I’m just home from a sacred landscape. I feel so lucky to have visited Taos, New Mexico, where I taught and participated in Jen Louden’s amazing writing retreat with twenty-two women. At 7000 feet we all pushed the pause button on our lives, made writing and our stories a priority. The Mabel Dodge Luhan House hosted us. We wrote, laughed, danced, listened, learned, napped and sweat! (It was hot.) Sometimes we cried, and oh my god did we eat… Hop over to my Instagram page to see some beautiful photos.
I read Deborah Levy’s gorgeous, portmanteau of a book, Things I Don’t Want to Know. Part memoir, part gender politics, part writing treatise, and literary theory, the book is a swift and deep river. I was moved by all that Levy had to say about painful reckoning with one’s past. It is particularly when we don’t choose to remember that our past remembers us, and sneakily invades our lives.
Levy also has much to say about voice and agency. “To speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish.” Throughout much of her childhood, Levy spoke very softly and was admonished to speak up, though she could not. Using her voice felt dangerous. (Her father was imprisoned for five years in apartheid South Africa.)
As a grown woman, a writer, she said, “A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly, if she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.” I get it. I intimately understand the rage and dismay that can arise from the loss of freedom a woman feels when she leaves her child body behind, becomes an object, perhaps a wife and a mother, and is told again and again that to voice a wish that is solely of the self, for the self, is outrageous. Because women are givers, we risk merging into anonymity.
But I don’t believe this is entirely gender based. Any giver is threatened with erasure. Nor do I believe women aren’t strong, and cannot write from a place of rage. Don’t be sloppy, don’t harden, remain curious, bold, and recognize your strength. Then, burn the page down!!
Jen Louden, the most authentically enthusiastic person I’ve ever met, led the Taos retreat. She offered many questions and ideas to encourage us go deep into the why of our writing lives. She asked us reflect upon a question that dogs us–in our lives, in our writing. We scrawled questions on slips of paper and dropped them in a cookie jar. Everyone then drew one and held onto the question for a few days, walking the beautiful Taos landscape, jotting answers when inspired, then taping the questions to the wall. Where do I go from here? Who am I without ambition? How will I know when enough is enough?
And this: Is everyone lonely?
The question slayed me. Because of course, the answer is yes. Not all the time, but perhaps more often than we like. We’re lonely binging Netflix on our sofas. We’re lonely swiping through Instagram, or Twitter, or checking our Facebook feeds. We’re lonely sitting at our desks, struggling to write one true sentence, and then another. We’re lonely when we miss connections with those we love. We’re lonely when we don’t feel seen.
Any of the women at the retreat could have written the question. What I came to understand as I thought more about it: Thank God for my writing. Alone at my desk I am challenged and infuriated. I feel really shitty as I try, then fail, and then fail better. But that lonely time writing is when I’m with my best friend. My writing/my friend has seen me through really dark times. It has helped me gain understanding about…well, me. It has helped me develop compassion. My writing has helped me become a better human being.
So yes, Dear Writer who posed the question to all of us. Everyone is lonely. But you have the magic tool to learn the world and bring it closer. Do what you love (and hate) to do, write.
The food was so terrific at the lodge in Taos, mostly fresh vegetables, big salads and lots of baked treats.Yum! But, I didn’t get much Southwestern food. So, I plan on making these, even though Portland weather will be in the 90’s all week. I promise, you will love these enchiladas. They were a staple in our home when the children still lived with us. Oh, now I’m feeling a little verklempt, missing their sweet faces at our dinner table. Which brings me back to Deborah Levy and the struggle for self. I guess the question is, how do we stay strong in the self and continue to give, to share our lives? I think an answer is to take time, to make time, to retreat and do what you love, just for you.