Writers Retreat: The Mystery and Inspiration of Different Places and Spaces

Gather your best writing pals, circle a date on the calendar, set a goal for what you wish to accomplish, and head to a bed and breakfast for a writing renewal retreat. That block of uninterrupted time of which all creatives dream is inspiration magic.

Knowing that you’ve set aside a time period for the act of creating, or rekindling your creative flame, can actually be intimidating. Will I function okay without interruptions? What will I do without a phone ringing just as I sit down, or someone knocking at the door just as I’m developing a crucial scene? How am I supposed to concentrate without errands, chores, and never-ending house projects vying for my attention?

The Frederick Inn, located in Buckeystown, Maryland provided the quintessential setting for such an overnight idyll. There is something to be said for the inspiration of being in a space that is not home. Our group of four rented the third floor of this alluring property, armed with a white-hot goal of maximizing a 24-hour block of time to maneuver through story revisions, plot development, or just getting reacquainted with dormant work.

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What made the Frederick Inn ideal for such a retreat was the opportunity to tuck ourselves away in a secluded space (individual rooms, a common area that included a four-top table situated by a large window straddled by two stunning stained-glass panels, two powder rooms and a shower), access to the establishment’s well-appointed kitchen to store home-brought meals to avoid the time-suck of ferreting out food outside of the property, and the just-right attentions and made-from-scratch breakfast (drool-worthy zucchini quiche, fruit cup with mint, coffee cake, parmesan-topped tomatoes…) from the convivial innkeepers, Pat and Kirk.

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This charming, endearing couple also seemed to take particular delight in providing grist for our collective inspiration mill, sharing stories of the property that revealed more mystery than history. Trunk-traveling headstones returned by an octogenarian with a flimsy reason that didn’t quite get to the heart of the emotions beneath the macabre attachment. A bevy of relocated headstones like a mouthful of teeth tucked away in their own version of a graveyard, bodies (or at least the essence of their dust) presumably still in situ. The bottom portion of a grave marker with what looked like claw marks at the edge, a lone sentinel away from its topper.  The lady Elizabeth, her headstone’s inscription bearing the image of a weeping willow tree and the designation of “consort,” which sounds more scandalous than the 19th century use turns out to be.

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Such mysteries of times past remind us that every inch of earth has a story. A writer is only too keen to let such wonderings infiltrate her imaginings, and who knows what will come out on the other side?

Cheers to a successful 2017 retreat, and a new tradition.

 

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Beautiful, Haunting, and Mysterious

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Dad lives across the street from a graveyard. A pragmatic man who sees the world through a thick lens of logic, he says it’s the best neighbor you could ever have. Even so, he has had some paranormal experiences that he has made some semblance of peace with by not giving those experiences any more heft by discussing them.

Mom won’t drink water that comes from his tap. “Corpse water” is how she refers to it, making the rest of us stare down into our steaming cups of coffee and wonder if she’s right, and if so, whether those juices were boiled out or if they linger in our brew. She stops at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts on the way, refusing to take the chance.

Our visits are all-day affairs, as we have to travel there and then the time goes by at a rapid pace. A loner who requires massive doses of alone time, I usually need to escape the boisterous noise (of which I do admittedly play a hearty part) and seek a pocket of solitude for a short while. Often I go to the backyard which has as sprawling a vista as you will find in a very populated state, with each year marking the encroachment of new construction and people that are beginning to swallow that mountain view.

The other option I have is to cross the street and enter the graveyard, which is attached to an old church and serving its departed congregants. I have been an infrequent visitor because, though open and right off the road, it feels like a private space and I am respectful of that.

And yet, it’s a space that beckons.

The graveyard is weathered, the earth lumpy and the gravestones worn. On my first visit, I carefully made my way down the rows, mindful of two things. One, not venturing too close to the church so as to avoid being obtrusive. Two, the placement of my feet. What is the length of a casket in the ground, hidden from sight? Was I stepping on someone’s legs? There was no tell-tale settling of the grave sites to guide me, as the landscape itself had settled in a haphazard way.

I read the names and dates, some stones’ inscriptions more legible than others. One stone in particular, small, sitting off-kilter, and obviously old from its gray color that could have blended into any abandoned quarry, immediately halted me.

She sleeps! Be still.

I don’t recall if there was a date indicating the span of life. Maybe it had been sanded away by the elements. All I know is that those words have always stuck with me because they were such a concise use of language. Though spare, the words had depth of meaning that held an unfathomable mystery as to what prompted them.

Since then, I have on multiple occasions tried to again locate the stone and have not been able to do. Perhaps those words have finally been etched away. Still, it seems odd that I can’t find it in such a small cemetery. Just another enigma, along with those beautiful, haunting, and mysterious words, appropriate for a graveyard and yet not something in the realm of what you’d normally find on a headstone.

Was “be still” an admonishment not to arise and trail her spirit over the earth? Or was it a wish that she would be at peace and rest easy, maybe deserved after a hard and bitter life, or an agonizing and lingering death.

