Updated: Jul 23, 2022
Note: This is post #9 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.
I refocus my gaze after my 10-minute sit on the edge of Lake Superior. My feet are now quite firmly anchored in the mushy sand and water just like my mind that has been anchoring on my breath.
The breeze opens the notebook in my lap. A good omen, I think. I take a prompt that Natalie gave us that morning and write it at the top, set a timer for 20 minutes, and go. There's no good or bad, I remind myself. Just keep the hand moving.
Prompt: Tell your love story. 20 minutes. Go. (unedited except for line breaks)
Senior year of college. The last year! The first semester! Yes! A single dorm all to myself, a fresh new start.
The smell of new and used textbooks, my hazelnut candle on my bedside table, my fluffy brown warm twin comforter, the sounds of new and returning students moving in. Happy chatter with anxious parents, air full of hope and fun and would you just get going now, Dad? I'm fine, I'll be FINE, yes I remembered my toothbrush.
Walking up the stairs to my room- a poster on the wall. "Do you have questions? Doubts? Join us for our first meeting at The Union, Tuesdays at 6pm." Something clicked in me. I looked at the bottom of the poster: CFI - Center for Inquiry, a space for the open-minded and freethinkers.
Hook, line, sinker. I was there. Also, where have you been all my life?
The meeting is packed- or at least it feels that way. 30 or so people filling every seat in the room, a few of the students in the group are telling us about it, what they do, why, a little about themselves. I'm in the middle of the back row, nervous excited. I don't know anyone here.
The leaders take some questions, maybe have us introduce ourselves- I don't remember- and then for the next hour, a panel of 3 holds a discussion-turned-debate about something to do with religion- some sub-topic of fundamentalism. I'm fascinated, impressed, engrossed. These people seem so smart, I think. I want to be that smart.
Oh no, what if they find out I'm not as smart as them? I listen to the rest of the panel, a million questions squeezing and pushing against my brain, but I'm too afraid to speak up at the end when they took questions.
A student to my left raises his hand. He's called on, and he asks, "Could you all maybe define exactly what you mean by 'fundamentalism?' It seems like you're all arguing with each other about the same thing but with different ideas as to what it even means- which is probably why you can't agree on anything."
I stare, maybe with my mouth open a little, because these are the exact words and question and comments that I'd been bursting to ask and comment on but had been too afraid.
The student is still looking at the moderator for an answer, sharp blue eyes, light brown hair tied back in a ponytail, army green t-shirt, perfect straight triangle nose. I notice him now.
The rest of the students had been laughing a little at his question because it all seemed so obvious now- and the moderator commented on his question before the panel answered it, saying, "Now that would've been a great point to begin with- it's a bit moot now. Let's remember that for next time..."
He then goes down to invite everyone to the main lobby for a "social hour" so the new members can get to know each other, and I decide to stay and find my way down the stairs to the cozy lobby area with chairs and tables, tall ceilings, old wooden windows, a fireplace (no longer being used), oil paintings of lots of dead white dudes, and I find a chair to sit in that's part of a circle, and the Guy Who Asked the Question sits down to my right, which made me happy.
Later, he'd tell me how pretty he thought I looked in my long, dark green dress with its spaghetti straps, and I'd tell him how he looked so serious and even a little bit intimidating when we first made eye contact- such a sharp look (or "RBF" as it's referred to today)- but I sensed to much more behind those eyes and that scraggly ponytail.
We got married 6 years later.
The timer goes off, surprising me. I write that last sentence to wrap it up, realizing I only just barely got to the "love story" part of the prompt, but I remind myself of what Natalie and her assistants have been telling us all week: "A prompt is just that, a prompt," and "Get off topic as soon as possible." Once that message had really sunk in, I felt so much freer to go where my mind wanted to take me rather than worrying so much over whether or not I was "doing it right."
In other words, being on the retreat was really working. I was starting to trust my own mind and let writing do writing.
I drew a line under the last sentence, following Natalie's way and advice to not waste any space or paper ("write in the margins!") and find myself writing in response to my own prompt since it felt like I'd been holding it in me for days now and really needed to get it out. The prompt I came up with was simply, Tell me about the time you met Natalie Goldberg, which I ended up turning into its own a blog post later on.
It was just such an incredible moment, conversation, interaction- I knew I had plenty of writing prompt "assignments," but if I didn't explode the moment onto paper soon, it was going to fly south for the winter and I'd lose its energy.
After I finished, I felt relief mixed with joy and gratitude. I (literally) unearthed my feet so I could try and do the slow walking assignment. Shouldn't be too hard, right?
It just goes completely against my nature/habits to walk slowly. My natural gait is my best friend's light jog. My husband will sometimes fall behind when we're out on a walk or hiking, and he'll often surprise me when he goes to catch up by running to me, because I also tend to get in the zone on longer stretches. In other words, I stop paying attention as I'm moving my body quickly through a lot of life- the opposite of what we're trying to do here at this retreat.
