Day 3: Natalie (slowly) takes us to the beach

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.


"Enjoy your life," Natalie tells us, "because in the end, you're gonna really fucking want it.


So want it now."


It's Wednesday, our third day of the retreat with Natalie, and the first time to be in silence the whole day. Which, after hearing her say these words bright and early, means carrying their energy and fire the whole day without getting to unpack any of it with anyone around us.


They sort of hit you right across the face. In a good way.


We're paying attention now, which is all Natalie really ever asks of us.


The night before, she had told us to bring our bathing suits, towels, and other things for a bit of a surprise trip the following day. Given our presence on an island, we all connected the dots fairly quickly to understand that we'd be going to the beach.


To the beach. With Natalie Goldberg.


It's the kind of thing that can make your brain short-circuit if you overthink it.


She'd just given us our assignments for the morning. Rather than our normal session in small and then big groups, we'd take these assignments with us to the beach, find a spot, and work on them. We'd then reconvene just before lunch and head back to campus. Here's what we were given/told:

  • Prompts

  • What am I not looking at? (15 minutes)

  • Tell me everything you know about corn or mashed potatoes (15 minutes)

  • Tell me a story of love (20 minutes)

  • Do slow walking for 15-30 minutes

  • Sit for 10 minutes

Before she set us loose to figure out transportation with others, she gave us a few reminders about writing practice and how to spend our time at the beach. But what burnt my eyebrows off were those words about wanting your life, wanting it now, not waiting until it's too late.


We all arrive to the dirt parking lot at Big Bay Town Park. Miraculously, everyone made it. I kept picturing what it'd be like to be left behind, somehow forgotten when I went to use the bathroom or grab something from another room. Very Home Alone kind of energy.


I can't stay silent as all 40 +of us pour out of a dozen or so cars and hover around, wondering what to do next. I keep laughing. Natalie told us we'd do slow walking once we got to the park, and she meant it. Like, starting from the moment she got out of the car. Despite the cars continuing to arrive and attempt to drive through.


They can't. Because we're worse than clogged at the moment as we all try to feel into our heels and then the balls of our feet and then our toes... except for those of us from the Midwest, probably, because we're so worried about being an inconvenience to the newly-arrived beach-goers; it takes everything I have not to rush up to the cars and apologize, explain myself, explain everyone. Apologize again. Grow a new wrinkle. Etc. I can't imagine what we must all look like to them.


But yeah. Just... wow. I've never seen anyone give less fucks than Natalie Goldberg slow walking all her little writer ducklings out of the parking lot. I'll never forget it. What an absolute badass, I thought. I was in an electric state of awe. Respect- maybe reverence- and surprise combined for me, and I was able to eventually override my anxiety with some laughter to let it out.


Nobody honked. Nobody got upset. And then, just like that, we were all following Natalie towards a long, descending staircase to the water, to Lake Superior!



Natalie leading the way to a morning of silent writing practice, slow walking, and meditation

As we slowly made out way down the steep staircase and crossed the water, Natalie took her time to take in her surroundings. Always leading by example. I felt a little overwhelmed at the beauty of both our physical space and beauty at what I was experiencing; an unfolding was happening in me, though I couldn't have put such words to it at the time.


As we got to the boardwalk, Natalie would stop and turn around from time to time to remind us to take a place anywhere that felt right, and that she and her assistants would come by with a bell in a couple of hours to let us know when it was time to head back for lunch.

Some chose to sit in the tree-covered spots along the boardwalk, just opposite the water, while others of us who'd lathered up in sun block took our places near or, in my case, IN the water.


I'd come prepared with a small chair that folds up into almost nothing; a little leisure nugget. As I pulled it out of my backpack and quickly assembled it, others from the group would walk by and nod approvingly, tap the side of their heads with a finger and mouth "good idea."


I'd simply wanted to be able to feel the water while I wrote without worrying about how a wave could dissolve all my work. Although maybe that would've been a good lesson in and of itself, now that I think about it.

The water was clear and cool. Not cold, as someone else would later point out in their writing. Like Lake Superior is supposed to be.


I settled deeply into the sand (almost falling backwards), put my notebook on my lap, and then sat up a little taller to do my 10 minute sit. I couldn't bear to close my eyes in this beauty, so I took Natalie's advice (again) to try to meditate with my eyes open, at about a 45 degree angle, soft gaze.


It was heaven. I was rooted almost literally into the Earth, my feet deep in the sand, as cool water continued to gently lap at my ankles while the warm sun felt like a safe, motherly embrace. The sweet sound of the little waves reminded me to keep coming back, back to this breath, this moment.


And so I did.


Until next time,


Katie


PS: Join me for a workshop or creative writing class, writing practice retreat modeled after Natalie's, or one of my free offerings such as my memoir book club, Friday writing practice, and more.




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