his thanks.

When I asked for volunteers to read their work aloud, he was the first one on his feet, sharing his tender vision, putting his small voice out into that rambunctious classroom.

Later, I thanked God for giving that boy the courage to ask me to read his work, for letting me be the one who got to say, “Yes, this is beautiful. Keep going.” What a privilege. I don’t know what kind of sorrows or frustrations made him feel like he usually got things wrong. I just know that he taught me something about courage and perseverance. And that we were both given a few moments of grace.

The gift of summer traffic

Driving to the office today, I got stuck in a traffic jam on 28. This is a fairly typical occurrence in the summer here. You learn to live with it, or stay home. The slowdown often begins around St. Anthony’s, continues past the pond, then up the rise past Dunkin Donuts to the new big traffic light at Davisville and Old Meeting House Roads. After that, it’s usually smooth sailing into Mashpee. Today was unusual for the persistence of the jam. And I was unusually patient…perhaps because I’ve been meditating the last few days and listening to podcasts of Tara Brach.

The jam did start somewhere around Dunkies, where I found myself more than willing to pause and allow cars in and out of the portals to and from the drive-thru. Did I imagine the relief on drivers’ faces when they saw a car stop to let them pass? Did I imagine the throb of pleasure I felt in having the spaciousness to offer generosity? Offering kindness rather than gripping the steering wheel, hellbent on getting where I was going, a bittersweet pulse rippled through me.

Beyond the traffic light, down in the dip just past Rocky’s Gym, beside the cranberry bog, I noticed a dirt road I’d never seen before. A few feet further, stopped again, I had moments to look right and discover a river opening out toward the Sound, green marsh grass growing in soft curves banking the water.

Up by the entrance to Green Pond Fish Market, I let more cars in and out, met their waves of thanks with my own. I felt that throb once more, a wild throb of sadness for all the times of rushing and rigidity, a quiet throb of gratitude for this moment of grace, in which generosity came easily. Stuck by some unknown cause further down the road (an accident? road work?), anything but patience would have been absurd.

I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness lately. How it can feel so small and worthless in this current political and social moment. How easy it is for doubt and fear to trump kindness. Whether kindness actually does anything, has any life past its initial moment between two beings.

I can’t measure the impact of those waves, can’t research the energy exchange between two humans in their cars on a summer Tuesday morning and determine whether giving way to another person made a difference in their day. I can, though, feel the gorgeous opening of my spirit, the slightly fearful but also sweet wash of energy when I fulfill what my best self always longs to do. I can hope that, as when kindness is sent my way, the recipient feels a moment of lightening, a sense that all is not lost, a renewed capacity to believe that we human animals can still act beyond our own interests.




Appreciating the gift of one’s work

Sometime this summer one of my poems will appear in Salamander Magazine. This is, I think, the fifth poem of mine to be published, and feels very different from other times. Actually, it may be the sixth, if I count that one that was published in the high school newspaper. And one of those other poems I initially published by taping a hand-written copy to the door of the dining hall at Indralaya (anonymously).

At any rate, I’m noticing how different this time around publication feels. The overriding feeling is an increasing sense of detachment and at the same time a feeling of the poem coming back to me as a gift from the creative ether. Somehow seeing it go out into the world, I’m now able (or encouraged) to step back and see what was given me in the process of writing the poem. (This may also be feeling different because it is the culmination of a decade of writing, a decade of working through layers of thought and feeling all called into consciousness by a moment in a hospital. Then taken through several workshops, where it was held and palpated with varying degrees of attention and care.) Now that it has been accepted, with one final edit, and now that I have seen it arranged on the page by other hands, I can begin to enjoy it in a way that I enjoy the writing of others. I can see in it parallels and images and connections I hadn’t seen before.

Most of all, I can relax into the truth of its birth through creative collaboration — that yes, the initial impulse came from my encounter with a very different kind of poetry in an oncology waiting room, and it was my continuing awakening to that encounter, my choice to make time and room for the chemical reaction that ensued, and to continue working the irritations that arose. At the same time, I see the support and input and guidance of various teachers and readers, and the faint impression of something I cannot name but know that it comes from the creative energy we are always surrounded by and too often don’t see or mistake for our own ego’s brilliance and invention.

Speaking of ego, news of this poem’s publication initially sent me into a flurry of shoulds — you should publish more, you should write more, you should send more out — but when I felt into what I really wanted, beyond the ego’s constant itching for validation, into a playful, excited energy of desire and curiosity, it was to spend more time with this poem, to fully receive what had been given to me and to more fully appreciate the gifts of this partnership with…whatever it is out there. So for now I’m learning how to do letterpress so that I can create a broadside of the poem, and that process is leading to its own series of creative gifts and new ideas and humorous blunders and healing learnings. And the space created by moving into a different creative endeavor is, perhaps, refreshing me for a later dive back into depths that will yield more poetry.

