Writing is not the only art celebrated and practiced here. One woman played her guitar in the living room after supper, inviting a singalong. A writer who had studied the Japanese art of ikebana created an arrangement of stones, grandmother cedar, a weathered plank, juniper, native stone and grasses that symbolized her experience at the retreat, and brought peaceful symmetry to the house for months. Other guests, unfamiliar with the art, moved it from one room to another, wrote about it, photographed and studied it. One man wrote a postcard to the creator, expressing his astonishment and delight at finding the ikebana in his room. I mailed it for him since I felt it would be unethical to reveal her address.
I came out of this retreat feeling as if I have so much more direction in my writing life. I learned solid ways to analyze the flaws in my work.
Three women from Wyoming arrive for a retreat and make one, two, three trips inside, stuffing food into the refrigerator and piling it in the kitchen until the counters are covered.
“Er,” I say hesitantly, “How long did you say you’re staying? It looks as if you have enough food here for a month.”
“We’re cooking for you,” says L. “That way you’ll have more time to spend on our work. We have a lot to do, and there are three of us, so we want every minute of your time we can get.”
So much for the idea that I run this place.
“Are you a good cook?” I ask, trying to remember if I saw them put meat in the refrigerator.
She was, and they worked me hard.
For the record, vegetarians are welcome in this beef-raising haven, though I do not care for the smell of boiling carrageen moss. My acceptance of writers to work here is based solely on their writing, and whether I believe I can help them, not on their profession or anything else I might know about them.
Two days into her retreat, one woman confessed that she works for an oil company; she realized by then I wouldn’t hold it against her. I told her that I was pleased to know someone as intelligent and thoughtful works for the company.
Most writers attend alone, or in clusters of two or three, but group retreats have included graduate students and teachers from various universities who brought tents so that the guests who couldn’t fit into the house could camp among the trees. During their stay they hiked in the Black Hills and I talked about writing and responsible cattle ranching on the shortgrass prairie.
I hear the snipe in the dusk, the winnowing sound mingling with the wind.
Sometimes groups come to the retreat house with friends for a break from routine that does not necessarily involve writing or working with me. The South Dakota Artists Network met here, displaying and discussing the art each member had created during the year; some of the art remains in the house.
I’ve hosted one-day gatherings with a local history group of which I am a member, book clubs, and a wide-ranging discussion on environmental issues with activists from Montana, South Dakota, and New Jersey. A group of women who have met yearly for thirty-five years spent a couple of days eating, walking, and talking.
Last June, more artists gathered in the pasture north of the house for a session of “plein air” (outdoor) painting while prairie grasses and wildflowers were in bloom. They were hosted by the Great Plains Native Plant Society (www.gpnps.org), which operates an educational botanic garden in my pastures. I began working with GPNPS officials some years ago because their mission so closely matches my interests.
- To engage in scientific research regarding plants of the Great Plains of North America;
- To carry on the scientific work begun by Claude Barr of Prairie Gem Ranch, Smithwick, South Dakota, which is to pursue greater knowledge, appreciation and understanding of the Great Plains of North America;
- To disseminate this knowledge through the creation of one or more educational botanic gardens of plants of the Great Plains, featuring but not limited to Barr’s discoveries; and
- To engage in any educational activities which may further public familiarity with plants of the Great Plains, their uses and enjoyment.
We hope to make the garden a permanent part of the ranch.
I’ll leave with a sheaf of writing in my pack, my heart full of thanks.
During one two-week retreat with two women, my mother died; both writers came with me to her funeral. One of them, from a deeply Irish family, mentioned with a twinkle in her eye that her Irish traditions called for her to wail at funerals.
“Um,” I mumbled, “I surely do not want to denigrate your customs in any way, but I hope you will not wail today.” We all chuckled ruefully, imagining the effect of an Irish banshee wail on my stoic ranching neighbors in the local church.
Back at the retreat house, I told her she could wail all she wanted, but instead we began talking about our respective mothers, sharing and receiving comfort. A great deal of cathartic writing emerged among all of us that week.
