photos courtesy of Kate Brooke
NeWP Fall Retreat
Story by Carol Mertl
The familiar chirping of cicadas and crickets keeps time with the occasional wail of the loon. Dried leaves, having fallen a little early, and an abundance of giant acorns, crunch underfoot. The aroma of burning wood and charcoal waft across the campgrounds bringing with it the combined smells of whatever is cooking on the grills or fire pits. Halfway between the parking lot and our meeting place, Owen cabin number two, Kate works with Pan, the four-year-old Shepard mix she shares with her husband and Nebraska Writing Project Director Robert Brooke. Pan, a retreat favorite, recently earned her Canine Good Citizen certification under the meticulous guidance of Kate and the careful scrutiny of a judge. Kate rewards her furry friend for her focus and obedience with a tasty treat. Outside the front door of "number two," Susan Martens-Baker waits patiently at the picnic table for writers to check in, pick up their keys, and collect their new olive green NEWP retreat t-shirts.
Writers have come from as near as Ashland and Louisville and as far away as Kearney and O'Neill on Friday, September 19, to begin our writing retreat. The smell of fresh Breadeaux Pizza fills the air as hungry travelers dig in. Then by candlelight, flashlight and moonlight, we begin the formal introductions, not unlike the cliche AA intro, "Hi. My name is 'fill in the blank' and I'm a writer." "Hi, 'fill in the blank.'" The group laughs. With the formalities behind us, we adjourn to the fire pit where raucous laughter comes from one group talking about an Eddie Izzard show, while another group settles into their camp chairs close to the fire, relieved from the mounds of papers left on their desks. Even though many of us have never met, there seems to be an instant camaraderie as we all have two things in common-the Nebraska Writing Project and, now, creamy, melty, chocolaty s'mores.
After a good night's sleep, participants embark in a wide range of activities Saturday morning. Contributing writers of Writing Suburban Citizenship use the morning to workshop the second drafts of their chapters while another group edits and assembles the 2008 Summer NeWP anthology. Some begin exploring the park and enjoying the absolutely beautiful fall day, while still others enjoy that time to catch up on some badly needed sleep. At 12:30 we gather at Owen's Landing for a quick lunch (their specialty is bison sloppy joes), group formations, and a formal send off by Susan. She reads from Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and as we prepare to embark on our adventure, I think about how wonderful it would be if our stories could flow from mind, to hand, to pencil, to paper on this picture-perfect day in Nebraska like they did for Hemingway that day in Paris:
The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another run St. James and I watched the girls whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.
I've seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me, and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
We are writers
In groups of four or five we fan out from Owen's Landing. The Platte River State Park offers many scenic outposts and is rich with history, beautiful Nebraska landscapes, and hiking trails that take us deep into the wooded areas near the river, railroad tracks and Stone Creek. And although many of us walk the same paths, climb the same lookout towers, and sit next to the same little waterfall, we each look at this world through a different set of eyes, which makes the writing and subsequent read-arounds a delightful journey.
One popular stop on the writing marathon is a short hike from one of the trailheads. Susan Martens-Baker captures the serenity of the woods, Stone Creek, and the waterfall:
We enter this church hushed and reverent,
take our place on the stream's sandstone banks
already dotted with writers.
Yellow leaves float by on crystal ripples
above the muddy bottom
Waterbugs flick against the current
There is movement here
that does not rustle the stillness
but keeps to its edges,
mindful of its place.
Jeff Grinvalds, also at the falls, offers a completely different perspective and a wish for himself:
At the Falls
I wish my daughter were here,
playing in the water
shoeless and dirty
unafraid of rocks or spiders.
Every stick a friend as it
floats over the waterfall.
Daring, she tromps through my memories
through the mud beyond my vision
but I can hear her,
but the rocks she throws as they splash in the water.
Larger and larger, until she uses both hands
knees bent awkwardly,
she flips the large stone into the stream to watch it
I wish she were here
sitting in the sunshine under
the green leaves and blue sky
listening to the water falling over the rocks
catching butterflies and water bugs
as they glide across the still and shallow pool.
Robert Brooke begins his ascent of the 85-foot Lincoln Journal Tower only to be
reminded of something:
The Lincoln Journal Tower, Platte River State Park
This is the tower left unclimbed.