It's infinitely harder than the 30-minute meditations I often struggle with because THERE ARE SO MANY COOL THINGS TO LOOK AT. Namely, every. single. rock. Every one of 'em! And I'm passing over them along the shoreline at a snail's pace and they're so pretty and colorful and shit I'm supposed to be slow walking but I keep picking up rocks!
This goes on for some time until my fanny pack is full and so I give up, for now.
It's already time to start heading back to campus for lunch, and I rejoin the women who drove me to the beach and enjoy the quiet drive back across the flat, lush green island, windows down. The woman in the front seat has her hand out of the window and moves it up and down with the breeze like it's riding waves. Her long dark hair dances wildly around her head in the wind; I can see her eyes in the mirror, soft and half-closed, blissful. I relish the silence we're still practicing, thinking how easily this moment could've been missed or ruined with small talk or any kind of noise, really.
To express my thanks, I offer the woman and her mother prayer hands after we get out of the car as we've all sort of been doing all day in lieu of speaking, and after a hot buffet lunch with sweetened ice tea and heavenly brownies for dessert, I decide to bike the 5 miles back to my campground to finish the rest of our "assignments," try slow walking again at the beach there, and shower.
When I get to the sleepy green campground, I pass by my site and keep going to the trail that leads to a completely empty beach and boardwalk that leads you through pines over a marshy area; if I had read the signs or paid more attention, I could be more specific about the names of things, like Natalie tells us, but I've always been professionally lazy at this.
I put the bike in the slot of a bike rack and start walking, not knowing where it goes or for how long. Time to wander.
To experience such a serene natural space while being the most grounded I've felt in years is... is... It's being with god. It's being with the source. It's capitalizing those words or not; it's being present and feeling a sense of connection and belonging that your being whispers to you, see? this is it. you found it. it's always been here and always will be... keep coming back.
I'm on the verge of tears. I keep walking. I think of my dear Pipi, my grandfather, who had recently passed, and I cry. I keep walking. He loved to walk. I'm walking with my Pipi now. I let it out, and it's so beautiful to be in that moment with him and his love and his memories and my burning bright alive awareness of it all. I didn't know you could grieve like this. I thought you drowned in it, got lost in it, tried to avoid it / fix it/ move on / keep it to yourself. But I don't. I walk with his love to my left and the weight and pain of his loss to my right, and I find that it's possible to be with them both. A soft gratitude for this all fills my arms and my chest and my eyes and my legs, and I keep going.
The wind gets stronger as I walk. It dries my tears and caresses my face, my cheeks. It carries the scent of the lake that's traveled through the line of pines and now it's in my lungs and I no longer feel so alone. I wonder if we would all suffer as much as we do if we just let Mother Nature in a little closer to our hearts, if we stopped trying to stop everything from coming.
A lightness unfolds throughout my whole body, and I spot a break in the trees. I follow a short boardwalk to a new part of the lake shore and decide to try my walking meditation again here. I start by taking off my shoes, rolling up my pants, and walk in. It's so cold that I later write about it as being "so cold it was like, white hot cold, cold-cold, painful cold." I stepped out and onto a firmer part on the sand and did my slow walking.
It was still hard, and I somehow almost fell over slow walking, but I did it. I kept coming back to my feet when my mind and attention and eyes wandered, anchoring myself like we do when we sit and follow the breath.
Ahem. Your proof, Madame - a time lapse capturing 20ish minutes in 12ish seconds:
I don't really want to leave this place, but I note the time and need to head back if I'm to shower for the first time in a few days and then have enough time to bike the 5 miles back.
I pop back into the protection of the pines and slowly (but not slow-walking) make my way back towards the bike. I stop when I see a faded old canoe to my right, and another gust of wind comes through, bending the tall grass that's everywhere.
I don't think I'll ever be able to explain it, but something happens and I know I must write a haiku. Now. Immediately! THERE'S NO TIME FOR PAPER WHAT ARE YOU DOING. I whip out my phone, I feel like I'm going to lose it if I don't extend a net to catch it, and here's what I frantically write in an Notes app on my phone:
A dull red canoe
Flipped on its side
Fierce wind in the trees
Looking at it now, I think, meh. But who cares? It felt fucking joyous. Alive. I felt some kind of magic passing me by and I reached out and touched it and it needed to come out into the world as a few simple lines.
I hadn't written a haiku since I was required to for a school assignment of some kind. All I remember was being taught about 5 /7 /5 and man, did I not care.
I kept walking, got back to the trail head. The quiet was punctured by the buzzing of a plane. I looked up, shielding my eyes from the sun and spotted it. I gasped. Ohmygosh another haiku GET OUT OF ME NOW what is happening.
She looks up
A plane in the summer sky
A long exhale
I'm laughing now as I write this. The urgency! The IMPORTANCE. It all felt so real.
Because it was.
Practicing all these ways of being present manifested in an act of creativity and turned on a lamp in my heart. It added a new color to the rainbow. Thank god I was present enough to bear witness.
So I ask you- who the hell cares if it's good or bad?
Until next time,