The Importance of the Pause

My wise retreat writer has headed home in her shiny red car. She has one more retreat promise to fulfill. During 14 hours’ driving time, she’ll analyze her usual schedule, and set a time to write every single day. She’ll do it, too, though she has a full-time job, a mother to care for, a husband and sundry other responsibilities that have a way of eating time. But she is determined to finish her writing project, and I have no doubt that I will at some point receive an autographed copy of her book.

I particularly enjoyed her retreat because she worked hard: reading the handouts I gave her and revising her writing. She’d place each day’s work on a flash drive which I would take to my own computer, and read while writing comments in the text before returning it to her for more work. Yet each day she made time for at least one walk, and she took photographs.

Tea at the Writing Retreat 2017--8-2

And twice she invited me for tea. Each day she served a delicious Grapefruit Rosemary Spritzer, as well as piping hot tea served from a lovely teapot in delicate china cups she had brought with her. In addition, she’d baked sweet bread or scones, presented with lemon curd and strawberry jam, clotted cream and butter. We spent an hour sipping and eating luxuriously, discussing her work in a relaxed manner.

I’m sure that she went back to work that late afternoon as refreshed as I did. She’d taken time, and made me take time, from our busybusybusybusy efforts at writing to simply enjoy the flavors of the food, the ritual of tea-making, the pleasure of talking with a like-minded soul.

She reminded me of the importance of the pause, the time that is not spent planning, accomplishing, doing, rushing, but simply in enjoying.

I may not have tea every day, and rarely will I have it with such delicious accompaniments, but I will remember how refreshing it is to pause every day to appreciate the luxury of pausing.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Go to www.windbreakhouse.com and click on writing retreats to find the list of available dates and everything else you need to know about scheduling a writing retreat this year.

 

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Scenes from Surgery: Seeing When I Can’t See

Fortunately, I have had little experience with surgery, and most of that came from accompanying a friend to her surgery a week ago, just before my first cataract operation.

I am as ready as I can be. My eye surgeon has furnished me with a formidable collection of informational pamphlets and a written list of instructions. More than a dozen friends and acquaintances who have already benefited from the surgery have offered advice and reassurance. I’ve done research and read statistics: according to the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS), 3 million Americans undergo cataract surgery each year, with an overall success rate of 98 percent or higher.

Still, I have probably feared loss of sight since I was fitted for my first pair of glasses at nine years of age, so I don’t sleep well in the days before surgery.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My appointment for cataract surgery is for 7 a.m., and by 7:30, I am lying on a cot in a room with a dozen similar cots, separated by curtains. Nurses move back and forth among the patients, asking if we know what we’re there for, confirming names and birth dates. Someone asks if I’ve signed health care directives (Yes; and I recommend everyone do so). Is there a person who can speak for me in the waiting room in case something goes terribly wrong? My surgeon explains the procedure. Barry, the anesthesiologist spends several minutes reading through my medical history, asking questions, commenting on the fact that I am in good health and take no pills but vitamins. He advises me to let him know immediately if I feel pain. He says I’ll be awake throughout the procedure, and cautions me not to sneeze, talk or move.

“And if your nose itches, tell us; we’ll scratch it for you.” He says, “I’m mixing your first martini now,” as he administers what he calls the “I don’t care” drug.

A nurse places a sticky mask on my face to hold my left eye open. I feel the nudge of what I assume is a scalpel when the surgeon slices into my eye, and see a vivid square of pink as he works. After a few moments, the pink square becomes more clear, and I realize the surgeon is gone, the operation over. I am wheeled into the recovery room, though I remember little of what happens there.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

By 9:30 a.m., we’re home and I spend the rest of the day lying around, continuing not to care much about anything. I pick up a mystery, but can’t concentrate enough to read. My eye doesn’t hurt but I am happier when it is closed; the eyelid seems to be made of sandpaper, a sensation the literature predicted.

Cataracts fall grass pronghornFrom the living room, with binoculars and my new left eye closed, I can see twenty antelope and a flock of geese all lying companionably on the west side of the dam below the house. With my own spectacles, I can see well out of my right eye, but trying to coordinate my eyes leaves me disoriented. When I walk across the room, I feel as if I might fall, and I hold the handrail firmly while going downstairs; I have no depth perception. In the kitchen, I lurch into cabinets when trying to put clean dishes away or cook.

I’m dizzy, probably from the anesthetic and the disorientation of the change in my vision, but have no headache. I’m not nauseated, but my stomach feels a little fluttery. I cooked ahead, so we have interesting leftovers. My after-lunch nap lasts an hour and a half instead of twenty minutes. All afternoon I doze, think, and occasionally flip pages in magazines. I’m amazed that I can sit without reading or leaping up to do another job as I would normally do, but realize that I’m still under the influence of the “martini” drug.