I'm sitting on the south bench, one flight of open-weave metal stairs up. This time, I really intended to ascend the whole thing, ten flights of stairs in all. I've thought about this: it's not really acrophobia, fear of heights, because I can stand on rock and have climbed over mountain passes on piles of talus and scree. It's something else: constructophobia or engineeringophobia. Fear of man-made heights, of what could go wrong.
I first realized this on Washington Pass in the North Cascades when the car I was driving crested a rise and there past the windshield all I could see was sky and fog and far far below the blue-grey tops of cedar. I remember tapping the brakes, once, gently, and feeling this time the hydraulics engage somewhere below the car's floor. I remember wondering how fragile that link was, the trust I have to assume in engine and steering and shock absorbers and front end suspension. I realized I couldn't breathe and hadn't all the way around that last four curves. The car slowed to 15 miles an hour and I hugged it against (or maybe over) the white dotted line that much closer to solid ground. Kate looked at me funny and I think I said "I need to let you drive." There wasn't any place to pull over and I willed my hands to turn the steering wheel and willed the steering column to engage the rack and pinion all wheel drive and this was a rented car anyway from Budget or Thrifty or some other confidence-inspiring name that had sounded inexpensive back at the Seattle airport, at 200 feet above sea level.
Now, on the tower, I'm noticing the way the metal grill we stand on has these pock marks in it. Not the big planned holes that make the see-through mesh but these little places like for rivets, except the rivets aren't there anymore. And now Carol and Jeff and Becky have all passed me on their way back down and nothing bad happened to them when the wind rocked the structure higher up. Jeff stopped to ask if it's my bad knee that hindered me from climbing to the top, and I appreciate the gesture, the offering of an excuse to save face.
Fall Writer's Retreat and Marathon
Cicadas sing to me as my feet beat a slow solemn rhythm.
Yellow leaves flitter to the ground
turning to golden cloth at my feet.
Along this trail I am searching.
Looking for solitude, yet seeking companionship.
A path taken to dig deep inside myself
where my pen can hike across mountainous thoughts,
walk through sandy memories.
A path where stories run free.
This is a writer's marathon.
With each stop, my pen hovers over paper,
spills over with words,
then meanders to new ground,
fresh with inspiration.
I walk with fellow writers,
then share myself
as we sit on cold dirt under half barren tree limbs,
sunlight filtering through them.
Butterflies open and close their wings
like the opening up of our words
to go within
to write again.
Everyone makes it back to base camp without any serious injuries, and that's always a good thing. While many of us prepare a dish to share at the Saturday night potluck, a group find a bit of civilization in the neighboring town of Ashland. No. The weekend couldn't go by without a group gathering their laptops, driving the few miles to town, and connecting to the Internet. Getting connected allowed a couple of NeWP board members to demonstrate to some newer members how to share students' work on the NeWP online forum--a trip to town well spent.
Of course no NeWP gathering would be complete without food--chips, dips, salads, desserts, hot and spicy chili. No one is going hungry at this retreat! After a delicious potluck dinner, it's time to don a sweatshirt as the crisp, fall air begins to chill. We search for flashlights and candles as the sun sets behind the hill and we'll need illumination for our written work. Some read straight from their laptops and the bluish glow of the computer screen lights up their faces. Many share writing they've been working on while others simply sit back and enjoy the read around. It is nearly 10 p.m. by the time the last selection is read. Many are exhausted from the day's activities and retire early. Some escape to the warmth of their cabins and chat with their weekend roomies. And a few couldn't resist staying up late again around the warm glow of the campfire.
All good things must come to an end
It's about 10 a.m. on Sunday and by ones and twos people file out of the three dark brown wooden cabins, some sipping cups of hot coffee or tea while others munch on dry cereal, and congregate at the picnic tables in front of Owen Cabin Number 2. The crickets and cicadas are still chirping and a light breeze rustles the canopy above. Pan lies quietly next to Kate who surveys two new caterpillar friends. Susan begins the process of reflecting and planning the next Nebraska Writing Project Retreat with the writers, teachers and friends who answered the call to celebrate Nebraska and nature, to nurture our writing, and to support each other at Platte River State Park.
Till we meet again, friends...