“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.
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)|