From the minute I heard about the Cody Center art studios, I knew I would be spending at least some of my free time at the Laity Lodge Writer’s Retreat drawing or painting. With my surgery just five weeks behind me, hiking and biking and swimming would be out. Even walking around the grounds from one place to another could be a challenge.
But sitting on a stool surrounded by art supplies, I had all the energy I needed for that.
I showed up at the Cody Center on the first day of the retreat and found Kathy, the retreat artist-in-residence, setting up the studio for projects the next day. She had pieces of water color paper, Japanese water brushes, bottles of ink, and jars of glue organized by technique so that the artistic novice could find her way next to the seasoned painter.
With some brief introductions, I promised to come back the next day for the class.
Months ago, when I first found out about the Writer’s Retreat and the opportunity to meet the rest of the High Calling editorial team, I was ecstatic. I imagined spending the weekend talking about writing, listening to writing, and writing writing. I pictured moments of inspiration when we would read words aloud to each other, and I envisioned leaving Laity Lodge, poised for giant waves of creative mania.
Since I was going to be in Texas anyway, I decided to tack on a trip to visit my friends the Bergerons, and as the schedule worked out, I would go to their house first, then the retreat. How far apart could College Station and San Antonio be, anyway?
With airline tickets to Texas purchased, I found out that I was invited to speak at a conference in Vermont the week before the retreat. A great opportunity for me and my company, we all agreed I should go, even though I would be out of the office the following week as well. The travel would be intense, but I was young. And healthy.
And then I wasn’t healthy and my surgery was planned for just four weeks prior, and my radiation would begin the day or two after I would get home.
This is an old story by now. In fact, it’s all over. But I rehearse it again here just to say, by the time I got to Laity Lodge for the writing retreat, the last thing I wanted to have happen to me was a giant wave of creative mania.
When I got to Laity Lodge, I was tired.
During the first morning of workshops, 15 or so of us gathered around the room and began introductions. Author David Dark was our leader, and his instructions to us as we began was to tell the group our name, where we are from, what our experiences with words have been, and where we want words to take us.
As each writer took her turn, I jotted down names and began to take notes about the things being said. After just a few participants had gone, however, I realized that just these introductions might take up the entire workshop time; we hadn’t even made it half way through to the place I was sitting when we took a break.
For a moment or two, I was disappointed. When would we get to the life-changing, earth-shattering, career-altering lessons on writing if all these people just kept talking? Then, I was confused. Does David Dark mean to let all of us keep talking and talking?
Then, I was curious.
What if in the middle of all this talking, could be found the life-changing, earth-shattering, career-altering lessons on writing, if only I were paying attention?
What if those random words I had been jotting down as I heard people talking — candor, witness, story-teller, gospel — what if these words being culled through listening were the actual words I came here to hear?
Walking into the art studio on day two of the retreat, I saw Kathy surrounded by a group of familiar faces, many of whom had been in my writing workshop that morning. They were just getting started, so I quickly found my place among the budding artists and got to work.
For the first 30 minutes, Kathy showed us various techniques of water color painting: dry brush, wet in wet, graded wash, wax resist, splattering textures. With each mini-lesson, Kathy gave us the tools we needed to experiment on our own and experience how the brush felt, how the paint worked, what the result was.
The hand-lettered sign on the wall said it all: “Give yourself permission to play.”
Having painted in watercolor off and on for years, part of me was anxious to get on with it. If I could just be free to paint, maybe there was a masterpiece waiting to emerge. But as I was mixing colors and experimenting with the water brush and rocking the paper up so the paint could swirl around, I realized all the things I thought I knew about painting didn’t really matter in that moment.
As I mixed and rocked and swirled, something important was happening in my soul.
After I had nearly finished the mixed media project that emerged from time in the studio, I decided to add a few more flourishes by trying my hand at stick writing.
As a tribute to our wooded surroundings, Kathy had collected fallen twigs and sharpened their ends to a point. Dipped in bottles of ink, they became pens.
I practiced writing with the wooden stylus on some scraps of paper first so my project wouldn’t be ruined in the last few minutes. I carefully dipped and wrote, dipped and wrote, trying to keep the right amount of ink for each jot and tiddle.
When I was satisfied with my prototypes, I took a deep breath and began to write on my nearly finished project.
As things usually go, all was well for the first few strokes until I found myself writing on an area of the paper that wasn’t quite dry. Instantly, the ink spread like cracked glass, the blemish growing as I watched, helpless.
“Oh no!” I said.
Kathy rushed over.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said, pointing to the error.
“Well, you can either try to cover it with paper or wait til it dries and paint over it,” she offered, helpfully.
But those didn’t seem right.
“I think I’m just going to sit with a minute,” I said. “And see what happens.”
When the initial ink stopped running, I started writing again. Once more, the wet paper absorbed the ink and it began to spread.
This time, I kept breathing. And kept writing.
As I watched what emerged, tears filled my eyes. What I thought had ruined my painting was actually making it more honest. This art I was creating, it wasn’t beautiful, but it was true.
And what my tired soul needed in that moment, was truth.
I can’t help but link up with lots of High Calling friends this week for There and Back Again as we all try to make sense out of our time at Laity Lodge. So, go THERE . . .
and then come back HERE again!
Join me for regular jaunts around The High Calling network, randomly visiting fellow bloggers, soaking up their words and ideas, and then coming back here to write about them from my perspective.
Each Thursday, consider going “There and Back Again” yourself. It’s simple.