Note: This is post #10 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.
“Dedicate every pore to what’s here.”
It’s day 4 of Natalie’s True Secret of Writing retreat, and she’s setting the tone for the day by quoting Ikkyu, a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and poet from the 14th century.
Sitting at the front of the room facing all 40 of us in our rolling chairs, she says no more, letting the message sink in. I soak happily in this long pause. At first, I’d felt anxious when she did this. What does the pause mean? Did she lose her train of thought? Is she winging it? Why did she stop talking? My brain, so used to the fast-paced culture in which we live, couldn’t appreciate these pauses for what they were until I’d settled into this new rhythm for a few days. Now, I let the gorgeous pause cradle me in the words she quoted, setting an intention to carry them into the day and rest of the retreat.
While looking through my notebook from this retreat and what I wrote on day 4, I stumbled upon the following, written on the back of a receipt:
The day follows the same structure as we’ve had so far, and I find that I’m dropping down into my writing practice much more quickly, following the resistance with more trust, keeping the hand moving without trouble, and letting wild mind take over.
After breakfast, it’s small groups for the next hour. Two other students and I settle in at a wooden picnic table with a red umbrella next to the fragrant grass and begin with the first of several topics we were given: What was in your refrigerator when you left home? I begin by writing about leftover chicken strips and 10 minutes later, I’m swearing and angry and yelling at cancer with my pen.
I remember when I used to try hard to stay on topic, following the “rules,” but as Doretea reminded us that morning, “A prompt is just that, a prompt. Go off topic as soon as possible.” Though Natalie prefers the term “topic,” the sentiment is still true, and she’s constantly reminding us that while structure has its place, it’s just as important to “break the structure,” too. Writing practice isn’t about doing it “right” or “well” because, thank goodness, there is no good or bad in writing practice. The goal is to let writing do writing, to wake up to what’s in front of us, to grow our writing spines and confidence and study our own minds.
After the timer goes off, we each read what we wrote and then begin with the next topic, What do you carry? 10 minutes, go.
I drop down immediately and pour out my grief about my estranged mother and I. My heartbeat quickens, my hands begin to sweat, and tears start pouring out of my eyes. I’ve almost completely avoided talking or writing about her for the past year in either therapy or any kind of writing, but now it feels like a flood I can’t hold back, and for the first time, I trust myself that I can let it out, so I do.
My handwriting becomes larger, rounder, wilder. By the end, I’m taking up two lines for a sentence, like I’m screaming on paper. The timer goes off, and then so do I. Shaking, I push off from the table and walk into the grassy field 50 feet away, and I just cry and cry. I don’t try to stop it; I couldn’t if I wanted to. The late morning sun shines down on me, the breeze pushes the hair gently away from my face. Mother nature holds me as my writing practice just has, and a few minutes later, I walk back to the picnic table, puffy-faced and feeling raw, but somewhat lighter.
I expected the two others to have finished sharing by now, but they had kindly waited for me. I’m grateful, because as hard as it is, I continue to unburden my heart as I read the entry aloud to them, absurdly grateful that there’s no commenting or feedback in writing practice. I’m just seen, held, and heard. There’s no judgment, no good or bad, just speaking my truth, my life, my heart. It feels as though I’ve drained some poison away from my being.
And then, I get a chance to loosen my hold on this grief even further. We’re called back inside to the large group, and I read the entry again to everyone as we sit in a circle and go one by one. I was so physically distressed that I had to stand while I read it, and when I sit down afterwards and look out into the mask-covered faces of my peers, I notice a woman crying. I feel so much less alone.
It’s lunch time, then the 3-hour free period. I hop on a bike and go to a small cemetery a mile or two down the quiet road. Since I was a teenager, I’ve really enjoyed walking in cemeteries. In a black and white film course I took my freshman year of college where we developed our own film, I shot rolls and rolls of crumbling headstones, capturing the way to moss grew up over the cement edges as time and nature slowly took back what man had taken from it. I remember always feeling deeply peaceful while walking up and down the rows of graves, reading the names, years, and sometimes the little bios people add on there.