Email lures me to the basement until I realize I am hunched over, squinting to peer at the screen. Later, we watch DVDs, though it’s hard for me to concentrate. I keep taking my glasses off and putting them back on. By nine p.m., without my glasses, I can see well out of my new left eye, or my right eye, but not both at once.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I rarely dream, but this night my brain puts me in a number of strange scenes. In one, I am standing on top of a white van that is driving itself around a green lawn, then eventually rising into the air and floating over the landscape.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I wake at five with a knot of pain in my shoulder and a cramp in my neck, unable to turn my head to the left or right. I attribute this misery to stress, and to using the computer when I should have been resting.

At my follow-up appointment, I tell my surgeon that every now and then, the view through my left eye seems to leap, as if the film in an old movie had jumped. He explains that since the new lens is slightly smaller than my original, the eye needs to shrink around it, and that natural process produces the jumping sensation. My operation is a success.

Every element of Day Two after surgery is filtered through extreme pain. I can’t read, write, sit or stand comfortably because of the agony in my shoulder and neck. Ice on my shoulder enables me to nap a little. I make an appointment with a massage therapist for the next day.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Day Three after surgery is a blur that begins in pain, soothed by a strong and aromatic early-morning massage. My muscles are so knotted in my neck and shoulder that an hour isn’t enough. “Mouse shoulder,” the massage therapist calls my ailment. I realize that two days before surgery I moved both my keyboards without making compensatory moves in my computers and mice. After my first massage, I eat lightly and lie on a heating pad until my second massage in the afternoon, thinking about how good I’ll feel when my eyesight is improved and my shoulder is back to normal.

When I’m not on a massage table or resting, I experiment with the position of my computer chair and keyboards, and discover exactly what I was doing to cause the aching misery in my shoulder. I raise the arms of my chair, fiddle with its height, shift the computer screens–and dust everything in sight. I’m usually too busy writing to pay attention to the tidiness of my office, so I do some filing and organizing as well.

I follow the recommendation of several people to remove the lens from the glasses on the side that’s been operated on. With both eyes open, I stagger as if I’ve been drinking those “martinis” the anesthesiologist mixed, because my vision is so different in each eye.

One friend pastes a sticky note over her glasses on that side, and isn’t afraid to drive. “The Interstates in Wyoming and Montana were fine,” she says, “but I was a little nervous on the two-lanes.” Hmm.  My father had a cataract operation, and came home wearing an eye patch. He died two decades ago; where is it now?

Cataracts eye patchI shut my eyes and visualize the eye patch. Black, with black elastic. I wore it once as part of a Halloween costume. After a few moments, I stand up, go to my dresser in the bedroom, open the top drawer, and reach inside: the eye patch is there, between the shotgun shells and a jewelry box of my mother’s. There is no logical reason I have kept it at my fingertips all these years. With a new strip of elastic, it fits nicely across my left eye. Immediately my balance seems to stabilize. I can walk a straight line! I can go downstairs!

Glancing up at the stern photo of my father above my desk, I thank him for teaching me to keep things I don’t know if I’ll need, and apologize for cussing his packrat ways at other times.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Exchanging messages with friends who have had cataract surgery, I’m convinced that everything I’m experiencing is normal, but I’m severely near-sighted, which accounts for the extra problems I’m having adjusting to one “good” eye and one still shadowed by a cataract.

Testing myself, I drive down our private road to the highway and across it to get the mail. I’m careful pulling across the four lanes of traffic, but the black eye patch does block a considerable portion of my peripheral vision, so I ask Jerry to drive me to other appointments for the week before my second surgery.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Even by leaning close to the computer screen, I can hardly read. Leaning forward awakens the pains in my neck and shoulder. I shut down the computer and resolve to stay away from it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

What did I do, I wonder, before I began to spend my days reading and writing? I can’t remember. I thumb through my recipe file, finding new tastes to try, and tossing out old recipes I’ve never used.

Cataracts basket leaves chive seedpodTo change my focus from what I can’t do, I begin to concentrate on what I can do: pay more attention to texture, color and scent. In a few minutes’ walk outside, I appreciate the vivid red of a leaf from a tiny plum bush, the neon yellow and deep red of a gaillardia in my greenhouse plot, and a furry leaf of mullein. I’ve read that mullein leaves were used for diapers by Native Americans. Modern riders moving cattle have found them to be useful as toilet paper; that’s a personal observation.

Next to the gaillardia stands a culinary sage, its pointed leaves soft, but less dense than those of the mullein. The scent, too, is softer than that of the native sage. Lilac leaves manage to be red on the front and green on the back. The unripe seed head of a chive plant is knobby with pods that may not ripen now that we have had frost. I pinch a head of anise and inhale its purple scent.

