It is probably dramatic, perhaps a little grandiose, to compare leaving a weekend writing retreat to the experience of dying, or, more specifically, of fighting for one's life. But the other women who were with me at the Wellspring House in Ashfield last weekend would understand how leaving has felt, if not like a little death, at least like a threatened one.
"I'm not sure I'll be able to talk about all this back home," I told one of the women as we packed our belongings. "I'm afraid I'll cheapen it somehow if I try."
It wasn't until later that the irony of my statement hit me. So much of the weekend was about the illuminating quality of translating experience into words. The power of language to chisel into something until the gem of what is truest about it has been found, excavated, polished, and fully appreciated.
I had arrived for the weekend in considerable disarray, having rushed around, neglected some tasks I wanted to have completed before the weekend, and even taken a rather humiliating tumble down some cellar stairs on the morning of my arrival. I arrived on the verge of being late, with scabbed and swollen knuckles and chin. (Read this, I arrived a hot mess). The women, half of whom I had never even met, took me in and gave me a homeopathic remedy I had never heard of called Arnica, and asked me not about the facts of what had happened to injure me, but the story. What went through my mind? How did I feel, then and now? What did I notice about the situation and myself? The combination of their concern for my physical well-being and their genuine interest in my experience of an event made me feel quickly safe and seen and at home in a way that is not typical for me, but was precisely the welcoming in that I needed to do work that was both creative and personal. It was the crucible within which the weekend's magic could happen.
While telling about the different aspects of the weekend does little to describe or explain the whole, I want to comment on some of the key ingredients in what for me was a rich and deeply meaningful experience.
The women. (And it had to have been all women!) There were seven of us (nine, if you include our facilitator and her wife), representing two different states of residence, a wide variety of ages, writing backgrounds, personal histories, and current circumstances. The common denominators were a shared love of writing and reading and a commitment to creating and maintaining a safe space to both create and share new work.
In the past, if I had been asked to choose a writing group of all women vs. a writing group of people interested in the same kinds of writing, I'd have chosen the latter. Certainly my experience of writing amidst both men and women in grad school was rewarding and valuable. But. During this retreat, we wrote and shared about many things that could only really be described as women's issues. From the first hour of my arrival, I both recognized and felt the importance to me of spending the weekend with just women.
The facilitator. Well, I've only recently started working with Chivas, but must say that her commitment to craft, to the creative process, and to the importance of a safe and supportive space for women writers set and held the tone for our weekend. Whether she was presenting a cohesive craft lecture or passing around the designated roll of toilet paper for tears-catching or giving us writing prompts or guiding our sharing and discussion of our writing, her gentle, supportive, wise, and compassionate leadership was felt. (Do not think for a moment that she is not equally skilled at invoking the sense of fun. But, what happens at the dance party, stays at the dance party).
The place. The Wellspring House in Ashfield, intentionally geared toward the inspiration and quirks of writers and other artists, is a book-filled, art-filled residence atop a mountain in Ashfield. There was a meditation room, a rock garden, and an abundance of lilacs. There was also no cell phone reception. After the panicky feeling of i-phone withdrawl left me (breathe, Susan, breathe), that, too, turned out to be something I needed.
The writing and the sharing of writing. Having been swept in a whirlwind of anxious activity before my retreat weekend, I was skeptical about my ability to relax enough for any substantial amount of writing. Boy, was I wrong! During the course of the weekend, a new novel chapter, several poems, and a couple of loose-form essays tumbled out of me.
After writing sessions, which we went off to pursue alone under trees, in the rock garden, on the porch, in our beds, we reconvened to sit in a circle in the living room and read aloud to the group whatever portion we wanted to share. I don't really know how to explain it, the sense of my writing being deeply heard, considered, felt. The poignancy of listening to other women's beautifully penned and deeply personal writing.
Often, the feedback we gave one another took the form of just repeating a sentence or phrase from the person's writing what was especially meaningful or impacting to a listener. I don't know how to explain it adequately, the gift of such deep listening. The act of going inward to find and write one's truth, and then have it heard, appreciated, and reflected back by the same writers whose own words just wowed you. The extent to which we women "got real" about our feelings, our demons, our lives, our concerns.
The laughter. Lest I have made it sound like the retreat was an extended group therapy session, it's important to note that we laughed. Uproariously. A lot. Enough to make various face and stomach laugh muscles hurt a little, in a very good way.
The dancing. Oops, I said I wasn't going to go into detail about the dancing. Let me just say that after a lot of intense, hard writing and sharing work on Saturday, many of us engaged in the freest, most un-self-conscious dancing that I have ever personally experienced. Motown, anyone? What a release, what a bonding experience, and what a blast!
The Goddess (aka The Sappho). She was the faceless, full-bodied, broken and repaired, just-weighty-enough and substantial sculpture we passed around when we were about to read from our own work. Before long, she was as much a personality among us as any of us were. Also, it became fun to hold her in one hand like a newly-announced Academy Award recipient, so we dubbed her "The Sappho" (as opposed to The Oscar).
Now, my weekend is behind me. Now, I return to the hectic and mundane, to work tasks and laundry and parenting, to people, for the most part, who do not hold dear the things that meant so much to me this weekend.
This morning, light bulbs burned out in both my kitchen and my headlight, a passerby waving me down to alert me of the latter as I dropped off my daughter before work. Is it because of the weekend, its vibrancy and energy and reverence to detail, that this feels so symbolic?
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
My mission now is to stay alive, to keep the weekend alive in me. And if that all sounds a little dramatic, well, so be it. I am a person with strong feelings who yearns to live my life authentically and fully. There are several women who get this about me. And it's all ok.
That was the gift of the weekend.