It started, innocuously enough, with a Facebook post in 2014. As an avid Facebook follower of my favorite fiction writer, Elizabeth Berg, I knew that though she usually was based in Chicago, she was spending that year with her best friend at her Mill Valley, Calif. home. I’d already taken advantage of her proximity by attending not one but TWO book signings she’d done earlier that year in the Bay Area.
But on this summer day in 2014, as I did my usual, passive Facebook scroll to see what was happening in the world, there it was—a Facebook post from Elizabeth Berg that had a huge impact on my life:
Attention all you writers who long for a beautiful place to have a writing retreat! I’m considering offering a writing workshop at a beautiful and incredibly peaceful retreat in California in early December …
Imagine if you will the sound of brakes squealing. That’s what happened in my head when I read that opening sentence. I, who lives just four hours away and has a birthday during the date range she was proposing! The last line of the post detailing the location and proposed event read as follows:
If you are interested, please let me know here on FB. The next step will be to announce that we have enough people who say they’re interested, and then you’d need to contact the retreat space to hold your place.
Of course, I didn’t hesitate. “Me! Me! I’m interested” I replied about 56 times and anxiously awaited the details of this tremendous opportunity.
So on Dec. 4, 2014, 12 women, including myself, found ourselves heading up the long, narrow, incredibly winding — I’m talking multiple hairpin turns around redwoods — road to a mansion nestled among the towering trees where we would spend the next four days writing and talking about writing with each other and our favorite writer. As I pulled up to the front door, a heart-shaped lawn and massive front porch greeted me, and it was as if I’d arrived on a movie set, the scene of a murder mystery, perhaps, or maybe a remake of Enchanted April.
I snagged a room on the third floor — the center room with a huge picture window overlooking the heart-shaped lawn — and headed down to the parlor where the rest of the ladies were arriving, helping themselves to cups of tea, and nervously buzzing about the weekend and meeting Elizabeth. Before long, a bell sounded, one of those big, handheld, brass bells that announces a meal. Dinner was served.
In the dining room, a glorious buffet of goodies, prepared with organic produce straight from the garden out back, lay before us. Adding to the magic were the strings of twinkling white lights decorating the fireplace, emphasizing the holiday season. We sat clustered around the two large tables nervously getting to know each other: Where are you from? What is it you do? Are you a writer? Tell me about that novel you’re working on!
We slept the sleep of the dead that night, and in the morning, as the sun rose, many of us found ourselves in the parlor or on that front porch — which was home to big, comfy rockers — writing in journals, sipping coffee, smelling the fresh, eucalyptus-scented air, and generally feeling very smug and pleased with ourselves for having come in the first place.
Our meals, each one more heavenly than the one before, appeared on the table promptly at 8:30, 12, and 6:30, without a sound, as if prepared by Keebler elves who’d scurried away before anyone could see them. Platters of cookies and bowls of fresh oranges — grown outside the door! — along with carafes of tea and coffee sat in the front hall all day for anyone who needed a break. Several folks took hikes on the nearby trails through the redwoods. Some went into town to shop for Christmas gifts. Most of us wrote — I at the huge and ornate table for 10 that sat at the far end of the parlor in front of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. In the evenings, we transitioned to wine and snacks, relaxing into the evening and, for some, sharing what the day’s work had produced.
And yes, Elizabeth came, just once as it happened, but on my birthday! She shared some trade secrets, answered questions, posed for pictures with us on those broad, sweeping front steps, and took a short walk with us around the property.
But the best part of the retreat wasn’t the writing I did — and I did do quite a lot — nor was it the scrumptious food, the daily wearing of yoga pants (YESSSS!), or even the visit from my favorite writer (And oh yes! She is so lovely!). It was the time I spent becoming friends with the women I spent those four days with.
It was just after lunch on that Friday that someone proposed we all gather in the parlor and get to know each other a bit. “Let’s talk about our writing, anything we’re working on,” someone suggested.
We sat in a circle, many of us on couches and chairs, others, like me, on the floor. We took turns one after the other, telling bits about ourselves and our writing. There was the one who managed to make any words that came out of her mouth funny. There was the wisecracking senior from Texas, the soft-voiced poet who’d grown up in Tennessee, the single woman from Seattle who loved to knit and had written a wickedly funny piece of women’s lit, and the PR gal from Maryland who was turning 50 that year and had resolved to make it her year of saying “YES!” We were married, single, divorcing, parents and nonparents. There was a young pregnant woman, a nursing mother, a single mother of a teenager, a retiree. As we went around the circle, there was laughter, but also many tears. We found ourselves revealing things that most people in our lives had taken months or even years to discover. Here we were, this group of strangers who had only met less than 24 hours previous, and we were sharing the pains of our childhoods, horrifying tales of abuses, the challenges of motherhood or marriage, and sorrows over tragic losses. But we also identified with each other as women in smaller ways, saw eye to eye on a shocking number of issues or topics. The reasons we’d all felt magnetically drawn to this one author were the reasons we’d felt drawn to each other. We were empathic women, in touch with our emotions, who felt the urge to connect with others and share them.
By the end of this magically restorative weekend, we felt a kinship with each other. There was no question that we would continue to return to this place at the same time each year and spend a weekend among the trees and each other.
This past December, I attended my fourth retreat. In that time, we women, who live scattered about the country, have checked in with each other constantly, via our Facebook group and through emails, over the little things — funny wine labels we’ve found while shopping, insightful quotes about writing, small and big achievements at work, or struggles in our writing. But also about the big things. When my dad had open-heart surgery, they offered me an outpouring of comforting words and thoughts. In these past three-plus years, we’ve seen each other through the loss of a parent, a breast cancer diagnosis, a job transition, a contentious divorce, a miscarriage, a pregnancy, and more, always with fierce love and determination to see each other through them.
Not all of us have returned each year. I’m fortunate that I’m close enough to the Bay Area that I can continue coming. Not all of us are this lucky, especially during December. Life has occasionally gotten in the way. Most have returned at least once, if not more than once. New folks — usually brought in by existing retreaters who “get” the energy and tone of the experience — have come and gone, always enriching us with their backgrounds and perspectives. We’ve even had one man attend, and he was just as wonderful. Each time we return, it’s like coming home. We reconnect as if no time has passed. We truly see each other and accept each other as we are. When we are there, our labels from home fall away. We aren’t simply wives, mothers, or members of the occupations which so often define us back home. We are only this group of women who love a writer, who wanted to write, and who saw something in each other, and those things have repeatedly brought us back.
It’s one of the few places I go in my life where I am utterly understood, respected, loved, and known. If you have never known this deeply comforting feeling, I urge you to find such a place, such a group of people, where you will know it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
So many of us mothers don’t grant ourselves this gift. There have been times when I’ve told people of how I go away for five days (we’ve since extended the length of the retreat), people say such silly things as, “Your husband lets you go for that long without him?” or “I would feel so guilty being gone from my kids that long,” and I can’t understand it. My husband never begrudges me this time or even one cent of the money it costs me. He encourages it because he knows the secret: I cannot be a good mother and give my all to my family if I don’t nurture myself. My daughter has come to respect this place, these people, and I know she’s thinking, “Someday, I could have this too.” I hope she does.
This place, these people, and this time of retreat all fill me up so much that the results benefit our whole family. As long as I am able, I will always do this thing for myself, and they wouldn’t dare suggest otherwise.
Whatever you can do for yourself — a spa weekend with girlfriends, a conference, a hike — do yourself a favor and take a retreat for yourself. Go someplace with people who know and honor you. Your soul will thank you.