Sunday, 26 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Part 4

There is earth, wind, fire and water. And then there is Mandy Haggith. She is the fifth force of nature. And nuture. She is tiny but do not for one minute think she is weak. She is strong like a hurricane is strong. And then she is as gentle as a duckling’s feather.

She is passionate about the environment and has written a fabulous book called Paper Trails about the lifecycle of paper from trees to trash. Everything she says or does includes nature. She can’t help it. Several days during the week we were given opportunities to join Mandy on a walk. You got the impression that she was going even if no one went with her so you might as well join in. Some walks were long and others were just in front of the lodge. You never knew where she might take you. But one thing that never failed was her ability to ignite your sense of wonder, heighten every sense in your body like when you were a child doing and seeing everything for the very first time. She took me to places I never knew existed inside and outside of myself.

When she speaks with you she is so thoughtful and considerate. You never get the feeling she wants to interrupt you. Or hurry you along. She just absorbs you and ignites your passion in writing, in poetry, in nature, in people.

The exercises during the week were always optional. There were no rules except to be respectful of one another which just sounded like common sense to me. Mandy held a stream of consciousness writing session at 10 each morning. Some people came to all of them, 1 person came to none of them, others mixed it up a bit. These were followed a few times by writing exercises meant to get your brain thinking inside, outside, and all around the box with the ultimate goal of encouraging and enhancing your writing input and output.

I suppose at some point I could have doubted that any or all of it would work. But that wasn’t why I was there. My logical, left side of the brain told me you are all in, darlin’, give it all you got to give it or just go home with your head hangin’. That left side of the brain sometimes speaks with a Texan accent, just so you know.

So I threw myself all in. Three or four times during the week the afternoons were punctuated with “walks”. Mandy’s definition of a walk is quite broad. One day this was a wonder out around the front garden seeing, feeling, squashing, tasting (yes, eating). I fear a few of us were expecting something bigger (like a climb up the glorious and ominous Suilven mountain) but what an unexpected pleasure to find us just wandering around in front of the lodge and finding wonder so close to where we were. You mean I don’t have to go far to find inspiration? Gee, that never ever occurred to me.

One day’s walk did push me up the side of a mountain. We didn’t go all the way to the top just to the bothy. Bothy? “What the heck is a bothy?” I hear you say (if you’re not Scottish). I just went along with it and had a certain feeling in my bones that I would know it when I saw it. The walk started out easy if a bit muddy. But I had my hiking boots on so I was appropriately kitted out. There was something satisfying in getting the boots well and truly covered in the mud. And then the walk took a more sinister turn and we were walking up some steep bits but again the path seemed to have a staircase of stone placed there by the power of nature made especially for me to simply walk up. I was gasping for air but not because I was out of shape (ok, a little bit of that) but more because the views across the landscape were literally breathtaking. Who could have guessed that the world looked like that from there?

I was sweating like a stuffed pig. I had packed for the cold, wet Scottish weather everyone had warned me about and didn’t really bring any T-shirts with me. Plus this was a walk out into the wilderness and I’d read all the alarming literature about being prepared for the weather to change at a moment’s notice. The trouble was the sun was beating down on us and I was trying to keep pace with the keener walkers in the pack. These people walked for fun and entertainment. I walk when my car breaks down. Nope, don’t walk then either. I ring a taxi.

Just when I thought I couldn’t take another step a stone structure appeared before me. So, this is a bothy. The skies had suddenly turned dark and ominous and the heavens began to spit on us. As we went entered the bothy, the heavens opened up and it rained and hailed like I’ve never seen it before. Actually, like I’ve never heard it before. The bothy has a tin roof and when the squall convinced me a military fighter jet was hovering above. We broke out our packed lunches all individually packed at the lodge that morning. In my backpack I had tucked away a tin of sardines, some crackers, a wedge of cheese, some dried apple crisps, a pear and a Green & Black’s bar of chocolate. Mandy had brought some ginger beer for us all to share. It was the best picnic I’ve ever had. We talked about the sources of our inspiration and what blocks our creativity. We all signed the bothy book which is like a guest book and packed up our rubbish to take it back down the mountain. As we stepped outside, miraculously/magically the storm stopped and the sun won the battle against the darkness. The path was a lot muddier, the puddles a lot bigger and where there had been small trickles of stream large waterfalls where thundering down the mountain.

Returning to the lodge was easier than I expected and I found myself marching like a soldier headed home. I have no idea where this reserve of energy came from but I was turbo powered. But the real magic happened in the way Mandy chatted to each and every one of us about our lives and our relationship to writing. She was interested in each and everyone of us in our own, her own special way. When she listened to you, she gave you every ounce of her attention. When she gave you advice it was constructive and supportive and imminently relevant and useful.

Just as we stepped on to the slate stones of the lodge porch the rain started to spit down on us once again as if mother nature had grown weary of keeping the threatening weather at bay. We’d only been gone a few hours but it seemed like a lifetime. By body ached and my brain had an electricity storm of its own going on. I went to my room, changed into my cozy tartan slanket with feet. I returned to the lounge and sunk into a big leather chair with my book and began to read.

Next thing I knew a gentle hand was on my knee giving me a little wobble and a soft voice was asking me if maybe I wanted to get changed for dinner. I was slightly alarmed to find that the sun had set and people were gathering in the lounge for pre-dinner drinks. When I went to sit up it was clear that my body was not in an entirely happy place. There was no way I was going to be moving any more than was absolutely necessary. I went to dinner in my slanket. Then I went to bed. And then I went to sleep like a bear out for the full count of winter.

Which was in fact the exception to the rule. I had visions of wasting away my precious writing time with sleeping and reading. As a mother I find it difficult to carve out me time to sleep in on the weekend mornings or just laze about in the evenings with a good book. I was fearful that my sleep deprivation would catch up with me or the books I was reading (Dark Fire by C.J. Sansome and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld) would prevent me from focusing on my real mission of writing. But nothing could have been further from the truth.

On more occasion than I would like to admit, we would finish our after dinner readings and sharings, each made our own way to our own room. My brain would be full of everything I never knew was in there. I would sit down at the computer and the words would just tumble out of me. And it wasn’t just me. During the nights when the house turned quiet and the fire had died down a casual observer might have thought that everyone had gone to sleep. What they couldn’t appreciate was that our brains just didn’t turn off. Like a freight train hurtling at us without any brakes our minds would unleash themselves on to our laptops and we would frantically write to keep up with the avalanche of words coming out of us. It was like everything that Mandy said and everything that Mandy did and every word we heard and every emotion we’d ever felt purge when the silence of night descended. Nearly every one of us experienced the nighttime energy and produced seminal works in the wee small hours of the morning.

This was so much more than I could have expected, planned , hoped, dreamed, prayed, begged.  And it wasn’t over yet.

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