A Writing Retreat

I love that we can learn new things at any age.  In my first writing class at the John C. Campbell Folk School two years ago, not one of us had ever before attempted writing our own life stories.  And we were a group with participants in their 20’s up into their 70’s.

My experience there has led to all kinds of wonderful things.  Not only did I recognize a talent for and a love of writing stories, but I got the motivation to keep it up: a group of us stayed in touch and started an on-line writing group.  The first of every month we send pieces out to each other for critique. This past March four of us from the group reunited at the Folk School for another writing class.  And now we’re planning our own yearly writing retreat!

I would love to again have that feeling of being so excited about life that I can’t wait to start each day.  But in the meantime, what keeps me going are  trips.  A while back I came across a website for a place specifically dedicated to hosting writers for a week to months.  I sent it out to our group saying it seemed possibly “too quiet.”  That’s when I was thinking of going alone.  But to host our group it is perfect.  Five simple but beautifully furnished rooms, large front porches, all overlooking the James River in Virginia.

One of the many fabulous things about my on-line writing group is that when someone throws out an idea, the responses are usually nothing but the enthusiastic let’s-do-it type.  The plans are coming together.  I volunteered to supervise the food schedule.  Each of us will have one night we’re responsible for the meal (there’s a communal kitchen).  Each of us will also serve one night as the sous-chef.  And yesterday I called and e-mailed The Porches to inquire about our dates.  We’re planning for next summer, but a few of us will probably go this summer to “check it out” as Lois says.  (Really, of course, we just can’t wait a year to see each other again, to get away, and do some writing!)

So you know all those things I say about how good it is to do things alone once in a while?  Here’s another reason: you may make some fabulous friends and years later find yourself in a beautiful old home with them overlooking a river, laughing, cooking, and writing.

Talking to Strangers: On Trains

As I walked down the aisle trying to decide which seat to take on the train, I walked by two young guys speaking a foreign language.  I took the seat behind them, convinced they had a good story.  Though I’m convinced everyone has a good story…

I could not tell what language they were speaking but soon one of them pulled out a video camera and pointed it himself saying, “This is day two of our trip….” in perfect English – no hint of an accent.  Day two of a trip?  Oh how jealous I was!   Where were they going?  What was the occasion?  Where were they from?  I tried to read the book I had brought with me, but couldn’t concentrate as I was trying to catch anything from them that might answer my questions.

After a couple of stops, I scooted from my window seat, across the empty middle seat, sat in the aisle seat and peeked my head in between them.  “Excuse me,” I said, “but where are you two from?”  They looked startled for a minute, but then said the Netherlands.  I then asked what brought them here and about their trip.  One had just finished a year in the states, the other just a few months.  They decided to take this trip last year in math class when one proposed a trip around the US and the other said, “Sure!”  Why didn’t I have friends like this in high school?

They were going to the city, then to Niagara Falls, then out to Boston.  I said I lived in Boston for six years and they asked where they should go besides the Freedom Trail.  I gave them some advice, then got the sense they thought it a little odd that I was so excited about their trip, so I told them to have a good time as I scooted back to my seat.

A couple stops later a guy sat down in the aisle seat at the end of my row.  I got the smile and hello that invited conversation and dove in.  This guy has been working in the city for six years at an advertising company.  I found this odd as he was in jeans and sweatshirt, but he didn’t seem to want to talk about work, so we went on to other topics.  He made a comment about the guys in front of us and I proceeded to tell him their story.  At the part where I said I lived in Boston for six years he said he did too.  I said something about the Farmers Market and it turns out he’s a vegetarian and has been for 25 years.  We talked about cooking and got into fish – something I don’t know much about cooking but would like to learn.  He told me a couple places I could get fish, told me the best ones to start out preparing, and when asked gave me a couple ways to prepare them.  “You cover the chunks in a little milk, then you put together some corn meal, flour, salt and pepper.  Put them in that, then bake them.  That’s what they call ‘oven-fried.'”  Oven-fried?  I’d heard of that, I said, but had no idea what it was.  Hmph.  Who knew.

I got off the train to meet a friend for lunch.  We decided to head to one of the historic sites that had a cafe as well.  We got our admission ticket and headed for a tour of the manor house.  Then we were encouraged to tour the mill house.  Guess what they were milling?  Corn.  Guess what they were selling?  Corn meal.  Guess who bought some?  🙂   Not sure I’ll make some oven-fried fish, but some corn meal biscuits do sound good.

Talking to Strangers: On Airplanes

I’m the kind of person who would rather talk to my seatmate on an airplane than read a book.  No, I’m not forceful about it.  I simply smile and say hello to them as they sit down.  If they look at me in surprise and just nod, I know they’re not interested.  If they return the smile and hello and make a comment about how full the plane is or the weather, I know I’m in.

