I woke up this morning to a wild craving.
I wanted the quiet of Madeline Island with a near-madness, the Wisconsin paradise where I spent two weeks studying in-person with Natalie Goldberg and others 1 year ago.
It was a sudden, gut-wrenching kind of missing. I missed the serenity of the silence we were in for the first half of each day. I missed the feeling of the cold tiles on my feet after removing our shoes to enter the zendo. I missed sitting zazen in the early golden sunlight together, a gentle birdsong spilling through the windows, a cool summer breeze making its way to our cheek.
I missed the sounds of Lake Superior lapping against the shore, its vastness like a mysterious arrow through my heart. I missed the Brooklyn accent of my teacher, reminding us to let go, follow the resistance, keep the hand moving.
I missed the cocoon of my tiny orange tent surrounded by tall, lush pines, the way the rain fell on them at night, lulling me to sleep. I missed the feeling of everything being much simpler. Sit, read, write. Eat, walk, sleep.
I woke up this morning and couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to write about it. I needed to visit that island again, to remind myself of what it was that rocked my world so deeply a year ago that I completely changed my life and career because of it.
On a whole new level, I understood what Natalie meant when she said,
“Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there's another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives every second at a time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and details.”
I got up and dressed, putting on the necklace I bought on that island made of Amazonite green stones that they told me had something to do with opening up your throat chakra. I remember being drawn to the color and the idea that placing this string of rocks around my throat could somehow help unlock or amplify my voice even though I still don’t understand much about chakras. But no matter. How very fitting for a 2-week writing practice retreat, I thought at the time.
Next, I made my coffee in the large, deep green mug I got from the Madeline Island School of the Arts. The same mug we drank endless coffee in to fuel us over those two weeks. I smiled as I remembered all the hands that held these mugs, all the writing hands, my teachers hands, my own hands, all of us wanting more energy to keep going and going, to keep the hand moving, to keep waking up to this life.
I sat down with my coffee and read a few pages from No Time Like the Present by Jack Kornfield (did you know he’s endorsed Natalie’s books and vice versa?). This is the best way I’ve found to ground my day, followed by sitting meditation, before joining my morning writing salon (where all are welcome). It often feels like I read something that hits the nail right on the head. For instance, this morning’s section began:
“Your suffering is not the end of the story. It doesn’t have to define you. The poet Rumi’s tomb says:
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of life.
Though you have broken your vow a hundred times,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.”
I felt tears sting my eyes. I’ve been navigating waves of depression all summer with breaks of calm, clarity, and wellness, followed inevitably by another wave that knocks me over for a time. I’ve been doubting myself, my dream of being a writer, of creating my own workshops and classes instead of going back to teaching within an institution, of so many things.
My daily writing routines and practices were interrupted by getting COVID in June, and I’d been feeling low since my spring workshops ended where I got to interact with dozens of others on a regular basis to study and discuss books and do writing practice. All of my favorite, nourishing practices with my beloved community.
And then a poem, a comment, an excerpt like this crashes over you. And maybe you cry a little. And maybe you realize you’ve slipped a bit, but you have the hands of a whole community of writers and makers and other creative souls who are there to life you up, remind you that even when you haven’t been writing or showing up regularly, you always get to begin again. "Keep coming back," Natalie reminded us during our meditation sessions, and I understand that now to mean not only to the breath when we sit, but to this practice and to this life, over and over again.
I’d stopped writing my blog posts about Madeline Island when I let monkey mind, my inner critic, convince me it wasn’t worthwhile. Nine months ago. “Enough time to give birth to a new life,” I told my writing salon during our check-in this morning as I shared my plans to restart the little series despite such a long gap. “In a way, I kind of did do that,” I reflected, realizing this truth as I was saying it out loud, “Except with my own life.”
In her memoir Let the Whole World Come Thundering Home, Natalie reminds us:
“Jump in, no excuses. Exert the force of your life. Persevere under all circumstances.”
So with green mug in hand and green necklace on neck, I show up as I am to this beautiful writing community, wipe away my tears as I set a timer for our meditation, and then I get back to the page. I keep the hand moving. I follow the energy. I jump in and exert the force that is my life. I see and hear monkey mind trying to tell me to give it up, and I notice her briefly before coming back to my anchors: my pen, the page, writing without stopping so as to not let her negativity catch up.
I write about the island. I’m back. I remember what Natalie told us on the last day of the retreat, “You’re leaving, but you never really leave,” and I understand what she means, more than ever.
PS: Stay tuned as I continue to post about the writing retreat experience over the next few weeks! You can start at the beginning here if you wish.
PPS: 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.