This piece is dedicated to the Ralston Writers, those 11 strangers I now call friends. It reminds me of our time in that wonderful old house–getting to know each other, ourselves and learning to appreciate the moment.
I watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the second time. Always interesting how you can see so many different things the second time around. I don’t usually like to watch movies more than once (unless of course it’s Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses, or Date Night), but this time I consciously told myself to observe the settings in the film. And of course, I focused on the furniture and the hotel architecture. Even though the hotel was somewhat rundown, the furniture seemed so functional yet relaxing. The hanging basket chair in the yard and another outdoor wicker chair nearby. And, yes, it had an ottoman. This made me yearn for a yard without neighbors 6 feet away, a concrete company banging on their trucks all day and noisy cars racing back and forth on the street (another 6 feet away). Come to think of it, I had this scenario when I attended a writing retreat created by author Elizabeth Berg at a beautiful mansion just North of San Francisco.
We, myself and 11 other women from all different parts of the US, had our own Best Exotic Marigold Hotel via the Ralston White Retreat House. A gorgeous, old, home with so many bedrooms we got lost trying to count them. For a design junkie like me, moving from room to room was like being a child let loose in a toy store given the chance to choose anything she wanted. Each room was like it’s own little treasure, just like this gorgeous piece.
At first glance, each room seemed pretty basic. A bed or two, and a bathroom if you were lucky. Some even had balconies (we liked to call them verandahs) that were perfect for hanging out on when you needed a new fresh space to write. However, as I learned more about these women, I began to realize it wasn’t just the house and this perfect space I’d been given, it was the overall opportunity that was a found treasure. The opportunity to recharge, connect and renew. No demands on me, food prepared for me, time to think, time to listen to my own voice, time to actually hear what I’d been saying to myself for a while now.
The house was nestled in the Redwoods; mist settling in over Mt. Tamalpais every day. It was beautiful, but a little creepy sometimes. I was certain Edward from Twilight was going to fly out of those giant trees right onto my verandah. At night, the darkness and unidentifiable sounds from the woods limited my time spent on the verandah. I’m used to the bright lights and big city now and I need to make more opportunities to learn about the dark and settle into it.
It’s still so very hard to try to articulate the magic that occurred within this house and among these 12 strangers. All of us signed up for the same ride–4 days in a quiet, remote place that would allow us to spend time in our own heads, writing, and also sharing this time with like-minded writers. I was somewhat surprised and uncertain about the lack of agenda for the days ahead. No meetings, no scheduled times together other than meals, come and go as you please, stay in, go out, interact, become a hermit, whatever you fancied would be fine with the group. For me, traveling from Chicago to SF seemed like a long way to have such a free-flowing non-agenda. I’m most definitely a type A personality and need to know ahead of time that what I’m planning is worth while and will have some sort of pay-off in the end. I’m certain this trip was when I began working on the patience I would need in 2015– in December of 2014. The “little birdie in my ear” that helped me with that patience was Elizabeth Berg herself. I had accidentally met her about a month before the retreat at my local bookstore. She was very excited to hear I was headed there and told me to remind her, to remind our retreat group that there should be no pressure at a retreat to force the writing. Often times, she said, she herself just relaxes and does a lot of reading on retreats. Although I wanted to question her and say, “but it’s a writing retreat, doesn’t that require writing?”, I refrained. I kept her tip in my head and just tried to focus on the moment, whatever that happened to be.
Boy were you right, Elizabeth. I learned there is a real difference between quality and quantity. By listening, quieting my mind, and all-in-all just being with these women, I was able to learn so much more about writing than I ever thought possible. I wrote just 2 small scenes for my book while I was there. I say just, but the feedback I received was enough to encourage me and give me the strength to move forward. The reason I was able to do this, though, was because I was present. I know this is sounding all Kum-bah-Ya and everything, but it’s true. Taking yourself out of your daily element where your mind and body are competing with all the tasks of your typical day is so important. For me it has meant the difference between solely completing the mundane tasks like dishes, cleaning, and laundry, to moving myself forward through those tasks and into that thing that I know is in me, writing.
There is now a Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a sequel. And although I loathe sequels, this one was as good as or better than the first. I’m taking this as a sign that the Ralston Writers next retreat (already scheduled and booked)can only be a bigger success than the last.