I don’t know the answer. And that is the allure, why it still sticks with me. The story behind the words endures as intriguing, but ultimately taken to the grave.

This is the background inspiration for a short story I will post next week. Thanks for reading!

 

 

If Rules Don’t Apply When Civilization is Intact, Then What Happens When…

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In our society, the veil of civilization is at times peeled back to show the fine line between what constitutes ‘civilization’ and utter chaos. Apparently, laws really are optional, and pleas for forbearance on behaviors must only apply to a minority of people.

One area where I’ve noticed this in recent months is in the midst of doing outdoor activities. Of course, on the trip to and from locations, I see an incredible number of drivers talking on cell phones and texting, despite it being against the law.

The first example was during a day hike at Cunningham State Park. There’s a trail that leads to falls. I hadn’t been there in a long time, so the built-up trail that ended with a platform area for viewing the falls was new to me. Posted signs state that you need to say off the area around the falls, and one stated that it’s a delicate environmental area. That didn’t stop the horde of people who were on the outside of this decking platform, frolicking in the water after tromping through that sensitive environmental area. One man, who was carrying a baby, could barely gain foot-purchase on the slippery rocks. It was mind-boggling, the number of people looking for ways to circumvent the guided trail in order to get to the water. The rules didn’t apply to them. Delicate environmental areas are a concern for someone else—not to be a hindrance to their wants.

The second example was during another hike at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area, there is a prominent sign at one of the trailheads that states bicycles are prohibited. I was walking on the trail, zoned out in a nice, nature-induced meditative state, when I was shocked out of it by someone behind me saying, “Excuse me.” It was a guy on a mountain bike. The rule didn’t apply to him. Or maybe he justified it as he rides a “bike” and not a “bicycle,” if you’d like to twist yourself into a knot to give the benefit of the doubt. (In which case, he should have had a guardian accompanying him since he can’t navigate the real world and understand meaning.)

The third example was during a kayaking jaunt at an area that’s a proposed national marine sanctuary in the Potomac River: the Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay. These are scuttled ships dating back to World War I. It’s a historic site, and there are signs requesting that people stay off the shipwrecks. However, two boaters had pulled up into the exposed back of one and climbed aboard to set up a tripod—scaring off the osprey nesting there—and take cheeky selfies. Rules—and respect for something historic that can’t be replaced—did not apply to them.

It’s a challenge to not get disgusted with all people, based on the actions of the few. (Actually, at the Falls, it was the masses scrambling all over the sensitive area–the few were on the built-up pathway.) And because my mind bends in that what-if direction, it’s even more of a challenge to not extrapolate out to a wider context with higher stakes. What if the SHTF (“stuff” hit the fan) and it was more than delicate environmental and historic sites at stake? One would hope people wouldn’t be so glib about following the rules that are in place for the common good.

Expect the best, until proven different? Or be prepared for the worst, and pleasantly surprised should you see the best? I’m hanging onto hope should we ever find ourselves in the midst of an apocalypse.

Failure of Imagination

 

Image courtesy of antpkr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of antpkr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As part of my research for a book I’m writing, I am reading “The Great Deluge,” by Douglas Brinkley. I’ve actually been reading this book for some time, taking it in small bites for a multitude of reasons. One of those reasons is that it will serve as material for just a section of my book, so I don’t need to complete it within any particular time frame or bump other reading material to accommodate it. A second very big reason is that I can’t read it too close to bedtime, when I normally do the bulk of my reading, because it’s highly likely to give me nightmares.

 

The book is an incredibly precise accounting of the lead-up to the storm and its aftermath. Anyone near a television during those days who watched from safety outside of the storm’s devastation no doubt can still recall the searing images of a city devastated, many of its people stranded and losing hopeif not their lives. Brinkley, a consummate historian, tells the story with the in-depth parsing of events that only a skilled historian can achieve, while also weaving a story that draws you into its grip from the first paragraph of the first chapter.

 

A lot of blame was slung around after Katrina had moved on, and much of it rightfully so. What I can’t help but conclude—and the book makes starkly evident—is that a failure of imagination was one of the greatest underpinnings to the human consequences of this disaster. Sometimes we forget that true horror lies not just in books and movies. Or maybe we want to forget, which is why we ignore our imaginations, allowing them to fail at the very time when life—potentially our own as well as othersmay depend on it.

All I Need is a Little Art…

It’s gray and blah, and maybe that’s why I’m craving a little art and beauty in my life. Thought I’d share a few shots I took during a visit to the Smithsonian museums in D.C. over the summer. I’m working on my photography skills–I look forward to it being a lifelong endeavor–and discovered that taking shots of something behind glass is a challenge. My shots didn’t begin to do justice to these pieces. This is before I upgraded my camera – one with a neck strap because I have a hard time holding onto tiny cameras. And they don’t have good bounce, so…

Three of these were taken at the Freer | Sackler Museum of Asian Art, and the nautilus (there’s more than one, so does that make it ‘nautili’?) was taken at the Natural History Museum. If I had to pick a favorite shape, the nautilus is it. What’s yours?

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