As you read this, I am on my annual rest-read-write retreat at Skaneateles Lake, so I am offering this column about a past trip in 2010. Of course, I don’t yet know what will come from the creative space of this year’s visit, but I promise to let you know in a future column.
My time at the lake this year was about being in the here and now. I try to do this at home, but being away frames it differently.
There’s the packing and the unpacking, the seven hour trip there and back, the joy of arriving and the sadness of leaving. Going to the same place every year has sharpened my awareness of these dichotomies, and I know the alternating rhythm well enough that sway with it immediately.
I’ve come to understand that a prerequisite to any creative endeavor is being able to let go of the to-do list.
This rhythm came the clearest to me on my first walk after we got there, when I gave thanks for the time away, and my last walk before we left, when I reminded myself that that the day would inevitably come when I won’t be here.
In between, there was time in the early morning to watch the sky brighten slowly as the sun made it’s way over the steep slope on the eastern side of the lake, time to flip through the tourist magazines and travel guides looking at places not to visit, time to read a history of the United States which would have taken me months to finish at home. And time to do what I came for, to write.
The best thing about this blessed space was that what made its way onto the page was not what I’d expected to be working on. It did not appear on any of the scribbled lists of ideas or concepts to be developed I had brought with me. It made itself known because I put myself in a physical location and a state of mind that nurtured openness.
I’ve come to understand that a prerequisite to any creative endeavor is letting go of the to-do list. What it yielded for me this time was a letter of about 2000 words to my oldest grandson who is considering going into the military after he graduates from high school next year.
In sharing my thoughts with him, I was able to utilize my education in history, my experiences with leadership, and my skills as a communicator. It gave me a deep sense of purpose as the matriarch of my family, and as a writer, which I found richly satisfying.
As I developed my ideas about war, peace, service, duty, and love on paper, the various parts of myself came together like a picture in a child’s activity book where you draw a line from dot 1 to dot 2, then from 2 to 3 and so forth, until you get to the end and you see it’s a duck!
I was able to connect profiles of civil war leaders I admired to anecdotes about family members who had served in World War II, which in turn linked to a phrase I remembered from Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam War called The Things They Carried, "There are no war stories, only love stories," and to a line from the end of the musical Les Misérables: "To love another person is to see the face of God." Each reference point was a step closer to a more complete picture of who I am and what I to hold most dear.
I don’t yet know what my grandson thought when he finished reading the letter, and I may not be around to know what he sees in it later in life, but I do know that what I found when I connected the dots was a whole person and amazing grandmother!
I know this feeling of being fully connected to myself and another person will not last. Feeling good about my place in the world is something that comes and goes.
But the process that resulted in this letter has provided a model for creating space to allow feelings, thoughts and ideas to bubble up into my consciousness and come together in a new form.
Even more significantly, I have demonstrated to myself that I have the capacity to take action when a new shape appears.
Within the confines of my regular schedule, this very long letter to my grandson would not have happened, and, knowing how important writing is to me, I am motivated to create more such spaces.
In Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes about collecting a pocket full shells to bring home to serve as a tangible reminder of the openness she experienced during unscheduled time alone by the sea.
I, too, treasure leaves, rocks, dried flowers I collect during time away, but I also know that a good re-entry requires action steps as well as symbols. So on the way home I made a list of follow-up activities:
- Catch up my journal to include the trip home.
- Make a collage of images to capture in visual form the openness and freedom of my time away, and place it where I can see it often to keep me aware of how open space feels.
- Set aside days at home to live the way I did at the lake—writing in the morning, going out at midday for a walk and lunch, coming back to a few hours of quiet time before dinner.
My mother, who enjoyed traveling, had among her repertoire of sayings one about being on vacation. She observed that no matter how good a time you’re having there always comes a point when, "Your trip leaves you," and you want to be home.
I thought about this as we pulled out of the driveway of the house on Skaneateles Lake for the last time, and I realized that when you take a retreat vacation (instead of one with lots of going and doing) your trip doesn’t leave you, you leave your trip.
I found this insight comforting because it meant that it just might be possible for me to sustain myself, in small but significant ways, in the open space of new possibilities when I got home!