Updated: Jul 23
Note: This is post #8 in a series of blog posts about my experience attending a 2-week writing retreat with author & teacher Natalie Goldberg on Madeline Island, WI in summer 2021. Start with the first post here.
The following photo represents how most of us were feeling on the second day of the "Way of Writing" retreat this summer with Natalie:
I laughed as I looked out of the window from inside the Barn House where I was sipping on coffee and saw the only man on our retreat- among 40 or so women- lying flat in the grass. It felt so... en pointe: the desire, the need to splay out onto lush green Mother Nature after a year+ of pandemic life + 24 hours at Natalie's retreat + being surrounded by all of our feminine goddess power.
In truth, many of us would fling ourselves onto this luscious green carpet over the coming days and weeks, though we did cut back significantly once the first tick was spotted.
I finished my coffee in silence, which we were to be in until dinner most days, and walked over to the Milk House where the optional meditation took place from 8:00-8:30am each morning. I passed others writing in their journals or slow walking as I covered the short distance, and I reveled in the silence quite unexpectedly.
It was hard the first day (yesterday) since I'd been bursting with excitement and wanted to TALK about it, but now I was madly in love with the freeing feeling that accompanied being quiet. The energy it built up! Natalie was right about that- she commented over the course of the retreat to not "dissipate the energy" with talking if we could help it. And over the course of the next two weeks, I felt that doing this contributed more meaningfully to my writing than just about anything else. When I reread my journal months later now, I think wow, how can I get back to THAT kind of writing?
After 30 minutes of sitting, grounding ourselves in the practice by anchoring to our breath, we left the room and either headed over to breakfast or found a seat somewhere to work on the writing prompts given to us last night by Natalie. I'm usually not hungry this early, so I sit in the shade of a big red umbrella at a picnic table a dozen yards from the door and put the pen to page, starting with one of our prompts for homework:
Tell us the ways you've been keeping it together (10 minutes) - unedited
Writing. More writing. Prayer, meditation. A Path with Heart by Kornfield. Xanax. More Xanax. Long long walks in the desert, in the trees, in the meadows. I've been keeping it together with deepening my practices rather than digging endless shallow holes stretching out and out in barren land, dirt.
I've been keeping it together by nearly forcing a community or writers, of locals in my new home- badass women memoirists, I declared our name. I thought I was above community, didn't need it, scoffed at it. After all, the years of my life had shaped me so, like waves moving endlessly over a stone. I didn't realize it was happening until COVID hit, when my teaching and caretaker identities were gone, just like that, leaving me breathless on the other side of something like a finish line, hands on hips, panting, exhausted, worn... raising my arms above my head for air and looking around and wondering where everyone went - where I went. Did I win? Or am I last? Fuck. FUCK. This was not how it was supposed to go, never once in a million daydreams I had thinking about reaching the end of Mike's medical residency years... I guess I need to save that for the "tell us when you didn't keep it together" prompt...
Lexapro. Hello. I suppose you were there after I dragged myself for miles beyond the finish line, and there you were, at the bottom of a hill I tripped and fell down when I didn't notice the cliff- because nobody's supposed to go past the sign / the end / the banner... fucking fly! Oh look, butterflies... What was the prompt again? Oh yea... keeping it together by leaving, by not asking but demanding my space, this time, this life- I'm not who I used to be.
Letting go letting go letting go is how I'm keeping it together, by seeing that nothing is able to be kept forever, everything is temporary, nothing is permanent... letting go of the crippling paralyzing fears of it all in whatever way I can is how I keep my shit together.
I'm on a roll now, move on to the next prompt. I find flow. Time passes but I don't know much about it. A timer goes off, I head inside to eat before it's all put away. I get another cup of coffee. I go back outside, find another spot in the shade. Everywhere you look is beauty. Quiet. Spaciousness for everything. I keep the hand moving.
Another timer goes off. I draw a line, close my notebook, and head inside. I slow down as I approach the Milk House, thinking of our meditation instructor's words to "mind the transitions," and this small piece of advice infiltrates the remaining days of the retreat as I watch each threshold arrive, pause, and walk across it with my right foot first. Then before I enter the Zendo, I do the same but add a slight bow. I've become the kind of person I used to make fun of. I feel disappointment and embarrassment over how judgmental and harsh I used to be about these things, but I let it pass, let it go, return to the present. Feel gratitude for being able to grow.
After everyone arrives, Doretea and Carrie divide the large group into two smaller groups. They each give us some general updates, Writing Practice reminders, then divide us into the smaller groups of 3 or 4 to write in for the next 80 minutes or so. We quietly make our way out, use mostly non-verbal communication to decide on where to go to write, and take our places at benches or on the grass or tables inside and write and read until time is up.
Doing this each day is always, always so freeing, invigorating, and intense. Hard. Then less hard.
When time is up, we all go back into the Milk House and read again but in each of the two large groups. I love listening to others read, but I hate reading toward the end because my heart basically palpitates until it's my turn. It's good practice for me to be doing this even though it's so hard... it's so good BECAUSE it's hard.
The afternoon comes and we're released into the lunch hour and "free time" in which we can write, nap, read, walk, or do jumping Jacks. I choose to reread parts of Natalie's book Three Simple Lines, which she asked us to be prepared to discuss for today during her session. I fill yet another dark green MISA mug full of coffee and find a cozy seat in the Barn House just opposite the windows, where one is half-open and letting in a breeze that carries the smell of freshly-cut grass and Midwestern humidity. I wonder how I'll ever be able to concentrate with this view, watching the clouds drift by.