Some of you might say “Oh – but what if he wants to talk about nuclear physics for the next three hours?”  First of all, the chances of that happening are slim.  How many nuclear physicists are really out there?  And what are the chances one is sitting next to you?  Secondly, you can direct the conversation.  If his work sounds boring, ask about his kids.  Or the most interesting place he’s ever traveled.  Usually I start out saying, “Are you coming or going?”  Then I get to learn if they’re traveling to see family or for work or for pleasure and take it from there.  Third, have an out.  I have a book on my lap.  You can always say, “I’m at a really good part and want to get back to it.”  They’ll get the point.  And finally, from experience I can tell you it rarely happens that the person sitting next to you is completely boring.  Though that could be simply because I’m fascinated by most everyone.

In all the years I’ve traveled alone (seventeen) I’ve only had one questionable experience.  The lady next to me had Alzheimer’s.  I should have known something was up when her daughter put her on the plane, thanked the flight attendant and then left.  My seatmate asked me what day it was fifteen times before we took off.  Thankfully there was a brilliant man sitting behind me.  He peeked his head over my seat and said, “Hey – want to sit next to me so we can work on that presentation?”  I’d never seen the man in my life, but I loved him instantaneously.  I moved.  And here’s the thing: if you end up having a  bad experience it’s a much better story to tell when you get to your destination instead of “Oh, the flight was fine.”

My new presentation partner happened to be staying at the same hotel as me.  Yes, this could get very bad.  Though I was appreciative of his efforts on my behalf, I found out over the course of the flight that he and his wife were not doing so well.  This happens to me a lot – people seem to feel some sort of immediate trust in me that they can spill their guts about their relationships.  I don’t mind at all really – relationships fascinate me.  However, I wisely decided not to take him up on his invitation for dinner.

On another flight I happened to sit next to a good looking guy my age.  Statistically speaking, this is rare.  We hit it off so well we had lunch together at our layover stop.  If he didn’t live on the other side of the country, we’d have seen each other again.  Neither of us was interested in a cross-country romance.

This thought of talking to strangers crossed my mind today because yesterday I did plenty of it on a train.  That’s tomorrow’s story.  In the meantime, do talk to strangers.  It makes life SO much more interesting.

The Joys of Craigslist

I didn’t think garage sale folks were the type to buy cement mixers.  “That should go on craigslist,” I told dad.  “Yeah?  You think you can sell it on there?”  His look said, “I’m not so sure about this, but you’re my daughter, and know more about technology than I do, so I’ll let you try it.”  He knew of the many things I had done with craigslist – found roommates, found apartments, found a subletter, bought a bike, sold some furniture – but he didn’t really trust it.  “I’ll need a picture of it,” I said.  “What else can you sell on there?” he asked as we looked around the odd collection of stuff in his barn.  I took pictures of a sink, a tub shower, and an air conditioner.  “Wait – let me show you something,” he said and took off towards the pool.  “You think you can sell this?” he asked.  “What is that?” I asked.  “It’s an old pool cleaner.  Still works.”  “Who knows,” I said as I snapped my picture.

That day I posted his stock on the craigslist site for our area.  The next morning, as a friend and I drove up the hill towards my parents house to do more garage sale prep, I saw a pick up truck coming in the other direction with a cement mixer in its bed.  “You think that’s your dad’s cement mixer?” asked my friend.  “Do you really think it’s anyone else’s at 7AM on a Saturday morning?” I responded.  When we got to the house I asked dad, “Did I just see your cement mixer going down the hill?”  “Yeah – isn’t that amazing?  That guy drove a few hours to pick that thing up – and he even paid me for it!”

Dad couldn’t believe it.  By the next morning he found a taker for the pool cleaner and decided I should post an ad for some paving bricks.  “They’re 4×8.  I have about a thousand of them,” he told me. The next morning I posted the ad with my dad’s cell phone number and went about my business.  An hour later dad called.  “Craigslist is amazing.”   No hello, no how are you.  That was his first line.  I laughed.  “You have to show me how to use that.  I’ve got all kinds of things I want to get rid of,” he told me.  This from the man who steadfastly refuses advances in technology until he’s forced into them, and then promptly becomes their biggest fan.  I had converted him.

There’s a certain kind of joy in teaching your parents something new.  For years and years and years they’ve taught me new things, provided me with advice and insights.  I know I’ll never repay them, but in some small way I feel like I decrease my debt each time I open their eyes to something.

How many do you need?

