The Pull of Retreat

 

A few years ago, the place where I used to go for my solo writing retreats—the guesthouse of the Trappistine Monastery in Rogersville, New Brunswick—closed for good. I was devastated, but that’s a blog post for another time, perhaps entitled Lessons on Impermanence or Nothing Lasts Forever. We all deal with the transitory nature of the people and places of our lives, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Sigh.

I visited the monastery dozens of times over a period of eight years, and I always took the train from Halifax to New Brunswick. The six-hour ride gave me the time to “get ready” for the abrupt shift into quiet and solitude. I would often journal on the train, writing about things that had just happened in a purging sort of way, creating a clean slate for my time away. I would also simply stare out the window and sip my thermos of tea. It was the time I needed to shift from chronic doing into more of a simply “being” mode.

No matter what was going on back at home, by the time I arrived, unpacked, and had my first meal, I could feel myself begin to drop down into a gentler place, one with a slower, more thoughtful, and less encumbered rhythm.

Over the next few days, I would have the opportunity to listen to what wanted to be written and I would have the time and space to respond appropriately. I would nap when I needed to. I would walk into the fields when the urge hit.

Since the monastery guesthouse closed, I’d been searching for another place to do my retreats. And then Covid struck and that search ended.

Last Fall, a friend told me about a place—the Elizabeth Bishop House—that had recently re-opened to writers and artists for week-long retreats. It’s a farmhouse from the 1870’s that sits right on Hwy 2 in Great Village and it’s the place where the great poet herself lived with her grandparents from 1915-1917. As my friend sang the praises of the house, I decided to book a week-long, springtime visit for what felt like a much-needed writing retreat.

My partner and her kids drove me there on a Sunday afternoon last May. As they pulled out of the driveway, beeping and waving, I realized with a pang of sudden insecurity and loneliness, that this was the first time I had actually been truly alone since before Covid. I spent the rest of the day trying to gently pay attention to the strange mix of feelings inside me. For a whole hour, I was convinced I should call my partner to come and get me. I feel lonely and trapped and isolated. I crept through the house, opening curtains, peering at pictures on the walls and titles in the bookcase, trying to get a feel for the place.

I told myself it was okay to not write on the first day. To give myself time to settle in. I made myself a cup of tea and sat on the porch, just watching. There is a field behind the house and it was full of yellow flowers. A blossoming and fragrant apple tree sat just on the edge of the field and far in the distance, I could see the blue of Cobequid Bay. Bees buzzed. Butterflies floated. And the birds chirped.

I felt my body start to relax, and with it, my mind and my heart began to slowly release and unravel from some kind of a crazed manic coil – one that I hadn’t even been aware of. Sometimes it takes going away to realize where we have been and what we’ve been holding.

And that’s really the purpose of this blog post. To remind you that after all we’ve been through these past couple of years, you probably need a retreat too. It’s okay to let go of your responsibilities for a little while, even if it’s just for a day or a drive to the beach. It doesn’t have to be a writing retreat. And you don’t have to be alone. You know what you need. And this is me encouraging you to make it happen.

If you want to read more about my first trip to the Elizabeth Bishop House, check out the blog post I wrote after returning last May.

And now, a little book news and some pics!

If you live in Halifax or Dartmouth here in Nova Scotia, and want to support local, I’m excited to tell you that my book is available on the shelves of three local and esteemed independent book sellers: BookMark on Spring Garden Road, Woozles on Shirley Street, and Friction Books on Portland Street in Dartmouth. Hooray!

If you live elsewhere in Canada or in other parts of the world, please ask your local bookseller to carry it, and then let me know where it is available. You could even send me a photo of my book on the shelves of your local shop!

And finally, my book launch on October 16 at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia was absolutely wonderful! I felt so supported and buoyed by all the love in the room. It was palpable!

As you’ll see from the pics below, there was music by my dear friend George Woodhouse, cookies made by my sweet family, free book give-aways, one small person who practically stole the show, and supporters who stood in line for me to sign their book. I am still on a high, feeling very blessed and very grateful.

 

Author: Renée Hartleib