Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Cabin of One's Own: Hedgebrook

            “And this is Willow Cabin,” said Vito, the Residency Director, pointing to a quaint cottage nestled in a grove of cedar trees. I realize that “quaint”, “nestled”, “grove”, and even “Vito” are words that no decent writer who has just spent twelve days at a writers’ retreat should employ. In this case, however, they are accurate. Hedgebrook, a residency for women writers, is located on Widbey Island which is on the Puget Sound, a ferry ride away from Seattle. 
            Vito had already shown me the organic garden where I could clip flowers, the bath house with heated floors where I would bathe, the woodshed where I could collect wood for my wood burning stove, the bench by the pond that looked out on Mount Ranier where I could read and write, the shed where I could grab a bike to ride to the beach, and the farmhouse where I would eat organic meals, prepared by a cook, with five other women writers. After showing me such a dizzying assemblage of earthly delights, I would not have been surprised to hear him say, “At the end of this path, where the gooseberry bushes grow and the thorny toad croaks his weary song, you will find a little old woman who lives in a giant shoe.”
            Vito opened the door to my cabin and we stepped inside. He showed me the bedroom upstairs, the light streaming through a stained glass window onto a bed made with a down comforter and flannel sheets. Downstairs, he showed me the empty L shaped desk where I could set up my writing equipment. Here, too, was the kitchen and the easy chair with a footstool in front of the wood burning stove. Vito showed me how to build and light a fire. Rainbows danced around the cabin, cast by the beveled glass in the windows that looked out on the woods. Pillows and a throw blanket were piled onto a banquette that was built into the wall beneath a picture window. Vito pointed to the journals on the shelves next to it. Willow Cabin women had been writing entries in them since the first residency in 1989. Dinner would be at 5:30, Vito said. I was free to spend my time however I wanted until then. With that, he closed the door.
            I unpacked and within ten minutes it looked like I had occupied the cabin for a decade. I even arranged my knitting on top of a volume of Seamus Heaney poetry to look like I had simply tossed it there casually before getting up to stoke the fire. I glanced at the clock. Three hours until dinner. Should I start writing, I asked myself?  No, leave that until tomorrow. This afternoon, I should unwind. The literature I had gotten from Hedgebrook had said that writers flourished here when they unplugged and took the time to develop a new rhythm. I sat at the banquette with my book, read a little bit, and stared dreamily out of the window. I watched a robin hop around and congratulated myself for slowing down and noticing little things like a robin hopping around. Surely this would improve my writing greatly. Should I get up from the banquette and write about the robin?  I glanced at the clock. Only five minutes had passed. How could that be?
            Should I knit? No. I should walk around the grounds and clip some flowers. I grabbed the cutters from the drawer, pulled on my shoes, and headed out the door. I slowed my pace to take in the foliage and the stones crunching beneath my feet. I stopped by the pond and sat, listening to the birds and the frogs. It was a clear day and I could see the Puget Sound and even the snowy summit of Mount Ranier. I decided that this would be the spot that I would sit at every day and breathe and read and dream. Good. That was decided. I jumped up and skipped down the lane to the garden. On the way, I saw a young woman sitting on a large rock, pencil in hand, a pad of paper on her knees, looking off into the distance. Was she writing a poem?  Should I be sitting on a rock?  Get the flowers first, I told myself. I could sit on a rock later. My time was all my own. I could sit on a rock and the bench at the pond and at the banquette all in one day if I wanted.
            I creaked open the wooden gate to the garden and meandered along the path, past leafy greens, to get to the flowers at the back. I thought that if I were a poet who sat on rocks, I would know the names of the flowers. As it was, I could only say that there were some big dark purple ones, small orange ones, some bluebell-y looking things, and pink and purple poofs that topped long thin stalks. Oh, and pink tulips. I knew a tulip when I saw one. I cut one of each and quickly marched back to my cabin, past the girl still sitting on the rock, before they could wilt.
            By the clock on the desk, I’d only been gone ten minutes. What? I breathed in and shook my shoulders loose. Obviously, I wasn’t slowing down enough. The poet on the rock had it right. I should simply stay in one spot for, like, a whole half hour at a time. Even longer. For all I knew she had been on that goddamned rock for two hours watching a bee pollinate those tiny white flowers that were all over the place.
            I sat on the banquette, resolved to sit there for a half hour, or at least twenty minutes if my ass started to hurt. I lifted some of the journals off of the shelves and settled in. Pages upon pages of handwritten entries exhorted their Willow Cabin sisters to slow down, dig deep, sit still, walk the trails, build fires, and write, write, write – but only when they felt like it. “Dear Willow Woman, I left sage for you.” “The shells on the tree stump by the door are from Useless Bay.” I flipped through more pages, “Double Bluff Beach”; “Deception Pass”; “Hazardous Bluff”. “Be sure to walk home naked from the bath house in the moonlight.” “We left the farmhouse and went to the pond to howl at the moon.”  Were these women seriously high?
            I stared out the window and marveled at how many shades of green there were, and then marveled that I had even had that thought. I picked up my book and read for a few pages, then stared out the window again. I thought about the chapter I had come there to write. I would start it, I realized now, at my parents’ lake house in Madison, Wisconsin on Christmas Eve. The first chapter took place in India. I loved the thought of the next one starting in the snowy Midwest. That’s what life was like, I thought. You could be in one place, one minute, and in a completely different place, the next. Admittedly, it took us thirty-six hours to get back from India to Los Angeles so this was not a thought to be taken literally. I would make this clear to the reader. But what I wanted to say was that life could, and often did, flip fast. I could, for example, be bankrupt one year, and be happily employed the next. That was what I wanted to say with this book. Life changes. All things are possible and we need to have faith in the ever-changing universe.
            I shifted my weight on the banquette and threw a glance at the clock. I had been sitting there for two hours and it was time for dinner.
The Banquette

