I am at Norcroft, a magical writing retreat for women on the shore of Lake Superior. Time passes slowly. I savor every moment. This is what life is at its fullest.
Our writing sheds invite us to shed something. They’re verbs. We can shed our inhibitions, our editor, our ideas of proper form, our past, our future, our hungers, our goals, our crutches, our dreams, our worries. One thing we cannot shed is the earth. It reverberates outside our windows. Our sheds are also nouns, places where tools are stored: a net to catch the fishes of the brain, a camera of the eye to snap the burnished moment, a finger to write in the dirt, a ball cap to shade out intrusions and mind-games, a shawl to contain the intensity of an idea. I keep whatever I want in there, even a pen. But certainly not a computer. Be brave. Be a Luddite. That’s what I always say. Write on birch bark.
Basho’s book of haiku is titled The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Leaving Route 61, I arrive here and find that the narrow road becomes a path, then a pigtail, stopping at my writing shed. Indeed the deep North, the end of the line, the snowdrift. I imagine myself spending a whole year in here, time-bound, snowbound, watching the sun move across the horizon, seeing moons wax and wane and the seasons change. Someone brings food to my door each day: mushrooms, berries, and sassafras tea, with bunches of cattails and snowballs.
Beginner’s mind on the spiritual path: having reached mastery, give it up in order to begin again. What is beginner’s mind on the writing path? I think it may be getting out of my words, stopping living in my head so that I can listen to the earth, hear what its language is this day, touch rough bark, see the stillness, taste the breeze, smell autumn’s musk. Haiku should work. Get out of my metaphors!
My shed is my monastery where the liturgy of the hours is sung: lauds a stretch and a yawn, vespers an offering up of the Muse’s treasures, compline a love song to that same Muse. Oh, and if I dare, I’ll sing vigils in the dead of night, sing softly, then loudly in the gloom, watching for the fingernail moon and the glinting chips of stars in the Northern sky.
My wild voice is searching for the shinings and shimmerings that make the words that make the wildness. Her appetite will not be satisfied by a small cup of peach tea and a round rice cake in a proper writing shed where the sun makes a square on the longest writing desk ever. No dictionary or thesaurus could ever contain such dazzling essence. Here’s hoping she finds it.
A gnarled black dancing woman with a dolphin’s tail performs each day outside my writing shed. A sinewy woman, wrapped in silence. I wish I could reach her, but we’re separated by a sea of strange vegetation. If I could, she would disappear anyway, disguising herself as an old rotten tree branch. Why won’t she fly South for the winter? She seems out of place in the chill of the Northland. But the time for migration has passed. She must know what she is doing.
A dream-catcher tree branch feathered with leaves and woven with slim maple shoots also hangs outside my shed. What dreams will it catch? Mine? Those of the other women who will write in this shed?
The silver birches near my shed drop me daily gifts: curls of paper on the path. Which is the giver, the birch or the breeze? Or both? Thank you. I will write haiku on them and give them away as gifts.
Curls of silver birch
drop in the path to my shed,
small gifts of the breeze
Oh, so it was the breeze, then? Thank you. Or was it the path?
Liquid sun fingers dart lightly in and out of patches of woods. They delicately tap and touch here and there, inviting trees and me to dance, to bask, to inhale their pale cream. Sometimes I lie on my back on the ground and photograph the tops of the birches, or their strong, splendid, curly trunks. Everything stays silent. I am glad.
Paulette, our caretaker, has a term, “good lake,” that she uses when Lake Superior is glistening and glittering, with giant waves erupting onto the rocks below the gazebo. It’s not the same as “Good dog, down, girl” Just the opposite. The lake stirs you to a frenzy of—what? Creativity, intention, belief in the goodness of life—whatever makes you ecstatic, whatever makes you dance. I write
Waves slam into shore:
the Goddess is running a bath:
I wait and wait, finger frozen on camera button, for the perfect wave to hit the shore and spray up high. A couple of times I snap and just miss it. They say that timing is everything. I think of not being able to center on the potter’s wheel or enter a circling jump rope without tripping. Some divine force should nudge me at just the right nanosecond or kairos moment. Nanosecond: one-billionth of a second. If I don’t “get it,” then what? There’s always the camera of the soul. There’s always haiku.
Mardi goes into the lake for a bath. It’s almost October, for heaven’s sake. It’s 50 degrees in the lake. Penny tries to go in, but makes the mistake of putting her feet in first. Her feet say no. Mardi explains that one’s going-in has to be all of a piece, Yes, that’s sound advice. Most likely I’ll stay on shore and miss “it.”
Carol-Jean calls her circle of closest friends her heart-mates. I’d like to have heart-mates, too, here at Norcroft: the “good lake,” a fox, an otter, definitely a moose, a silver-robed birch tree, and maybe, just maybe, a couple of bears. After all, this is the Northland. I haven’t seen them all yet, these heart-mates. But I’ll be looking. They are here. And they’ll still be my mates, no matter what.
I’m putting pen to paper these days, but I am not sure it is I who am writing. It seems that these things are being written in me, through me. I am learning to be, be a beginner, be open, be wild, be lone. This Nunavut landscape is surely doing its work in me.
Sue Spirit writes poetry and essays about nature, spirituality, writing, and travel. She has a little log cabin in the North Carolina mountains and a retreat center, Degrees of Freedom, in Ohio. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.