I drain my coffee in no time and feel fidgety in my chair. And a little cold. I go to the tiny, cute gift shop that's tucked away into the corner of the building and look through their sweaters and cozy jackets. A friendly woman a few decades my senior notices the grey and blue options I'm torn between. She walks up to me, puts on an exaggerated contemplative face, then points at the gray jacket, to me, and then gives me a double-thumbs up with a nod.
I laugh and mouth "thank you," take the jacket off the hanger, and spin in the closet-sized space toward the counter where I pay. I walk out and decide to take my newfound warm-maker on a little stroll around the campus. Later, I'll pass the same woman as we made our way back to the Milk House for our session with Natalie, and she'll whistle at me from a distance and give me another two big thumbs up when she seems me wearing the jacket, eliciting a huge smile from me (and matching thumbs-ups).
It's crazy to think I never learned her name or spoke to her, but we connected several times over the course of the mostly-silent week like this, heard each other read (she made me laugh, catch my breath, then nearly moved me to tears), but never officially met each other or said goodbye. In fact, when I noticed she wasn't in the week 2 group, I felt crushed because I had hoped to find her to talk to when it wasn't silent time, but I had missed my chance. Maybe she's out there reading this! If so, message me! If not- I'm just so grateful to have experienced this unique human warmth and connection.
For the second time, we all gather by 3:30pm in the large Milk House in our rolling black and pink chairs and wait for Natalie to come in. We put our masks back on per Natalie's request, as she had told us the first evening at the welcome dinner how she's been vaccinated against COVID but still doesn't have any immunity due to her blood cancer (which she assured us "is under control for now" because of a "magic pill.") She asked us kindly- and quite reasonably- to stay masked and keep a distance when indoors.
After everyone is settled, Wendy Johnson- our meditation instructor for the week- leads the next few hours, asking Natalie questions about her newest book, 3 Simple Lines. She gushes over it, saying why she loves it so dearly, and when she asks Natalie about it and the process, Natalie says "I'm very proud of this book, more so than my other books."
She follows up to this, saying quite bluntly to us all, "Don't talk about authors old books from a million years ago... talk about their most recent work, their baby... the others have graduated college." I laugh, thinking how many people brought up one of her first and oldest books, Writing Down the Bones, so many times on the first day, and now I expect nobody will dare bring it up again. This also gives our brief conversation more meaning, when I had a chance to talk to her- mostly by accident- before everyone arrived, and she was quick to ask if I had read any of her other books, and I was beyond delighted to say I'd read them all (except for the one I couldn't get).
Natalie shared about the process of writing 3 Simple Lines. She started writing it on the way back from her pilgrimage to Japan to learn more about Haiku's history and its masters (and to pay her respects at their graves, if she could find them). Someone asked her a question about how her process changes when she knows she's writing for a book, and she simply said, "I don't think; I just do Writing Practice."
But then, she said, she came home and found out she had cancer; this is when she wrote The Great Spring, "in case I died," she said, "and I wanted you to know about when I played ball with my father... it was deeply satisfying to me."
So she put the book on hold. "I changed the tract of writing after cancer... I left you behind," she said, referring to how most of her books had the reader in mind, most especially those focused on teaching about writing, Writing Practice, the writer's life, and so on.
But she came back around to 3 Simple Lines eventually. Referring to her notebooks, she said, "I looked and thought, fuck, there's a lot of energy... I'm gonna have to write this book."
She shared that she read at least 50 books in doing her research for this book, saying that learning more actually made it harder for her. Wendy nodded knowingly here, saying she was among the first readers of the manuscript, and that it was much bigger before getting whittled down for publication.
Natalie elaborated, saying that she wasn't so interested in writing Haiku as much as she was studying the process of those who did write it. "My interest was people who took it as The Way," she said, "The Japanese had whole lives as writers and followed a path... Hemingway didn't have this; so he wrote beautifully but was an asshole." We all laughed, especially because we'd had to read A Moveable Feast for the retreat (and most of us disliked it).
Throughout the discussion, Natalie would share some Haiku both from her book and outside of the book. She said that Haiku should "make the mind leap," and elaborates on this in her book at great length, but she gave us the following example by Tomas Tranströmer and pretty much all of us felt exactly what we meant:
Death bends over me
I have a chest problem
He's the solution
We spent some time sharing our favorite excerpts, listening to Natalie elaborate on their context and share stories not in the book, and then there was time for general questions about it.
"Why aren't you interesting in writing Haiku yourself?" someone asked.
Without hesitation, Natalie said, "I'm lazy," and we all laughed, again.
The session wrapped up and Natalie gave us our homework. She told us to sit and do slow walking again, but then she surprised us with juicy prompts and longer writing times (20 minutes). When she noted our surprise (it must have been from raised eyebrows as it's all she could she on our faces), she sorta shrugged and smiled and said, "I want you to suffer more."
Natalie finished by letting us know we were in for a treat that night in the form of a movie that would be played in the Milk House after dinner. It wasn't on the schedule, but I'd have mowed the lawn blindfolded while singing Frank Sinatra at the top of my lungs in a thunderstorm if she'd asked me to. Agenda be damned!
She told us she accidentally discovered the movie recently on Netflix, and that it was so good that she couldn't tell anyone about it until now.
"Oh my God," she told us, "You're gonna die."
The Sound of Metal.
Message me when you watch it and tell me what you thought! :)
Until next time,