For the last few winters, I’ve offered up my blog as a place for other writers to share. I’ve spent a few weeks posting their words while I’ve focused on my own writing. This year, I’ve asked Haven alum to write a short piece describing something they’ve learned or a way they’ve transformed through our writing retreats. I’ll be sharing two pieces per post over the next couple of weeks. This is the third post, written by Katie Crane and Sharley Bryce.
Haven by Katie Crane
As I remember it, Laura asked us to write two pieces, one fictionalized, one true, in the manner of diary entries written the day the events occurred. After reading our pieces aloud, the group would guess which story was real and which fabricated. At the retreat’s outset, I decided to use as many exercises as possible to write about my father, who had died five years earlier. I still harbor grief about his death, and I figured writing about him might help me process it. Of the two pieces I wrote for this exercise, the first could have occurred but did not. It involved my dad driving in a violent rainstorm trying to disguise his fear of the conditions by telling me a story about one of his life insurance clients who had undergone a sex change. My dad actually had such a client, and he actually did revise umpteen documents to note the change from Dale to Deborah. My dad also drove through his share of rainstorms, and when I was present, he always would try to mask his anxiety by acting calm and distracting us both with a story. But my dad didn’t tell me about Dale/Deborah while simultaneously driving through a rainstorm. Could have happened but didn’t.
My other piece—well, that’s a different matter entirely.
I wrote about my dad’s final night, as my older brother, his wife, my husband and I stood vigil in the hospital. That night was one of the most poignant experiences of my life; I remember it with unparalleled clarity. What struck me most was his sense of acceptance—of his life’s accomplishments or lack thereof, of life itself and thus the necessity of death. My dad always had feared his own mortality, so much so that he’d had a nervous breakdown five years prior at the prospect of radical surgery for his prostate cancer. Yet I believe my dad, by that final evening, had achieved a measure of peace with death. I like to imagine it was because he had two of his four children by his side and possessed a sense that his life, however it had turned out and regardless of his successes or failures, was enough. I will cherish that night for the rest of my days, because it allowed me to see a man formerly plagued by fear—a man I resemble in many respects—achieve peace. It showed me serenity is possible, and that is the greatest gift he ever gave me.
Everyone in the group guessed that the latter story was true.
I was able to realize the meaning of my father’s gift through writing about it at Haven. Haven allowed me to crystallize the experience and turn it into a narrative. Further, it highlighted that by learning to translate one’s experiences into authentic narratives, there is a way to achieve peace and freedom in this lifetime. That, dear Haven, was your gift to me.
Haven by Sharley Bryce
Circling memories come and go of times and places and companions. One memorable experience came to me recently. To this day, I ponder just how it all got started. After reading a book I couldn’t put down, but didn’t want to finish either; at the end, I held it in my hands in total reflection. The author, Laura Munson, was pictured, and my sense was that she was someone I already knew. I think I emailed her to thank her. Some time passed. What stayed with me was how honest the book was. When I decided to attend her writing retreat in Montana, I was filled with the anticipation of meeting someone as honest as I think I am, and finding out how to put real life thoughts into words and down on paper.
Participants’ names and email addresses were sent to us, so, I picked one and wrote her to meet up and arrive together. At the airport, I heard my name and turned, and there was a younger woman with sparkly eyes so happy to meet me! We went to the grocery store to select snack items. I wondered if you can tell anything about a person by what snacks they enjoy. Was I worried I wouldn’t relate to the people? It wasn’t fear of the unknown as much as it was curiosity about just what the next four days were going to be like, and the reach for myself.
Once at the ranch, after getting settled, there was a unique mix of individuals watching and waiting. The ambiance was comforting: wood paneled walls, a fireplace, comfortable chairs, a sun porch, and another long narrow room with a wall of windows looking out to a lake, and… a piano! Amazing smells came out of the kitchen overlooking a tended garden of vegetables, herbs and flowers. I was struck that my feelings were more of excited anticipation than of expectation. This was going to be interesting!
The ensuing days were devoted to writing prompts that were timed, sharing around the circle reading aloud to one another what we wrote, and spending time outdoors. Reading my most heartfelt piece, about loneliness, I looked up to find three women sitting on the floor just near me, quietly weeping. Little did I know this kind of connection could happen because of something I wrote!
Growing up, I had done lots of horseback riding, but nothing and no one had prepared me for the special experience of being in a field surrounded by horses that had never been ridden. Unafraid, they would approach and stand, majestic, seemingly grateful for the closeness. My very first thought was, these are animals, but they are spirited just as we are, and capable of so much love and connection! Unbridled, they were calm but totally aware of our presence. Up close, their eyes looked human and their soft nostrils were like velvet! With a wand in my hand, my chosen horse followed me! For those amazing minutes we were in tandem, and all was right in our world. Parting with the horses that day was sweet sorrow….
The following day was the next to the last day. By now people knew each other. We would share stories, drink wine, enjoy healthy food and stand around the piano together. That morning we all went outside to take group pictures. The weather had turned misty and it seemed fitting for the mood of our departure from this magical place. We took our shoes off each time we came inside. On the last morning, I went outside for one last look around. There were all the shoes on the top step, nine pairs of them! Each was different, some of them boots, some of them running shoes, different colors and sizes. They were just there the way they were left, some upright, some on their sides, still and quiet, waiting for the energy to fill them and move them on. I was going to miss that energy, that relating to me in my life. And I was going to miss the hearts and souls of the women whose quiet trust and confidence had inspired me in ways I would continue to discover. Their love of honest expression in words we shared in common, and we shared much more than that.