Saturday, July 10, 2010

Owl Cottage

Not long before Cedar was born, I went on a writing residency for three weeks at Hedgebrook. Located on Whidbey Island, Hedgebrook is a paradise for women writers. Seven of us were each given our own cottage in the woods, complete with a large desk, comfy window seat, woodstove, sleeping loft, bathroom, and kitchenette. So much attention to detail is built into these cottages, from the stained-glass flowered window in the loft, to the wooden pegs used to hold together beams, to the owl carved into my wall. The cottages are spaced apart so that when you look out of your windows at night, you can see the light of at least one other cottage as a reminder of the community of women you are working within. At the same time, there is a sense of complete privacy as you go about your day. You are free to be alone and do what you want—and, naturally, I wanted to write. 

I’d wanted to go to Hedgebrook ever since I’d first applied back in 2000. Hedgebrook welcomes emerging and established writers, and has grown more and more competitive over time. I waited almost ten years-- gaining more faith in my voice and vision, honing my craft, and waiting for what felt like an ideal time in my life-- before I finally applied again, and to my delight, was accepted. 

When I applied last September, I was pregnant and due in late March. You can apply to stay for one to six weeks, anytime between February and November. So that left the month of February for a potential residency, which felt like it might be cutting it a little close to my due date. But who knew when I’d next have a chance to get away on my own for weeks at a time? And who knew how much writing I would manage to do as a new mom? Probably not very much. This could be my last chance to make a huge push on my newest writing project. And if I could take big strides with this project, then hopefully I’d be inspired to keep going once my son was born, in ways that I might not otherwise feel motivated. 
In my application, I said I would work on my project about a couple, Els and Frank, whom I grew up next door to, and how when Frank died, he left me their home, along with decades worth of their letters, journals, slides, and artifacts from their lives. I wanted to delve far enough into this project that I would have a stronger sense of what it was about-- beneath the surface, what underlying questions was I exploring, and what structure the story would inhabit.  I hoped to make enough progress on it that by the time my three weeks at Hedgebrook were up, I would not be able to abandon it, and I might be able to even call it a book.

I arrived on a Friday afternoon and was kindly shown around the fifty-some acres of fields, wetlands, gardens, woods, cottages, and other buildings. I looked forward to enjoying the bathhouse with its radiant heating, hand-painted tiles, private shower rooms, and old claw foot tub. The farmhouse was where us seven women would convene each night to be served a delicious meal prepared by a gracious chef, sitting around one table to listen to stories from each other’s lives. Our homes spanned from Cortez Island, B.C. to San Francisco; from Santa Cruz to rural Idaho; from San Antonio to L.A. We ranged in age from our late twenties to our sixties. We wrote novels, short stories, screenplays, spoken word, essays, and more. We were working on projects about Palestinians and their land, about growing up sixteen in Berkeley, about interracial marriage, about illness, about gangs in Texas who break out in song (a Mexican-American adaptation of Carmen), and then some. 
Most nights, after dinner, we’d retire to our cottages to continue writing, or to do whatever we chose to do. First, though, we’d pack our wicker basket full of homemade granola, fruit, eggs, coffee, cookies, dinner leftovers, jars of milk, and plastic containers filled with gourmet soups, sandwiches, quiches, and salads—breakfast and lunch for the next day. Everything was provided for us, and the farmhouse was always open for us to grab a few more cookies from the jar or check out the library filled with the works of alumni. I’d heard that some groups at Hedgebrook gathered after dinner for readings or critique sessions almost every night, and others didn’t. Ours opted to write at night more often than we’d socialize, but as the days went on, some would linger to chat or watch a movie in the cozy, pillow-laden living room of the farmhouse. A couple nights we also read to each other from our work to share more of ourselves, but not so much to seek a critique.

I was eight months pregnant and pretty tired by the time we were done with dinner each night, so most evenings I retired early to my cottage where I’d lie in bed, listen to music, and read old letters between Els and Frank. I felt the pressure of my impending due date and how much I hoped to accomplish in the three weeks I had at Hedgebrook. I knew my main purpose there was not to make new friends, as wonderful as the women were around me. 
Instead, I sank deep into my writing in a way that I hadn’t for years. I kept odd hours, sometimes sleeping in if I’d gone to bed late or gotten a poor night’s sleep, and other morning’s waking early, even before the first light. I rarely did this at home, and I loved the quiet concentration of those early morning hours, settling right into my work with a cup of tea at my side. Some mornings I heard the bard owls calling to each other from the limbs of the firs and cedars that surrounded, and one morning I looked up to find one staring at me through the window. This felt especially fitting, since I was staying in “Owl Cottage,” though I was not the only one to whom the owls paid a visit. One night an owl swooped down and picked the black hooded scarf off of my fellow resident Tamar’s head. Amalia got out her broom and started yelling at the owl up in the tree to give it back, which it eventually did. After that night, we took more care to be aware of our surroundings during those hunting hours of dusk, as we set out down the path with our empty baskets towards the farmhouse for dinner.

