The metallic smell of dust and rain fills the screen porch outside of Mrs. Stout’s room, and a fine mist of rain sprays steadily through the screens, soothing and cool. The wooden floorboards are slick; even the old log walls are damp. Outside, the darkness of the storm is enveloping the island hours ahead of natural sunset. Intermittently the sky blazes with lightning. This--and the accompanying roar of thunder--feels perfect for what we are about to do.
Just inside the door to Mrs. Stout’s room, a fire burns hot in the hearth around which twenty-two chairs are gathered. Shadows and light leap on the worn wooden floors and sea-foam painted walls, on the high curved ceiling. One by one, we file in to take our place in the circle of chairs, having dashed across the lawn from the Ice House to this fire-lit room where anticipation crackles as palpably as the flames.
It is June 20, the eve of the Summer Solstice, that pinnacle of creative energy and wild growth. And we are writers—poets, novelists, essayists, and experimenters—gathered for a Summer Solstice Retreat for Writing and Yoga. It is the first such retreat I am facilitating, five days long, and the culmination of a big dream and a lifetime of preparation as a writer and a teacher and, from January till now, a final push of intense work to manifest the vision and make it real. I am the facilitator, yes, but also a participant, hungry as anyone to learn and expand, to crack open some newness. The retreat is at the historic Stout’s Island Lodge, an old inn and smattering of cabins perched alone on a secluded island in rural Wisconsin, reachable only by boat, and undistracted by traffic, commerce, or habitation (except for the wild kind, of course). We are twenty-two in all, mostly women (haha, okay, just one lucky man to help balance the estrogen infusion!). We range in age from 22 to 71 and come from California, Minnesota, Maryland, Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia. Most of us have never met each other until this week, but by now, the night before it’s over, we have become inextricably bonded. “Like being in a room with twenty of your best friends,” says Deb, “except that you’re meeting them for the first time.”
This is so true. Writing together, practicing yoga and meditating together, bonds us far beyond our expectations. Every day we work hard but we also laugh ourselves breathless, nearly toppling out of our chairs. (Such as during an exercise I call why/because, which graced us with such pairings as: Why is virginity so important? Because I'm better at something else). Sometimes we're moved to silence, and sometimes we cry.
The faded grandeur of Stout’s is the perfect setting for all this--a hundred-and-some-year-old lodge permeated with cedar and wood smoke, Persian rugs and antique chandeliers, warbled glass and banging screen doors, and an unending choir of birdsong, rustling leaves, crashing waves, and now rain. Part of our work has been “diving into the wreck” to pull out old stories and release them in order to make room for new ones.
This, you may
have guessed, is what the fire is for—to consume what we’re ready be done with,
what we no longer need. The papers we hold in our hands and on our laps contain
the old stuff we’ve been recording each day, for our own eyes only, during the
first fifteen minutes of our morning writing session.
The room where we are gathered for this homemade ritual got its name from the lodge’s original owners, Frank Stout and his wife, Clara. Frank, a lumber baron, was one of Chicago’s ten wealthiest men in his day. He reportedly spent more than $1.5 million—in 1915 dollars—to create this island sanctuary. And Clara Stout apparently slept in this room when the Stout family stayed on the island. Clara was a Christian Scientist, and she is rumored to haunt this room, most notably by refusing to allow the door to open for those trying to enter when she’s feeling ornery—or suspicious. We had no problem opening the door tonight, but I can’t help but wonder what she is thinking now, as we take each other’s hands to begin this healing ritual we’re inventing. Just as I give voice to this thought, Celeste points out that the music playing softly through the lodge’s speakers—so softly I hadn’t consciously noticed it—is the opera song “Time to Say Good-Bye.” Surely this is no coincidence. Perhaps Mrs. Stout is very pleased, indeed!
Intuitively, we allow our burnings to take place in no specific order. I don’t remember who stands first, but I do remember the quiet outpouring of relief and release as one by one we walk to the fire and speak our intentions to let go of this, whatever this is for each of us. Because what we’ve written is private, I’ve instructed the writers to choose just a word or two to represent it as they throw it on the fire with the phrase, “I release” or “I let go of…”
I let go of my shame.
