by Lois Bertram


Seventy years old, a 1950s high school education, discovering a passion for writing in my sixties and I’m at Hedgebrook!!

 I told Vito as he gave a very young Clarisa and me an overview of the grounds, “I knew my selection was probably a mistake but I was coming anyway.”  Then when I walked into my cottage, Owl, I knew I was home.  One chair, one desk, one cup, one bowl, one plate in a charming intimate space heated by a small wood burning stove.  When I took off my shoes, it wasn’t about housekeeping but treading on consecrated ground. I wondered whose feet had walked these worn pine floors before me.

Supper at the farmhouse that evening was occasion to meet the others attending, a writer for Newsweek and L.A. Times, a senior editor for Penguin Publishing, a New York playwright, and others equally as accomplished.  Friendly, outgoing and inclusive, I was invited in and never felt intimidated.  Impressed, certainly, but not intimidated.  I always liked competing with the best. It raised my game. I was in the right place here.

Julie our chef, (and I would discover later, Elizabeth) crafted with food what great writers do with words.  She assembled them in her own unique way and created masterpieces that were more than merely delicious, they were a visual delight as well.  By the time we ate and a couple writers read from their work, it was dark outside.  Sated with beauty, aroma, taste and companionship, the long day starting at 4AM took its toll; I announced I needed rest and would head back to my cottage.  “I’ll come with you,” Laurel said.  I insisted I’d be okay.  After all, I was from rural Ohio; I knew how to get around outdoors in the dark.  Well, let me tell you, Ohio dark is not Whidbey Island dark.  Had she not guided me, I would have spent days circling my cottage.  Not since a trip to Africa had I encountered this kind of darkness.  THE rule:  Always leave your outside light on.  Cottages are so perfectly nestled into the forest, its beacon is your guide home.

I slept the “sleep of the dead”,  tucked into my loft bed even though I had worried how an old woman who rose a couple times during the night would navigate that ladderstairs while still groggy.  Slowly and backwards was the answer.  I made sure I sat on the edge of the bed and got my ladder legs before starting down.  Another adventure, I loved it.

I rose in the chilly morning, touched the fire off, put water on and walked from window to window as I waited my morning coffee – trees, trees and more trees out every window, from every angle.  If I believed in heaven, Hedgebrook would be its metaphor, “As it is in Hedgebrook,” a holy reminder of paradise .  I saw a puff of smoke rise from the sister cabin and knew Laurel was up.

Clad in my red plaid flannel night gown and clunky blue rubber Birkenstocks, I strode to the bath house, towel tossed over my shoulder looking like an animated Dutch Girl Cleanser logo. The warmth of the heated tiles instantly wrapped me in luxury as I opened the door and looked straight through to forest beyond the large window opposite.  Such opulence, especially after I had envisioned a “campsite” shower – moldy, cold, stinky.  No mold in this shower.  I was reminded of how respectful everyone was by leaving everything as they found it for other writers, whether in the shower, pumphouse, living room or kitchen.

Back in my cottage, dressed and warm, I turned my computer on and circled it.  “Come on, you’re here to write.  You have an obligation.”  Hmmm, couldn’t get my butt to settle into that chair with wheels.  Okay, this wasn’t going to work.  I grabbed my camera and out the door I went to explore.  I started to walk looking down, to follow the path but found myself looking up to follow bird sounds.  I discovered I could walk without fear of stumbling and so could enjoy an unusual experience of looking up as I moved through the forest.  I watched sky “peek-a-boo” through the tall cedars.  I stopped, rubbed my hands over their branches and cupped the smell.  Ahhhhhhh.

I wound around until I found myself at the office.  Wondering if I should disturb, I decided to test it and opened the door.  Vito and two charming women were there.  They stopped to greet me, took time to visit and left me with the sense I had not disturbed them but that we were connected somehow.  I liked that.  Next stop the orchard and a handful of red ripe apples pulled from the tree.  I’d brought scissors and cut a small bouquet from the garden: Sweet Peas, a special childhood memory, one of the last roses and a daisy like posy.  Sitting next to the fir branch and small stone I’d picked up, they would be an inside reminder of my outside surroundings.  I returned by another path and found my way back to Owl.

Now maybe I could sit down and get writing.  Nope, still not ready.  I pulled my Kindle out and scanned the many books held in this tiny device no heavier than one paperback.  I loved a book, the feel and smell, turning it over to hold my place as I took a break but I’d come to love my Kindle as much, especially carrying fifty books in the space less than one.  I never thought of it as either-or, simply – also, a great travel device.

