New Year's letter to my future self

I spent most of the day yesterday curled on a friend’s couch, writing. A (not her real initial) and I used to go to a writers’ conference every autumn, but after a few years we decided we’d get more out of taking a day just to write rather than listening to people talking about writing. Toward that end, yesterday we spent the day having our own writers’ retreat at A’s apartment.

Sometimes you just need to take a day to do whatever it is you wish you had more time to do. Before I could break away to spend most of my Saturday writing, I had to tackle my morning chores, taking the beagle out and in, cleaning dishes and litter boxes, taking out the trash and recycling, and feeding and medicating one of the cats. By doing these things, I bought myself the rest of the day—a luxurious chunk of time between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm—to focus on writing without interruption before returning home to my usual obligations.

I used to have this luxury every day: that is, I used to be single. I used to live alone in my apartment in Keene, and the only living soul I was beholden to was Reggie, whose needs at the time were simple: a walk, a bowl of kibble, and a couple bathroom breaks. But now I have a husband and a houseful of pets, and life is complicated. Being married and surrounded by furry creatures is wonderful and bears its own satisfactions, but sometimes I long for the simplicity of my single days.

This is the value of a retreat. Retreats are like a vacation or a game of make-believe: instead of casting off your attachments to move to a monastery and become a monk, you take a day to role-play. You step outside your life and its obligations, at least for a little while, and you live a life that once was or still could be yours, but isn’t.

It’s remarkable how quiet even a thickly settled neighborhood can be when you yourself are quiet and not chasing after anything. My apartment in Keene was in a similar neighborhood as A’s—close to downtown, but affording solitude if you didn’t have business with the cars that occasionally approached and then passed. There is great tranquility to be found even close at hand when you simply stop, settle into your seat, and sip your tea, reminding yourself you have nowhere to go and nothing to do.

When you’re a wife, any place you don’t have to clean feels like a luxury resort, even if you’re simply sitting on someone else’s couch. After J and I were married but I was still teaching and living three days a week in Keene, I’d sometimes try to explain my arrangement to others. Their responses were amazingly predictable, with married women invariably looking at me with a wistful expression: “Oh, you have a place of your own!” J and I make a conscious effort to give one another space—we often and without a hint of irony insist that the secret to a happy marriage lies in having separate bathrooms—but even given such space, every married person I encountered (particularly the women) craved the solitude they imagined I had.

Notebook + pen + hot chocolate = brainstorming for the New Year. #gratitude

Solitude is, after all, an elixir: the simple act of stopping one’s usual mad dash of accomplishment serves to staunch a pernicious kind of bleeding. I love to write, in part, because it requires this kind of stopping—this kind of plug-pulling—this kind of turning inward. We are like deer who chase after grass, Kabir said, when the richness of musk lies within.

Solitude is not, in other words, a place: you needn’t go far—or anywhere at all—looking for it. All you need is a quiet couch and a cup of tea—or, if your mind is quiet, just the tea will do. Solitude, again, is not a place: you needn’t journey to monastery or mountaintop to find it. Instead, solitude is a decision to consciously turn away: a closed door, a silenced phone, a firm resolve to let one solid day pass without alarm or interruption.

This is why solitaries such as Henry David Thoreau and May Sarton, neither of whom was a proper hermit, are so widely misunderstood. You can, it turns out, live a solitary life in a house at the heart of town or in a cabin within walking distance of company, solitude being defined by inner rather than outer measures. Given the friends and commitments we all as social creatures have, can you occasionally and with full-hearted conviction say, “No, right now I need to be alone”?

Solitude blossoms when you say that single word “No.” Can you find the wherewithal and resolve to say “No” to the world—“No” to commitments—“No” to the obligations of caretaking, if only for a while? This commitment to say No needn’t be lifelong, but it needs to be wholehearted while it lasts: for this next solitary session, whether it last two years at Walden or a day on a friend’s couch, I resolve to ignore the world outside and look deeply at the world within.

This is often more difficult for women than for men, given how women are conditioned to be caretakers, but even women can find the resolve to kill the Angel of the House, as Virginia Woolf described it. The house will not collapse, the pets will not die, and my marriage will not fail if I take a single uninterrupted day to write.