The desk

Knitting and Seamus Heaney


The bench and the view


On the way to dinner with my basket that I would fill with breakfast, lunch and snacks for the following day
Around the farmhouse table: Jaina Sanga (Novelist), Me, Cathy Che (poet), Jennifer De Leon (Novelist), Cynthia Lowen (Documentary Film Maker, Poet), and Jen Marlowe (Documentary Film Maker, Non Fiction Writer)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What To Wear at A Writers' Retreat

             I wrote my packing list for my two-week writer’s residency at Hedgebrook over a month ago. I carefully mulled over what I wanted to look like as I retreated to my own cottage on Whidbey Island on the Puget Sound. I saw myself walking the beach in the morning, wind blowing through my hair, gathering poetic imagery for my work later in the cabin, while a handsome, young gardener watched me from behind a boat shed. What I really needed was a long cape like the one Meryl Streep wore in “French Lieutenant’s Woman”. Then I could walk along the rocky shore, my cape flapping, the gardener furtively watching, as I contemplated my chapter outline for the book proposal I hoped to finish while I was there. Obviously, when I sat down with my chamomile tea to wrestle with the multilayered themes in my chapter outline, I wanted something casual but pulled together. Maybe a fuzzy maroon sweater over charcoal leggings. The Hedgebrook website said that in the evenings, the writing residents, all women, gathered to eat an organic dinner and discuss their work.  Here, I thought I would wear something a bit flowy – a silk skirt with a raw silk blouse, open at the neck. Since Hedgebrook hosts women from around the world, I thought ethnic earrings and a wrist cuff would be a nice touch.
As the day of my departure drew nearer, I wondered if I needed a pedicure.  Would I be kicking off my shoes after dinner and an in depth discussion of my chapter outline?  Would anyone be taking pictures of the writing residents as we poured over each other’s manuscripts while drinking organic wine, which I was told was made on the island and available for purchase? If pictures were being taken, I should get an eyebrow wax. If there was an actual gardener watching, I should probably touch up my roots.
            Now I am within two days of my departure and I haven’t found a “French Lieutenant’s Woman’s” cape, a fuzzy maroon sweater, or anything flowy that doesn’t make me look like an opera diva three-times my actual size. I can’t afford the pedicure or an eyebrow wax. All I have is a bunch of long-sleeved V-necked T-shirts, sweatpants, and my pajamas with hole near the waistline that exposes my ass every time I lean over.
            Maybe the V-necked T-shirt route is better anyway. I’ll look more serious. I’ll look like a writer who is so consumed by her chapter outline that she can’t bother with worrying about clothes. Surely this will win me the respect and admiration of the other writers, who I assume are far more talented than I am. The video on the Hedgebrook website shows Gloria Steinem hanging out with accomplished poets who whip out handwritten chapbooks bound with string that they worked on that day and read from them flawlessly over a lightly tossed organic tomato salad. I have no reason to believe that Steinem will be in residence at the same time as I am. But if she is, I think she’ll respond more to a V-necked T-shirt than something flowy. In the Hedgebrook video she wore a no-nonsense T-shirt just like mine. 
            I think that vetting my own wardrobe has been distracting me from deeper concerns about my two-week retreat. It’s easier for me to consider what I will wear when I’m alone in my cabin than it is for me to consider what I will write or how I will feel with that much time to myself. I’ve spent considerably more time imagining myself on the beach, tossing rocks into the ocean, than I have thought about how I’m going to feel without my boys bumping into me, sitting on top of me, or racing by me every day. Their physical presence, along with Pat’s, is my daily reality. My sure thing.
            Without my men, will I feel lost? Unsure? Probably. Will I find myself wandering the beach at midnight, the moonlight bouncing off the waves, illuminating my profile as I gaze up into the infinite black sky? Will I then feel the universe slicing through me, connecting me to thoughts so profound that only a few writers beyond Whidbey Island have ever guessed their meaning? Upon turning around to retrace my steps back to my cottage for a glass of organic wine with Gloria Steinem, will the night air and spray from the surf offer me a moment of grace so rare that it will give shape, elegance, clarity, depth, and originality to my chapter outline? 
            God I hope so.

