Every October, I make the journey down I-5, across the plains of the Skagit Valley, through the bustle of Anacortes, to the ferry terminal. Last time, as I pulled onto the ferry, I found myself sandwiched between a semi and a large pick-up. It’s surreal, being in a car, on a boat, surrounded by traffic-to-be. When I’m asked where I’m headed, I reply “To a writer’s retreat on Orcas Island.” It seems like such an understatement.
As always, I climbed the stairs and stood at the front of the ferry until my face numbed and my ears burned. The wind wrung water from my eyes and cut through my jeans like they didn’t exist. Still I stayed. Each year, and again this one, the sun gleamed off the water and I began to remember.
Stepping Into a Different World
This place I live in holds such beauty and all it took was stepping onto that boat to feel the peace of the journey and the opening of my heart washing over me. For all I expected, I knew the next 4 days would undoubtedly be more than I expected. Connection, growth, tears, beauty: there is magic in the San Juans, undeniable and unpinnable.
Arriving at Doe Bay is a little bit like stepping into a different world. It’s quiet there in a different way than it’s quiet anywhere else, as if the din of the world is making concessions for growth. We each have places that feel like homes away from home, familiar, comfortable, and easy. Returning to them is taking a breath of fresh air when you’ve been inside for too long.
On Friday, we take our cues from Phil Elverum, exploring nostalgia and thinking about how we turn our lives into art without twisting it all up. In the afternoon, we turn to a different kind of looking back, finding inspiration in the words of Ocean Vuong.
On Saturday, I write a song with three new friends called The Happiness Lottery, inspired by a Miranda July story. It’s ridiculous and funny. We name our band The Low Bars and I provide the rhythm, poorly. We delve into fiction writing, poem writing, letter writing, song writing, learning from interesting people whose voices are lovely and earnest and real. In the evening, we hear them sing, yoga studio concerts at Write Doe Bay are like conversations, small, sweet, swaying songs and stories.
On Sunday, we bask in poetry, sunlit paper, and inspiration. I am split wide open. Douglas Cole shares stories like unintentional poetry, painting pictures with words about wrenches and bologna and what it means to be human. We relive unreachable moments and I cry. Every voice in the room sounds like art, rich and nuanced. I am surrounded and it is exactly what I need.
That night I dance, uninhibited, across the wood floor of the Yoga studio to Lizzo and Bon Jovi and Alanis Morisette. I’m hot, so I tie my shirt up and feel the air on my belly as we fling our arms wide and move together. We sit by a campfire and stay up late talking about vampire novels and puppies and who we are.
The Meaning of Life
Life lessons come from everywhere and nowhere. We are surrounded each day with hints and clues about why we’re here and what we’re meant to be doing. It took me a long time to realize the importance of finding sacred spaces and putting myself into them. I've always been a writer, but there's something different about finally being with the other always-beens.
If you haven’t done it, don’t waste another day. Think about your dreams, your passions, the things that speak to your heart. Surround yourself with souls whose song is harmonious with your own. I realize this may sound a little woo-woo to some people, a little too loosey-goosey hippy dippy. That’s okay, I used to think so too. Then I realized that sacred spaces exist wherever you find them, and they need not be fancy or big or even physical.
One of my first sacred spaces was the journalism classroom in high school, where I felt completely comfortable, surrounded by the other newspaper kids. Since then, I’ve found them in hotel conference rooms lined with tables, in discussion groups, at conventions, concerts, and book readings. One of my most familiar wasn’t a place at all, but a group of women who brought the same connection to the varied spaces we inhabited each month for 10 years.
Your sacred space may be anywhere. The metal warehouse, transformed from industrial to sensual when I passed through the curtain from the lobby into the dungeon. The little corner of the internet carved out by a group of women with polyamorous and witchy tendencies. Now, the Retreat House at Doe Bay Resort, filled with people from Washington, California, North Carolina, Amsterdam, filled with the knowledge that writing is not optional for us.
Spirituality need not be religious or formal. It is in vulnerability, in rooms where time stops to make room for human hearts to connect. It can be elusive, but the more you seek it, the easier you’ll find it. You deserve to feel it. You deserve to exist, whether it’s once a day or once a year, in a space where your desires are shared. The feeling of being in a room with kindred souls, passionate and raw, reaching for one another, is incomparable. It may just be the meaning of life.
It doesn’t have to be about creativity. It can be about the work you do, or about the things that inspire you. It can be about faith, love, or just your very favorite ways to spend time. It’s about remembering the things that you believe in and how they make you who you are.
The retreat ended on Monday morning with a very-Washington, grey-sky October plunge into the Salish Sea, a physical re-awakening to pair with the mind-altering experience of immersion in craft and creativity. We cemented our intentions in invigorating waters fresh with salt and promise.
It always ends, but at the same time, it never ends. It’s been over two years and two more workshops since my first trip to Write Doe Bay, and I’m already saving up for the next one. I’m still reeling. Each time, I have to prepare myself for re-entry.
The first year, when I talked to a friend about my experience, and I told him that I felt like the experience hadn’t ended. Somehow, though my body had returned home, the intensity in my heart and mind were still building.
The following year, I was prepared. I knew I’d return changed, and scheduled extra time for self-care. I took my time driving home, stopping for lunch with my new friend from the same town. I spent the night in a hotel with my best friend, where we laughed until we cried, cross stitched, and had cocktails in the hotel bar. I took the day off work and cuddled with my partner, our bed a decompression chamber to prevent the emotional bends.
If you have never been in a room filled with 20 other people who geek out over the same things you do, make it happen. Seek out those people who understand that you do what you do not because it’s a hobby, that you do it because you can’t not do it.
There is overwhelming relief in being understood.. To be physically touched, to speak my truth and touch someone’s heart; to be looked in the eyes and told my words are powerful, my voice is strong… these are not just memories. They are sparks.
Write Doe Bay is always in the little moments that become part of us right away. We write but moreso we share. Our stories, our struggles, our dreams, and our hearts. We laugh about imposter syndrome and discover we are from the same towns, went to the same colleges in Wisconsin, or came in the same socks. On the last day we share something we are grateful for, about the weekend, about the experience. My answer is community. Connection. That something brought me to that place 3 years ago feels like a gift and Jenn Furber feels like a magician.
Putting yourself in an unfamiliar situation is easier when you’re there for a purpose. My mind has been opened by everything that happens at Write, I’m left excited and further along a path that I’ve been afraid to travel. The hardest part of it all is coming home, changed in a world unchanged. I have to remember how to be in it.
It’s true that I can write anywhere. But intentional practice builds routine in such a short period of time. As with any loving relationship, my relationship with words and creating with them requires attention. The more I practice, the easier it flows. The more of that magic I find by sharing space with people who share the same drive to create and connect, the more alive I feel.