It isn’t, ultimately, our external obligations that keep us from the task at hand: they are simply our excuses. For once you do close the door and silence the phone, there is that great existential fear: given a day to devote to nothing but your writing, what if you should find nothing to say?

Solitude is scary if you’ve become alienated from yourself, but when you’re on comfortable speaking terms with your own mind, you never are alone. Turning within, you discover yourself to be a remarkably interesting and insightful person with plenty of say and share, your inner world an untapped well.

Solitude, after all, is both fertile and fecund—a dark, deep, and mossy recess studded with gems. Your self is boring and inane only when you’re too busy, too hurried, or too harried to explore it properly. Given the time and opportunity to become acquainted with your own inner self, you’ll find an infinite font of secret wisdom there.

But this makes it sound mystic and aloof–a far-off, magical state–when what I’m talking about is much more mundane: a quiet couch and a cup of tea on a coffee table stacked with magazines. Nothing magical—nothing you couldn’t attain for yourself—if you simply said “No” to other obligations.

Natural light

Today my writing partner and I carpooled to Framingham State, where we spent a drizzly Saturday holding our own makeshift writing retreat. We’d done something similar last November, commandeering an empty classroom where we each claimed a spot to spread our laptops, notebooks, and snacks, committed to spending the day writing rather than compulsively checking email, mindlessly surfing the Web, or obsessing over our to-do lists. What we learned then still applies now: all you need to spend the day writing is a little peer pressure, a (relatively) distraction-free workspace, and the courage to carve out a day devoted to nothing but your own creative pursuits.

African violet leaves

Last November, my writing partner and I had little trouble finding an empty, unlocked classroom in May Hall, the main academic building at Framingham State. Today, however, we found campus nearly abandoned, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend not being the most popular time for people to study, write, or otherwise work. After realizing the classrooms in May Hall were locked, my office in O’Connor Hall was in the process of being painted, and both the library and student center were closed, my writing partner and I claimed the couches and end tables that transform the hallway outside the English department secretary’s office into a makeshift student lounge. It wasn’t the workplace we’d envisioned, but it served our purposes, there being electrical outlets for our laptops, lots of natural light streaming through tall windows, a proliferation of potted plants, and hours of uninterrupted quiet.

African violet leaves

Over lunch, my writing partner and I talked about how some folks think it’s strange that we choose to spend an entire day doing “nothing” but writing: what kind of wasteful, self-indulgent pursuit is that? Neither one of us is a “professional” writer, relying upon day jobs rather than our writing to keep us fed, and both of us struggle with the tension between writing to produce a “product” and writing as a kind of spiritual practice. If you write simply because you enjoy writing—if you write simply because it gives you a creative outlet you can’t find elsewhere—does it matter if you never produce a publishable, praise-winning, pay-earning piece?

Potted plant, second floor Women's restroom

Fittingly enough, one of the essays I worked on writing today compares Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Life Without Principle” with the Buddhist ideal of Right Livelihood, and I think Thoreau would have something to say on this tension between product and process. Thoreau’s thoughts on living and making a living have fascinated me for years, and the concept of Right Livelihood is one I perpetually struggle with: how do you achieve Right Livelihood when all the things that seem “right” to you don’t earn you a much of a “livelihood”? In re-reading Thoreau’s essay, I chuckled to encounter the following line:

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.

Natural light through African violet leaves

If I were to spend a rainy day in May Hall grading stacks of student papers, my colleagues would praise (and perhaps marvel at) my productivity, but if I spend the day struggling to write an essay I’m not sure will ever see the eyes of an actual audience, I must be a bit “off.” Who spends hours crafting blog-posts that earn comments but no actual currency, or writing a book that might not ever be finished, much less published?

First floor lounge

I have no doubt that Thoreau would have continued his “morning work” of writing in the morning and walking in the afternoon regardless of whether he was published or praised. During his lifetime, Thoreau was largely self-published: what living he earned came mainly from surveying and occasional lecturing, not book sales. But Thoreau kept writing because that’s what Thoreau did, so asking him not to write would be like asking the sparrows outside my window not to sing. Thoreau wrote not because he was pursuing the legitimacy that comes from producing a certain kind of product but because he believed the “aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work.”