I release my fear.
I release my stepfather.
I let go of my broken marriage.
I release my family’s shame.
I release my heartbreak over my son.
I release my anger.
I release betrayal.
With each release, the fire grows hotter. Debbie is taking pictures as we go, as she has been all week, which we barely notice anymore. After each release into the fire, we say in unison, So be it and so it is for Jeannie. So be it and so it is for Carol. So be it and so it is for Claudia. So be it and so it is for Martha.
So be it and so it is for us all.
Finally, when the last old story is aflame, we breathe in silence, hand in hand. We take a moment, just two breaths, to hold writer turn by turn “with all our hearts.” And then we recite Barter by Sara Teasdale together—well, half of us do, while the other half hums an undercurrent of “Amazing Grace.”
Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up,
Holding wonder like a cup.
Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like the curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.
Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.
The cleansing storm pounds softly on through the night and the rain is still falling at sunrise the next morning, the summer solstice. So we gather at 5:26 to watch the horizon lighten from the haven of our yoga room inside the Ice House, where candles flicker and the scent of palo santo (holy wood) and sandalwood hang in the air. We honor the rising sun with sun salutations, then settle in for our final session of yoga nidra, the “sleep of the divine,” which we have been practicing every day of our retreat. During yoga nidra, while suspended in the ethereal space between sleeping and waking, our amazing yoga teacher (and my lovely friend) Maria guides us in setting our sankalpa, deepest intention, and drawing it into every cell of our physical body. We believe that our sankalpa will be especially powerful now that our old stories are finished smoldering into ashes.
Of course, we each experience this in our own way.
The writing to heal exercise and the burning ritual with which we finish it off touches some of us more deeply than others, but regardless of what we experience in the moment, the exercise is shown to offer healing benefits over time. It was developed by James Pennebaker, linguist, researcher, psychologist, and author—and it’s remarkably simple. Write about a traumatic situation that’s affecting your life for 15 or 20 minutes straight, four days in a row. Don’t share what you write. Burn it if you wish. Expect some release whether you recognize it or not, because science tells us that emotional or expressive writing heals. It can reduce high blood pressure, enhance immune function, decrease the severity of asthma and arthritis symptoms, promote wound healing, increase AIDS patients’ white blood cell counts and even help young people quit smoking. And a study in the June 2008 Journal of Pain and Symptom Management reported that a group of cancer patients who spent at least twenty minutes once a week for three weeks writing a story about how cancer affected them experienced less pain and reported higher levels of well-being.
You can repeat this simple exercise as often as you feel the need. But be careful with journaling all the time. Because the thing about journaling and "free writing" is that we tend to write the same thing over and over again, and too often it's negative. Pennebaker says this can be significant downside to regular journaling, and I agree.
This tendency to keep re-telling the same negative story stems from the fact that 95% of the thoughts we think today are the same thoughts we had yesterday (and the day before, and so on). So what we think is writing from the heart is often writing from the head, recording the same thoughts and ideas with different words. This can actually cement us into our most negative emotions and concretize already stuck patterns.
This is where innovative creative writing exercises make a difference.
We spend most of our writing time doing “anti-journaling”—that is to say, engaging in writing exercises that steer you away from what you know and toward the unknown, the new. It's harder for some than others, and generally harder than you may think, because we humans crave nothing more than the familiar. But sticking to what we already know, even our usual modes and methods of writing, is very unhelpful when it comes to creativity, to writing fresh. And living fresh. For this reason, the writing exercises that most powerfully crack open creativity tend not to be open-ended prompts (write about a childhood memory …) but rather those that use specific forms and constraints popular among the surrealists and the renowned 1960s Parisian group known as the Oulipo. Such exercises aren't meant (necessarily) to generate a polished piece, but they can spur your heart to speak something new, something you haven't said before. When you occupy your conscious mind with the restrictions of the prompt/exercise, you free your unconscious mind (closer to your heart) to speak with powerful new images. I've seen it happen again and again.
