Put Your Oxygen Mask on First
Monday, December 11, 2006
What would you do if you were given two weeks with no responsibility and the permission to focus on yourself? Would you get perspective?
I bet you would.
In October I was in a cottage in the woods with 336 hours of free time to use however I chose. My nirvana was a place called Hedgebrook, a womens writing retreat that provides an unparalleled experience to write and the ability to find yourself. Out of nearly 500 applicants annually, the Hedgebrook board picks around 40 writers to spend as little as two or as many as eight weeks in a cottage on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington state. Between February and November, the women arrive six at a time (there are a half-dozen cottages) to work on novels, short stories, poetry and screenplays. Once youre accepted and travel to the island, the Hedgebrook staff takes care of you.
I arrived with nearly 300 pages of a novel I desperately wanted to finish, a laptop, research books and a game plan to write several hours each day. I left with a refreshed sense of who I am and a place I now associate with comfort that I can imagine whenever my life becomes too overwhelming.
This retreat changed me because I was accepted unconditionally, something I havent experienced since I was a child. Like any mother, my life is normally about giving, to my children, my husband, my colleagues, my friends and family. When I arrived at my cottage at Hedgebrook I was told I dont have to write if I dont want to. If I need to sleep, I should sleep. If I need exercise, I should take walks along the beach or ride a bike into town. If I need peace I should sit on a bench in the woods and listen to the sounds of nature.
I felt like Charlie when he arrived at Willy Wonkas chocolate factory. I felt like Id won the golden ticket. Now that I was accepted, now that I was in, I could have it all with no strings attached. It was unsettling to have no responsibilities but to nurture my soul and to be surrounded by people whose job it was to take care of me.
I did something I rarely do in my real life. I cried. I cried a lot. This was both freeing and unsettling. I sat in the window seat and watched the sun peek through the tree branches and I cried because it was so beautiful and I dont often take the time to appreciate nature. I wrote for hours at a time then cried because I finished sections of my novel I hadnt been able to address in years. When I opened my lunch the chef so lovingly made and found homemade bread, salad from the garden and a chocolate chip cookie, I cried because I felt so so blessed to be in this amazing place. After Id been at Hedgebrook for a week, I began to miss my family fiercely. I think I would have left if I hadnt been so far along in my novel and had such a specific goal for my two-week stay. My husband sent a care package with pictures of my children, notes from them and examples of their school work. I taped them up in my cottage and this time I cried not because I missed them but because I had the time to dream about what I wish for each of them as individuals and how I can help them achieve their goals. It was so gratifying to feel as if I stopped time and I could spend minutes or hours reflecting on how rich my life is despite the chaos balancing a family of five, a career and my desire to be a novelist.
Among the women who were residents with me I met people I dont see in my suburban working mother life. I was the only woman with small children; they were mostly single women from the city. They were diverse in their life experiences, their ethnicity, their cultures and their religion. Yet we melded like a spicy pot of gumbo. Their writing was raw, rich, deeply personal and compelling. The first night we did a group reading we filled our wine glasses to the brim, stoked a roaring fire in the wood-burning stove and settled into the comfy couches at the Farmhouse. Everyone was a little nervous. Some of the writers werent sure they wanted to share and fortified themselves with more wine. Fingers flew on laptop keys as the women made last minute changes and pens scratched out passages on notepads. I went first and when I finished my new friends enthusiastic question, When will it be published? warmed me more than the wine and fire combined.
But what I remember most about that night is my own awe after the other writers read their work. I felt like their talent was organic, a living, breathing thing made of cells, heart and lungs that enveloped me with the warmth of a blanket and a heady odor that I recognized as greatness. I left the Farmhouse that night aware one day I would hold their books in my hands and tell others I was there when the stories were unfolding.
In each cottage there were several journals chronicling the experiences of the former residents. We were encouraged to write open letters to future Hedgebrookians before we left. I think all of us had more trepidation about this assignment than we did about anything else we wrote. Much of the writing in these journals was transcendent, as if the cottage stay had infused these women with inspiration. The first week I was at the retreat I spent time each evening reading the journals and the advice of former residents of Waterfall cottage, where I resided. In the journals every woman expressed her surprise at how the freedom changed them. To a woman, they all ended up writing more and different things than they expected. They made life-changing decisions that some had fretted over for years. They reveled in the natural beauty, the joy of making new friends, the exquisite food and the knowledge that being at Hedgebrook gave them the ability to think deeply and carefully because they were so completely taken care of.
It was this revelation that touched me the most when I read it and that I related to the most deeply when I experienced it. It made me think of how often we forget to take care of ourselves to our own detriment, despite knowing better. Our best ideas come when were taking a shower or taking a walk, when our minds are clear and not forced to work. When budgeting we know to pay ourselves first and sock some money away in savings. When flying with children we know in an emergency to put our oxygen masks on first, for how can we help anyone else if we cant help ourselves?
But when it comes to day to day life, most of us are so busy being caregivers, we often miss when we need a fill-up. We forget we cant be our best for others if were not paying our souls first.
We women of Hedgebrook all went there for the writing but we took something far more significant with us when we left a blend of tranquility and heightened awareness of ourselves as mothers, daughters, wives and girlfriends, but mostly of ourselves as unique individual women. Thats a perspective that truly soothes the soul.
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