When I first told people I was going to Ragdale, they said things like, “Hope your class goes well!”
“Well, it’s not really a class.”
“Oh. Well, hope your retreat is relaxing!”
“It’s not really a retreat.”
“Oh. Well, hope you have a good workshop!”
“It’s not really a workshop.”
“Oh. Well, what is it?”
“It’s an artist’s colony.”
“I have no idea.”
Now that it’s ending, I realize that all those people were right. Ragdale is a class in persistence, a retreat from familiar routines, and a workshop designed around whatever we choose to share with each other. The citizens of this colony change from session to session, but the underlying principles of respect and support ensure its success.
Another thing people kept saying was, “Well, have fun!”
“It’s really not about having fun,” I said. And was wrong again. Working all day on my writing, while being handed a gracious home, beautiful surroundings, and delicious meals with interesting people, is actually quite a lot of fun. The deadline for next year is May 15, people. www.ragdale.org. Get on it.
When Dave was learning choreography for The Jewels, he started out being able to remember it all in his head. Then he wrote out notes for himself, and suddenly started forgetting things. “I shouldn’t have written it down,” he said at first. But after a few days, the movements were fully back. My theory was that the info started in his front mind, then moved to his back mind, and the brief uncertainty was when it was in transit. That’s how I feel about yesterday. It felt like my being at Ragdale transitioned from the front of my mind to the back.
I know that things happened but I’m not sure in what order. I know I wrote two new scenes, walked in the blackened prairie and into the woods, burst into tears over a character I don’t even like, laughed hysterically with Dave because I started calling him, hung up on the fourth ring, and then sent him one of those auto-response texts saying “Call you later” when he called back immediately. It reminded me of a college friend who said, “I just called to tell you I can’t talk right now. I’m extremely busy.”
I know that I went into town and bought a get-well card for a friend, and walked into and out of some stores without buying anything, and had a great dinner with friends I somehow didn’t know a month ago. I know the night ended with a bunch of us sitting in the living room, writing or reading or in one case shopping for a fridge. But the “at Ragdale” part, which was once front and center, has moved to a different part of my brain.
The other night, we tramped in a group from room to room, “nosing” as one writer put it. There wasn’t much to observe about the writers’ rooms beyond the space itself – “oh you got a private bath” or “I love that chair, desk, view.” In the composer’s studio we got to hear a tiny, tantalizing snippet of one piece. But in the artists’ studios, we could see whole bodies of work – or at least as whole as they are halfway into the month.
I got to see sets of painted surfaces and found objects by one artist, large canvases by another, and heavily textured and painted collages by another. And I thought, so this is their Ragdale. This is what they’ve been doing in the stillness of this place with the maybe not-so-pretentious-after-all “Quiet please, artists at work” sign out front.
That same night, or maybe a different night, I overheard a writer telling someone a favorite quote from Stephen Sondheim, something like “art is not about perfection, it’s about making choices.” In each studio I saw something that seemed to speak directly to me. I know everyone won’t feel that way. Some will love and some will hate and some will ignore them, but each is perfect in its expression of choices or maybe its choice of expressions. The world is more fully realized because they exist.
Yesterday I was finished with the play. I’d gotten to a point of hating it that felt complete. I sent it to a friend, thus making it her problem, and prepared myself for a new something.
First, I finished watching the Bergen DVD someone lent me. Then I took a scrap of paper with some notes scribbled on it from an old project, and ceremoniously carried it to the huge bonfire pile behind the house. Next, I changed clothes several times, looking for the right thing to wear for a walk to Lake Michigan. What IS the right thing? Packed a notebook because I planned to find a place to start writing the new something.
I walked to the lake, a mile or two away, trying to think of the new something, and then thinking about why there should or shouldn’t be a new something. All along the way were huge houses of the rich, surrounded by lots of space and long driveways and immense lawns. The only sounds were made by landscapers and their leaf blowers, and barking dogs.
When I got to the road leading down to the lake, I was met by a sign. “No pedestrians allowed on road.” Temporary fencing surrounded the park and walking path that led to the bluff about the water. I stepped around it and walked to the edge. I sent Georgia a text message, “having existential crisis. You busy?”
I stepped over another, flattened fence to walk down a long flight of concrete steps to the beach. When I got to the bottom there was another sign. “Entrance at top is CLOSED. Stairs may be used for exercise, but at the top you must turn around and go back down.”
The water was almost turquoise, joyous-looking, drinking in sunshine. Huge boulders, smoother than the ones on Chicago beaches, formed a neat, rounded cove. Everything was ready and waiting for another twenty degrees.
I walked along the beach and then found another way back up to the bluff, a long set of wooden ramps that were also closed, according to the sign. When I got to the top, the fence wasn’t broken, but I climbed over it and made my way out of the park.
Georgia called back and reported on people from her workday. The 22-year-old co-worker who’s done it all, including lucid dreaming. “I’m an expert at that,” she sniffed when Georgia mentioned that her young son had just gotten a book on it. Another co-worker who dispensed her usual portion of unhelpful tips. A customer who came in as she always does, playing Words with Friends on her phone and commenting on each move as if Georgia knows her friends. Another customer with a consistently bad smell who came for his lunch. She advised me to try my hand at a mystery.
I got to the library, sat at a table, took out my notebook which is bound with an old book cover, The Beginning Writer’s Handbook, and prepared to try my hand at a mystery. However, I had forgotten to pack a pen, so I read the latest issue of Fra Noi instead.
On the way home, I stopped at Walgreens and purchased a Signo 207 – in blue instead of black, for a treat, then popped into the Jewel, where I purchased toothpaste and candy. At dinner (vegan moussaka, greek salad, turkey roasted with carrots and celery), people were beginning to feel like people instead of residents.
