The Biggest Sky

I’m back from living under the biggest sky ever. Playa,* a retreat for artists, writers, and other creatives, granted me precious time in silence in the midst of a stunning landscape. I have to say, Oregon is my new favorite state (next to Indiana, of course).

My first morning at Playa, I walked this mown path through the grass.

Morning walk in the high desert.

Morning walk in the high desert.

To my left was Summer Lake, the “playa” (defined as “a temporary lake, or its dry often salty bed, in a desert basin“). To my right, beyond the road, was a smallish mountain range known as Winter Ridge. The vistas pretty much gobsmacked this Midwestern girl.

This was the view from my deck. I ate, read, wrote, and practiced yoga outside, shaded by two friendly trees.

My deck looked out over a pond. Who needs TV when you've got birds, dragonflies, jumping fish, and the occasional muskrat to watch?

Who needs TV or Internet when you’ve got birds, dragonflies, jumping fish, and the occasional muskrat to watch?

Pond life provided constant diversion, fodder, and entertainment. The jingles of my avian companions kept me humming all day. (I decided the redwing blackbird says, in French, Bon, vas-y! and in English, Look at meee, yeah!)

Every day I explored my interior and exterior worlds.

Walking on the mud flats.

Walking on the mud flats.

I was (and still am) overwhelmed with gratitude for such a gift.

An unexpected bonus  was connecting with so many incredible people, all in love with the natural world, all devoted to seeking, listening, experimenting, creating. In an upcoming post I will share a little bit about my co-residents, who inspired me almost as much as the wide-open space.

*Are you a writer, artist, naturalist, or researcher who would benefit from time away from routine demands? I would encourage you to apply for a residency at Playa. The program offers a combination of seclusion and conviviality in an absolutely gorgeous desert landscape. You won’t regret it, if you have the chance to go.

Gail Needleman: We Are Not Monads

Second in a Series on my Mesa Refuge Cohorts

Gail Needleman came to Mesa Refuge to sort through years of notes.

Photo by Brandon Geisbrecht, via flickr Commons

Photo by Brandon Geisbrecht, via flickr Commons

A pianist and university professor, Gail was working on a book based on her musings and observations about music. Music not as some optional add-on, or the product of a professional, but absolutely essential to our souls. She sequestered herself in the upper room and got to it.

I have to say I was itching to be a mouse in her pocket, because I love sorting through tidbits and insights.

Her advice to writers: Do not make notes in tiny notebooks; you will regret it later. (She teasingly scolded me for my habit of scribbling in a little notebook, but I love my wee notebooks!)

An interview she gave to Works and Conversations magazine is called Music is Something You Do. In it she mourns the trend toward music as performance instead of communal expression—effectively cutting us off from the healing power of our own voices.

She says it’s quite a modern idea to experience the self as a “monad,” a self-contained unit, separate from others. “And music, the most communal of human activities or arts, becomes those billboards with the person with the iPod dancing to music that no one else can hear.”

Photo by Thomas Neilsen, via flickr Commons

Photo by Thomas Nielsen, via flickr Commons

I love her story of the children’s game “Lemonade,” a call and response song-game. It includes the line “Give us some—don’t be afraid” before the child in the middle pretends to pour lemonade, and the others gather around and hold up their cups. Gail thinks this is about breaking the barrier between individual and group.

“It was just a very simple example of how in making music together, the barriers between people go down…We’re armored most of the time, even to ourselves, but certainly to others.”

Gail brought a dry wit and down-to-earth sensibility to our dinner table conversations. Her warmth and wisdom made me treasure her presence. One evening she advised us younger women, all prone to burnout from taking on too much, that “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you must.” She told of a time when she was in charge of an event and had many demands on her. The line she used, which I intend to borrow, was “Is this a question only I can answer?”

One night when we gathered by the woodstove, she sang a beautiful song that had us all mesmerized, especially her smitten husband.

Jerry and Gail Needleman on our last evening as Mesa Refuge residents

Jerry and Gail Needleman on our last evening as Mesa Refuge residents

It’s almost impossible to write about Gail without mentioning husband Jerry (philosophy professor Jacob Needleman, also in residence), and vice versa. The two are so clearly and completely meant for each other. It’s beautiful to see the love and trust between them—not to mention their lively sense of fun. Each seems to be the other’s biggest fan.

On the last evening she read from her work in progress, which she had been so reticent about discussing, and again held us spellbound. Her handwritten pages were pure poetry. I can’t wait for her book.

Respite

I’m back from Mesa Refuge,* where I had 10 days to write, read, reflect, and draw inward. It was heavenly to leave the smartphone in a drawer for most of that time, and to let my social media accounts languish.

It was a time of exploration. I explored through my writing every day, starting early in the morning and working late into the night in my private writing shed. From this window I spied deer, quail, rabbits, hummingbirds, juncos, redtailed hawks, vultures, egrets, white pelicans, and many other waterbirds and songbirds I couldn’t identify.

My writing shed  overlooked a Tomales Bay tidal estuary, where San Andreas fault lies.

The shed overlooks a Tomales Bay tidal estuary. San Andreas fault runs through this wetland. Mesa Refuge is “a place for writing on the edge”–and this shed is situated on the edge of the North American Plate, looking across to the Pacific Plate.

I explored the nearby town of Point Reyes Station. Not one but two yoga studios serve the tiny populace, and the farmers market brings everyone out each Saturday.

Point Reyes Station Farmers Market

Point Reyes Station Farmers Market

And once I ventured out in a borrowed pickup truck to one of the many wild places near the refuge.

Path to Abbott's Lagoon, Point Reyes National Seashore

Path to Abbott’s Lagoon, Point Reyes National Seashore

This was one of my favorite days.

Abbott's Lagoon

Abbott’s Lagoon

I relished the solitude and quiet that are so rare in workaday life. It felt like a privilege.

Beyond Abbott's Lagoon: The Pacific.

Beyond Abbott’s Lagoon: The Pacific.

But there was conviviality along with the solitude. I spent many of the evenings in conversation with the brilliant writers who were in residence with me. In coming weeks I plan to feature each of these writers and their crucial work.

I also decided to spend some time sitting in nature each day, now that I’m home. Here in my city, the hummingbirds are long gone and there are no dramatic cliffs or hypnotic ocean waves, but the leaves are turning and the songbirds are still as vociferous as ever. Heartland beauty may be subtler than West Coast beauty, but it still fills me.

*Are you a nonfiction writer whose work touches on nature, economics, and social justice? I would encourage you to apply for a residency at Mesa Refuge. It is a phenomenal place to write.