Drizzly day

I wish we lived in a world where the things that feel “right” to me—writing and teaching and living a sane, balanced life—earned a living wage; I wish we lived in a world where people like Thoreau didn’t seem counter-cultural or curmudgeonly. But at the end of a full day spent writing, I feel more energized, encouraged, and inspired than I do at the end of a full day spent grading. Tenure-track professors engage in research and academic publishing because it presumably keeps their teaching alive and well-informed: how can you be a good, inspiring teacher if you haven’t had an original insight or idea in ages? This, to me, is part of why I write, even though the bloggish, entirely non-academic essays I produce don’t earn me any legitimacy in the academy. I write because at the end of a rainy day spent with my laptop on an almost-empty campus, I feel like it’s been a day well-spent.

Stata Center from Whitaker Building

I’ll admit it. In the aftermath of any mass shooting—particularly ones that happen on college campuses—I find myself harboring an occasional unsettling thought: could today be the day it happens here? On any given day when I’m driving to campus, making last minute plans for whatever I’m planning to do in class, I’ll occasionally wonder whether today is (as the Sioux battle cry goes) a good day to die.

Stata Center from Ames Street

When this thought arises, I’m usually en route to a campus where I teach and work: a campus, in other words, where I “need” to be, a campus where I know my way around, and a campus where I feel a responsibility to protect “my” students. When I’m wandering a campus that isn’t mine, on the other hand—a campus where I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know anyone, and I honestly have little business being—I’m not wondering whether today might be my last day on earth. Although being shot at work is senseless, at least there is an entirely sensible reason for being at work on an unlucky day. When you’re on your way to a writing retreat at a campus where you’ve been only one time before, however, you’re not wondering whether today might be the day when you’ll be at the wrong place at the right time. Being shot at work is senseless, but being shot at a place where didn’t truly have to be seems even more senseless.

Abstract

Today is the BRAWN writing retreat at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. BRAWN is the Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network—a group of Boston-based college writing instructors—and I went to their summer writing retreat last August, when we basically spent the day in a boring classroom at MIT working on nothing other than our own writing: a kind of creative peer pressure where you make a shared vow to write rather than endlessly checking email, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Reader. Today is the BRAWN writing retreat at MIT, and it’s also the day a person with a rifle and body armor was allegedly spotted nearby, sending the campus into a lockdown.

Ames Street, with Pru view

It turns out there was no such person…or if there was, he was just passing through. But before Cambridge police announced the “all clear,” my fellow retreatants and I did what any sane person would do: we retreated from campus to set up shop in a nearby café, where we spent the morning “sheltering in place” over croissants, hot beverages, and our writing projects.

“Sheltering in place” is an interesting term. It suggests that the safest place to be is right here, right now: given a vague report of a possible threat, the best thing to do is basically nothing: stay where you are, keep a low profile, and wait for the danger to pass. Many prey species instinctively shelter in place when something scares them: when one of our backyard blue jays cries “hawk,” for instance, the feeder birds automatically hunker down and the squirrels freeze in the trees. Whereas the natural human reaction in the face of danger is to turn tail and run, many prey species rely on stealth and camouflage to protect them: by remaining completely still, they play the odds that a threatening predator either won’t notice them or will choose to strike someone else.

Viewing through

There is, I suppose, an eerie similarity between spending a day on a retreat and spending a day sheltering in place. Both activities involve hunkering down where you are, anchoring yourself to your present location as a safe haven against possible threats. I think of Ulysses and his men lashing themselves to the mast of their ship: come what may, we won’t be moved. When you sit a meditation retreat, you emulate the Buddha’s decision to sit and stay under the Bodhi tree until he’d answered the question of why we’re born only to grow old, get sick, and die; when you participate in a writing retreat, you promise to remain glued to your seat until the day (or your writing) is done.

Wiesner Building

When you shelter in place, you trust that whatever threat is “Out There” can’t broach the borders of “In Here.” At today’s retreat, the three of us who had managed to arrive at our boring classroom before the full nature of the threat had been announced quickly decided to move off campus, sending an email to those who hadn’t yet arrived, telling them to meet us elsewhere. As we walked across one of MIT’s grassy quads, one of my fellow retreatants remarked, “I keep scanning the rooftops,” and at that moment I realized that something as simple as walking across campus becomes a bold move when you think there might be a gunman lurking somewhere, watching. As Annie Dillard remarks in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, quoting the medievalist Dorothy Dunnett, “There is no reply, in clear terrain, to an archer in cover.”