I’m helping my parents get ready for their garage sale this weekend.  This is a momentous occasion as they have lived in this house for over 25 years and in that time have had only one other garage sale I can recall.  On the other hand, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen stuff being moved into their house.  They take a Honda Odyssey when they drive from NY to NC to visit my sister.  When I was younger, that van was filled with kids.  Now-a-days, they return with it full of antiques they found on their way back.  Mom has enough furniture to furnish a whole other house.  Which, I must admit, comes in handy as I don’t own much in the way of furniture.  People ask where my end tables came from and I say “the Gallo Family Collection,” as if it’s its own brand.  And my parents actually are thinking of building another house (though that was not on the horizon when most of the furniture was bought).  But I’m not entirely sure they’re building a new house because the property would make a great place for future grandkids to visit or simply to house their extra furniture.

Having helped mom work her way through some of the basement last week, she offered to help me work my way through belongings I still had in the barn.  I have just about everything I need where I live now, so didn’t have much trouble parting with the remnants in the barn.

Then mom and I started looking around the rest of the barn.  And here’s my question:  How many coolers does one man need?  We counted 11 on the second floor of the barn (yes, it has not one but two floors of stuff).  And these were just the coolers in the barn.  Mom and I both knew Dad had a few more in the garage.  And who knows how many elsewhere.

When I mentioned the plethora of coolers to my father, he said, “Yes – but these are really good coolers.”  As if their quality has anything to do with the number of them a person needs!  “That’s fine,” I said, “but how many do you really need?”  With a huff he started looking at them and pulled four off the towering pile.  “But you know – your brother might need one of these,” he told me.  “Ok – so that’s one.  You’re telling me you need the other six?”  His patience with me was waning, so I let it go, happy of my success at getting him to move four out of there.  “These are good coolers,” he said again as we brought them down the stairs.  “How much to you think these are worth?” he asked.  “No idea,” I said.  The only cooler I have is one dad let me borrow – a small one that fits on the shelf under my microwave.  And he’s never missed it.  “I’ll have to go to Kmart tomorrow and find out what these things cost, because they’re worth something.”  Apparently they are – worth so much that the man thought he should “invest” in 11 of them.

When I told a friend I was helping my parents prepare for their garage sale, she said, “Oh – good to do that now.  Otherwise you’ll be stuck doing it later.”  She meant when they passed on.  Which made me realize – they could easily live another 25 years.  Twenty-five more years worth of stuff?  I pushed that thought out of my mind remembering the best line I learned in Philosophy class:   Epictetus said, “Don’t worry over things you can’t control.”  It’s a good policy.

Spiritual Spa Day – Part 2

I’m a believer that if something works for you, then do it.  If walking across hot coals makes your sciatica disappear, then fire up the grill.  If a two hundred pound man walking on your back somehow improves your digestion, then go for it.  So when the third presenter at my Spiritual Spa Day brought out her Reflexology map, she certainly had my attention.

In case you don’t know, Reflexology is basically the idea that all parts of your body are somehow linked to a certain area of your foot.  For example, if you’re having trouble with your breathing, there’s a specific place on your foot that can be massaged to help with that.  I know this made sound a little crazy to some of you, but don’t knock it til you try it.  I didn’t, though I wish I had.  You see, the morning of our day was spent with the presenters.  The afternoon was for us to choose: massage, reflexology, spiritual direction, the labyrinth, or nothing at all.  Since I tend to be such a planner, I decided I wouldn’t plan my afternoon.  My goal was to just relax and do whatever came to me.  So I brought some books and a crochet project.  I had some spiritual direction, then went out to walk the labyrinth on the property, and returned to my favorite spot: A recliner in front of a window looking out on the Hudson.  There I started a new baby blanket.  I had a splendid afternoon.

When we gathered at 3:30 for the conclusion, the leaders asked for feedback.  We had no shortage of it.  What did people love the most?  Trying something new – something they never would have necessarily done in another setting.  “They offer reflexology at my nail salon,” said one woman, “but I’d never have tried it if I didn’t come here, and I love it!”  “I think I’m addicted to it,” added another.  The same sentiment was expressed about the body movement activities I wrote about yesterday.  We offered ideas for other Spa Days – we wanted more information about the labyrinth, maybe a presenter and guidance in meditation.  The leaders took it all in and then thanked us for taking the time for ourselves today.  We talked about how important it is to care for yourself in this way.  And I very much look forward to doing it again.  And maybe try some reflexology next time.

The Spiritual Spa Day – Part 1

Back in January, I signed up for a Spiritual Spa Day at Linwood – the retreat center three miles from my house run by the Sisters of St. Ursuline.  I signed up far in advance of the May date.  It was not just the content of the day, but the date that caused me to sign up.  This Spa experience was being offered on Tuesday, May 11.  By my calculations, that would be the first Tuesday that I didn’t have to teach Anatomy.  What a great way to celebrate the end of the semester, I thought.

The brochure promised a day of “relaxing, praying, reflecting and sharing” with an opportunity for massage and/or reflexology.  Sign me up! I said.  Unlike my mother, it is not so easy for me to relax in my own home.  I find a whole list of things that “need” to be done and do those instead of relaxing.  For me, I relax best when I’m someplace else.  Lucky for me, this someplace was just down the road.