Spring Pools at 4 a.m.

I can’t sleep, and I’ve tried all the usual solutions: warm milk, melatonin, hot bath with Aura Cacia Tranquil Chamomile (Roman Chamomile, Lavender, Patchouli). So I decided to stop fighting the insomnia and consider the possibility that something wants to be written and it’s that something that is keeping me awake. When I did a little asking around, the answer came back that Robert Frost’s poem, Spring Pools, raised its hand. So here’s a little post about Spring Pools.

I found the poem this week while diving into The Ecopoetry Anthology (and you can even find a PDF sample online, I just discovered), a book I bought while I was still living in Seattle. I pulled out the book this week because I’ve been working on a recalcitrant little (or perhaps book-length?) poem that has me asking lots of questions about trees, bogs, swamps, brambles, thorns, mud, loam, etc. and I figured some sidewinding into other poems might help shake out a few words. I was stunned when I came across Spring Pools:

These pools that, though in forest, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods–
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

Why was I stunned? First, I’d never known about this poem, never read it before, never even heard of it. It’s not one of the big Robert Frost poems that people always refer to.

Second, I forget how dark Frost can be, and I forget about his fascination with darkness and light. There’s the tension throughout Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, the speaker wanting to stay and watch the woods fill up with snow, wanting to stay in the lovely, dark, deep woods, but having to wrest himself away from the pull of the dark to resume his life in the world. And in Design, the line: “What but design of darkness to appall?” A line that gets even more interesting when you realize that in the root of “appall” is “pale”, the word describing the physiological response of going pale in the face of something disturbing, troubling, horrifying. The poem describes a white flower, a spotted spider, and the moth captured by the spider, and the speaker is troubling over the amorality, I think, of nature. The darkness in nature’s design turns the speaker pale.

I like the way that Frost turns the seasons around in Spring Pools, seeming to prefer the clarity of late winter. In the early spring, before the buds have opened, the pool can mirror the “total sky” nearly perfectly, “almost without defect”. The unfurling and surge of spring seems almost sinister, the thirst of the trees draining away the pools. The “pent-up buds” seem almost criminal, their hunger for life, Frost separates, puts at odds with “nature” although of course the trees and buds are part of nature. But he casts them as figures that “darken” nature. Summer isn’t typically thought of as a dark season, but in this poem it is. Those thirsty leaves are destructive as they “blot out” “drink up” “sweep away” the preferred pool. I love the way that line hammers home the speaker’s view, perhaps his anger or sense of loss or futility or inevitability, with not one, not two, but three verb-adverb phrases.

Other stuff I love in this poem:
1) the parallel in the first stanza: “And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver, /
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,” the daring internal rhyme and rhythm of that move, and the way that the parallel construction also underscores the sense of everything whisking away, the unstoppable change and loss in the movement of the seasons.
2) the parallel of adverbs in the last two lines of the first stanza: “not out by any brook or river” “but up by roots” and the subtle suggestion that the former would be preferable or more natural. Why would “out by any brook or river” be preferable to “up by roots”? Maybe it wouldn’t. Why is the thirst of a brook or river less disturbing than the thirst of tree roots? I don’t know. And maybe this preference isn’t there. But there is something in the “And” and “But” that suggests a preference to me.
3) the hidden source of the angst. For what anguish is all this loss a metaphor? There are no humans in this poem. Even the speaker is less present than the speaker in Stopping By Woods (besides, there’s that horse and the owner of the woods, presumably tucked up in his house in the village), and certainly less than in Flower Gathering. Who is the speaker and what is going on in his life that has him turning summer into a season of death and longing for pristine early spring to stop in its tracks?

Well, this may have done the trick. I feel my eyelids getting heavy. And I certainly feel deeper inside the poem than I did an hour ago.

I have some thoughts that this might be a fun exercise to pursue. So maybe you’ll see more of these posts in the near future.

For now, good night. Good morning.

“Wholly Consort with Mirth and Sport…

…to drive the cold winter away.”

This line comes from a carol called The Praise of Christmas. The author is anonymous, its origin dated sometime before 1625. The carols first came to my attention almost 20 years ago, in an instrumental version on a CD called New England Christmastide 2. Their arrangement of The Praise of Christmas combines it with Adeste Fideles, with Praise coming in quietly after a few lines like a rider on horseback in snowy woods. The first time I heard it I was so moved I burst into happy tears. Today it occurred to me to investigate it a bit, and I found the lyrics:

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all the rest of the year,
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor as the peer!
Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend
That doth but the best that he may,
Forgetting old wrongs with carols and songs
To drive the cold winter away.

