Coming to My Senses

I recently spent a few days on retreat at a friend's house in southern California. Something about the mellow gold and ocher hills and spare landscape of the Golden State strikes me as magical, profoundly relaxing and invigorating. In the stillness of the coastal hills, without the distractions of daily life, I’m able to get in touch with the essentials of life more deeply than usual.

One morning I walked up the steep hill above the house. I went alone, with no agenda and no planned destination, just wandering along a road lined with magnificent mansions scattered among simpler California classics dating back fifty years or more. I went early enough in the morning to avoid the full heat of the day and intense sun exposure, but late enough for the slight chill and haze to burn off.

Warm sunlight activated all sorts of fragrances, and I began to “come to my senses.” Sights, sounds and smells took on unexpected intensity. I delighted in a sudden burst of fresh, moistly cool fragrance as I stepped beneath an ancient pine tree shading a variety of blooming lilies and other garden plants set in a moist mixture of mulch and dry needles. The scent was intoxicating.

Further along, I noticed a small daisy-like flower that looked like drops of vivid paint splashed on an otherwise bare canvas of muted adobe-colored dirt. I became aware of a multitude of birds chirping a lively chorus in the tree tops, and the churning of an earth mover in a nearby canyon. Houses loomed like mysteries, evoking a sense of pleasantly cool darkness within their thick walls. From the condition of the exterior and landscaping I could sense distinct personality imprints of their owner, imagining the nature of accumulated belongs inside.

My awareness alternately focused within my body. I noticed how my breathing strained as I walked up the hill. I felt the pull of muscles not often called so intensely into play. I felt my heart pound as it pumped extra blood to oxygen-starved tissue.

I wondered as I wandered. I wondered at the sights and sounds around me. I wondered at the sensations within, at the memories this all evoked, and I wondered what to do with all this awareness. How can I work some of these intensely personal observations into my writing​? Here are a few ideas I came up with to anchor such treasure on the page:

  • Turn the walk into a story or essay. If all I do is report on the walk itself, it will be as dry as the dirt under my feet. But if I use the walk as a thread for stringing memory snips triggered by the sensory input, a story will emerge.
  • Use fragments as freewriting triggers.
  • Take an existing story set in similar surroundings and use this experience to polish descriptions.

This list could be much longer, and serves as tiny preview of the type of material we’ll cover in the Make Your Stories Sparkle teleclass I am teaching for members and friends of the National Association of Memoir Writers next month. Please join me on June 30 for a free* preview conference call to learn more about the class. Those who sign up for the call will receive a link to download a recording the phone call, so you can listen later even if you are unable to participate in the live call.

Write now: go on your own mini-retreat by going for a walk in a park, the country-side, or even the sidewalks around your neighborhood. Location matters less than awareness. When you return, sit down right away and record your observations in a journal or anything you have at hand.

* There is no charge for the call, but normal toll charges will apply to dial in.

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