I went by myself, so this counts as an artist date as it surely spurned some creativity and learning.  The day started with a delicious homemade coffee cake.  The brochure doesn’t advertise it, but one of the perks of these events is the food.

Then, we listened to a talk about the body/soul connection and how religion has at times connected or separated the two.  The presenter talked about the natural connection between body and soul and read bible passages supporting this.  She then asked us to think about our experiences of religion either encouraging or discouraging what our bodies naturally wanted to do.  My first thought was sex and how the religion in which I grew up only had one thing to say about it: don’t do it until you’re married.  The lack of discussion anywhere in my childhood about this topic has always bothered me.  Yes, here I was in a room full of women – two of whom were pastors, and at least two of whom were sisters – and I was thinking about sex.  In high school, I would have immediately squashed the thought as good Catholic girls are taught to do.  But in this simple conference room overlooking the Hudson, God and I had a good laugh over my current state of mind.

Our next presenter was an Episcopalian priest – a woman.  I’ve just about given up on the Catholics ever coming around to the idea of equality of the sexes, so the Episcopalians and any other religions that allow women to be ordained hold a special place in my heart.  And should I ever decide to return to church, it will be to one that allows women to run things.  I must admit when I had first walked into the room and saw the Reverend my first reaction was not too good.  She didn’t look at any of us, had a sour expression on her face, and didn’t really seem so friendly.  But once the morning was turned over to her, she just lit up and her presentation ended up being my favorite one of the day.  Whereas our first presenter grounded us in the spirituality of the day, this second presenter brought body and soul together in us through music and movement.  It will sound quite hokey if I explain it here but let me just say this:  don’t knock something until you try it.  God keeps sending me this message over and over again, and she’s right.

The presenter first set the foundation of a very welcoming space where nothing we could do would be wrong – that there was no right way to do what she was about to show us.  How many times do you hear that in your everyday life?  Not often enough I say!  She then told us about the Taize music we were about to hear.  Taize?  Oh how I love Taize!  I can’t recall when first I heard about Taize.  But ever since then, I’ve wanted to go there.  The music is a kind of chanting.  But there are no complex verses and choruses to memorize.  They want everyone to be able to participate so it’s just one or two lines repeated over and over again.  In that way, you don’t have to focus on getting the words right as you can quickly learn them.  Then, as you repeat them over and over you can really listen to the words, mull over them, pray with them, or whatever happens – and at Taize in France you can join thousands of young people doing this in community every single day.  Locally, you can experience it on a smaller scale at Mount Saint Alphonsus on the first Thursday of every month.

But it wasn’t just that we were going to sing Taize music.  We were going to involve our bodies in it as well. Most of us at this point are thinking, “uh…I’m not so sure about this.”  But the women who come to these things come in part to step out of their comfort zones a little bit.  So we were at least open to the idea.  She showed us the simple movement we could do with our arms as the music played.  “But you can do any variation on this – whatever your body tells you to do.  If you want to walk around while doing it, or close your eyes, or dance, do whatever comes.”  Oh boy, I thought.  This is SO not me.  But my sister wasn’t here to judge me.  In fact, no one here was going to judge me.  So I went with it.

I’d forgotten how much I used to like ballet.  The arm movements were what I loved the most.  And this brought that all back.  One woman turned to face the river when doing her movements (I kept my eyes open – I wanted to see what the others were doing.)  One was doing almost what looked like Tai Chi.  Some were walking around moving their arms like a belly dancer would.  And all to the rhythmic Taize music.

Our presenter lamented how many faiths require that you are still while music is played.  Even if you feel it in your bones, you were taught to sit still in church.  She took us through another piece encouraging us to now acknowledge the others in the room.  We did our movements, but when we came to another, we put our hands in the prayer position and bowed to each other.  We looked each other in the eyes when we did this and without speaking there was so much being said. One women I met was covered in tears.  I would not find out what it was that moved her so, but it was a powerful moment to see someone able to show so much emotion in front of strangers.

Then we did a group piece.  We were holding hands in two concentric circles,walking in one direction and then another.  Then, we’d clap a couple times to the music and spin around.  Oh how silly it sounds, but oh what fun we were having!  And really not nearly as silly as I thought it would be.

Whatever you think about the whole thing, I will tell you I enjoyed it so much that I can’t wait to attend this woman’s workshops that she’s going to start doing.  But isn’t this the best way to experience life?  Step outside your comfort zone and discover something you never knew before?  You experience something new and say either, “well, I did that once and that was enough,” or “wow – that was actually pretty cool.  I want more of that.”  I can tell you I’ve felt both many times.  And no matter which reaction I have, I have never once regretted trying something new.