For a few months now, I often hit play on a specific Taylor Swift song as I drive away from my house to run any number of errands. (Yes, I listen to Taylor Swift, converted by my 11-year-old girl, and I must say the 11-year-old girl that is still within me loves her lyrics.) The main line of this song is this: “Everything has changed.” Singing along to this line is like a mantra for my brain as I work to make my life be the life I want to lead. It sounds so silly, but pressing play is like pressing the gas and accelerating onto the highway of my choosing. And just over a week ago, I refilled this gas tank at the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat.
I was so nervous before I went on this retreat. Why was I spending hard-earned money to go on this retreat? What if it backfired? What if I didn’t connect with any of these 80 writers? Did I need to pay money to learn more about memoir when I have a manuscript at home that is already in its third draft?
When I was honest with myself, I could see that I was so scared because taking the next leap into my writing career is so important to me. I have worked in the industry since I was 26, and I have written two books, but I haven’t looked for an agent yet for the book that is closest to my heart. I’m terrified I’ll never make it up the next ladder rung. Writing those two books finally taught me that I know what I am doing, and that writing is one of those marvelous activities that improve with effort, practice, and time. Even though I no longer feel like a fake (mostly), I still felt nauseous as I approached that huddle of writers waiting for the bus to carry us to the retreat.
The universe often hands us what we need, and I ended up introducing myself first to Anna, who also happened to be one of the people assigned to the bunkhouse with me. We didn’t discover this until hours into the bus ride, and by then we were already graced by that open road gift of what seems to be instant friendship. My first fear of not meeting like-minded people fell from my list of worries.
But it wasn’t until I was listening to Ariel Gore read from her book she is just now writing that I broke right open. Ariel read about how her mom asked to be taken care of for the last 6 weeks of her life. Ariel writes, “Sure. Who can’t do anything for 6 weeks?” The punch line came fast when she read the beginning of the next line, “Ten months later…” Suddenly I was laughing my laugh, the one people comment on, the one people hear across a gymnasium and say, “Nancy must be here. “ Full-throttled, it often leads to snorting. As Ariel read, so many people in the audience laughed in a similar fashion, with their entire beings. Between my laughs, my heart broke right open and I thought, “Here I am, among my people. This moment was worth every penny I spent to arrive here.”
Here was a woman reading with the darkest of humor about the hardest of things, watching your mom die. She shared my gallows sensibility. And these audience members were along for the ride, loving every minute of the reading. This, this was home, one of the places in my being that so loves to surface. I find this place when I am home alone in my office writing sometimes, but it is not a place I usually visit with other people. Here I was, visiting this sacred ground with other people.
From this moment, the weekend arched up to meet me. There were so many wonderful moments. I tempered my enthusiasm for Cheryl Strayed before she spoke, telling myself she couldn’t be as awesome as I imagined. She was more awesome than I could have possibly imagined, and I cried while she talked; I gobbled her words up. After her talk, she sat on a couch and made an effort to connect with each of us on a one-on-one basis. Her graciousness, her willingness to be in the moment and give her presence to each one of us, this is a lesson I hope to always remember. It is why I made a goofy collage of the photos my friend Natalie took of me while I sat and talked with Cheryl. Before I met her, I wanted to make my writing sing like hers does, and now, after I have met her, I want to be a better human being, too.
I can list moment after moment. As Suzanne Finnamore Luckenbach read out loud the first few pages from amazing books, including her novel in progress. The discussion during a class with Ariel Gore about the idea of a happy ending in memoir. When I made a Venn diagram in Theo’s class and new writing themes came to me. When Anna and I walked underneath the wide open starry sky on the way back to our cabin on the first night of the retreat, and I felt jubilant.
Why the joy? It’ s similar to what another retreat writer wrote about on her blog about this weekend. I fell in love with myself again this weekend. It no longer seems foolish to spend two years of free time writing a memoir that may or may not ever be published. It seems like I am right where I want to be, changing my life bit by bit until I am more centered in my writing life and surrounded by people that I feel comfortable around. I didn’t know I had a tribe until I attended this retreat. Now I know I have a tribe, and when I miss this tribe, I think about a line that came to me a few days after the retreat. After my very first acupuncture treatment, I sat in the sunlight and tried to center myself. Then a line came to me: There is a light in the door. I rushed to my office and wrote a poem about meeting my sixth grade self, and finally loving my sixth grade self. I realized I found a light in the door at the retreat, a path into sacred ground, a place where I can be me and be loved. It’s not like I haven’t been here before. Yes, there are many moments I am in this space, but it was something to have two.five days of this feeling.
In this poem I write about my sixth grade self, how someday:
she will laugh
so loud amid her
and she will
of that long journey
to her place
was worth it
in the door
it even then
if you just wrote
it all down
it would make sense
You would see
the mountain sky
the fresh air
the first hint
the bright light
the new friend
next to you
next to you
no going back.
This poem is the gift of the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat. I play the Taylor Swift song as I drive to run one of my many errands and she sings “Everything has changed.” And I know in my heart I have changed. There is no going back. I’m moving forward into my life with even more love.