Note: This is post #11 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.
It's the last morning of week 1. I groggily roll out of my tiny orange tent at 5:45am, planning to watch the sunrise over Lake Superior from the secluded beach not far from my site.
Encircled by tall green pine trees, I make coffee on the damp picnic table before setting off. I secure my notebook under my armpit, grab my small thermos with one hand, and awkwardly clutch my tiny chair in the other. It's the kind that packs down into a bag the size of a chonky baby that you assemble (the chair, not the baby) when you need it, but pre-caffeinated Katie ain't got time for that.
I plop it down into the sand once I get to the very edge of the water, and I catch my breath once again at the stillness I've just walked into. The mist makes it so that you can hardly tell where lake and sky begin and end. The water is still as glass, broken only when a couple of ghostly birds drift by. A lone boat in the distance cocoons its passengers, likely still asleep below-decks. I feel I could write a story based on its presence alone, an epic tale of adventure, love, and tragedy.
Instead, I settle for trying to simply describe this stunning morning as I sit in my tiny fabric chair, which sinks several inches into the sand. I open to where I left off and write the next homework topic at the top of the page, set a timer for 10 minutes, and go.
Here an excerpt from what my semi-awake brain produces:
What gives you heart? 10 minutes, go.
That moment, that invisible bridge, that imperceptible jump when I wake up every morning that takes me from apathy to hope...heart. Could just be that I'm describing the space that exists between my lips and that first sip of coffee. Whatever. What gives me heart is that first deep breath of it-recently-rained air, the feeling, the stirring that starts to wake me up when the fairy golden sunrise starlight reaches through the trees and falls on, no- GRACES, no- UGH, adjectives... monkey mind... it's just so fucking beautiful, OK? And it gives me heart. I don't know why. It just smells exactly the way a fresh start should feel.
One year later, as I'm reading through this notebook as part of my overall writing practice, I laugh at the way that keeping your hand moving really does let you see the whole unedited landscape of your mind, the way your mind moves when you don't try to control it, edit it, make it good.
Timer goes off. I finish my sentence, draw a line, write the next topic:
Excerpt from: What have you been searching for?
...I think what I'm really searching for is a way to just shut up and be present, shut up and write, shut up and listen. I want to write. I need to squeeze out these books I have running through my veins, pumping through my heart.
I'm searching for community like I never have before, like a wanderer dying for thirst in the desert. It makes me obnoxious and desperate sometimes. It's probably for the best most of the retreat has been in silence otherwise I'd have been voted off the island by now.
The sun has been creeping up as I write, and when I look up after my timer goes off, it has burnt away some of the mist.
I write one more 10-minute entry then sit (meditate) for 10 minutes, anchoring on the sounds of the waves, the birdsong, the gentle rustling of long grasses behind me. Natalie introduced me to anchoring on sound during one of our meditations, and by the time 10 minutes is up, I feel more connected to my surroundings than I have in years.
All of these practices help us slow down, notice more details, and be more fully present. On my way back to my campsite, I pass a Slender Blue Iris that stops me in my tracks. I crouch down. The sun has transformed the morning dew droplets on the translucent purple-veined petals into minuscule diamonds. It feels like a small miracle to witness.
I walk on, and I hear a slight crack to my right. I stop, and through the thick green tangle of the forest, I make eye contact with a rusty brown doe. She freezes, and as I walk on, she springs into action, hopping over a low-hanging branch and away from me. I call out "good morning!" and she stops, swiveling her head completely around to look at me with her shiny black eyes, wary.
A few hours later, and it's the last session with Natalie of the week. It's a half-day, so we meet with her in the morning instead of the afternoon this time.
Natalie invites us to ask questions today, and there is no shortage of hands in the air. One person shares about her struggle with keeping up with her thoughts as she writes, saying they're too fast for handwriting and questions how to slow her thoughts down.
"It's not about slowing down the mind," Natalie says, "It's about quieting the mind." She elaborates by highlighting the ways in which we've been practicing this all week, from our meditation sessions to the slow walking we've done together and as individual practice. "It all helps to quiet the mind," she says. She finishes with a reminder that there's no cutting corners.
She wastes no time in putting it to practice. "Let's write," she says. Perhaps inspired by the question, she says, "What are you trying to fix? 10 minutes, go," she tells us.
40 notebooks open, pages are flipped, pens scratch across paper. It feels like no time at all before Natalie is saying, "Wind down," then gives us another topic, this time for 20 minutes: "What have you forgotten to say?" I can appreciate now how this might have been helpful for students who were going to leave after this first week but might still have something on their hearts to ask her or explore before leaving.
When the time is up, the Q&A resumes, and someone asks a question about "her method."
She's quick to say, almost annoyed, "It's not a method; it's got roots in 2,000 years of Zen. It's not Natalie's idea..." and while I can appreciate where she's coming from and how she's giving credit to Buddhism, I deeply believe that she was uniquely able to capture its application in writing with her famous book Writing Down the Bones.
"It's a lineage," she concludes.
There's a long pause as she scans the room, and she takes some time to review some of the lessons we've learned over the week, telling us "Don't get rigid or weird about it," and I think of the turtle and laugh.
She quotes her friend Kate Green: "In order to write, you have to be willing to be disturbed," and lets it sink in.
"Did you all learn we're not the center of the universe?" she asks us with a smile, and I see some nodding and hear chuckling as I look around the room.
It's almost time to go, I notice. Natalie finishes by talking about time, about the imminent transition back to our lives (though about half of us will stay for a second week). The thing I remember most is when she said,
"Can you imagine the sun having time? It just shines. Time is in you."
And without further ado, week 1 is over.
Week 2 coming soon,
PS: I'm moving into year 2 of carrying on Natalie's lineage the best I can. 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.