("Nicole, can you come around front? Now can you scoot down? What's a group picture without someone looking like they're twerking? Perfect!")
I left Friday to attend Writing in the Woods, a retreat offered by one of my favorite people on Earth, Kimberly Wilson. I intentionally refused to think too hard about the weekend in advance, because I didn't want any sort of preconceived notions of how the weekend "should" go to get in the way of how it went, organically. When I arrived at the retreat house Friday afternoon, I was a complete blank slate. All I knew was that I was in for a weekend of vegetarianism, yoga, writing, and meeting other writers. With that said, I think the best way I can write about this experience is to do so under each of those topics individually.
Kimberly is an outspoken animal rights activist, so it was understandable to have the weekend full of vegetarian food. Her partner, Tim, was our chef all weekend and toiled in the kitchen while we twisted our bodies and minds into unnatural positions. He joked at one point about having "world famous guacamole" and I can now attest, it should be world famous if it isn't already. There were no tomatoes or onions, and it was somehow still the most flavorful guac I have ever had. The bowl emptied within minutes of hitting the table every time. Two other retreaters brought a bottle of wine with them, and I somehow managed to go the entire weekend without a single glass! Saturday night we had s'mores around a bonfire, and I managed not to eat one of those, too. Bypassing alcohol AND chocolate? I know, who am I? What this reinforced for me is that it is possible to eat a vegetarian diet and not come away feeling deprived of the fun of eating. I've spent a substantial amount of time as both a vegetarian and a vegan, but it's never been as enjoyable as this weekend was for me. I'm thinking perhaps Tim needs to open a restaurant. In Cleveland.
I avoid writing about it here to not repeat myself to the point of being annoying, but I am a certified personal trainer. To be clear, I do not work as a CPT, but I am certified by the American Council on Exercise (one of the "Big Three" in certifications) to train people. I have the knowledge and skill, but choose to offer that knowledge freely rather than sell it. Through my time exploring exercise and what our bodies can do, I've done a lot of movement. I personally find enjoyment in weight training and running, but I've taken enough yoga classes to understand the allure of pretzeling yourself in a such a way as to be able to lick the back of your knee. It's just not for me. Given this, I have to admit that yoga was easily the aspect of this retreat I was looking forward to the least. I kept an open mind, though, and was pleased with the experience. In the interest of full disclosure, I currently feel like I was hit by a bus, but in the moment and immediately afterwards, I felt very blissed out. I was also pleased to know that I'm a lot bendier than I thought, as long as we're not considering hamstrings into the equation. I suffer from perpetually tight hammies and calves from being a runner, and there were some poses that were just not happening. Like, forward folds, heh. I don't mean to brag or anything, but I rocked the shit out of some corpse pose.
Picture a very tall ladder. Taller. Now picture me several feet up the ladder. Now picture seven other women below me at various points, including some standing on the ground looking at the ladder, deciding whether or not to climb up. That was my experience with writing this weekend. Aside from Kimberly, I was the only somewhat established writer of the group, which put me in a position I didn't anticipated being in on this retreat. I spent the weekend encouraging the others to climb the ladder, too, reaching back to grab their hands and help pull them up with me. I was honest that being a writer is at times overwhelming and terrifying, but also completely worth the effort needed to overcome the negative to get here. I worked hard to listen to their experiences, fears, and hopes and figure out what could be said to help them up the next rung without sugar-coating or bullshitting the experience. I only completed a small amount of my own writing this weekend, but I spent a good amount of time considering how I got here, where I need to go from here, and establishing that it's very important to me to keep helping these great women I met up the ladder with me, as well as to never stop reaching for the hands on the rungs above me to help me get further up. We each have to climb for ourselves, but we always need to help others when we can.
This was an interesting situation for me. In many ways, I felt like an outsider looking in. I was the only person there not from the Washington, D. C. area, which meant I was completely left out of any local discussions, and there were many. Every other woman was very high-profile career-oriented, whereas I'm...not. I'm a creative-type and more than a little bit of a hippie, so the idea of "The Man" keeping me from my art and my trees makes me break out in hives. I just could not relate to 80% of what the other women spoke about. Given this, it would have been very easy for me, as an introvert, to blend in with the background, opting instead to read a book or study contents of shelves while everyone else socialized. I forced myself to not do that, and I think that it paid off. While I still feel very different from everyone else at the retreat, I made it a point to focus on the 20% I could relate to. By the end of the weekend, I feel like I was able to form a unique, yet tenuous, bond with the women, and I hope that we can all continue to strengthen that. It takes a lot longer than a weekend to get to know people. I just hope that I put myself out there enough to encourage them to try to see what I, from way out here in Ohio, have to offer.
Bird By Bird
On the first night, an offhanded mention of Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott became an unspoken theme that ran through the entire retreat. In the book, Anne tells the story of her father's advice to her brother when he became overwhelmed with a project in school, in which he was assigned many different birds to classify and describe. When he pleaded to his father for help, begging "How am I supposed to describe them all?" her father responded "Bird by bird." Many times throughout this weekend, we were all faced with needing to proceed bird by bird. Step by step. One lesson at a time. One experience, one hurdle, one leap, one empty guacamole bowl. We don't need to write an entire novel in one sitting. We don't need to tell our entire life story in one blog post. We don't need to reach enlightenment in one meditation. We are allowed to take everything slowly, building a lifetime one moment at a time by allowing those experiences to accumulate into one life, well lived. There were times when I was supposed to be doing something with the group that I found myself watching the birds fly around the woods. I wasn't trying to be belligerent, I just love birds and felt pulled to observe them. I watched titmice, nuthatches, and one particularly audible red-bellied woodpecker fly around while each retreater completed another step in their own journey (sometimes literally, during a walking meditation.) My take-away from this experience is the importance of focusing on everything in our lives step by step, bird by bird, appreciating each one for what it has to offer before we move on to the next. This is a weekend I will carry with me for the rest of my life as an experience that shaped who I am to become.