September 21, 2015 § 1 Comment


I went to a writing retreat in eastern Oregon for nearly a month, a place called Playa. “Playa” means beach and the beach is that of a vast, mostly dry lake, whose waters are three miles away: all we could see from the residence was the yellow grasses, cakes of sand, birds big and small, and the smoky horizon.  There were wildfires to the north. Closer to home were green grass, roses and sunflowers, snakes and ducks. Behind my cabin, the other cabins and the lodge were mountains—dry sage-greens, grey rock, and lots of birds, coyotes and other creatures. It was very quiet, very remote and beautiful. I was given this great luxury, after one week of driving around with Charles, seeing mountains, waterfalls, lava, Ponderosa forests.

I got much work done—three novels nearly finished, though last night I had doubts, remembering the protagonist needs to care A LOT….about something, anything, a glass of water (Vonnegut)…can I remember what that feels like? Can I drop the self-protectiveness?

then dreams about a place like Playa, though with more sex and more dishes (it’s always something). The real Playa was not about the social/sexual/money-making concerns of adult life but was more like exuberance of childhood when you know that nothing matters more than serious play. I felt embraced by the company of others who also left their usual problems at home and were almost always in a good mood. It occurred to me, after a couple of weeks, that I hadn’t been in a rage since I left New York. No swearing, no wanting to knife the guy ahead of me, throw the phone out the window, none of that. A little shortness of breath (it’s high altitude), some longing for the cats, occasional hunger for chocolate or theater—but no rage.

Writing as serious play is something I’ve been lucky enough to spend my life at, though the last several years have been mostly dry. A rush of poems in 2011 led to a chapbook, then fits and starts, working and reworking the same material, feeling that I had nothing to say, or nothing I was willing to say. My previous writing retreat (two years ago!) was the last time I was deeply engaged. I’ve already misplaced much of the commitment and joy I felt there, but now know I can get it back.

In the morning, the horizon was startlingly white, like a band of salt, and it was cool. At sunset, a stripe of bright gold set off a scribble of blue mountains–as in so much of America, miles of wilderness where nobody lives except the ten thousand thousand species that get by without history. It was hot most of the day with a vast hum of bugs, especially in the evening as we attempted to sit on porches. The coyotes howled, Deb told bear stories, Cai told rattlesnake stories, Mel made a chocolate cake and the hawks landed on the railing of my porch, dribbling feathers.

One night we lay out on the playa, looking at stars. They have more there than in upstate New York or New Hampshire. They have a few extra galaxies—maybe a universe or two—and so close. The stars were smeared all over the sky like snow sticking to a windshield. We talked about this and that, and we wrote with barely any effort at all.

Okay, some effort. Easier than writing this.

And now a poem by William Stafford. I can’t get the spacing right–go look it up if you want.

An Oregon Message

When we first moved here, pulled

the trees in around us, curled

our backs to the wind, no one

had ever hit the moon—no one.

Now our trees are safer than the stars,

and only other people’s neglect

is our precious and abiding shell,

pierced by meteors, radar, and the telephone.

From our snug place we shout

religiously for attention, in order to hide:

only silence or evasion will bring

dangerous notice, the hovering hawk

of the state, or the sudden quiet stare

and fatal estimate of an alerted neighbor.

This message we smuggle out in

its plain cover, to be opened

quietly: Friends everywhere—

we are alive! Those moon rockets

have missed millions of secret

places! Best wishes.

Burn this.



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