So Much Depends on a Red Hook
The Essence of Writing
Writing and Sentience
Dreaming is the energy behind everything; it is the life force of all living beings, the power of trees and plants, and the power of motors, business, and financial centers.
An artist senses the Dreaming in the canvas, paper, and stone and knows that everyday reality is not only concrete… Artists and aboriginal peoples have developed the ability to see the Dreaming, that is, the power behind the figures you see in your nighttime dreams and everyday reality.
—Arnold Mindell, Dreaming While Awake
It was a cool spring morning, gray, with the sun just starting to emerge from the clouds, when I settled down on the maroon leather couch in our cabin on the Oregon coast, notebook in hand, preparing to write. Outside, a slight breeze stirred the needles of the tall spruce trees that surround the cabin and in the distance I could see silver waves crashing on the shore, near the estuary where the Yachats River flows into the Pacific Ocean. My intention was to write an article exploring the sentient essence of writing for theJournal of Process Oriented Psychology.
In recent years I have been fascinated by the connection between writing and the cloudy, preverbal state of awareness that Arny Mindell calls the realm of essence, or “sentience.” In Dreaming While Awake he defines “sentient” as “the continuous and automatic awareness of subtle, normally marginalized experiences and sensations. Everyone is sentient,” he says, and, “If you become aware of your sentient experience instead of marginalizing it, you are lucid… Lucidity leads… to the wisdom or insight of Dreaming” (2000: 36). This article is about the paradoxical connection between the words of the writer and the wordlessness of the sentient realm.
“Where do you get your ideas?” or “Where do your stories come from?” or “Where do you find your inspiration to write?” A writer, asked one of these questions, may pause and look down, or up, or sideways. Observing that writer, I may speculate that she is scanning her visual memory, or noticing her internal experience, or listening for an answer. The answer itself probably lies in the pause, the instant of silence, opening to Dreaming.
Dreaming is an Australian Aboriginal term; as Mindell points out, the same concept can be found in Buddhist thought, where a deep realm connects all sentient beings; also in Taoist thought as written by Lao Tzu in the Tao Ten Ching, where the Way that cannot be spoken is the matrix, unbroken wholeness, out of which arises duality, out of which arise the ten thousand things, the richness and complexity of the perceived world. Underlying the world of consensus reality is the world that physicists refer to as the “quantum potential,” also called the Void, the Tao, Dreaming, or the sentient realm.
As we move through our everyday lives, this deep realm reveals itself to our conscious minds in the form of flickers at the edge of perception.
A shadow moves in the corner of my vision; a breath of chill air stirs the tiny hairs on the back of my neck; I notice a faint, unusual sensation in my stomach. If I follow any of these signals with precise attention, it will lead me to Dreaming, the inexhaustible source of creativity. Renewed, I return to my daily life, ready to notice the next flicker from the sentient realm. This, in theory, is how I understand the practice of mindfulness, or paying attention to Dreaming. It is a demanding and difficult practice.
A simpler way to access sentience is simply to drop into it. That deep realm is always waiting—all we need do is relax in a comfortable position, close the eyes, and allow the mind to drift and settle. Down, down, until there are no words.
Whoops! I bob up to the surface. How can I write with no words? Impossible.
Writing stops at the entrance to the sentient realm. As when the Sumerian goddess-queen Inanna descended to the underworld and was made to strip off all her clothes and adornments and enter naked, so we are required to leave words and thoughts behind when entering sentience.
It is a letting go, an abandonment of conscious intent. It can be terrifying, or freeing, or simply relaxing.
It need not take very long.
Having access to the clouded, drifting state of sentience is essential for creation. The essence of writing, I want to say, is in sentience. What a paradox! Writing is an abstract craft, using language as its medium. The more sensory-grounded the language, the richer the writing. How can writing depend on a wordless, conceptless state? How can that wordless, nonconceptual state be expressed in writing, images, ideas? The answer, which is no answer at all, came from Lao Tzu.
The way you can go isn’t the real way.
The name you can say isn’t the real name.
Heaven and earth begin in the unnamed: name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching3
For the past few years I have been offering classes on writing as process and practice, beginning with simple exercises and using basic precepts of process work.