One gripping example from our retreat comes from Mary Ann, who is fighting stage four breast cancer. We take a nature walk and I ask the writers to record their sensory experience in detail, using nouns and verbs, all of the sounds, smells, sights, textures, and even tastes of the wooded (and buggy!) path we explored. Those concrete observations provide the seeds for several writing prompts, including one in which the observations become a reflection of self:
I am the space between the green
I am the hidden path to the water
I am a tunnel of heat, evaporating
I am a may fly caught in a web
I am the water slapping against the boat
I am the end of the island
Then I ask the writers to
create a monologue or a dialogue between two animals, plants, or objects on the
trail. Mary Ann ends up writing a dialogue between a green Adirondack chair
that is covered in spider webs and a may fly that is caught in the silken
threads, struggling to free itself. As the dialogue unfolds, Mary Ann
discovers that it is an allegory for her relationship with her oncologist. When
she reads it out loud in our circle, we are rendered speechless with its power.
Left simply to journal, Mary Ann would never have found the same clear, potent
“voice” for this important and emotional truth of her experience. After the retreat, she writes to me to say that she is a new woman--changed.
Writing restraints also help us get out of our head and stop, as David Foster Wallace says, “getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now).” And they help us to disappear. At Stout’s, we disappear behind blindfolds, into word lists, through silence, off the dock and into the breathtakingly cold water of Red Cedar Lake, and even far beneath the endlessly complex reflection of our own eye in a hand-held mirror. We occupy our left brains with arduous and specific tasks in order to allow our right brains to work in freedom.
Laraine Herring, author of Writing Begins With the Breath, says that in the end, to write what we are given to write, we must in fact disappear. She links this concept to what happens in our yoga asanas. “In the physical practice of yoga,” she writes, “we take the time to sink deeply into positions of discomfort. We stay long enough to watch the distractions arise, get louder, get more persistent. Still, we stay. And one by one we release the distractions, and the pose which once seemed impossible can become effortless.” What, Herring asks, would happen if you allowed yourself to be stripped of your trappings? What would be left?
“This is surrender in its purest form. Not surrender to a higher power. Not surrender to another’s belief system. Not surrender of your personal power, and certainly not surrender of your fierce authentic voice. To the contrary, it is truly a surrender of yourself, you, and not you. Blow, and like a puff of smoke, you are gone, but still alive. Awake. Breathing. Detached in a healthy way. You have disappeared. Now, what does the world look like to you? What stories, ideas, poems come from this boundless space. If you as you have conceived of yourself are not there, neither are the limitations and fears held by that ‘you.’ Your writing, unencumbered by ego’s attempts to make it be something, do something, say something, is light and free and deep. Remember those times you’ve written something and later asked yourself, 'where did that come from? I don’t remember writing that!' Aha, you disappeared into emptiness and brought back diamonds."
We do that together on this island of fire and rain. We disappear over and over again, into words, into painting, into clay, into the immediacy of our senses. Into the discovery of one another. We disappear into the fire and we disappear into the secrets stored in our own bodies. We disappear into my magic bowls, where stories hover waiting to be discovered, where lives the serendipity of a world where things you wrote can mean something entirely different than and exactly opposite of what you expected. Where your ego disappears and something wider and deeper speaks instead. Sometimes we dip into this nothingness and bring back complete and utter nonsense. And sometimes we bring back diamonds.
On Friday morning, the longest day of summer, as light spills onto the water, we say good-bye, and diamonds spill out of our mouths, our hands, our hearts as we climb aboard the ferry and head toward the mainland. We are lighter and freer versions of the selves we were before as the island shrinks and disappears behind us, dissolves into the blue of lake and sky, the blue boundlessness within us.
If you are interested in learning more about or participating in an upcoming retreat, consider Elephant Rock's two fall retreats on the North Shore of Lake Superior: Beyond the Looking Glass: A Mother-Daughter Retreat for Writing, Yoga & Art, and Mystery of Yin: Empowering the Creative Feminine Through Writing, Yoga & Art.