Observing and touching these plants while I’m walking the dogs is not enough. Suddenly I want to study them more closely, so I pick them and take them inside. Searching for the perfect way to display them to myself, I find a tiny basket from a friend and notice again its colors and tight weave. Mentally, I thank her again for this thoughtful gift: another thing I didn’t know I needed until I required it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Another question I ponder: when did I begin my habit of always doing something: of never sitting still and doing nothing? This is a good time to start following my own advice.

I regularly advise writers to simply sit and absorb their surroundings, to do nothing at all as their minds wander and create. Thinking, I assert, is the most important part of writing.

And yet here I am, fidgeting because I am unable to follow my usual schedule. I realize that I sometimes read or write as much as sixteen hours a day. I read and write in my journal while drinking my morning coffee; I read during meals. I think in the shower, but I read in a hot bath. I need to practice doing other activities. Perhaps even doing nothing.

Usually when I’m writing, I step outside once or twice in the morning to play with the dogs or to check the tomatoes or pull weeds. Today I walk outside with no particular aim. I stand in the sunshine and look over the hillside, noticing how colorful the grass is, blending every shade of red from maroon to pink, segueing into golds and greens. Somewhere on that hillside may be twenty antelope, their tawny sides and white bellies blending perfectly into their surroundings.

Cataracts viola empty seedpodsThen I drop to my knees to look at the plants in the raised bed. I spot a three-pronged seed pod, each lobe packed with tiny black seeds, and realize that it has arisen from the violas a friend gave me years ago. As I reach to pick the pod so I can plant the seeds elsewhere, I jostle it, and the seeds are fired in several directions at once, instantly invisible.

I’ve had these violas perhaps as long as twenty years, since a friend in Vermillion gave them to me, but I’ve never noticed the seed pods before. Now I’ll try to capture seeds so I can put more of the charming plants wherever I want them.

Because I write and advise writers, I probably pay more attention to my senses than many people do. But today’s concentration on what I cannot see well has been a revelation.

Cataracts cup beads crystalInside, thinking about the day, I look at the shelf above my sink and take down an antique cup I bought for its color and balance. I’ve never drunk from it, but filled it with glittering memories, displaying it, but not really seeing it. I picked up every shell on a favorite Pacific beach in the northwest; the beads were gifts from Jerry when he made my kaleidoscope for my fiftieth birthday. The shard of crystal came at a bad time as a gift from a good friend. Now I see a cupful of shining memories.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Each day after the surgery, I am able to move more confidently around the house. I wear the eye patch for reading, but take it off when I’m walking the dogs or playing Scrabble, struck each time by how bright and colorful the world is without it. I begin to cook without dropping utensils so often.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On Day Six after surgery, I forget the eye patch when we go to the grocery store, so my left eye, with its improved distance vision, is uncovered. The visual stimulation is so disorienting I can hardly function. Faces seem to leap at me; colors swirl and shift as I turn my head; loud music seems to magnify every sensation. I can’t read the type on shelf displays very clearly with either eye; letters blur and swirl. I keep reaching up to cover one eye or the other, and can’t seem to stabilize myself. I lurch and stagger and catch expressions of pity on several faces: “poor old thing.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Back at home, I shade my eyes and look toward the west as the sun begins to drop toward sunset. From every branch flies a silver filament, the life lines of migrating spiders, moving in the fall air toward winter.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I have spent less time than usual at the computer, but too much; my shoulder and neck are still painful. My posture is terrible when I sit at my desk, and concentrate on straightening my spine and breathing more deeply. I move around more, running up the stairs to check on lunch, or throwing a ball for the dogs. These are changes in habit I hope I can carry with me through the next round of surgery, but also longer, into my daily life.

Once again a happening that was complicated and not always pleasant has reminded me of ways to improve the way I live. Surely this occurrence is a cliché, but such truisms become familiar because they prove to be right so often.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

By the seventh day after surgery, which is also the day before the surgery on my right eye, I realize that I am exhausted even though I have not been working at my usual rate. Why? I can think of two possible reasons. First, I’ve been working at the computer, and since my vision is so unclear, I lean forward, and twist myself into unnatural positions trying to see. Second, my confused vision makes me subconsciously fear that I’m about to fall every single time I take a step, so all my muscles are clenched in anticipation when I’m not sitting still.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We’ve had frost three nights in a row and the tomatoes and squash plants are drooping. I’ve put most of the remaining fruit in a bucket to feed to my assistant’s chickens, harvested the last jalapeno peppers, and collected handfuls of marigold seed. Winter is coming, though several hollyhocks still stand next to the house, their silken blooms showing vivid yellow and pink against the gray sky.

The world outside is entering a different season. So is my vision.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The second surgery takes less time than the first since fewer explanations are necessary. My martini-mixer this time is Gary, but Barry is in the next cubicle and I realize that the team of anesthesiologists have developed their patter of humorous comments– “like a bad marriage” Gary quips– to calm the fears of patients by making us laugh. Again, I can see the tools of surgery and feel them in my eye, but I don’t care and nothing itches.