While I’d noticed that most people in my culture and country prefer to avoid talking about death and dying and would find my graveyard habit morbid or strange, I always found that I gained more perspective about life when visiting the dead. I feel more deeply connected to this life and to others, both those who came before and who are currently alongside me on this wild journey. Not to mention, what a powerful reminder it is that we are only here for a gorgeous blip of time, so “Enjoy your life,” as Natalie had recently said, “Because by the end, you’re gonna really fucking want it.”
It’s time for the afternoon session with Natalie. She comes into the brightly-lit room, and I notice her loose, mustard yellow pants. “I think I’ll have a cookie,” she says before sitting down, “Gotta find the one with the most chips.”
She sits down and smiles, saying, “How am I gonna eat this cookie then sit zazen?” We all laugh. “Ok, just one bite.”
The session begins with a student sharing an entry she wrote, and Natalie discusses some parts of it afterward. She doesn't highlight the quality of the content, but where the reader “dropped down” and got specific, and how that’s when there was a change in the energy.
We sit for a few minutes, then Natalie rings the bell three times, which indicates that we can speak afterwards during our book study. For the rest of the session, we'll discuss one of the books she assigned us to read for the retreat, The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich.
“Shit,” she says, realizing her glasses are broken. She sighs. “I used to be professional… maybe not, actually. That was never my way.” I laugh again and love her even more.
A few pairs of reading glasses are passed around as Natalie tries them on, finds a pair that apparently works for her, and we begin.
For the first time this week, she says, “You don’t need to take notes; it’s all in my books,” and I freeze, pen hovering over paper. I’d been taking detailed notes all week (and let me tell you, 1 year later, I am so glad), but I reluctantly set down my pen to give over my full attention. The only time I pick it up again is to write down the names of books she mentions, and one final quote from her, in which she actually quotes someone else:
“I asked my friend Eddy why he liked this book so much,” she shares, “and he said ‘It did exactly what a novel is supposed to do- give us a whole world.'”
We started by studying the structure of the book followed by sharing excerpts we’d noted while reading; sometimes there’s commentary from either Natalie or the student afterward, sometimes not. I so enjoy this real, human way of discussing and studying books (compared to the often overly analytical way I experienced it in 10+ years of academia), that 6 months later, I end up creating my own workshops modeled in the same way.
At the end of the session, Natalie gives us 7 writing practice topics for homework, telling us to do at least 4 for 15 minutes each in addition to slow walking and meditating outside at least once before we met again the next day.
After dinner and our evening meditation together, I get a ride from the other student staying in the same campsite as me. It’s dusk, and so I only just barely make out a dark shape in the road ahead of us as we come around a corner. “Watch out,” I tell her, worried it was a turtle carcass I’d noticed when biking to campus that morning.
It was, only this time, it was shattered into many more pieces and had clearly been somewhat scavenged. I felt the same sad tug at my gut that I’d felt in the morning, wishing it’d been just a few feet further along– it was just 15 feet from the water– before a driver snuffed out its life.
My friend surprised me by pulling the car over, telling me she’d move the turtle off the road and into the grass since it could damage a car. We both got out, and she grabbed some dirty tupperware from the backseat to move it off the road. I kept watch for cars, but it was quite dark by now, and the road stretched long and straight. From where I stood at the bend in the road, I could see clearly in either direction if a car approached.
We both stood by the side of the road next to the turtle remains for a few moments. Then, my friend put her hands together by her heart and bowed toward it. In a world where someone couldn’t bother to slow down for a life crossing the road, there exists also someone who will take the time to gently move its shell into soft grass and honor its brief life with a bow.
My throat constricted at her gesture, and when we turned back toward the car, I inhaled quickly and shouted her name.
“Look!” I said, pointing down one of the near-pitch black roads, my mouth forming a slack little “o.”
Hundreds– perhaps thousands– of tiny glowing lights filled the air against the inky blue and black surrounding us. Fireflies had suddenly appeared out of nowhere, like silent mourners who’d crept up to the grave at a funeral in its final moments to pay their respects.
With nothing but the gentle sound of crickets and Lake Superior’s soft waves moving against the shore, we stood and stared in awed silence together in this shimmering symphony of life.
Keep the hand moving,
PS: I'm plowing ahead 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.