We all lost an hour, but I gained a year in California


When the time changed last Sunday, I was in California. It happened to be my birthday, so I not only lost an hour of sleep but added a year to my age. Now I’m a nice even number.
 
When you’re my age, birthdays aren’t what they used to be. My mother, who used to make sure birthdays were special, has been gone for almost 12 years, and my husband, who did his fumbling best, has also passed away. My dog doesn’t do birthdays. In recent years, I have had some great celebrations with my friends and some quiet ones with myself. Many years I have bought myself a tiny cake and eaten it alone, but don’t cry for me, Argentina. I enjoyed every bite.
This year, I found myself in California with the family. I had heard about a poetry workshop that sounded wonderful, realized I could arrange the time off from work to do it, and could combine it with a visit with Dad, whom I last saw at the hospital after his heart surgery in December. The fact that my birthday fell on the day after the workshop was a coincidence.
Dad is doing great, by the way. The sparkle is back in his blue eyes, and he mowed the lawns while I was at my workshop. The fact that he feels well enough to do yard work again is a darned good birthday present. Anyway, it was Sunday. We got up early and went to church at St. Martin’s. Then we took our usual trip to the cemetery to visit Mom and the rest of the gang.
By then, my brother and his wife were on their way. After they arrived and I opened my gift of scarves and fuzzy socks, we sat around and talked a bit, debated a while over where to have lunch, and ended up at Red Lobster. It’s a lot more expensive than the commercials imply, but the food was fabulous. After gorging on shrimp and lobster linguini, I was encouraged to order dessert. My red velvet cake in a jar—seriously cute—arrived with a single lighted candle on top, and the servers sang “Happy birthday.” I heard my sister-in-law, brother and father singing along, a first. Unlike me, they don’t sing. So nice.
Back home, I talked to my lifelong friend Sherri on the phone. She moved to Texas three years ago. She’s about six weeks older than I am, and we always call each other on our birthdays. We had a great talk, although she had sad news. Her old dog Gus died. She has a new pooch named Pepsi. Much worse, her older brother is dying of cancer. Nuts. Getting old is tough. I was sitting in the patio looking out at the lawn and reminded her of those summer evenings when we used to play badminton out there until it got so dark we couldn’t see the birdie. I can still feel the grass on my bare feet and the moths rising up around us. Those were the days, we agreed. No troubles, at least none that mattered. Thank God we’re still friends.

My sweetest birthday gift was the one I gave myself, that poetry workshop led by Ellen Bass and Roger Housden. If you’re into poetry, check them out. Great people, great poems, great workshops. Of course Dad’s response was “Poetry???? What do you get out of that?” Never mind. The workshop took place at Dominican University in San Rafael, which happens to be where I attended one of my first writing conferences in the 1970s and won first prize in the poetry contest. So, I had good memories. Of course, nothing looks the same and the drive through Bay Area traffic added a few gray hairs, but Dominican is still a quiet world of trees and squirrels and stately old buildings.
For seven hours, we poets talked, wrote and shared what we wrote. We could write anywhere we wanted, so people spread out on the lawn, the stairs, and the benches scattered around. Most of us were boomers, nearly all women about my age who knew the value of a day with nothing pulling at us. We had time to think, time to write, and time to make new friends. Two of us were celebrating birthdays on Saturday, and mine was Sunday. Lots of Pisces are poets. For me, that day was the perfect gift.
So, I have survived another birthday in good health. And the Facebook good wishes are still pouring in. Thank you to everyone. I am blessed.
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Retreat and re-entry: coming back from Fishtrap


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Two weeks ago today, I had just arrived at Fishtrap, a weeklong writing workshop at Wallowa Lake, near Joseph, Oregon. Sleeping in yurts and tents in a Methodist campground, we spent our days attending workshops, writing, thinking, making new friends and listening to great writers read their works.
Fishtrap is really a retreat combined with a workshop. I often think I don’t need a retreat. Why go somewhere else when I already live alone in the woods? I don’t need to go into isolation somewhere else. But Fishtrapoffers things I don’t have here, like great teachers and other people to eat with, talk with, and write with. It’s like finding a whole bunch of people to play with who like to do the same things I do. In the outside world, we might look like geeks sitting around writing, but not at Fishtrap.
It also offers me a chance to unplug. Literally. Normally I’m online all day and watching TV all evening. It’s a major eater of my time and a huge distraction. I also play a lot—too much—Spider Solitaire (don’t start, you’ll get hooked!). We had no Wi-Fi, no cell phone reception, no TV. Without them, I suddenly had lots of time to write, read and play music.
Back home, people ask “How was your trip?” I say “Good,” which doesn’t begin to describe it, and then we move on to the business at hand. In fact, yesterday my boss didn’t even mention my trip. He just started barking orders. Fine. He can’t disturb that peace inside me.
Imagine sitting by a river in the sun, with only other writers, deer, squirrels, Stellar Jays and robins for company, writing with paper and pen until a soft gong calls us back to the patio to talk about our poems and, by extension, our lives. Fishtrap was not a total retreat. We had classes and homework and a schedule, but we left everything at home behind. I could take the time to meditate on the bark of a tree for as long as I needed to truly see it. And then I could write a poem about it.
Of course there are inconveniences. Every time I went into town, I discovered I had book orders that I needed to fill before I got home. (I don’t know why I’m suddenly getting so many orders, but keep them coming. Visit http://www.suelick.com/Products.html) I had plenty of books in my car, but filling an order away from home meant finding a computer connected to a printer to print out the paperwork, putting together books, packaging, mailing labels and tape and getting the packages to the local post offices. It’s easy at home, but quite a challenge on the road. I’m thinking of recruiting someone to manage my Blue Hydrangea Productions business while I’m gone on future trips. Any volunteers?
Aside from the books, nothing else from home mattered. If something major happened, my family knew where to reach me, but otherwise, I could forget about everything. I didn’t have to cook; I showed up three times a day for fabulous food— French toast, pancakes, eggs and bacon, lasagna, fajitas, fried chicken, salads, fresh fruit, cookies, brownies, strawberry shortcake . . . and I got plenty of exercise to work off the calories. I didn’t have to take care of my dog, wash dishes or clothes, or deal with the massive piles of unfinished work that nags at me. I could just read, write, play music, do yoga, explore, eat, and sleep.
Before I came home, I went to Montana to do some research. I did turn on the TV, radio and Internet, but I kept that peaceful feeling and was conscious of not filling my mind with junk. I could and did turn them off and continued to write.
As I got closer to home, I started feeling the pain of reentry. Time to face all those things I put into the “after Fishtrap” category. I had hundreds of emails to deal with, tons of photos and pages of writing to process, meetings coming up, music to prepare, company coming, bills to pay, the dog wanting all my attention, and of course the need to come up with my own food. But I came home with a clear mind and thoughts about how to make my everyday life better. I’m looking at everything with fresh eyes. That’s a value of a retreat.
I long for the simplicity of my yurt, one room with only the things that fit in my car, and only the Fishtrap schedule to control my time. But I’m also enjoying sleeping in my own bed, snuggling with my dog, choosing my own food, reconnecting with my friends, and getting back to work. The challenge is to keep that peaceful, pared-down feeling at home every day. It is possible. I’m sure of it.