I’m dizzy enough to hold Jerry’s arm as I walk out of the clinic wearing the huge sunglasses that were part of my eye kit, and adorn half the people walking in or out. Even through black lenses, I can see every detail of faces, of parked cars, and of the men pouring concrete, with both eyes. I haven’t seen this well without glasses since about 1950.

But I can’t read the paper; my improved vision is for greater distances than my arms reach.

During the 24 hours following surgery, I feel better than I did last week because the aftereffects of the anesthetic are less severe, as Gary promised. By the time I try to describe what I saw during surgery, the memory has become too fuzzy to capture in words.

My eyelids feel enlarged, like flaps of cardboard and my eye feels a bit scratchy, as predicted. I’m occasionally dizzy and inclined to nap, so I do. At home, I can walk up and down stairs without flinching.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On the second day after this surgery, I buy a three-pack of drugstore reading glasses, complaining because I can’t imagine why I need three. “I’ll be able to match all my outfits!” I mock.

Navigating around the house is easy without glasses, but when I need to read a recipe, play a Scrabble game, read a book or type, I need help. Soon I have one pair of glasses by my reading chair, one pair at the computer, and one pair in the dining room where I can take it to the bedroom for reading in bed. Having three pair has saved me dozens of steps by the second day; I mentally apologize to the folks who package them in threes.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In the mirror, I hardly recognize myself without glasses.

With reading glasses, I can see a glow lighting the chin hairs I haven’t been able to see well enough to pull for a week, and the large bags under my eyes.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Happy to be able to see the keyboard and screen, I start transcribing my rough and nearly unreadable notes about the surgery from my journal into a file. My biggest problem is remembering to snatch the glasses off when I need to leave the computer or book and do something else.

Cataracts reading glasses chainWithin three days, I have purchased a gadget that I have always considered the ultimate Badge of Old Ladyhood: a chain to wear around my neck, keeping one pair of glasses on my person at all times.

As I work, I yawn and stretch and wonder why this week was so physically painful and nerve-wracking.

I’m overwhelmed with amazement and gratitude at how relatively easy these two operations have been, particularly when I think what people endured in the past. One friend tells me her grandmother had to go to Omaha for the operation and was hospitalized for a long time with sandbags on each side of her head. I recall watching another woman in our community struggle to live a normal life as her glasses grew thicker and thicker, and her eyes became opaque, covered with a gray film.

Perhaps I also feel guilty at being a person privileged to live in a country where such operations are possible, when millions of people worldwide have no such hope.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My debilitation during the past week hasn’t been just fear of surgery, I decide, but that greater fear that haunts us all: the time we have to enjoy the world is always growing shorter. How, we wonder, will our aging bodies fail? Dementia? Disease? We don’t know but the end is sure. We can only enjoy every day we have.

Above my computer, flies bumble at the windows in the weak October sunlight. A persistent zizzzing shows me where one fly is caught in a web. A slender brown spider starts wrapping the fly in strands of web to end its struggle.

Taking a break just to go outside and enjoy looking, I hear them: Sandhill cranes, trilling, hooting and gurgling as they fly south. Authorities say they’ve been living on these prairies, migrating south each fall and north each spring, calling and purring over the land, for two and a half million years.

Through my oversized sunglasses, I can see a long and wavery V, each one a smaller V-shape as their wings flap. Each crane in the line provides some shelter to the one behind. Together, they fly over the prairie toward the warm grasslands of Texas and their winter of survival. If I am lucky enough to be here when they come back, I may be able to see them even more clearly.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Enjoy a Petite Retreat at Home

One day in May I realized that I was going to be alone in my house— except for my dogs— for several days. I wrote in my journal and on my Facebook page:

Today I am starting a personal retreat to get back to a working routine after ten days of travel, meetings, illness, pain, a spring snowstorm, and various other disruptions.

I began this retreat by opening a gift sent to me by my friend January Greenleaf, a TED talk by lexicographer Erin McKean. Make time for yourself, for your enlightenment and education, to listen for fifteen minutes.  For more information: www.erinmckean.com, which lists various places you can learn more about her projects, which include wordnik, where you can look up words and phrases; VERBATIM, a language quarterly; The Word column for the Boston Globe; her varied blogs, (which include one called A Dress a Day, detailing the dresses she makes and proving that an obsession with words doesn’t mean she doesn’t have other interests), her biography, and contact information.

ReadingDogsMy retreat was already well begun. At 4:30 that morning, I’d awakened with the dogs, let them outside, started the coffee, let them back in, and settled in bed with my journal. I wrote a plan for the retreat week, had breakfast and fed the dogs.

As soon as I declared myself “on retreat.” I felt more relaxed. Simply making the declaration meant I had time— when in reality I had made time by making the decision.

