In early July I attended a contemplative writing retreat on Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin. Over the next week or so I will share a series of posts about my experiences there.
The retreat was led by my writing teacher, Miriam Hall, of Herspiral Contemplative Arts. I was very excited in the anticipation of the retreat. I was eager to take a deeper dive into my “time novel” again, which had been inching along recently. I’d never been to Washington Island, and was excited to explore it a bit by bicycle and kayak. Miriam had said she’d be bringing art supplies and invited us to do so as well if we wanted to, so I’d decided to bring supplies for a project related to my exploration of time. I knew there was no way I’d have time to do everything I imagined doing during the week, but allowed myself the fantasies. Though I practice being in the present, I also recognize that anticipation is part of the fun, and value, of some activities.
The art project I planned was from a book Taya Ma recently recommended to me, Creating Time: Using Creativity to Reinvent the Clock and Reclaim Your Life by Marney K. Makridakis. The book is full of “ARTsignments” – creative exercises to explore and transform your relationship to time: Journaling prompts, word collages, poetry-creation structures, and more. The sculpture was my idea for an exercise about creating my own personal “Time Guide,” a “being who would come to life before you and remain at your side whenever you needed her” (Makridakis, p. 37).
I had in mind that I might assemble something from found objects, so I didn’t want to make it out of the kind of clay I use at home, which requires firing. In the week before the retreat I bought some paper clay, some papier maché mix, some tacky glue, and some wire mesh, not being sure exactly what I’d need. When my friend and I decided at the last minute to bring my car instead of hers, I knew I had plenty of space, so I also brought along some beads and yarn, and packed a few sculpture tools from my ceramic studio.
The retreat was in a large, old house set back just a bit from the shore of a sheltered part of Lake Michigan called Detroit Harbor. We were a small group, just 10 of us all together. Five of us were staying at the house, the other five elsewhere on the island. I unpacked my writing supplies and what-if-I-need-or-want-this-or-that equipment.
I had brought a handful of objects from my meditation altar at home, and set them up on a windowsill in my room: a small, square embroidered flower made by my friend Rae who died a few years ago; two large quartz crystals, one clear, one milky, and a piece of pumice in a similar shape; a white feather; two ceramic shards my friend Naomi’s mother, who also died a few years ago, brought back from an archaeological dig; and the knotted mass of colored ribbons my mother used to mark her suitcase so she could find it on the baggage claim. The 13th anniversary of my mother’s death was the week of the retreat, and I’d had in mind for a while that maybe I would braid the ribbons or do something else with them in her memory.
As I was unpacking, a business card that had been tucked in some pocket or other since my April trip to the Pacific Northwest fluttered out. The photo of my friend and colleague Yvette Murrell, whose husband died of cancer a few years ago, invited me to add her to my altar. The Rumi quote on the back of the card felt supportive: “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love.”
My plastic bin of art supplies remained on a table on the screened-in porch the first couple of days, as I settled into the daily routine of the retreat. Silent solo practice during the nights and mornings; discussion of practice over lunch; afternoons that mixed more solo time with group practices of writing from prompts, reading aloud, and offering feedback; and more informal conversation over dinner. Each participant was asked to sign up for a daily job; I’d selected morning meditation time-keeper, which fit well with my own morning practice. Each participant also signed up for two half-hour meetings with the teacher during the week.
I signed up to meet with Miriam on the afternoon of the first day. She helped me decide what aspect of my writing to focus on during the week, and helped me work through an emotional block I was having about part of the story. I also told her about my sculpture idea, and she suggested that evenings might be a good time to work on it. We agreed I wouldn’t have time to do everything, and laughed at how my topic of time was working on, and in, my life.
After a too-hot first day, cooler, sunny weather predominated. We swam off the edge of the dock, avoiding the large patches of floating dead mayflies (or perhaps their discarded nymph bodies) that were collecting and rotting by the shore and under the diving raft. I kayaked along the shoreline one day, feeling an internal struggle with time, not wanting to rush, but wanting to be back for the next session so Miriam wouldn’t worry about me; not wanting to push to go farther and faster, not wanting my palpitations to kick in. On the way back I encountered a lovely piece of s-curve-shaped driftwood floating in the water. I passed it bobbing in the water, and circled back to pick it up. A perfect find for my sculpture project. When I got back to the house I set it in the sun to dry.