retreating anyway

Good morning this morning. It’s still cool out there so far, still blessedly grey. I was just out for an early-morning walk with the puppy, and it was such a pleasure to be out in the neighborhood with the city birds: the night herons hustle overhead toward the lake, and crows gather in their cackling pods, up in the tops of the palm trees, rustling fronds and wings, then dispersing, one by one, to perch on the top of the apartment building nearest ours and watch us as we pass underneath. We walked past the man who I think of as the preacher. He is older, dark-skinned, looks strong, something about him is muscular despite the hunch in his back and the paunch under his t-shirt. He walks the neighborhoods all around the lake, preaching to a flock I can’t see. Morning, he said to me.  Good morning, Sir, I said.

We come back inside and Sophie gets a little breakfast, then perches herself at the window, to watch the morning neighborhood wake up, to watch the men unloading cargo from a trailer in the parking lot next door, to watch the commuters, the other dogs about whom she whines and carries on — Mom, it’s a dog, though! she seems to be telling me, making me think of Buster in Arrested Development. The birds are all gathered at the feeder this morning — they have forgiven me for leaving the feeder  empty for so long, and returned in force. Last night there was a hummingbird at the flower garden I’m slowly building in the window box just outside the kitchen. Maybe she was drawn by  the gladiolus, which are now in their full summer glory, tall, strong stalks of pale yellow throats open to the morning. But she wasn’t in the glads, she was in the nasturtium, pushing her beak into their orange mouths, and then into the alyssum, both of which I brough over from the much bigger garden I tend at my sweetheart’s place, my other home.  I couldn’t move while the hummingbird was hovering there. She glinted bright green iridescent in the waning sunlight, and she took off when she became aware of movement on the other side of the glass — he glass means nothing to her. She came back, though, tasting the nasturtium, tasting the alyssum with flowers so tiny I was amazed she could needle her beak into them. And then she was gone.

I’ve had a couple of days’ repeat in my little apartment, this space which has been so dedicated to writing ourselves whole workshops for the last three years, ever since I moved in. I came over on Tuesday, and have spent three nights in a row, two days. My plan was to have days wide open in which I could just dive into my nonfiction book project (this is how I described it in an email yesterday: a collection of essays about and dedicated to the desiring, creative survivor body — drawn out of these ten-plus years leading writing groups about sex and with survivors and more). I have several hundred pages of text, the barest of a first draft, and I’ve needed space in which to immerse myself in the whole damn thing — not just fifteen minutes here and there to enter edits, but time to spread out the pages, look at them all at once, what I’ve got and what needs filling in, what’s redundant, and how these chapters should start to flow into each other.

When was the last time you gave yourself a retreat for your creative work? It’s not necessary to book a hotel half-way across the country, or apply to and get accepted to a month-long residency somewhere remote and isolated. Those sorts of retreats are good, too, of course, but at least for me, they don’t happen very often at all. Much easier for me to put together a retreat at home, like a staycation for my writing. I set aside a couple of days, blocking them off in the calendar so I don’t schedule meetings or coffee dates). I let my beloveds know what I’m doing, don’t answer the phone, try to stay off of email. And then all that’s left is for me not to derail myself, not to let the inner censors and other creative hobgoblins convince me that really I should be doing something for someone else.

So I spent some hours, here on my retreat, reading, again, about codependence. I’ve been noticing lately how consistently I tell myself I have to take care of everyone else first, all other needs and demands, before I can really do my work. It’s an ongoing battle, uprooting those old learnings, instilled by our particular misogynist culture and reinforced by a stepfather who demanded that all attention be devoted to serving his needs at every minute. Even after all this time as a writer, as someone who can easily passionately encourage the folks in my writing groups to put themselves and their creative work first, I still struggle to do just that.

I spent hours of this mini-treatreat dealing with non-book-related tasks for other people — the newsletter has to get out, I have to respond to them, oh god, I have to mail that thing, this form really needs my attention immediately, if I don’t print out all fifty of these calls for submissions, I’m going to forget them. Whew. The stuff that can — legitimately, honestly — get inbetween us and our creative work is never-ending. At some point, I have to just turn off the computer, take a deep breath, swallow the guilt, and dive in.

It was hard to take these two days and three nights of retreat — I’d originally planned for it to be a week of stay-cation retreat, and then felt bad/guilty/selfish, and so shrunk it down to these couple of days. And even then I was ready to give over one of the days. Fortunately, my sweetheart said to me, I know how important this time is to you. You should really take it. I miss you, but I want you to have this. That’s pretty extraordinary, in my experience.  We all need someone in our corner when we can’t be strong enough to advocate for ourselves — and none of us are strong enough to advocate for ourselves and our desires every minute.

So I stayed and made small meals at my little table and worked into the evening, managing to get into that book work I wanted to do, finally.

The second night here, I ran into a neighbor man while Sophie and I were out for our evening constitutional. This neighbor man is dark-skinned with long dreaded hair and an infectious grin. He likes to talk to me and Sophie. The night we talked, he was kind. He spoke about my energy and power, wanting to touch palms. You’re special, he said. You’re one of the few girls who smiles and says hi. I didn’t get into why most female/feminine folks tend not to make eye contact while they’re just trying to walk home. Sophie sat with us, watching the night street, unbothered and unhurried. Me, I wanted to get back inside and go to bed. The man kept smiling, talking about how people with power, when they share that power with each other, keep it going around the world, influencing more and more positive change. I have talked with this man a few times around the neighborhood. He said, You’re the one I tell I like your haircut, because it reminds me of Mary Martin. I said I don’t know who that is, and he said, The original Peter Pan! Then he told me about how he was famous, but he didn’t get into it directly like that. He said, you know Dire Straits? I said yes. He said, You know that song, “Walk of Life?” and I do, but he sang some of it and none of what he sang sounded familiar. He said, Mark Knopfler, you know Mark Knopfler? I said yes. He said, In the video for “Walk of Life,” when Mark Knopfler comes out and he’s barefoot, comes out into Boston Gardens — and then my neighbor asks me if I’ve heard of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan — he said, Right there, I’m in that video, you go watch, you’ll see me spinning two basketballs and dancing and you’ll say, Hey! That’s Wayne from the neighborhood! You didn’t even know how close you were to greatness!  He was smiling, serous and enjoying this. I said I’d watch it — he said, You google it or so something. I crossed the street then, shook his hand before I left, wanting to believe what he was telling me. I like him and still am a but nervous around him, the way I am be with any man I don’t know well who wants to stop and talk at 11 at night. He said, You go watch it! and I said I’d tell him about it the next time I saw him. We waved good night and smiled at each other. Sophie went to sleep as soon as we got back inside and while I got ready for bed, I looked up the video for “Walk of Life,” which I surely haven’t seen since the 80s on MTV, and sure enough, right near the beginning, before all the sports guys start fumbling and crashing into each other, there’s my neighbor, a younger man, his hair short and cropped tight his head, grinning big, standing in the aisle near the court, spinning two basketballs and dancing. There he is, I said to Sophie, waking her up. That’s Wayne from the neighborhood. Sophie groaned at me and I smiled, too, grateful for this place that and this time, grateful for the space and energy to connect.

Here’s hoping you have some time to retreat into your creative self, for an hour this weekend, or an afternoon, or even, god forbid, a whole weekend sometime soon.

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