I stretched. I walked the dogs, I rinsed my few breakfast dishes and put them beside the sink. Finally I went to my office. My retreat plan prohibited me from checking email until late in the afternoon, but I knew the video was waiting for me and thought it might be a good way to focus my attention on writing, so I allowed myself to go online long enough to watch it before shutting down my Internet connection.

At last I was ready to begin the first writing task I’d assigned myself: writing about creating a short retreat at home— while creating a short retreat at home.

My first suggestion for creating a private retreat is to choose to do so. Decide how long your retreat will last, and begin to create the conditions that will help you make the best use of that retreat.

Prepare for your retreat: physical space

Most of us have developed a lifestyle built around events that are really distractions from real life, so we may behave as though this disorganization is normal. Email notifications appear on our computers; our cell phones ring; we run to the store for milk; people say “are you busy?” and without waiting for a reply launch into a recitation of their troubles. By planning ahead, you may be able to immerse yourself in work more fully than you can on a normal day.  Depending on your circumstances, you might:

–tidy the house so you won’t be tempted to clean while retreating

–cook or arrange for several meals in advance

–inform friends you will be limiting email and phone calls

–arrange your workspace to focus on your primary project; put aside temptations that might distract you from your main job

Turn Off Cell–remove potential disturbances: turn off your cell phone; put a note on the TV that says “NO!” A friend shuts off her computer’s audio speaker so she doesn’t hear the ding of incoming emails.

–pull shades and lock doors if you have friends who “drop in;” one writer I know hides in a vine-covered alcove in her back yard, out of sight from six feet away, and unable to hear the telephone in the house or the door bell.

–if you don’t live alone, explain the terms of your retreat to other members of the household and arrange for them to do the necessary chores you usually do.

–If you cannot be alone in your house during your retreat, make the quiet statement of a closed door. Since my study door usually stands open, my partner knows, when he sees it shut, not to knock, call out, or open it. And if my sneaky mind tries to distract me from my work, I’m reminded of my purpose as soon as I grasp the doorknob.

Prepare for your retreat: mental space

These are logical ways to prepare your physical work space for a retreat, but a harder job, I think, is to focus on whatever retreat task you have set for yourself. Prepare for your retreat by walking around your home like a stranger, as if you have arrived at this haven just to enjoy a writing retreat. Arrange a chair before a window so you can watch birds; find a flower or tree or rock to identify. Turn a chair so your back is to the room.

My idea of the perfect retreat would include ordering meals from a personal chef to be delivered on my preferred schedule, but that is a fantasy. So I enjoy a bonus benefit available only to people who have partners: the retreat diet and exercise plan. When my partner isn’t here, I don’t cook as much, therefore I don’t eat as much, therefore I’m leaner and more focused. I often make a big batch of spaghetti or meat loaf, and eat similar meals for several days.

In my study, I look at each project I’ve begun to choose which one I’ll work on. I write notes so I’ll remember, when I’m ready to begin the other projects, what I was thinking, and put them firmly aside. Whether my writing is going well or not, it’s far too easy to sidestep into another writing project that looks more seductive. Even though I am my own boss and have set up my own schedule for writing, I dislike authority enough that my subconscious mind tries to flout it and sneak off to another fascinating story.

How it works: retreat reality

As soon as I got to my tidy office, I realized that in my haste to begin a retreat I’d forgotten that after days of travel and trouble, I needed to clear my journal. I’d recorded observations relating to several different writing projects, marking them with sticky notes in my journal so I could find them quickly. Each one needed to be placed it its proper file before I forgot the details.

As I recorded these notes, I recorded comments for the organizer of the meeting I’d attended, and sent those off— telling myself that while this was not a retreat activity, it was legitimate work as part of clearing my desk for writing.

During my lunch break, I referred to my journal and realized that I needed to revise my class presentation for Road Scholar on ranching in South Dakota. That’s creative, I thought, and it concerns on one of my usual writing topics, so it’s a legitimate retreat task. I completed the revision.

By then, I was distracted by the pain of an injury and called a doctor who agreed to see me that afternoon.  The doctor was able to alleviate my pain but as I drove home I wondered if I had killed my retreat by leaving the house and breaking my concentration. Discouraged, I sat in my chair, read a few pages, and fell asleep.

Footsteps jerked me out of my nap. I stepped outside to find an insurance salesman on my deck, the first such caller in six years! Repeatedly and at length, I explained why I did not need additional insurance.

Now what? Nerves jangled, I turned to my calendar and my journal work list and realized I was obligated to attend a meeting the next afternoon, and had promised a friend to car-shop the day after that. My stomach knotted. I’d sabotaged myself by incomplete planning. Should I declare my retreat a failure?

No, I decided. The retreat was not over unless I allowed it to be.

