THE LUXURY OF RETREAT (from 2017)
When I was a younger writer, throwing words together amid bouts of real life with a husband and four daughters, I dreamt of affording the kind of retreat advertised in writing magazines: A rustic cabin, a Parisian apartment, where a writer can go only to write. Solitude would stretch from morning to night, no carpools, no lunches to pack, no laundry, no unscheduled trips to the vet, no noses to wipe, no arguments to settle, writing the only task. How glorious! Surely I would write fantastic things on retreat.
Now, as an older writer, I could afford a few weeks away in a cabin. But now, curiously, the retreat ads no longer beckon. My life has evolved to a place where I actually have several retreat-like hours every day. How lucky is that? I work until 3:30, and then the afternoon hours are mine in my empty nest, until my husband gets home. The years of writing while negotiating a house full of daughters gave me the ability to write quickly, efficiently, in any space, through any noise, a skill that still serves me well. I get a lot done in my daily micro-retreats. How lucky am I?
Yet sometimes I miss the frenzy, the haphazardness, the incessant demands on my person, the cacophony of family, against which I used to long for quiet. Those decades were fiercely busy, and yet they provided much raw material for the weekly newspaper column I’ve written for thirteen years. My writing never took the place of a full-time job, but it financed some extra joy around the house. I suppose that was payback for the richness of ideas that my family generated. I wrote on deadline and on the fly. I always thought I’d be a better writer if only I had the time.
Am I, though?
In my silent afternoons, I sometimes feel as dry as the drought-induced landscape outside my window. My daughters have grown and fledged. I am past the midpoint of life; my bones have thinned; my patience has lengthened. I am more reflective, less impulsive. I am more wrinkled, less limber. As the newspaper business shrivels, my column’s been cut to twice monthly, and maybe that’s a good thing, because my topics can feel menopausal. Here’s the irony of now: I have time. I have space. I have money. I have a fancy laptop. I even have an office, in a bedroom that my youngest daughter had decorated in a leopard motif, now repainted a color called “Zen green”. But do I have anything to say?
Some days, I’d say no. I’d say I am desiccated; I am done. But then something happens, a connection, a reaction, an impression, a tiny synapse, and I get that writing feeling, that I have to get this down. I sometimes compare the urge to write to the urge to throw up: I have to get the roiling rough draft out of my system and onto paper. My writing hours fly as I wrestle with a word or cut a limp phrase or rethink the direction of an essay.
Then I know I have something to say. Writers write the same way they breathe; that is, out of necessity. I am a classic introvert, but I’ve stirred up my share of fusses with the written word. I need to write. I love to write. I love to be read. It’s just that my raw material has changed, along with me. I listen more than I opine these days. My need to be the burning center of everything has calmed. Perhaps life as we age becomes one long retreat. In my dotage I may write fantastic things.
How lucky would that be?