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I’ve just returned from our annual retreat up in Grand Lake, where I spent the week teaching and writing with 38 other like-minded writers at a place called Shadowcliff Lodge. The Lodge overlooks the quaint and drowsy town of Grand Lake, and the Lake itself, which is the largest natural body of water in Colorado, and whose depths reach some 260 feet. This makes the locale a great metaphor for the retreat itself: deep, gorgeous, and relaxing. (The storms that roll in most afternoons are symbolic, too, but I won’t overwork the metaphor here.
The retreat is an annual highlight for me—one week in the high mountains with nothing to do but write, hike, ride, and teach. And hang out with other writers. I love it. It’s inspiring, it’s exhausting, it’s dizzying. It requires a fair amount of drinking (beer, wine, scotch, margaritas), if one goes for that sort of thing.
This year was our 13th, and I’m always intrigued by the way each time it gains its own identity, and how there’s never any way to predict what that identity is going to be. And even though each year is unique, there is always the bittersweet end, where everyone comes together for a group photo, and then there are genuine and lingering hugs all around. No matter how the weather goes, or how the workshops go, or how the food is (this year it was awesome), everyone forges bonds that last well after we’ve all driven down from the mountains and have entered the wild (and sometimes frightening) world again.
This year, if I had to describe the overriding identity, it would be this: Emotional. Both high and low. And this is mostly due to the nightly readings. Each participant gets to read for around five minutes in whatever genre they want—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, random musings. Some of the writing had been polished over several years; other read from their journals things they wrote while at the retreat.
This year the quality of the work was incredible. Each reader wowed and moved the audience. Each piece deserves to be published.
I do not exaggerate here.
Our emcee for the readings is J. Diego Frey, who should go on his own comedy tour. Or maybe fill in for David Letterman next time he’s on vacation. He’s witty and strange and odd and hilarious. (Last year he wore inflatable moose antlers. This year he was costumeless.) The copious humor was needed, as several of the readers—Laurie Sleeper, Martha Scherzer, Meg Nix, John Holley, Jo Harkins, John Nelson, and Laura Bond in particular—left us wrung out. The weeping was prodigious and unrepentant. (Pass the Kleenex people!) Yet each was a story that needs to be told, and we were given a gift in hearing them.
That’s the power of literature and writing, isn’t it? To bring us joy, to bring us to our knees, to bring us together.
We are all together in this life. Each year, the Grand Lake Retreat brings that home to me in such a profound way. Writing is first for the writer, sure, but the real and true goal of writing is to build a bridge to others, to invite them cross it and see the world on the other side. A world much like our own, just maybe a little more vivid, a little more intense, maybe. And in that action, we come to know one another better, and we come to know ourselves a little better. Understanding and compassion enter our minds and hearts, then.
Listening to Laurie Sleeper writing about cancer survivorship helps me know my sister—a survivor herself—better. Listening to Laura Bond, the current Maxine Bowie Fellow, writing about the loss of her mother and how desire and regret are woven into one’s grief—which is not all-consuming but surely never ending—I am brought to the loss of my own mother, and I am comforted, for I relearn that I’m not alone, and I’m not the only person who’s worked so hard to make sense of this black space that opens in our hearts when we lose a deeply loved parent.
I cherish this alchemy. Sure, I bawl my eyes out, but still, I am brought into the fold. I learn again to appreciate all that is human, and all the struggles that are human.
And then, J.D. brings me to joy. Pure joy. With his pocketbucket lists. His schtick with Roger Wehling playing the straight man. (As my oh-so-tough sister once said about something totally different: we laughed and laughed.)
And as I laugh, I am filled with appreciation and love for these two guys, who’ve taken my poetry workshop off and on for about ten years. (I have nothing new to teach them, but am always happy to have them in workshop.) Together, we’ve learned so much: about loss and gain, about parenting and grand-parenting, about zen practice and triolets, the Buddha and moose, impermanence and underpants. And bears. And headaches. I’ve seen them grow as poets, and they’ve probably seen me grow as a teacher and poet, too. Without them, without our years together, I wouldn’t be the same person, for we are all part of a complex web of attachments and experience.
So the hilarious and the grave, all together. In a quiet, lingeringly gorgeous landscape, with crows and fox and hummingbirds and deer in the meadow. And a gang of great writers, amazing people whom I’ll miss, though I am so glad I got to spend some time with them, each of them. Which again is not only a main goal of writing—to know and appreciate another’s experience—but also one of the main goals of life, too: to know and appreciate one another, intimate strangers as we are.