I picked a book, The Memory Wall, by Anthony Doerr.  It seemed appropriate since I was at Hedgebrook to work on my memoir, specifically my difficult marriage.  I’d never been able to tackle that subject but hoped the length of solitary time would open that door.  I settled into the comfy chair, put my feet up and read.  It was a good choice; gems such as these lead me into my life:  “What is a seed if not the purest kind of memory, a link to every generation that has gone before it?”   “Why, Esther wonders, do any of us believe our lives lead outward through time?  How do we know we aren’t continually traveling inward, toward our centers?”

I read on, the day grew darker and at five, I shut the Kindle down and headed, basket in hand toward supper.  I must have looked like a very old version of Red Riding Hood in my hooded red L.L. Bean jacket, basket swinging.  I wondered if children were still read that tale and Hansel & Gretel?  Too scary I’ll bet, for today’s children.

Julie had outdone herself.  The meal was wonderful.  I bought two bottles of wine for the table and began to know the women around me.  After dinner a couple read as I struggled to remember what I was hearing in order to comment at the end.  Didn’t work.  I’d catch something that concerned or more likely impressed me only to lose it with the next.  No matter, they were all good at it.  We discussed and then gathered our breakfast and lunch (I loved having soup!) for tomorrow and left en masse for our cottages.  Dropping off as we went along, I was last to reach mine.

Snug inside, I pulled on my flannel nightgown, put the afghan over my feet as I nestled into the overstuffed chair and continued on with The Memory Wall.  “You bury your childhood here and there.  It waits for you, all your life, to come back and dig it up.”  I laid the Kindle in my lap, put my head back.  I was ready.

Living in rural Ohio has its advantages and disadvantages.  One advantage is living in nature every day.  I live in woods ablaze in color this time of year.  The beauty of Hedgebrook, to this Ohio native, is in its quite green cedar and firs.  Every day, tucked into the forest, I loved the dark of it.  The pull your shoulders in, hug it to yourself green.  I felt safe, snug, solitary.

I wanted the solitude Vito mentioned in our welcome letter.  It was the one thing I couldn’t get at home, the reason I loved the one chair, one cup, etc.  Here I could be alone with no questions, no obligations, not even music.  I wanted to hide.  I enjoyed supper and conversation with other writers but even that was part of the solitude of purpose.  I stayed in my cabin, withdrawn from the world and wrote as I had never written before – straight through and from, not the heart but the gut.  Ouch, that hurt.

Days into my time here, Friday, October 14th to be exact, I got it!  As I typed and re-lived my abusive marriage, going on and on, scene after scene it dawned on me.  My writing showed me as clearly as crumbs dropped along the path, what the story was. Did you hear me yell that day?  It was about 1:00 PM.  I threw my arms up, shoved my chair back, spun and yelled, “Yes!”  “Yes!”  “Yes!”

Say what you have to say, not what you ought.
Any truth is better than make-believe. 
Thoreau

Once I started, I couldn’t stop.  I typed my life into words on paper, I lived the words again.  I felt the pain, the shame, humiliation, and regrets so deep I don’t want to be forgiven of them and wept.  I typed with my eyes closed, typing not from memory but life, from where I stood, from feeling the pain.  It was good.  I discovered not an emptying as I’d expected but recognition of the fullness within me.

Could I have done this at home?  Probably.   But could I have done it as well?  I doubt it.  Now I have real work ahead of me as I put all those words, emotions, action into scenes that others can recognize.  I hope I’m up to the task, I feel I am.

I had left for Hedgebrook wondering, as I told a “new friend” on the Whidbey Island shuttle, if solitude is all it’s cracked up to be and found to my delight that it is greatly underestimated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lois Bertram
About Lois Bertram

3 Comments

  • Beth Seetch
    3:59 PM - 26 January, 2012

    My feet, Lois, are among the many that have trod Owl’s floor. Thanks for your beautiful post and the photo of “our” desk. Keep writing.

  • Ruth Ozeki
    1:57 AM - 27 January, 2012

    How many of us have pushed back from those desks, thrown our arms in the air, spun and shouted “Yes! Yes! Yes!”?

    It thrills me, just to think of it. Thanks, Lois, for bringing that little memory back.

  • Aileen
    9:12 PM - 30 January, 2012

    I’ve had this bookmarked for days now, to “read later.” I’m so glad I finally sat down and made the time (rather than clicking that “X” in the corner b/c so much time had passed). I love the description here, and I long for that Hedgebrook solitude to write what must be written. Though not accepted for 2012, I have my eye on 2014. Congrats to you Lois.

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