Rooftops

Call me morbid, but this isn’t the first time I’ve wondered what it would be like to be shot by a stranger. I first started meditating in the aftermath of the 1991 shooting in which six Thai Buddhist monks, a nun, and two other victims were killed in a temple in Arizona. We think of senseless mass shooting as being a recent phenomenon, and perhaps they have indeed increased in frequency and subsequent news coverage. But when I first started meditating at the Zen Buddhist temple in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, I often experienced a moment of panic when I vividly visualized a silent gunman creeping into the Buddha hall and methodically shooting each one of us in the back as we meditated, quietly (and quite helplessly) facing a wall.

London plane trees

The first time I went camping, I had a similar moment of panic, wondering what could stop a homicidal gunman from walking up to our tent and shooting straight at it, his bullet piercing both tent nylon and layers of sleeping bag before hitting the warm, vulnerable bodies therein. Again, this might sound like a morbid thought, but it’s not an entirely unrealistic one: in his book A Walk in the Woods, for instance, Bill Bryson recounts several murders that have happened on the Appalachian Trail, including the 1988 murder of Rebecca Wight, who was shot along with her partner while hiking in Pennsylvania.

This way

The practice of sheltering in place rests on the assumption that the world out there is more dangerous than the world in here; sitting a meditation retreat might lead you to question that assumption as you explore the layers of your own delusions. But when you’re pondering the possibility you’re on a campus with a gunman, you can solace yourself with odds and likelihoods, and one relevant statistic still remains: mortality always has the last word. A sniper’s bullet, a sudden heart attack, a prolonged illness: in the end, does it matter what hit you? When you’re shot by an arrow, the Buddha famously argued, it doesn’t matter who made the arrow out of what material or for what purpose: you’re dead all the same.

BRAWN Writing Retreat

Yesterday I almost got run over by a delivery truck while crossing a particularly tricky intersection by Symphony Hall. A group of pedestrians was crossing, and I was the laggard, walking in dress boots. Had I been hit by a truck that didn’t stop but instead thundered past just as I hurriedly stepped onto the curb, I would have been like a dawdling antelope snagged by a lurking lion: the rest of the herd would have continued on, either oblivious to my demise or secretly relieved it hadn’t befallen them.

After yesterday’s near miss, I looked at the photo I had taken seconds before stepping into that intersection near Symphony Hall and realized it could have been my last. Today at MIT, I took a handful of photos on my way to the BRAWN retreat, and fortunately it turns out that today at MIT was neither a good day nor a good place for me to die. Had today’s story turned out differently, however, this would have been my last shot before being shot.

Dreyfus Building

View from May Hall

Last Saturday, a friend and I held our own two-person writing retreat: a full day devoted to our writing. Calling the day a retreat makes it sound like we went somewhere exotic and inspiring: a cottage on the beach, perhaps, or a cabin in the woods. But I’ve learned that what you need to work on your writing isn’t a picturesque place but an absence of distractions. The secret isn’t what you add to your writing practice but what you take away.

Brick walkway

The inspiration for this writing retreat was twofold. First, we’d gotten the idea for a day-long writing retreat from the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s annual Fall Writer’s conference, which we’d attended when we first met more than a decade ago. After we’d attended this one-day conference several years in a row, my friend and I decided we hadn’t learned anything from the workshops and workshop leaders that we didn’t already know; instead, the conference was valuable primarily because it forced us to spend an entire day focused on nothing other than writing.

Whittemore Library oak tree

“There’s no reason we couldn’t schedule our own writing conference,” we decided years ago, declaring over hot beverages that all we’d need was to set aside a fall day, go somewhere we could write, and actually spend the day writing rather than talking about writing: no need for workshops, workshop leaders, registration fees, or anything else. Deciding we’d pursue our own version of “writing without teachers,” my friend and I promptly forgot about the idea, letting it fall into the neglected corner where well-intentioned but abandoned resolutions hide. Sometimes all a well-intentioned resolution needs, however, is enough time to quietly germinate and take root.

