Detours on the Way to a Binge

Eleven months ago, in June 2013, I came to Pendle Hill for a weekend conference on the life and writings of Isaac Penington, one of the first generation of Quakers in the 17th century. After the conference ended on Sunday afternoon, I was able to tuck in a stay of an extra 36 hours to do some writing of my own on Choosing Miracles. It was time well spent. I was able to get some words out about a heartbreaking time of my life. Based on the responses of my beta readers, I managed to do so with some economy and without too much self-indulgence. And then did life take an amazing turn!

I’d been home about a week when, from the next room, Bowen said, “Huh. This is odd. I seem to have an e-mail from Google. They want me to call them.”

“What is it?” I said. “Some kind of prank or spam or phishing thing?”

“No,” he answered. “It seems to be legitimate. They saw my resume on LinkedIn and they think I might belong there.”

And so, after a screening call, a few phone interviews, a day of coding sessions, several lunches, and more phone interviews, Bowen was hired by Google in mid-September as a senior staff software engineer. He resigned his position as a teaching adjunct in late September, took six weeks off to get rested and organized, and began working for Google in the New York office in November.

I’m still moving back and forth between Peekskill and Manhattan, but now we have a regular schedule. In on Monday mornings on the 9:15, back to Peekskill Friday night on the 5:35, 6:35, or 7:21. Commuting takes less energy now that we have an established rhythm. Now the energy is going into learning how to support my partner in his high-level job. How can I make life as easy as it can be around the times that he’s not coding or thinking about code? What can I put on the table for dinner? And most of all, what can I throw out, give away, take to the Housing Works thrift store, or shred next in order to free up more room for us in my 400-square-foot studio apartment where we spend Monday through Thursday nights?

I am amazed to find how much of my past accumulations I can let go of when I feel like I have a new future!

I have been thinking about this blog, and wanting to get back to it, and wanting to get back to Choosing Miracles, but Google life comes first . . . for now. It comes first because something else has happened. After more than thirty years of supporting myself as a freelance proofreader, the work has disappeared. In January my two major clients reorganized, doing away with the departments that contracted me. In one month, 50 percent of my income disappeared. I have other clients. Work is coming in at the end of this month. But for the first time in decades I’m not self-supporting. The same technology that’s taking away my livelihood is providing my partner with a salary ample enough to take care of both of us and his four children and their college educations.

It’s a loss for me of identity, of independence. It’s a gain for me of energy. Much less splitting myself between straightening out other people’s words and writing down my own.

And now here I am at Pendle Hill again after eleven months. And blogging again after how long . . . ? And why? Because of Google! Bowen and I drove down from New York today, he dropped me here, then he went to the Philadelphia airport for a flight to San Francisco and his first visit to Mountain View, California, Google’s main office. While he meets his coding colleagues in Silicon Valley, I go on my longest binge yet at Pendle Hill. I’m clear to write until Friday morning. I’ve got to get myself and my readers through a dark and painful piece of my life. There’s no better place to face up to that work than here. 

How many words can I get out by Friday?

 

 

 

What Happened?

At first I was planning to open with, ‘Yes, it’s been that busy around here.’ 

 

And it had been! It really had. Solid weeks of in-house work. Many trips back and forth from Peekskill. Conversations about Bowen’s job searches for the fall and maybe for the summer. (Did he really want to apply to the University of Kazakhstan?)

 

Then, by the end of March, it had slowed down. The deadlines got met. The in-house work waned. I spent more and more time sitting quietly in Peekskill. But I still wasn’t writing a blog post. I wasn’t writing anything but e-mails and Facebook statuses.

 

It took me a while to catch on to that. I certainly meant to let people know more about what it’s like to write at Pendle Hill, what a great place it is to use as a personal retreat, and how my second writing sojourn had gone. I even had pictures to post. But, no. The good intentions didn’t overcome the non-blogging. I was gone, Absent With Out Leave. 

 

‘Oh,’ I said, rousing myself in early April, ‘Look at what I’m doing . . . sitting here . . . doing nothing.’ So I got a couple of sentences down on a draft in TextEdit, and that was enough of that.

 

By the middle of April I knew nothing further was going to happen. I knew enough about myself to know that the thing to do was surrender to my blog silence. Invite it in. Make it a welcome guest. Serve it a cup of tea–in a variation on a Zen parable I once heard about dealing with despair.

 

I’ve been told that the American Sign Language sign for ‘Quaker’ is made by clasping the hands in front of the belly with fingers interlaced, and then twiddling one’s thumbs. As theological statements go, it’s not bad. One of the gifts of Quaker life is the permission to step aside from taking action for action’s sake. In Quaker life, sitting very still and saying nothing can be the deepest faithfulness. My blog silence and I would sit together and wait. 

 

What has opened to me as my blog and I have communed wordlessly is that I am a binge writer. Not for me the classic model of writing every day. (Or, at least, not yet, anyway. Perhaps it lies ahead.) On my retreat at Pendle Hill in late February I wrote 7,000 words in 72 hours. And they weren’t just any words. They were words that took me through a painful and frightening time of my life when my marriage had ended and I was holding my sanity together with my bare hands in graduate school, as it were. Well, actually, I was holding my sanity together with large doses of Moby-Dick, Norman Mailer, and bourbon.

 

I just interrupted this post to go back to the manuscript and skim through the section I wrote at Pendle Hill in February. I had no idea how I was going to get those wretched times down on paper. All I had was the faith that I would. A couple of times I caught myself censoring and I was able to tell myself to shut up and keep going. My editor (whoever that would prove to be) and I would straighten it out later. It was self-talk that worked.

 

I was soaring when I left Pendle Hill. Soaring and clear, to use a good Quaker word. I had emptied myself of everything. I had sung my muse to sleep.

 

I worked hard straightening out other people’s writing in March. I puttered with words in April (not least of which pastimes was playing online Scrabble and Lexulous). In early May, I waited and listened. But in the past ten days things changed. 

 

First, I had a medical test scare that turned out to be absolutely nothing. Free and clear. However, waiting for the results put me up against my mortality in a way that nothing else has in years. I hope to make good use of that fright. During that time, Phil Gulley happened to ask on his Facebook wall what one thing you wanted to accomplish before you died. It was sobering to see the number of his friends who wanted to write their books. And, finally, last week–as I was emerging from my excursion trip to the Underworld–I had a phone call from a Mailer scholar who told me I had a book to write about Norman. He even laid out its theme for me, a theme he’d heard me voicing in our earlier conversations. 

 

The thing of it is, he’s right. Since 1969 I’ve had the vision of putting everything I know about Mailer’s work into Mirrors of the Moon: A Lunatic Study of Norman Mailer. It’s time. As long as I’m struggling to write one book, I might as well struggle to write two.

 

Long ago . . . in fact in those mad times in grad school . . . I made up a motto for myself: Having trouble? Have a little more trouble and see what happens. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.