Once, when a fire in the forested hills poured smoke and ashes down on Tamara’s house during a retreat, she took refuge in the travel trailer with her German shepherd. I was startled awake by a deep “WOOF!” at sunrise.
A dean I’d met while speaking at a Minnesota college gave herself a birthday present of a retreat during which she intended mostly to read; she surprised herself by writing.
When I walked with one woman out to her camper van to help her carry her things into the retreat house, she introduced me: its name is Javelina, meaning “wild pig.”
The dry brown plants with their intricate and tangled shapes spoke to me this morning as we walked through the pastures. And the wide sky reminds me how much room I have to grow.
Several writers have brought husbands, wives, significant others, friends or relatives. One brought her new husband to the retreat house for part of their honeymoon, because she wanted him to see the place so important to her; later she visited with her adult daughter.
I leave with a little bit of sorrow because the time seemed so short and I’ve only just begun. However the dragonflies will travel with me and just as they flew with such purpose, so will I.
Once a writer walked up the retreat house steps carrying mounted head of a buck deer. On her way to the retreat she’d been touring a second-hand store, she said, and he looked lonely, so she brought him along; she named him Timothy, and he supervised her writing week. She later said that when she was stopped for speeding on the way home, she thought the sight of Timothy in the passenger seat meant the difference between a ticket and the warning she got.
Sunrise is still mostly a theory, but I hear great horned owls waiting for it with me.
More than a dozen writers have published books that fill a couple of shelves at the retreat house. Several conduct classes and have Facebook pages or blogs sites where they write about writing.
One has begun a mystery series that is gaining in popularity; a Hermosa book club to which I belong read one of her mysteries last summer.
One retreat writer sent me a quilt made by her mother. We use it regularly in Eagle, and she assured us that it’s durable, so if we wear it out, she’d send another. Other quilters have given the retreat house decorative hangings inspired by their time here.
The quilt in Eagle room could be called the courage quilt. Swaddling myself in it made it safe to delve into writing about things that until now were too scary. (Turns out they weren’t so bad at all.)
A photographer who comes several times a year for solitary retreats on the way to visit her elderly parents sleeps in one room, practices her yoga in another, and edits her photographic books by spreading the pictures on the living room floor for several days. We step carefully back and forth, studying them, but I never let my dogs in the house when she’s there!
Another writer had bought a batch of quilt pieces in a second-hand store on her way to retreat, and enjoyed having space enough to lay them out on the floor to see their pattern, as preparation for writing about them.
Several poets have laid out the pages of their prospective books on the living room floor for editing.
I’m trying to get ready to re-enter my real life, sitting here with a couple of ridiculous (and probably ineffective) curlers in my hair. I’ve put my watch back on after three days. The meadowlark is asking me why.
One couple came for an icy New Year’s Eve retreat and rededication of their marriage.
Several writers have given themselves retreats as birthday presents and celebrated at the retreat.
I wrote every day, ten hours at least. Every time I come I learn more than I expect, and I expect a lot.
Retreat guests need not be writers, and don’t have to work with me. Occasionally a writer or artist simply wants quiet time to work and asks for a solitary retreat. I welcome each one, assure myself she is familiar with the house’s operation, give her my telephone number and wish her well. She may invite me to share a meal or a walk, but she works alone.
Inside there are books
Bones, stones, and kaleidoscopes
Pen, pencil, notebooks
We also have a Blizzard Policy; if a blizzard is severe enough that the writer can’t drive to the highway, or the highways are closed, all the days during which you can’t leave are without charge. If the writer didn’t bring enough food, my freezers are always full. Several writers tell me they now watch weather reports, hoping to schedule retreats during a major winter storm.
Snowing like the dickens out there. Don’t know exactly when we’ll be getting out, or if. There are worse fates than being trapped at Windbreak House. . . . I am ready to go home and create my own space for writing now.
To be continued . . .
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this review of twenty years, so, unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers after their retreats.
Photos are from the Writing Retreat albums.