Recently, I participated in a clean eating challenge I saw on Facebook, not because I am particularly interested in clean eating, but because the challenge coach posted recipes, a menu, and a shopping list pre-made. Add that to healthy meals for my family and I was on board. As a full-time teacher and a mother of two, I felt sheepish that all I wanted was someone else to plan things for a minute or two, but that didn't make me want it less. In many ways, Cassie Premo Steele's book, Earth Joy Writing: Creating Harmony Through Journaling and Nature, recognizes the twin impulses here that many mother-writers share—the need for order and help, and the need to do well and be well. For literary mamas, these needs relate not only to our families but to our creative lives when we see fit to acknowledge them.
A book like Earth Joy Writing starts by giving permission. Owning such a book says that you want to move forward with your writing. Opening it and using it gives you a kind of coach, like my clean eating coach, who rewards stillness and introspection, often the very things that we cannot give ourselves.
Author of 13 books, Premo Steele introduces this book with her own origin story. Formerly an academic, she turned her focus when she realized how competitive and hierarchical the academy was; instead, she looked where she often looks, inward and outside. That combination creates the potent center of the book—in order to heal a wounded world, a wounded self, one must simultaneously, lovingly, and curiously enter two wild spaces—our own minds and the world of nature—both with an intent towards germination and discovery.
The book takes its form from the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of the year. Beginning in winter, Premo Steele sets forth a pattern. In each section, she introduces a core concept like germination. She offers a passage—one of her poems, a piece from a person of faith, a quote. These allow her to expand the initial idea; the rest of the expansion comes from the writer/reader interacting with the text. She may ask her audience to dance or write or ruminate or ramble in the woods, then to articulate feelings and impressions; she calls this "creative action."
Often, she begins bodily so that the sense of involvement is emotional, cognitive, and kinetic. She approaches interaction by incorporating the multiple intelligences possessed, and rarely acknowledged, by people. For both the print book and the e-book, Premo Steele provides audio meditations on her website to help guide readers, bringing in an auditory component for yet another kind of emotional and intellectual engagement. One thing that writing and being demands, for this author, is emotional involvement, an involvement that terrified some of her academic colleagues, but a concept that Premo Steele embraces.
In moving through the book and the seasons, writers see how the natural world can shape practice. For example, spring clearly offers opportunities for walking without destination, for listening without judgment. In doing so, a writer might discover new places, new minutia of detail, a new bird song. This engagement and interaction creates an opportunity for thinking and writing. Premo Steele writes:
This is what poetry knows—what farmers and seeds also know—nothing exists alone, everything holds a pattern that makes it what it is, and all growth comes connected to the cycles of what has gone before.
The book progresses with a steady supportive tone, and even those moments where a reader like myself might shy away from what I might consider a "new age" approach, it is smart to pause and let Premo Steele have her way. In one section, she suggests that writer/reader identify an animal they imagine themselves to be. She suggests clarifying the ways in which we feel the identification to be true. After initial ideas expend themselves, she urges writer/readers to research the animals. Find out where they are losing ground, find out what their cycles are, their family structures, etc. In doing the exercise I returned to what I have often joked: I want to come back as a bear—spending the day fishing in a cold stream, sleeping in the deep fatted winter, protecting my cubs with a muscular ferocity. In doing research I discovered that the bear population in Pennsylvania, where I live, is steadily increasing, but what caught my imagination was a word. The hunting of bears is called "harvesting," as if one toiled for seasons to arrive at a reaping of what has been sown. I balked and began to write, just as Premo Steele intended. While we move through that process, what we are learning is how to use an extended metaphor to make sense of our lives and our feelings. We learn the benefit of research in the writing process, how we can extend what we sensed into what we know, how our engagement with the natural world can help us to co-create. This is powerful teaching in part because of its subtlety.
The book feels focused with each section carefully building on the lessons of the last section, though this is not to say that readers can't slip in and out of it to suit their seasons, but a studied interaction has its rewards. Reading and writing and acting cumulatively makes clear the cycle and helps to embed the writer within it, thus providing a year's worth of considered guidance.
Premo Steele's style is clear-eyed, matter of fact, and sympathetic, but, like most good coaches, she does not let the writer/reader shirk her duty. The author constantly asks for interaction in the world, from drumming to activism to writing. She keeps paragraphs short and pointed; the focus is meant to be on the self, and not on the book being read. Subheadings help in navigating toward prompts and lists possess sufficient white space to make it simple moving from notebook to page.
At the end of the book, one realizes a few things. First, to achieve balance is to move forward, keeping obligations in proportion to desire, reflection and meditation in proper ratio to writing and acting. Balance, Premo Steele notes, is never static. The image of scales at rest with equal burden does not accurately represent who we are; rather, the cycles of the earth with the constant change and symbiosis provide a much stronger reflection of who we are and might be in balance. Second, "what matters to you is what you mother—what you create and care for in this world." So, whether I am clean eating with someone else's grocery list or using this book, I am identifying who I am and what I want in my life and my creative endeavors. In Earth Joy Writing: Creating Harmony Through Journaling and Nature, Premo Steele both mothers us and teaches us to mother ourselves.