Tis ill for a mind to anger inclined
To think of small injuries now,
If wrath be to seek, do not lend her your cheek
Nor let her inhabit thy brow.
Cross out of thy books malevolent looks,
Both beauty and youth’s decay,
And wholly consort with mirth and sport
To drive the cold winter away.

This time of the year is spent in good cheer
And neighbours together do meet,
To sit by the fire, with friendly desire,
Each other in love to greet.
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot,
All sorrows aside they lay,
The old and the young doth carol this song,
To drive the cold winter away.

When Christmas’s tide comes in a like a bride,
With holly and ivy clad,
Twelve days in the year much mirth and good cheer
In every household is had.
The country guise is then to devise
Some gambols of Christmas play,
Whereat the young men do the best that they can
To drive the cold winter away.

Handwriting Rules!

This research confirms something I’ve long known from experience — writing by hand helps the thinking process and allows us to access parts of the brain that typing does not. I love typing. (I’m doing it right now.) But working on a keyboard leads to and supports a different kind of writing than what results when I take pen in hand. And writing by hand sometimes brings back those memories of learning cursive (oh, the existential angst of the 6-year-old — “will I ever learn how to do this???” and the wonderfully pulpy yellow paper with blue lines that we practiced on). Handwriting takes us into a more soulful level, and allows us to connect to our physical environment, in an increasingly device-driven world. Check out the research:

Why I Call it “Let Yourself Write”

I am a woman who has taken years to learn how to listen. I am the woman who has taken years to recognize her own voice. To wake up to the slight stirring in her ankles that tells her something of import is on its way. The woman who struggles to listen, and sometimes succeeds in listening, in sitting down and listening through her pen. The woman who took a long time to recognize the irritation that signals the need to sit down and write, the irritation that signals, “it’s been too long.” The woman who struggles to sit down, to settle, to calm herself and surrender to writing. The woman who must learn over and over again how sweet that surrender can be, and almost always is.

It takes a long time to listen, to feel how your body responds to images like those limbs out there, the limbs that, in mid-November, still hold pale green yellowing leaves. Or the bare pale white lichened trellis leaning up against the fence, that had been there all the busy golden days of summer and autumn, obscured by the deep pink flowers of Autumn Joy now browning and bending to earth, not to mention the purple Columbine and scarlet Peonies of June. It takes a while, and lots of repeated looking, to notice how good that feels, the looking, especially the looking at the passing. And it takes a long time to recognize that that good feeling is worth paying attention to, that you deserve to feel that good. That the feeling good and that the looking, the beholding, may even be the best kind of prayer. And it may be a kind of work, a scrying over this creation that is longed for by both seer and seen. It may be a kind of communion. You may even hear something like a sigh of consummation, not knowing whether it comes from seer or seen. Only knowing that the sigh signals a job well done, a settling of bones, a celebration from on high.

Writing as Container

I love the ideas Ruth Ozeki conveys here (found in a recent newsletter from the Hedgebrook Writer’s Retreat, on Whidbey Island, Washington State):

“For me,” Ruth commented in an interview with the Guardian, “writing is a way of thinking…I’m a very impatient person, so writing and meditation allow me to slow down and watch my mind; they are containers that keep me in place, hold me still. Language is something that’s been passed down throughout human history. I love the Japanese notion of kotodama – the spirits in words.”

Now my struggle will be to resist Googling “kotodama” and to try to stay focused on my day job. <sigh>

“Not Art”

My attention has been grabbed lately by the appearance of a stenciled, spray-painted, two-word at various places around the Cape: “NOT ART.”

The first time I saw it, adjacent to a sign for a big national kitchen-and-bath store, I laughed, appreciating the wry commentary on advertising and promotion, that it isn’t art, that art is something else without a purpose, or without the purpose of driving traffic and collecting money.

The second time, on the back of a traffic direction sign, I wondered. For a few moments while whizzing along at 50 miles an hour, everything in my field of vision became art — the vivid reds and yellows of traffic signs, the deep orange reflectors along the road, mailboxes, Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms blowing in the wind, the guard rail. Suddenly it was all elevated to something mysterious and powerful, raised by a two-word phrase and the question it posed (what is art?) out of the mundane and commonplace.

And of course that is what art does — the very phrase itself while denying itself to be art is in fact art, at least to me, because it caused me, if even only briefly, to see anew my surroundings, to look at them again with wonder and even reverence.

Whoever is applying these phrases may well have different ideas and intentions. But that is true of art and artists as well — they make things for their own reasons, and those things go out into the world to stand on their own and interact with others and those others will inevitably have a different relationship with the art than its creator did.