As a writing teacher, I approach the process of writing hoping to discover what material is primary, closer to the writer’s awareness; what is secondary, further from awareness; which channels of sensory-grounded perception are used, and which might be added; how and where edges, boundaries of the known, are apparent. These tools are helpful in working with writing, along with the practice of process-oriented inner work, especially when working with inner criticism. But they do not address the issue of where writing comes from, that question that writers are so often asked and struggle to answer.
I began to experiment with using sentience as a source for writing practice. Inspired by exercises used by Arny Mindell in his classes, I suggested to my students that before writing we take a moment or two to drop into sentience, allowing ourselves to get comfortable, close our eyes and let the mind drift. Opening our eyes, we noticed the first object to attract our attention and wrote about the object that flirted with us. The concept of the flirt, adapted by Mindell from quantum physics to psychology, suggests that there is a deep, undefined connection between us and the objects that briefly catch our attention. In the quantum, or sentient realm, it is impossible to say which comes first, which is active, which passive, the object that flirts or the observer looking at the object. The connection is irrational, like the connection between a writer and her inspiration. Flirts might, I thought, be helpful whenever we felt stopped in writing about our primary topic. Attending to the flirt, I thought we might tap the power of sentience and use it to inform our work.
In order to do this, we would have to notice what qualities flirted with our attention and then amplify our experience to find the essence of the flirt. The essence of the flirt would lead us to Dreaming. Just as writing is enriched with sensory-grounded detail, images that convey color, shape, size, sound, rhythm, movement, taste, smell and feel, so we would have to explore the sensory-grounded nature of the flirt, finding our associations to these qualities, finding these qualities in ourselves, finally taking the impossible leap into becoming the essence of that which flirted with us.
On that spring morning on the Oregon coast, sitting on the maroon leather couch, I tried an experiment. I would begin writing my article using the exercise on dropping into sentience and noticing what flirted with my attention as I came out of the clouds. At the time of writing I was troubled by acute arthritic pain in my knees, ringing in my ears, and a painful sense of being blocked as a writer. As a process worker, I know that dreaming information appears in our body symptoms as well as in dreams. This knowledge urged me to explore the meaning of these disturbances, but the task seemed insurmountable, so I turned to the sentient realm for help. If my attention were sufficiently precise, perhaps a flirt would take me where my painful knees, ringing ears and fierce critic would if they could. Wherever that flirt took me, I would do my best to follow, noticing the qualities of the flirt, finding its essence, and then discovering the essence of the flirt in me. The result was the following piece of writing, which I have kept in the present tense, as I first wrote it.
Following the Flirt
Before touching pen to paper I take a moment to sink down, below the flutter and chirp of words in my mind, below the hot pain in my left knee, below the silver whisper of wings brushing my eardrum, dropping into a state that is silent, still, wordless, deep. I drift there, weightless, until I rise again to the surface. Opening my eyes, the first thing that catches my attention is a red hook outside on the deck rail, bright in the morning sun. It is the only vivid spot of color on a bare deck of faded wood and glass.
This red hook, made of metal covered with plastic, screwed into the rail to hold a plant or a bird feeder, serves no purpose at the moment except as a hook for my wandering imagination. This bright splotch of red on a spring morning will be my hook, my hanger, my focusing device. I will return to it whenever I feel lost in a forest of words.
The practice of writing is my subject, and today, my writing depends on a red hook. Reader, I want to tell you about the joy of writing practice, about writing with pen on paper, writing to express the constant singing of words, the dance of colors, shapes and forms, the music of movement, the theater of the world around me as I experience it from moment to moment. I want to tell you how I use writing to find my way into awareness, no, that’s not quite it… I want to tell you how I write, share with you a way of writing… here I begin to lose myself at the edge of what is still unknown. Why do I write? I find myself staring out the window at the red hook. Clouds have covered the sun and my red hook is no longer bright in morning sunlight, but it is still very red, clearly outlined against the light brown wood of the rail. It is smooth, its inner metal protected against rust by the coating of red plastic. It is L-shaped, designed to hold a large pot away from the rail.
The shape of the hook is satisfying to me. I realize that I write to give shape in words to the images that make my life rich. It is my way of singing.
I am shy to say this. Why?
I fumble for reasons, thinking there must be something more, some specific, material value to writing, but the red hook, now bright, now dull in the changing light, reminds me that the practice of writing is no more and no less than a passing cloud in the morning sky. It is pure motion of hand and mind, leaving a trail of black ink on white paper, a trail of images for the dreaming mind.
