Back in January, I booked an October weekend at the Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone, North Carolina. At the time I made the reservation, I lived in Forest, Virginia which was approximately a 2.5 hour drive from the center. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things , was head lining a writing weekend at the center with author Roda Ahmed. Roda has published novels but her most recent works are children’s books about people who we should know about, but don’t. For example, Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
A lot happened between January and October – namely, we moved which doubled the drive to the retreat center. I had put the retreat out of my mind only to recall it but initially thinking it was the 2nd weekend in October, instead of the 1st which is, in fact, when it was. I scrambled, took a day off and hastily packed my things. I’d decided to leave Thursday afternoon which was a good decision as the last leg of the trip winds up and through the Blue Ridge Parkway. The parkway is not well illuminated so it was a relief to be arriving at the retreat center before darkness fell. I followed a car into the retreat center that crept slowly in, eventually depositing a woman at registration. It wasn’t clear where to park while registering so in retrospect, I’m certain I parked where I wasn’t supposed to. The small slot I’d tucked my car into overlooked the mountains. A feeling I recognized as panic rose within my chest. “You’re visiting. You’re not moving here. It’s nice to visit remote places.” I reasoned with myself, surprised by my involuntary reaction. I got out of my car as the driver of the slow car dove under his car to retrieve a water bottle his passenger had dropped. It wasn’t until this woman asked registration, “So where’s Cheryl? We’re having dinner together.” That I realized this was Roda.
The retreat center was not busy that Thursday evening. My program didn’t begin until Friday evening. This left me with time to relax – a slow unspooling and letting go. I stayed up late and slept late. On Friday, I attempted to complete my couch to 5k run on the nature trail. This was a poor decision. The trail was narrow and roots and rocks pushed up from the path ready to snag a foot. I pictured tumbling down the side of the mountain and reconsidered my workout, slowing to a walk.
Crowds of people descended upon the retreat center on Friday evening around 5 PM and the program with Cheryl and Roda began later that evening. I was surprised to realize that the majority of the crowd was there for Cheryl and Roda’s program – a total of 358 mask wearing, COVID vaccinated or tested participants. I’ve attended writing programs before – namely because I feel I have a book buried deep within me that I need to excavate (note: imagine a book of personal essays by yours truly). The sitting with yourself to reveal that story is the work. As a genre, I enjoy listening to or reading personal essay or memoir. And it’s that weekend in the mountains of Boone, North Carolina that I realize I’ve been listening to memoirs about immigrants - - Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang. I laugh at the realization that like Zauner and Wang, I too find myself in a land foreign to me and am learning to navigate it. I’m certainly not comparing my situation to what either of these women went through but it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to realize why I’ve found comfort in their stories. When I return home from the writers retreat, I start listening to a memoir called, Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: An Introvert’s Journey by Jessica Pan which describes Pan’s attempts to live as an introvert to make friends in her city. I’ve rejected many of her brave attempts – attempting to meet friends through apps that support efforts to make friends; improv; etcetera. But I love the book just the same.
Recently, I realize that I had imperceptibly slid into a bit of a depression last fall. It’s hard to say if I would have side stepped this funk had I not moved to another state at the beginning of a global pandemic, but I’m going to go with yes. Yes – it’s likely my slide wouldn’t have been so far or so long. And I can only recognize it in hindsight because I recognize feelings of joy and contentment and wonder and realize those feelings had laid dormant from the autumn of last year until spring of this year. In retrospect, it’s easy to understand why. For one, working in healthcare during a pandemic sucked. I am incredibly grateful and in awe of the people who continue to work in healthcare – we need those people. And I am incredibly grateful I am no longer one of those people. Working in healthcare during a pandemic was only a part of the issue – which I didn’t even realize I had until I realized, one day, while running through the streets of my blessedly flat neighborhood that the fog had lifted. I’ve been exercising, eating right, and once again have been cooking. Not nightly – but more than I had been in a while. Weight has slid off - both metaphorically and figuratively (29.6 pounds of it). It feels good to carry less.