A friend recently told me that a ‘retreat’ is really just a ‘recurring treat’ – and I couldn’t agree more. For me, this little cabin on a lake has become just that—a treat that keeps on treating. Though it has been a bit of an interesting process to find the treat-covered-lining of this 7-day solo trip into the woods.
So, why here? This is my father’s cabin, and it’s used by tons of family and friends from late spring through early fall. I’m crazy fortunate to have this place as an escape. While it’s not camping, its still very rural and basic. Lighting comes from propane lights, there’s a small current electricity to charge appliances when the noisy old generator is running (about an hour a day), and there is running well water, also made possible by the generator. The lake is small—about ¾ of mile across at the widest points—and no gasoline engines are allowed on it, just canoes, sailboats, rowboats, etc. There’s no wifi (I posted this entry once returning home), and I can find a single bar of spotty cell service when I’m standing at the end of the dock and it’s not too cloudy. In other words, I’m really in the wilderness.
And it’s gorgeous here! Two perky twin mountains, aptly named The Dugs, loom off in the distance. Loons can be heard, and sometimes seen, as they paddle around and dive under the lake surface to fish. In the summer months, enthusiastic hooting and hollering echoes from the summer camp across the lake—the same camp my brothers and I attended for years. The noise is impossible to miss, and carries with it a mixed bag of both fond and not-so-fond memories, but such is to be expected from a fundamentalist evangelical Christian wilderness-based summer camp for boys (I dare you to say that 5 times fast). But despite the occasional noise and the occasional memory, this place is my own, solitary little haven. I can honestly say that it is one of my favorite places on this planet. And after 15 months of travel through South and Central America, that is a big statement for me.
My first solo writing retreat up here was exactly a year ago. I set a card table on the dock, topped with my macbook and a plate of cheese, wrapped a thick blanket around my shoulders when it was windy, and I wrote. The words flowed like wine (which also flowed). I had two, often three, distinct writing sessions a day, sometimes reaching 10-12 hour days. I think I revised/rewrote 9 chapters in 5 days. Yowza! It felt to me like one of those times that years down the road I would look back on, and go, ‘Ahhh yes, that was the turning point! That was when I found where that pesky muse kept skirting off to!’ Looking at the present through hindsight-tinted glasses, however, is no more than wishful thinking.
I’m up here again, a year later, and this retreat (my third—the second one was a few months ago) has not been insanely productive. That irks me. It worked once, so it should work again, right? I thought I turned the corner! What am I doing wrong? Where is that damned muse?
But that’s life, isn’t it? Shit doesn’t always happen the way I want, nor does it fold out exactly the way it did before. My overall chapter count this trip is three…if I round up. Sigh. And I’m leaving here tomorrow. And, despite all of that, I feel great! And I think that’s ‘cause I did something else up here—something I often have a hard time doing during my life in the city. What I did this trip was listen to myself, and honored myself in the present.
It’s incredible how much I don’t do this back home. I’m too busy working two jobs, trying to write every day,squeezing in climbing training sessions and trips to the crag, not to mention struggling to have some semblance of a social life. But up here, all of that melts away. No pressure, no people, no noise. It’s just me,and the woods, the mountains, the lake, and the loons.
Here’s a little vignette. In my life right now, I have two passions; writing and rock climbing. This retreat was designed to feature both. On Monday morning, I went bouldering, and came so very close to sticking this amazing V6 problem. I went back on Wednesday, two days later, knowing that I could get the send. I knew all the moves, all the body positioning, and all I had to do was piece it together. When I started to climb, I sucked. I couldn’t even climb half as well as I had already done two days before. I kept falling, again and again, on moves I knew how to do. This frustrated me, greatly, and I grew angry, and began yelling at myself, my curses and grunts echoing through the woods. My self talk sounded much like it always does when I don’t perform. What is wrong with you? Stop sucking and just finish it already!
Funny, that is exactly the phrase, almost verbatim, that I tell myself when it comes to my writing, and to finishing my book. And up here, alone in the woods, I could hear that, that brutal task master voice in my head. I could really hear it, and look at for what it was.
I don’t want that voice. That voice’s intent is to shame me. So, in that moment, after falling off the boulder yet another time, I paused, and took a look at myself, at the rock, at the trees and the quiet still of the forest. What was really important, then, in that moment? I had set this unbreakable expectation for myself, that I must finish this bouldering problem, must do it today. And expectations aside, my body just wasn’t having it. I couldn’t do it.
So instead of flailing and growing angrier and angrier about not reaching my goal and giving into that voice, I sat down, closed my eyes, calmed my breathing, and spent 5 minutes thinking of 3 things I was grateful for. This is a Tony Robbins exercise I had heard about, and I’ll admit, I was skeptical going into it. And I was still angry. How could this really work? What a load of hippy-dippy crap.
But it worked. I came out of the exercise five minutes later feeling light, calm, joyful, and just grateful to be alive and in such a beautiful place. My perspective widened, and that self talk sounded less important and began to sound downright foolish. I found myself grinning. Then I got up, and I tried the problem again. And I fell, after the second move. My body still wasn’t having it.
But that didn’t bother me. I got up, and walked away from the problem, and spent the rest of my time out there walking around, exploring the boulders, taking pictures, and just being. And then I went back to the cabin. And I didn’t flog myself for not jumping immediately into the book. Instead, I did what felt right. I relaxed, read, took a nap, canoed around the lake, and then made a delicious dinner. And that voice was gone! And then, after dinner, I ended up sitting down with a beer and writing 2000 words — because I wanted to, and because I missed not being in my story.
And it’s that feeling that I’ve applied to this whole ‘recurring treat’. I can set crazy expectations for myself, fall short of them, and then flog myself for failing and not being as good as I should be. Or I can take a breath, focus on gratitude, and start learning to love myself regardless of performance, and start learning to listen to the moment, and to listen to what’s important. And, as I’ve found so far, when I really do that, what’s important ends up bobbing to the surface.
I wouldn’t quite call this an epiphany. But what I will say is that I feel sufficiently treated.