Later I can decide if this particular trail is worth editing, reworking, and then I can follow it, looking for clues to the structure and shape of the dreaming process. That comes later. For now writing, practicing writing, is something to do for its own sake, like dancing, or flying.
As I sit looking out my window this morning, a picture spreads before me, defined at the horizon by a great curve where blue ocean meets blue sky, the sky softened by a haze of light cloud. In the middle distance a giant spruce rises brown and green; closer, the clear glass and light wood of the deck rail supports one red hook in the center of my vision.
Later today, if I sit upstairs at my computer, typing these words into memory, the picture before me will have changed. Only memory and my written words will then evoke the morning sky and sea, the rail, the red hook. By the time some version of this writing appears in print, if it does, I will be far from the ocean, sitting at my desk in a city house where the view of waves rolling into the shore is an evocative, privileged memory. What will the red hook mean then to me, or to you?
It was just an ordinary hook, not an inspiring image from nature that flirted with me as I opened my eyes; not the white foam on the ocean waves, not the movement of moss blown by the wind as it dangled from a branch of the spruce; not the flight of a hawk against the blue sky. It wasn’t even something disturbing or annoying, like the mint-green siding on the house just south of our cabin. It was a plasticcovered red hook screwed into the wood of the deck rail, and everything that I will remember of this morning depends on the centrality of that red hook, now once again dull as a cloud passes over the sun.
How can I unfold the essence of the red hook? I begin by assuming it has a character of its own, wanting to be known. This immediately endears it to me.
Red hook, red hook, my darling red hook, now bright, now dull, who are you? What does your voice sound like? If you speak, what will you say? How shall I move to dance with you? How would it feel to be you?
Red hook, bright again now in the morning sun, I hook my dreams on your clear bright shape, and my dreams of writing freely, wild stories, romantic, impossible adventures, dangle there, tantalize me, drift through the clear glass of the rail, blend with the dark shadows of the giant spruce, and disappear, but your redness, your clear lines, remain.
I hear your voice, flute-clear, saying one word only, over and over, “Attention!” In my imagination I stand up and bow to you, then we move together; upright and formal we waltz on the wood floor of the deck until, holding you in my arms, I become you, red and clear, impeccable in the morning sunlight. Our movement together is effortless, flowing. When I take your form I am free of doubt and pain, free of my inhibiting inner critic, able to dance, sing, express myself clearly. Like you I am strong, secure; I can hold the flowering pot of my dreams, my visions, my voices, my deepest feelings.
My deepest feelings. Now the edge I have been avoiding becomes clear to me, like your clear lines. I read back over what I have written, “When I take your form I am free of doubt and pain.” The words “doubt” and “pain” leap out at me, and I feel the hot deep pain in my knees that I have been ignoring as I write. A fierce critic stands behind me, reading over my shoulder, saying my writing is not good enough, I am not good enough. How can I find your strength, dear ally, beloved red hook?
I remember your redness, the quality that first attracted me to you. Your redness reminds me of my hot, burning pain, and my searing doubt. These are also red, like fire, like blood, like a rose, like a red hook in the morning light. Redness reminds me of bleeding, of my years of bleeding as a woman, now past. I think of menstruation, of childbirth, menopause, hot flashes when my face turns red and my imagination blazes. I remember that my mother used to tell me I was born with bright red hair, which later turned blonde, then dark. She said the red hair must have come from my greatgrandfather Nathan Halprin, who had a bright red beard. I don’t know what kind of beard it was: big, full, soft; or long, or short; but my mother said he was a big man, strong, a blacksmith; and so I think he must have had a big beard. Bright red, and then his black, black hair.
Nathan courted great-grandmother Sarah over the objections of her family—they said he was not good enough for her. He tended his forge and helped her with their four children until the day the Cossacks rode into the shtetl, looking for Jews. All the others hid in their root cellars, but Nathan stood outside his forge to defend his family. The Cossacks beat him, my mother said, so badly that he died a few days later.
Hearing this story as a child, I was so proud of my great-grandfather’s courage and his red beard and of my link to him, my birthright. Once, in middle age, I had my hair tinted red. I loved it that way. I felt radical.