What a gift to be freed from all responsibilities-- cooking, cleaning, phone calls, and emails for three weeks. What spaciousness begins to open, a different kind of relationship to the unfolding passage of a day. Most days, I’d work for three or four hours, then read over what I’d written as I ate lunch, then go on a walk down to the wetlands of Deer Lagoon and the beach at Useless Bay. If it was raining and I didn’t feel like venturing far, I briefly wandered the wooded trails behind my cottage, inhaling the damp moss and spring’s first shades of green, before returning to stoke the coals in the woodstove which kept my cottage warm. Then, I’d make another cup of tea and work for a few more hours until the dinner hour of five rolled around, for which I was always hungry. I liked how an early dinner hour allowed for enough time afterwards to still put in a good night of work. 

Before Hedgebrook, even though I had plenty more time, I was happy if I put in a few hours of writing a day. Chores, cooking, shopping, research, emails, phone calls, job searches, publishing quests, and the ways in which so many things at home can distract and clutter the mind ate up so much my time. Now, with the exception of the couple hours of chatting over dinner and a nightly call to my husband, my entire day was devoted to the muse. Thankfully, too, there was no internet in the cottages; you had to go to the main farmhouse or to the “pumphouse” to check your email, and they discouraged you from doing this too often. While at Hedgebrook, I only checked my email about once a week, and weaned myself completely from Facebook; I had no problem staying away. I felt myself eager to drop away from all the mental chatter that goes along with maintaining an online presence. My days felt long and full.

Three weeks passed quickly, and within this time I gained the confidence and vision to begin referring to my project as a book, receiving a wellspring of enthusiasm and support from the others for its potential. I churned out pages of new material, carefully edited and combed through old drafts, and slowly, a structure began to emerge. I was so thankful that I had decided to stay the full three weeks I was offered, instead of only staying two which I’d considered. But Hedgebrook turned out to be a perfect place to spend this last stage of my pregnancy. I ate incredibly well and felt so nourished by the food, by the women, by the extra wood stacked on my porch, the extra protein loaded into my basket, by the land, and by the understanding, respect, and care lavished on us as women writers. 

Never before did I feel so honored as a writer, so validated and understood. I’ve considered myself a writer and committed myself to this process and craft for fifteen years now, and yet, because I lack impressive publications, not to mention a book deal, I often still feel like I haven’t yet “arrived” at the level of “writerhood” that I aspire to. At Hedgebrook, however, I knew I had arrived. I knew that my application had been selected out of hundreds of talented women, that I deserved to be there, and that this was my time. My time to write, my time to trust, to celebrate and to flourish. The universe was giving me a clear message, a gift to inspire and counter all of the doubt and rejections I had otherwise plowed through to stay true to this path of writing. The universe had also given these other six women this gift, and together we could understand on some level all that it had taken for us to get here, without even having to share the intimacies of our story.
On my last morning at Hedgebrook I finally wrote in the journal in Owl Cottage. There were already ten or so journals on the shelf, filled with long rambling entries of those who had been there since the early nineties, when Owl Cottage was built. I’d read through almost all of them during my stay, filled as they were with interesting rants and revelations; with city girls who’d conquered their fear of the woods; with women who had bonded like sisters; and with others who felt misunderstood, left out, or resentful. For most of us, Hedgebrook had been an oasis of creativity and retreat, but there were also those for whom it did not live up to their expectations.

Fortunately, I had nothing but a positive experience at Hedgebrook. Yes, this was my time. Pregnant, on the cusp of motherhood and a whole new way of life. Welcoming these changes, at the same time that I reaffirmed my commitment to writing and to my beloved rhythms of solitary retreat. 
Tucked away in the letters between Els and Frank that I’d brought along to read, I’d found a couple postcards with my cabin’s namesake: the owl. Throughout my stay, I’d gazed at these owls, perched on the windowsill above my desk, the only adornment against the otherwise pleasingly empty walls. Now, on my last morning at Hedgebrook, before diving into the undoing process of packing and cleaning and goodbyes, I glued them into the journal. It felt right to leave them behind rather than to take them with me back to Seattle where they’d soon be forgotten again, tucked within the pages of some book. Then, with smooth flowing black ink, I took a breath and left my mark amidst the others, giving thanks to everything that had brought me here, and welcoming the next woman who would arrive.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, Anne! So glad you were able to take advantage of such an opportunity. Can't wait to read the book!



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