The stream, the trees, the words

picture of two pens on a notebook

My favorite pens, which were an anniversary gift from Bell Telephone to my grandfather in 1978.

Last month I received a scholarship to attend Writer Camp, a yearly retreat for writers put on by the folks at literary journal Barrelhouse. It. Was. Awesome.

The five days away from the stresses of work, ongoing renovations on my house, dealing with my dog’s degenerative condition, and the general stress of being me in my brain was restorative. For five days, I had nothing to do but write, and talk about writing with other amazing writers, and eat delicious food prepared by our hosts. I am so grateful for that time and the company.

I wrote 39 new pages of fiction, reworked the outline for my novel-in-progress, sent out a few query letters for my short story manuscript, and had two very productive meetings with my editor, Amanda Miska of Split Lip Press. I also met some wonderful people, and had so much fun chatting over food and our nightly bonfires with a glass or two of wine.

Writer Camp is held at the Godspeed Hostel in Port Matilda, PA, which is a lovely area with a nice view of the surrounding mountains and a pleasant stream that you can swim in. The water is crisp and cold and so refreshing. There are hammocks everywhere, and a tree swing, and it’s not hard to find a comfortable place to write.

The stream at Godspeed.

I fell into a general routine of eating breakfast, writing for an hour or two, taking a stroll along the stream, working on my novel outline or sending out submissions, eating lunch, meeting with my editor, and then writing for another hour or two before our afternoon excursion and dinner. That right there is what I want my life to look like.

Of course I don’t have that sort of luxury at this point in time—I have to work to pay my bills, after all, but that doesn’t mean I can’t put some elements of Writer Camp into my daily routine and writing practice. I live in a city and don’t have a stream nearby, but I have a big front porch and a big backyard that I’m slowly turning into my own little oasis. I can easily write on my porch in the warmer months, and on weekends I can take my notebook out to one of Pittsburgh’s many beautiful parks for more nature time.

Perhaps even more importantly than the real progress I made on a few of my writing projects is the reminder that writing time and time in nature are both an essential part of my self-care routine. Without both of those things, I start to go a little batty. I feel on edge, restless, unfulfilled. But when I make time for them I feel at ease, happy, content.

On the days that I write before I head into work, I feel productive and accomplished, and it doesn’t matter what happens at work. Writing is like a force field against all the little negative things that add up throughout the day. And Writer Camp was a way to recharge those force field batteries, make them strong again.

But just because I’m back in the “real” world doesn’t mean the work is done. The work of writing is never done, not really. So off I go, to do the work.

Winter blessing Spring

The snow melts slowly over the candle flame, first compacting into slush and then pooling at the bottom of the mason jar. Sakura-scented incense smoke rises and curls above the altar as I hum a chant, my prayer to spring.

When the snow transforms completely to water, I begin the work of planting seeds for my garden—my first garden in my first house. A slight breeze finds its way to me through the open window, along with the sounds of children riding scooters up and down the street, calling out to each other, laughing.

I fill each egg carton cell with soil and carefully place each seed. Tomato, eggplant, celery, radish, turnip, beets, fennel, sugar snap peas, parsley, mint, dill, thyme, basil, lavender, sunflowers, coneflower.

Some of these—tomato, eggplant, peas, the herbs—I have grown before, and others are new to me. I have been reading book after book on gardening and growing food, but I learn best through experience, through working the soil loose with my hands and watching leaves and flowers unfurl.

For a final blessing I sprinkle each cell with a few drops of the melted snow–a promise for renewal, for growth. I place each egg carton in recycled plastic containers and set them on my windowsill. With dirty fingers and a happy heart, I snuff out the candle and offer thanks to the earth, to the sun, for the gift of seasons, of change, of new beginnings.

Refresh

Living with a chronic illness means that you have to be able to change plans based on how you’re feeling. If you don’t want people to see you as an unreliable flake (especially if your illness is invisible, like mine), you have to plan ahead and be ready to get things done on your good days so that you can take care of yourself on your bad days.

Sometimes, all that planning and preparing starts to feel like drudgery. So, when I wake up on a beautiful early spring day feeling like a human being, it’s hard for me to stay inside. So, I don’t.

Yesterday, I threw out all my plans to work on freelance work and do the grocery shopping. I took the dogs out and worked in my garden.

It doesn’t actually feel like my garden yet. I’m starting the second year in this house, but I purposefully didn’t make any alterations to it last year because I had no idea what would come up. Now, though, I’ve seen the garden through an entire growing season, and I know what to expect.

Whoever planted this garden did not read the helpful little tags that come with the plants. Short plants are growing in the back of the beds, and tall ones in the front. Bushes that are going to become absolutely huge (they are still little for the moment) were placed smack dab in the center of both front beds.

And holy crap, there are crocuses everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love crocuses. But they are placed in random spots, and often behind things that will grow taller than them (crocuses are short little dudes) by the time they bloom.

So yesterday, in my migraine-free state, I dug almost every single clump of crocuses up. It took me a good three hours of digging. Some, I’ll give away. The rest I plan to resettle at the front of my garden beds, where I’ll be able to actually see them and enjoy them. (The few clumps I didn’t dig up were the ones already at the front of the beds.)

It felt good to work my body, to get my hands dirty. I hardly ever wear gloves, unless I’m working with plants that have thorns. I like the tactile sensations of gardening, the feel of roots and leaves. And the smell of rich earth is like the smell of books to me—I could inhale it all day.

And so that’s what I did.