Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Seasons of Words (or Words By The Season)

Guest post by Joannah Merriman 

Does this title strike a chord or create an image for any of you?

A commitment to writing runs through my bloodstream, encircling my heart, racing to my brain, and settling in all over my body. But as much as I hate to admit it, my actual writing time and dedication does swing with the seasons.

For nearly thirty years, I’ve been teaching reflective writing workshops, a course based on Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, and various classes to help students write “Memory Scraps,” a form near and dear to my heart.

My writing encouragement to my students is always that it doesn’t matter how busy we are, we can manage ten minutes of writing, even if it is “just” a journal scribble from a prompt like “What’s going on?”

Though autumn is my favorite season, there is something about the approaching summer months that excites my writing mind. After the frantic busyness of winter semester, the approach of June paints images of warm solitude and deepened writing opportunities.

My long-time partner, Neil, born and raised on the Western Slope, has a rustic cabin near Ouray, nestled in the San Juan Mountains, called the Switzerland of the Rockies. Just thinking about the cabin allows me to breathe in a recognizably special peace and quiet before I even begin to pack up my belongings for our ritual visit in June.

I look forward to spending most of a month at the cabin, and before other travels took me away from Colorado in August and September, Neil and I tried to squeeze in one more week here in the early autumn, but not lately.

For seventeen years, we had the sweet companionship of one, then two, then four Golden Retrievers, who joyously romped down the path to the back ditch and steep hillsides, fetched sticks in Lake Lenore, and lounged on the porch, drying out after their wet adventures.

photo by Joannah Merriman
But one by one, they, like many Goldens, died of cancer. Barrett in 2007, Chaucer in 2008, Luna in 2012, and finally Marley, surviving them all and avoiding cancer completely, succumbed to old age in October 2014.

So our packing task is lessened this year, we have the entire back seat for our various junk, including laptop and printer, rather than for doggies, and we only have to make pit stops for our own bladders (the dogs had much more stamina in that arena) and the gas fill-ups.

But there is a huge hole where those furry bodies used to be, in the car, at the cabin and in my heart. This year I half-hear a panting Golden behind me, and when we arrived two nights ago, I found a packet of rawhide doggie chews in the cupboard, and a stand of dog dishes in the corner near the window. We packed Marley’s ashes, some of them at least, so we can hike up to the old mine bunkhouse, now collapsed, and sprinkle ashes around one of the dogs’ favorite hiking places.

Perhaps I can write doggie stories while I’m here this year, in tribute.

By the time you all read this, we will be settled in at the cabin for the rest of the month. I will sleep deeply, inhaling the scent of the pine trees that surround our little haven. I will settle in to the ritual I have created over the past quarter century.

In the morning, after I get coffee or tea or ice water, I take my journal or laptop and claim squatters’ rights on the split rail log porch, with a clear view of the San Juans. The hummingbirds dive and swoop, fighting over every drop of sweet water housed in the feeders hanging above the deck rail. Who could imagine how aggressive these little beauties are? On occasion, they come within a few inches of my eyes, but expertly bank away from me, veering back to a more desirable target, while all manner of winged creatures fly in the air space between the high trees and the mountains beyond our valley.

On my sling chair, I write. And write. And take a reading break, a hiking break, bring snacks out to our tiny plastic deck tables, and then write again. No land lines, no wifi, no cable TV to interrupt the quiet I long for throughout the winter.

Yes, I cheat with my iPhone for some e-mails, but it is not a very efficient way to do business. Even sending this to you requires that I drive down to the actual town of Ouray, have breakfast or coffee at a cowboy restaurant and use their free wifi.

That’s fine with me. The weather this week is strange and cold and wet, as it has been in many places across the country. More snow coats the tops of Whitehouse Peak and Mount Hayden than I’ve ever before seen in June. Not dirty old snow. Fresh, pristine white, like mountain snowcones. So I build a fire in the old fireplace, watch the San Juans from the picture window nearly the size of the south cabin wall. Wrap myself in another sweater, hoping for blue skies soon.

Writing is writing, no matter where I am, though the porch is best for my June words. But “the sun will come out tomorrow” according to the weather app on my iPhone. And surely it will be sunny sometime during the next four weeks here.

photo by Joannah Merriman
In the meantime, I will begin a writing challenge by Abigail Thomas (Thinking About Memoir, Three Dog Life, Snapshots, Two Pages and others):

Write about the events of any ten-year period in your life. Use only three-word sentences. 

 "Arriving at cabin.” 
“Writing in sunshine” 
“Need fire warmth” 
“No more dogs”

This is hard. I find myself wishing for a teeny bit longer parameter. Perhaps five words. But three-word sentences will come.

In July, I will point my car east, loaded in similar fashion, headed for a New England retreat, another solitary space with acreage, gentler mountain views, and an antique stone home I’ve owned for nearly 30 years in Vermont.

And for the autumn? Well, for the second time I will travel to Spain, carrying my backpack and a MacAir, on the Camino de Santiago.

In 2013, I wrote my way across the Camino Frances path to Santiago de Compostela. This year I am moving north, to walk the Camino del Norte . . . same destination, but along the northern coast of Spain.

Perhaps as winter approaches, I can refrain from getting bogged down in whatever it is that makes the writing sporadic, makes me rather undedicated to my passion. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll try to live Ram Dass’ words . . .

Be. Here. Now. 
And mine . . . Write. Write. Write.

Joannah L. Merriman, M.A., is a writer, psychotherapist, and community educator. She also takes women to Italy and to France. She lives in Fort Collins with her partner Neil Petrie, two cats and sadly, no dogs for now.

You can follow her Camino journey on www.woodswomanwalking.com and see some of her past travel writing at www.woodswomanabroad.com.

Lynn chimes in...

About nine years ago I finally decided to create the space in my life to pursue creative writing. I wandered the internet in search of writing inspiration and stumbled onto one of Joannah's classes.

The "Journal to the Self" class pressed me through the portals of creative writing and to this day I write "Morning Pages" first thing after waking (Joannah shared Julia Cameron's kind of journal-writing with us) and do "topic du jour"--another technique courtesy of Ms. Merriman. 

Thanks, Joannah, for showing me how to start each day of my writing life: pen on paper, heart in hand. 


  1. So often we look at how much we're not accomplishing. What a great way to look at it that even if it's only 10 minutes, it's writing. Thank you for the wisdom and for taking me on a virtual trip to your cabin through your words.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Joannah! I hope you enjoy your writing retreat! It looks beautiful there. I find the scent of pine trees and cabin environment inspirational too. Love the three-word challenge! I'll have to give that a try.


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