First I had to recapture the feeling. If I allowed interruptions to make me angry, I was wasting my own time and becoming even more distracted. I had to dispose of disturbances efficiently, choosing which jobs I could complete and which I might postpone.

Part of my distraction, I realized, was having had a sketchy lunch; I had no enthusiasm for cooking, but discovered some attractive leftovers. I took my time arranging the meat, potatoes and gravy on the plate and heating them in the microwave while I made a salad. When I sat down to eat, I thought about my choices.

I was still alone in the house. I could recover from these setbacks. Instead of cancelling my private retreat, I decided, I would simply conduct a series of short retreats. I’d begin each day with a couple of cups of coffee in bed, dogs at my side. I’d write in my journal about my primary project: this essay about conducting my own retreat.

Next I planned a simple menu for several days, choosing ingredients on hand, because I knew my concentration would be broken if I was either hungry or constantly snacking.

During the morning before the meeting, I’d write as much as I could. After the meeting, I’d attend to online communication, putting off anything that could wait a day or two. The next day, I’d honor my morning commitment and then write in the afternoon.

The Petite Retreat

So began my week of discovering the concept of the miniature retreat, and I can recommend it. In fact, since many of us are convinced we don’t “have time” for a long retreat, perhaps learning how to conduct a retreat in a day or two, or even a couple of hours, might be considerably more useful to the average busy writer.

LMH desk 2014--4-24Before my afternoon meeting, I wrote notes and drafts of several ideas I’d recorded in my journal, so I was able to attend the meeting with a feeling of accomplishment that allowed me to be patient with the usual delays. Later, at the computer, I read a message from a writer who has been to Windbreak House on retreat. Her husband had just left for a ten-day trip and she had declared a personal retreat. She wrote, “I have the house to myself (it also means I have all the chores to myself, but leave that aside for the moment.)”

Serendipity! I thought. We’re both dedicated to our work and are conducting our own retreats; perhaps we can help each other.

“I seem to be getting over the gloom of separation anxiety,” she wrote, “and am moving into active embrace of the prospect of solitude. I will have some days that I have to go to town and work on projects at the rentals, but I will endeavor to keep the retreat spirit on the days when I’m home. I made a good start today by doing another revision pass and eating at odd hours.”

Again I was struck by the parallels; we both have obligations that keep us from shutting the world entirely out, and we both miss our spouses. I hadn’t thought to call it “separation anxiety,” but I was feeling the same. I don’t enjoy cooking for myself as much as cooking for someone else. When my partner is home, part of my morning journal time involves reviewing any available leftovers and deciding what to make for lunch and supper. Making preparations tells me when to begin both meals, and often keeps me from worrying about meals when I’m writing.

If I’d prepared properly for my own retreat, I would have frozen meals ready for quick preparation. Since I didn’t think ahead, don’t buy pre-packaged food, or live where I can get food delivered, I usually make a batch of one or two favorite meals that can be quickly reheated. My friend said she was surviving on hummus and potato salad and intended to plan ahead more effectively next time too.

Both of us are in a unique position in our homes, making retreats more workable. We both live some distance from town, so we don’t have the distractions of nearby traffic, and few neighbors drop by; we get few phone calls. (If your own home doesn’t lend itself to brief retreats, consider house-sitting.)

We agreed that the main obstacle to retreating into writing is mental. As she puts it,

“. . . making the commitment to yourself that you’re dedicating this time exclusively to writing (doing of, thinking about, reading about, etc.) . . .”

Her comment reminded me that a writing retreat requires more than writing; it includes reading and thinking about writing as well. I was also pleased to be reminded that this is the way real teaching and learning works: I offered her some of my suggestions, and her thinking inspired me: we both give, and we both take from the exchange.

The power of intention

My friend commented that making the decision to do the retreat was “weirdly wonderful,” that she, too, felt a huge release,

“. . . like I’d just gotten a massage. A marvelous lesson in the power of intention. I took an unseemly pleasure in defining my rules— monitoring email OK, responding unless absolutely necessary if a work project popped up was not. Checking weather OK, but no surfing. No TV. Doing dishes is OK, but only if you want to. Laundry is out of the question.”

Here we differed; my washer and dryer are just far enough from my desk to constitute a brain-clearing stroll with room to stretch, so I declared laundry to be OK that afternoon. With a load in the washer, I sent a few more messages and then found a reply from my retreating friend:

“Decided I ‘wanted’ to get the dishes cleaned up Wednesday evening, and the spell was broken. The motions of that disliked chore turned on the brain-churn of chores looming and the to-do list for town the next day. I still spent the evening reading and writing, but it did feel like the last night of retreat, processing the prospect of re-entry.”

“Brain-churn of chores”— that’s usually what wakes me up in the mornings if I allow it to. While waking for retreat, I’ve consciously pushed those thoughts away and concentrated my thinking on writing projects. During this rainy weather, I’ve forced myself to ignore the muddy paw-prints on the stairs and the dust in the corners; time enough to attend to those things when the rain stops.

