Why I Retreat
I went on a writing and yoga retreat in Lapland, in the Finnish Arctic about a month ago with Duende Retreats. Being in Lapland was like being the inside of an opal. The crystalline stillness juxtaposed with the fire of the hearth and the sauna in an elemental way. The reindeer moved softly in the snow behind winter fences, and their whole velvety existence seemed otherworldly and magical. The huskies that ferried us across miles of snow on sleds reminded me that we humans could learn a lot about joy, teamwork and the exhilaration of exertion from the canine community. The fire of stringing words together to create was coupled with the descent into the tranquility of moving meditation.
Everything about Lapland urged, begged, no, DEMANDED that I bow to Mother Nature and all her creatures with humility and respect. It was, in a word, delightful.
A big thank you to the marvelous Grace DeRidder at www.atravelersbliss.com for her stunning photos.
I have gone on several of these sorts of retreats in the last several years. I have succumbed to the majesty of nature on multiple continents. I have coaxed myself to be a willing participant despite my natural tendency to hang at the sidelines. I have met fear and resistance eye to eye and asked them to walk beside me, watchfully, while I let myself open up to the unexpected gifts that might wait nearby.
Nothing I have written on these retreats is particularly good. Most of my scribblings have remained untouched, unedited in their notebooks where they belong. I don't remember much of what I wrote or even what the prompts were. I remember the feeling of being joined at that elemental level with others who were endeavoring to do the same. I remember the sense of being cast out to sea and yet knowing that there was, somewhere, a towline to be grasped and until the grasping was necessary, my strong arms and legs and resilient spirit would keep me afloat and so I should enjoy ever last second of this immersion while it lasted.
True to form, I didn’t write anything of consequence on retreat in Lapland. But I’d arranged to stay an extra few days in Helsinki before heading home to sightsee. Helsinki in January was unsurprisingly snowy and cold. Cold and snow doesn't typically deter me, and yet I found myself more inclined to read and snuggle on the couch than trek to the museums or shops. So, I drank lots of coffee and tea and a little bit of wine and I read. And I wrote.
I read A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf, which is both delightfully approachable and searing in its insights and depressing because the insights are still so very applicable today. Woolf posits about what could occur if women were given $500 a year and a room of their own. She’s basically pondering what would be be created (written, composed, painted) if women were given the time and space to do so.
It was there in Helsinki, away from dog-walks and dinner preparation, workshop planning and conference calls, that I wrote the final scene to my novel. Not final as in chronologically, but final as in the last scene I needed to write, the scene I have been dreading but knew was imperative. It is a hard, tragic, stomach-turning scene. I love my characters so much, I’ve known them longer than I've known my husband, no joke. It was and is excruciating to think about putting through the agony of this scene.
So, I’ve been avoiding it. For years.
And yet, one morning (which is not when I typically write, incidentally), I sat down at the kitchen table of my little Finnish Airbnb and out this poured. I believe it was inspired by the Lapland extremes, by the eerie opalescent light, the light that changed things as if by magic.
Were those massive trees just flora or were they magicians in disguise? Were those pony-like creatures with antlers that go on for days reindeer or were they fantastical beasts waiting to whisk us away to another land?
And this eerie magic made that scene possible.
Weird. Or not. Maybe this is exactly what the doctor ordered: foreign, different, extreme to stoke the fires of a scene that is harsh, violent and grating.
This is why I retreat: because when you leave your study/ workspace/ couch, and you go somewhere new, magic happens. Transformations occur. You may not see them right away, these transmutations and shifts, but they are there. In fact, you probably won't. Because the nature of magic is in it's unpredictability. If we could measure the outcome, then it wouldn't be magic. For me, that unpredictability has made space for newness I would never have expected.
I wonder what would happen if we all had a week of time away in a space that was completely foreign to us. What would open up?