*And in two weeks, dear reader, I will write about what it was really like.

A photo of one of the Hedgebrook Cabins  (From the website)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sorry I Didn't Call When I Got Back from India

             I didn’t phone anyone for about a week after we returned from India. The jetlag upon our return was brutal. The boys kept falling asleep at five in the afternoon and waking up at midnight. The thin layer of dust that had settled over everything in our apartment gave it a ghostly pallor. Our cat, Mr. Taft, had to be mollified. He padded after us all with mournful eyes that shot tiny needles of guilt into my heart. Not really. I didn’t feel any guilt about leaving our cat with a house sitter. But the boys felt guilty and dragged Mr. Taft into their room to watch them while they trashed the place, discovering old toys that they’d forgotten about on their global adventure. We lived in a state of domestic anarchy for several days. Eating whatever food remained, mostly out of cans. Sleeping whenever we liked. Pulling laundry out of our suitcases, too tired to put clothes away.
            I wanted to hang onto the feeling of being somewhere else. I didn’t want to look at our bank account or start the conversation about the next phase of our bankruptcy proceedings. I wasn’t as anxious about our finances as I had been before the trip. In fact, I wasn’t anxious at all.  But I didn’t know if my mood would shift as soon as I started facing what I knew to be unaltered circumstances.
            After a few days of this bunker-like existence, the boys started running down to their friends’ apartments and Pat returned to his job, acting in a play he had been doing for several months before the winter break. School started the next week. Everyone but me was back in the swing of things. One of the many reasons why I wasn’t engaging the world back here at home was because very few people knew that I had returned. In finishing up the blogs about our trip, I created the impression that I was still there.
An even bigger reason for my isolation, however, was that many of my friends communicate most easily by phone rather than e-mail. And I have a mild fear of phones -- a fear that grows when I have a lot of information to impart. What if my friends asked me about my trip, which they invariably would since they are actual friends who care about my life? How would I find the words to describe the experience of the last three weeks?  How long would it take for me to tell everything?  An hour? I didn’t have that kind of time. And after having spoken for a full hour about my life-changing journey, I would want to hear about their past three weeks. That would tack on another half hour. Who had that kind of time? I had a whole apartment to dust. And that’s not the half of it.
            My phone issues have plagued me since I was an adolescent living adjacent to an American Army base in Germany, where my parents taught. Forget hanging on the phone and gabbing with friends for hours like every teenager I saw portrayed on Armed Forces Television. In Germany, even local calls were charged by the minute.  When you could actually get through. Calling anywhere on base required different codes that may or may not actually work on any given day because they were constantly changed to insure the security of the line. There was no call waiting so an urgent call demanded repeated dialing, hanging up, and dialing again. I remember my mother going through whole hours of dialing and hanging up, while sitting on the floor next to the phone – cursing but persisting, because my mother is a determined woman who could never accept being bested by a mere phone. Eventually, I would hear my mother crow in triumph as she got an actual ring. With no answering machines, however, the phone would often ring and ring and ring until, disgusted, my mother would slam down the receiver only to repeat the entire process an hour later.
            When one did actually get someone on the other end of the line, one spoke very fast and to the point, because time was literally money. And on a teacher’s salary that meant there wasn’t much of either. Very early on, my mother insisted that we write out scripts for ourselves before phoning anyone, so that we didn’t digress or obscure our intention.
            As a result of this, I still panic when the phone rings. Where’s my script? And when I finally answer, remembering that I live in the states now and I can converse like I’m simply having a face-to-face conversation, I have a hard time relaxing. I keep waiting for my friend to get to the point, already. I interrupt to cut to the chase. And even though I am worried about how long the phone call is taking, I feel the need to explain everything I’m saying or feeling because the line might go dead at any moment and I might not be able to reconnect, leaving my friend wandering the streets in utter confusion about what I was trying to say.             
            It is a heavy load I carry.
            I’ve worked on my issues. I truly have. But when I concentrated on allowing people to speak without interrupting a friend told me over the phone that my silence and big pauses were creepy.
            “Well, you were talking. That’s why I was being silent,” I said.
            “Yeah, but you need to make some sound so I know that aren’t dead or haven’t dropped the phone and wandered off. Try saying ‘Uh-huh’ or laughing or something. Think of it as a verbal nod.  Anything that indicates that you’re still with me.”
            I nodded. Then remembered and said, “Whoops. Um. Right. No. ‘Uh huh’.”
            Completely unrelated to my telephonic conversational awkwardness is the fact that I’m convinced that my listener can tell how I’m dressed or if I’m dressed at all. When my book came out and I gave phone interviews, I had to dress and put on make-up – so sure was I that I would somehow SOUND naked or unwashed.  When I’m dressed in heels in the middle of my bedroom, talking on the phone, I sound the way I look, like a woman with a freezer full of properly wrapped logs of cookie dough.
            Slowly, friends have learned that I am back from halfway around the world. They’ve run into me at a party or succumbed to e-mailing me. And occasionally they have submitted to an unsatisfying exchange with me over the phone. I am sort of a telephonic pity-fuck. Ah well. It’s good to be back.