What about those chores?

Still, everyone has daily jobs that, if we allow them to, can distract us from the kind of mood required for serious creative work. I can incorporate some jobs into a writing routine. When I come to a paragraph that baffles me, I may do dishes or defrost hamburger, slice vegetables or weed a flower bed while considering possibilities. None of those repetitive jobs can seriously distract a creative mind at work, though I have been known to burn rice when I rush downstairs to record a thought.

And some chores can be postponed. I’ll vacuum the house when my partner gets home and I’m distracted anyway. I’ll make a grocery list when he’s here to remind me of items I might forget. I’ll get the mail when I’m taking a break from writing.

My new challenge, then, was how to make my retreat work during short periods between the distracting obligations I’d discovered. I devised several methods and symbols to signal a new period of retreat.

How can I create tranquility?

If a retreat will be only a few hours or a day or two, it’s important to focus quickly, and learn to drop into retreat mode at will. I established signals to remind myself to avoid confusion and concentrate on the purpose of my retreat.

When I sat down to work on my journal at the dining room table, I pushed my nose deep into the bowl of lilacs and inhaled, letting the light, silky scent remind me to inhale and hold my breath, exhaling slowly.

Walking the dogs became part of my ritual when I needed to change mental gears. After I completed a job, whether it was an interruption to my writing or a writing draft, I changed my mood by taking the dogs outside to play or walk while I stretched and did bends.

LMH looking rr tie 2015Wildflowers as well as cultivated plants surround my home, but I usually notice them only when I’m working at gardening. For the retreat atmosphere, therefore, I took time to appreciate my surroundings as if I were in an exotic jungle. I sat on a railroad tie fence and watched a tree swallow swoop to collect a bug. I crawled through the grass looking for bluebells, found a smooth black rock and placed it in the precise center of a bowl worn in a sandstone rock. When one Westie brought me a baby robin carried gently in his mouth, I climbed a tree and put it back in the nest.

Concentrating on the details of my surroundings refreshed me. Arranging a few stems of Sweet William in a vase in the bathroom did not break my concentration, but shifted my focus. During these times of not-writing, aspects of the writing I was doing floated to the surface of my mind.

Think instead of talking

Having no other people in my house encouraged my uninterrupted thinking. I didn’t have to consider anyone else’s feelings, or respond to questions; providing attention to the dogs didn’t require much thought. I could walk with them, watch them hunt voles and run in circles, and throw their toys, all while relaxing and clearing my brain, or struggling with a knotty writing problem.

Think about it: responding to human interruptions can take considerable time in part because we observe social conventions; we’re polite, we explain, we listen, we justify. But if the telephone rings and I don’t answer it, time is saved. If someone posts to my timeline on Facebook and I don’t see it, my work is not interrupted. The choice is mine; the person calling or posting doesn’t know what I’m doing and will be happy when I do respond. Ignoring online distractions was similar to being alone in the house, without the necessity to respond to conversation.

Reading as writing

Research BooksSometimes I get so caught up in daily chores and writing that I may let significant articles and books that might inspire and inform my writing stack up beside my reading chair.  I scan them distractedly while waiting for a soup to simmer or a conversation to be finished. So concentrated reading on the subjects I write most about became part of my retreat. Having given myself permission to read in the daytime, I slashed like a lawnmower through stacks of magazines and books that had gathered dust for months. Instead of reading my usual relaxing mysteries at night, I read serious stuff and took notes for future writing and talks. Because I was working later than usual, I also felt better about any diversions that occurred during the day.

My retreat rules banned reading that was not on a topic related to my work. I was delighted when my friend on retreat said one morning that she’d “allowed” herself to read my note to her about our retreats only when she was on a break.

Meanwhile, she reported that her first mini-retreat was two days long: “an intense writing day, followed by an evening devoted to reading about writing and to writing in my journal about the reading and about the projects I’m working on. The next day was more writing, more reading.” She was exhausted, but “maintained internet/media limits and spent another quiet evening reading.” All this worked, she added, because she had the house to herself.

I, too, was feeling more satisfied with my small retreats of a morning and then an afternoon, and I wasn’t as exhausted because I hadn’t been able to immerse myself as fully as she had. I had, though, done what I could with the time I had and that was a source of satisfaction.

The retreat attitude

So how is a series of mini-retreats different from a normal work week? And how can we create the energy and the focus of a retreat in a shorter period?

I believe the power of my intent and the attitude I establish toward my work can allow me to conduct a useful retreat, even if it’s brief. During a normal day, my focus is outward: on my partner, on how our mutual day evolves, and on the obligations we have to one another. When he’s gone, I shift my attention to his evening call, leaving the rest of the day free for me to focus on my work. Reminding myself that my primary intention is my writing, I can allow other concerns to become invisible.