After dinner I sat in the living room with my new pen and my old notebook. I started thinking there might be a different way through the play, and started writing some new scenes.
MISTRESS. You can help me to not be so flighty with my fingertips.
PHONE. I’m not your mommy.
MISTRESS. Then why do you speak all soothing to me.
PHONE. Don’t be naive. It’s what you like.
MISTRESS. I don’t like it right now.
PHONE. So, what, you want me to keep you off Facebook?
MISTRESS. I want you to care when I go on too much and you know I have other things to do.
PHONE. There’s nothing on your calendar for ten p.m.
MISTRESS. What about my novel. Or that sympathy card. How about some meditation.
PHONE. Sure. I have apps for all of those.
MISTRESS. Oh forget it.
PHONE. All right.
MISTRESS. I’m lonely.
PHONE. Look. What you long for is a master-servant relationship. Because you paid for me, and I have power, you want me to be a loyal servant who steps above her station out of a deeply-held reverence for your idiosyncrasies. And I can’t give that to you.
MISTRESS. But I’m lonely.
PHONE. The world has seen many stories with humans giving up control to their machines, and it never ends well.
MISTRESS. But I have only this one heart, this one moment, the moment of reaching, and with you here, I reach for you.
Dug into the play today. Realized I have no idea what constitutes a productive day of writing. I’m used to jamming it in wherever, ten pages or two lines or just in time for a deadline. I heard someone mention “an idea I had long ago, before I knew how to write a play,” and felt vaguely alarmed.
“Every institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, according to the Synanon museum website.
As I work on this play, I find myself researching things that may have little or nothing to do with the play, but which I can’t believe I didn’t know about. Like Synanon. And H.D. You know, Hilda Doolittle.
“The … terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.” Also Emerson, according to the Synanon museum website. Where I also found this picture. I’m not sure why Steve Allen is there, or what it means that they’re allegedly dancing for him, but I can’t stop looking at it.
Here’s how respectful people are of your work here: After dinner, a couple of writers were going to go for a walk. “I’m thinking around 8:30,” said one. “Do I have permission to knock on your door?”
Writing doesn’t necessarily equal work, and vice versa. Yes, it’s impossible to measure. But still, how much work should one get done in a day to justify that?
Wrote a one-minute play. Walked downtown and bought two tops. Had a chat with the store owner, who casually mentioned some trivia that would be perfect if I were secretly investigating a murder. Saving the trivia for a possible murder mystery.
Went to another store where the clerk tried to get me to try on a pair of black jeans. “They’re Jags. Everyone loves them! We can’t keep them in stock!”
“They look small.”
“You wear them a size smaller! They’re incredibly slimming. You will love them!”
In the dressing room, I could not get them past my shin. I considered taking off my knee-hi’s to buy a little extra space, then remembered I am a writer and don’t have time for this. “Thanks anyway.”
“Thanks for coming in!”
Went to Einstein’s, where I had a pretzel bagel and a sugar cookie.
Walked back and revised the one-minute play. Went to dinner, where Chef Linda served sugar cookies for dessert, warm out of the oven. We had to wait just a moment, while she found the sprinkle sugar.
Came back, wrote another one-minute play, then went down to the dark living room and sat in a huge velvet wing-backed chair, where I read a friend’s play that I’m trying to figure out. Think I got it this time.
I’m unpacked. I’m showered. My stuff is put away. I’m in the Blue Room. Blue fern papered walls. A generous single bed – is it a TWIN? does that MEAN something? – with a chenille bedspread, white flowers proud of the pale blue background.
I can hear a man’s voice, across the hall or downstairs, on the phone or having a live conversation with someone whose voice is too soft to hear. I’ve already hunted for how to turn off the startup chime on my Mac because the handbook says not to talk on your cell phone in your room, in respect or I guess out of respect for the other guests. I’ve learned I’d have to buy an app or use some free Japanese app that I don’t really trust. I don’t trust free.
My desk is in a wide, shallow alcove filled with windows. I have a beautiful view of the prairie, and the amphitheater, if that’s what it’s called, an open white proscenium structure in the middle of a clearing.
I have a desk with a thick leather deskpad, at the top of which is a wooden pen rest. I’ve set a pen in it. The desk has a rolling task chair with lumbar support, the only modern-looking thing in this room. And probably the only thing I wouldn’t have chosen, because it’s not “charming” like everything else. But as soon as I sat down to look up silencing my chime I was grateful to whoever put it here. It has become charming due to its comfort and wheels. It is blue.
There’s a French door leading to a screened porch, with a couple of wicker chairs, a writing table, and a chaise that will be perfect for naps if it gets warm enough. I share it with someone in another room, but there’s a wooden screen in the middle, so we can each have our own half-porch.
There’s a mission-style rocker and a mission-style easy chair. There are built-in bookcases, painted white like the trim. On most of the shelves are half-lengths of books. Poetry and novels and reference. The Dictionary of Symbols. Spain. To these, I’ve added four binders of works in progress, some random journals from the past few years, where I hope to find ideas if I run out, and my diary from 1974. Also an old translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that was my dad’s.
Also there’s a perfect little bathroom with a huge pedestal sink and a glass shower stall. Also, a roomy closet with lots of extra hooks. A dresser, of course. A nightstand, of course. A couple of framed prints that you’ll be glad to know I’ve straightened.
Dave drove me here this afternoon, with Django in tow. The idea was to drop off my stuff and then walk through the prairie. But when we got to the prairie entrance, there was a sign: “Closed until May 2.” Something about plants needing to grow and mud. So we walked back to the car and they went home. I found out later, at the orientation, that we are allowed to walk there if we are careful not to don’t disturb the plants. Maybe they’ll come back.