I imagine Nathan standing on a great bare plain, his red beard a flag of defiance, brandishing a red-hot poker in his big fist, yelling “Here I am!” as the Cossacks rode towards him. Did he yell in Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, or in Yiddish? Did they hear him? Did they notice his red beard? Or was he just another Jew to them, vermin, to be struck down for his insolence—how dare he insist on existing?
Then I imagine great-grandmother Sarah, running out of the cellar once the marauders have gone. I imagine her calling for help to carry him inside, washing him, tending him, saying, in a low voice, “My god, Nathan, why did you do it? Look what they’ve done to you now!” and holding his head, washing the blood away, perhaps cutting his beautiful red beard that was caked and crusted with blood.
Red hook, your essential redness flirts with me, reminds me of so much that I marginalize, try to transcend, my background of fear and pain, of bravery, of standing up, standing out, dying, surviving. I am not defined by pain and doubt and suffering, but they are part of me; they enrich me and color me red.
You stand out, brave against your background of bleached wood and glass, watercolor sky and ocean, and I am drawn once again to your clear shape, your angled hook of a shape. You hook me and hold me and I dangle from you, drifting in the morning sun, wondering what comes next?
What is the essential nature of a hook? A hook is functional, secure, something to depend upon. I depend on the solid strength of my red hook when I hang my flowering pot on it. This solid strength is not something I identify with, but it makes me think of my greatgrandmother Sarah, who survived against heavy odds. After Nathan’s death she saved enough for passage to America for herself and my grandmother Rebecca, her youngest child. They traveled by boat, in steerage with the other poor immigrants, to New York, where she worked, plucking chickens on the lower East Side, her hands always plunged in cold water, so that they grew gnarled and painful in her old age. Out of her tiny wages she saved money to pay for the passage of her other children, who came, one by one through immigration at Ellis Island to join her, their hook, their secure hanger on whom they could depend.
In great-grandmother Sarah’s house no one went hungry, and it was the same in the house of her daughter, my grandmother. “When extra people showed up for dinner,” my mother told me, “Mama said, ‘Put more potatoes on to boil,’ and there was always, somehow, enough.”
I depend on your strength, red hook, the strength I see in you that comes from deep inside me, the combined strength of my brave, foolhardy great-grandfather and my brave, generous, enduring great-grandmother. Living as I do, a life of privilege my great-grandparents could not have imagined, able to spend time alone in a cabin at the coast, staring at the ocean, thinking of writing, I wonder how I can be worthy of their heritage. Like you, red hook, and like them, I must stand for my own strength, the strength of my persistent imagination, my courage to write about things my ancestors would not have spoken about, my doubts and fears and yes, my strength and ambition, as I write and rewrite, as I realize I will never run out of words or inspiration, so long as I remember your essence.
Tomorrow, or later today, preparing to write again, I will take a moment to sink down below the chatter of words in my mind, below the awareness of pain, below the silvery ringing in my ears to a silent, underwater realm, far far below the surface, until, rising again, I open my eyes and notice, what? Who or what will flirt with me the next time, offering riches to my hesitant imagination?
Before I move on, I must say thanks to my dear red hook. Thank you so much, beloved friend. Our flirtation has been deep and joyful, and now you are part of me. Your name runs through my mind like a song; the melody of the song comes from Schubert’s piano sonata in B flat. It is a song to celebrate you, and you in me.
If you, reader, would like to try this exercise, start in a comfortable position, with pen and paper close by, and allow yourself to drop down into a cloudy, deep state. As you come back into everyday awareness, note down the first thing that attracts your attention, whatever flirts with your waking awareness. Then write for a set period of time, without stopping. You may write on whatever topic you like, or you may try beginning with the words, “I notice….” Whenever your attention drifts or you feel blocked or stuck, focus again on the flirt that you first noticed. Perhaps it will connect with your topic, or perhaps it will take you in a new direction.
Later, after the writing has settled, you may want to read it over, noticing what jumps out at you, what is still mysterious, what may still be unfolded. In my piece, the repeated references to pain jumped out at me. I realized that my experience of pain was not unfolded at all in early versions of the piece; neither was the red hook completely unfolded. Its redness and its “hookness” were still unknown to me. Again I went inside, again I settled down to write in my notebook. I showed my writing to friends, who said, “This is wonderful. Go deeper.” Because they said, “This is wonderful,” I was able to go deeper, following the criticism that came from love.