May Hall from quad

The second inspiration for this weekend’s bare-bones writing retreat was a similar one sponsored by the Boston Writing and Rhetoric Network this past August. BRAWN is a network of Boston-area college writing professionals—writing and rhetoric professors, writing center administrators, and the like—and the premise of the August retreat was plain and simple: given all the time and energy we spend focusing on our students’ writing, why not take a day to focus on our own?

Outside Whittemore Library

At that August retreat, a handful of my Boston-area colleagues and I gathered in a windowless classroom in MIT’s Stata Center, the leader writing “BRAWN Writing Retreat” on the chalkboard at the front of the room. That was all it took to transform Just Another Day into a Day Devoted to Writing. Just as writing a contract and checking in with a partner are all you need to keep you writing every day, sometimes showing up in a classroom with few distractions and promising to stay there all day, writing, is all it takes to get words on paper. You don’t need a cottage on the beach or a cabin in the woods to make a “writing retreat”: all you need is a commitment to keep your backside planted in your chair while you type, scribble, squint at the screen, or edit.

Natural light

So on Saturday morning, my writing partner and I carpooled to Framingham State, where we commandeered an empty classroom in a building where I’ve never taught. All you need for a writing retreat, I learned from that BRAWN retreat in August, is an empty room with desks and chairs, a plug for your laptop, and a commitment to spend the day writing rather than aimlessly checking email, Facebook, and Google Reader. In the morning, we claimed a room flooded with natural light that shone over long, narrow tables; my writing partner set up camp in the middle of the back row, and I spread out my things (carried in my faithful laptop bag) at the far end of the room, where I had a window view of a bronzed oak tree lit by morning sunlight.

Behind May Hall

After spending a few hours writing, we stopped for lunch, driving through a landscape of late autumn fields and sun-dappled woods to a haunted tavern in a nearby town, where we talked over omelets, iced tea, and club soda: food of the gods if you’ve spent the morning with only your own written words to entertain you. After lunch, we drove back to campus, where we claimed a second, less-drafty classroom, opening our laptops and arranging our things on a large conference table while golden light from several towering oak trees cast lingering shadows.

May Hall stairway

One of the things I’ve learned from sitting Zen retreats is that there is a certain kind of intimacy that comes from sharing silence. I’ve sat retreats alongside people whose name I didn’t know and whose voice I’d never heard, but by retreat’s end, I intimately knew the sound of their breathing, the slouch of their shoulders, or the way they slurped their soup. Something similar happens on a writing retreat, whether it’s a formal, organized thing or something casual you arrange with a friend. You grow accustomed to the rhythmic sound of fingers tapping laptop keys, the quiet pauses to re-read or re-consider a line, and the staccato burst of the backspace button deleting a word. On one Zen retreat, I could tell a longtime friend was having a difficult time because I could hear her clicking her meditation beads faster than usual, and on Saturday’s writing retreat, both my partner and I were attuned, I’m sure, to those moments when the other sat back and sighed or leaned forward in her seat to break off another square of dark chocolate: edible inspiration.

Room with a view

It doesn’t take a fancy setting to make a writing retreat: had my friend and I rented a cottage on the beach or a cabin in the woods, perhaps we would have been so distracted by the scenery, we wouldn’t have been attuned to the quiet rhythm of our own inner prose. Who wants to sit inside writing all day if either the beach or the woods beckon? All it takes to make a writing retreat is someone who will hold you to your commitment. For about a decade, my partner and I planned to spend a day writing, and having finally decided to do it this year, we each almost backed out at the last minute, blaming our to-do lists and an onslaught of other social commitments. The minute we’d settled into a plain but perfectly functional classroom at Framingham State on Saturday morning, however, I knew we’d made the right decision: after a workweek complicated by a hurricane, power outage, and interrupted Internet connection, it felt like a welcome relief to return to the sadly neglected page.

Exiting May Hall

So on Saturday I spent a bright and brisk November day inside looking out. I could have spent the day working: I certainly had plenty of things to do. I could have spent the day walking: it was a pretty enough day for it. Instead, I sat in an almost-empty classroom at Framingham State writing because a friend and I had made a promise, and after all these years of intending to retreat but never actually doing it, here we were, at last, taking a day to pause, step back, and devote time to something there typically aren’t enough hours in the day to do fully and without distraction.