Thursday, May 5, 2011


            By the map, the road back to Delhi should have taken around three hours. It took closer to eight. On rural roads, our van jostled through livestock, camels, trucks, and motorcycles.  We even had to take a dirt road detour when we came upon what looked like a political rally in the middle of a main thoroughfare. And our backseat gave out every time we hit a big bump, threatening to bash out the back windshield. Falling short of breaking glass, the back seat would slam back and down several inches, leaving Zoe, Murphy, and me reclining with our knees higher than our chins. Each time this happened, Robyn quite rightly insisted on stopping the van, getting out, and single handedly jamming the seat back into position. 
            Keir honked and stopped and swerved and bore down through it all. We had hoped that it would be smoother going once we hit the highway. But after sputtering alongside cars, trucks, and motorcycles often carrying four passengers, Keir opted for a dirt path that appeared to run along the side of the highway, perhaps fashioned by other frustrated drivers who reasoned, “What the hell. There are no rules here. I’ll just create my own road. Can’t get too lost if I just follow the highway.” The problem with this kind of thinking was that the dirt road dropped off on the side, and when anyone insisted on driving toward or around us, as they often did without hesitation, the van would inch along at a forty-five-degree angle threatening to roll over.  Inside the van we kept up conversation that I later realized had a slightly hysterical sound to it.  Banter would halt for minutes at a time as we teetered on the brink, only to resume at a higher decibel when the crisis at hand appeared to have been overcome.  None of the adults voiced their fears but I realized that I hadn’t been the only one silently praying while gripping the seat ahead of me, when we finally rolled into the Embassy School compound and broke into spontaneous and vigorous applause for Keir, hugging him with watery eyes as we quickly piled out of the van. He was our Captain Sullenberger gliding us to safety onto the Potomac. 
            The boys ran around the compound like lab rats. We had two more days in India and I felt that it was best to let them relax rather than drag them on more excursions.  I had been hoping to take them through the jhuggi (slum) across the street, but decided to let them be.
            Shortly after we arrived in New Delhi Keir had suggested that we visit the jhuggi before we left.  He taught English to many of the kids there and said that one of the parents would be happy to have us over.  Throughout their travels Keir and Robyn have felt that one should endeavor to experience the whole gamut of existence within a given culture and country. The day that we had visited both the imperial hotel and an outdoor hand laundry was a perfect example.  Since jhuggis are common in urban areas, they thought it appropriate for us to see one. For my part, I wanted to have a clear idea of what they were, separate from my own images garnered from movies. In contrast to celluloid images I’d also been told that many jhuggis weren’t that bad and most residents even had TVs. 
            Keir arranged for us to visit his friend, Abdul, who lived in the jhuggi. Abdul’s son took English from Keir and he also did carpentry work for many of the teachers. Light was fading that evening as we entered the Jhuggi.  The paths, or narrow streets, by the low-roofed tiny homes, teemed with activity. Children chasing each other, men talking in groups, women carrying laundry, bicycles, families squatting around small fires. Almost all of the homes were open. In fact, it was clear that all of life here was lived in the open. People showered and brushed their teeth in the street. Young kids squatted to relieve themselves. Pat and I followed Keir past a counter fashioned from wooden boxes.  Behind it was a chair. Keir said that this was the barbershop.
            Small fires were being stoked everywhere. It was cold and residents would burn anything they could find, even plastic. The streets were muddy and lined with garbage and waste. Keir told us that there was only one bathroom in the jhuggi and it cost a rupee to use. It made sense that an actual loo wasn’t always deemed necessary. Several folks came up to Keir to chat about their kids or ask after him. Keir was also recruiting parents for a meeting about the English classes the following week. Learning English is desirable because it makes jobs in tech and at the American Embassy possible. Therefore, learning English can be a way out of the jhuggi.