Revisiting my writing for the purpose of editing I am tender, vulnerable, needing first of all to appreciate myself, my effort. Then I can look more critically, looking for dreamdoors, openings to the dreaming process, and edges where thought veers away from the mysterious unknown. I look for places where I can layer perception by describing taste and smell, movement and body feeling, as well as color, shape and sound. I notice and work to deepen the presence in my writing of relationship issues, the delicate, difficult art of seeing myself in the other, seeing the other as a unique individual; I notice world issues, privilege and oppression, the worries and rewards of earning a living.
Ideally, the writing process moves among three realms: the everyday world of intent and function, the dreaming world of magical transformation, and the sentient world, where stillness gives rise to dreaming, which in turn gives rise to the sensory-grounded perceptions of the everyday world. Like a giant tree rising from deep roots, writing reaches towards heaven from earth, returning, always returning to its roots far below the surface.
While noticing and following the flirtatious red hook on my deck rail I had no thought of literary or real world associations, just as when I first remember a dream I don’t think of what I associate with the various images or people in the dream. Asking for associations, what pops into my mind, for example, in connection with redness, or a hook, is a useful way of working with dreams or flirts, but I usually have to remind myself to apply it to my own dreaming. It was only after I had written the body of my article, when I was thinking of a title, that I remembered the famous poem by William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Writing that poem, I believe, Williams followed a flirt into sentience and into poetry, an expression of Dreaming connected to language.
Then a friend reminded me of Red Hook, Brooklyn, the notorious tough neighborhood of factories and docks immortalized by the movie “On the Waterfront,” where young Marlon Brando strutted and fretted with Eva Marie Saint. Following the trail of association, I realized that Red Hook is not far from the apartment building in Brooklyn where I used to visit my beloved great aunt Flora. She was my grandmother’s older sister, and Nathan and Sarah Halprin were her parents too. Aunt Flora, a massage therapist and sculptor, is the figure I often imagine as my special ally or muse who helps me to withstand fierce attacks by inner and outer critics.
Red Hook was one of the earliest parts of Brooklyn to be settled by Europeans. In 1636 the Dutch named the peninsula that jutted into the East River Roode Hoek because of its red clay soil and its hook-like shape. The settlement became a busy port in the nineteenth-century, and in the twentieth century it was home to a succession of immigrant groups, its streets the ground of many battles for survival. By the mid-90s Red Hook’s housing projects were plagued by drugs and drive-by shootings, and the neighborhood was described in “Places in New York City Where Tourists Never Go” as “The bleakest spot imaginable.” Urban planners and artists moved in, and a recent listing on the internet gloatingly describes Red Hook as
A former shipping powerhouse, its turn-of-the-century red brick warehouses and views of the Statue of Liberty are to die for. Sunsets behind the statue glow in the distance across the harbor, rivaling the bright lights of Manhattan. The area is being reborn as a mecca for art specialty firms, as well as shipping and manufacturing concerns. Tourism is on the rise.1
In Seattle, here in the Pacific Northwest, Red Hook is the name of a brewery that produces fine beer, suitable for producing altered states that may also be a path to Dreaming.
C.G. Jung found many parallels and connections between far-flung myths and beliefs which he believed sprang from a collective unconscious. In my experience the roots of writing in sentient experience stretch far into the earth, and they connect with many other roots, deep in the realm of Dreaming.
The Red Wheelbarrow2
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
—William Carlos Williams
- Alta Vista search engine on the Internet was my source for material on Red Hook.
- In The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. The poem was first published in 1923.
- LeGuin, Ursula K. Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way (A New English Version). Boston: Shambhala, 1999.
- Litz, A. Walton and MacGowan, Christopher (Eds.) The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams Volume 1. New York: New Directions, 1986.
- Mindell, Arnold. Dreaming While Awake: Techniques for 24-hour Lucid Dreaming. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, 2000.
Sara Halprin, Ph.D., is a certified process worker who lives and works in Portland and Yachats, Oregon. She wrote Look at My Ugly Face! Myths and Musings on Beauty and Other Perilous Obsessions with Women’s Appearance (Penguin, 1996), and she has just completed Seema’s Show, about a woman who had her first solo photography show at the age of ninety-five. Her next project has the working title Gray Hair and Gym Shoes.