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Necessary Luxuries: On Writing, Napping, and Letting Go

A photo from my evening walk.

I have slept all day.

I’m on the first day of a weeklong writing residency in a town made up mostly of aging hippies, artists, and ghosts, and I am tired. My two friends who arrived with me are in other parts of this cabin with their laptops glowing — one works on a novel, the other writes poems. While these women write, I rest in my bedroom having already taken three naps; it’s 2:07 in the afternoon. My friends and I have created a pattern of pulling ourselves from our regular lives to come here every six months and write. Last spring to help us prepare for future writing residencies, we made a “What To Bring List” and beneath big frying pan, candles, booklight, and worry dolls, we wrote in dark letters: Kelli should remember she sleeps a lot the first few days and she shouldn’t get freaked out.

Since then, I have learned while it seems this tired feeling will last the entire week, it never does. What I’ve discovered from these first days of napping is that in the process of settling in and letting go, I realize how worn-out I am in my regular life and how I’m constantly on. My body, the same one I push to the limits in my daily routine — writing, editing, being responsible for my family, working late hours into the night to make a deadline, volunteering, commitments — that same body and the mind it keeps so safely inside, is exhausted.

I now recognize that much of a retreat is about going deeper, letting go of concerns and allowing my daily life to fall off or go on without me. This was hard at first. I worried, How will my family survive without me? (They did.) I worried, What if I get there and have nothing to write? (Never happened.) I wondered, Is it fair to take time away to write? (It is.)

Now, each time I arrive at a residency, I see myself as me again. Not a mother or wife. Not someone’s daughter or sister. Just me. A writer. And here, I take care of myself. My entire day circles around writing and it feels as if it’s a luxurious indulgence.

The lighthouse I occasionally walk to…

My schedule creates itself. I walk to the lighthouse when I need the fresh air of this Victorian town to move through me. I wake up at two in the morning with an idea for a poem then write for hours knowing I don’t have to wake for work in the morning, knowing I’m only accountable for myself. I imagine it’s how I’d live if I didn’t have any other responsibilities except myself, my writing.

Here we live together in a funky cabin with a 1950’s push-button stove and outlets that require us to bring two-prong adapters for our three-prong lives. We exist as ghosts do during the day, passing each other without talking, giving each other the space she needs to do her work until we meet in the living room at five o’clock.

As we gather I, along with my two friends, begin setting out prosciutto, rice crackers, hummus, brie, cherry tomatoes, and a bar of sea-salt chocolate on the coffee table. We open bottles of red and white wine. We make a toast to our writing and then spend the next hour discussing what’s on our minds — from what we’re working on to what synchronicities are happening while we are here.

I do not worry if the bills have been paid, if the dog, cats, or guinea pigs have been fed. I think about my writing projects — if my new poetry manuscript is in the best order and maybe think about writing a longer nonfiction work. Here we are able to nurture ourselves and our words.

We place a scarf over the old piano where we put our altar items — candles, a matchbook with Frida Kahlo on it, a photograph of my father who died twenty-five years ago this year. The cabin smells like a mix of the stargazer lilies the last resident left and the subtle scent of vanilla from three of the candles we lit.

I sleep hard here and think about writing so obsessively, I begin to dream about book pages spinning over me when I sleep, a typewriter dinging, Sylvia Plath reading poetry on a stage that looks out to a field of wildflowers. In my dreams I attend an Andy Warhol museum opening, I talk with Gertrude Stein. My life takes on a magical element where the literary slice becomes not just the largest piece of my life’s pie, but the entire dessert.

The Head of the Welcoming Committee

Soon I am reminded that writing is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Here, on a cliff in a cabin with two other women, I let go of my fears. I let go of any belief that I should be doing something else with my life. Poems move me in and out of hours, a day is spent under pages of a manuscript. I live simply and fulfilled without all the other minutiae of my regular life swirling around me. My friends and I discuss what matters to us. We ask questions about how we can live better and how we can take this “retreat lifestyle” home with us when we return.

When our Happy Hour time together is done, we return to our rooms to write. I unpack a pair of yoga pants, a long-sleeve cotton t-shirt, a warm sweater, and my favorite pair of slippers — my uniform this week. I look at my laptop, an electric candle, on the small desk in my room. I notice how little of my life I brought with me. Just the basics here, but with more time to write and rest. As I begin to write again with the sound of the wind moving through the forest of maple trees that surrounds this cabin, I realize how little is needed to be content.

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