In 2000, I was awarded a month-long fellowship to Norcroft, a women’s writing retreat on the North Shore of Minnesota. A few years later, when the retreat closed its doors, I was asked to contribute to an anthology about the Norcroft experience.
I set out to do it, but realized that whatever I wrote would be considered profane by most Norcroft adherents, who not only fit in with the nature-centered dynamic of the retreat, but who were also at a place where they truly felt righteous about any and all good that came their way – if, that is, they noticed the good at all.
Yet no one can accuse these poets and writers of not being gentle. Gentleness abounded at Norcroft, as did all those lush words that lull in the throats of the romantics – silky, majestic, sensual, mysterious, alluring, tempest. The guest books were filled with loving prose for water, sky, and forest. The fallen bark from birch trees became a palette for framed poetry, cooing with appreciation for wind, leaves, and wildflowers.
My focus – and my distraction – is all things human. Nature is exquisite, but simple. I believe poets write of nature because it is the easiest and most mutable subject of all. Simplicity leaves gaps in the pages, waiting to be colored in by human metaphor. Gentle waves kiss the sand, and lovers are newly born. The slope of a mountainside transmogrifies into the curve of a woman’s hip. A tall tree becomes an ancient mother, continuously giving life and watching it fall away.
I would have wanted to immerse myself in the Norcroft experience as so many others have. To stare full-on at the poetic paradise and be filled with the compatible, communal spirit of poetry-prose-mother nature, but instead, I became entranced with symbols of a different sort.
One of the first things I noticed at Norcroft was that the cupboards were fully stocked. Really, the cupboards just bewitched me. I opened each and every one and found not an inch wasted. I then opened the pantry, the refrigerator, and the freezer. Weirdly, the site of all those jars, bottles, cans and bags – all those fresh juices, fruits, and vegetables – made my throat turn raw and my eyes well with tears.
Many would look at me, a woman whose curves have turned to bulges, and not guess that much of my life was spent hungry, but I spent desperate years at the unforgettable bottom, making do with whatever I could find; soda crackers and ketchup soup, 10-cent packs of noodles, cheap white bread covered with margarine. In that state of hunger, my stories were driven by my very human fears and hopes.
Even after escaping poverty, I never gave much thought to poetic things like eternal skies or majestic seas, at least not as a main plot. I wanted, instead, to talk about children, justice, prevention, politics, human potential, the way it actually is, and the way it could be.
It was beyond my comprehension that the state of abundance at Norcroft could bring about a request for even more, but there was a blackboard on the kitchen wall where the writers were invited to request anything the caretaker failed to provide. Fresh mangoes. Black beans. Sweet corn. Cadbury chocolate bars.
The blackboard grated on me. Amy’s Enchiladas. (Peeled and deveined) shrimp. One-half pound of salted pecans. Granola without raisins. Nearly every day, one of my three housemates found something deficient in the copious riches, and felt called upon to fill the blackboard with more, more, more,which seemed to me both insulting and excessive.
After the first thirty minutes at Norcroft, I retreated to my room, and sat on the edge of the perfectly made bed. I viewed the hand-made quilt, the polished desk, and the profusion of perfectly-tended flowers outside the window. My first five silent words at Norcroft were: I do not belong here.
To assuage the feeling of not belonging, (which often passes after I settle into new situations), I busied myself with setting up my assigned writing shed. It took only a few minutes before the familiar triad of fingers, mind, and blank page intersected, but my thoughts were disorganized, running over with stupid questions that had nothing to do with why I was there. Who was the owner, and why did she do this? How much did all that food cost, and how long would it last? How did the caretaker feel about that blackboard? Wasn’t she glad when all the never-enough writers just went home and she had the place to herself again? Who were the other women I was sharing a home with? Who else has been in this shed, and what did they write?
I pulled out a postcard and wrote to my daughter. “It is beautiful here,” I said, and it was not a lie. “I am glad I came,” which was half-true. “I think I’ll get a lot done,” which I knew was bordering on a lie.
Days passed. In the silence of the sunlight hours, more postcards were written, several books were read, and I fumbled horribly, distracted by everything from clusters of black flies to a stack of personal notes left behind by another writer, a self-described woman of stone who was into the howls of lone wolves and ancient scarification rites.
In the evening, I gathered around the fireplace with other women for readings, and tried my best to curb my facial expressions, which are always spontaneous, and almost always totally transparent.
Of the writers there, one told a story that really resonated with me. Her words were strong and truthful, and outside of a few minor dips into sappy territory, her story powerful. Later, she would inform me that the story I liked had been rejected by over 40 literary publications. Two other women, whose words struck me as overripe and overly styled, were the most widely published. They were, of course, academics. Academia provides a prolific and unabashedly incestuous network, where editors frequently publish the works of their students, friends and colleagues, without much regard for talent or story.
Years ago, a friend shared the line of a poem with me, (from Marianne Williamson I think), that says “love brings up everything unlike itself.” I recalled that line in 2000, as I sat on a plush couch, in front of a crackling fireplace, watching women – real women, who lived real lives – roll their eyes at anything approaching realism, while exuberantly and passionately scribbling the poetry of pale gold moons and sensual riptides.
In the mystical space of Norcroft, in the midst of abundance and excessive generosity, among women who were more moved by birch trees than by even their own human experience, I felt more disconnected, more alone, and spiritually poorer than I had ever felt.
When approached about the anthology, I knew that writing about my Norcroft experience would be like punching an iron fist through a precious bedtime story. My hard-wired attachment to all the human things would run roughshod over the fawning adjectives others reserved for nature. I suspected that if my submission were included, it would be a black stain in an otherwise sunlit book.
Not wanting to cast a pall over other people’s euphoria, I set the request aside.
The other night, while at a restaurant, a fellow Norcroft alumni found me and literally bounded over to my table, her Burberry scarf flying, her bangles jingling. She spoke with a hyperbolic kind of happiness, like there should be multiple exclamation points after each long, vividly detailed sentence.
In contrast, by way of comparison, I felt like a real bitch. I had no words heady enough to match her enthusiasm for our common experience so many years ago.
If love brings up everything unlike itself, then certainly nature does, too.
I still find it odd, though, that under the bluest of skies, among the loftiest of pines – in the center of God’s most perfectly drawn universe – some will run from their own natural or realistic place in the schematic. Instead of studying human nature in raw form, they will metamorphose the ancient and unchangeable nature of everything else. They will choose, instead of self-examination, to reinvent the nature of trees.