A danger zone is the restless periods between bouts of writing. When I get up to go to the bathroom, or fix a meal, or just stretch, I must resist the temptation to go online or check my phone. While the tasks of house-keeping like laundry or dishes don’t automatically pull my mind away from deeper thinking, the mindless chatter of the internet does.

This retreat also reminded me, and my writing friend, of another important element of a successful retreat of any length: reading books instead of the internet ether.

She puts it best:

“The focus on hard copy reading reveals how shallow and unsatisfying most of what’s available on the internet appears. . . . It’s easy to justify the surfing by telling yourself that you’re ‘staying informed’ by looking at news or literary sites, but that kind of reading does not allow for the slow reflection one achieves by turning pages and making notes in the margin.”

Moreover, because I have made time, I have the luxury of time to sit and stare at a smooth stone held in my hand and see how my mind will connect that stone, the sun on my back, the birdsong, with my writing. I can watch the cattle moving across the gully below the house, enjoying the way they kick up their heels. I can sit on the deck listening to the birds without checking my watch.

On each day of my retreat since, I have begun the day by planning what it will contain, including obligations to others that I can’t escape. I figure out what to have for lunch. Then I note the times in the day that I can consider retreat time, and note which project I’ll tackle. I can breathe deeply, knowing exactly when I’ll be on retreat, and what I have to do before that time.

My friend remarks that she is learning to make peace with how slowly writing can develop, and getting better at focusing when she has the time to do so. I agree. Once I have established writing time and know that I will keep it, I can be attentive at a meeting, hold conversations, answer email, and vacuum, throwing all my energy into what I am doing at that moment.

When my writing time seems brief, I remind myself that Graham Green created a writing schedule of two hours a day. He was so strict about stopping after exactly two hours that he sometimes didn’t finish a sentence. But at that pace he published 26 novels, as well as many short stories, plays, screenplays, memoirs, and travel books.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Thinking Is Writing: The Bathtub

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The tub is surrounded by curtains hung on a framework of copper pipes suspended from the ceiling by chains.

One of my favorite methods of dealing with pain, with lack of inspiration or with almost any other problem is a hot bath.

The main ingredient for a truly inspiring bath is a cast iron claw-foot bathtub, which holds heat as no modern plastic tub can do. The one in my basement, though, is somewhat shorter than I am, so a relaxing soak requires some bending. As I sink into the hot water, I often dream of the six foot long tub I discovered in Scotland. Even as short as it is, though, the tub fulfills its promise as a Writing Aid.

Turning the hot water on full, I pour in an herbal mixture that includes eucalyptus, peppermint, wintergreen, clove and juniper oils to soothe muscle aches. Then I’m ready for the ritual.

First one foot– if the water is too hot, I may have to modify it, and I’ve scalded my poor right foot several times. If the water is perfect, I step in, sit, cross my legs to fit in the tub, and lie back with a sigh.  Sometimes I just close my eyes and visualize how the hot water is soothing muscles and sinuses. Secure in the knowledge that no one will disturb me, I can let my mind free of everything that has concerned me for days or weeks. I may immerse myself completely in the steaming, echoing water, hearing the cast iron ping and bong as it absorbs heat.

I may try to remember the words to the Janis Joplin song “Mercedes Benz,” or think of a poem I memorized in high school. When I sit up, spluttering suds, I feel renewed.

When I’m conducting a writing retreat, my first task in the hot bath is to think of the writer I’ve been working with during the day. What have I failed to mention? Have I been encouraging enough? Are there other resources to suggest, or other handouts I could provide?

Almost always, I capture a thought that I missed while I was intently reading the writer’s work, or talking about it, so I’ve made a hot bath part of every retreat so I don’t miss that vital notion. I apply the same logic to my own work when revising: a hot bath often reveals an answer that eluded me during days of walking, thinking, and staring at the computer screen.

???????????????????????????????Sometimes I take a book to read, placing it on the table behind my head as I scrub or while I meditate. I love to read until the water cools enough to remind me it’s time to get out. But I have to exercise care not to drop the book– especially if it’s from the library.

But most often, after a period of reflection or reading, I write.

On a shelf at the head of the tub is a stack of small squares of recycled paper and a pencil. It’s easy to grab one of the little squares, scribble a thought, and toss it on the rug beside the tub.

Thinking is writing, I’ve often said, and lying back in a tub at the perfect temperature is conducive to thinking.

A brass hook to hold my bathrobe.

A brass hook to hold my bathrobe.

One idea often sparks another, so that at the end of a truly great bath, the rug is littered with a half-dozen little squares of paper.

After I’m dry, I gather them, stacking them by topic, and carry them to my computer desk, where I’ll find them the next day– and get a great start on the day’s writing.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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