            Here’s the thing. Everywhere I looked I could see what was missing. Plumbing. Heat. Walls. Bathrooms. Space.  But the mood on the street seemed matter-of-fact.  Residents here weren’t exactly skipping through the streets without a care, but they didn’t seem to be globally depressed by lack either. In short, it was a functioning community.
            When we got to Abdul’s home, he was waiting and politely ushered us inside.  The tin roof was low and flat. There were two rooms that together seemed as large as half of a one-car garage.  The first room appeared to be a kitchen and a living room.  There were a couple of chairs and an area where dishes were stacked. Abdul took us into what appeared to be a bedroom and motioned for us to sit a raised pallet that I imagined doubled as a bed. Three children perched on top of a stack of bedding and giggled down at us as we introduced ourselves. Abdul told us that two of the children were his (another one was off somewhere) and one was his nephew. So five people lived in these two rooms. I assumed that at night they each pulled out bedding from the stack.  Maybe Abdul and his wife slept in the kitchen.  I furtively glanced around trying to figure out how it all worked. There was order here.  A cupboard.  Children’s jackets hung on pegs. 
            Abdul offered us tea, which we all eagerly accepted. I was developing a chai tea dependence fast and wasn’t looking forward to drying out in the states. Abdul’s wife smiled and dipped around the corner to grab cups and heat the water. I assumed she was using a hotplate. Keir had told me that folks in the jhuggi simply tapped into overhead electrical wires. That said, I had yet to see a TV. 
            Abdul pulled up a chair opposite us and Keir facilitated the conversation, pointing out that Abdul had built the steps for Zoe in her bathroom, some of his frames, and the shelves in this living room. Yes, Abdul nodded.  He took out his cell phone and showed us pictures of other things he had built recently. I could barely see anything on the small screen, but I nodded knowing that his work for Keir had been solid. 
            I looked up at the kids watching us. Without television, computers, or game consuls to distract them, we must have been most interesting thing around. I wondered if they would talk about us after we left. I briefly regretted that I hadn’t brought the boys. I wondered what they would make of it all. Maybe they would simply have seen potential playmates.
            Abdul was explaining to Keir that he had to ride his wife on his bicycle for two hours to get her to her English classes, but she was almost finished with her course.  I glanced into the other room and saw the edge of her through the doorway as she busied herself with the tea.  I hadn’t brought a camera because I had thought that it would seem rude to take pictures.  I hadn’t wanted to make our hosts feel self-conscious. Now it seemed that I was the self conscious one, feeling prim on the edge of the bed, my thigh pressed against Pat’s.
            Pat as an innately egalitarian soul.  He treats homeless schizophrenics on the street with the same ease and respect as he does a Hollywood celebrity. I, on the other hand, converse too much with homeless schizophrenics (leading them to follow me for blocks) and coolly ignore Hollywood celebrities as if I’m punishing them for some great wrong they’ve done me. Obviously, I am over-compensating for the universe but I’m also compensating for my own discomfort with our differences.  I either have too much or too little and I feel charged with the task of evening it all out. 
            It was in this spirit that I left the camera at home, and it was also in this spirit that I insisted on speaking to Abdul in my usual vernacular.  Which, even to Americans, had a tendency to make me sound like I’m hosting a literary segment on NPR. 
            “So you assemble your projects on site?” I asked, after he told us that he used the front room as a shop. 
            Abdul looked at me, questioningly. Pat jumped in. “You put together here?” He clarified, lacing the fingers of both hands together.
            “Yes,” Abdul nodded. 
            Abdul’s wife handed tea through the door to Abdul who gave us each a cup.  I said to myself, “Just be here and listen. Don’t try to compensate.  Don’t try to do anything.” I lifted the warm cup of sweet tea to my lips.  The children jostled above me.  Abdul’s wife stood at the door, listening to Abdul and Keir talk. Pat asked a few questions and admired more pictures of Abdul’s work. I sat and listened, feeling that right now – this moment – was enough.
I found this picture of a jhuggi on the web.  This looks much like the jhuggi Pat and I visited.