Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Company of Women: Hedgebrook

              “I’ve got an idea,” said Jenn, a novelist from Boston with an electric smile, “let’s guess each person’s birth order, how many siblings they have, and what sex their siblings are.” The women sitting around the long kitchen table were writers in residence at Hedgebrook, a retreat in the woods of Whidbey Island on the Puget Sound.
             “Great idea!” I yelled forcefully over the other accentors. I had to stop myself from jumping up from the table and pumping the air with my fist. We were finally going to bond. Bonding with women over an organic dinner, prepared by a cook, and drinking organic wine made on the property, was one of the main parts of the residency I had been looking forward to. It was our third dinner together and the first two conversations had been polite, but I kept wondering when we were going to get to the part where we talked about boys and tried to levitate each other.
            “OK.  Let’s start with Cynthia,” said Jenn. We all looked at Cynthia, a lithe poet and documentary filmmaker from Brooklyn, and considered.  Another New York poet, Cathy, waved her hands in front of Cynthia trying to pick up her vibe, “I’m feeling a sister. She has an older sister.”
            “No,” said our other Jen, an award winning documentary filmmaker who had just published a book about her experience in Gaza, and who was currently trying to get a death row prisoner’s sentence commuted. “I’m getting a strong sense of two brothers.”
            I couldn’t wait until it was my turn to guess. This was it, the bonding moment I had been dreaming about. One of the many things I love about women, I reminded myself, was that they could switch from talk of getting a death sentence commuted to guessing each other’s birth order in less than five minutes. I smelled deep political and philosophical conversations, combing each other’s hair, and levitations in my future.
            When I got home after the residency, I asked Pat if he could imagine men so eagerly guessing each other’s birth order.  Without a moment of hesitation he said simply, “No.” Could he imagine men dancing around an I-Pad that a novelist, Gaina, later placed on the table, her hips already swiveling to the beat of music from her native India? “No.”
            As the women at Hedgebrook found out that evening, I am the only sister of my two younger brothers. I also have two sons. With the exception of my mother, I have lived my entire life in close company with boys and men. Like Jane Goodall with the great apes, I’ve sat still in their midst for so long, they think that I am one of them.
            And from my Goodall-like fraternity with the opposite sex, experience has taught me that -- with rare exceptions -- men are concrete thinkers. When Pat sees a chair, for example, he sees only a chair. Not a possible weapon. This can be a maddening quality in a person who is otherwise remarkably bright. The very male Jean Paul Sartre spent a lifetime distilling his existential philosophy down to the phrase, “Being is what it is.”  And only men could squeeze an entire comedy sketch out the question “Who’s on first?” because women would immediately allow for the possibility that the name of the first baseman could, in fact, be “Hu”.
            I’ve grown to appreciate much of my guys’ very direct communication, but when I imagined being with these women at Hedgebrook for twelve days, I ached to be in the company of beings who wouldn’t ask that everything be spelled out so literally, in what I had come to consider a particularly male way. 
A few nights after the writers at Hedgebrook had guessed each other’s birth order (with only one correct guess, making it no less a worthy enterprise) one of the cooks brought out a desert that she called “Forbidden Rice”.  Anne sat in front of the bowl of rice lined with pears and told the writers that we might have noticed that our dreams were very powerful at Hedgebrook. Having only remembered my recurring “eating my contact lenses” dream, I hadn’t particularly noticed this. But I was totally into the whole idea of having wild dreams and analyzing them with these profoundly talented women over organic wine in front of a fire the next evening. 
            “And many of the women here have reported even stranger dreams after they’ve eaten ‘Forbidden Rice’,” she said mysteriously.
            I wanted to ask her why this rice was Forbidden. Was it because of the freaky dreams? Had someone committed murder, hopped up on “Forbidden Rice” because a freaky dream told them to?  But that sounded like something my sons and husband would ask. Here I was, in the midst of soulful women who simply accepted the fact that rice could be Forbidden without needing to know exactly why. It felt very Luna. I ate the sweet rice, waiting to feel different. Conversation rolled from dreams to travel to food to writing in a way that filled me up.
            “Did you hear about the writer who thought the owl was following her?” Anne asked. We all leaned in, over our now empty bowls of Forbidden Rice. “She got so afraid of the owl that she asked to move out of her cabin and down to the farmhouse.” 
            OK, I thought, an owl stalking one particular woman? Unlikely. I had heard the owl at night and he (she?) sounded like your average owl. Still, I shivered slightly. 
            “And one night,” continued Anne, “women were leaving the farmhouse and the owl swooped down and grabbed the woman’s hood and flew up to a branch – the hood still hanging from its talons.” 
            This writer was wearing a hood, I thought?  What kind of hood, exactly? Why a hood and not cap or a scarf? I looked around the table at the rapt faces of the other writers and I admonished myself. What did it matter why she was wearing a hood? That’s something Murphy would ask. Just let the story flow over you, I told myself.
            Anne went on to say that one of the other writers who came from a culture that distrusted owls already came running out of the farmhouse waving a broom at the owl.  Apparently, this frightened the owl so much he (she?) dropped the hood and flew off.
            “Ah,” everyone sighed and leaned back.
That’s it, I thought? Wait a minute. Has the owl done this kind of thing before or since?  Did the owl-stalked writer lady flee her cottage and actually move into the farmhouse? Was there only one owl on the whole property?  Maybe the owl was actually two or three owls and one of them was a rogue prankster? If the owl wasn’t a prankster, should something be done about him? Her? It?
But the story simply lay there to be contemplated and appreciated on bellies full of “Forbidden Rice”. I wasn’t Jane Goodall, I realized. I was a shape-shifter, living in both worlds and in neither.  

(My deep gratitude to the women around the table:  Jenn Marlowe, Cathy Che, Cynthia Lowen, Jennifer De Leon, Natalie Baszile, Jaina Sanga, and Roth Ozeki.  I miss your intelligence, warmth, insight, talent, and wit )

Anne with "Forbidden Rice"

Natalie, Gaina and me dancing

Very excited about a lighter-than-air egg souffle

Ruth watches Cynthia make mojitos

Me with Gaina, Cynthia, and Jenn.  We carried our food for the next day up to our cottages in baskets.

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