My Writing Retreat

It was last September that I started thinking about writing retreats and writers’ colonies. I knew that taking care of myself–making meals and washing dishes–really seems to get in my way. I began to think that if I could find someone to put three meals a day down in front of me, it might be all the writing support I needed. But, as a freelance proofreader, I live on a shoestring. Proofreaders are the lowest-paid workers in an already low-paying field. There’s not a lot of disposable income lying around here. I searched around the Internet to see what I could find. I posed a question to the Editorial Freelancers Association discussion list about colonies and retreat centers I might try and got some interesting responses–enough to confirm me in my sense that it was the next step for me. But where to go that was affordable and that I could get to by public transportation, since–true New Yorker that I am–I don’t even have a driver’s license.

One obvious possibility for me was Powell House. It’s a Quaker Retreat Center near Albany, in Columbia County, and I could get to it by going to Hudson, NY, on Amtrak from New York City and taking a car service to Old Chatham, NY. I knew Powell House inside and out. I’d been going there since 1982. At $60 a night for lodging and a cold breakfast, it’s affordable! I would absolutely recommend it for any writer looking for deep peace and quiet. The problem for me is that I’ve been on the governing board of Powell House for the last four years, so it’s not a getaway. But please do look into it for yourself. It’s convenient to both New York City by Amtrak and Boston (if you drive).

The next most obvious possibility for me was Pendle Hill, the Quaker study and retreat center near Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia. I’ve been to Pendle Hill many times, too. I have friends who work there. But it was not an extension of my New York life the way Powell House has become for me. I called the registrar, had a good talk about what kind of room I might get in which building, and suddenly it had all fallen into place. I was booked for three nights in early December.

It was exciting! Because I had an evening meeting to go to in Philadelphia, I didn’t get to Pendle Hill until about 10pm. The place was quiet. Almost everyone on campus had gone to their rooms. But my key and a welcoming note was left conspicuously out for me and I found my room with no trouble. It was in a building that had gone up in the blandness of the 1950s, so my room was as featureless as a simple, pleasant dorm room. The walls were white, but the curtains were a cheerful flowered print. There was one armchair, a table for my computer and a chair, a single bed, and a sink and mirror. (The full bathrooms were down the hall.) Most welcome on this December night was a thermostat by which I could control the heat in the room. I fell into bed and slept nine solid hours! It was wonderful!

Breakfast at Pendle Hill is from 7:30 to 8. My friends who work (and live) there welcomed me. There was hot cereal, homemade bread, eggs, fruit, and coffee, coffee, coffee. Much of the food is produced on campus. It’s organic. There are always vegan and vegetarian options.

After breakfast, the resident students, faculty, and staff gather for a half-hour Meeting for Worship. It was exactly the way I wanted to start my day. I needed to pray. The truth is, I was scared. I didn’t expect that, but it was frightening to have two whole days ahead of me in which I had nothing to do but write. What was I frightened of? I don’t fully know. But some of it was . . . what if I can’t do it?

When the Meeting for Worship ended and visitors were invited to introduce themselves, I stood up, explained that I was there to write, explained that I was taken off-guard by the fear I felt, and asked for prayers.

I can’t tell you how reassuring it was to see Doug Gwyn, one of the Quaker writers I admire, smiling quietly and nodding at me from across the room to let me know he knew exactly what I felt.

And then I went to my room and wrote . . . and wrote . . . and wrote. I broke for lunch and went back and wrote some more. I broke for dinner and went back and wrote some more. And so it went for two days. I wrote in my room. I took a long walk with one of my friends where we caught up with our lives. Then for a change of scene, I went to the Pendle Hill library and wrote there. It was during my time in the library, as I was staring across the lawn musing on a transition I was trying to make, that it popped into my head to start this blog that you’re reading now. And then it was over. Time to come home.

The total bill for my sojourn at Pendle Hill was $273 for 3 nights, 3 breakfasts, and 2 lunches and dinners. To get to Pendle Hill I took NJTransit to Trenton and transferred to SEPTA to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. At 30th Street I transferred to the Elwyn Local. These are commuter trains with stops every 5 minutes or so (a nap and good book are in order), but the grand total for my senior citizen round-trip fare from NYC to Wallingford and back again was $33.50!

On Tuesday I will leave around 11 in the morning for my second sojourn at Pendle Hill. I can’t wait and I’m a little scared. But I know there will be encouragement and good food and good rest waiting for me there.

Answering Jim’s Question: Living in My Work

Yesterday, my writer friend Jim added a comment to my “Identity Shift” post about the words I heard in Quaker meeting. He asked: “What are the implications of ‘You live in your work’? Was the next inspiration, ‘and that’s where I belong,’ or was it, ‘and that’s not right’?”

The answer to Jim’s question is important. I understood ‘You live in your work’ to be both an instruction and an explanation. The implications were, ‘I’m doing all this in your life so you will understand that you are to live in your work.’ And ‘I’m doing all this in your life to make it easier for you to live in your work.’

The opening brought an immediate and deep shift. (The word ‘revelation’ comes to mind.) It was effective in several directions: It helped me accept the comings and goings I’ve been pondering on this blog as being a support for my writing work, not an energy-consuming interference. It told me that my writing work was solid enough to hold my weight. It told me that God is an active partner in what I’m doing. And it reassured me that I’m on the right track at last.

“At last” because I started work on my manuscript more than four years ago, and it’s taken me this long to come to terms with writing it. And, yes, the call came in and there is room for me. I’m confirmed for my second three-day writing retreat next Tuesday.

Identity Shift

Yes. It’s been that busy around here, what with the comings and goings and the deadlines. But I’ve been thinking about this blog and wanting to get back to it, because I have news. The blog is working for me!

That last post I made, “Monday Afternoon Commute, Friday Morning Commute,” was a breakthrough. For the first time, I gave writing that piece priority over working on the proofreading deadline. I was able to put personal, creative work ahead of money-making labor.

Of course, let’s overlook the fact that, having done so, I then disappeared for 23 days. Let’s not connect those two events at all. Let’s not consider that perhaps it hasn’t been all that busy around here.

In any event, I’m doing it again. I’m writing this before I turn to the day’s deadline.

That’s because there has been another breakthrough I want to commemorate. On Sunday, February 2, I was sitting in Meeting for Worship (I’m a Quaker) where I was offering up some of the anxieties and questions I’ve laid out here, specifically, ‘Where do I live?’, and I felt a sudden and profound opening and shift. Up from the space that had appeared inside me came the words, ‘You live in your work.’

I have felt different ever since.

I’ll add only that my consciously acknowledged reason for disappearing into my deadlines for 23 days is that I’ve been accumulating money to take my second three-day writing retreat. I’m waiting for a call back now to let me know if there’s space for me. More about my writing retreats soon, I promise!