Friday, August 14, 2015
A writer "retreats"
The writer in me was craving some peace and quiet, some long-term sitting time, some mental room in which to grow and nurture a thought plucked from thin air.
The rest of my daily life was having absolutely none of that idea! The last few years have gone by with the speed and fury of a cyclone, carved up by job, commute, new grandbaby, elderly relatives in decline, funerals, household chores, writers’ conferences, wrestling with nature rather than ceding the field of battle over my ten little flower beds, and…of late…the addition of two “spare” cats to the household while their owners (my children) went temporarily overseas.
It seemed that I could hold no train of thought for longer than five minutes, and I was wilting from the lack. A dear friend of mine who I had first met at an idyllic writers’ retreat led by the late poet Norbert Blei was headed back to the idyll earlier this summer for a glorious full week away from reality.
I knew full well the value of that environment, and that recharging of the soul. I had experienced it for myself three times in the past decade, driving north along the western shore of Lake Michigan to “The Clearing” in Door County, a collection of log cabins and larger gathering places and campfire pits set on the shore of Green Bay, augmented by three hearty meals a day with the plates whisked away by the staff so that “the writers” could get back to work…or not. Another year, when my checking account permitted but my work schedule forbade my going up to The Clearing I rented a tiny cottage on the lake and repaired there for a week of replenishing solitude. I hiked shaded trails, lived mostly like a hermit, and wrote…and napped…a lot.
Oh, this year as my friend prepared to launch into her writer’s Eden, I was so jealous! But a combination of scheduling problems and finances conspired to keep me from going with this time. A week away from home at a place like The Clearing is never cheap. Add to it the post-divorce costs associated with parking the dog in a kennel for a week and paying someone to drive over to feed the cats and make them feel validated, and the idea of a week-long getaway rapidly rose to the level of “pipe dream.”
Still…I knew I needed to recharge. Badly. And so I improvised.
I co-opted my youngest son and his wife, newly returned from a semester abroad “across the pond” in Ireland, to move in to the house while I’d be gone and play zookeepers to Lucky the dog and the four felines who had kept me in conversation, kitty litter and carpet shampoo for a number of months. One of the cats was theirs, and while I had grown incredibly fond of little Finnigan over the course of seven months, there was payback to be reaped. Knowing that the cats would not be “home alone” and full of mischief was a HUGE weight off my shoulders.
Then I got on line and started looking for a cheap motel room for an entire TWO DAYS that my other commitments didn’t cut into. And lo and behold, I found a lovely place just two miles from Kohler Andrae state park, site of what I consider the loveliest beach in the state of Wisconsin. SOLD!! I booked the room and started to pack.
My needs, when you got right down to it, were very simple: a bed and a bathroom, breakfast, free WiFi, and above all, peace and quiet. Armed with my laptop computer, a picnic basket full of “gluten free” snacks and fruits, and several cans of Diet Coke, I set out to recharge my batteries.
It didn’t take long. I could feel both life and creativity flooding into me before I even stepped on to the sandy path leading from the parking lot to the beach. I felt my state of eternal vigilance and rapid responsiveness—dog, cats, elderly mother, kids, work, laundry, boyfriend, and the occasional raccoon in the garage—relax, and new trains of thought start to grow and evolve. I felt the daily realities and timetables and litter box maintenance fly right out of my head on the breeze, to be replaced by whimsy, and mischievousness, and, dare I say it, imagination.
Leaving the motel for the first time to head toward the beach, I drove past the ruins of an older motel, in full swing of being reclaimed by nature. It gave off the disturbing feel of the Bates Motel…about twenty years after abandonment when Norman Bates got locked up at the end of “Psycho.” It was desolate…and atmospheric…and I stopped to snap a lot of photos. A place that creepy has just got to find a spot in a story some day!
An early morning trip to the shore revealed that I was indeed the first person there, and I walked into sand shrouded in mist rising from the rains of the night before. The sand between the grass in the dunes was still pockmarked by raindrops, and I set my little blanket a few hundred feet from a gathering of seagulls at the water’s edge. While I am a rabid fan of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book “Gift From the Sea,” I admit I broke her cardinal rule that the shore is no place to work, but a place to replenish. And so I wrote.
I was writing “old school,” of course. I had left my iPhone in the car’s glove compartment, and the laptop back at the motel room. I was equipped with those most antiquated forms of writing accoutrements—a pen and a pad of paper. But sitting there, surrounded by wind and waves and footprints in the sand, the thoughts and images just kept coming as though Pandora’s box had been opened. And every piece of dialogue that I jotted down, every shred of character development or backstory that emerged, invariably led to more. It would have been criminal NOT to write it all down! Nefariousness, clues, atmospherics, troubled families, emotional scars, observations of modern society—they all would have flared and then disappeared on the wind like leaves in autumn, gone for good if not pinned to the paper.
There were breaks in my action, of course. I can’t sit by the shore and not be lulled by the sight of rolling whitecaps. Or stretch out full-length and watch clouds pass by…or even just close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the wind and water. This is truly my favorite beach, reminiscent in size and endless, unbroken horizon of the shore at the edge of the ocean. While you may not spy any dolphins playing in the surf at daybreak, I personally find that the dearth of sharks and jellyfish is more than a fair trade-off.
And so it went. A trip to the beach followed by the trek back to the motel to read and research and type, after a quick shower to remove sand and sunblock. Write, rinse and repeat.
I will drive back toward reality and routine in a few hours, but not before I return to the beach one more time with pen and paper in hand. As I chatted the day before with the motel manager, he offered up the location of yet another “inspirational” place for a writer to visit, known to the locals yet off the beaten path. If I had another day or two to spare, I’m sure I’d find my way there, drawn by the promise of broken foundations and ruined buildings, grown-over gardens, and cliffs at the shore. I’m keeping the exact location of that one to myself.
Because I just know there has to be a “next time.”